“Kill-” the rebel boss started, and the word, though forceful, was mumbled, as if he’d had a stroke. I might’ve taken it to be ‘hill’ or ‘fill’ if I’d not known better. He stopped.
I waited as he stayed where he was, frozen. I was tense but doing my best not to show it. The people in the room were watching me as much as him. I was aware that they were stirring, the harsh word having gotten their attention, and my relative calm and a simple raised eyebrow from me were the only cues they had to go on.
Slowly, haltingly, the rebel boss’s hand raised, finding its way to his face.
“Eric?” one of the other men in the room asked. He was one I’d considered as being one of the leaders – I’d picked out people who looked like they had some leadership ability, to better cull the population of the room and leave them more open to outside influence. I would have picked him, just based on how he held himself and how others looked at him, but I’d been unsure about my ability to get Berger to make the rebel boss point at him, given where he sat and the people in the way.
The rebel boss, Eric, opened his mouth again, and managed only an abrupt, “Ugh.”
He drew in a breath, then exhaled.
I saw an opening. I could read Berger’s thought process here. A hand raised to his face to muffle him, to buy a second to think. Now I suspected Berger was thinking about freeing Eric’s voice again, because that was all he could really do.
But we didn’t control his voice. We controlled his movements.
I motioned, indicating the arm that was closer to his face. I motioned for him to lower it, two fingers curled in the direction of the arm, twitching down.
His hand dropped. I gestured for Berger to stop and the arm halted midway. Eric looked momentarily surprised when it did.
Shirley was gesturing. Question. She wanted to know what was going on. With Archie having gotten caught gesturing to me, I was reluctant to do with forty or fifty sets of eyes watching me.
We could parcel out control in very limited quantities. With luck, Berger could sense some of the hesitation on Eric’s part.
Slowly, the rebel leader’s arm moved, until it pointed at the one who’d called out and named him. Eric’s expression was blank, his eyes filled with emotion. The other man’s face was anything but, on both counts.
“The hell? Eric, you’ve got it wrong. They’ve-”
The people near the man in question grabbed him. There was a momentary scuffle, and the man was thrown to the ground, then held down.
“Eric!” the man called out. “You’ve-”
One side of his face knocked against the ground as someone threw their weight onto his back. The men who now grappled with their former boss or friend didn’t look like they enjoyed what they were having to do. It wouldn’t take much to make them stop.
“You’re being manipulated! I haven’t talked to anyone! We’re friends, you morbid bastard!”
Eric the rebel boss stood in the doorway, his hand falling to his side. He turned his head and glanced down at me. I tried to read the expression and body language of a man with a partially paralyzed face and no control over his own body. Just behind him, in the large man’s shadow, I could see Berger, the faintest sheen of sweat on his face.
Berger hadn’t trusted me to see the situation through on my own, he’d given the rebel boss the chance to speak, thinking he’d cowed the man, and he’d been wrong. Had the boss’s face not been paralyzed by the syringe to relax his features, he might have gotten a fuller sentence out, clearly and unambiguously.
But he hadn’t. We walked a tightrope now.
There were two ways to go, now. I could try to wrangle things myself, and I could probably fail, in light of the current situation, or I could roll the dice myself.
I stared at him for as long as I could without looking suspicious, then looked away. I surveyed the room.
“We’ve had enough killing already,” I said. “Tie that guy’s hands, take him with. We’ll quiz him about what else he talked to the Academy about, and if he’s not up to something, then he’ll live-”
“You’re all insane!”
“-but for right now, we need to get moving. That’s the biggest priority. We get out with our lives, and we resolve questions of loyalty later. Head downstairs. Gather near the double doors, be ready to file out two by two.”
Then, positive that this was the point where things came together or shattered to pieces, I signaled Berger, moving my hand as if it were a duck’s bill, four fingers for the upper bill, thumb for the lower one, opening and closing it, miming ‘talking’.
The rebel boss grunted, drew in a breath, and freed to speak for a second time, he said, “Do as the boy says.”
I made sure not to show my relief. People spoke up, commenting, but I could see whole tracts who looked concerned, introspective, or lost in the chaos. People who might otherwise have been able to turn to the people who had led them weren’t able to. I’d removed those leaders from the picture.
“Go,” I said.
The rebel leader nodded, raised a hand and pointed.
It took a moment, but the room got itself sorted out. Rebels started making their way to the stairs and down to the front hallway.
I turned to Berger and the leader, and I began talking.
“We’re going to need to cross the street. Obviously we’ll follow up the rear. My allies won’t shoot at any of us here. If there’s trouble, we may have to run for it. How many people are elsewhere in the building?”
“My people or people like him?” the boss asked me. His entire body was taut with tension.
“Either or. Trying to figure out what needs to be done, if more hostages need to be taken.”
“Some gunmen at the windows.”
I made sure that bystanders heard me as I said, “We’ll have them follow up last. When they leave the window their absence will draw attention, and the enemy forces will move.”
“Mm,” he grunted.
I suspected he knew that the gunmen in the windows wouldn’t follow up. It didn’t make sense to go find them and have more of his men with guns around us.
“We’ll send someone up? You, with the little boy. Can you do it?”
I asked the question, and standing as close as I was to Eric the puppet, I was free to move a hand without people in the larger lobby seeing. I gestured for Charles and his rebel puppet to move off to one side, out of sight.
“That’s that,” I said.
The conversation was key, to give us a reason to be lingering behind, to keep others from approaching and joining in. The scary look on Eric’s face was a help in that. To their perception, he’d been willing to order the killing of a former lieutenant, pointing out the man. I’d been the merciful one.
The bulk of the people left. The clusters remained at different points in the room.
“What do you want us to do with the hostages?” a man called out. He didn’t look like one of the brighter individuals, which made sense, given his bravery in calling out to his boss when the man looked so unhinged.
Eric looked down at me.
“Let them go,” I said, as if suggesting it. “You made a deal with me.”
“Let them go,” he said, volume high, the syllables still a little slushy.
The men turned to the task.
“Changed your mind?” Berger asked, his voice barely audible.
No, I thought. No, Eric hadn’t exactly changed his mind. Yes, he’d been ready to give the order to have us killed, likely knowing he would die. Berger’s ability to wrest control of the situation and my own actions following it, they made it clear that we held the cards.
I’d picked up on his disposition fairly early on. Death held a different meaning for him. They’d been trapped here and he’d been lackadaisical about it, slouching in his seat. His priorities had sat in a different way, more intent on murdering or capturing Berger than on finding a way out. I suspected the men who followed him knew that, and his willingness to kill traitors here fit into a kind of acceptance of death and willingness to kill perceived enemies.
I’d chosen to read the look in his eyes or the fact that he’d chosen to look down at me in particular to be an effort at negotiation. Where he’d instinctively clutched for freedom the moment he’d been given his voice, we’d made it clear that the choice wasn’t so cut and dry. There were people he valued more, it seemed. Four had died in the stairwell, more had died upstairs, and even if he spoke now, it was no protection against further death.
Eric hadn’t changed his mind, really. Given the choice to take an unambiguous win, I suspected he would still do so, without exception. The situation had changed, I had clouded the waters with Berger’s help, and the rebel leader was playing along. He cooperated, as Berger had ordered him to do three hundred times in ten minutes.
My hostages were freed. The people who had freed them backed off, growing more outnumbered as more of their allies made their way down to the first floor.
Only a few lingered, glancing back at their boss.
“Go,” he said. “I need to have words with the boy.”
His words carried weight. They took their time doing it, but they made their way downstairs, glancing back.
He didn’t have their confidence. They no doubt felt something was up, I knew that. At the same time, to speak up or raise those dim and inarticulate suspicions was difficult. They had no real rudders, they were being told the same things by multiple sources, including an authority they trusted, and they were being told to take this course of action to live, which was something they wanted.
Given time, they would find a time and place to voice those doubts. In the now, they would go with the flow.
Shirley hugged the quarantine suit that I’d brought along to give her, not yet having put it on. She gave Eric a nervous look.
“I don’t know how you managed that,” she said. “But thank you.”
“Wasn’t entirely me,” I said. “They hurt you?”
She pursed her lips, then said, “Yes.”
She didn’t look eager to say. It was Archie who spoke up.
“We gathered together with Pierre to figure out what we were doing. We knew we couldn’t get out of the city, but Pierre might. One of the younger rebels from this group saw it unfold. When we turned up here with some of the other evacuees, they collapsed in on us.”
“And they knew about Shirley’s involvement with you from that?” I asked.
“They thought she was Otis’ girl. They grilled him for information,” Archie said. “He didn’t give much up, until he got talkative and started mocking them.”
“They threw me to the ground with my hands tied and kicked me,” Otis said. “As these things go, it wasn’t even that bad.”
“Watch your words,” Archie said. His voice wasn’t sharp, the rebuke not that heavy as such things went, but it seemed like such a strange thing to say.
Until I saw Shirley’s face. She didn’t make eye contact with me or even anyone else.
I stepped forward and took her hands in mine. She flinched a little. I led her a little ways away from everyone else. Otis and Archie followed at a partial distance, glancing back at the rebel leader and Berger. They remained just at the edge of earshot.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m trying to be tougher than I once was,” she said. Her shoulders went up, like she was shrugging but not shrugging. A shrug aborted. Defensive.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again, with just a little bit more emphasis. “I’ll make this up to you.”
“I don’t blame you at all,” she said. She finally made eye contact with me, which she hadn’t done since she’d approached and spoken to me. “Really. And I don’t want people to get hurt or die because of this. This is how things are, and things just really-”
Her voice went high at the end there, and she broke off talking.
I gave her hands a squeeze.
“Really suck sometimes,” she said, with more composure.
I kissed the back of her hands.
“Can I ask Archie or Otis what happened, after? I need to get the measure of these guys.”
“It looked like you have their measure already,” Shirley said. Then her shoulders went up again, in a kind of shrug, as if she were unsure. “I can tell you.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Some of the younger ones and one of the people you called into the stairwell, one of the traitors?”
“Not traitors. People I needed to remove.”
She nodded, as if that made all the sense in the world.
“They threw me to the ground and they kicked me. Because I think they thought they could get to Otis by doing that.”
Shirley’s hand pulled out of mine, and touched points all along her ribs and stomach, then moved her hair, so I could see where blood had run down into the basin of her ear, just by the canal.
“Okay,” I said.
“They said I needed to be searched for signs of plague. It meant disrobing some. Where everyone can see. They didn’t search Otis or Archie or any of our people. I’m not modest-”
She offered a one-note laugh at her own words.
“-but it was meant to humiliate. And to get to Otis.”
I was going to say something to reassure, but Otis spoke up in his characteristic rough-edged voice, a voice belonging to an old man, used by a middle-aged one. “Shirley toughed it out, glared daggers at them. Came out looking fierce.”
I wondered if he was trying to reassure in his own way.
“I talked,” Otis said, very casually. “Told them what they wanted to know, so they’d leave her alone before taking it any further. They were curious where our rabbit ran off to, I said we had a camp outside the city. That he’d get reinforcements. I said we were led by a boy less than half my age. I said we were making weapons.”
“I told them about you,” Shirley said. “Jessie some, but you mostly. I said if Pierre got out of the city, that you’d come. They didn’t think our reinforcements were worth much, and I said more. Talked you up. That’s where they got the ‘moving mountains’ part. I even- I used the word devastating, because I thought it would help you forgive me for costing you the element of surprise.”
“No, Shirley, that’s-”
She talked over me, as if she just needed to say it, “I just needed the courage right then, so I rambled.”
“It’s fine!” I raised my voice, to be sure to interrupt her before the justifications could keep coming. “You’re worrying over nothing there. I wouldn’t have had the element of surprise anyway, having to approach like I did. I didn’t have a chance of getting into the building without them knowing about it. They would have had questions, and the unknown is cause for fear. You talking me up put me in their heads, made me into a possible solution for them, a reality they wanted to see and understand. Above all else, it took away what would’ve been a reactive fear. If I’d been an unknown, strange boy who just showed up at their door, I might’ve gotten shot.”
“You don’t have to lie to me,” Shirley said.
“I’m not lying. I might have been fine for the start of it, whichever way it had gone, whatever you’d said, but your instincts were right. The odds were better. This way was better.”
She didn’t look like she believed me.
I took her other hand, which she’d pulled out of my grip to indicate where the injuries were, and I moved her hands together, enfolding them in mine, best as I was able. I squeezed them, looking into her eyes with utmost sincerity and directness, and I said, “This way was better.”
“You come across as more believable when you’re casually lying,” she said.
“I’ve warned you in advance about this,” I said.
She smiled, and I could see moisture in her eyes. “My first time seeing it happen.”
Then she stepped closer and she gave me a kiss on the forehead.
“Then you believe me?” I asked. “Because I am honestly telling you the truth here.”
“I’m working on it,” she said. She touched my hair. “You have other things to focus on.”
“One of those things is my promise to Pierre. Get the quarantine suit on,” I said. I wagged a finger at her. She smiled some, and I was free to turn away, checking on Otis and Archie, as well as the other thugs they had in tow. “All good?”
“I wouldn’t mind getting out of this fucking city,” Otis said. “See some of your kid doctors.”
“I thought the beating wasn’t anything special?” Archie asked.
“It’s still a beating, indian,” Otis said. “And painkillers are nice. We recruited a few hundred kid doctors, why can’t we use ’em when we’re sore?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ll get right on that. For now, watch Shirley, watch my back, and clean that blood off. The plague likes blood.”
Otis rubbed at the space beneath his bloody nose, pulled out a handkerchief, and began cleaning off his face. He nearly dropped it when he saw how Berger was controlling Eric.
Berger had emerged from the hallway, Eric ahead of him and the children in tow, each controlling their respective puppets.
“How many others are in the building?” I asked. “Non-soldiers?”
“Sixty or so,” Archie said, his voice soft. “It’s a guess, don’t take it as gospel.”
“They’re holed up at the third floor,” Berger said. “We went higher because higher ground is better, and I had the key for the door.”
“Keep the kids out of the way,” I said. “Berger, with me. Bring Eric, or else we should stow him out of sight for a minute. The others will make sure nobody sees. We’ll get the other civilians in the meantime.”
“I thought time was of the essence,” he said. “You wanted to save your allies. Fine. But now you’re adding others to it?”
“This is integral,” I lied.
“Then we’ll do it fast,” he said.
I turned to Otis and Archie. “Get people started on crossing the street in two single-file lines. The Crown soldiers at the barricade should be ours. One of you go first if the others are reluctant. One of you stay behind to help, keep some of your guys with.”
That got me some nods in response.
Berger and I moved into the stairwell, and he pulled the strings necessary to paralyze Eric. The bug remained in place, the rebel leader was laid face down across the stairs, and with the strings removed, he was unable to do anything but breathe. I collected my knife, and we took the stairs two at a time to get up to the next floor. I knocked on the first door after I’d exited the open stairwell.
“Evacuation,” Berger called out.
I heard muffled voices. They didn’t respond.
“Give me your badge, or some official papers or something,” I said.
Berger stopped just short of rolling his eyes, reached into a coat pocket, produced a paper with a crest on it, and handed it over.
I slid the paper beneath the door.
The lock clicked. A man in nice clothes, his family standing further back in the room, too nervous to sit down on the bed or chair within.
“Evacuating,” I said. “Get yourselves downstairs. Stick with the people guarding the door at the second floor.”
I moved on to the next door, repeating the process. Three families in one room. Not aristocrats, not well-to-do folks. They’d retreated here because it was the largest, sturdiest building, much as Shirley, Otis and Archie had. I gave similar instructions.
At the third door, they responded to the knock, before I got to the part with the paper. I was greeted by a man with a revolver in hand. I caught his wrist and punched a knife into his upper stomach. He grunted, and I stuck him two more times.
He hadn’t even collapsed all the way to the ground before I crossed the length of the little apartment’s hallway. I saw the shadow across the floor before I saw any sign of him, and was already swinging the knife at his general neck level before he even stepped into view. He spun, collapsing hard onto the floor, and blood bubbled at his neck as oxygen escaped his windpipe and forced its way through the mess that was spilling out of the wound.
I’d suspected the first one wouldn’t be in the room alone. People kept each other attentive and sane.
His hand gripped my wrist, and blood ran down from the knife to the heel of his hand to my arm. I walked forward, pushing the knife deeper, and he staggered back. I forcibly sat him down in the chair by the window, so anyone looking through binoculars might see him.
I cleared the remainder of the rooms on the third floor. I realized after the second conflict with rebel soldiers that they’d been stationed in the corner rooms and didn’t interfere there. I was quieter in respect to the rooms neighboring those, shushing the people within as they opened the doors.
We headed back down. A good thing too, as it seemed Berger was looking increasingly impatient.
“One thing, before we go any further,” I said.
“If this is about me letting the rebel speak to the room-”
“No,” I said. “No. That’s a separate issue, and what’s done is done.”
“Then what is it?”
“One of the syringes you had was empty.”
“And? A mild stimulant, to keep myself alert. It allows me faster reactions, calm in a time of crisis.”
The last group of people we’d ushered out of their rooms had reached the crowd at the base of the stairs now. We followed them, and we started to make our way through the gathered crowd. They saw Berger and parted a way for him.
“I’m very good at telling when people are lying to me, Professor. You’re lying to me.”
“Perhaps,” he said. He knelt by Eric and began manipulating the strings. “I’ll tell you this. During my tenure as a student, I learned that most fellow students lied to me in some capacity. Most treated me as a hostile entity. Had I fought them on every last point, I would have exhausted myself. I had to pick my battles. You have to decide. Is this battle worth fighting?”
People muttered as he raised Eric to his feet.
“I asked,” I said. “I clearly think it’s a point worth addressing. Doubly so now that you’re being evasive.”
“Then are you going to use that Wyvern-washed brain of yours and find a line of questioning that makes me talk about the syringe? Torture me and my children?”
He was surrounded by citizens and aristocrats that saw him as someone friendly and someone to be respected. That had to play a part in his power play here. His confidence level hadn’t changed, but it seemed innate. I might almost believe that a drug had given him that confidence level, but I’d met too many other professors over the years.
Could I shake him? Possibly. Could I worm my way into his head and get what I needed out of him? Yes, given time.
He knew I didn’t want to spare the time.
“You know who and what I am, professor. You’ve read my file.”
“I do. I have.”
“Then let’s leave it at that,” I said. “You know enough to know the consequences.”
He didn’t flinch. He only pulled his strings and commanded his puppet.
I turned away, my mind whirling, working out all the possibilities. I had friends nearby, I had more friends on the other side of that open space of no man’s land. He had only a few key opportunities for attack. Had he given himself the contents of the syringe? Eric? One of the children?
Was it a bluff?
I turned toward the crowd, and I raised my voice as I spoke to them. “There are more rebels downstairs. You all stick near me, don’t speak of anything relating to the professor, and this all goes smoothly. Let’s head down to the first floor.”
The people were a buffer. They put bodies between me and the lesser rebels, they blocked vision, and, I was suspicious, they were ostensibly on my side rather than the rebel’s.
Shirley and Otis drew nearer to me, and our reduced collection of thugs followed. More security. More of a buffer. I was given pause when I saw that Shirley wasn’t wearing the quarantine outfit.
Florence was. She was small enough that it bunched up all around her. It wasn’t even a complete outfit, because she’d left one glove off, freeing her hand to manipulate strings. She wore a leather glove, tight against her small hand, and some of the adhesive wrap blocked off the gap, but it wasn’t the same thing.
“Pierre is going to be mad at me,” I said. “I made him promises.”
“He’ll understand if you explain.”
“He’ll understand, but he’ll be mad,” I said.
“Please?” she asked.
I looked over at Florence.
“She reminds me of myself as a child,” Shirley said.
“Having actually talked to her for a short while, I’m pretty sure you couldn’t find anyone more different,” I said. “In looks, yeah, she has a lot going for her, she’ll grow up to be a beauty, but-”
Shirley swatted my shoulder lightly.
“-I don’t see any of my favorite parts of you in her. Okay, maybe the cleverness, but-”
“You’re a relentless flirt, Sy,” she said.
Doctor bad, I gestured. Children bad. Betrayal soon. “I don’t see that as flirting. You should see me when I really flex that angle.”
Yes, was her only gesture. She didn’t have a lot of vocabulary. She got most gestures when I communicated to her, but it didn’t go the other way, from her to me. She’d picked up my message.
“I’m still not wearing that suit,” she said.
I drew in a breath, then nodded.
We made our way down the stairs, at the tail end of the group.
I was careful to position people between myself and the professor. He had Eric in tow, and I made sure that the professor and Eric couldn’t lunge for me.
I met the eyes of Charles, who looked very concerned for entirely normal reasons that had to do with venturing into the cold, plague ridden, conflict-torn outside.
I looked for Florence and I saw her near Berger. She wore the suit, and her head was aimed more toward the ground, one leather-gloved hand on the strings, the other hand in a thicker glove, on the man’s back, giving her balance as she focused on descending the stairs while wearing a quarantine mask with virtually no visibility.
The lowered head was indicative of something else, too. The nearer she was to Berger, the more submissive she appeared, her head bent low, as if expecting him to strike her at any moment. I wondered the degree to which that was true, the degree to which it was meat to manipulate him, and the degree to which it was meant to manipulate me.
I would’ve liked to see more of her face and body to read her for cues, given the difficulty in reading an accomplished liar and politician like Berger, but I wasn’t so lucky.
The stream of people flowed out the door with almost no hiccups. Some mismatches of people got wedged in the double doors, too large or trying to go in three-across instead of two-across. Others stumbled or slipped as they transitioned from hard floor to a street covered in wet snow that had been trampled by a hundred people ahead of them.
Jessie and her squad waited on the other side. I saw their postures change noticeably as they spotted Shirley and I. Perking up, taking notice.
Berger slowed to a noticeable degree. Lagging.
I expected him to draw a gun, perhaps, or to pull the bug free and release the rebel leader with some prearranged agreement to attack me, augmented by drugs. I expected a gas canister. The position I’d chosen in this careful stampede of my own design was meant to account for all of that. So was the position I’d chosen for Shirley. Tall thugs from Otis’ group.
He didn’t go high. He didn’t try to go through. He didn’t even do anything overt.
It had to amount to reaching into a part of his voluminous lab coat and simply dropping it to the ground.
The bug leaped from a point on the wet ground, passing through a narrow gap between two of Otis’ people, and lunged straight for me. I was primed and on the alert, and my hand went out, grabbing for it. Hook-like limb-ends caught on my arm, found purchase in the flesh of my forearm, and like the hammer of a gun firing, it fired forward in another explosive leap, going for my neck this time.
Straight for me, of all the possible targets.
I’d stood too close to him as I’d worked my shenanigans on the roomful of people. He’d given it a thorough sniff of me.
“Go,” I said, in the same moment I realized I couldn’t tear it free without the risk of the hook-limb tearing at something vital in my neck. “Leave me!”
It moved of its own accord, crawling around the side of my neck to my spine.
Whatever he’d dosed it with, it seemed more or less immune to my poisonous taste.
I landed face down on the road, paralyzed from the neck down, and I didn’t see anything else of what followed.