“What’s this? The Duke?” I asked. “Also, gas? Do I need to worry about Mabel?”
“Not unless we linger,” Lillian said.
“Okay,” I said. “Back to prior questions: What’s this? The Duke?”
“Not a discussion for strange company,” Mary said. “We can discuss in more depth when we’re clear of your little town here and Mabel’s not here and we won’t be overheard.”
“I feel as if I’m in the way,” Mabel said.
“More like some things that need discussion are so big that anyone could be standing a hundred paces off to the side and they’d risk being in the way,” I said. “Even if you weren’t here, it might not be a good idea to discuss certain things, because there might be eavesdroppers.”
“My hearing is very good,” Helen said. “I think I’d know if we had listeners.”
“I’m trying to encourage Mabel here,” I said. “You know, convince her that she isn’t in the way, that it’s fine and she won’t be hurt before you all inevitably release her? I understand the desire to boast and be happy that your creator gave you better ears, but play along with the narrative here.”
“Narrative?” Mabel asked.
“Oh,” Helen said. “It’s not a narrative, really. We would be quiet, even if you weren’t here. We don’t know what things you and the other students have made. We’ve had enough bad experiences that we’re very careful. The gestures are a part of that.”
“Oh,” Mabel said. “That’s actually reassuring. I actually believe you.”
“I like the double-use of ‘actually’ in there,” I said. “As if you really want to emphasize I’m not that believable, even beyond your surprise that the attractive young lady that’s holding you hostage is.”
“You actually sound happy about that,” Jessie said.
“Had to give you that one,” Jessie said. “And I wasn’t sure anyone was going to jump to do it.”
“It might be better if we didn’t encourage Sylvester,” Lillian said. “I’d feel a lot better if our most unruly hostage didn’t look quite so comfortable in the role.”
“It’s because I’m home,” I said. “I might not actually be welcome home, the baby shit its crib, the wife is yelling at me, and said yelling has nothing to do with the fact that the cat is on fire, screeching and running around in circles. It’s still home, dangit. I’m trying to enjoy the good side of it.”
“Can I be the cat?” Helen asked.
“No,” I said, dead serious. “The cat is Ashton.”
“Why?” Ashton asked, and there was something resembling a plaintive emotion in the word. “I haven’t said or done much of anything since Mary shot at you. I don’t see why I should have to be on fire.”
“You’re the most pet-like of all of us,” Helen said.
“No,” Ashton said. Helen wrapped her arms around him, picking him up and continuing with walking while his legs dangled for just one moment. She nuzzled the back of his head, and he looked so entirely fine with that reality that it negated his ‘no’. She dropped him and stepped aside so she wouldn’t walk into him as he found his stride again.
Ashton turned to me, “Is it because of my red hair? Is that why you set me on fire?”
“Don’t try to make sense of it,” Mary said. “He’s trying to get inside your head.”
“He’s not getting inside my head. He’s just being wrong, which is annoying,” Ashton said.
“I’m suddenly reminded of meeting Ralph’s family,” Mabel said. Then she seemed to remember the larger group and clarified, “Ralph was The leader of the student group I was a part of, and am still sort of a part of, even though we aren’t students. He was always very peculiar and very particular, with a kind of buried intensity. I wondered about it. Then I met his family. Sy suddenly makes a kind of sense, now that I’ve met-”
Helen snapped her fingers twice. Then she gestured.
“-his.” Mabel finished.
“Shh,” Mary said.
In a moment, the group steered itself and us hostages into cover, all crammed between a wall and what I guessed was a tractor-truck. I wasn’t so sure about the naming convention, and my shoddy memory might have played a part in that.
From our hiding spot, we could see a group of Beattle students run past. They looked like Bea’s crew. Heading to reinforce the others.
“Your troop discipline is lacking,” Mary commented, after they were gone.
“They’re teenagers,” I said.
“Fundamentals are sound, patrol routes, communication between squads, the lack of easy paths to key buildings with cover and flanking positions… all fine,” Mary said.
“‘Fine’, she says. Dinged with faint praise, Jessie,” I said.
“You were responsible for a lot of it,” Jessie said.
“You took great pleasure in giving the unruly students busywork, moving detritus, blocking off alleys, then moving it again.”
“That does sound like me.”
“And then when they got fed up with it, you ran an exercise, you carried a lantern in the dead of night and you snuck up on them while they were on guard, using the cover you asked them to dismantle. You got to gloat about it, and you got to make yourself look just a little bit more impressive.”
“I think I might almost remember that,” I said. “Huh.”
“But,” Mary said, sounding a little bit like a lady aristocrat deigning to talk to commoners, “Good patrol routes and guards don’t mean a lot when they get caught up talking to one another, or if they take a smoke break. There was an in.”
“Clearly,” I said. “At this point, I’m just going to point out that, again, they’re teenagers.”
“So are we,” Lillian said.
“They’re more ordinary teenagers. Also? Skeleton crew. Most of our guys were off fending off the Academy and laying traps. Five sixths of our total army here isn’t here, so guard duty is going to suffer.”
“Full rotation, actually,” Jessie said. “Same guard duty that we have most nights, for what it’s worth.”
“Whose side are you on?” I asked. “Shh. Enough out of you. Thirdly, Mary, if they had been more on the ball, and if they’d been a proper deterrent, that would’ve just meant that you’d brain them, knock them unconscious, or deploy some kind of drug like you did with Lillian’s thing. Maybe you couldn’t have done what you did if we had three hundred students out there, or even one hundred and fifty, but still… that’s an exaggeration. You would’ve found a way.”
“Probably,” Mary said. “It’s the principle of it.”
“The principle we were operating on is that if an enemy got this far, we were probably out of luck. This was a practice run, working on the assumption that one day we’d be out in some city or another and we’d want people who had some idea of what to do while on watch.”
“Don’t let your teenage soldiers develop bad habits early on if you’re practicing,” Mary said.
“Are you factoring in that last night was a special circumstance? They’re looking for reassurance and camaraderie on a night that they and their buddies were in armed conflict with the Crown.”
“Are you just bullshitting until I drop the subject?” Mary asked. “Because you know I won’t.”
“You won’t,” I said. I frowned, then conceded, “There are asses that need kicking in my ranks.”
We moved in fits and starts, increasingly so as the patrols moved outward, in five or six groups of ten students, with a couple of Archie’s people in the mix. Could the Lambs deal with that many teenagers with relatively little combat experience? Yes. But the size of the groups and the fact that there wasn’t anything guaranteed in combat made Mary and Lillian rethink leading the group into an outright attack on any of the groups. We waited for one group to pass, and when it had, Mary would peek ahead and then stop because another group was appearing at the end of the road.
It wasn’t a big town, and most of the residential buildings were dormitories with apartments rather than houses.
The target building was what we’d termed Barracks D. Jessie and I had purchased space in the building with the idea that if we made this a more permanent base or if we found a big opportunity to recruit in the city, we could stick people there. We hadn’t done either, so it had been left as a set of mattress-less beds for Otis and Archie’s groups and a place to stick any kid that got drunk off of lab-brewed booze and puked on himself, had an experiment screw up, or otherwise got into a state where they weren’t worthy of sleeping in the same building as other living humans.
That last bit had led to the building getting nicknames, and I was gravely disappointed I couldn’t remember any of them off the top of my head.
“Inside,” Mary ordered.
The door was never locked. The hallway was rarely lit by anything but light from the outside. A wood stove sat in an alcove just to the left of the door, while a matching alcove to the right was meant to hold shoes and coats. The stove didn’t burn, and there weren’t any shoes or coats in the alcove to the right. Boots had tracked in snow not all that long ago, and there were still traces of wet on the ground.
Mary, entering just behind Jessie and I, put a hand on our shoulders, making us stop where we were. When I turned to look, she was pressing a finger to her lips.
I was careful to put my mind to work with the Lambs that lurked in my head. Mary walked up ahead, gesturing, and Helen skipped to catch up. One set of each of them on either side of the hallway. The Helens moved in an almost playful way, hands clasped in front of them, not walking slowly, but taking exaggerated steps that made her zig-zag left and right. Mary was moving slowly, and the two kept perfect time with one another in their own coordinated ways.
Twin lambs matched them, not entirely matched to them. I paid attention to the little things that deviated. Helen’s legs were longer than the legs of the Helen in black, it affected her stride, made the steps even more exaggerated. Her head was lower as she slouched just slightly. the eyes didn’t match up. My Helen’s eyes were wider, more artful, less dangerous. The clothes were the obvious difference, as well. My Lambs favored black.
It was a spot the difference game like any I might’ve found in the very back of one of Jamie’s dime store novels, alongside puzzles and word games.
Mary, meanwhile, hadn’t drawn a knife with her left hand, even though my Mary had. That was curious.
“Too much wet. People came through here,” my Mary said.
I imagined giving a signal, shouting, whistling, and I could see the steps as things played out, my Mary making me regret it. The other Mary would do virtually the same.
I waited a moment, let them make their way down the hallway some, checking doors, and then worked out what might happen if I gave a signal or alert.
Again, I had the very strong, clear mental image of my Mary hurling a knife so it caught me somewhere non-vital. If I was annoying about the signal, she threw two simultaneously.
I waited another few moments, and then I whistled, in a loud, shrill tone that I knew would grate Mary’s nerves just a little bit more.
She hurled a knife in my direction. I remained still as the knife embedded itself into the wall just a handspan from my face.
The look she gave me was sharp and annoyed, but it was fleeting too. She and Helen made a run for it.
I looked at the knife that was buried into the wall. I wanted it. But my hands were tied behind my back with a coat draped over them. Taking it would require me to open my mouth, bite into that handle, and tear it free, and what did I do then?
Lillian and Duncan nudged me to move on. I gave the knife a forlorn glance, watching as Duncan hauled it out of the wall with both hands and then tucked it into his belt.
We were pushed to follow Mary and Helen, and we did. The element of surprise was gone, and Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton wanted to assist where needed without losing track of Jessie, Mabel and I.
At the end of the long winding hallway with small rooms on either side, we reached the kitchen in the back corner. It wasn’t fully equipped, but it had a sink, a kettle, and another stove. Archie, Davis, Valentina and Berger were present.
There were people who were intelligent or with very keen natural talents, and I counted Mabel as such, and there were people who worked hard and picked up a wealth of abilities, like Rudy. Archie was someone who had a high native ability and had worked hard to build up a gang and hold a good amount of a small city with a very small gang. I liked him a lot. Valentina and Davis had been top students at Beattle and they’d earned their places as the vice president and president of the student council.
I supposed Berger was likely in good company, given what I’d seen of him and the station he’d managed to reach. Which wasn’t to say that station equated intelligence, but I had no reason to think this man wasn’t intelligent.
That said, Berger knelt before them, arm shackled to the pipes of the sink with the same shackle he had used on me. His face was mostly crimson bandages, soaked through with dark red blood. Archie crouched behind him, the needle of a syringe at the side of Berger’s neck.
Davis and Valentina were standing off to one side, tense. Davis had a knife, but they were otherwise unarmed.
“Let him go,” Mary said.
“Can’t do,” Davis said. He glanced at me. “Shackled. Don’t have the key.”
“Not an issue,” Mary said.
“Might be,” Davis said.
“Builder’s wood,” Valentina said. “Poured it into the lock the minute we had worked that it was an internal threat and not the Crown marching in on our camp.”
Mary absently toyed with her knife, moving it so it rolled over the back of her hand before catching it.
Berger watched everything, more or less silent. When he talked, it was slurred. “I meant to ask. How did your year-end project go, Lillian.”
“There’s no need to ingratiate yourself with us, Professor,” Lillian said. “We’re invested in getting you back where you belong, with the Crown, Duke, and Lord Infante in New Amsterdam.”
“Well,” the man with a face of bandage and blood spoke, “Those are nice words to hear. You will have to tell me about your year-end project after things have progressed some. You as well, Duncan.”
“I’d be willing to graft wings on, shave off seventy percent of my body weight and flap my arms to Radham if it meant hearing my results sooner,” Duncan said.
“I still remember the day I got the mail that told me I’d earned my white coat,” the Professor said. He hung his head. “It hurts to talk. Please excuse my silence.”
“Of course, Professor,” Lillian said.
“I hope us going through with this wasn’t an inconvenience, Sylvester,” Davis said, from the far end of the kitchen.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “The main thing is that I don’t want you three to get hurt. Not after we lost Otis and some of his men last night. I think the thing to do is to stand down.”
“Right,” Davis said. “Just like that, the plan is done? We lose you, we lose everything? Our last ditch effort here doesn’t count for anything? Just dumb luck and we’re done here?”
“You’re still free to go,” I said. “Presumably. Go, survive, be free.”
“I agree with Sylvester, for the record. Run away,” Jessie said.
“Kudos, though,” I said. “In most other circumstances, this would have been the thing to do, you three. It’s only because of bad luck, long associations and a bit of crazy crossed with exhaustion that it didn’t go that way.”
“That’s appreciated, Sy,” Davis said. “But let’s focus on doing what we need to, here. You guys went to a lot of trouble to get this professor out of there. You had plans, we talked about those plans. Things get tricky if those people there want to use the man.”
“Let them get tricky. It’s better that you guys leave unharmed than get clever about what happens with Berger. There are more professors out in the world. The Beattle rebels can still theoretically run off and drink, kick ass, be awkwardly teenager with each other, and maybe change the world just a little, you get me?”
“I get you,” Davis said.
Which was good, because I wasn’t sure I believed what I was saying. Getting another professor of Berger’s caliber would be a herculean effort, our chances of getting away from this weren’t strong, and I worried the massive disappointment of my being captured would fracture our little faction here. They’d been betrayed by authority once. My capture would be a betrayal of their trust in me.
Archie spoke, “I’m interpreting your instructions from last night.”
“I gave instructions last night?” I asked.
“Yes,” Archie said, at the same time Jessie did.
“About this hypothetical?” I asked.
“Yes,” Jessie said. Archie, meanwhile, only gave me a curt nod. Jessie elaborated, “About what should happened if the Academy came through or if things went sideways overnight, while everyone was fighting.”
“Past-Sylvester is really kicking rear,” I said. “Sometimes in ways that get in the way of present-Sylvester. You three are getting in the way now, just a little. Let’s not make the hostage situation any more tenuous.”
“You wanted us to stall the enemy, should enemy appear when you two aren’t here,” Archie said. “You’ll need a hacksaw and twenty Crown minutes to get through the chain. Or a saw and five Crown minutes to get through the arm, but I don’t see you taking a surgeon’s hand off. I’d call that a good stall, assuming they want the man.”
“We do want him,” Lillian said.
“What’s the needle?” Mary asked.
“Another stall. None of you look strong enough to drag a tall man any distance without getting tired. I’d be worried about you using Jessie or Sylvester there for slave labor, but they’re looking peaked. Sylvester especially.”
Jessie spoke, “I’ll note that last night, when Sylvester was giving you instructions, we said that it mattered only up until we arrived,” Jessie said.
“I’m gonna take a liberal interpretation here and now,” Archie said, making the last three words sound like one. “I’m gonna give these two kids a chance to run for it, unless you object, and I’ll square off and delay by threatening to poke the Professor here. We can talk, and if you two convince me you’re good with how things stand, maybe I let the Professor go without objection.”
“I’m not leaving,” Davis said. “I spent half the night commanding the Beattle Rebels and organizing misdirection, traps, and retreats, and that’s something I’m never going to do again. I lost two years of my life from the stress of having that many lives in my hands. I’m invested now. On the chance it counts for anything, I’m staying here.”
“Yes,” Valentina said. Not ‘yeah’ or ‘yup’ or anything like that. Only a careful ‘yes’ in a polite and resigned voice. There was a bit of steel in her.
“They say that clever individuals surround themselves with clever people,” Duncan said. “I’m not too shocked to find out that the biggest human pain-in-the-corkhole in the Crown States has surrounded himself with pain-in-the-corkhole recruits.”
“I love you too, Duncan,” I said.
“Sure, Sy,” Duncan said.
“Really, though. I’m seeing things these days. Not a big secret. Imagining got away from me, and I imagine the Lambs an awful lot, to keep me company.”
“Yeah, Sy,” Duncan said.
“So, for what it’s worth, that roster of Lambs includes you.”
Standing off to one side, his eyebrows raised.
“Probably your mental punching bag,” he said.
“Nah,” I said. “The voice of politics and social engineering, I think.”
“Better to pick Hayle, I think,” he said. I had the feeling it was a kneejerk reaction.
“Nah,” I said. “See, they don’t always go away when I tell them to. Mostly they show up when they decide, these days, instead of when I piece them together. I loathe Hayle because of what he did. To me, to most of you. We might not get along famously, but you place pretty well on my list of people I’m willing to have up there, tracking mud through my brain as they wander. You were one of seven and a half I was actively willing to invite in.”
Duncan frowned. I could see a lot going on in his eyes. They weren’t watering, but there was emotion latent, picking apart what I was saying for the manipulation. Maybe a large part of it was me talking frankly about losing my mind and the role that the other Duncan had on that particular stage.
“Gotta say, that plays into my decision,” Archie said. “Deciding if you’re compromised and telling me to walk away while under duress-”
“Nope,” I said, voice firm.
“If I need to make moving this guy clear of this city as irritating as I can, so you have more time to escape or for something to happen-”
“No,” I said.
“And, personally speaking, if it means I get to jab this smug blackcoat with a needle, I’m not so sure I mind.”
“Ah,” I said. I realized I couldn’t do much about it. I looked at Mary. “Don’t kill him, please.”
Archie began depressing the plunger, much of his head and body hidden by his hostage. Mary threw one arm out, and she tossed a knife, more in Valentina’s direction than in Archie’s.
The knife was attached to string. Her other hand flicked the string, moving it, and the projectile’s course changed, flicking out to the side.
The needle, only partially depressed, was struck out of Archie’s hand.
I saw it dawn on Valentina and Davis that they’d bitten off a bit too much, here. They backed away a bit, Davis holding his borrowed kitchen knife.
Archie rose to his feet, blood was streaming from a cut on one gloved finger where the blade had clipped him as it had divested him of the syringe. Hunched over his wounded hand, he used the other to draw a large knife from his belt, approached, and stopped short when Mary threw two knives into his thighs, just above the knees.
Mary’s free knife, still with the cord attached, was flicked. Archie seemed to sense that the attack would follow, and moved back and clear out of the way. Then he moved forward with staggering steps, knife held up and out, clearly intent on using his longer reach and the blade to win the fight.
Mary didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver – the Lambs and us hostages were mostly behind her, the room here wasn’t large, and the tricks with string and knives needed room to flail around.
“Go down, you bastard,” I told Archie. “You’ll only get hurt more.”
“Nng,” he grunted, hunching over more.
The hunch was a feint. I knew that, Mary knew that. He broke out of the supposed weakness and pain by stepping forward, lunging, cutting with that oversized knife of his.
But that attack in itself was a feint too. He stood straight, unfolding, no longer hunched in pain, and he had a pistol in his more injured hand.
Mary’s leg went out as the hand aimed. He didn’t extend his arm – he kept it close to the chest, aiming from there. The very tip of Mary’s toe caught the bottom of the gun and kicked it skyward.
He brought the hand down, aiming, and Mary already had two blades drawn, crossed like a pair of scissors, catching the lower part of his gun hand in the crux.
With a grace and fluidity that wouldn’t have been out of place if this was one more attack in a series of attacks, the final reveal after a long chain of feints, he let the gun dangle from one finger in the trigger guard, his other hand going up.
He dropped to his knees, hands raised.
The very instant she had caught his gun hand between the two blades, he’d realized he was outmatched and surrendered.
“Face down on the ground,” Mary ordered.
“Helen?” Mary asked.
Helen took over guarding Archie. Mary, meanwhile, walked over to Berger. Lillian hurried to Berger’s side.
“Tranquilizer,” Davis said.
“Not a full dose, judging by the fluid on the ground. How are you, professor?” Lillian asked.
“I feel as if my mind dropped to the bottom of a very deep well. I’m feeling vertigo from the fall, it’s dark, and it’s a long way to the surface,” Berger said. “On the upside, the pain of not having skin on half of my face is rather muted.”
“You’re mushing up your words more,” I pointed out.
“Thank you, Sylvester. You’ll have to excuse that I’m missing part of my lips and tongue.”
Mary checked the shackle. She checked the lock, and then the links, and worked her way down to where it connected to the sink-pipe. She checked the end attached to the pipe.
“Lock is wooded here, too. Pipe is cast iron,” Mary observed, of the pipe. “Nothing to unscrew. It’s all one solid piece, welded together. We could tear apart the cabinet the sink is on and try to throw this sink to the ground, destroying the pipe, but…”
“Cast iron,” Duncan observed, finishing the sentence. “Buildings like this? I’ve seen the pictures of the houses after fires, after bombings, after other disasters, where the house is ruined, but the bones of it stand. Sometimes you see the piping just sticking up there like a skeletal tree, outlasting the rest of the house.”
“Helen,” Mary said. “Can you? Twisting the chain? Can you brute-force it?”
Helen took the chain, testing the weight of it in her hands. She gathered up a short length of it, and she proceeded to wring it.
Very faintly, I could hear the protest of the metal.
“Progress,” Mary said.
“Slow,” Duncan observed. “Probably not faster than a hacksaw.”
Mary stood up, wiping hands she’d dirtied touching the pipe on a towelcloth. She took in the scene.
“It’s a draw,” Lillian said.
“We take Sy, we take Jessie. They keep Berger for now. We make a…”
“Trade?” I asked.
“No,” Lillian said. “Not a trade. We can’t not bring you in, and we can’t leave Berger either. You can’t let us leave without Berger.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like a very good exchange,” I said. “Giving up Berger for nothing. The way I see it, I gotta keep Berger, and I gotta stay free. Only way this works is if both sides leave unhappy. Bonus points if we’re amicable.”
“We’ll see,” Lillian said. She looked at Mary. “What do you think?”
“We’ll take Mabel and this man with us,” Mary said. “We rendezvous in an hour, due west of here. There should be a crossroad. We meet there, we discuss, we figure something out.”