A few things were immediately clear. We were outgunned, outnumbered, and out of immediate options. They knew exactly where we were, and we knew where the gunshots were coming from, generally speaking.
I’d reflexively moved for the nearest piece of cover when the first gunshots fired, dragging Jessie and Helen with me. That cover consisted of a propped up sign, grown wood rather than carpentry, painted with a leaf, signifying some kind of herbalist or floral shop. The good thing was the sign itself was solid enough that bullets hit it dead on and didn’t punch through, or passed through one panel and struck the panel we were leaning against. It worked fairly well as cover went.
The first downside to come to mind was that the sign, by dint of its construction, was composed of two panels with a hinge at the top end. As solid and heavy as the special wood was, I couldn’t help but imagine that enough impacts would make the other panel inch closer to us, feet scraping on the road, until the sign folded and tipped over, leaving us exposed. Was it likely? The sign was broad enough the three of us could cluster behind it with only one of our shoulders sticking out the side, the wood was thick. One of those inching losses of ground might require two rifle shots to hit at the same time or in quick succession.
Which sounded fine until I went back to considering just how many shooters there were and just how outgunned we were. They weren’t chancing anything, and the sheer vehemence of the response added up to another mental tickmark in the ‘Cynthia’ box. She and her people weren’t fond of Lambs.
So that was a thing. Our cover was sturdy, as signs went, but it was still a sign that wasn’t anchored to the ground. Then there was the fact that the sign was on legs. The gap was such that someone would have to lie on the ground to aim for the space, but it didn’t preclude a chance ricochet hitting the cobblestone road and bouncing up to catch one of us in the rump or lower spine.
Then there was the fact that not every hit was dead center or to the most solid part of the sign. The bullets caught the edges and the edges splintered, which meant our cover was being whittled away, which in turn meant-
I winced at the sharp sound of a bullet catching the sign an inch from my ear. My ear rang from the sound, my vision going funny in one eye. I had to concentrate to bring my senses back under control and to put the ringing out of mind. “Yes, Jessie. Hello. Why are you greeting me at a time like this?”
Jessie was momentarily drowned out by the din of gunfire and the noise of bullets bouncing off of cobblestone and building faces.
“-lost in your own head,” she finished. “Focus.”
I focused. “Ten gunmen? Twelve?”
“Do you know or are you guessing?” Jessie asked. “You sound like you’re guessing.”
“Same thing, these days,” I said.
Conversation was momentarily interrupted by a series of shots. Some sounded different than others, and I felt the signboard move behind me.
“That’s not true,” Jessie said. “But we’ll talk about that after.”
“They’re flanking us,” Helen said. She pointed. “Running footsteps.”
They were coming around to our right. If they got into position there, they’d be able to shoot at us and we wouldn’t have the benefit of cover.
Most would be happy to have us pinned down, our cover being shredded. But these guys are taking advantage of the fact we can’t move to take another position where they can shoot us.
The sign sat at the edge of the footpath. Three long strides would get us to safety, but there were too many bullets flying, and taking those kinds of strides meant standing up first. With three of us, the chance that we’d make it there was simply too small.
“-seconds,” Helen said. Gunshots had drowned out the first sound.
She held up her fingers in the gesture-language countdown. Five, four-
And then the enemy would be in cover.
I drew my knife, and I slammed it into the sign, my fingers wrapping around the edge of the sign to keep the sign in place. Wouldn’t do to let it fold and fall down at this critical juncture.
A bullet caught the board just where I was holding it. My hand flew away, splinters and blood, and I twisted away. I might have lost my balance and gone from a crouch to a face-down sprawl on the street if Jessie hadn’t caught me.
“-Two,” Helen said. “One-”
Jessie’s fingers tightened on my shoulder and arm.
With my damaged hand, no idea how bad it was, I reached out and grabbed the knife.
Funny thing was, the use of the knife was supposed to keep me from having to reach out with my hand. Embedded as best as I could get it into the dense wood, it served as a handle, a point of leverage. I drew my pistol and rather than use it, held the barrel and hooked the handle around the edge.
“Go!” I called out.
I hauled, pulling on the gun and knife to drag the sign. Helen managed to reach down and grab the lower leg and help while maintaining a near-run. We moved our cover.
I saw Helen’s head start to turn, her hand going up. I reacted before she was even finished the initial movement- I’d been waiting for the signal from her.
The flanking gunmen had reached their position, according to Helen’s ears. I moved the gun, catching the other lower leg with the hook of the handle, and threw myself across Jessie, pulling the sign so it came around to protect us from the flankers. We’d covered enough ground that there was only a minimal gap between us and the nearest wall.
The flanking soldiers opened fire. The vibrations of the bullets hitting the sign made it hard for me to hold onto the knife. A crack formed, reaching from the halfway point of the sign to the hinge, and I could see daylight through it. From the lean of the sign, one of the legs had broken away.
We retreated as best as we could, until we reached what I’d thought was an alleyway. In reality, it was an alcove, a recess in the building face for trash to be piled up for carting away later. There were reams of wet paper that smelled like damp earth and likely had a gritty texture reminiscent of it.
There was an access door, but there was only room for one person to get in there.
“Go,” I told Jessie. “Get the door open.”
She made a pained face, then nodded.
When she lurched for cover, then made her way to her feet, I could see the gouge in one of her legs. One bullet had gone under the sign after all.
If I’d known she had caught a grazing hit from a bullet, I wouldn’t have told her to do it. But Helen couldn’t pick locks, to the best of my knowledge, and that meant it had to be one of the two of us. I wasn’t sure about myself. I investigated my hand.
The bullet had hit the signboard where I was grabbing it. It had passed between two fingers of my right hand, catching both, shattering both fingernails, exposing the white of the bone of the knuckle of my middle and ring fingers, and doing a degree of damage to flesh that I couldn’t really judge, given the blood that was pouring out of the wound.
I kept my back to the sign, which continued to rock with intermittent gunfire, and I wrapped a handkerchief around my injured fingers, wadding it in between the fingers before tightly binding them.
The patter of gunfire changed. I frowned.
“They’re coming,” Helen said. “The group that opened fire first.”
“Yeah,” I said. “The others just got the message. They’re shooting to keep us pinned down, but they don’t want to hit friendlies.”
“We’re open,” Jessie said, before disappearing through the door.
Helen ducked through, and I was the last one to exit, tearing my knife free before I did so. We closed and locked the heavy braced door behind us.
“They’re coming,” Helen said. “They have ghosts.”
Ghosts. The clones of Percy’s design, using aspects of the cannibalized ‘Whiskers’ experiment. Echolocation and coordination. They had been mass-produced for a short period, and then a steady extermination campaign on the Academy’s part had coupled with Percy’s death to bring the project to an end. Now the remaining Ghosts were scattered among rebel factions, the vast majority of the ghosts favoring Cynthia’s. Given their talents, I had to imagine they were serving as scouts and listening ears for whichever squad or team they served with.
I wondered if there was a story as to why they kept appearing alone when they’d been pack creatures on our first encounter with them. Was it a natural fact of their developing individuality? They ceased to synchronize with their kin?
“Sound disrupts them,” Jessie said. “Confuses their echolocation and spatial senses.”
“For a short time,” I said. I looked at our environment.
The store sold plants and flowers, all potted and of a sort that made it look more like the flowers were strictly for gardens, not for gifts. The shop itself was closed, with artificial tubing reaching from a water tank to the innumerable pots, providing water to them in quantities that depended on the thickness of the tubing.
With the shop closed, curtains had been pulled across the windows, allowing only a dull, filtered light to pass through. Metal fences of a sort had been pulled across the door and display windows. It didn’t look like the metal fences were there to stay- they only existed to keep thieves out.
It also served to limit our access to the display windows at the front of the store. We couldn’t use that glass to disturb the ghosts.
“…For now, we should focus on get somewhere safe,” I said. “How’s your leg?”
“I can’t run.”
“Got it. Can I see?”
“They’re here,” Helen said. “They’re surrounding the building.”
I didn’t wait for a response from Jessie. I dropped to one knee, and I checked the wound. The bullet had caught the calf muscle, passing right through.
I used a pair of shears from the shop and a bit of my sleeve to create a quick makeshift bandage. I tied it in place as best as I could.
“Hm?” Jessie asked. “We need to go, Sy.”
I straightened, holding my hand up. I’d collected what I could of the blood that had run down from the injury to her foot and into her boot.
Rather than try to squeeze blood from my fist, I flicked my hand in the direction of the back door. Flecks of blood were scattered in that direction.
“Up?” Helen asked.
“Up,” I confirmed.
“Rooftops don’t lend themselves to an exit that way,” Jessie said. “And I think they’re keeping an eye out.”
“Yeah,” I said.
We needed hiding spots.
We needed to deal with the ghosts, and there was a distinct lack of glass available.
The second floor was residential, the apartment of the people who ran the shop. It was all made up of bedrooms and bathrooms, with a staircase at the far end of the hall leading up to a third floor.
I checked the doors and found some locked. Finding one open bedroom, I hauled the door open. I saw the window, and started toward it.
Helen caught my arm.
“Lemme go,” I said.
“There are soldiers on the ground,” she said.
“Lemme go,” I said, again.
She let go of me. I headed into the bedroom, collected the nearest heavy object, a hand-brush with metal backing, and hurled it through the window.
Gunshots fired. Soldiers and rebels on the ground that had been waiting to coordinate or something kicked the doors and windows in, storming into the building.
The cages at the door and windows on the first floor rattled. They were meant to deter theft, however, and not to stop an all-out siege.
Others would be coming through the side door we’d used. The door was heavy enough it would resist a good kicking, but they were determined, and they no doubt had resources.
I kept my head down, grabbed two pieces of glass, and used one to jam the door shut as I closed it, working it into the doorframe. I handed the other to Jessie.
She began scratching, and, with luck, we were no longer in the sights of the ghosts. They wouldn’t hear us and their handlers, hopefully, would hang back.
Downstairs, the barriers came crashing down, and the soldiers stormed the building. I could hear other damage and destruction as they pushed things aside and crowded their way through the building.
We headed upstairs. The third floor, in a weird transposition of normal building layouts, housed the kitchen and living room. There were windows, large enough to let light in, but they were high up. A wooden beam ran from one end of the building to the next.
Helen gestured, and I provided the boost, cupping my hands so the injured fingers wouldn’t be a problem. Or so I thought. As Helen set her foot down, her weight coming down on my hands, the pain flared, and my knees buckled.
I set my teeth, adrenaline helping, and then nodded for her to try again.
This time, I was able to boost her up the wall to a handhold. From the handhold, she was able to climb up to the beam.
Helen was a strong climber, her grip indefatiguable and tenacious. Once she was on the beam, she was able to use her feet to grip it and flip herself upside down. Her skirt reversed direction, flopping down, but the circumstance was tight enough that none of us cared.
Jessie had trouble jumping up to grab Helen’s hand, and we needed to minimize how much time we were spending not scratching glass, so I helped her up, hands on her hips, launching her up. She climbed Helen rather mercilessly until she had a vantage point to stand, one hand on the beam and one foot on the side of Helen’s neck. She pulled the glass free of her belt and began scratching it again.
There was a poetry to the scene, I observed. Helen with her skirt upside down, Jessie in a compromising position skirtwise with me directly beneath her… I would’ve liked to joke about it. Alas, no time. Another day, with luck.
I jumped up and grabbed Helen’s hand with my good hand.
Rather than have me climb her, Helen maneuvered and contorted her way to raise me up to the beam and help me onto it.
We had an exit, presumably. I wasn’t sure I trusted it.
“There are still soldiers outside?” I murmured.
“Yes,” Helen said. “I can hear footsteps and murmuring. There’s one ghost in the building and one outside. I can hear them too. They’re noisy.”
A Lara-Nora dynamic, possibly. Coordination between groups.
“Would they have a clear shot at us?” I whispered
“Not clear. But they would get shots,” Helen whispered back. “But it’s better than staying here.”
I bit my lip. I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t want to press our luck.
“Layout of buildings isn’t good,” Jessie whispered. “We don’t have a lot of maneuverability out there.”
Helen shook her head, golden curls thwapping back and forth across her face. “I looked before we went inside. We can jump over to the house with the cute chimney, climb that roof and then we can run along the house with the cock’s comb.”
“Cock’s what?” I murmured. “No, not important.”
Jessie was more on point. “We don’t have anywhere to run after that, Helen. I’ve pieced together the layout. It doesn’t go anywhere.”
“The other option is staying here,” Helen retorted. “If we do that then we die. I like my plan better. There are ways.”
The soldiers had planned this, to an extent. It wasn’t a comprehensive plan, done hours in advance. No. If I had the gist of this right, then they had shot the Crown’s speaker, the experiment that was shouting for people to stay indoors. Seeing people move from cover to cover like we had been doing wouldn’t be wholly unbelievable for civilians, but I had to wonder if our reaction to the sound of the gun had been cause for them to realize we were a threat.
At which point they’d realized we were Lambs.
I missed the days we were a clandestine project.
“We stay,” I said.
“What?” Jessie asked.
“They expect us to leave, so we stay. There isn’t much light. We’re in the shadows up here. Use the glass, Jessie. Helen, you and I, we attack.”
Jessie started scratching the glass. Helen and I shifted position, and Helen took partial custody of Jessie, wrapping one arm around her.
They would come up the stairs. They would look up.
I tried to wrap my head around the scene, then stabbed my knife into the beam at an angle.
Damaged, bandaged fingers gripped the beam, my other hand gripped the knife handle while I prayed the blade wouldn’t break and the tip wouldn’t pry free. I bought good knives, but…
My body stretched out along the length of the beam, hugging it, but I didn’t perch on top of it, because doing so would mean being in plain view of anyone coming up the stairs. Instead, I clung to the side, my calf, foot and knee hugging the surface. I was hugging the side as much as I could without anything dangling or being visible beneath.
Helen mimed me and did much the same, but she used her hands and feet, and she supported Jessie, helping to hold Jessie up, while Jessie scratched the glass.
My throbbing fingertips and the damage to my back made themselves felt within seconds. I could hear the tromping footsteps, and I was aware of the first people making their way up, checking.
“There’s a window,” one said. “Did they leave?”
“They can’t have gone far. Carm and Daisy are still having fits like they do when we use the sharpening wheel.”
I was trembling now. It wasn’t a lack of fitness. It was that pain and damage I’d sustained was forcing parts of me to work in ways and degrees they hadn’t before to compensate for what would’ve been a decent amount of strain on any other day.
More boots. They were gathering below. Checking, chattering.
“Where’s the boss?”
“He’s with Carm.”
“What do we do? Tear this place apart? Look for their hiding places?”
“Sounds like a start.”
Oh, they were staying for a bit, then.
Problem was, it wasn’t a question of if I was going to slip and fall. It was a question of when. I didn’t have it in me.
I looked at Helen, then at Jessie, who was doing a fine job of etching the glass without making audible noise. I looked the other way, at Mauer, who stood on the beam I was hanging onto.
It was as if he was standing on my hand, grinding down on the injured fingers, intensifying the pain beyond what I would’ve felt if he wasn’t participating.
There were three people directly below me. I wondered if I could set up my landing so I could stab one and cut another two before they realized what was happening.
I was pretty sure I couldn’t. Not with my back being injured. Not with my fingertips ruined.
The knife moved a hair, and the pressure on my fingertips increased.
I looked over at the others, ready to signal them. What I saw, however, was that Jessie was no longer scratching the glass.
She wasn’t scratching the glass, meaning the ghosts were in the know. Ghosts being in the know meant they’d alert the people who needed to know, which meant-
A long shot. Throwing a rope to thread an anchor.
“Heads up!” a voice called out.
I peeked, and I only did so because every eye turned away from where we might be. The man who came up the stairs was wearing a military coat. It wasn’t in the long style favored by Academy military, but short enough the belt was visible, double-breasted, with four large buttons. He was young, as his sort went, thirty or so, but had the wear and tear of a man twice his age, in scarring and pockmarks and old burns, with a bit of hair at one side of his head that parted funny, as if it had grown in different around an old wound. He had a beard that mingled blond hair with a chestnut brown, making him look as though he was prematurely greying, and it wasn’t a good beard, more the kind grown out of happenstance and necessity than out of the fact that his face produced good hair. Scraggly on the cheeks and thicker at the chin.
He had a clone on his arm. One of the ghosts of the redheaded variety. ‘Carm’, I presumed.
In moving my head down to look around the post, I’d put too much pressure on my hands and back. I tried to move back to a comfortable position and I found myself lacking the strength or the robust, uninjured muscle.
I dropped. I landed on my feet, took a half-second to get my bearings, and then put a knife to the throat of the most important looking man in arm’s reach.
I wasn’t sure, on seeing all the people stare my way, that his importance ranked even among the top five or ten of the fifteen men and one woman present.
I could have sworn.
But I’d served as the distraction. Helen had found her perch, leaving Jessie where she was, and now Helen jumped.
Not a pounce. A jump, almost lazy, skirt flapping, hair freeing itself of the close curls and pins Helen had used.
The ghost reacted, and being a ghost, she reacted fast. It was only in the last second that the ghost winced, head turning away, and Helen was free to crash into both Carm and the man in charge.
They went down in a heap, all three together, and with Helen in the mix, I knew before I even saw the outcome that she had this in hand.
Guns were pointed at Helen, and blades were drawn. More blades and guns were pointed at me.
But Helen had their leader by the jugular, her legs holding the ghost by the throat.
“Sylvester Lambsbridge here. That would be Helen G. Ibbot embracing you right now.”
“Good afternoon,” Helen said.
“I’m Franz,” the man with the beard said.
“Can we talk, or are you going to follow Cynthia and refuse all negotiation?” I asked, my voice carrying through the open space and past the crowd of thugs and soldiers.
“I’m tempted to refuse,” Franz said.
“Even if you die?” I asked.
“That’s why I said I’m tempted. I’d like to be the leader who holds to his word.”
I made a point of not looking at Jessie. She was a good card to hold in reserve.
“Where’s Cynthia?” I asked.
“Dead,” the man said.
“The giant has her scent. She ordered us to leave her while she deals with it. It tracks her wherever she goes, and it can move faster than a horse runs by walking. If we can’t find a way to kill it, she’s gone. If she isn’t gone already. We haven’t been able to find a way. If we get too close, it reacts to the lingering scent of her on us.”
“Designed to rip out the power structure in entirety,” Helen observed.
“What if I was willing to offer my help in saving her, in exchange for our freedom and safety?” I asked.
“You could,” the man said.
Cagey. Why, when I was offering something essential?
Did they not like Cynthia? Was an accidental death a good end that wouldn’t tear their organization apart? Or was there something more at play?
“You made a move,” I said. A vague statement that opened doors and made me sound smart a hell of a lot more than it made me sound stupid. In this kind of game, assuming someone was up to something was simply a fact of life.
“Yeah,” Franz said. “I made a move. We found the rest of your little army. Our people are in the process of marching and tracking down your people, while they’re busy unpacking their things and getting settled.”