We have nothing left to lose.
We always knew this time would come.
Wyvern takes a hold in the mind. It leaves behind residue. It collects in the body, stunting growth, taking resources away from other things, as the body heals, sequesters the toxins, and filters them.
Things are steadily lost and worn down. With effort, with concentration, and with mindfulness, there’s a way to recover, to keep up. Rebuild as things fall, with time and effort. Keep the memories, the faces, the skills, the overall construction. Practice, repetition, and care make much of it routine.
But the fact was that it was hard to rebuild faces when Sylvester didn’t want to face those same people.
Now the faces were slipping away, and it was getting harder to rebuild.
It had been in the cards from the beginning. From the first time he had snuck a glance at his own file, he’d known what was in store for him. He would be the last to expire, and it wouldn’t be by way of dying.
Sylvester’s memory had always been faulty, but it would get worse. Accrued detritus would hit a critical mass in some lobe of his brain, and he would lose things. It would be a steep drop, but it wouldn’t be a swift one. Very different things.
He had decided, very early on, that he didn’t want his brain to be his undoing. He’d made something of a decision around the time Mary had joined, and he’d made that a promise to himself at a later point.
It was around then that Sylvester had started to take on a different approach. He’d always been willing to get hurt in the process of achieving goals, especially when it was something that could be readily mended. Flesh was cheap, and experienced medical care could be bought in any back alley. But he’d started to wrap his head around the future, the day his memories and thoughts started slipping.
He’d been eleven, around then. Though he wasn’t wholly sure of that, anymore. He’d never known his actual age, and, somewhere along the line, he’d started to realize the impact of Wyvern on his size, and he’d mentally adjusted his age. He’d drawn comparisons between his behavior and thought processes off of Wyvern with that of other children he’d met, in the mice.
But he’d been in that vicinity. Eleven. Twelve. Maybe thirteen. Probably not.
Regardless, it was a young age to start thinking about how he was going to die, but he’d decided it would be in a blaze of glory. Not a slow and lonely brain death.
He had refined a style. He had made the moments of glory more important. He had figured out tolerable risks and the ways to do the most damage.
On a level, during his extended winter and spring in Jamie’s company, they had been working on the task. The blaze and the glory.
“We didn’t expect it to be this soon,” Evette said, to herself.
The borrowed shirt was far too large, and fell down around the knuckles of her hands even with the sleeves rolled up. The weather was warm, the rain cold, and as the bag that she carried got soaked, she could feel her blood run cold. Not because of any emotion, but because the external heart itself was getting cooler, because the tubes that ran into her body weren’t warmed by surrounding flesh. It might have been only the difference of a degree, a degree and a half, but it could be felt in the areas where the tubes entered the body at the collarbone and beneath the ribs, much like how her hands felt cooler than the trunk of her body.
She could have caught or stolen a means of riding back to the Infante’s place, but too many things were about timing right now. The countdown, Shirley, needing to set things up, needing to prepare herself and to prepare Sylvester…
The moment of glory was at hand. She wouldn’t try to die, but if it happened, then it wouldn’t surprise her.
This was what she was for.
Helen, Mary, and Jamie had been recalled and were accounted for. The edges were rough, the details unfinished, the complete pictures warped and tainted by subconscious thought and feeling, but they were there.
If she had another Lamb to
The walk gave her time to piece together others.
Gordon. She put him together, piece by piece. Hubris, too, not because he could contribute to any discussion or add anything particular, but for the sentiment. He’d earned his place.
She had to work harder when it came to Lillian. What had the others theorized? That Lillian was Sylvester’s compassion, his ability to care?
Important, when it came to Shirley. Even if it was only to have her there as a reminder, standing off to one side, her back forever turned.
She worked on the other Jamie, for much the same reason. Because without him, she didn’t think about the dance, about cooperation. Without the newer Jamie in his spectral, imagined form, she walked her path alone.
She walked alone regardless, whether she was missing Jamie as the spectre or the real Jamie. It was only a question of degrees.
She developed Ashton, starting with the thoughts and feelings that went hand in hand with Ashton, the nascent foetus that had grown in the vat-like plant structure. The rest of him grew and reached forth from that central point.
One by one, she collected each of the other Lambs, who she had known for such brief periods of time.
Then, all of that done in the course of an hour long walk, silent, staring only at the sidewalks and roads in front of her, her mind entirely elsewhere, rainwater soaking through cloth and flesh to the point that it felt like it saturated her bones, she had the Lambs start to talk.
Those things were all there. The individual things that each of them represented. They were accessible, even if the faces and fine details weren’t, even if the figures were bent in odd places or tattered or bloody.
Surrounded by her carnival of imagined Lambs, Evette had them babble, talking over one another, no one voice louder than the others.
The same tools were available, simply a little clumsier to access, slower to respond, while needing a little bit more effort before they cooperated or before any one thing could be dwelt on.
Evette let the chatter wash over her. Her mind wandered, in a sense, but it wandered in a measured way.
“What are our priorities?” Gordon asked.
“Health,” Helen said. “We’re literally heartbroken. We need a doctor.”
“There’s no shortage of those in New Amsterdam,” Gordon said.
“We need an effective doctor who can treat us in time for us to get back to Shirley,” Helen said. “That’s harder.”
“That’s harder,” Gordon said. “Whatever happens, we’ll be expected to report to the Infante. Harder still.”
“We can condense it,” the younger of the Jamies said. “Turn two problems into one. We go back, and we explain to the Infante…”
Evette navigated the crowd. There were experiments being led around as pets. Some were humanoid, others weren’t. The night life was active, and the fact that she was still young, appearing as a boy no older than fourteen or fifteen, it drew odd looks. The state of her clothes and the encrusted blood here and there probably didn’t help.
The others were still going on about the way to handle the discussion. She paid enough attention to pick up the salient points. As they got closer she would construct it into just enough of a plan that she knew what to do, without overdoing it to the point that she would collapse and go to pieces the moment the Infante did something unexpected.
Because that was a thing he did.
“Ashton?” Mary’s voice had a different tone, enough that it caught Evette’s ear.
Ashton, Lara, Nora, and Mary weren’t part of the ongoing conversation in any capacity. No, they were focused on something else entirely.
There were any number of explanations as to what was going on there, but Evette had a sense of what it might be. Detached observations, fear and concern, with an eye on the mission at hand.
She crossed the street at the next opportunity, not actively looking around, but still keeping an eye out with her peripheral vision.
Then, at that same intersection, she took another path to cross the street, still keeping something of an eye out.
“They’re experienced,” Mary said. “Professional. Watch the crowd.”
She didn’t watch the crowd, exactly, because looking directly at anyone would tip off the pursuer. But she did pay attention to the directions they were looking.
The pursuer was positioned in such a way that they could watch, while using the crowd as cover. But they weren’t invisible, and people glanced at them.
“Is it Mauer’s person, keeping an eye on you?” Lara asked.
“Is it the Infante’s spy, watching to see what we do?” Nora asked.
“Or are they going to hurt us?” Lara asked.
“Or kill us?”
“We’ll take precautions on those last two questions,” Evette said. She turned away from the little cluster of people, so they weren’t even in her peripheral vision, and changed course.
“What about the first two questions?” Lara and Nora asked.
“I’m thinking on that,” Evette said.
“They weren’t flawless. They didn’t blend in completely,” Mary said. “They’d either bumped into someone, were being indiscreet about trying to look for Evette, or they were odd enough to draw the eye. Possibly an experiment. It’s possible they’re dangerous. An assassin instead of a tail.”
The other Lambs commented. Gordon, Jamie, Helen…
She took in the babble, and she started plotting, reconsidering old ideas, but now using the fact that they were being spied on and followed.
That was something they could use.
“We can make our move,” she said.
She had the attention of the assembled group.
“Let’s go back to our lab.”
There was no more room to stall, not any more. Evette looked for a taxi carriage and flagged it down.
She had her Lambs, faceless and fading.
She had the means to lead some of her enemies around.
She only needed the tools to put everything to rest.
Evette climbed out of the cab.
“Hey!” the driver called out. “You little bastard!”
Evette kept moving, turning to look at one of the guards near the entrance. The man put a rifle out, blocking her path.
“I’m working for the Infante,” she said. She glanced back at the cab driver. “Pay the man.”
He didn’t move the rifle, but he didn’t stop her from moving it either. She moved past the barrel, pushing it slightly out of the way, and then let herself into the building.
She was pleased that that had worked. Pushing things a hair. She would have to make her existence worth it for the Infante, to avoid owing any sort of debt for invoking the name.
On a level, she hoped that it would find its way back to the Infante. That could be good.
The discussion of the others and her own trains of thought had left her with a diffuse, generalized sort of plan, less like an outline with neat arrows, and more like a pile of scraps of paper, with writing on each scrap.
Two dozen individual elements. But she had to put it together, and it wouldn’t be a neat, seamless fit.
She made her way straight to the lab. It was late, and there were less doctors about. Here and there, doors were open, and doctors were sitting in groups, drinks in hand. There wasn’t any roar of conversation – the doctors and staff had too much respect for the owner of the castle for that. But there was a general hum of ambient noise that suggested that this place was alive – especially now that most of the doctors had headed back to individual quarters, permanent and temporary, and to sitting rooms and tea rooms.
She could smell cigarette smoke and the aroma of a few dozen open bottles and tumblers of nice whiskey and scotch. She could hear music playing on machines, much like the machine Sylvester and Jamie had had at their place in Tynewear, all of similar types, all with the volume set low enough that it wouldn’t disturb others.
“I want to ask Sylvester what he thinks of this,” Duncan spoke.
Evette arched an eyebrow. Duncan, of all people, was commenting.
“When Sylvester was studying drugs and poisons, we looked at some of the stimulants and narcotics out there. The Academy-created superdrugs, remember?” Duncan asked. “That would be your specialty, Evette.”
“I remember,” Evette murmured.
“There are drugs that give you drive. A constant push. They encapsulate that feeling of being captured by the moment, being on point, having all of the confidence in the world, the thrill and energy of being on the very cusp of obtaining what you want most in the world. Stimulants, usually,” Duncan said. “And there are the narcotics that encapsulate the feeling of being there. Of having what you want most. Of having stepped through the threshold, having achieved everything you want in life, of having everything you could desire. That feeling of waking up in the morning with people you love sleeping next to you, the covers warm, the sun shining, with no worries on the horizon. Or, at least, worries you can put out of mind.”
“Yes,” Evette said. “And we’ve known people, we’ve known mice, who fell prey to both.”
“The Academy sells a drug to the students and doctors, in a figurative sense, don’t they?” Duncan asked. “They create the need for the drive, and then they encourage it. They create the need and then they’re really the only one who offer the supply for that need.”
“I don’t like that analogy,” Mary said.
“Why not? Because it applies to you?”
“Because it applies to Lillian,” Mary said.
“Exactly,” Duncan said. “She does have that need. None of you will argue that. She needs her black coat. When she achieves it, she’ll need to climb to the next rung of power. But what happens in the long run, Evette? Sylvester?”
“The same thing that happens to the junkies. They hit the point where they can’t keep getting their supply, they destroy themselves, or they build up a tolerance and get dissatisfied-“
“And move on to something stronger. Some people who use the stimulants, they really chase that feeling of being on the cusp of achieving, and then they switch over. They want that feeling of having achieved. Of having crossed that finish line. I think I could be that person, easily,” Duncan said. He gestured, and he drew in a deep breath. “I could be here. In the Academy’s equivalent of the narcotic. Well past the finish line. I could enjoy this.”
“You’re implying Lillian couldn’t.”
“Do you think she could? Can you see her at home here?”
“There are other paths. There are other places to go, that aren’t being at the right hand of the nobility.”
“There are,” Duncan said. “Absolutely.”
“If you’re going to say something, then say it.”
“Lillian could run an Academy. She could run the city that it is a part of, too. But she’ll always want that challenge. She’ll want to be on the brink. It might even be a part of why she liked Sy. The teasing.”
“That’s between her and Sylvester,” Mary said.
“Fine. Fair. But in terms of getting her fix, how does she carry that forward for the rest of her life? Keep in mind, mind you,” Duncan raised a finger, while offering Evette a sad sort of smile, “that the Lambs will be gone by the time she gets that far.”
“Sylvester would say that he wanted her to become a champion. To reach a certain point where she has her black coat, she has power, and she can start to change things. Maybe in a small way, maybe in only a small area, but she’d have that power, and she could represent something better.”
“That’s what Sylvester would say. How about you?” Duncan asked.
“I don’t know,” Evette said.
“She’s only one person,” Duncan said. “That’s an awful lot of responsibility. We have to look at where we are. If the Academy is a living thing, then we’re not even pinpricks, we’re so small. Lillian isn’t even as significant as a pinprick.”
“One of the first things Sylvester taught me,” Mary said, “Was that we have to trust the Lambs. Lillian is strong. You can’t reduce her down to being a mere junkie.”
“It’s an analogy, nothing more,” Duncan said. “I’m pointing out that the Academy is massive and for all its rough edges and flaws, there are whole tracts of it that are damn well engineered. The carrot dangling from the stick is as refined as it’ll ever get.”
“There’s something nice about pinpricks and carrots,” Evette said.
“What’s that?” Duncan asked.
“Used with the right poisons, they’re as good as anything at killing the recipients.”
Duncan smiled. “That’s as good a resolution to our little conversation as any. I’m glad we got some constructive ideas out of it.”
“Yeah,” Evette said. “Except, I don’t think poison will necessarily work here. Our enemies know us. They’re watching us.”
“Ah,” Duncan said. “That’s too bad.”
She had to check the notes she’d made and kept in a pocket. She found the lab.
Professors Arandt, Kinney, and a half-dozen gray coats were in the lab space the Infante had granted them.
Shirley was present, too, sitting on a chair in the corner, looking miserable.
Three warbeasts the size of bears were in cages at one end of the room. Cloths had been thrown over the cages, but the coverage wasn’t complete, and the forms with shaved fur here and there were clear enough.
“You’re back,” Kinney said. She and Arandt were working on a large metal canister, as tall as Evette was. It looked like the kind that held gas. More were lined up along one of the counters. Some had tubing attached to them.
“I’m back,” Evette replied. She took in more of the scene. There were stitched organized at one end of the room, naked. Given the position of the gas canister, the contents were likely reserved for the stitched.
The stitched would become vessels for the gas.
“We picked up a lot of what we need and requested assets. It’s only a starting point. Much of the evening was spent on getting the ratios for your gases right.”
It wasn’t enough. Too little work done, but Evette had expected that. Now she was in a position where she had to twist their arms.
She and the Lambs had ruminated on this to some degree.
“Shirley,” she said.
“Hi, Sylvester,” Shirley said. Her hands were in her lap, as if they were fighting with one another to engage in nervous tics and twitches. “I’m really glad you came back.”
“I’m sorry it took so long,” Evette said. She wasn’t good with words. She preferred action. Decisive, rationalized sorts of action. “I kind of died.”
“What!?” Shirley asked.
The exclamation made several heads turn.
“Yeah. But it’s going to be okay, I think. We’ll get you out of here. I’ll try to make sure you’re okay, before anything happens. And I owe you an explanation. I know.”
Shirley nodded, a very concerned look on her face.
Evette wasn’t sure what else to say. She drew in a deep breath, then exhaled. Her throat hurt, but at least the wound had been sealed.
“Your clothes are here. They brought them off the train.”
Evette walked over to where the luggage was. She knelt by it, opened it, and carefully managed her bag as she removed her tattered, bloody shirt, pulling it off in a way that wouldn’t pull tubing loose or let it get caught around the bag.
“Oh my lords,” Shirley said.
Again, the statement drew attention.
“What in the world did you do to yourself, there?” Arandt asked.
“If I was capable of performing this kind of surgery on myself, I wouldn’t have asked for your talents,” Evette said.
That earned her a skeptical look from Arandt.
“What happened? What’s going on?” Shirley asked.
“It’s fine. Just… put the mask on when I tell you to,” Evette said.
She pulled on a clean shirt, decided changing pants would have to wait, and ran her fingers through her wet hair.
Through Sylvester’s hair.
“Professors,” she said, raising her head to face the others.
“Yes, Sylvester?” Kinney asked.
“Did the Infante happen to inform you that this task was a risky one? That you stood to get hurt?”
“You know he did,” Kinney said. She sounded annoyed.
“Okay. Good. My memory isn’t that strong, and I wouldn’t want you to have to deal with this without any warning.”
“Deal with- what are you talking about?”
Gordon and Mary fell into step with Evette as she approached Kinney. There was a valve wrench on a counter, and Evette picked it up.
“What are you doing?” Kinney asked.
Evette remained silent. There wasn’t a need for words. She had tried that.
Action. Decisive. Explosive.
Kinney and Arandt backed away from Evette as she approached, hefting the wrench. The gray coats backed away. One made a run for the door and the hall.
Evette let it happen. Her focus was on the professors.
But beating them with the wrench wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t earn her cooperation.
“We’ll check your work,” she said.
She drove the wrench into the valve that stuck out of the canister of gas.
With a full-body effort, she levered the wrench, popping off the valve.
Gas plumed out, rising to the ceiling, then spreading out from that point, before starting its slow drift downward.
“What are you doing!?” Arandt cried out, hysteria at the edges of his voice.
“You two took so long to do this and not much else, it must be good work,” Evette said. “I want to see it in action.”
Kinney ran, making a break for one corner of the room. But to get there, she had to get past Evette.
Evette swung the wrench, aiming low. Before she was even halfway through the motion, something caught in her chest, and she felt a painful pressure around what was supposed to be an operational heart.
The resulting swing was weak and half hearted. But Kinney, in trying to squeeze past, bumped hard into one of the counters.
It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t even that effective, but Evette managed to grab one of Kinney’s lab coat sleeves, hooking her fingers in there. She’d hoped to pull the professor off balance and bring her down into the ground, but all she managed was to force Kinney to bend over, taking rapid baby steps to keep her balance.
Evette boxed one of Kinney’s ears with the flat of the wrench, and that served to knock Kinney to the ground.
Calm, casual, Evette walked over to the canister that was still geysering with pressurized gas, grabbed it with one hand, and pulled a the upper end so it would tip over. It did, with a metal-on-wood clunk.
The geyser now spewed directly at Kinney, who was only just climbing to her feet.
Kinney didn’t even manage to scream.
Evette’s heart complained at her in the wake of that exertion. She found it hard to breathe, and took a moment to swallow in air.
That had nothing to do with the gas. Not yet. It was her heart. The replacement was no substitute for the real thing, and it was possible this moderate exercise could disrupt something and kill her.
Still struggling to breathe, she walked over to where Kinney had been striving to go, and found a box with a lid. Lifting the lid, she found gas masks, along with other emergency countermeasures.
She tossed one to Shirley.
“Arandt!” Evette called out.
“Please,” the professor said. “This is unreasonable.”
“This is unreasonable,” Evette said.
She threw the gas mask onto the counter, then slapped at it with the wrench.
The echoes of pain weren’t quite as bad with that lighter exertion.
“Wanting work done now, for the good of the Academy, it’s the most reasonable thing in the world,” Evette said.
“You can’t ask for the world to be handed over tomorrow and be surprised if we can’t deliver.”
“I didn’t want the world, Arandt,” Evette said.
She’d approached the first of the tall, Evette-sized canisters that was lined up. She used the wrench to tear off another of the valves, letting it fall to the floor. Another plume speared skyward, but this one, displaced by the cloud of gas that already hung overhead, spreading and dissipating into the room below, was far faster to descend toward Evette and all the people who were nearer the floor.
“I want my countermeasures against Mauer,” she said.
“Please, no more,” Arandt said. “Give us the rest of the masks, or let us leave until this gas clears up, but-“
He stopped talking to cough. The cough soon became a retching gag.
Evette was only just starting to feel the most preliminary of sensations from the poisons.
She had asked for a long series of very minor chemicals, in hopes that they would be spread out, no one chemical achieving a high enough concentration in her body to really affect her.
She wrenched the valve off another of the tanks.
“No! Stop! Whatever you want, I’ll provide!” Arandt protested.
“I want the work to get done,” Evette said. “You can spend all night working on this, to make up for time we lost with this little exercise.”
“Whatever it takes. Just please-“
Another retching spell. This one was violent enough to dislodge the contents of his stomach.
Had she broken these wild creatures, successfully domesticating them?
“And we’ll have to make up for all of this gas we’re losing,” Evette commented. “Oh well. We’ll manage.”
She moved the wrench toward the next canister.
“No!” Arandt said, voice sharp, his tone completely different. “No! That’s not poison. It’s a component we’ve been using in small quantity- methane. And if you fill the room with it, we’ll have bigger issues than going blind and suffering coughing fits.”
She wondered if he was telling the truth.
She bent down to pick up the valve.
It took some doing and a turn of the wrench to get the valve back into place on the first tank she had opened. Doing so served to stem the tide from it, so it no longer emptied out violently in Kinney’s direction.
The woman was curled up into a fetal position, her back to Evette.
It was hard to see in the gas. She had to fish around to find the next valve, and this one went on more easily.
She collected the gas masks, and one by one, she threw them at Arandt and the gray coats. Not that they would do a great deal of good, given the state of the room and of the men, but it was a goodwill gesture, a token effort that would set the tone.
Her heart wanted so badly to pound, but it couldn’t, and in the failure to do what it wanted to do, it tried to tear itself apart. She felt that empty, throbbing weakness in her breast, as if her ribs were about to cave in on her from the negative pressure.
“You have our cooperation,” Arandt said, voice modified by the filter of the gas mask and by the gas he’d suffered from. The professor went on, “But we can’t stay here like this. Let us go. We’ll clean up, let the gas vent for an hour, and then we’ll come back, we’ll do everything you requested, and we’ll do it well.”
“I don’t have any guarantees you’ll come back,” she said. “Except… I know how the nobles operate.”
Arandt was quiet. He tended to default to such.
“I know that if I tell them a way to absolutely control you, then they’ll use that. Because they adore control. You made a mistake, Arandt, wearing your heart on your sleeve. You made your weakness too clear. Your colleague, who you hate so much.”
She could only hear the raspy breathing of the gas masks.
“If you run away or fail to fulfill this promise,” she said, with all the menace she could muster, “Then I’ll tell the Infante that all he needs to do to destroy you completely and utterly would be to promote your nemesis and demote you. And he’ll do it.”
She saw the change in Arandt’s body language. Anger. Fury.
Arandt was very clearly debating killing her. It showed in the way he planted his feet, took stock of the room, and clenched his fists.
“Go,” she said. “But be sure to come back. For the next day, at least, you’re mine. You do everything I say. And be sure to take her with you.”
She gestured at Kinney. Then she realized the professor couldn’t see well in the smoke. He wouldn’t see her if she jumped on the spot and waved her arms.
But the man seemed to have gotten it, or he had guessed that the ‘her’ was Kinney. He approached, and Evette backed off, giving him a wide berth while holding the wrench.
He collected Kinney and led the way in retreating from the room.
It left only Evette and Shirley.
“There,” Evette said. “That’s only the first step. I can give you the explanation you deserve, but you’ll have to bear with me. There’s a lot to do in the meantime if I’m going to pull all of this off.”
Shirley only nodded, breath rasping through the mask.
Evette walked over to the large tanks of pressurized gas and found the one that Arandt had said was methane.
Standing in the midst of the multicolored clouds of gas, she had to fumble for a scalpel.
Using the scalpel, she began lifting the edge of the label from the canister. It took time. In the meantime, Shirley approached, silent but for the noise of the gas mask.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice distorted.
“Changing labels around,” Evette said. “That canister of gas over there is going to retire. This little gem… well, with luck, they’ll fill up some stitched with it, and we’ll have ourselves some exploding stitched. All gathered up in Academy ranks, ready to strike out against Mauer. And because they’re filled with the mildest, most inconvenient poisons, people won’t think to be overly careful.”
“You’re siding with the Reverend, then?” Shirley asked.
“No,” Evette said. “No, I’m not siding with anyone. But that’s too complicated to get into. Too many variables. I’m going to get my ticker fixed, I’m going to look after you, and I’m going to destroy them all.”
A blaze of glory, she thought. One that might consume me.