“You got me,” I told the Lambs. My face was pressed against the ground. “I’m sorry, Jessie.”
Jessie had sat up in bed when the gun had fired. In the enclosed space, the sound had reverberated off of the walls. The sound of the shot rang in my ears, and feathers continued to fall all around us.
“Don’t be sorry,” Jessie said. She remained where she was. She’d reached over and picked up her glasses, but she hadn’t budged from her spot.
I was sorry, though. That I wasn’t able to put up more of a fight, that I was glad about this reunion, even if the long term wasn’t something I wanted to think about. Even considering the idea of being taken back, facing Hayle and my old doctors-
I moved, and Mary asserted her grip, making me wince.
“Please be gentle with him,” Mabel said. “His shoulder-”
“I know about the shoulder,” Mary said. “If he wants me to be gentle with it, he should stop trying to be clever with knives.”
“No more cleverness here,” I said. “I’m rather too tired for cleverness.”
“Let’s hope,” Mary said. “It’s a long trip back to civilization, and I’m not in any mood for games. If you push me, I’ll hurt you, and I don’t want to hurt you.”
My eyes fell on a large feather that had fallen to the floor a short distance from my nose. I puffed out a breath and blew it a little distance across the floor.
“No interest in hurting me at all, huh? That shot at my knee suggests otherwise,” I said. I was trying to keep my tone light.
“That was different,” Mary said. “Call it a warning shot, a reminder that I remember.”
“An intentional miss?” I asked. “Good excuse, that.”
She pressed the gun against the back of my head. “Don’t tempt me to shoot you, Sylvester. I’m the one holding the gun because it would probably bother me the least.”
“Right,” I said. I smiled.
I didn’t push my luck any further. Waking up, my senses had been jumbled. Now that I’d had a bit of time to get my thoughts all orderly, I was able to shift my head into a better mode for analysis and strategy.
I knew who I was up against. Foolhardy as it was, given my recent misinterpretation of reality, I drew on the phantoms, bringing forth images of Lillian, Helen, Mary, and Duncan. The shadows mirrored the Lambs, sticking close to them, looking over shoulders, or sitting on nearby surfaces, looking over the Lambs’ heads.
I looked for Fray and Mauer and I didn’t see them. Evette was conspicuously absent, too.
Damn Fray, damn her for toying with me like this.
“You’re going by Jessie now?” Lillian asked.
“Yes,” Jessie said. “I wanted to put some distance between myself and the original Jamie.”
“And you’re pretending to be a girl now?” Lillian asked.
“If I am, I was pretending to be a boy before too,” Jessie said. “I wouldn’t disagree with that.”
“What’s this?” Mabel asked, sounding uncertain.
This wasn’t how I’d wanted to have the conversation. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have the conversation at all. Jessie seemed willing to field this, but I just wished it wasn’t in the midst of a crowd.
“Jam- Jessie is-” Duncan started.
I really wished it wasn’t Duncan supplying any answers.
“I’m an experiment,” Jessie said, before Duncan could go further. “Nothing either way except scars. The only thing that really made me a ‘boy’ before was that it was in the Academy’s paperwork and files, and they weren’t even that committed to it.”
It was hard for me to read Lillian’s expressions from my position on the ground.
“I’m just saying, my doctors referred to me as Project Caterpillar four hundred and sixty eight times in my recollection and Jamie’s written records, while only referring to Jamie seventy one times. They referred to me as ‘it’ two hundred times and ‘he’ two hundred and thirty times. I don’t think they cared that much. So what’s tying me down?”
“I thought you were a wonderful boy,” Lillian said. “Gentle, sensitive, thoughtful.”
“Thank you,” Jessie said.
“It meant a lot to me, growing up, that I had one or two boys around me that I could contrast with my dad and with Sy. If it was just my dad, Sy, and Gordon, and maybe a little bit of Professor Hayle, I might have gotten a warped idea of what boys were about. I appreciated that you were part of the mix, and now that’s gone. I don’t think it’s fair to say you had no ties to it and you could just throw it away like that, when we spent so much time together being bookworms together, and figuring out our way through things, talking about things…”
“But how much of that was me and how much was my predecessor?”
“You and I had conversations, Jessie. We hung out. I visited you regularly, between my classes, I participated in the rehabilitation and life skills, speech training and everything else. I tried to brace you about Sy not being over the loss of the first Jamie.”
“I’m not disputing that,” Jessie said. “But that doesn’t answer my question. Can you really draw a fine line between the time you spent with my predecessor and time you spent with me?”
“Yes,” Lillian said, and it was clear she was upset. “It was really very emotional, mourning Jamie while getting to know you in those early days. My memory might not be perfect, but when it comes to sorting the before and after, it felt different. You two were different. Yes, again, I can draw a fine line.”
“Okay,” Jessie said, looking a little caught off guard.
“And I’m annoyed and hurt that you’re ignoring my points.”
“I’m sorry,” Jessie said. “But we have to continue to grow and change while we aren’t together.”
Lillian made a face. She met my eyes for only an instant and then flinched away.
Jessie continued, “That dark cloud that hung over things was another part of it. Something I want to stay away from. Every interaction for too long was tainted by association. There weren’t many clothes I liked that weren’t also his style. I needed a clean break.”
“I understand, I really do get it,” Lillian said. “It makes a lot of sense, and as much as it makes sense I think it kind of sucks that I’m here and I barely recognize you. I wasn’t a part of the conversation or the change, and neither were any of the other Lambs. It sucks-”
She paused, looking at me, then looking at Mabel.
“This sucks on a lot of levels,” she said. “We didn’t plan on cornering you like this, we didn’t even plan on meeting you, and then you guys forced our hand by getting to Berger before we did.”
“I know,” Jessie said.
“It doesn’t feel like a good day,” Duncan said. “It’s a win in our column, for what very little it’s worth, but it doesn’t feel good.”
“Well said, Duncan,” Lillian said.
“For what it’s worth,” I said. I tried to stand up, but Mary was sitting on me, and I didn’t have much strength in my shoulder. “I can’t say the situation is good, but any day I get to see all of you is a good one.”
“He’s being sappy,” Mary said.
“He’s up to something,” Lillian concluded.
“No, really,” I said.
“You come across as far less sincere when there’s a knife lying on the floor about two feet from your hand,” Duncan said. “Which you took off of Mary and presumably intended to use on one of us.”
“Okay, hi there Duncan, how’s it?” I said. “And the knife was more because this would all be terribly sad and pathetic if I didn’t put up some sort of fight. Lamb cred. I’m sure you understand.”
“Who were you going to take hostage?” Lillian asked.
“Alright, wait,” I said. I’d just woken up, my eyes were bleary, my shoulder hurt from the damage done with the scalpel and the way that my twisted arm was pulling at the wound, and I needed to focus, with no time to get my brain organized. “Wait, let’s do this in order, so it all makes sense. I’ll have you know that hugging Mary was because I was genuinely happy to see you guys and it was politically difficult to choose who to hug. You and I have bad blood, Helen might hug me back in her Helen sort of way, I don’t know what Ashton’s got going on these days, and given the choice between Mary and Duncan, I’m going to choose Mary, even if she’s got me in an armlock with a gun pointed at me.”
“I’ll try not to take it personally,” Duncan said.
“Ha ha,” I said, with a more genuine smile on my face, to downplay the dismissal. I was trying to keep up the patter and the good mood. In this tense atmosphere, anything I could do to be the light in the darkness would go a long, long way. It could win over hearts and cement my position.
And besides, I didn’t want this reunion to suck in the same sorts of ways the last one had.
“If you’re feeling lonely, I’m always available to practice hugging,” Helen said.
“Ha ha,” Duncan imitated me a bit. He sounded a lot less dry and more flustered.
My focus was more on Helen in the instant. When I’d seen her as a phantom, I’d imagined her as being influenced by Fray, darker, with more latent hostility, the predator side of her active and ready. But the Fray had been a trick of my mind working against itself, the Helen had been real, and so had the aura of bloodlust.
What was going on there?
I resumed talking to the group, the worry lingering, “As for the knife you so carefully pointed out, sir, the knife was more of a ‘how are you doing’ from one master to another, a test of skill that I wouldn’t pull if I didn’t have utmost respect for Mary’s skill-”
“You are so full of shit,” Mary said.
“And, to answer the question,” I said, carrying on, “I would have taken you hostage, Lillian. If, by some miracle, I got that far.”
“It would have been with the full knowledge that you have countermeasures. Needles in your fingers, like Fray had, and whatever else. You turn the tables, strut your stuff, and it breaks the ice. Get past any awkwardness by putting you at my mercy and then adroitly putting myself at your utter mercy. Mary’s happy shooting at me and kicking my rear end. We’ve got more of a gap to bridge, but I can’t imagine a bit of a spar would hurt any.”
“I see, I see,” Lillian said, “Very clever. A good analysis of the situation.”
“You sound like you’re humoring me.”
“Hi,” Lillian said, turning to Mabel. “What’s your name?”
Ah, I see what you’re doing there, I thought. Then I registered implications and cursed to myself.
“Mabel,” Mabel said.
Mary adjusted her grip and pressed the gun to my head.
I know, Mary, I know, I thought. You want to protect Lillian and now we’ve got this going on.
“Sorry about all of this, Mabel,” Lillian said.
“Oh, no need to apologize,” Mabel said. “Whatever you’re thinking this is, me being here, it’s not. I did the surgery on Sylvester last night. I was dog tired, I needed to check on him and change his bandages throughout the night. We talked, I fell asleep.”
“Don’t worry, Mabel. There’s nothing between Sylvester and I.”
“There’s nothing between him and I either, not really. Nothing happened,” Mabel insisted.
“You’re from Beattle?”
“Yes,” Mabel said. “I was year five.”
“What were you studying?”
“There was a project in the other building, when we came through. Ashton and Duncan said it looked like pheromones.”
Mabel glanced at me.
“Cat’s out of the bag, our noses are to the knifepoints. You can share.”
“Yeah,” Mabel said. “I’m project leader for that. It’s going to be a warbeast with a pheromone trail. Sylvester wanted to operate with impunity in the cities without worrying about his scent trail.”
“Can I stand up now?” I asked. “My shoulder really is getting quite sore like this.”
There was a moment of silent communication among Lambs, a quick search of the surroundings, and the phantoms around the Lambs let me know that the Lambs were checking that letting me stand wouldn’t give me any opportunities, ways to escape, or weapons.
Mary shifted off of me and hauled me to my feet. She didn’t have the full-body strength to hold me up, but I got my feet under me and after only a moment of wobbling knees, I found the strength to stand.
Duncan and Mabel were saying something about Pheromones. Ashton was standing between Helen and Duncan, staring at me intently.
Helen still worried me. I wished she was more involved in the dialogue.
Just as it had been in the stable, his expression was good. Less dead.
“People will have heard the gunshot,” Mary said. “We’re going to be taking you two hostage. We already touched base with Professor Berger.”
“Noted,” I said.
“I’ll need to get dressed,” Jessie said. “I have clothes here but I’d like privacy.”
“Helen and Lillian, if you’d escort Jessie into another room?” Mary asked.
Helen acted as cuffs of a sort for Jessie, locking her hands onto Jessie’s wrists, while Lillian carried the clothes.
I toed at the shirt I’d left in the corner, with the reams of discarded bandages. Using my foot, I flicked it into the air. Mary caught it, still holding me at gunpoint, and checked it with one hand before passing it to me.
Once I was more or less dressed, Mary used something to tie my hands behind my back. I tested the bonds, and I was left fairly sure they were razor wire with ribbon or cloth strips to keep the wire from digging into flesh. I couldn’t find the knot with my fingers.
It was just Mary, Ashton, and Duncan, now, with Mabel in the corner.
Mary gestured, watch, window. Duncan walked over to the window to look.
“People on their way,” he said.
“Good,” Mary said.
“Listen,” I said. “Mary. There are things we need to talk about. In private.”
“In private as in Helen and Duncan step out of the room, or private in the sense that you want Mabel to leave?”
“Mabel leaves. Let me tell her to go to the others. She can tell them not to attack. There’s no rush, no demand on time. We can talk things through, I can outline the things Jessie and I found out, the things that have been going on, you all decide what happens with the information.”
“How does that conversation end, Sylvester?” Mary asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Do we capitulate? Set you free?”
“Honestly, I don’t know,” I said. “If I had to guess, I think… Lillian is left conflicted. If there’s a reason we haven’t shared this information with you guys in full, it’s that it puts Lillian between a rock and a hard place. You’re loyal to Lillian and the group, Mary, but you might be concerned with Percy being in the picture.”
Mary didn’t flinch. The phantom that shadowed her did.
“Helen… I’m visualizing Helen not caring much. Ashton too. Just the way it goes. So I’m left pretty on the fence here.”
“And me?” Duncan asked. “What about me?”
I’d almost dismissed him out of hand. He was diehard loyal, by my mental picture. I drew in a breath, studied my Duncan-phantom and studied Duncan at the same time, and I surprised myself with the conclusion I came to.
“I think… you might be the most likely to want to defect.”
His eyes widened.
“Shame on you Duncan,” Helen said.
“I didn’t do anything. Defect?” Duncan asked. “You jumped straight from Mary talking about us setting you free to defection, specifically?”
“You’re a rebel, Duncan,” Helen said.
Mary spoke, “Did this piece of material you’re using to get Duncan to defect-”
“I’m not defecting.”
“-Play a part in your recruitment of the Beattle students? Assuming it’s real?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “It did play a part in why I wanted to recruit them in the first place.”
“I see,” Mary said.
She led me to the window, and she glanced outside.
It looked like three dozen people, all of whom had taken defensive positions. It was about a tenth of our number. That left two hundred and forty or so assorted recruits elsewhere. They had two stitched with them, laborers we’d pieced together with components from the city, used for hauling and janitorial work. It looked like the night’s rain had pooled on the ground and frozen.
I wondered if the missing rebels were laying the false trail or fighting off the crown. I wished I’d paid more attention to the game plan, but I’d been so tired.
“I want to negotiate here,” I said. “Send Mabel. Nonaggression pact. No need to fight, you don’t hurt my people, We have a frank, serious conversation without eavesdroppers, we eat, Jessie and I stay bound. Then if you decide it’s not worth it, and if you let my rebels go, I’ll come with you with no complaints.”
“We won’t hurt your army too badly, Sylvester,” Mary said. “But we’re leaving straight away. No compromise on that.”
“Cover your ears, Mabel. I’ll-”
“If you cover your ears, I will put bullets in Sylvester until you lower your hands,” Mary said, and in her imperious tone she was fully the Mothmont lady, the teacher and instructor who had aspired to train and lead a sea of clones in beheading the monarchy.
Mabel, leader of the green team, formerly the Greenhouse Gang, daughter of some sheriff somewhere, didn’t cover her ears.
I thought we were on the same side, even if we weren’t on the same teams,” I said. “Or is it the other way around?”
“You shot me, Sylvester,” she said. “Six years ago, you took my hand and you asked me to trust you. I had absolutely nothing except the ability to kill and the conviction to do so. Then you lied to me, you manipulated me, and I was content to accept it, because I trusted you, in a way deeper than the lies and manipulations could touch. Part of that is who and what I am, what Percy made me into.”
I looked away.
“Look at me,” Mary said.
That hawk-fierce glare was waiting for me when I did.
“I loved Gordon, Sylvester. That was for him and I to share, separate from the Lambs. I love Lillian. I love Helen and Ashton in different ways. But I trusted you. Because I am what I am, that reaches deeper than love. You took that trust and you shot me. You left me to crawl back to the others, through hostile territory.”
“Would it help to know that pretty much from the point I pulled that trigger is when I really started to lose it?” I asked.
“Marginally,” Mary said. “Except you were seeing things from the moment we set foot in Warrick, or even sooner.”
“Seeing things doesn’t and didn’t mean I was losing my mind,” I said. “Listening to the voices and letting them destroy me or hurt me or convince me to sit out in the cold endlessly by keeping me company… that’s when I’m losing it.”
“Marginal, Sylvester. It was your own doing, in the end. I didn’t get to choose that outcome. You hit me where it hurt most, tore down a pillar. I had to give my broken trust to someone.”
“Lillian,” I said.
“Or the Crown,” Mary said. “The Academy. I’m a Mothmont girl, after all.”
I met the real Mothmont girl, I thought.
I stopped just short of saying it.
It was too important a card to play. If I put it out there now, then there was a risk it wouldn’t matter, that Mary might harden her heart even more, and there wouldn’t be an in.
Right now, when she was angriest, I wasn’t willing to fritter that away.
Even if the chasm between the Lambs and I seemed this wide.
I was left silent, thinking, glancing periodically at Mabel, who had dressed beneath the sheet, who was looking at me in a new, less kind light.
Jessie, Helen, and Lillian returned. Jessie was dressed and wearing her jacket, her hands tied in front of her.
“Did you tell them?” I asked Jessie.
“I thought you wouldn’t want to tell Lillian until you were sure of the outcome,” Jessie said. “I thought it was better to wait.”
“What’s this all about?” Lillian asked.
“It’s something Mabel can’t hear. Anyone that isn’t a Lamb can’t hear it,” I said. I was getting more concerned now. “Send Mabel away, have her tell the Beattle rebels to hold back. We’ll have a discussion. Nothing lost, we all move forward with eyes open. I’ll trust your judgment.”
Jessie shook her head. “They baited the Beattle rebels out. It’s a skeleton staff in Sedge right now, less than fifty rebels. If they take too long here, then the rebels start filtering back, our side outnumbers them.”
“And they have a plan,” I said. “Tricks and tools.”
“We do,” Mary said.
I grit my teeth.
“Is it so important to keep me out of the loop?” Mabel asked.
I wasn’t so sure. Did I trust her? Mostly. Did I know her like I knew the back of my hand? No. It was a tenuous thing to bid the life of the Crown States on.
“Gesture,” Duncan suggested.
“Mabel’s been learning signs. Most of the team leaders and staff here have,” I said. “I could write it down. Or Jessie could.”
“We’ll discuss it after,” Mary said. She looked at Lillian. “Right?”
“Right,” Lillian said.
At the bottom of the stairs, Mary passed me over to Helen, gesturing. Helen held my wrist, and she walked me to the door.
I stood in the doorway, facing the street. The morning sun shone and the ground was coated in ice.
Thirty or forty of the Beattle rebels were out there in cover.
“Run!” I called out. “They win. Leave, get together with the main group, then flee. Find work where you’re using your brains, not your trigger fingers! But get going! Get lost!”
It was painful to do, to discard them.
I could only hope we’d be able to find them again, if we weren’t being brought straight to the Crown and the jails.
“Run!” I called out again. I gestured.
I looked for faces I recognized and I found too few. Some of them were leading people away, sprinting on the ice.
A gunshot rang out to my right. It had been a pistol fired from the window. Mary.
The Lambs, moving through the night, had set up a trap. A barrel in one of the labs, placed against the glass. As the bullet shattered the glass, the barrel was free to tip, crashing against ice and spilling out its contents. Whatever it was, and it had been ours so I should have known, it reacted on contact with the wet, frozen ground.
Steam and smoke billowed out, and the students as a whole were blinded.
From the chemical smell, there would no doubt be other effects.
“Run!” I called out, yet again, and this time my followers listened.
The Lambs marched us into the cloud, and someone put a coat over my shoulders to help me stay warm, the hood flipped up. It would help to make me a less recognizable target in the midst of this smoke.
“Before you start,” Lillian said, cutting me off before I could launch into my monologue and explain about the Blocks, “We come with a message from the Duke. Berger can tell us more.”