We walked a distance away from the building, and as Fray indicated a direction, I didn’t object.
“Terms and expectations,” she said. She walked with her hands in her pockets. Her jacket was buttoned up to the point that the collar touched her chin. Her bearing was confident enough that it didn’t seem to bother her, where others might have found it got in the way.
“Terms and expectations?”
“For our discussion here,” she said.
“Ah,” I said. I paused. “Do we need those?”
“First of all, I’m not leading you into a trap as we speak. I have no intention of harming you, misleading you, taking action against your… burgeoning faction, or allowing others to do so. That’s not how I operate,” she said.
“I’ve gathered as much.”
“And I would appreciate if you didn’t wrap up your business here by severely inconveniencing me.”
“Ah,” I said. “For someone as secure as you are, I’m surprised you’re that worried.”
“The Lambs are on their way, Sylvester. They’ll be in the city before the day is out. They’ll likely be mired in your business and mine before midnight, given the chance.”
I blinked, then began working things through in my head. Jessie would have a better idea of timing, train schedules. Then there were permutations: how the Lambs interacted with the wounded and dying Beattle Academy and the Horse that led it, the vectors by which they would trace their way to Jessie and me, their methods, the likelihood of attack, their interactions with local gangs, the stray children, the students, the truths and lies they could tell those same students and stray children…
And Fray, with their interactions with her, and everything that could unfold from that.
“I’m still surprised you’re that concerned. Were we really such a nuisance for you before?”
“The Lambs were more predictable before, and one is right here, walking and talking with me, less predictable than he once was. Obviously, given how today went. What’s the old adage? You don’t have to outrun the bear…”
“You have to outrun the slowest member of your camping troupe. You’re afraid I’ll hamstring you and leave you as a nice, tied-up present for the Lambs, to better cover my retreat.
“And to better their circumstance,” she said.
Before she’d even brought up the bear analogy, I’d had the mental image of Fray in a locked room lingering in one corner of my brain. She’d been banging on the door, while I said something witty and watched the Lambs approach at a run through the window. I hadn’t decided on the witty thing to say, so the thought had been unfinished, a scattered image waiting to be rounded out.
Reluctantly, I banished the thought from my head.
“I’ll play along,” I said. “No using you as bait for the bear. Assuming you’re playing fair too.”
“I’ll play fair and try to make the concession worth your while,” she said. She blew into her hands and rubbed them together.
My thoughts were on the Lambs, now. It took some effort to compartmentalize them, and to keep thoughts from sprawling out from those individual points. Too tempting, too complicated, too distracting.
Fray was my focus now.
I glanced at her hands as she rubbed them together.
She caught me looking. “Syringes built into my fingers. It affected my circulation and my extremities run a hair colder than normal.”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t hide syringes in your fingers, then.”
A part of me wanted to get a rise out of her, to see if she could be made flustered, and if any insights could be gleaned.
“I was pleased to see Jamie,” she said.
I gave her a sidelong glance.
“Whatever his or her name is now.”
“Her,” I said. “Jessie.”
“I was pleased,” she repeated herself, affirming the fact. “I really believed it when I read that Jamie had died.”
“That was the intention,” I said.
“Of course,” she said. Then, abrupt, she said, “You’ve grown.”
This was a side of her I’d forgotten, as Fray had devolved into a greater series of schemes. Of plots and things I had to account for, a lifeform that had been stitched together in the background, extending its reach and producing plague here and primordials there, nudging rebel groups into life.
I’d nearly forgotten I could talk to her and she could put me off balance so adroitly. Possibly without even meaning to.
“Was a tense moment, back there,” I said. “Thought I might not grow at all, but it happened. I’m still short for my age.”
“You’ve grown in other ways,” she said. “How you function, how you approach the world.”
“And you haven’t?” I asked.
“The last few years have felt like a blur. I’ve been working on things, I’m still setting the stage for what I want to do in the future, and the weeks melt into the months, and months melt into seasons. Time passes quickly. I’m not sure how much I’ve changed in the meantime.”
“I’m not sure either,” I said. “I saw a glimpse of something ugly during our first meeting, and I’m not sure if that brute of a woman that sterilized twenty-five million Crown citizens and hooked them on the water supply is the same that made the primordials or started the spread of the plague of ravage.”
“That wasn’t me,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. “Which?”
“The ravage. Red plague, reminiscence, whatever you want to call it. I wasn’t responsible.”
I stopped in my tracks. She progressed a few more steps, stopped, and turned to face me.
“Really,” she said.
I studied her, looking for any clues in body language. She wasn’t a proficient liar, but she was guarded. Some of it had to do with how she kept a part of herself at bay, a weapon hidden beneath the clothes, that wasn’t a blue ringed octopus named Dolores.
“Talk to me about it,” I told her.
“I studied the plague. Because I did think I might be able to use it, find the source, or disable it and leverage the cure for my agenda. It’s elegant. Elegant enough that we probably already know the name of the culprit. ‘We’ being the doctors and scientists of the Academy. He’ll be one of the geniuses, on par with Helen’s creator, Professor Ibbot. I would actually like to find him, because I think he has an agenda.”
“The plague has spread far, far further than they’re willing to admit, Sylvester,” Fray said. “There’s a part and parcel of it that remains dormant for nine to seventeen days. The plague has erupted in Mauer’s wake and Cynthia’s wake for some time. After violent confrontations, including the one you witnessed in New Amsterdam, we see outbreaks. It looked like human agents, trying to make a point, pin something on Mauer.”
“Looked like? But it isn’t. It’s part of the design.”
“It’s punitive. Rebels appear and fight for a city, and in the aftermath, hours, days, or two weeks later, the plague hits. It likes the taste of battlefields, fresh or old, it flourishes, and it spreads like a wildfire, carpeting the area.”
“People are going to catch on, and when they do… the rebellion will become something they fear. Is this the Crown?”
“I don’t know,” Fray said. “But I’m keeping my lips sealed. I’m waiting for the Crown to find someone to fight with that isn’t the rebellion. Because if a cure emerges… or if the flowers don’t bloom in the wake of their battles, then it was likely them.”
“What if it isn’t the Crown?”
“If the Crown wages the war and the cure doesn’t emerge, if the plague is indiscriminate and follows them, then it’s someone else’s play. Someone that might hold a high rank who also has an agenda of aggressive peace, even if that peace means that countless millions die or are succumbed to quarantine. If every war means plague follows, with everyone losing the city they fought for, war loses its flavor, even for the Crown. Things settle into an ugly stasis, with nobody making more ground, and the plague still erupts now and again as people accidentally activate the necessary trigger elements. We get regular reminders that it exists, until such a time that it’s cured and eliminated.”
My mind ticked over the permutations, the ways it might have unfolded, with this new information.
“If that person with that agenda exists, I need to find them.”
“What if that’s not the agenda?” I asked her. “What if we don’t settle down into a kind of peace? What if we’re not capable?”
“Then it’s all the more punitive, isn’t it? It might be a punishment that takes decades or centuries to recover from, if we ever recover fully from it,” Fray said. “It would be all the more important that I find the person responsible, because he won’t stop here. We need the answers he can provide, whatever his motivations.”
“What if they aren’t around anymore? What if he fled to other parts of the world?”
“I don’t know, Sylvester.”
“Is this the part where you ask me to help you? You’ve outlined the stakes, something we should all be concerned about, and now’s the part where you say that the best and brightest are Crown and Academy, that they’re people you can’t access, and you need me to infiltrate and help you access and figure out who it might be?”
“No, Sylvester. I wouldn’t know the first place to start looking. Keep your eyes open. Communicate with me. Communicate with everyone, frankly, short of telling people that this is a plague that primes itself on blood, ash, and burnt gunpowder, among other things. Because telling them-”
“-Will kill any and all rebellions. Including mine. I can’t use my shiny new rebellion for anything bloody, or it’ll spread plague? Fine. I don’t plan to kill more than a handful of people anyway.”
“Sylvester,” Fray said. “This is only one thing at play. It’s a minor thing, but it’s significant. I wanted to talk to you about what you found in New Amsterdam. The Block.”
Which you supposedly knew about from the beginning.
“Out with it, then,” I said.
“Can we walk?” she asked. She sounded exasperated. “It’s chilly, and we’re standing in the middle of the street, talking at each other. At least if we’re walking, there’s a semblance of camaraderie.”
“No traps? You’re not trying to get me away from my people so the Lambs or the Academy can raid them?”
She sounded even more exasperated. “Your short-term memory shouldn’t be that bad, Sylvester. No. I pledge that to you. I wanted to turn the students of Beattle into a force for a reason. If they’re yours, then it’s a distant second to what I hoped for, but it’s still preferable to them being captured or destroyed. Really.”
I stared her down, trying to find the angle.
“What did you hope to use them for?”
“That would be telling, Sylvester.”
“More than just taking a bite out of the Academy. You had a plan. Was it more primordials?”
“The student body knows full well what that involves, and they would buck and rebel if I pushed for it. I wanted to loosen the Crown’s hold. An underground Academy that could then disseminate a greater number of back-alley doctors across the Crown states. I was going to equip them with the truth as I understand it.”
“What you were looking for with Mauer?” I asked. “What you supposedly knew all along?”
She gestured, indicating that we should walk.
I reluctantly started walking. She walked beside me, rubbing her hands for a moment before sticking them into her pocket.
“I put the pieces together very early on. Where students go, the rise of nobles, where other professors go, and where I was slated to go, should I want to work in service to nobles. The investigation into my background, the teams of doctors poring over my work, to my Wyvern-altered mind, there were systems behind the systems. I think they knew I knew, they felt I was too clever for what they wanted. I happened to be looking at the Lambs and what was happening behind the scenes when someone higher up turned their attention to me. Before I knew it, I was no longer a consideration. The Wyvern business came out soon after.”
I studied her. “There’s more to it, isn’t there?”
“Indiscretions,” she said. “I was not perfect, and Wyvern was the sanitized, widely-recognized part of it. But every student gets involved in the politics to some degree, the backstabbing, the behind-the-scenes dealings. All of that is beside the point. The point is that you’ve stumbled on what I stumbled onto.”
“That the nobles aren’t anything more than glorified experiments.”
“Yes,” Fray said. She said it in such a way that I knew there was no surprise. She had known.
“If the word gets out, the myth will be shattered. People will be disgusted with them. It will taint everything the nobles touch. Legitimacy, their seeming immortality, their grace, their power and control.”
“Absolutely,” Fray said.
“Yet you decided not to use that information. And it wasn’t because the timing was wrong.”
We walked, and we crossed from empty street to a busier one with some crowd. Fray indicated a turn, looping back in the direction we’d come. I obliged.
“Did you think they wouldn’t cover their weakness, Sylvester? I put other pieces together. I was uniquely positioned to see the greater chessboard. My grave concern is that you are the most dangerous element possible. Smart enough to see the truth, yet not informed enough to see that for any piece we could take, the cost is far, far too great, and reckless enough that you might take that piece regardless.”
“Flattering,” I said. “Uniformed Sylvester.”
“You’re focusing on the wrong aspect of this.”
“Then please, inform me,” I said.
“You’re already informed, Sylvester. This is where the recklessness comes into play. You know exactly what the reality is. It’s a common saying among anyone from families at dinner tables to rebellion leaders to members of the Academy. The Crown does not lose.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“This wouldn’t be the first time, Sylvester. I’m sure this has happened. Other people, groups, and nations have devised the means by which to deliver fatal blows, in times where the Crown was younger and more vulnerable, when events conspired against it. It isn’t easy to grow an empire, so soon after the upheaval required for the Crown to become what it is now, so soon after the rise of the Academies and everything they meant. There have been other opportunities.”
“Yet the Crown doesn’t lose?” I asked.
“It feels wrong, doesn’t it? Or when you consider the sheer power of the biological science and the military at the Crown’s disposal, yet pay mind to the fact that the Crown has only seized a quarter of the world?”
“They move slowly, establish their Academies, secure every region before moving on.”
“Absolutely, they do. But Sylvester, there’s more to it. There are regions, places I’ve borne witness to, which are sealed off. They use things like the same cloud seeding we see at Radham, only to ensure death rather than parcel out leashes. They use grown walls like you no doubt saw at Tynewear, only far taller, and they flood the areas on the other side with biological agents, parasites, and weapons. They tell people that these were the places where disasters happened. That this is why only the Academy can be trusted with the knowledge the Academy disseminates.”
I looked over at Fray. She seemed somber.
“The Academy is the sorest of losers, Sylvester. They suggested to us that the places they showed us were several of a handful. I have reason to believe they number in the hundreds. Places where primordials were loosed, where academies were reclaimed, knowledge disseminated, weapons turned against the Crown and Academy…”
“Places where people spoke of secrets that could cause irreparable harm to the Academy.”
I fell silent.
“They have laid waste to continents, in whole or in part. If they can’t win, then they ensure nobody can. If they rule a world that they’ve reduced to a half the normal size, they still rule. Given science and sufficient time, they can fix what they leveled. When they do, the world will be theirs. Unopposed. The Infante, the Judge, is someone who oftentimes handles these sorts of decisions. Even nobles like the Duke are rightly terrified of what he might decide.”
“Just like that,” I said.
“You can’t ever speak of what you’ve learned, Sylvester. The revelations might outpace the wrath and ruin, but only to the coasts. You will see exactly the kinds of results you desire, a breaking of the nobility’s back, and then they will use countermeasures.”
I stared off into the distance.
I looked off to the side, at the other Lambs, who were gathered around us. For an instant, I wasn’t sure if they were my hallucinations. Even as I looked at Evette, I wasn’t wholly sure.
I ran my fingers through my hair.
“I’m sorry,” Fray said. “But this is the nature of the enemy I’m trying to fight. They’re a threat which can’t be dealt too heavy a blow. They must be battered until cracks become visible, and only then can wedges be set into place. Then the wedges are tapped. From the global scale they look down on things at, the taps seem comparatively minor. You and I know the end result of that. I even read something in your case files, about the use of makeshift wedges to topple a bookshelf and give your doctors a headache.”
I shook my head.
She sounded like she was coaxing me. Trying to sell me on this plan. Inviting me in, making it sound familiar.
It sounded more manipulative than anything I’d known her to do, and that was a manipulation that might have stemmed from genuine fear.
“I suppose you wouldn’t remember,” she said. “It stuck with me. I felt as if I got to know you when I read that in the file. I thought at the time about having tea with you. Something I’m still hoping for, to be honest. I would like to be on the same side, to have tea with you before you go, before the Lambs arrive. With Jessie too. We could talk about more minor things. If you knew of a cafe nearby, I would enjoy the chance to warm up these hands of mine and get to know you two better.”
I looked at her, dumbfounded. I felt like I was in the middle of the sea, drowning, momentarily not sure which way was up. Who was this person I was talking to? I still couldn’t keep my footing while talking to her, and I still wasn’t wholly sure if she was this guileless by design or by intent.
“No,” I said. Too blunt. I softened it with a, “No thank you. I should be getting back to my nascent rebellion. I have students to look after.”
“I understand,” she said. She rubbed her hands together, blowing on them, then worked one of the hands, as if the fingers were stiff. “Could I walk back with you?”
I weighed the option. I badly wanted to think, and I suspected I wouldn’t get another chance between leaving Fray and getting my rebellion settled.
But she’d been fair, and there were still points to cover.
“Alright,” I said.
The countless thoughts that were thrumming through my head redoubled, as I tried to juggle particulars of the rebellion with my processing of what Fray had told me.
“This is a battle we can win, Sylvester. If you even wanted to stay with me for a little while, I could help you get your rebellion situated, introduce you to some people, show you some things. I wouldn’t interfere. You could do with them as you wished. But let me show you where to best create the cracks.”
I didn’t want to give an answer, tempting as it was, when I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to not answer either, because that showed insecurity and weakness, and I didn’t want to bare my neck to Fray on that level.
“Give me a way of contacting you,” I said. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
Fray extended a hand, holding a card she’d pulled from one coat pocket. I hesitated before taking it, and she shifted her grip, holding one corner between two knuckles, so no theoretical syringes could snap out and drug me. She took hold of her sleeve and twisted it so Dolores couldn’t reach through.
I casually swiped the card out of the air, checked it, and pocketed it.
Jessie and I had found out how to gravely injure the Crown. We had a gun pointed to their heads. The problem was that the report of the gunshot would bring an avalanche or rockslide down on our head, or the spark would ignite the gas that thickened the air here.
Fray and I kept on walking, back toward the hotel where my rebellion was set up. My thoughts grew more agitated as I considered the situation. I reached for a pocket and withdrew a half-collapsed box of cigarettes. “Want one? Warm up some?”
She shook her head. “No. But it’s curious seeing you smoke like that. A part of me still imagines you as a boy years younger, standing by the snow-dusted railing, looking out over the water.”
“You said something back then. You asked me if I was a slave.”
“I talked to you about several things. Your enslavement to the Academy was one. Your beliefs were another. When I said you had grown, I meant it. You’ve found your way forward.”
Have I though? I can’t pull the trigger. I’m still cowed by the Academy and Crown. My beliefs…
“Thank you for saying so,” I said, with false congeniality, gesturing with a cigarette between my fingers.
“There are more pleasant habits, however,” she said. “Healthier ones.”
I shrugged and lit one with a match. “I figure I don’t have that long on this world anyway. My brain will reach its limit with the drugs I’ve injected into myself, and something will give. A bit more poison doesn’t hurt. If you have an expiration date anything like mine, then the same philosophy should extend to you.”
“Yes, I’ll pay the price for taking Wyvern eventually, but I have a lot to do, and giving up even one percent of my time feels like a shame.”
I mulled that over, thinking about what my future looked like. I’d glimpsed it back at New Amsterdam, when Evette had taken the reins.
My mind caught on one word in what she’d said.
I glanced at her, quirking an eyebrow. “Eventually?”
“The deployment of Wyvern on you was different from my own deployment, Sylvester. Mine was more focused, partially because of my age, partially by my design. The benefits and consequences more narrowly defined.”
I drew a deep breath of smoke, not quite sure what to say to that.
“Does that bother you?” she asked. “There are tradeoffs. I’m not capable of the same improvisation you are. I may dig deeper into other areas. I get less benefit than you do, I suspect.”
“That’s not why it bothers me, exactly. I thought we were more similar than that,” I said. “That you started from near the same point I did and you walked to a different destination.”
“Does it really matter?”
‘There’s an experiment I talked to once. They talked about how lonely it was, being the only one. The divide that separates the likes of them or the likes of me from the ordinary Jacks and Jills. So there was this thought, always lingering, that, hey, at least Genevieve Fray is out there. There are commonalities. We’re not related by blood, but at least we inject the same agony-inducing poisons into our brains on a regular basis. Common ground, ahoy!”
I’d raised my voice a little at the end there, jogging my arm for emphasis.
“I never really thought of myself as an experiment, Sylvester. The woman who faced me in the mirror was always a doctor, first and foremost.”
I nodded. I drew in a breath, then said, “Maybe I see myself as an experiment because I was started young. It’s always been my identity.”
“I would think the Lambs were your identity,” she said.
“I knew about our expiration dates within a few months of being old and learned enough to obtain and read my own file. It’s all intermingled. Part and parcel. I sat there in that lab with the file in front of me, and I wrote down the words that were too long to understand. Then I went, and I looked them up, or I asked Jamie. Then I’d piece it together, or I’d remember the definitions and go back to the files and I’d try to decipher it all.”
I puffed for a second. Fray didn’t speak, so I went on, “I grew up around the orphans. I know for a fact that when ordinary kids were the age I was then, they’re still capable of being convinced that eating dirt is a good idea, or they’ll maybe sometimes once in a blue moon still pee their pants. Or maybe that’s just orphans with their issues.”
“I imagine the point still stands.”
“Point is,” I said, picking up the word and the general thrust of her statement and making it mine, “I was young as dangit when I sat on the floor of that lab and read my file by candlelight and tried desperately to figure out if there was any other possible way to read it, that didn’t say that by the time I was nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one, I was bound to be stark raving mad. Trying really hard not to imagine my older self, unable to distinguish reality from fiction, nonverbal, whimpering at the darkness. Unable to remember anything moment to moment, except maybe that he once had people close to him and that they’re gone.”
“I read your file before fleeing the Academy, Sylvester. It didn’t go into quite that much depth on the last point.”
“I was nine!” I raised my voice. I’d surprised myself as much as I had surprised her.
Under Fray’s coat sleeve, Dolores stirred at the disturbance. Tentacles reached out, wrapping at her fingers.
I composed myself while she calmed the octopus that lurked under her clothing.
“I might have been seven or eight, even,” I said, calm again, no hint of the anger, “It’s hard to tell, with my growth stunted as it was. But I’m not stupid, and I’ve had time to mull it over. It was pretty dang formative, Genevieve.”
“Twenty years, Genevieve, give or take, with seven to nine of those years already spent. Twenty years, and then as the months go by, you start thinking… well, ho, taking Wyvern once every month? I’m out of commission for nearly a week, aren’t I? Sometimes less, sometimes more, but it averages out that way, especially when you account for time spent in the labs, getting blood drawn. Time doing the tests or interviewing with my disgruntled doctors or the too-nice redhead who smiles and acts nice to make up for the fact that she’s read the same dang file I have and she wants to downplay those same things that keeps ten year old me staring up at the ceiling at night. Ten year old me grows to resent them, even damn well hating them for what they represent.”
I was gesticulating a little too much, cigarette between my fingers. I put it back.
“A quarter of your time lost to the labs and the injections.”
“Exactly! Ten year old me goes through the weeks and the months and he isn’t exactly one for mental accounting of numbers, but that deadline is there, always looming, and he can’t help but feel like he has only so much time, and he’s losing some of it. And somewhere along the way, it clicks. You get what I’m saying?”
“Best you finish your thought.”
“This ten year old, his mind runs on multiple tracks, he’s good at juggling a few lines of thought at once, and there’s been this persistent one that’s been ticking around in the back, that he can’t quite riddle out. How can they do this? How can they fucking justify it? And despite not being a mental calculation type, two thoughts connect. Twenty years, minus twenty five percent, give or take, and you have fifteen. That’s thought one. Then he thinks back to how they’ll handle the tormented, lonely young man who talks to his hallucinations, and he imagines sedation, a last batch of experiments on him, to squeeze out the last bit of usefulness, and then one final dose, before they give him merciful oblivion. What am I describing, Fray? Gets fifteen years if lucky, then a mercy killing?”
“A dog! I’m treated no fucking better than a dog, not given any more years, kept on a leash. I realized that pretty early on too, eh Fray? Are you starting to get it? How this plays out? How I arrived to the conclusion that no, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scoundrel, I’m not a charlatan or a child genius or a protector of mice or any of that. At the start and end of the day, I’m an experiment. So I’m glad for you, Fray, if you’re free to see yourself as a doctor. How good for you, there. Do tell me the difference, with you getting the care of a talented wyvern-augmented professor to help you along every step of the way, while I got students working on a side project. Let me know what this means for you. How many years do you really have left?”
“I talked of cracks and wedges before, Sylvester. You’re asking me to place the wedge between us.”
“That’s an answer unto itself, you know.”
“It is,” she admitted. “If you must know, I’ll see another five to seven years.”
“No, no, there’s a rule, isn’t there?” I asked. “With diagnoses. Terminal ones. They marked it out on the charts for the Lambs with the expiration dates, so this was a lesson I learned pretty damn early. Part of a formative memory here, and I try to hold on to those. Given predictions on Academy advancement, for every seven tenths of a year you last, you get more time. It inflates the expiration dates. Your ticker due to go in three years? Now it’s four, because medicine advances that fast. Now, the dates the Lambs got already account for that. But you? I feel like you’re being disingenuous.”
“Five. A heart due to fail in three conventional years with non-Academy medical aid can last five with the Academy’s help. There are diminishing returns, but it folds into itself too if you reach certain benchmarks. There are other factors, advancements I’m keeping my eye on. My estimation is that I’ll suffer the true effects of Wyvern in eight to eleven years.”
I chuckled. “Listen to that. If you started a new kid on Wyvern, same regimen I got, he might expire at the same time you do. A whole ‘nother lifetime.”
“No,” I said. I extended my finger. “No. Fuck you, Fray. You don’t get to claim the rights and wisdom of being doctor and experiment both. You don’t get to be the savior. You’re as bad as any of them, because if the cards had fallen down differently, if you hadn’t been caught looking too hard at things they wanted to keep secret, you’d be one of them. And you probably would have gotten your damn tea party with the Lambsbridge Orphans, and I probably would have enjoyed it! Hell, it might have been everything I needed for me to stay with the Lambs and stay at the Academy, having a like mind, Helen getting that tea party you seem so set on, and if you could work half the miracles you seem set on promising, you could have saved Jamie and Gordon. Perfect! Hunky dory!”
“Sylvester, that’s not-”
“Don’t,” I said, sharp enough to cut her off. “Don’t talk.”
She fell silent.
My eye stung where tears had welled out to touch the slice at my lower eyelid.
“You don’t get to tell me to heel, Fray,” I said. “You’re no different from the ones who made me and the ones who condoned me, so you don’t get any more say than they do. Now, I’m going to consider matters. I’ll think about this threat of retaliation, but I’ll make the decision, and I’ll probably make a decision you won’t be happy with. You’ll put up with it, because I’m a reality no different than the primordial you created and put out there. The only difference is that I slipped the leash.”
She clenched a fist. I could see that her hand really was stiff.
She could deal. She had another decade to deal with it and a thousand other minor inconveniences that naturally came about during the spans of sanity, life, and companionship.
“I can make better use of your army of students than you can, Fray. I’ve got no time left to be scared, for myself or for others. I’ve got no time to be stonewalled or told no by people who have no right to say boo to me. You call the Crown a sore loser?”
I spread my arms, chuckling. I gestured at myself.
“Sylvester,” she said. “No.”
“They say a dog resembles its master.”
“I’ll bargain with you,” she said.
“You’ll try. I’m not backing down on this.”
“The accommodations for your new army. I was going to arrange for you to have them from the time asked you to go on this walk with me. I’ll give you what you need to take care of them. Because I meant what I said.”
“Gracious of you,” I said.
“As for the actual bargain, the Lambs are coming within the hour. They’ll arrive before the vehicle you’ll want to take to leave Laureas does. Give me time to get affairs in order-”
“Time to work against me?” I asked.
“I have no bloody idea,” she said. “I don’t know what to do with you. I hardly know what to say, because I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and make you more upset. But give me a few months, tend to your new rebellion faction. I’ll give you Warren and all of the resources I planned to use to safely and discreetly make my exit from this city with hundreds of students in tow, just for the day.”
I thought about it.
I shook my head.
“What do you want, then? I can give you attention. Buy you a few months, maybe years.”
“No,” I said. “Could you revive the caterpillar project from scratch?”
I watched her eyes move.
“That’s a no, then?”
“Sylvester,” she said. “You were going to look after the Beattle rebellion regardless. You’d be trading a few words and a restriction on schedule for everything you need.”
“Nah,” I said. I looked past Fray at the Lambs who were witnessing the scene. I extended an arm, gesturing at them. “I’ve got to look after them, don’t I?”
Fray turned her head.
“There’s nobody there.”
“The Lambs, Fray. They’re there. If you’re going to start making concessions to me, for the way you and others have treated me, you owe the rest of the Lambs something too, don’t you?”
“I said I wouldn’t render you bait for the bear. I’m not. I’m telling you to make a damn sacrifice for once. Show me you can actually follow through for once, when it counts. Voluntarily hand yourself over. It’ll be a nice checkmark in their files. Something that pacifies the higher-ups, keeps the Lambs project running smoothly.”
She was silent. I finally got to see her flustered, agitated.
“It’s your choice, Fray. Only you, me, and Jessie will know you made it. You stated the stakes yourself. You can go, turn yourself in, let them lock the restraints on. Tell them whatever you want, tell the Academy that I know things, and use that information to stave off whatever treatment they have planned for you. That’s fine, but you’ll be theirs. Or don’t go, and spend every day dreading that everything and everyone you like and care about might be taken from you by a force beyond your control.”
“You have no idea what you’re really doing,” she said.
“You wanted time, Fray? You really believe in this threat? Convince me. These are the terms. The accommodations for my army of students, Warren’s help, and you, waiting politely on that platform when the Lambs emerge from their train.”