Head over Heels – 16.8

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The insect that had latched onto my spine rocked back and forth in a rhythmic way.  With it, my lungs kept operating, breathing in, breathing out.  The control wasn’t mine.  I felt a cold sensation, as if winter-chilled water was trickling into the back of my neck to my throat, spine, and pooling in my actual body and extremities.  Venom of a sort, from the mouthpiece of the insect.  I opened my mouth, and that numb cold kept me from properly speaking.  I could make only a few, limited sounds that consisted of the regular exhalations and some mouth shapes.  Not proper speech.

It didn’t help that one side of my face pressed against the ground.

I heard commotion, the tromp of footsteps, and then a hand seized me by the neck.  I was lifted up, my face no longer on cold wet road.  I had no idea what the rest of my body was doing.

“What do you think you’ll accomplish?” Berger asked.

I couldn’t answer, and the question wasn’t directed at me anyway.

“I wouldn’t be doing it alone,” a man I didn’t recognize said.  One of Otis’ thugs.  “I’m thinking we can make you let go of him, then we get around to tearing the giblets out of you.”

“Sylvester said to go,” I heard Shirley.  “He had a reason, I imagine.”

My mind was flying through possibilities, which was just as well, considering it was the only part of me that was working. Shirley was right.  I did have a reason.  Berger was the sort who wouldn’t pull something like this unless he was sure he could see it through.  So, rather than risk good people, I’d jumped straight to letting Berger see things through, which bypassed the question of how entirely.

Had I had more time, I would have double-guessed him.  I would have accounted for the possibility that he was thinking I’d think this way, and perhaps urged everyone present to turn on him.  Perhaps.  He was a control freak, and-

“Fuck this,” Otis’ thug said.

“Don’t-” Shirley started.

I was dropped on my face again.  I heard what followed, and I deliberately put it out of mind, keeping myself from connecting to who was where and what was happening so I could think more clearly about what I needed to think about.

I could move my eyes and I could blink.  This was all I had at my disposal.  Eye movements weren’t worth a lot, unless I wanted to look at someone in particular.  I was left with blinks.  The tap code worked for blinks, but only Jessie knew it.

What was Berger going to do?  He was going to retreat to safety.  No man’s land was his land.  So long as he had Eric and me with him, his black coat in full display, there weren’t really any people who would open fire on him.  He could retreat, find sanctuary amid the Crown forces, and move on from there.

Someone fell to the ground near me.  A large hand smacked my rear end before sliding off, coming to rest beside my leg.

“Stop, just stop-” Shirley started.  Then, more fiercely, she called out, “Back off!  Everyone back!”

“Do as she says!” Otis barked.

A hand seized me again, wrapping around to the front of my throat.

I was held by the rebel leader, who was puppeteered by Berger in turn.  He raised me up, holding me by the throat, facing outward, so I could see the small crowd in front of us.  Two of our thugs lay on the ground.

Berger was a control freak, and he wasn’t about to put things in strange hands.  He had the tools necessary to seize control of the situation, dispatch anyone who tried to rescue me, and now he dragged me a little distance back, venturing away from the barricade and a few strides back down the street that constituted the no man’s land around the Little Castle.

I looked past Shirley, past the thugs that were still standing, and to the barricade.

Jessie.

The tap code was the same mechanism as the hand signs, in a broad sense.  When we had to be even more subtle, we could communicate a code by touch using two variations.  Short and long, hard and soft.  It worked with sound, light, anything we could translate into time and two separate notes.  We’d really only worked out the basic signs.  The six or seven basic ones we’d used with gestures and a couple of others.

I needed to communicate something to Jessie.  I did what I could to work out the message to be conveyed.  I settled on ‘You distract Berger, I free myself.’

You.  I indicated the crowd, eyes moving to all the key players I could see, with repetition and regular blinks for emphasis.  Otis, Jessie, Shirley, Jessie, Archie, Jessie.

“You’re sure we can’t negotiate?” Jessie called out.  She signaled yes.

Berger backed up a little more.  “I don’t see what you have that I want.”

Jessie paused.  Then she gestured.  Certain.  Question.

Was I sure?  How confident was I in my plan?

Fifty five percent?

Did that count as sure?

Probably not.  But the alternative was that Jessie and the others would mount an effort to free me, in a territory stricken by plague.  It meant time and effort, and every second spent exposed to this air was a risk.

I blinked once for ‘yes’, then dropped my head as much as I was able.

“What if we have something you don’t want?” Jessie said.

“What is this?  A game?” Berger asked.

I felt my blood run cold.

I’m not that sure, Jessie!

Whatever.  I had to work extra hard now.  Distract.  Two quick blinks for no, then a glance away.  I returned my gaze to Jessie, realized someone was beside her that hadn’t been when I’d looked away-

And I experienced a feeling much like Jessie must have when she’d dropped a memory back in Laureas.  I stared into oblivion as I reached for something I knew had to be there, and found nothing.

“While investigating, we crossed paths with a Mr. and Mrs. Block, Professor.  They were integral to tutoring young nobles, before they were even out to the public.  We found them in New Amsterdam, and we’ve secreted them away.”

No, no, no no.

Yes, this would normally be something I could leverage, but not when I wasn’t prepared to follow through.  No, no, no.

Now the cat was out of the bag.  I couldn’t even tell Jessie to stop, because then the cat would be out of the bag and we wouldn’t have leverage.

I’d always held onto the Lambs.  I’d always held onto the cardinal and core skills.  The gestures, the carved mouse-signs, the dances that went hand in hand with being in near-perfect coordination with someone.

The tap code wasn’t at that level of importance, but it had been important.  It had been related to something integral.

I reached for the interpretation of distract.  No and then focus, then Berger.  It should have been simple.  I still knew the gesture for focus, for learn, memorize, study.  I just couldn’t translate it to tap-code.  It eluded me.

Evette stood shoulder to shoulder with Jessie, and she shook her head, because she was fully aware.  I’d had it, and now it was gone.  A memory and thing I’d been very intent with practicing and keeping.

“That’s knowledge that hurts you more than it hurts me,” Berger said.  He’d stopped dragging me back away from the others.

“You’ve got roots in the Crown States, Professor Berger.  Family, friends, your children.  I researched you once upon a time.  I know the particulars, and I know that you’re immersed in the politics on this side of the pond, you know what’s at play.  Yes, it hurts all of us if this gets out, but you lose everything but your education and what you manage to take with you when you travel overseas.  Assuming you get the chance.”

Not distract then.  Occupy?  I could play off the tap-code for manipulate, operate, use, control, turn it into a negative.  I could tell Jessie to keep the professor’s hands full.

Evette shook her head.

Blank.  The void in front of me yawned open even wider.  If I could have even tapped on the side of my leg, the tactile aspect of it could have helped me access it.  I couldn’t.  There was only oblivion.  The Wyvern had eaten a piece of me without my being aware of it.

Berger, too, stood blindfolded before a chasm.  He could hope there was a bridge, or he could buckle, and submit to the people who had driven him to this point.

I knew which way he would move, though.

Berger stepped back, moving me with him, setting foot on the bridge.  “I’ll take my chances and trust you’re smart enough to leave Mr. and Mrs. Block where they are.”

“The problem with that,” Jessie said, her voice modulated by the gas mask she wore, “is that you all created a collection of little Lambs with absolutely nothing to lose.  We don’t have any more than a few years.  You’ve read our files, no doubt.  If you’re threatening to set our world on fire, that’s fine.  Do it.  We’ll do as much damage to you as we can in the meantime.”

I’d already signaled no.  That left me the negations of the other core signs, the other tap codes we’d worked out.

No aggression?  Leave Berger alone?  Just the opposite of what I wanted.  I needed a window.

No support?  No protection?  Again, I wanted the opposite, I needed help.  and the negations of that one were too muddled.

No cooperation?  No.

“The problem with that, little Lamb, is that just ten minutes ago, your friend Sylvester here went to great lengths to save Miss Shirley over there, and it was abundantly clear just how much he cares about her.  I’m going to call that a bluff.”

Seeing Shirley react to being used against us in that capacity almost sucked as much as anything.

A lot of this sucked.  I might have felt gorge in my throat if I’d been able to feel my throat.  I might have felt my heart hammer and felt the need to control my breathing to avoid showing signs of panic, but I was a head with no connection to its body.

Other options.

‘No go’?  Don’t approach Berger?  It amounted to a sacrifice.  It meant to stay away.  Trust me.  It meant implying to Jessie that I could handle this.  There were a dozen possibilities that unfolded from that command, and if I were Jessie and using a memory database of Sylvester to simulate what I might do in that circumstance, it could imply a bomb going off, a lot of chaos that I needed her and the others to steer clear of.  Except I didn’t.  I’d get dragged away, Jessie would hopefully get out of this city and retreat to the Sedge camp, and she’d wait for me until it became clear I wasn’t going to make it back to her.

It was the best way to keep her clear of this.  As far as the various commands went, it was the only good option so far.

“Berger,” Jessie said.  “You know it’s not that simple.  We could tie you up in it.  Make you culpable.”

Berger chuckled.  A motion in my peripheral vision suggested he’d gestured, or the rebel leader had.  A way of the finger.

Jessie was trying to buy time.  I needed to finish communicating.

Except for the part where it would tear her up, see her putting pieces together in the wrong way.

The only sign left was watch, alert, attention.  Fundamental, one of the first we’d learned, that we’d taught Catcher, that we’d taught Mary.  Negated, it could be implied to mean blinding him.  Confounding his senses.  It could also be implied to mean that Jessie should ignore Berger.  The problem was that the first sign I’d forgotten would’ve implied distract, and the overlap was heavy enough that Jessie might connect the dots all wrong, and assume the ‘ignore’ interpretation.  Because why would I say confound if I could have said distract?

It was the interpretation I would’ve made.

“I have a long history with the Academies and Crown.  If I would’ve been culpable in anything, I had a lot more opportunities before, Lamb.”

“It’s precisely because you don’t have opportunities that you’re at risk now, Professor Berger,” Jessie said.  “You had a noble to look after and now he’s gone.”

Was I supposed to tell Jessie to blind him, and risk that she’d think I told her to ignore this, and contradict me to throw herself headlong into the problem, or tell her to go, to trust me when I was at my least trustworthy and least capable?

No.  Blink.  Eyes closed for one second.  Eyes open.  Eyes closed for another second.

No watch.  Blind.

I looked over to my peripheral vision, at Berger.

“He’s gone, and maybe you’re hedging your bets.” Jessie said.  She gestured.  Yes.

I blinked, quickly, no.  Then I repeated.  Blink, eyes closed-

“I’m very much hedging my bets,” Berger said.  “You can be sure I’ll have words with others about this.  I would be very careful about how you move forward, now.  You might already have gravely misstepped.”

– eyes closed again.  Then reafirrmed Jessie, then Berger.

Please understand me.

I looked down, stuck out my tongue, so I was looking at it.  A silly face to be making, and nobody smiled.  I was trying to indicate me, when I couldn’t even move to provide a part of myself to look at.

My last message had been a no.  Now I blinked, followed by closing my eyes for a second.  That-

My world lurched.  As I opened my eyes, I saw that I no longer faced Jessie.  They used the rebels as shields, and retreated down the street, dragging me with.  My heel dragging on the ground, friction had dragged one of my boots off.  I couldn’t even feel the wet or the cold.

“Grab his ankle, Charles,” Berger said.

Charles’ rebel reached down, fumbled for my numb leg, and seized it.  I was carried by one ankle and a hold around my upper body, and we moved collectively away from the congregation of strange rebels, Shirley, Jessie, Otis, Archie, Beattle thugs and our Beattle rebels.

“Who were the Blocks, father?”  Florence’s voice was muffled by the mask she wore, much as Jessie’s had been.

“If you ever find out, Florence, you’ll either be wearing a black coat and serving at one of the highest stations the Academy has, or your world will be nothing but gas, plague, famine, and fire.”

“I gathered the latter from how the Lamb in the quarantine suit talked.”

“That would have to have been Jamie Lambsbridge, who was reported dead.  But yes.  He figured out something he shouldn’t have.”

“And it has to do with these people?  Mr. and Mrs. Block?  Who have information this vital but who aren’t protected?”

“If you want to know more, then earn a black coat, and then earn your station.  Don’t abuse leverage for childish curiosity like you did when you pulled the string in the little castle or strangled the animal in Haverhill.”

“Sylvester noticed,” she said.

“What?” Berger asked.

“He noticed.  He knows why I pulled the string.  He knows why I suffocated the animal in Haverhill and cut the girl’s hair in the Cape of Flowers-”

“That was you?” Berger asked, his voice raising.  “She was the daughter of-”

Father.

I could hear the huff of Berger breathing hard through his nostrils, anger barely held back.

“What did Sylvester notice?” he asked.  “Rest assured, if it’s not a good answer, I’ll use a piece of wire to whip your rear end and the backs of your thighs into ribbons, have a doctor piece you together again, and whip it into ribbons once more.”

There was a pause, and I could imagine Florence hesitating, actually taken aback.

“Father,” she said, in a very measured way.  “I was pulling strings.  All my life, I’ve been raised to be proper, to know which fork to use, how to dress, how to do up my face.  I’ve been given an education.  I’ve been given class and status.”

“Cutting off all of the hair of the daughter of a headmaster of a prominent school could be said to be an abuse of those gifts you’ve been given by station and birth.”

“All my life, I’ve been given so much, but what I want and need is to know what happens in times of crisis.  I engineered the crisis so I could see how the great minds and talented politicians handled the matter.  I know I frittered away goodwill and made myself the obvious cause for those crises, but- but I do believe I’m just young enough that I’ll be forgiven it, by dint of my being as young as I am.”

Florence had insinuated to me that she hadn’t entirely known what she was doing.

Either she’d lied to my face and she’d done it well enough for me to not read it as an outright falsehood, or she’d figured out this particular argument and excuse for her behavior in retrospect, and she was now pitching it to her father as a kind of currency.

Both were rather amazing.

“I suppose this is a backhanded compliment?  I was the only person there when you pulled the string and made the rebel seize up.  Great minds and talented politicians.  Or were your eyes on Sylvester?”

“Both of you, father.”

“Hm,” Berger said.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’m eager, father.  I want to learn more, even if it means you striking me in the face or holding me face down in the trough.  And I want to know more about Mr. and Mrs. Block.”

“Eager is good,” Professor Berger said.  “What I wouldn’t give for this kind of determination from Charles.”

There was silence from the children.  Berger steered Eric and me around so we faced the children.  We were a ways down the street, Jessie and the Beattle rebels no longer in sight, and we were in the shadow of a larger building.  I could see the Little Castle a ways down the road, the stone edifice towering over the surrounding buildings.  Wet snow fell all around us.

“But trust is hard earned and easily lost.  Perhaps I’m overly wary after having so recently dealt with Sylvester, left second guessing things I wouldn’t, like the fact that you’re wearing the quarantine suit provided by one of his people, but I only half believe you.”

Dressed in the quarantine suit, Florence still visibly rocked back at that.

“With that in mind, half of the punishment I stated.  The one whipping, followed by immediate treatment.”

Charles looked over at Florence.  Florence, meanwhile, only bowed her head a little and curtsied.  “Yes, father.”

I caught Charles’ eye.  In the moment, I widened my eyes a bit, then gave him a wink.

“Uncle,” Charles said, as if he had to push himself to say it.  He was pre-emptively flinching, and he’d only said one word.

“Charles.  What is it?”

“Sylvester knew she was going to pull the string before she even do it.  He told me, and then it happened.”

“Hardly a miracle, Charles.  I suspected she might do something in that vein.  Granted, I had the benefit of the strangulation of the beast in the stables in Haverhill in my recent memory, but it wasn’t the leap you’re making it out to be.”

“I believe Florence when she says what she’s saying,” Charles said.

I believe that you want to save your cousin from her whipping,” Professor Berger said.  He sighed.  “The two of you have so much potential.  But you’re too soft and Florence is too vicious.  Come.  Let’s get to safety first.  You’ll each get your punishments tonight.”

“I’m being punished?” Charles asked, alarmed.

“You’ll split the punishment between you,” Berger said.  “Come.”

“Uncle!” Charles said, and there was emotion in his voice.

“No complaining now.  You can guess how that will end up.”

“Sylvester said-  he said, just when he was getting up to go to you, that the game I played with the city boys and town boys, he’s played it all his life.  That it was the same game he and you were playing.”

“Most games originated as a way to learn skills, Charles.”

“He said- I didn’t want to say this, but he said that if you ever hauled your own head out of your ass, you might see that Florence was learning to play the game too.”

I hadn’t actually said that.  But a very stern Charles had set his jaw and told the baldfaced lie.

Berger moved, passing around to Eric’s side, one hand still reaching back to manipulate strings.  The movement did move some strings, making the rebel boss lurch a bit and tighten his hold.

From his new position, Berger reached out and took hold of my face.  He turned it around and up so I was looking up at him.

“The games we play, hm?” he asked.

I smiled a little.

“Considering that I was busy preparing the bug you’re now wearing, I think I made the better move,” he said.  He smiled and let go of my face, leaving my head to loll, though he remained in my field of vision.

My smile remained fixed in place.  I didn’t quite feel like smiling, though.

I kind of agreed with him.

“Ready to move on?” Berger asked his children.

“Father.  While we’re stopped, can you help me switch hands?  Holding one hand over my head is growing troublesome,” Florence said.

“Leave him.  We can make do with the two.”

“I can let go of the strings?”

“Do.”

Florence moved her arm, and the man she was controlling dropped limp to the ground.  She removed the bug and cradled it in her arms.

“How are you managing, Charles?”

“Sore, but if it’s not far, I’ll carry on like this.”

“Good, Charles, good,” Berger said.  He paused.  “Florence.”

“Father?”

“All further games?  You won’t play them with me.”

“Yes, father.”

“And I expect more… art.  Subtlety.  You should come across well whether you’re caught or not.  The brutish way you did what you did, you looked poorly whether you were found out or if you got off scot-free.”

Florence paused, then curtsied again, still cradling the bug as if it were a doll.  “I will, father.”

“Then we’ll forget the whipping so long as you remember this lesson.”

“Yes, father.  Charles won’t be whipped either?”

“No, no he won’t.  But if we don’t hurry, tonight will be bloody all the same.  We’re exposed, and we’ll be exposed for a while yet.  The infection will happen, and when it does, the plague will need to be cut out.  Let’s go to the people best able to treat us.”

“Yes sir,” Florence and Charles said, in near-unison.

Turning, moving back around to his position behind Eric, Professor Berger shot me a final look.  I suspected it was to communicate something, as if he was making it known that he had this situation in hand, and that the manipulation of the children in his care had been effectively turned to his own ends, rather than mine.

I also suspected that he was too busy working with the strings and getting Eric turned around to see that, just off to our side, then behind his back as he, Eric and I led the way, Florence and Charles had reached out for each other’s hands.

They were very different children, but they had achieved a victory here.  Now they celebrated it, clasping hands, squeezing.  Maybe they even walked hand in hand for the moment.

My foot was collected.  Again, I was suspended, held by both Charles’ rebel and the rebel boss, limp as a rag doll.

In this manner, we walked.

“Florence, you wanted to know about Mr. and Mrs. Block,” Berger said.

“Yes, father.”

“I can only speak in generalities.  No particulars.”

“I understand.”

“If Mr. and Mrs. Block were found, it was their bodies.  Maybe written record, but even there, we are careful.  If they or anyone like them were in a position to be found, they would be killed pre-emptively.  I’ve had my turn, once, ensuring this was done.  With luck, you will too.”

The two were silent.

“Nobles represent our best work, our best people.  Yet you know that some of them, despite our best efforts, despite breeding going back to before the Crown Empire was an Empire, and was only one island country in the middle of a place we called Europe… some nobles disappoint.  I know the both of you have met the Baron Richmond.  He would be an example of such a disappointment.”

“Yes father,” was one response.

“Yes uncle,” was another, softer response.

“The Blocks… you could say they’re responsible for the nobles being as noble as they are.  Much like how Florence talked about dressing one way, putting on makeup, learning manners, Mr. and Mrs. Block were among those responsible for one stage in the noble’s development.  They are in a unique position to know just how many disappointing individuals there are that the public never sees, do you understand?  The faces and natures of nobles who never properly become nobles in the public eye.”

The two children remained quiet, clearly taken aback with the gravity of what was being said.

“Pride, reputation, and status are things that build on each other, and we have built very tall towers in the last century.  At the top, the towers are supported by people like my wife.  Her family, and families like hers.  At the bottom, the towers are supported by a firm foundation, given food and stone and all the resources they need by a people who look up and respect the height and fortitude of those constructions.  But when an empire grows to a certain measure of strength, it cannot be torn down by guns, weapons, or warbeasts.  Only by division from within, a severe crisis of faith.

I felt Eric’s hand tighten on my throat, only by a little.  The regular breath my body was providing became insufficient.

“This would be such a crisis, Father?”

I hadn’t been taking very deep breaths before, so the strangulation was going further than it might otherwise.  I couldn’t even defend myself.

“Who can say?  But I think the Crown Empire would rather risk a thousand wars over one test of that faith and pride.  Because they can win a thousand wars, but one such test?  We don’t know.”

My vision was going dark.

“As you grow older, and as you progress in the Academies… and you will progress to places of status in some of the best Academies, because you will have no other choice now that you know what I’ve told you… some of the details I’ve shared will take on new light.  You’ll keep silent throughout, even to each other.  If you must speak of it, you’ll speak of it only to me.  I will be keeping a closer eye on you as you grow up, and at the slightest hint that you’ve abused this knowledge I’ve just given you, it won’t be a whipping.  It’ll be your throats.”

With that, the hand tightened.

“I understand, father,” Florence said.

“Yes, uncle,” Charles said.

He’d told them for a reason, I knew.

This wasn’t too much confidence, given to the children.  He’d recognized what was at play.  I’d worked my way into their confidence, I’d taken one side on the divide they felt between them and their father figure.  I’d posed it as a game.

He’d made this real, and he’d disarmed me in the process.

I’d had a plan, and he was countering it.  He might have countered it outright.

The hand relaxed its grip on my throat.  It shifted, though I wasn’t sure how, but it must’ve been holding a different part of me, like my collarbone or shoulder.

But my breaths were too regular.  I couldn’t gasp for more, and so the regular mouthfuls were insufficient.  Blood pounded in my head, hard, throbbing in my eye sockets and ears.

Even though I was no longer being strangled, the aftermath of it wasn’t much better.  Rather than try to conserve the oxygen that remained, my brain and body seemed to give up.  Everything went all light and fluttery.

I need to be awake and aware in case Jessie helps, I thought.

If Jessie helps.

I could see the street out of one corner of my eye.  I could see the red slash of plague across snow, not all that far away.  With each pulse of blood in my eyes and ears, the plague seemed to lunge outward by ten strides, then by twenty.  I closed my eyes and the darkness of it hurt, the fluttery nature of things threatened to sweep me off into sleep.  I opened my eyes again.

Even with Wyvern giving me some control over the reins, I was fighting an uphill battle.

I saw Mary, standing in the shadows with a lacy red dress and a black jacket, and I felt a pang of empathy.  She watched without any emotion as I was carried off.

I knew why I was thinking of Mary.  She’d been a victim of the puppeteer, before we’d called him Mr. Percy.  Now I was the one with his strings cut.

Was this the way it went?  I’d brought her into the fold, and it had been my first true free act as a member of the Lambs.

Stories often ended as a reflection of how they began.  To start as a baby that shit itself, to become a child, a man, an old man, and then an invalid who shit himself.

Freeing a puppet at the start, becoming one at the end.

I almost wanted to faint, I realized, rather than to be left alone with my thoughts.  There wasn’t much I could do to help it along.  The darkness that had crept in receded, as did the bright spots.  I was left only with a tuning-fork hum in one ear and a pounding headache.

“Don’t shoot!” Berger called out.  “Professor approaching.”

“Professor Berger?” was the answer.  I could hear the surprise.

“The one and the same,” Berger said.  “I brought a fugitive and the leader of the rebel faction, wouldn’t you believe?  Hopefully it’ll do something to make up for the trouble I’ve caused the Crown.”

Things hadn’t been supposed to get this far.  We couldn’t let Berger know we knew, and then give him the chance to talk to others.  Jessie was supposed to intervene along the way.  To blind Berger.

“This way,” the soldier said.  I wished it was a voice I recognized, but it wasn’t.

They carried me past the barricade, and deeper into the camp.  I wished it was a trick, part of Jessie’s ruse.  It was a real Academy fortification, one with hundreds of soldiers.  People reacted to Berger with surprise and pleasure.  They hadn’t expected to get the man they’d been sent in to retrieve, not really.

The grip on me shifted.  Berger warned soldiers about the bug as they took custody of me.

“Chain him up,” Berger said.  “Again, watch the bug on his back.  The shackles will be redundant with the paralysis, but we can’t be too sure.”

“Where?” a soldier asked.

“Where we can keep an eye on everything,” Berger said.  He indicated a seat at a table in the middle of the camp.  “I have matters to discuss with the men in charge.  If you can escort me?”

Mute, unable to move, I was seated on the bench in question.  Shackles bound me to the bench, and I imagined they would have been cold if I could have felt them.  A box was placed next to me so I wouldn’t simply tip over, and I heard orders given to some rookies, who found seats nearby to watch me.

In that manner, a puppet with my strings abandoned, I sat, staring out into the distance at the red slash in the distance, and perhaps with the help of delusion and the powerful imagination Wyvern had gifted me, I imagined I watched it swell and grow visibly over the minutes or the timeless hour I sat there, breathing my regular breaths.

I had company at least.  Mary, Lillian, Evette, Mauer, Gordon, Fray, Helen, Duncan, Ashton.  All took their seats next to me.  Even the new Lambs.  Some sat for longer, some for shorter.  Some talked about nothing in particular, to take my mind off the tuning-fork whistle where the near-unconsciousness had hurt my hearing, and others were silent.

Mary sat at the beginning, and she sat at the end.  She didn’t do any talking, but I pushed my imagination to its limit, and I could imagine that I could feel her hand as she held mine in her lap, her palm and lap warm and the lace of the black dress she wore was soft.

Together, we imagined we watched the plague spread so fast it swept over the city, and we waited.

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53 thoughts on “Head over Heels – 16.8

  1. typo:
    Had I had more time, I would have double-guessed him. I would have accounted for the possibility that he was think I’d think this way, and perhaps urged everyone present to turn on him.

  2. Typo thread:

    “The problem with that,” Jessie said, her voice modulated by the gas mask she wore, “is that you all created a collection of little Lambs with absolutely nothing to lose. “We don’t have any more than a few years. You’ve read our files, no doubt. If you’re threatening to set our world on fire, that’s fine. Do it. We’ll do as much damage to you as we can in the meantime.”
    -one too many “s.

    “The problem with that, little Lamb, is that just ten minutes ago, your friend Sylvester here went to great lengths to save miss Shirley over there,
    -Miss

    To start as a baby that shit itself,
    -shat

    “The one and the same,” Berger said. “I brought a fugitive and the leader of the rebel faction, wouldn’t you believe? Hopefully it’ll do something to make up for the trouble I’ve caused the Crown.”
    -would you believe?

    I that manner, a puppet with my strings abandoned,
    -In

    • Maybe not just Jessie. I suspect Shirley and Pierre to surprise Berger at some point. Or any of the other people he so quickly has dismissed and/or used. <_<

      Or, even… maybe… the weirdest option of all: the Duke. Broken experiments unite with very clenched teeth? 😛

  3. Inb4 Jessie does come up with an awesome plan and extracts Sylvester from the Crown prison just to find him having completely lost it.

  4. It wasn’t supposed to get even darker this chapter!!!

    The downturn was definitely due, though. Things have been going a little too well for Sy since he got his mind and Jessie back.

  5. This chapter was a bit underwhelming. A pure set up chapter recapping things we already know. I really don’t like how not only was Sylvester taken down by someone he was wary of but he was taken down thoroughly by a new character.

    • I thought it was pretty fitting actually. Like Sy said, he and the doctor have been playing the same game all their lives. And the paralysis bug is one of the best counters to Sy, because it shuts him up enough that he can’t communicate effectively.

  6. Wow. Berger is quite the scumbag. Was he always like this? Or did Academy politics/being around Nobles make him into what he is?

  7. In his own way, Berger is part of an aristocracy of his own. The secret masters of the Crown States. Or perhaps it’s more of a symbiosis?

    In any case he’s clearly grooming the kids to step into his shoes. The glimpse of the secrets of high level doctors is a tantalizing one. I wonder what essential function his wife performs to prop up the nobility?

  8. Mary, Lillian, Evette, Mauer, Gordon, Fray, Helen, Duncan, Ashton. All took their seats next to me. Even the new Lambs. Some sat for longer, some for shorter.
    —–
    …no. Nononononono. Why did he have to vanish?

    • V yvxr ubj Oretre nppvqragnyyl perngrq Xurcev ohtf – vzntvar Gnlybe pbagebyyvat ohtf jvgu gung cbjre…. n ybg srjre nepf va jbez vs fur pna svther bhg ubj gb trg gurz gb oerrq — Gbuh cvpxf fxvggre, cnanprn naq…. Qe Oretre….?!?! (Www.Rot13.com)

  9. I wonder if Sy has enough Wyvern left in his system to repurpose the cognitive components he needs least right now. Motor skills, political posturing, empathy, diplomacy, battlefield tactics– all things he’s been leaning on heavily of late, and which might only serve to slow him down as he collects and analyzes the information available to him and approaches the varivgnoyr Jvyqobj cebgntbavfg frys-qrfgehpgvir zhapuxva fvathynevgl qrngu fcveny.

  10. Since the Dr was specifically building that bug for Sylvester, I suspect his loss has more to do with whatever chemicals he is being pumped with that counteract Wyvern than a loss from general mental wear and tear.

    Omg, That professor calling Jesse a boy has me furious!!! I hope something truly horrific happens to him. Like maybe the primordial finally finds the host its been looking for… in him and he has to watch helpless out of his own eyes for eternity. Grrrr.

    Great chapter. Thank you for writing it 🙂

    • Unless I’m horribly mistaken, the Doctor has absolutely no reason to think that Jessie is still identifying as Jamie. There wasn’t surgery or anything that I can remember. The hair’s longer and Sy twisted his own brain to help him see Jessie as female.

      • In the real world that is entirely a reasonable response and I am inclined to give people slack. Most people in the real world say such things without realizing how much it hurts trans people. Further, as you pointed out, were this the real world the Dr would have no chance of knowing what is going on and having a chance to consciously decide to be cruel or kind.

        In the fantasy world of Twig, that Dr is horrific in how he treats and manipulates the children, murders without compunction, did all the things that black coat implies and then topped it off with casually insulting a character I like very much… So I will enjoy the outcome for his character that i outlined. There is no reason to assume he is a nice person since we know he is horrifically evil.

          • I didn’t mean to imply that I thought so. I just don’t like him and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mostly because I think if he had the chance, he would do it on purpose.

          • I don’t know about all that, but to each their own.

            I mean, by Twig standards, he isn’t even all that bad. The bugs are super creepy, obviously, but it isn’t as bad as growing your own sex slave (Helen) or kidnapping/selling children that you want to clone as slaves (Mary) or cobbling together your own living Frankenstein (Gordon). In that world, slapping your kids is probably considered good parenting.

          • I suppose I could write out a huge list of all the people in this story that I think are horrible people and detail the horrific fate they deserve… but that seems like a ton of work when I have many projects of my own i’m working on. I don’t think it lets this Dr off the hook just because others have done horrible things too, nor does it invalidate my thoughts on this Dr just because I didn’t voice them in regards to other characters. (technically I rarely post on the really old stuff and only recently caught up to the now “now” in Twig)

            Ya, Helen’s situation is horrific. He won’t even let her build a personality inside of the limits he has set in place. Any hint of thought on her part results in him tweaking her brain and body to ensure it “goes away.”

        • Being horrific to his children may be his strategy to help em survive even more horrific stuff, (some parents do that, they are cruel out of love because the world is crueler, and it is more common when they, themselves experienced lotsa cruelty) ,and everybody murders willy nilly on Twig, its not like Pact or Worm when murder is a a rare event socially speaking.

          • Thats a fascinating angle. I kind of think that is the motivation for the majority of parents in this storyline.(though I hadn’t considered it until you mentioned it)

            There is definitely a lot more death in Twig. I expect this in a world where humans are considered spare parts and only marginally less useful dead than they are alive. (similar to the movie Virus, it had no compunctions about shredding someone, because the parts were still useful)

            I reacted to every death in Worm and Pact and most of the ones here in Twig. Sometimes its sadness they died and relief they can no longer hurt anyone. Sometimes its just sadness they died or were hurt. Quantity of murders doesn’t really lessen the emotional impact for me.

            Its one thing I really like about Wildbow, the characters invoke emotional responses. Also that they live and breath and sometimes try to be better people than they were. I care about what they are going through, but they are not real, so when something really bad happens it mutes the pain and negative emotions. All the truly great authors have this ability.

    • Keep in mind that Jessie is wearing a quarantine suit, and the doctor has no cue/reason to think that she’s Jessie. He’s deducing that this vocal character in a quarantine suit must be a lamb, and by process of elimination…

      • I had forgotten about the quarantine suit. I thought it was likely he didn’t have enough to go on just because of the crowd and distance, but it makes sense the quarantine suit would be a bigger factor.

        Mostly you did a good job very quickly building a really good villain. By good villain I mean that its one of the few times I will enjoy seeing a character suffer. (if he suffers, I am under few illusions).

        The pronoun bit caught my attention, but that is ok, it usually does and since it was fresh in my mind, I mentioned it. The bigger thing for me is how the Dr is treating the kids. Those poor kids. I can only imagine how it has affected them to grow up around this kind of stuff, let alone being forced to take part. Its truly a warped(but fascinating) world.

        One of my own deepest fears is being committed and having a forced lobotomy (something they used to do LGBT people)… So I had to face those concepts early on when I noticed not all the stitched seem to have been dead when they were modified. Truly a horrific fate, one these kids have likely been exposed to their whole lives.

        • “Those poor kids.”

          Well, personal experience lets me inform you it makes for a very efficient filter – which is in line with Twig’s science – make or break. Tough love may irk some and I won’t say it leaves no long-term issues, but in the cutthroat world the kids are essentially forced to enter later on it would give them a definite edge.
          Given this, who in their right mind would do anything else in Twigverse ?

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