“You’re not coming,” I said.
“Am too,” Helen said.
I had my jacket off and was wearing only my shirt, which was unbuttoned. The sink in the apartment was the small oyster-shell variety, with only a thin lip around the edge, and in the process of performing my own maintenance, washing up and medical care, I’d balanced roughly thirty objects on the edges. Moving and getting the things I needed was a bit of an exercise, but the exercise helped keep me sharp, as did the pain.
The bullet I’d taken to my fingers had split the right side of my ring finger and the left side of my middle finger, shattering and dislodging the nails. The fact that it had split meant it could be knit together.
“I’m coming,” Helen said. She sat on the toilet, which had the lid down, while Gordon Two worked on final touches. “I’m restless and I didn’t get to do much of anything before getting shot.”
Which was my fault. She didn’t sound accusatory, but then, Helen only sounded accusatory if it served her ends. She was being sweet now, which was a dangerous pairing with her feeling restless. I wasn’t sure how to communicate that to Gordon Two, or to the other student who’d followed the pair in, a young lady who was sticking to one corner. She had likely been invited to help Helen with things that a male attendant couldn’t, but that role had to wait.
I wasn’t going to ask. I’d retreated into the bathroom and taken to my own medical care to sort out my thoughts, and partway through they had found me, started to quiz me, and now there was a whole discussion happening.
I’d joked with Jessie about being like parents, and in this, not getting ten straight minutes of peace ever, we’d definitely hit the mark.
It had been more than ten minutes, between a rinse of my face and hair, looking after my back and shoulder as best as I could, scrubbing off blood, smoke, and dirt, and then finally tending to my hands. Doing them any earlier would have meant risking getting the bandages on the fingers wet or dirty. They’d get that way anyhow, but…
Well, I didn’t have a good answer to that.
“Syyyyyy,” Helen cooed.
“I’m thinking,” I said.
“You’re thinking too much,” she said.
“You’re weak,” I said. “A small dog could beat you in a fight.”
“You’re weak too, Sy, and you’ve always been weak. Even though you’re better than you were. But you’re hurting too.”
I gestured for her to ease up. I didn’t want bystanders to focus too much on my failings. She gestured agreement.
“All other things aside, you want me to come. I want to come. This is easy.”
“That’s an awful lot of things we’re putting aside,” I said.
“But there’s a lot of things to not put aside, like if you leave me behind, then you have to worry about me.”
“Do we?” Gordon Two asked. “Wait, why do we have to worry about her?”
“I’m trying to be good,” she said. I could see part of her expression in the mirror. She was wearing a very dangerous, sultry expression. “But a young lady has needs, Sy.”
“Uh,” Gordon Two said. He took his hands off of her. “Uncomfortable.”
“You’re fine, hon,” Helen said.
“Are you threatening me?” I asked. “Us?”
“No,” Helen said. Perfunctory, simple. “Needs. The difference between needs and wants is that wants are optional. Needs can be postponed but never wholly denied. Ignoring them wounds the body, mind, or spirit.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “And you need to murder people, or your spirit will wither.”
“What?” Gordon Two asked.
“Hmm. It might be more complicated than that,” she said.
“Mind?” I asked. “Body?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “The lines get blurry.”
“Well,” I said. “In the interest of nourishing body, mind and spirit, I could try swaying you with promises of sweets. It might take some doing to detour and stop at the right place, but- no?”
I’d read the expression on her face as I glanced up from my sutures in progress.
“No,” she said, firm.
“But sweets are equivalent to murder,” I said. “They go in the same bucket. A bloody, sexy bucket.”
“What?” Gordon Two asked. “Wait. Slow down. What?”
“If you’re confused and wary right now, then asking questions isn’t going to help,” I said. I raised my eyebrow as I checked with Helen, peering through the mirror. “I’m right about the sexy sweet blood bucket?”
Maybe I’d gone too far. I’d been teasing Gordon Two as part of the discussion, but the girl in the corner had eyes as wide as saucers. I needed to find a way to bring things to ground and keep them from crawling away from me.
Then Helen spoke. “They substitute for each other, but they aren’t the same thing. I can give you a cube of sugar and you can let it melt on your tongue, but it’s not going to be anything like a full meal, is it?”
The act of juggling thoughts about the conversation with Helen, figuring out how to pull things back to avoid scarring the girl in the corner, keeping at least one part of my brain focused on the greater game plan with the professors that were managing Helen’s brother and simultaneously suturing my fingers all ran together. The trains of thought found themselves on a collision course, and I consequently managed to jab myself with the suturing hook, sticking it right into a part of my finger where I was trying to avoid adding to the nerve damage.
Something off, something wrong, then the pain of stabbing myself, and I wheeled around, no longer viewing the room through the mirror. I only barely managed to keep from toppling the castle of medical supplies and toiletries I’d erected on the sink’s edge.
The room was empty.
No Helen, no Gordon Two, no girl in the corner.
The pain of the hook in my hand was making my hand shake, which played off of my confusion and alarm by almost emulating a kind of physical reaction. I’d mastered my poker face long ago, learned to hide erratic breathing and shaking hands, and the artificial imposition of the same effect formed an emotional tunnel, past walls and defenses long established.
I was bothered and my hand shaking made me far less able to take it in stride. I pushed the hook through, my eyes still scanning the small bathroom, and finished up my finger.
Think. Get centered. Evaluate reality.
The number of faces and individuals lurking in my head was growing. Secondary people and people I couldn’t even name, if they existed at all.
I had- what had I done before stepping into the bathroom? I was bothered by the dissent. I’d put on a cool face, tried to be reassuring, and assured everyone, from lieutenants to Jessie to Pierre and Shirley that we needed to be patient. Patience, and we’d have an in. Patience even though Helen wasn’t well.
Then I had stepped away, on the pretense that I wanted to wash and get tidied up. I’d wanted space. As much as I clung to the Lambs and the idea of the puppy pile, I’d woken up to gunshots and Lambs, then immediately moved to maneuvering that scenario, maneuvering among my people, settling Helen, ensuring that we made camp alright, that fears and worries were being assuaged and hopes fostered. Little things, like how I’d spotted Rudy and Possum in the crowd.
The day had been a storm of that, and the night before had been surgery and torture. I’d needed a moment, and I hadn’t even gotten it, because my brain hadn’t allowed me it.
I was worn thin. New faces were using the opportunity to creep in.
They were getting better at catching me off guard.
I finished up my fingers, then pulled on gloves, enduring the pain and the pressure. I met my own eyes in the mirror, and then fixed my hair, insofar as it could be fixed.
Helen and I had talked about the mind, body, and spirit. I could look after the body and hope it helped on the other two fronts. I made sure to drink some water, then double checked I’d washed away the blood and bandaged the wounds, reducing the appearance of scrapes and sorted out my appearance.
This was a show. I had to represent myself well to my people, because a strong image would help forestall dissent.
I’d finished tending to hair, skin, and what lay beneath, as best as I was able. Clothes were next. I took off my shirt, throwing it out, and wore only my jacket and slacks, so my wounds would be better covered up.
I’d expected to have to walk to my room and collect some clothes from my luggage. Jessie, however, was at the end of the hall, a fresh set of clothes in her hands.
“Good timing,” I said.
I snapped my fingers, adding, “But if you’d walked with a brisker step, you could have peeked.”
“Get dressed,” she said. “I’m already anxious about delaying this much.”
“Is Helen doing that badly?”
“Helen appears to be stable,” Jessie said.
“Stable is good,” I said.
“Helen is capable of bleeding and not bleeding at her whim, she can projectile vomit blood if she so chooses, and she can use muscle strength to hold many of her wounds closed. She is a consummate actor. She might look stable, but she decides her appearance at a whim.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Alright. Give me a second.”
I took the clothes and got dressed. It was interesting to see what Jessie had picked out. The clothes were crisper, the shirt had a cut with a more pronounced collar, the vest was meant to be worn with a suit jacket, but had been collected independently. She had also included one of my other jackets, a fresh pair of black slacks, and clean socks.
She offered me a steadying hand as I got changed. I pulled my boots back on, straightened, and swept my hands down my front. Green shirt, black vest, black slacks and shined black boots.
“I feel like a magician.”
“Good,” Jessie said.
“Is that your thing? Should I add it to your list of things? Magicians on trains and sleeping dragons that can knock buildings down?”
She reached up and pressed a lock of hair down where I’d tried to oil it back. “You’re joking a lot. Is that Helen’s influence or is it anxiety?”
“You talked to Pierre.”
“He did mention something, but that’s a very small fraction of what I’m asking.”
I shrugged, glancing back at the corners of the bathroom. “Nah. Things are getting crowded in the ol’ noggin.”
I shrugged. “We can talk about it later.”
“If you’re sure.”
“Yeah. What’s big Neph doing?”
My eyebrows went up. “Do tell.”
“Cannons, it sounded like.”
“I missed that! Okay, that’s what we were waiting for,” I said. I pulled on the jacket. It did make for a flattering cut with the vest and shirt. “Everyone’s ready that’s coming?”
I suspected that Jessie had been trying to get me into a different frame of mind with the outfit. To perform. To show off. I made the mental adjustments, paying attention to how I stood and how I acted as I descended the stairs rapid-fire, taking her hand in my own.
It was eerie to see Gordon Two and Helen together, talking. Rudy and Possum were near Shirley. Multiple eyes were on Jessie and I as we entered the room.
“Big Neph is hurting,” I said. “That’s our opening. It shakes the bug box.”
“I’ve stopped trying to keep up with the terms,” Gordon Two said.
“Okay, I’ll simplify,” I said. I felt energized now. These were people I liked. Helen looked as lively as she had since being shot, but from what I could gather, she remained mute. This was alright as a fresh starting point. “Cynthia turned her attention to the biggest target.”
“Cynthia, to the best of our knowledge, is still underground, while the giant is trying to dig her up,” Jessie said.
“Cynthia, Cynthia’s people. They’re coordinated enough they can be considered an organism,” I said.
“Interesting phrasing,” Davis said.
“Point being,” I said, “Is that she and her people are preoccupied with Neph. Neph is preoccupied with them.”
Helen raised a hand, then indicated me, pointing.
“And as Helen so kindly points out, yes. Neph was sent here for a reason. He has Cynthia’s scent. There’s nothing saying he doesn’t have mine or Jessie’s. But mostly mine, since Jessie doesn’t officially exist and her alter-ego is dead.”
“Both of them, even,” Jessie said, quiet.
“Helen did not just communicate all that,” the Treasurer said.
Helen moved her hands, nodding emphatically while indicating me.
“She says I’m right,” I said. Helen nodded. Jessie’s eye-roll was dramatic enough that my mind supplied an imagined grating sound of eyeball on eye socket.
“I keep telling you guys,” Gordon Two said, “Best thing you can do is roll with it.”
“So let’s see,” I said. “Gordeux, you’re in?”
“That’s not actually my name, but yes,” Gordon Two said.
“Treasurer?” I asked the square-faced young man. He had lines of acne at the edges of his face that marked where skin oils had collected around masks. There was a name for that look that I hadn’t quite placed. I had teased Lillian about it before. His hair had been cut recently, and had been cut rather short for the winter.
He dipped his head in assent.
“Who else? Davis? You’re here because…”
“I’m coming. Please.”
“Even a please? You’re sure?”
“Yes,” he said, with no room for doubt.
“Alright,” I said. I floundered for a moment. It would have been nice to have him stay and keep arguing against dissolution, but my focus for the moment was on the performance. We’d collected Professor Berger and we’d given up that trophy in exchange for Helen.
We needed another concrete win. A trophy, and a step forward in progress. We needed a professor, one who could patch Helen up.
“Wad,” one of the thugs said.
“And Wad. I like the name,” I said. “Good to have some muscle. That leaves… well, Helen’s coming, I take it.”
“What?” Jessie asked. “No.”
“Yes,” I said. Helen nodded yes, emphatically.
“You’re going to have to explain this one to me,” Jessie said.
“We had a long discussion about it,” I said.
“No you didn’t,” Gordon Two said.
“We did. She was stubborn, but she won me over,” I said. Helen paused, then nodded.
That got the two of us suspicious looks from several people present.
“I’m not sure about this,” Jessie said. “On several levels.”
“She didn’t join us to be relegated to the sidelines. We’re better unified.”
Jessie bit her lip.
“We’re better unified,” I said, again.
“We magnify each other’s strengths, but we magnify weaknesses and character flaws too,” Jessie said. “You’ve only really improved with the fighting since breaking away from the Lambs.”
“I’m…” I’m still fairly abysmal on a level playing field, I thought. “Yeah. True. But short of Ibbot, who knows her as well as I do? And he only focuses on the meat. Which I admittedly have no clue about. I get her. I get that she needs this. We unify, we cover each other’s weaknesses and magnify each other’s strengths. It’s better with her out there.”
Helen stood. She wasn’t in proper working order, but she had been tidied up, and some careful arrangement of hair and fresh clothes had done a lot to make her look better. She didn’t look strong.
She wrapped me in a hug.
“See?” I asked.
“I see that the two most manipulative members of the Lambs are teaming up against me,” Jessie said, “Playing things up for sympathy and making it so I look like the bad one if I insist she stays.”
Helen and I both nodded with a great deal of force. We hadn’t coordinated, but we did the exact same thing in near-perfect synchronization.
“Alright,” Jessie said.
As a group, we entered the apartment building’s lobby.
This… it marked a kind of important divide. The students waited as a congregation, with Mauer standing by, watching. Not all of the three hundred students were present. Some had no doubt done the heavy lifting to get bags inside, some would be sleeping after not having slept the night before, they would be taking baths.
But others were staying away because their faith had been broken or bent. I noted Valentina’s absence.
Even in this crowd, there were people at the fringes who weren’t ours. They were rebels, which put them in our camp, but they weren’t yet ready to make the sacrifices and take the risks.
I couldn’t really recognize faces, but I could recognize them by sentiment. Without pinning any particular example to any particular students, I could say that the students on the fringes who looked less enthusiastic were the ones who had done the least amount of work possible, who’d taken to drinking or figuring out how to brew drinks, who had made party drugs and pushed the line with our few rules enough that they had mandated attention and warnings. I saw a fair number of delinquents and rooftop girls. I saw some lower-ranking members of the student council too. They included all types.
A dozen, maybe two dozen?
They counted the easygoing among them, and the easygoing often made friends easily. They counted the strongly opinionated among them, and the opinionated were rallying points for those with like feelings.
Mabel sat off to one side. As students rose to feet or made their way toward us, our army of sorts, she remained sitting.
Her smile looked like she was trying to reassure me, saying that she would stay behind, she would wrangle people.
But with a full hundred students joining us and migrating outside, we were leaving a fractured group behind. I worried Mabel would be outnumbered.
I gave her a brief wave as we left, and a salute to the rest of the room.
Stepping out of the dark hallway and into the street was a shock. From darkness to sunlight reflecting off of scattered white surfaces and puddles, from a muted warmth to a bitter cold. Cramped confines to the open city.
We were far enough away from Neph that the view of the giant’s movements and the sounds of what was going on were disconnected. I could see the puff of explosions on his naked chest, the smoke rolling away from him. The muted sound of explosions were like the clap of thunder following a lightning strike, though with far less reverberation, far less reach and volume. It was only now that we were outside that I was truly aware of it.
There were gunshots too. I knew that the various rebel factions had equipped themselves with some specialized arms. Cynthia had favored exorcist rifles at one point. I wasn’t sure they would do much damage to Neph, but the guns I was hearing were powerful enough to be heard at a considerable distance.
There were crowds out in the street, as we got out of the more secluded neighborhood. People had vacated buildings, feeling as though things were far enough away that they could make a getaway to the outer parts of the city. It meant traffic and it meant groups of people trying to load essential provisions onto carriages and carts.
Neph wasn’t putting up a very dramatic fight, but he was large enough that even an explosive cannon round caused only a moderate amount of damage. I couldn’t see the individual wounds, but I could see discoloration where wounds were grouped and where fluids drooled out of wounds.
If Helen could take several bullets and stay standing, I wasn’t sure this would be that successful. He’d been built for warzones, probably for targeting enemy leaders and destroying them in an unignorable manner that could demoralize whole armies, and his toughness would be designed.
Except that the damage kept targeting the same areas.
This wasn’t Cynthia’s first go-around when it came to giant-slaying. To use weapons of a sufficient magnitude, scrambling clear of an enemy that could cross a street in a single awkward stride, setting up position in the right areas to fire another battery, it took skill, effort, and a good strategic brain.
“Who’s winning?” the Treasurer asked. He was hanging further back, with the group, Davis beside him.
“Would be nice if both sides killed or crippled one another,” I said.
“Well, it would be ideal if the big guy over there smashed Cynthia’s group to a fine paste and then fucked right off instead of coming for us. As is, we’ll plan for the worst and if the ideal happens then we can celebrate. How’s that?”
She sniffed, then reached out to pinch my arm. Her grip wasn’t sufficient to penetrate my coat.
I wondered how much stamina she really had.
“Keep an ear out,” I told her. “We’re looking for the speakers, the experiments who were shouting instructions to people on the street.”
“And while we’re talking,” I said, my voice quiet, “If you were to use a metaphor where you talked about me eating sugar as being a hollow, artificial, unfulfilling substitute for eating a real meal, I’d be right to think something was wrong, yeah?”
She paused, giving me an odd look with an ordinary eye and a bloodshot one. Then she nodded.
“Yeah. Would have to be a mental safety net, my brain telling me something was off.”
Again, she digested that. After a long moment of just walking, the arm she’d used to pinch me now resting on my shoulder as she periodically drew on me for balance and support, she gave me another nod. It was as if she’d thought hard about it and decided I was on the mark.
She pointed, and I moved my hand, gesturing.
Behind me, Gordon Two, Davis and the Treasurer all relayed instructions, making sure that the crowd of a hundred bodies kept up and were paying attention.
Jessie was the one to gesture, and this time, it was the sign for weapon.
Of the small army we had flocking behind us, one in eight or so had guns. Others had knives.
In the distance Neph toppled another building, waging his war against Cynthia’s people. His success and failure were our clock. One way or another, if Cynthia lost or was routed, there was a chance he would gravitate toward us, which would be bad, or he would return to his handlers, which would make taking action a thousand times more difficult. If Cynthia won, well, we had to worry about her going back to the last place she’d seen us, and that would put her in close enough proximity to our people that moving hundreds would be risky.
There was commotion nearby. We inched closer, me gesturing for quiet, for our army to stay back.
Civilians. Angry civilians. They had gathered, throwing one of the round ‘speakers’ to the ground, and they were beating the everloving snot out of the fellow. Some were using hand-held weapons.
“Stop!” I hollered. Some smoke inhalation from earlier in the day gave my voice a rougher edge.
They were angry, they were scared, and in the heat of the moment, they stopped what they were doing, leaving the experiment to bleed.
They turned their hostility toward me.
Jessie gestured, and I knew what the gesture was.
“We need him,” Jessie said, very diplomatically.
I could see those words rile the crowd. But as our rebel army formed at our back, the rising anger was given pause. It made it easier to speak, and it made it easier to speak with weight.
“We’re going after the people who caused all this,” I said. “He’s going to lead us to them.”
Helen moved closer to me. She posed a little, smiling, looking dangerous in posture and expression.
Ah, she wanted to play it that way?
“Want in?” I tried.