Head over Heels – 16.4

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This was Jessie’s show, at least for now.

Adjustments had to be made.  My memory was worse than it had been a year ago, and a good memory was a necessary element in a good set of lies and falsehoods.  I could act, and I could manipulate others, but there was a certain point where forgetting a key detail would derail a good deceptive play.

I was in an awkward position when it came to classifying Jessie.

Helen was the best actor among the Lambs, but she had trouble on several fronts.  By most standards, she was among the most attractive young ladies that anyone she met would have met.  She faced an uphill struggle when it came to blending in or avoiding attention.

Gordon and I were perhaps the best actors, by dint of our ability to appear as young gentlemen, urchins, students, or our ability to blend into a crowd.  He was a little bigger than average, I was a little smaller, but we did well.

Had done well, I corrected myself.  He had been a little bigger.  Gordon had been, changing to past tense yet again, roughly matched with me in terms of acting ability and flexibility.  I glanced at Gordon, who was keeping me company, and reminded myself that he wasn’t really present, that he’d been gone for a while now.

That thought lingering in my mind, I paused as I ascended the slope of a rooftop.  I was by the chimney, and I could use the hot air and smoke emanating from it to warm up while I watched Jessie and the others trudge through the snow from a distance.  I wished I could stick my head over it and warm my face, but doing that for any extended period of time struck me as a very good way to pass out, fall down a chimney, and surprise a family that was hiding out from plague somewhere below me.

Helen was only one half-step behind us, and could do leaps and bounds better than us in the right situations.  Could I say Jessie was the worst of the Lambs when it came to acting?  No, because I considered Lillian to be a Lamb, and I likely could have picked five random ex-students from among the Beattle rebels and found one or two who were better than Lillian at playing a part.

I was fond of Lillian, I respected her wholeheartedly, but she had her strengths, she had her weaknesses, and deception wasn’t foremost among her strengths, or even in the top five of them.

I had to consider Ashton, too.  Ashton was about as good at acting as any of the logs burning down in the fireplace below me.  Myself, Gordon, and Helen at the front of the pack, Lillian and Ashton at the rear, and Mary and Jamie somewhere toward the middle.  Mary was good, and I could have searched and tested the entire Beattle group and found one or two students among hundreds on Mary’s level.  She had no particular weaknesses, and she had a number of strengths.

Jessie was like Helen in that she had some marvelous strengths, but she also had weaknesses.  In her case, her weakness was a slower reaction speed, difficulty in adapting to changing situations and crises.  It wasn’t much slower, but one to three seconds she needed to find an answer or detail was enough time for someone to second guess her act.

She was playing to her strengths right now.

I was feeling the cold, which was the reason for my stop at the chimney, while the others were taking their time navigating the city.  Were I the one in uniform, I might have avoided anyone who wasn’t integral to what I needed, but Jessie allowed meetings to happen.  I’d been following them for close to twenty minutes now, and she had already talked to two groups of Tender Mercies, two civilians who’d been looking for shelter and one squad of quarantine soldiers.

She looked confident and unbothered as yet another group of Tender Mercies approached, three men this time.  It seemed like the Tender Mercies wore virtually every shade of red but the one that matched the red flowers.

The man who led this group of Tender Mercies looked like the human equivalent of a wrinkly dog from the East Crown nations I’d seen once in Tynewear, all folds of skin, his features lost amid it all.  He wore his hair in a black ponytail, much like Jamie had worn, once.

I raised my binoculars, and watched as Jessie talked to them.

The man’s face made lipreading next to impossible.  Jessie, however, moved her hands, gesturing as she talked.  The thick gloves made nuance difficult, but through some combination of her gestures and the wrinkled man’s mouth movements, I was able to get the main thrust of the dialogue.

How long?   Time gesture from Jessie, as the wrinkled man spoke.

Head shake from Jessie, a negation hand sign.  No updates, no idea.  Change tacks, casual, easy.  Just want this to be over.

A sort of smile from the wrinkled man, real smiles the other Tenders with him.  We were made for this.

I filled in blanks with guesswork and cues from Jessie’s hand signs.  Is this your first outing?

No, the Wrinkled man said.  I caught that one.  Jessie was nodding, as if this wasn’t surprising.

There was a brief discussion.  Jessie didn’t really translate much of it.  Places, I suspected.  A brief history on this particular trio of Tenders.

The Tenders said something more, and it was the Treasurer who responded.  Jessie followed.  Knowledge-expert.   The Treasurer got his chance to show his stuff, and in the doing, gave the group some legitimacy.  I could see how that translated to trust and back-and-forth with the Tenders.

Any problems?  Jessie asked.

The wrinkled man gestured toward the train station, said something.  Jessie gestured, negation.  The equivalent of a short head shake, a so-so.  Nothing new there.

Then he said something else.  I waited for the gestures.  Jessie wasn’t moving her hand, though.  I wondered if one of the three Tenders had glanced at her hand in a curious way.  I was disappointed in myself if I had missed something like that, binoculars and bad weather or no.

I hadn’t.  Jessie resumed gesturing, as if she was using her hands to make up for the lack of expression on her face while she wore the mask.  Slowly, she caught me up, filling me in.  I used what I’d managed to pick up from the wrinkled man earlier to fill in the blanks now.

Stalemate-stalemate.  The Tender Mercies are waiting to receive orders.  Here for a reason.  Rabbit’s doctor.  Noble doctor.

Jessie and her squad started to move, even as she said some parting words to the Tenders.

Good luck, dog.

She hadn’t actually said dog, but I knew what she meant.  She’d been a little patronizing, adopting the same tone Duncan had taken when talking to us lesser creations of the Academy.

The three Tenders seemed to take it in stride.  If anything, I suspected Jessie had made a good impression on them.

Jessie, meanwhile, seemed to be standing a little straighter, taking a little more authority with the rest of her group.  The hand signals in the meanwhile were for me.

Castle.  Noble Doctor.  Shirley.  Go.

I checked the coast was clear, moved away from the chimney, slid down the slope of the roof, and dropped the fifteen feet to the road below.

I kept my distance so I wouldn’t compromise them, navigated between bloody bodies, and ducked into alleys.

I was in the process of looking for a way up to higher ground when I heard a sharp knocking sound, a rifle against a wall.

I changed direction, and I walked toward the others.

Jessie’s group met me in the alley.

“You catch all of that?” Jessie asked.

“Most of it,” I said.

I drew my handkerchief out of my pocket, and used it to wipe the lenses of Jessie’s mask free of the wet snow and moisture.  With her thick gloves, I knew she couldn’t do a proper clean.  She hated smudged glasses, which was why I tried to smudge them as much as possible when I sought to annoy her.  Easy reflex to hammer at.

Plus it made it seem all the nicer when I reversed course and did the opposite.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Do me?” Bea asked.

I started cleaning more lenses, starting with Bea.  “Why is this noble professor so important?”

“You caught all that?” Fang asked.

“You stop being surprised at these things after a little while,” Rudy said.

“They aren’t saying why they are so interested in the professor,” Jessie said, ignoring the gallery.  “More because I don’t think they have any idea, not because they’re being evasive.  But the Crown is deploying the Mercies with specific orders about the professor, so keep that in mind.”

“It makes sense they don’t know.  They’re low level,” I said.  “We might have to tap another source, or go straight to the doctor.  Hopefully finding him might mean finding Shirley.  At this level, we’re just getting dogs following orders.”

“Dogs?  I can’t tell if you’re being unkind,” Gordon le Deux said.

“I’d be being unkind if I said they were cats,” I pointed out.

“He’s echoing me,” Jessie said.  “I used the word ‘dog’ first, when I was using my hand to communicate with Sylvester.”

I tilted my head, wiping at Rudy’s lenses.  “What was the dog line?  ‘You experiments be safe?'”

Jessie made an amused sound.  “Close.  ‘Don’t tarry too long, experiments.'”

“Eerie,” Fang said.

“Again,” Rudy said, “This is not surprising.  They’re good with the hand signs.”

“I’m more bothered by the conspicuous lack of ‘dog’ in that exchange,” Bea said.

“This is not surprising either,” Second Gordon said, mimicking Rudy’s tone and speech.  “These two are hard to keep up with.”

Rudy’s masked face turned in Second’s direction.  I suspected he was smirking.  The two were getting along to some degree.

“It was nuance,” Jessie explained, patiently, “the word dog implying the tone.”

I added, “A condescending sort of ‘you are lesser than I, but I like you’ entitlement.  Believe me, we got that all the time when we were with the Academy.  Once you start hearing it, you won’t miss it.”

“Oh, there’s tone, too?  How do you have tones in hand signals?” Fang asked, looking down at his hand.  “Fuckin’ hell.  I only know four of these hand gestures and you’re speaking a whole ‘nother language.”

“You’re supposed to know six hand signals,” Jessie said.

“Well, I learned five, and I get the eyes, perception sign mixed up with the knowledge, patience sign.”

“Which means you only really know three,” Bea said.  “Don’t go and make me look bad after I invited you along.”

Fang snorted.  “That’s the entirety of who I am, Bea-baby, ruining reputations of pretty girls.”

Bea made an amused sound at that.

“Watch,” I said.  I held up my hand to show him, three fingers splayed, pinky and thumb tucked in.  Then I put the three fingers together for, “Learn.”

“Fingers apart for watch,” Second said.  “Looks kind of like a ‘w’.”

“That’s good,” Fang said.  “That’s the kind of thing I can remember.”

“Three fingers together for a tower,” Jessie said.  “Ivory tower, place of learning.”

“That’s just going to make me think of a watchtower or something, that only confuses me more,” Fang said.

Jessie huffed out a sigh, and her mask made it sound odd.

“Jessie,” I said.

I got her attention, which distracted her from her failure to counsel Fang.

“You knocked on the wall to bring me over here.  Did you need anything particular?”

“I wanted to ask, how are you holding up?” she asked.  “Cold?”

“Cold,” I said.  “I wouldn’t mind getting indoors soon.  The Castle place?”

Jessie nodded.  “The Little Castle.  We’ll head straight there.  There’s a regiment of soldiers out on the streets.  If they poke their heads around the corner here, you make yourself scarce.  One of us can make noises about being a little nauseous about the bodies.  Treasurer, maybe?”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re a student,” I said.  “You can get away with being a wimp.”

“But I’m not,” the Treasurer said.  “I’m less of a wimp than anyone here except you two.  I’ve seen bodies.  I’ve dissected victims of lesser plagues and sci-weapons.”

“I wouldn’t have used the word ‘wimp’,” Jessie said, aiming that at me.

The Treasurer was a proud person, it seemed.  Maybe he feared that after today, after he burned his suit, he wouldn’t be able to have another day like today, where he got to shine.

“I wouldn’t either,” I said.  “Bad word choice.  I saw how you talked to the Tenders, it worked well.  If you conveyed yourself as the expert on deck, then admitted you were having trouble dealing, it attaches the lie to the truth, explains away why you’re all talking in an alley, and gives them no reason to doubt.”

“Hmph,” the Treasurer made a sound.  The ‘m’ sound of the utterance was caught by the tube, making a low sound like one might get by blowing over the top of a bottle.

“I wouldn’t mind getting somewhere warm too,” Bea said.  “Somewhere with privacy.  I’m wearing pants that don’t fit over ones that do and they’re both-”

I raised my hand, quick, gesturing.

Alert.

I caught a shuffling sound.  I glanced at Jessie, and I saw her nod a little.

I stepped away from the street, deeper into the alley, before I heard the moan.  I changed direction, a moment too late.

She hadn’t made much noise because she was barefoot, walking on ice and on ground without snow.  She barely wore anything more than rags in the cold and she walked in a staggering sort of way.  She was hunched over, moving almost blindly, and was clearly in an incredible amount of pain.  Her hands wrapped around her body as if she were wearing a straightjacket, and blood ran down her arms, dripping and streaming from the elbows.

I realized, as she moved the hand at one side down, fingertips leading the way, that she was digging her fingers under the skin.  Sheer tenacity let her carry on the downward process, separating connective tissue by using nails, fingertips, and hands as a wedge.  The movement was jerky as she found an in, broke a key piece of tissue, and tore skin, only to hit another stopping point.

In this manner, the one hand traveled down toward her hip, as she tore her own skin away.  I could, even with her standing fifty feet away, see the way her hand trembled, the skin stretched thin and tight against the knuckles and splayed fingers.

The Treasurer raised his gun, aiming at her.

I gestured, and Jessie was quick to say, “No.”

“No?” the Treasurer asked.

At the sound of the voices, the young lady looked up.  Her hair was in disarray, and most of her face was hidden, only one eye positioned to peer through the messy, blood-slick hair.  She’d used fingernails to tear off part of her own face.

“It would be a mercy,” the Treasurer said.

“It is a Mercy,” Jessie said.

She’d realized after I’d signaled for her to wait.

I was subtly changing up my expression and stance to look more horrified, less capable.  I made myself smaller, and I retreated a bit.

Jessie, meanwhile, stood tall, and advanced toward the Mercy.  It was the youngest we’d seen yet.  Likely inexperienced, too.

The Mercy, breathing hard and whimpering a little with each breath, shifted her stance, then tilted her body some, back twisting a little.  I couldn’t tell if she was trying to curtsy or bow or if she was trying to stand straight without losing any of the ground she’d gained in tearing off her own skin.

“Hello captain,” the Mercy said, lowering her head a little.  When she looked up again, it was still one bloodshot eye peering through messy hair.

“Hello, experiment.  You seem to be in a bind,” Jessie said.

The Mercy laughed at that, a surprisingly human sound, perfectly fitting to the moment, for someone who was in a bind but who did find the word choice amusing.  I wondered if she’d been human once.

“Do you want help?” Jessie asked.

The Mercy nodded.  “Please, sir.  Or ma’am.”

Jessie reached for her boot, where she’d tucked a knife into the strap that cinched the boot tight against the leg.  She held it out by the handle.

The Mercy took the knife, and proceeded to use one hand and the knife to flense the skin off her body.

“Where’s the rest of your unit, experiment?”

“They left me behind,” the Mercy said.  “I’m a little slower than some.”

“Where are your clothes, then?  And your weapon?”

“The clothes got blood on them,” the Mercy said.  “The blood started to smell.  I lost my weapon along the way.”

“When you say smell, you mean it smelled like plague?”

The Mercy nodded.  “I think it likes how I taste.”

“Could be you’re in the wrong place for it,” the Treasurer said, from the sidelines.

“Could be,” the Mercy said.  She flashed the Treasurer a smile, which was fairly dramatic.  She only had scraps of flesh on her head where it met her hairline.  I wasn’t sure, and I was trying to look afraid, which meant averting my eyes and looking less closely at her, but her scalp might have been something that wasn’t skin.  Artificial.

She tore off the skin over her breasts, and then with the help of the knife to cut connective tissue, removed almost a third of the skin from her upper body and her previously untouched right leg.

From there, it was an easy process to get the rest.  Skin at the feet, skin at the arms.  She stood there, shaking from cold and from pain, the one eye we could see lacking eyelids.  Flayed.

Slowly but surely, however, things were filling in.  The blood flow was stopping, the darker grooves between muscles and muscle fibers smoothing out.

No, probably not human at any point.  Just very high quality work.

Work with biological processes that fast meant biological demands.

I gestured at Jessie with a hand the experiment couldn’t see.  Food.  Man.  Eat.

As if reading my mind, her eye fell on me.

“He’s not for eating,” Jessie said, firm.

“He’s supposed to die,” the Mercy said.  “They all are.”

“It’s not your place to contravene my orders, experiment,” Jessie said.

He’s supposed to die,” the Mercy said, more firmly, insistent, as if she could will Jessie to agree with her.  “I need food, and I need clothes, and he has both.  I’m hardy, but not that hardy.”

“He has information,” Jessie said, still firm.  “He knows something about the standoff at the Little Castle.”

“I see,” the Mercy said.  “Captain, ma’am-”

I liked that Jessie in stern librarian mode was coming across as a ‘ma’am’, even as covered up as she was.

“-You know one of my roles is getting information,” the Mercy finished.  Her skin was almost starting to look like skin.  More in some areas than others.

The way she said it, I knew she meant torture.

Find the cats and cockroaches who could become long-term carriers, check for information, eat them.  A tightly contained, efficient process cycle.  The torturing for information and the eating could even be folded into one another.

“We need his ongoing assistance,”  Jessie said.  “Emphasis on ongoing.  I’d prefer it’s enthusiastic assistance.”

“It’s very enthusiastic assistance now,” I said.  I feigned fear and concern for my own hide, though I knew full well that the others had guns.  “I very much appreciate you not feeding me to her.”

“Make yourself useful when the time comes,” Jessie told me, still sounding as authoritarian as she ever did.

The Mercy curtsied, which looked strange given she was stark naked, new skin beaded with wet snow.

Then, rather than march off to go find her next mean, she sagged, leaning hard against the nearest wall.  Her breathing was getting less heavy, but she looked very tired.  She had maybe half of her skin now.  The rest of it looked more like the result of a moderate scald than a fresh flaying.

She was an efficient little machine, from what I could tell.  Strong enough to tear her own skin off, the particulars of her physiology and metabolism finely tuned and balanced.

It made me rethink how to approach the rest of the Mercies.

“I’m put in mind of the adage about the scorpion and the frog,” Jessie murmured.

“Hm?” I asked.  I drew the connection.  “No.  It’s fine.”

“I know for a fact that you like girls, Sylvester.”

“This is not untrue,” I said.

She moved closer, talking quieter, “I know you like unusual people, you feel an affinity for experiments, and the Tender Mercy right there is both.   Your desire to take care of others is proportionate to your age, and she’s close enough to our age I can imagine you likening her to the other Lambs.”

“I hadn’t actually,” I said.

I’d come close, but I hadn’t.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t help her, but I am saying that I’m thinking of the scorpion and the frog.”

“She could be useful,” I said.

“She could be.  So could a lot of people.  There are a lot of people in this city who need help.  We can’t save all of them.  We might not be able to save her.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But-”

But I didn’t have a good argument.

Jessie was patient, giving me time.

The Mercy was crouching down now.  She used water from a shallow puddle and cleaned herself as a racoon or rodent might, wetting her hands and wiping her new skin.  Wetting hands and wiping.  She bent her head down and used the same method to get the blood out of her hair.

“I just worry that if I leave her behind like this, it’s going to be one of those nagging memories that sticks in my head, taking up valuable real estate.”

“Why?” Rudy asked.  “She’s a killer.”

“So am I.  So are a lot of the people I grew up with,” I said.

“You actually want to bring her with us?” Bea asked, sounding alarmed.

“Temporarily,” Jessie said.  “Only temporarily.”

The Mercy, hair mostly clean, looked up at us.  She’d caught that.  The skin around one eye had grown in too thick, pinching it shut, and from the way she kept her hair, covering half of her face, only the one eye showing, I suspected it was intentional.  She kept washing and fixing her hair with her hands as she watched us.

“We don’t have to,” I told Jessie.

“Valuable memory space,” Jessie said.  “You said it yourself.”

The Mercy’s fingers worked furtively.  She set her now-wet hair, and it moved in a way that suggested it had to be close to frozen.  Hair on the one half of her face hung down, covering her one eye.  The hair on the other side was tied back, braided or knotted without the help of cord or pin.

“We’ll find you some clothes,” Jessie said, “And we’ll find you some food.”

The Mercy nodded, a quick motion.  She moved away from the wall, and she stumbled a little as she walked.  She held Jessie’s knife, and she didn’t give it back.

Hardy, yes, but the cold did get to her.  She joined our group, looking at each of us.  She watched me as if affronted by my existence.

I pulled off my coat, and held it out.

She didn’t take it.

“Is there a reason you’re refusing his offer?” Jessie asked.

“No, captain.”

“You wanted to kill him to take his clothes before, but you won’t now?”

I could understand what Jessie was doing, maintaining her fiction.  Still, it was disappointing.

Doubly so, that even after taking the coat, which only barely long enough to cover everything that needed covering, she looked at me as the young man who shouldn’t be alive.

She turned her attention to Jessie, bowing her head a little.  “Thank you, captain, for your kindness.”

“Will you warm up if we get you more clothes?  You’ll need to give that coat back.”

“I think so, captain.  I can resume hunting.”

Jessie glanced at me.

Resuming hunting wasn’t great.

“You’d need to eat on a regular basis?” Bea asked.

“Every two hours at a minimum while I’m active and using skin like this,” the Mercy said.  “Hourly is recommended but I don’t think anyone does.  It takes time.”

“Were you made in New Amsterdam or Trimountaine?” I asked.

“Winthrop Academy in Trimountaine,” the Mercy said.  She gave me a surprised look.  “How did you-”

“Like I said, he has information,” Jessie said.  “And it’s not that hard of a guess.  High quality work.”

The Mercy seemed bewildered by that.  “Thank you, captain.”

“How accurate is your ability to smell plague?”

“Not very, captain.  Only when it’s active.  But it helps.”

Rudy offered her one arm for support.  It made for an odd picture.

I was careful to walk behind and to one side of her.  If I’d walked directly behind her, she couldn’t have looked at me while maintaining her stride.  Instead, I was able to gauge just how much of her attention was on me.

I was disappointed that it was as much as it was.  That the look on her face didn’t change.

Too single minded.  Too efficient an encapsulated system, perhaps.

I looked across the street, not meeting this Mercy’s gaze.  I saw Fray, and I thought of what Fray had told me about.  It had lurked in my mind.

The places the Crown destroyed, the cats and cockroaches.  Continents laid to waste.  I imagined a future where this plague had taken the Crown States.  Fields of red flowers, with vein-like vines constricting the trees to death, crawling over stones in varying thicknesses.  I imagined the landscape devoid of humans, but for a few survivors.

Would the Tender Mercies survive?  Foraging for food, interacting, breeding more Tender Mercies?

It was a grim, quiet sort of picture.  I wasn’t sure how to place it.

We found more bodies, killed in the street, then dragged off to one side to be piled on the welcome mat of one house.

The Mercy cast off my coat, letting it fall in the snow, and hurried over to the bodies.

I could see her excitement as she found a red and white checked dress.

“I wonder,” I said.  I picked up my coat, shook it off, and pulled it back on.

“At what?” Jessie asked.

“I wonder at the timing.  The Tender Mercies are a… novel answer for this particular plague.”

“Too fast a development?”

“Too… easy to imagine where it goes.  Remember when we first discussed the plague?  It’s too clear that it was designed, and designed by a talented hand.  Which makes me think two things.  What if the person who created the plague created the Mercies?  I mean, that’s a fairly obvious conclusion, right?”

“Intuitive enough,” Jessie said.

“But I had a second thought, and I’m just putting it out there… what if they didn’t?  Beattle rebels, feel free to chime in, correct me, but there seems to be a lot of variance in the project.  The man with the very thick skin Jessie talked to, the one with the heavy brow and chin, then this one… it’s the early stages of things, when an established project of this kind of quality should have nailed down those ratios.”

“You’re not wrong,” the Treasurer said.

“They started down one path, then made an abrupt turn, to put things on a different course and answer a need,” Gordon Two concluded.

“Reminds me of someone,” Jessie said, looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah.  That’s what I’m thinking.  But this is a lot of effort and a small population of a very resilient, loyal set of people that they clearly invested a lot into.  Whether you imagine they were made to answer the red plague or they were made to answer something else, maybe something else that the Academy might have released in the same vein as the plague, isn’t it really easy to imagine creatures like this adapting to the new environment, keeping things mostly operational in the meantime, and then handing things back over to the Crown in a few decades or a century?  Doesn’t that seem like a much better use for what these Tender Mercies seem to be?”

The others were silent.  Our eyes were on the Mercy, who was pulling on boots over stockinged feet.

“A bit fanciful,” Jessie said.  But she gestured maybe.

I gestured the rest of my thought at Jessie while I worked through the idea.  Fray had suggested the Crown was prepared to wipe whole regions off the map, given the chance.  Now I was wondering if they weren’t already preparing to do so?  Were things proving too hard to pin down?  A nation too spread out, with too many active rebellions and too many dead nobles?

The Tender Mercy approached us.  She’d donned a red and white dress under a black coat, with red stockings and black boots.

The look she gave me was an ugly one.

“If it weren’t for him, we would have left you there,” Bea said.

The look didn’t change, but there was more confusion.

She wasn’t human, in the end.  But she didn’t own the wrongs she committed and the ugliness that drove her.

It was hard to convince myself not to shoot her, or to justify having helped her.

I felt like I understood something I hadn’t, about what the Mercies might be, or how they functioned, but I felt like this was a lose-lose situation.  Saving her, letting her die.

“You’re under strict orders,” Jessie said, “To spare the civilians.”

Why?

“There might be a cure among them,” Jessie said.  “It’s why we want the professor.”

The Mercy narrowed her eyes.

“Pass on word.  Gather any others you see,” Jessie said.  She reached to her belt, and fumbled at a paper that stuck out.

I moved closer and picked it out.  There were several.  I caught a glimpse of each.

Letters.  Penned out in various handwriting styles.  Each signed with different names.  Official orders, forged using details from memory.

Jessie picked one and handed it to the Mercy.

“I can’t read,” she said.

“I’m one of several who have letters like this.  We’re here to get it to the higher-ups at the other end of the city.  I’m passing that responsibility onto you.  Show that letter around.”

She frowned, looked at the paper, and then looked at me.

No fondness, no understanding.  Only confusion at my existence.

I might have agreed with her, if the timing were different.

The small Mercy strode off.

“The Little Castle is there,” Jessie pointed.  Two streets down and two streets over.  Easy to miss amid the peaking, snow-covered roofs.  “We’re close.”

She was trying to distract me from the subject of the Mercy.  A creature I’d wanted to identify with.

I bent my brain to the task of helping Shirley, and pushed the thought of the experiment ninety percent of the way out of my head.

In the moment before I succeeded, I saw Fray.

Fray alone.  Fray without rhyme or reason, still indistinct.

It meant something.  I wasn’t sure what.  Did it have to do with the Mercy?  A runt of an experiment, feeling lost without her people, caught up in things bigger than her?

Leaving things as unresolved as they were nagged at me, and I suspected my limited space for memories might well be more occupied thinking about her, despite our attempts to prevent that very thing from happening.

Or did Fray’s appearance have to do with the bigger things?  My suspicions about the Crown, the measures they might take?  Or was it about the dawning feeling that Pierre’s intuition had been right, in that this noble-employed professor was an important factor in answering these questions, and that ignoring him in favor of Shirley might not be the easy answer we’d hoped for?

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32 thoughts on “Head over Heels – 16.4

  1. I’m pretty sure they have to deal with the Doctor. They need more information to wreak mayhem with or a Doctor of high enough caliber to extend the deadlines for Jessie and Sy. This holding pattern they’re in can’t last long because they only have not even six months.

    • If they had to deal with the Doctor, I’d bet on the Doctor. The Doctor has done some amazing things, I doubt the Nobles or Sy even come close to the Daleks in threat level.

  2. Mmm. Couple of notes on the writing. First, I thought no experiments could breed? Or was that my imagination? Sylvester imagines a situation where the Tender Mercies breed in order to keep their work going. I guess the Academy could give them the ability to reproduce *shrug*

    Second, the section about who is the best actor was rather confusing.

    Sy says: “Helen was the best actor among the Lambs” then contradicts himself by saying: “Gordon and I were perhaps the best actors”.

    Later on he says: “Jessie was like Helen in that she had some marvelous strengths, but she also had weaknesses”, but, Sy also admits to having rather big weaknesses, and yet he is one of the best actors. I understand that he means that Jessie’s and Helen’s weaknesses are worse than his, or their talents don’t make up for their weaknesses, but I feel it could be expressed better.


    The Tender Mercies are one curious bunch. I hope Sy doesn’t get hunted down by them, and he has to kill them. I hope our group doesn’t get hunted by them, either. And, Shirley, no :< Please survive this.

    • Nothing at all has said that experiments can’t breed. In fact, one of the threats made in the game on the train earlier in the story is turning someone into a warbeast whose only role was to bear offspring.

      • That said… Sy in specific is sterile due to the poisons, and many experiments — especially the extremely customized ones — may not have been engineered with the requisite biology to breed, or they may not be genetically compatible with any extant creature.

    • The duke is officially dead, I think. And the Infante wouldn’t trust the Duke’s doctors to obey the Infante in all the ways he would need them to.

      • But didn’t Sylvester and evette see the Duke’s doctors at the infante’s throne? Why would this guy be out of a job already, but still alive?

        • The Duke’s doctors were let go and the Infante’s doctors are caring for him now.

          Keep in mind, neither Sy nor the bystanders Sy got the info from are in a position to know the specifics of what happened. It could be that the obvious thing happened – all of the Duke’s doctors were released and the Duke is now under new doctors. It could be that they were transferred to the Infante’s payroll but the jobless one was given the choice to quit. Maybe he took it because he knew the Duke is still sane and didn’t trust himself to keep a poker face around the Infante. Sy isn’t currently in a position to know these things, and neither is the reader.

  3. Have to admit… I find it endearing how much Sy is methodically observing Jessie’s control of the situation, especially after his earlier comparative analysis of each Lambs’ strenghts and weaknesses. It’s like he’s admiring her work in a new light (e.g. “She was playing to her strengths now,” “She looked confident and unbothered…”). The dynamics of their relationship is steadily evolving into unchartered territory. It was adorable that Sy was thoughtful enough to wipe Jessie’s glasses, because he knows how much she hates smudges on her glasses. I’m blown away at those tiny moments of tenderness towards Jessie lately (like covering her with blankets, making sure she’s warm, bringing her tea). I think it’s evident that after closely observing Jessie take lead here (since it’s normally Sy doing all the talking), that it’s not just about carefully monitoring the mission, but really seeing Jessie for the first time.

    Also, I think one of Sy’s weaknesses is that he is consistently drawn (intrigued?) to extrodinary individuals almost to the point of distracting him to the task at hand! Although he desperately tries to hide it by mercilessly teasing, mocking, or psychoanalzying, his admiration for brilliant individuals or creations seem to confound him, especially, the ones he can’t quite figure out (Lillian, Mary, certain Nobles, Fray, Mauer, etc.)… even the tender mercies creature fascinates him, despite the very clear danger of becoming her dinner. Hell, he didn’t even know how to feel after imagining the red plague spread across continents, consumed by bloody fields of flowers, devoid of humans. His attention to each one seems to last until he’s figured them out. Hence, why he can’t get Fray out of his head. I wonder if the inability to solve problems/people contributes to Sy’s deterioating mental state in the form of an underlying biological change in his brain… perhaps these figments of his imagination are actually abnormal aggregates of proteins, like “Lewy bodies” in neorodegnerative diseases.

  4. These imaginary copies of people an interesting concept. I’ve often wondered if the whole idea of a split personality is a person’s ability to model other people run amok.

    We all use models of the people we know to figure out what they are thinking and understand them better. In autistic people that ability to model is hampered in some way, sometimes entirely absent, sometimes simply reduced in function.

    So all this makes the potential effects of Wyvern absolutely fascinating.

  5. After reading worm in one go (read, sleep, repeat) and now doing the same with twig I just wanted to comment at least once and thank you for doing what you do, because what you do is amazing.

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