Lamb (Arc 16)

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“Done hunting Sylvester?” Abby asked.

“No,” Ashton said.  He sat beneath a tree, half of him facing the local Academy, half of him facing wilderness.  “Sylvester is still ‘at large’, as they say it.”

Abby nodded.  She shifted Quinton around so the arm that had been taking most of the weight wasn’t, anymore.  She wore a green and white dress and a short jacket that had fur trim on the hood and down the front.

The Lambs had been tracking both Sylvester and Fray, moving to key locations, with the younger Lambs remaining behind as a kind of bait and stalling tactic.  When the area was vetted, the younger Lambs would catch up, they’d be in the same place for a little under a week, and then the Lambs would be off again.

“What were you doing?” Abby asked.

“Thinking,” Ashton said.  He hadn’t been, exactly, but he had learned that if he said the truth it often bothered or confused people.  He had been disassembling, looking at the world and dividing it into its constituent elements, decided by color.

He had also been disassembling people.  That was a more intensive process that took up more of his brain.  He’d taken the clothes off, with his head, and left them walking and standing around, then tried to determine what people looked like with no clothes at all.  He worked out what they looked like beneath the clothes, disassembled those things, and turned every one of the dozens of people he could see into an organized row, with the clothes at one end and the lymphatic system at the other.  He imagined doing things like stabbing people in various places and then worked out the effects that followed, along each of the layers, from bloodstains on the clothes and underclothes to nervous signals and disruption to the lymphatic system.  He imagined burns and how they would work, and he imagined his pheromones and tried to figure out how the body would react.

Talking about disassembling people wasn’t good conversation, he’d learned.  Most others were bothered.  Even Abby usually didn’t really want to talk about it.

“You spend a lot of time sitting and thinking,” Abby said.

“I’m good at it,” Ashton said.

Quinton bleated, walking forward and tugging against the leash that Abby held, drawing nearer to Ashton.  Ashton released a puff of good feeling and gave Quinton pats.

“What were you thinking about?” Abby asked.

Ashton had already worked out an answer for this kind of question.  Telling the truth was rarely good, so he supplied something else.  “My creators told me I needed to practice abstract thinking instead of using the building blocks I’ve been given.  They asked me what Good Simon book I would write if I had to write one.  I’m supposed to think of things that I had trouble with and then figure out how to write it.”

“Did you figure it out?” Abby asked.

“I don’t think so.  I think my problem is that I’m not bad at anything.”

“You’re bad at a lot of things, Ashton,” Abby said.

“Okay.  You’re allowed to say so.  But to me, I was very good at everything I needed to be good at from the beginning.  Sleeping, eating, drinking, walking, even talking.  Talking was hard.”

“You’re setting the bar rather low there, Ashton,” Abby said.

She took a seat beside Ashton.  He was sitting beneath the largest tree on the campus, a blanket laid out beneath him as if for a picnic, another blanket on his lap.

“The bar wasn’t even set when I started.  The Ashton before me didn’t even live.  You started out with a good bit of human.  I started from the very beginning and I think I’m pretty happy having made it this far.”

“I’m glad you lived too, but that’s not the point.”

“Most of the time now people will think I’m a very strange boy, instead of wondering if I’m an experiment, and that’s without me pushing them to feel one thing or another.  Sometimes they even think I’m normal.”

Abby busied herself with stealing some of Ashton’s blanket, settling in beside him.  Quinton the lamb found a space between their legs and settled in.  She figured out what she wanted to say and told him, “You’re not very normal.”

“But that’s what I’m saying.  I’m a xyloenterate-calceoenterate hybrid mass with a very thin approximation of human pattern to help me find the right shape only.  I can mostly defend myself, I can get food, I can find warm places to sit.  I can understand the greater world.  I can read, even if I sometimes hit snags and stall on some sentences until I ask for help.  Considering I just had to survive to make people happy, I think I’m doing very well.”

“One second,” Abby said, working to get comfortable without disturbing Quinton too much.

Ashton waited patiently.

“There’s more to it, Ashton.”

“Is there?”

“Didn’t you tell Lara and Nora that we need to do a good job?  That our survival and success depends on proving our worth to our superiors?”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t see how you’re missing the point?”

“No, I don’t.”

He had to interpret the look that Abby gave him.  That was annoyance.  Frustration and annoyance.  Anyone else would have known immediately, but he did need to figure it out some.  He also needed to figure out why she was frustrated and annoyed.  He thought through the conversation-

“You’re sort of proving yourself wrong on the ‘I’m good at sitting and thinking’ thing.”

“I am not.”

“And the good at everything thing.”

“I am not,” Ashton said.

“But you can’t just say you eat and you’re warm and you mostly look human so you’re happy.”

“But I am.  Good Simon says-”

“Oh lords,” Abby said.

“He says your feelings are your feelings and you’re the only person who gets to know and decide what you feel.  He was talking about grief over the death of a pet in that book, but I think it applies to happiness too.”

“How about this?  I’ll speak your language.  Good Simon, book six.”

“Good Simon and the Small War.”

“Sadie gets mean, and what’s the lesson at the end of the book?”

“That you need to weigh your wants, needs, and feelings and make sure that they aren’t keeping your betters from doing their jobs.”

“It’s supposed to be that you have to watch that your wants and feelings don’t infringe on the needs, wants and feelings of others.”

“But in the story, the new teacher that Sadie is mostly being mean to is supposed to be allegorical,” Ashton said.  “She represents the hard working and well-intentioned leadership we have in the Crown and the Academy and the story is really about how we need to listen to them and then everything is better.”

Abby leaned back against the tree.  She stroked Quinton, fixing some of the blanket so that Quinton was better covered.  The lamb was falling asleep now.

“You’re not supposed to recognize the hidden influences and meanings and take them as fact, Ashton.”

“I grew up with the books, and when the world and the people around me seemed very strange, I thought about the books.  I think it would be strange to rely on them that much and miss something like that.”

“My point is,” Abby said, a little more agitated than before, “You can’t just say you’re happy and leave it at that.  You can’t set the simple things as your end goal.”

“A lot of people are unhappy because they don’t have the simple things like food and shelter.  Quinton is very happy because you take care of him, because he has those things.  Why am I not supposed to be happy for that same reason?”

“Because, just like Sadie failed to pay attention to the feelings of the teacher because she was focused on her own feelings, your acceptance of basic happiness might mean you don’t try hard enough and then one of the Lambs or Lara or Nora or Emmett or me get hurt or die, because we do dangerous things.”

“What have I done that’s wrong on our past jobs?”

“Nothing major, but sometimes you’re… clumsy.  And I know I sound hypocritical, saying that,” Abby said.

“Okay.”

“And I worry when you’re clumsy with words or doing things.”

“Okay.  I’ll try harder with those things.”

“Thank you,” Abby said.

“You could have just asked me to do that from the beginning.”

“It’s about something more, Ashton.  I want you to have the right reasons.  If you have a greater goal or a… I don’t even know.  A drive, those things make it different.”

“There’s a difference?” Ashton asked.

“One pulls at you, and the other pushes you,” Abby said.  “But either one, they make it so you don’t have to be told or taught.  You start doing things and growing without needing to be urged to, every part of you starts working toward it, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ones.  It refines you.”

Ashton mused on that for a little bit.  Then, just to keep the conversation moving, he asked, “What’s your goal?”

“I want to grow up,” Abby said.  “I want to get all the way to as old as I can be before I expire.  I want to stay out of danger so I can live as long as I can, and I want to live a peaceful life with animals all around me.  I’d like it if some of you were there with me.  I was thinking maybe it could be a place for warbeasts to go when they’re done fighting, but a farm would do too.  A place like Sous Reine.”

Ashton’s mind whirled, piecing together the scenario from constitutent elements.

“I can see that,” Ashton said.  “I can take all the pictures I have of you in my head and it’s very easy to put together scenes of you doing that and being there.”

“It’s nice of you to say so,” Abby replied.  She smiled.

“I try to be nice, but I wasn’t trying there.  I was just saying the truth,” Ashton said.

Abby only smiled.  “I’ve missed these talks.”

“It’s good I didn’t frustrate you so much that you had another fit,” Ashton said.

“Almost,” Abby said.  “I asked you to wait a moment a few times to let it go away.”

She raised her knees up and hugged them.  The movement of the blanket didn’t seem to disturb Quinton.  He remained fast asleep.

“My new doctors are having people teach me to fight and use guns,” Abby said.  “I don’t think I’m going to get my goal.  I think I’m going to fight sometimes, and then I’m going to have some times when I get to do what I want.”

“I’m sorry,” Ashton said.  That was what people were supposed to say in situations like this.

“I’m sorry too,” Abby said.  “I don’t like it.”

“Was that why you came to sit with me?  Do you want to talk about it more?”

“No, and no, I don’t want to think about it too much,” Abby said.

“Oh, okay,” Ashton said.  He decided to politely ignore the fact that it did sound an awful lot like she wanted to talk about it.  He reached down to give Quinton a scratch.

“I came to find you because I wanted to ask if you wanted to meet my new friend,” she said.

“A new friend?”

“Come on,” Abby said, a little more excited and upbeat.  “Come see.”

“You just spent all that time settling down, and now you’re getting up?” Ashton said.  “That doesn’t make sense.”

Abby took Ashton’s hand, and she used every muscle in her body to help haul him to his feet, while he didn’t cooperate at all.  She scooped up a protesting, bleating Quinton and then stood there, looking satisfied, her odd features set with a smile while she huffed a little.  A moment later, she was tugging him away from his spot.

Ashton cast a forlorn glance backward at the nest of blankets he’d made.  It hadn’t been as nice as being inside and near the fire, but inside was noisy, all students and new people and they kept on pestering him and complimenting him on his hair.  The tree had thick cover that meant only a few droplets fell on him, and his jacket and hood protected him from those.  He liked the unpredictable tapping of droplets on his head.

Caldwell was a small Academy, set deep in the woods.  It looked like a castle, and it was about as cold as one.  Ashton joined Abby in passing beneath a statue that had long turned green-black, depicting a doctor working with a stitched on a table, crowing his victory with arms outspread.  The lightning from the voltaic systems around him was done up in silver, for contrast.

The students here were a grim sort, the kind that wanted to work with stitched.  Others worked on projects that needed to be kept away from civilization, but permissions for that sort of work were doled out sparingly.  Pale, dressed in dark uniforms with student’s lab coats, damp with the freezing rain, they walked in something that would’ve been a single file march if it wasn’t for the periodic clusters of friends or lab partners talking, keeping pace with those behind and in front of them.

Some in the single file march reached out.  They put coins atop what had become towers of coins at the foot of the statue.  They couldn’t stop without being jostled by students behind them, so they had to move quick, place the coins, and not disturb the towers that had come into being in front or to either side.  Some of the lower parts of towers closer to the feet of the scientist had been there through enough seasons to have become a single unit, fusing together through heat, cold, and the chemicals in the rain and snow.

Coins in the wishing well, payment to the shrine, but it was enough of a departure from prayer and close enough to being a token of tribute to the Academy and Crown that it was permitted.

Abby, Quinton, and Ashton paid little mind to the lines or the marching orders, and they had no tribute to give.  Abby led the way in a kind of determined way, heading for the gaps, steering through, dragging Ashton behind.

Some students cussed, and Quinton bleated out an equally rude reply.

“This way,” Abby said.

The castle-like Academy was perched on a hill, and the hill had a number of rocky outcroppings.  Abby led the way to the edge of the campus, where the buildings ended and there were only intermittent cliffs, rocks, and bits of grass that were stubbornly persisting through winter.

Abby hopped down, and she skidded a little ways down the cliff.

“Come on!” she urged Ashton.

“Are you sure about this?”

“Come on!” she said.

He hopped down.  Abby caught him.

“I was walking Quinton, I wanted him to get exercise, so I brought him down this hill.  We were exploring together, and we found this.”

Abby drew Ashton’s attention to a hole in the ground.  Two rocks had parted, and a shaft extended all the way down into pitch darkness.  Humid steam rose from the space.

Ashton liked the humid steam.  It was warm, when everything else was a wet sort of cold, even indoors.  He was rather less sure of the black abyss that Abby was now crawling into.

“Abby,” he said.

Abby disappeared, bringing Quinton with her.

“Abby,” Ashton said, at the same volume.  “You’re supposed to respond when someone talks.”

There was no response.

Ashton puffed out a cloud of annoyance, then descended into the pitch darkness.  The stone was wet and slick, the spaces small enough an adult couldn’t have climbed through, and, the further he descended, the more branches he ran into.  He’d taken them for roots first, but they had a rigidity he was very familiar with.  Builder’s wood.

He heard the rasp of a match, and he saw the flicker of flame.

A moment later, bioluminescence kicked in, the walls of the long corridor responding to the light of the flame with a dull yellow light of their own.  It was a horizontal shaft, the ceiling arching overhead, builder’s wood supporting the shaft all the way down.

The entire tunnel smelled like the fluids they used in a stitched.

“It responds to touch too,” she said.  “That’s how I found out about it at first.  Quinton stuck his nose into it and it glowed.”

She touched her hand to the wall.  The handprint glowed.

Ashton tried it.  The wall was clammy, the residual glow left by touch a bright, warm color.  He liked the contrast of the two things.  He traced fingers along the wall, and watched patterns emerge.

“Ashton,” Abby said.

“I like this,” he said.

“I wanted to show you something.  This wasn’t it.”

“This could be it.  This is nice,” Ashton said.  “This is good enough.”

She took hold of his arm, and she set about dragging him, to the best of her ability.  One of her arms held Quinton, however, and Ashton was as committed to staying put as he had been to anything.

“What I want to show you is neater,” she said.

“I think we’re in an area we’re not supposed to be in,” Ashton said.  “Or an area that they forgot about or wanted to forget about, or an area that they tried to seal like they seal the bowels in Radham, and they missed one crack in the wall.  It’s probably better to stay where we are.”

“Please?” Abby asked.  “Leave that wall alone, and come with me?”

“You keep taking me away from warm spots and pretty things,” he said, but he allowed her to lead him.

They walked down the length of the corridor, and they passed down a flight of stairs.  The bioluminescent algae didn’t creep along the stairwell, so their descent was a dark one.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Abby lit another match.  The cavern was larger, the glowing surfaces well out of reach, a cavern roof twenty feet over their heads.  The moisture had collected in areas, and the cave looked like the night sky.  The cavern itself was rocky, with an uneven floor littered with pebbles.

Abby whistled, a low sound, very well done, and then repeated the process, this time more of an insect sound.  “Here girl.  Let’s see you.  Say hello to Ashton.”

An outcropping halfway across the cavern floor parted.  Three eyelids on one eye moved back, and they had a distance to move.  The eye’s surface itself, flat and not rounded, would have taken twenty paces to cross.  A cloudy membrane covered the eye, a three-piece protective membrane.

“I call her Princesca,” Abby said.  “She probably has another name, but I don’t know it.”

“Hello Princesca,” Ashton said, dutifully.  He waited several moments, and then decided, “I don’t think she can understand me or respond.”

“She’s half-asleep, poor dear,” Abby said.  She bent down and she gave the ‘floor’ a rub.  “Buried under everything in a cold and wet place like this.  I think most of her body sprawls under Caldwell.”

“I don’t think we should be down here,” Ashton said.

“I know,” Abby said.  “But when you all go off and hunt Sylvester, and it’s just Emmett and me and Nora and Lara, I miss you and the other Lambs.  Emmett tries to listen to me and he does a very good job, but I don’t want to bother him too much and sometimes I need to talk about things I don’t want to bother him with.  Princesca is a good listener too.”

“I think it might be better to bother Emmett than to bother Princesca,” Ashton said.

“I’m good with animals.  When she looks at me, I can see her pupil.  If you walk a few minutes down through the tunnels you can find another eye that’s even clearer.  The tension of her skin relaxes after a little while of me talking.”

Abby rubbed the floor, both elbow and hand touching it, the rub using the whole length of her forearm, clad in her jacket.

“She likes you?”

“I think so,” Abby said.  “I have to talk in a particular sort of voice and I need to spend a little while here to make it work, but she likes me.”

“That’s good,” Ashton said.

“I think she’s bored, and she’s lonely, and she’s very tired.  Whatever it is they’re using to keep her docile and sleepy is… not easy, or not pleasant.  I felt bad for her, and that’s when I started thinking about what I wanted.  Not in the now, but in the future.”

“Ah,” Ashton said.  “You’re going to need a bigger stable if this is the kind of warbeast you want to take care of.”

Abby laughed.

With the faint and distant light, Ashton could see Abby’s face change, and with every moment that he thought he might have grasped what that particular combination of brow, eye, cheek and mouth expression was supposed to mean, it had changed, moving from one thing to another.

The laughing face was distant and she didn’t sound very happy as she said, “Between you, me, Quinton, and Princesca, I feel like all the things I want are very far away.”

“I’ll help you get there,” Ashton said.  “I’m good, I have what I want, I can help you with what you want.  I’ll help Emmett and Nora and Lara too, and the Lambs as well.”

“Bleaah,” Quinton said.

“Quinton will help too,” Ashton said.  “He’s soft, and he can listen.”

“I know,” Abby said.  “Until he gets too big, and then we get Quinton the Fourth.”

“Or a girl Quinton,” Ashton said.

“Or a girl Quinton,” Abby said.

Slowly, Princesca’s eyelids drifted closed.  Fluid bubbled and oozed out of the cracks between them as they sealed shut.

“Shh,” Abby said, giving the floor another rub.

“You seem sad,” Ashton said.

“I miss home.  I miss Sous Reine and people who spoke German, English, and French.  I miss the stables and the squirrels.  The people who worked with me there loved me, even if they weren’t there for me.  Here, you’re all there for me… until you aren’t.  People keep coming and going.”

“Don’t get too upset,” Ashton said.  “You’ll have another fit.”

Abby nodded emphatically, before rubbing at her nose and then her eye with the back of her hand.

“You’re scared of having to learn to use guns and weapons?” he asked.

“It feels like a big step I don’t want to take.”

Ashton nodded.

He had to think for a little while to decide how to answer.  It helped that Abby had fallen silent, one hand on Quinton, another arm rubbing Princesca.

“Before, I said I would help you,” Ashton said.

Abby nodded, looking up at him.

“And I said I would help Nora and Lara and Emmett and the Lambs.”

She nodded again.

“If you need me to, I’ll help just you for now.  I can talk to Duncan when he gets back, and he can figure out how to talk to others about the weapons.  He’s good at that, he’s good at negotiating and politics, and he does care about you.”

“It’s not that,” Abby said.

“What is it?”

“If I have to keep doing this, I want to learn how to fight.  But I don’t want to learn how to fight.  I don’t want to fight five days of the week so I can have the life I want on the other two.  I don’t want to fight two days a week so I can have the life I want for the other five.  I just want a peaceful life with my animals…”

She sniffled, and her arm moved funny as she brought it to her eye.

“Stop,” Ashton said, uselessly, urgently puffing out calm.

“And I’m really worried-”

He did his best to catch her before she toppled to the floor.  He sank to the floor with her, holding her twitching body while Quinton bleated.

Through the floor, he could feel the low course of fluids through Princesca’s body.  He could feel the warmth of her and he could see why Abby had been drawn here.

While he waited for Abby to calm down, the bioluminescence faded, the cavern went dark, and he had some time to sit and think.

He wished he had a Good Simon book that was more about how to help friends in trouble.  He would have made it the topic of the book he’d been asked to write, but he didn’t have the slightest idea what to do in this kind of situation.

“So this is what you were leading up to,” Sylvester said.  “You catch me on a bad day when my mind, heart, and body are tapped out, and you just… what?  Promise horrible things if I don’t kowtow to you?”

Helen touched her hair and smiled.  “A Helen kind of horrible.”

Sylvester ran his fingers through his hair, pacing.  “You’re doing just what Evette did.  You all want your turns, and since you’re the figments of my imagination that represent instinct and… I don’t know, common sense?  The senses?  And Fray here represents… absolutely everything going wrong, or conspiracy, or… whatever.  I don’t have the energy to do this.  You’re staging your mutiny, working to push me out?  A very complicated way of my self-preservation instincts saying ‘no more’?”

He wheeled around.  His voice was almost ragged, “Well, you can go fuck a fistful of nails, Fray!  And you two-”

Ashton watched Sylvester.  He was preoccupied with watching Sylvester’s emotions, trying to piece it all together.

Sylvester’s voice softened.  “Don’t do the nail thing.  But do leave me alone.  I’m doing too many important things.  Go away.”

Ashton gave Helen a sidelong glance.

“What if I say no?” Helen asked.

“Don’t.  No.  You’re not allowed.  Not today.  I have things I need to square away.”

“Like Jessie,” Helen said.

“Like a lot of things!  This is just inconvenient.  So scram.  I banish thee, and I refuse to accept you’re going to pull an Evette and say no.  You two will stand aside.  I will it so.  Just this once.”

He was gesticulating wildly, and in this, he used his hands as if to part the waters, to will them to move aside.

Ashton looked at Helen for guidance.  Wouldn’t taking Sylvester be better?  They could get him help.

But she gestured, go, and she stepped back.

Ashton mirrored her movement, stepping away from her and from the door.

Without a word, Sylvester walked through.

Sylvester trudged off, casting one or two backward glances.  He looked so hurt, so tired, so cold.

“He asked,” Helen said, answering a question Ashton hadn’t voiced.  “He didn’t ask nicely, but he asked.”

“Abby wants to leave,” Ashton said.  “She said so, a few days ago, before we came here.”

Helen approached him, wrapping her arms around him from behind, and buried her face in his damp hair, mussing it up.  He tolerated the messy hair and he puffed happiness at her.

“You can’t tell.  It’s a secret,” Ashton said, stopping with the puffs so he could be sure she listened.  It was like the period at the end of a sentence, a stab of the finger.

“I know, and I won’t,” Helen said, and she wouldn’t because she was like that.

“I was looking at Sylvester just now and I was thinking what if that was Abby standing there instead?  Sylvester didn’t look very happy.”

“There’s a difference,” Helen said.  “They’re different.”

“I know that,” Ashton said.  He puffed out disgust and irritation and agitation.  He could feel Helen snort into his hair.  “I just wish I understood better.  I really could only think of two ways she might end up happy, and this was supposed to be one.”

“They’re different.  Keep that in mind,” Helen said.  “What’s the other way?”

“I thought of asking Duncan to send her back to Sous Reine.  I thought maybe we or I could chip in money and they could give her a job in the stables or somewhere and she could save money or something.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot.”

“Ask her before you do that,” Helen said.

“Why?”

“Because she might not be as happy doing that as you think she might,” Helen said.  “And that’s if it works, if they let her go and if Sous Reine would take her.”

Ashton nodded.

“If you need help with any of that, little mushroom brother, you can ask me,” Helen said.  “I’ll do what I can.  But if you’re going to ask me for anything, sooner is better, I think.”

“Why?”

“Sooner is better,” she restated it.

Why?” he tried again.

She bit into his scalp, far harder than was necessary, and then she let go of him.

How are they different?  Ashton asked, using his head instead of his mouth.  He worried Helen would bite him again if he pressed her.

He remained quiet, thinking, as they exited the little stable.

It was a minute before he deemed it safe enough to say, “Mary is going to be so mad at us.”

“Yes she is, little brother,” Helen said, smiling merrily.  “Yes she is.”

Mary fired the gun.  It was an intentional miss, Ashton judged, but it did a good job of making Sylvester jump a good few feet off the bed.  The girl in the bed and Jessie looked spooked too.

Sylvester scrambled to use the bed for cover, as Jessie did.  The girl in the bed was furthest from that end of the bed, and simply froze.

“Come here, honey,” Helen said.  “Out of the way.”

The girl in the bed brought a sheet with her to cover herself up, ducking down swiftly to pick up her skirt and socks from the floor.

Still using the bed as defensive cover, Sylvester chuckled.  The chuckle became a laugh.

Ashton couldn’t see Sylvester, so he watched the other Lambs.  Mary was calm, cool.  Lillian had one hand on her face.

Duncan looked… concerned.

Helen was Helen.

He tried to judge if he should use something or another on Mary.  Mary was immune, but if he tried really, really hard and emptied his reserve, he might have been able to do something.

Sylvester continued laughing.  He raised his hands over his head.  When Mary didn’t put a hole in either hand, Sylvester stood, and rounded the end of the bed, wearing only his pyjama bottoms.  His back and shoulder were bandaged, and he had dark circles under his eyes that had nothing to do with how much or how little sleep he’d gotten.

He approached, and when Mary didn’t shoot him, he threw his arms around her, hugging her.

She pressed the gun to his head.

“You got me,” he said, still hugging her.

As he pulled away, turning toward Lillian, Mary seized his wrist, twisted his arm behind his back, and shoved him into the ground.

Further twisting of his arm made him drop the knife of Mary’s that he’d palmed.

“You got me,” he said, again.

“We came for the Professor,” Duncan volunteered.  “You were accidental.”

“Well, you got him too,” Sylvester said, smiling.

They were different, Helen had said.  Abby and Sylvester.

For a moment, Ashton thought he realized how.  Abby had said something about it once.  That some people were pulled, and some people were pushed.

Abby was pulled toward that dream of hers.  Of a simple life, of animals, and hopefully having friends near her.  And it looked like Sylvester was pushed.

It was a very tidy, satisfying answer, until Mary hauled Sylvester up off the ground.  For a fleeting moment, as Sylvester took in the group, Ashton could read his expression.

He’d looked like this as he rested between Jessie and the girl on the bed.  Now, captive, gun aimed at him, his plans awry, he looked very much like he’d found his farm, his animals, and all of his friends.

“You got me,” Sylvester said, not for the first time.  “Sorry Jessie.”

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72 thoughts on “Lamb (Arc 16)

    • Jessie’s time as the current person Caterpillar is running out. Berger was Sy’s last hope at recreating the project to buy her more time, but Berger has no reason to cooperate with him now that the Lambs have rescued him. The only way out for her now is going back to Radham, where it’s been implied the Duke erased Jamie; Jessie’s rebellion will probably get her the same treatment.

  1. Typo thread.

    “I came to find you because wanted to ask”
    +I

    “Between you, me, Quinton, and Priscilla,”
    Isn’t she Princesca ?

  2. Oh, wow. Was that what Sub Rosa was digging for all that time ago? What actually happens when one of those things wakes up?

    • I think this is a different Academy’s version of what Sub Rosa was digging for, but similar in principle.

      Though I really have to wonder what they’re even for, since we haven’t heard of any of them being deployed even as the situation continues to go further to hell throughout the Crown States. Not even to destroy Ravage outbreaks, which are pretty much the only thing we’ve seen that would call for unleashing a city-killer on a city you own. Well, and possibly the Primordials, but there wasn’t a live one in Lugh and also using one might have ended in a city-sized Primordial. Are they only there for carrying out the continental Exterminatus?

      • I think they are there in case an academy is being taken, internally or externally. Remember how intense they are about hunting down anyone who gets ahold of academy knowledge?
        lately we see it a bit lax, but I think that is a sign of just how big an effect the plague is having, rather than them caring less.

      • Do you remember the beat of Caldwell(?)? The one where the entire city was designed so they could use it as weapon? I am pretty sure this is their Beast of Caldwell. Their academy-superweapon.
        The previous leader of the Radham(?) academy said that he always tested things, giving them more and more dangerous missions until they failed because of their flaws / inadequacy. Then he gets a better version build and repeats it, until they have *no flaws.* The thing sleeping beneath Radham(?) was a testimony that this tactic could work – Something without weaknesses.

      • I wouldn’t necessarily count on that; remember that Lugh is a city built into the corpse of a seagoing monster. Sure, aquatic is easier, but the Academy definitely creates absolutely enormous physical combatants.

    • You remember what they said about the Academy not losing? If the Academy is ever toppled, and the professors can’t do their normal work, then the beast isn’t fed it’s quieting medicine, and suddenly there’s no more rebellion to worry about in that area. It’s a lot easier to kill one monster than it is to hunt down hundreds or thousands of guerilla fighters. And the main Academy probably holds the secret to destroying those monsters.

      Basically, the point was that every Academy has a deadman’s trigger set up. The Crown doesn’t lose, and the Academy secretly controls the Crown, so the Academy doesn’t lose.

  3. Aha! I’d wondered if Sy had unknowingly spoken with the Lambs at some point. While imaginary phantom friends probably aren’t fantastic as far as mental health goes, they do make for a great dramatic reveal.

  4. “a statue that had long turned green-black, depicting a doctor working with a stitched on a table, crowing his victory with arms outspread. The lightning from the voltaic systems around him was done up in silver, for contrast.”

    It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!

    So Helen and Ashton were real the first time they talked to Sy? Not that surprising, in hindsight. That imaginary Fray distracted me, as I suppose was her intention. Imaginary Fray is sneaky like that. I like the implication that what Sy wanted most in life was to get caught by the Lambs and have all his careful plans foiled. Also Helen calling Ashton her “little mushroom brother”.

    • The “IT’S ALIIIIIIVE!” thingy was my first thought, too…^^
      And I think that Sy should worry more about his phantom lambs. When he couldn’t control Evette, that was one thing. But he’s at a point where he has so little control over ALL of his phantoms that he does not realize when they aren’t phantoms at all. It would be enough to make ME worry.
      Also: Helen and Ashton are ADORABLE together. And Helen’s expiration date is close. Why else would she put that much emphasis on “sooner is better”, when speaking about favors she might grant another lamb? :S

      • I’m not sure. She’s a super high-quality work, Ibbot designed her for eventually seducing adults (also be his personal waifu/sex-doll, because he’s that kind of scientist), and the Infante seemed to think that her personal Damocles Sword was Ibbot getting bored with her. But since that’s postponed, she probably stills has a few years ahead of her.

          • Her hormones and other things are getting out of whack, and she hasn’t told Ibbot, if I remember correctly. I think the implication is that Helen may go feral.

          • I think he’s more worried than bored. She’s going beyond the parameters he set for her (even though he’s trying desperately hard to stick his head in the sand about that). If he gets too scared of her growing independent both emotionally and physically, it’s curtains for her. -_-

  5. Helen’s not going to be along for much longer, huh? I’m guessing she can see her expiration approaching…or she’s plotting a little something of her own.

    • According to the Infante, Helen’s expiration is likely to be Ibbot growing bored of her. If it’s that, she likely would know it’s coming. She knows Ibbot pretty well.

    • last time we had her perspective, the good dr was actively pruning her brain and nervous system to keep her from thinking thoughts he doesn’t like. Even if he doesn’t realize she can lie to him, it can’t be long before he has butchered her brain enough that she can’t form an independent thought.

      Which is sad, I really like Helen. C’est la vie.

      • Meh. I’ve stopped reading sometime through Book 4, I feel like it has no direction whatsoever. The author seems to plan no further than 5 chapters ahead.

        • You’re talking about The Gods Are Bastards? And you say you “feel like it has no direction whatsoever. The author seems to plan no further than 5 chapters ahead.”

          Allow me to say HOLY FUCKING SHIT that is the most factually incorrect statement I have read all week! And I read things Donald Trump says.

          Seriously, were you reading the wrong serial? D.D. Webb talks ALL THE TIME about how the current story fits in the overall outline he has for the entire thing.

          If you just don’t like it, I’d question your opinion but ultimately there’s no accounting for taste. But to say THAT, no sir, you are quite simply mistaken. I’d encourage you to try again, but as I said, if you don’t like it then you don’t like it.

  6. >Now, captive, gun aimed at him, his plans awry, he looked very much like he’d found his farm, his animals, and all of his friends.

    This is my favourite sentence yet.

  7. Okay, a couple of things.
    First: “She represents the hard working and well-intentioned leadership we have in the Crown and the Academy and the story is really about how we need to listen to them and then everything is better.” – “You’re not supposed to recognize the hidden influences and meanings and take them as fact, Ashton.” This right here? This is gold. 😀 I’d read Twig for these dialogs alone…^^
    Second: What exactly IS Ashton? We know that he has some plant-theme going on with the spores and stuff. Helen calls him “mushroom-brother”, which would reinforce the spore-theme, although mushrooms are technically no plants. Ashton himself says, he’s a “xyloenterate-calceoenterate hybrid”. While “xylon” means “wood” or “wooden” in greek, I have no idea what “enterates” are… Entities that resemble something, maybe? And the only thing that’s remotely close to “calceo” would be the latin “calceus” which means “boot”. And I refuse to believe that Ashton is a hybrid between a boot and a plant that looks like a human on the outside!
    Did everyone just think white noise between the xylo- and the hybrid like any normal person would do or did anybody else try to figure this out? xD
    Third: Helen is ADORABLE. And scary. After Twig is finished, I feel like I’ll need to keep an emergency cake at hand at all times.

    • Okay, a friend helped me with the issue of Ashton. If anybody is interested, “enterate” means “having an intestine separate from the outer wall of the body”… Basically everything that has things like a stomach or lungs could be listed here (as I understand it…). And “calceo” apparently refers to calcium. Bones. Something I could have thought of myself… <,<
      So Ashton is a hybrid from lifeforms that have bones and intestines (=calceoenterate) and lifeforms that have wood and intestines (=xyloenterate…?) I actually have no idea what kind of lifeform that last one would be. Maybe it's entirely academy made itself…

    • Enterate can mean “having an intestine separate from the outer wall of the body” which doesn’t usually apply to wood or plants, but hey, this is Academy science, and no matter whether the plants have intestines, Ashton probably has intestines of some sort, and perhaps they are made of wood on some level. It’s also possible that technical scientific language in this universe mutated a bit from what we’re used to, and that one or more of those terms refers to a whole branch of biology that originated with such things but now applies to other things. For that matter, in Latin “calceo” is a verb and can mean “put on shoes”, so perhaps it’s used to mean that he’s walking around. You know, as opposed to those plants with intestines that *don’t* walk around, that the Academy probably makes all the time.

    • Weren’t Ashton’s inner workings explained already? His brain is supposed to be some sort of coral-like structure, with different “pillars” the way we have lobes, divided in “shelves” to store and order stuff (that’s why he mentally deconstructs everything, so he can properly classify it). I can’t for the life of me remember where that was said though.

        • Correct! Slight info-dump:
          “His brain was organized into what his creators called shelves, described as being like fungal growths or a coral, and in his early development each shelf had been given over to a different task, like the lobes in a human brain.”
          “I was all alone,” Ashton said. “I grew in a node, which grew in a plant-like structure.”
          “His ability to reason, feel, experience, and learn tended to come in spurts, coinciding with his bouts of physical growth. His appointments helped, giving him massive injections of nutrients that would allow such. Maybe he could gain something if he figured out frustration and made it a focus the next time he was growing in a new shelf.

          He could talk about it with his creators. They had said each new shelf that he grew would be smaller and have less impact than the last. He would have to carefully choose what he would make each shelf do.”

          It’s interesting to see how much he’s changed but still stayed the same from last time when I reread the chapter: https://twigserial.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/black-sheep-13-5-lamb/

  8. Out of all the authors and novels and comics and webserials I’ve read, only Wildbow could write a scene where the protagonist is held at gunpoint by someone who really, really wants to shoot him and make it genuinely heartwarming.

  9. All I know if Sy was going to recruit the lambs there is no better position for him than when he’s head of a rebellion of academy students with a professor of Ibott’s talent as a tutor. He actually might be able to postpone their expirations now. Although you know for a fact that Duncan and Ashton would be out, maybe most of the new lambs. My big question mark would be Mary, Helen, and Lillian.

    Helen can be maintained by Berger most likely. Mary would probably follow Lillian wherever she goes and is even more likely if Sylvester can give her a purpose. She absolutely lives for the type of dancing he can provide. Lillian would be the most to lose. She loses her chance at a black coat and her ambition. Sy has some information to counteract that though, specifically the blocks. He could probably jar the thought that the academy is more good than evil out of Lillian’s mind with that.

    Of course trying to guess what Wildbow’s doing is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing. He gives you enough info to guess but never enough to see the picture before he reveals it.

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