We made our way across the least-bad patch of plague, as the Treasurer and Berger gauged it. Here, the shadows of the buildings and the collection of things on the streets contributed to an accumulation of wet snow. The plague crept through the water, tinting it red, and it crept beneath the snow.
Where our boots pressed the snow down and crushed tendrils of the ravage underfoot, we left crimson footprints, no different from any footprints I’d ever made after wading in blood.
“Professor Berger,” the Treasurer spoke.
“You wrote the articles on radical, division-free in vivo pattern editing, if I remember right?”
“I wrote four out of the five. I had my hands full when the fifth deadline was approaching, so I had a subordinate write it. I demoted him and sent him to Alyeska when he missed the point.”
“The point, professor?”
I wanted to slap the Treasurer upside the back of the head for using the title and being all polite.
“What do you think the point was?” Berger countered.
“Being able to inject someone with a pattern change and have it take immediate, drastic effect, without overloading the system or having to load the system and wait for the cells to divide.”
“I’m asking you the point. Not a summary of the article’s title.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Professor,” the Treasurer said.
“I see. You brought up the articles for a reason. Maybe you’ll impress me by saying something interesting about them?”
The Treasurer was silent.
“Or you won’t?” Berger asked, almost imperious.
“I thought it was an interesting, unconventional article. When things are advancing as concretely as they are these days, we don’t see much theory. Especially from people with strong reputations. I thought it was commendable.”
“It wasn’t,” Berger said, sounding exasperated. “As a matter of fact, I regret writing it, because it was a failed project that has seen endless streams of sycophants and brown-nosers approach me and fail to demonstrate how clever they are. ”
“Hey now,” I said.
“It’s fine, Sylvester,” the Treasurer said. I could tell from his tone that it wasn’t. “I want to hear this.”
“If you’re sure,” I said. I turned to Berger. “You’re really not interested in making friends while you’re here, are you?”
“I wouldn’t mind, but I’m selective about who I call a friend,” Berger said. He exhaled. “I’ll ask you this-”
I jumped in. I was sure to match Berger’s tone and even his hand gestures, speaking in sync as he asked, “Why did I write it?”
I got a few glances from the others. Jessie looked over my way and gave me an annoyed look. Berger looked even more displeased, which was even better.
“Are you taunting me now?” Berger asked me.
“Predicting you,” I said, “Not taunting.”
“Sylvester did that for a month or two, a few years back, when he was showing off to Mary, who had just joined the Lambs,” Jessie said. “It was, by all accounts, obscenely annoying.”
“Did I?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not meant to taunt. Look, Treasurer-”
“I have a name,” the Treasurer said.
“Let it slide,” Gordon Two said. “Take my word for it, just let it slide.”
I ignored the both of them. “I’ll explain, so you don’t have to put up with Berger picking at you and tearing you down. How’s that? Either you guess what our hostage is driving at and he feels vindicated, or you get it wrong and he gets to condescend to you as he pontificates on his true intent. So let’s skip all of that, and we’ll approach this discussion from a constructive angle.”
“Really, now,” Berger said.
“Deny the man his fun. Look, here’s how it goes,” I said. I cleared my throat, and I did my best to mimic Berger’s speaking style. I moved my hand, using my finger as a conductor might work with an orchestra, while I explained, “I wrote that paper with a particular intent. It was an exercise, a riddle I posed to the Academies across the Crown states. I don’t believe in theory, and I hoped students would challenge me on my points and suggestions and dare to tear my idea to shreds. I put several clues in the work to get them started. I hoped and even still hope that a bright mind might appear before me and do just that. The disappointment is part of why I stopped after writing five of the six-”
“Four of the five,” Jessie corrected.
“-papers,” I finished. I paused for effect.
“Not wholly wrong,” Berger said. “I’m frankly pleased you assessed it as a test without even knowing what it is.”
“I assessed you, not the article-whatsit,” I said, before jumping back into Berger-voice, “But wait! I’m not quite done. See, the student I demoted was the perfect patsy, he allowed me to avoid facing my own mistakes. I failed to realize that a riddle that nobody gets isn’t a good riddle, it’s a failure of the teacher, not the student. I didn’t even have the confidence to see it all through. Every time a student approaches me about it, it reminds me of my own failings.”
“This is getting more than a little childish,” the professor said.
“For those of you on team Sylvester and Jessie who haven’t had the benefit of dealing with the upper class, that’s polite-talk for ‘I just lost the argument, but fuck you’,” I remarked.
Berger didn’t deign to respond to that.
In retrospect, I might have played it off a little better if I hadn’t had a note of venom in my voice. I’d been too harsh in tone, too angry. I was tired.
Snow fell, and the sun was going down, casting the world in shades of pink and gray. The sun combined with the stones of the street radiating heat were why we were trekking through slushy puddles and not light snow. On the edges and in the shadows, the snow had settled. With nighttime, I suspected the city would get a light layering of white.
Glancing back, I could see our steps into the paper-thin layer of white snow were still leaving congealing, crimson footprints.
The plague had found root here and there. A dead horse was a basis for one outcropping to really flourish, spreading to the nearby tree and houses, a morass of crimson vines. In another place, bodies had fallen as a group, no doubt shot en masse. The actual nature of the heap could only be inferred, as snow and vines made what lay beneath hard to identify.
“We should cut back,” Berger said, “Take a detour. It’s too thick here.”
I looked at the Treasurer- not because I didn’t believe Berger, but I did want to ensure that Berger hadn’t torn down the Treasurer too much. Showing I cared about his interpretation might be what he needed.
“I agree,” he said.
“Past a certain point, it gets tricky to navigate,” Jessie said. “I’m trying to think about which streets would be better or worse.”
“Based on what?” Berger asked.
“When I looked over the city from a distance, I could see how it was laid out, just going by rooftop. I’m thinking about chimneys, which had smoke, which rooftops looked more residential, how narrow the streets were, wind direction…”
She went on. The Treasurer chimed in, and I didn’t hear him. My eyes were fixed on one heap of bodies.
With the way the vines and growths flexed and adjusted as they grew, it was hard to tell, but had that been movement?
I broke away from the group, striding forward.
I had to cut away growths to dig for it.
Yeah. I had seen a small movement that hadn’t been a vine.
Lying beside a stitched horse, vines knitting the horse’s body to hers, was a woman, twenty-five or so. Her hair had been done in an ‘up’ do and the vines had worked their way into it and pulled it down. Fine tendrils crawled out of her mouth, nose, and one tear duct, covering much of her face. If I unfocused my vision, it might have looked like a bad burn. It was worse.
The small movement hadn’t been her, but was a baby, one that hadn’t been on this earth for a year. The arm stuck out near her face. Tendrils had already seized it. The mother looked up at me. One eyeball didn’t move, too firmly seized by tendrils, the other tracked me.
She made small pained sounds, then looked in the direction of the baby.
It wasn’t crying. That was a bad sign.
“Can you talk?” I asked.
Breathing laboriously, she managed a, “Yes.”
“How is the pain?”
“It stops being agony. Becomes… like I imagine a heart attack to feel… every part of me. On the brink of death, never given it. Have to watch her.”
“I saw her hand move,” I said. I moved more of the tendrils of plague.
“I’m resistant,” I assured her.
“He is. Let him help,” Berger said, from behind me.
I cut and moved several more tendrils. The way they reached out from inside her but didn’t burst forth, it suggested the plague had found an entry point elsewhere. The plague tended to grow along the skin and outer surfaces of the body, finding their way inside later.
I wanted to think the entry point was the ear closer to the ground.
“Then please,” the woman said. “Take her. Take her away from me. Tell me you can save her, even if it’s a lie. Let me believe.”
“I don’t even need to lie,” I said. The man standing behind me? He’s a professor of the highest caliber. He has medals and students fawning over his papers, and he’s worked with nobles. The crowd of younger people you can hear in the background? Most of them are students of the Academy. And speaking for myself, I don’t want to boast, but I’ve cut the plague out of dozens of people.”
Her eyes welled up with tears. The eye with tendrils reaching through the tear duct produced a pink tear, the other eye was clear.
“I don’t think your kid could find better hands,” I said.
She tried to nod and failed – her head was too firmly rooted into place.
“Please,” she said.
Cutting the infant free was a task. The mother had pressed down on top of the child, her arms under it, her body shielding it from the weather. In a sense, the mother was the cave and shelter for the child, but the shelter was now the problem, a kind of inverse-womb that we had to extricate the child from.
“Not many people alive on this street,” I said.
“People got scared, they didn’t listen to orders… I was on the sidelines, and I thought I was safe. Rebels, Crown, and my neighbors all got caught up… I’m not even sure who was shooting at who or if it was all sides shooting at each other. My horse got shot and fell on my leg.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It manifested in and around the wound?”
“That’s what it does,” Berger said, behind me. “It blooms in and around blood that’s exposed to air.”
“I don’t think you can save me,” the woman said.
“No,” Berger said. “I’m very talented, and I can’t save you. I doubt Sylvester can either.”
She seemed to take that as fact. She’d come to terms with her death already.
“I can give you a shot,” Berger said. “You’ll drift to sleep. For a moment before you do, you’ll be aware, but you won’t feel any pain.”
“Help her first… Save your medicines for her and people like her.”
I kept cutting, doing what I could to get the child free. I was now at the process where I needed to extricate her without harming her, and that wasn’t easy, given the way she’d been half-crushed beneath her mother.
“We don’t need medication for her. Only time, patience, and a steady hand with the scalpel. She’ll have scars, but she’ll live,” Berger said.
Retrieving the child, I handed her off to Berger.
“What’s her name?” I asked the woman.
“You name her,” the woman said. “I can’t- I-”
She winced. Old pain had come rushing back, or the cutting I’d done was making the vines move, which was being felt throughout her body.
“It wouldn’t be right,” I said. “I’m an orphan, and I can assure you, it’ll make a world of difference if there’s something of yours that she can carry with her.”
“Name her,” the woman insisted, with a dogged air that only the dying and doomed could manage. “Put something of yourself into her… and I can believe you’ll try harder… like any parent learns to do, digging deep into themselves for that last… last reserve of strength.”
“I’ll have you know I’ve fought monsters and I’ve been tortured, and I’ve endured a long winter in the company of the plague, on the other end of the Crown States. If I wasn’t capable of giving my all and a little more, I wouldn’t be here in front of you. It’s fine,” I said. “The child can keep the name you gave it.”
“It’s my dying wish,” the woman said.
“Too bad,” I said. “Tell me her real name.”
The woman stared at me, stubborn, and for a second, I thought she’d refuse.
She took another tack, glancing up at Berger. “He called you… her name is Sylvia.”
“I think your opponent wins this time around,” Berger said, from behind me.
I didn’t have an answer to that. More to the point, the woman looked almost at peace, and I couldn’t bring myself to disturb that.
He touched my shoulder, and I flinched.
It was the syringe.
I slipped it into the woman’s neck, and I pressed the plunger down and in.
The woman spoke, and her voice was inaudible. It was soft because she knew what was happening, not because the drug was already taking effect, I was almost positive. I only made out the latter three-quarters. “…the Lord King of the Crown Empire, for arming you with knowledge and talents and putting you in front of me and Sylvia…”
This time, as her lips moved, the words weren’t there.
There was no moment of lucidity. The whole-body relief came after the spark was extinguished, and the tendrils immediately set to pulling at the body, drawing it further in. The effort she’d put into staying in place and trying not to move no longer held.
“Tell me the Crown didn’t make this plague,” I said.
“The Crown didn’t do this,” Berger said.
“Would they? Have they ever?”
“Very few things in this world are quite so bad as this,” Berger said.
“But there have been some?”
“There have. There have been accidents that were as bad or worse, but they were just that. Accidents. We don’t know what this is.”
“Do you know who spread it?” I asked. “Here? It looked like it came about artificially this time. Something that was encouraged to happen. Do you know?”
“That is a very easy question to ask, and it is very difficult to answer.”
“That’s a yes?”
“I have suspicions. And when we are free and clear of this, we can have a discussion and you can entertain those same suspicions. But it’s far more complicated than just saying one or several names. Things have to be explained.”
“Alright,” I said.
“The systemic petechiae… this child is beyond saving, Sylvester.”
I continued kneeling by the woman, my back to Berger and Sylvia. “I know. I’ve seen a lot of plague victims. You know that. More than most. Give Sylvia her syringe.”
“Already done. It’ll just be one moment.”
“Good,” I said.
A moment passed. Berger gave no signal. I wasn’t too worried. My team was just a short distance away, and Berger had nowhere to run that wasn’t deeper into the plague.
“In another world, if we had been able to save Sylvia there, if my allegiances lay elsewhere, would she be a candidate for the Block?”
“One as young as this? No. We only collected the very young from the best breeding stock, for the ones we needed to work with the most. We usually tapped the aristocracy in those cases.”
“Right,” I said.
“You don’t seem to know very much about it, yet you aren’t asking many questions.”
“I’m trying to lull you into a false sense of security,” I said. “I am curious just what things really look like at the top.”
“The Lord King?”
“I’m insinuating that he’s not at the top, Professor. It’s the Academies, isn’t it?”
“It’s a delicate balancing act. The true monsters and the men who made them. We pull the strings, if you’ll excuse my using the term, and they obey, but…”
“There’s always a risk of mutual destruction, should you push them too far?”
“It helps that only a handful of them have really figured out that the very best of the men in black coats are calling most of the shots in the end.”
“And if this story gets out, then the altercation is forced.”
“Perhaps,” Berger said. “Probably. There are other problems, like the ones I spelled out for Florence and Charles.”
Berger’s vague shadow moved, and I rose to my feet, turning as I did so, to better act if he tried something.
He wasn’t. He held a still Sylvia in his hands, and he rather unceremoniously dropped her onto the morass of plague above where her mother and the horse lay.
“Show some respect,” I said.
“You’re too fixated on the wrong concepts, Sylvester,” Berger said, and he sounded irritated. “Respect? I’m here without a mask on. I gave them and I gave you my time, knowing that I’ll likely have red marks appear on my face before the end of the night, and I’ll have to take a scalpel to them. I’ll do it, and if recent history is a good enough lesson on the subject, I don’t think I’ll regret it, even as I cut. That’s respect, Sylvester.”
His irritation had given way to anger.
“Much like how you respect your daughter and nephew, Berger?” I asked. “I think you fail to realize that you can act the gentleman for a straight decade, but people are going to remember you for the one time you shit your pants in public. Or, in this case, we’ll remember you dropping the dead baby.”
“It’s a body, not an infant,” Berger said. “And you can rest assured, I know better than you about the needs and demands of public perception. For now, be content I’m answering your questions without argument and playing your game.”
I didn’t answer him immediately. I looked over in the direction of the others. Most had departed, moving on. Jessie was lingering behind with some of the others in quarantine suits.
I hadn’t realized how dark it had gotten.
“Alright,” I said. “I guess we won’t get along famously then.”
“I didn’t think we would,” Berger said.
“Thank you for the gentler deaths you gave them,” I said.
“I told you before, I don’t believe in gratuitous suffering.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember how that went.”
We walked back to Jessie. She wasted no time in getting us moving, even going so far as to give me little pushes to urge me to hurry.
I cast one backward glance at the heap that had swallowed up the baby.
I’ll give you this one, mom, I thought. Your play with the name was fit for a Lamb. By accident or design, you gave her the name I’m least likely to forget.
We approached the perimeter of the city. The sun had set, and the sky was growing dark. The streetlights hadn’t been lit, and only some buildings had lights on inside.
The plague took on a new cast, now that it didn’t stand in such stark contrast to the rest of the city. It was hard to tell the plague-ridden buildings apart from ones that had been reinforced with grown wood.
It was Bea who noticed one tangle of plague-growth in an alley, then pointed out another in the next alley.
“I have good eyes and I have poisons in my brain helping me turn my focus toward making sense of what I’m seeing in the gloom, and even I’m not seeing that as clearly as you are,” I commented.
“Modifications,” Jessie said.
“Yeah,” Bea said. “We’ve talked about this. When the other rooftop girls were getting modded out, I’d go with, make sure they were safe while they were under, sometimes, or just oversee what was being done, so I could give better advice to the next girl. There were a few times I got some changes. Seeing in the dark is useful if you need to sneak out a lot.”
“Not that the Beattle staff seemed to care,” Fang said.
“No, not that they seemed to care,” Bea said. Then, to Jessie and I, she asked, “You never got changes?”
“I’m packed to the gills with modifications as it is,” Jessie said. “And Sylvester’s unique cocktail of chemicals doesn’t do well with implants or pattern changes. Every time he had to get replacement skin, it would triple or quintuple the healing time.”
“That’s a shame,” Bea said. “I think-”
“The Tender Mercies. They’re close. These growths in the alleys, they’re discarded skin.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Probably. When the professor was found, all soldiers and stitched started pulling toward the edges.”
“You’ll want to give me a proper mask,” Berger said. “If they see me, they’ll report back, and my ‘death’ will be over already.”
Before I could formulate a reply, Rudy pulled off his mask.
“Rudy,” I said, “No.”
“Too late anyway,” he said. “It’s already off. I’m done bickering, I’m done with all of this. There’s too many bodies and I feel sorry for all of them. Can we just get out of here? Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said, mimicking his country accent. “But I’m docking your pay for being problematic like this. I’ll dock more if you get sick.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll agree with that.”
Berger, now masked, walked at the tail end of our group. Otis and Archie walked behind and to either side of him.
“Weapons out,” I said.
“I’m nervous,” Shirley said.
“Allowable,” I said.
“And weaponless,” she pointed out.
“You’ve got capable people with you,” I said, “And with luck, we won’t have to fight very hard or very long.”
“What if we don’t have luck?” she asked.
“Then we weren’t going to get out of this city in the first place,” I said. “And we’ve been fortunate to get this far.”
“Grim,” Gordon Two said.
The movement of phantom Lambs here and there kept drawing my attention, as I pushed my brain to be more alert for things moving in the growing darkness and shadow. It was hard when I had to be mindful of footing. Where the plague was thickest, the tendrils reached across the ground like tree roots. I wasn’t sure if I was stumbling over arms and legs, tendrils, loose stones or other things that lay in puddles and snow.
As the buildings thinned out, I spotted the lights of fires, torches, and lanterns. A scattering of orange lights in darkness, giving only a vague sense of how many men and soldiers there were maintaining the perimeter.
I saw the orange lights move en masse. A reaction, with more activity closer to us than it was further away.
“Something alerted them,” I said.
“Warbeasts,” Berger said. “The wind is blowing upwind, so the sniffers wouldn’t have caught us, but the heeds would’ve noticed a group walking about.”
“Heeds?” I asked.
“Bat-ears,” Gordon Two supplied. “Keen ears.”
“The Mercies are going to surround us any moment,” I said. “Jessie?”
Jessie withdrew a whistle from the belt that still had letters and notes tucked into it. She handed it to me.
It didn’t make a sound when I blew on it, but it did evoke a reaction. Warbeasts started barking and howling, the heeds reacting to a sharp sound.
More satisfying was the distant report, the hollow punching sounds of weapons firing.
Little orange lights marked the placement of torches, wagons, and lanterns. Bright orange flares marked the explosions as some canisters exploded on impact.
They were only a very small fraction of the shells being fired. There were no truly satisfying explosions to mark the vast majority of the other canisters. They exploded and provided gas.
We would have to wait a moment before we ventured in. When we’d sent Pierre back to the camp with orders to get the students organized and to get students to put our shopping list together, we’d asked him to make sure we got the countermeasures for quarantine suits. We’d put in the request when he’d first told us about the plague and Shirley being in the city, and hopefully we’d see the results.
The hope was that it would clog the filters, people would have to back off, and enemy ranks would break. We wanted it slow, because the alternative was exposing people unnecessarily to plague, and it would have been vile to do that.
I could do bastardly things, but I wouldn’t do vile, no.
The rabbit-whistle was the signal for our army to strike, and with luck, a gap would open.
Punching sounds marked the mortars firing, no doubt from the cover of the woods. Different locations every time. Warbeasts would attack, but our students had guns and weapons. With luck, our Beattle rebels would attack and then retreat, without too many injuries or casualties.
Our rebels. Our villains. I was hopeful about this outcome.
The mortars I’d just heard hit. Some exploded, again. More flares of orange light.
This time we could see the Mercies, standing in the street near us.
“Do you think you could give the order to stand down if things get hairy?” I asked Berger.
“Could I? Yes. Do I think they’d listen? Having seen this project in action elsewhere, with no reason to believe they’ve made adjustments? I would have another backup plan in mind, in addition to that particular shot in the dark.”
A hundred and fifty paces to the treeline, past wagons, campfires, and any soldiers who weren’t fleeing from the gas.
“Be prepared to run faster than you ever have,” I said.
“Is that the backup to the backup plan?” Gordon Two asked.
“It’s not not the backup to the backup plan,” I said.