It took a group of grown adults some concerted effort to drag the speaker off to one side. They collectively propped him up so he lay across several stairs. One of his eyes was already hurt enough it couldn’t open, his nose had been smashed and the blood that had flowed from it painted a thick stripe down his lower face, and every breath he took in made his hand clench as he bore the pain. He looked as though he weighed at least twenty stone, where I weighed seven.
“Alright, I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m listening,” one of the members of the crowd said.
I might’ve hoped that someone else would have spoken up. This guy looked like he was sturdily built and worn around the edges by mid-level manual work, drinking, and smoking. The distribution of dust and faint stains on his clothing suggested he wore an apron much of the time. A baker, butcher, or the like. I could see why he spoke first among this crowd, if he was a face that a lot of people had run into and interacted with.
That wasn’t what had me concerned. It was that I’d seen a glimpse of the crowd stomping on, kicking, and using improvised weapons to thrash the speaker. My impression of this man was very heavily shadowed by the expression on his face. It had been red where his trimmed black beard hadn’t covered it, contorted, and gleeful.
I waited, giving weight to things, leaving room for others to speak up. I didn’t want to have this dialogue with the mad baker.
“You said you needed him,” an older man said. He wasn’t an old man, but he’d passed his middle years a few years back, and his hair was touched with a thick daubing of grey.
“I did,” I said, seizing on the second speaker. I made sure to devote a share of attention to the mad baker so I didn’t effectively ignore him. “That giant over there is fighting with a group of rebels. If one side wins, then the window of opportunity is most likely going to close. We want and need to find the people who are managing the reins. That fellow you were beating up a minute ago is our best bet for finding them.”
“And who are you?” the mad baker asked.
“He’s Sylvester Lambsbridge,” Jessie said. “I’m Jessie Ewesmont. Sylvester’s claim to fame is assassinating the Baron Richmond of Warrick.”
That got a few raised eyebrows. I saw a smile creep across the mad baker’s face.
“I don’t like how this is being handled,” the older man said. “These… monsters, shouting at us to stay put, stay inside, while the giant knocks over buildings that we know have people inside. I can understand why others are upset-”
“Pissed,” the mad baker said, his voice dangerous. “Don’t mince it.”
“Pissed,” the older man said, in a way that suggested he didn’t like the foul language. “But I don’t know if I agree with or can condone the murder of a noble.”
“You might change your tune if you saw what life was like for those in Warrick,” I said.
“I might,” he said, “But I didn’t.”
Well, he was what I’d looked for. Someone more level-headed in the midst of the mob. He was dissenting, and others were looking more restless, the mad baker included.
“That’s entirely fair,” I said. The key was to sound calm, reasonable. I had a small army at my back, and this guy had been standing off to one side in the midst of a mob, angry enough to be standing here, not so angry he was stomping a helpless experiment to death. “For the record, I don’t want to have a long discussion. That giant’s probably going to come looking for us, if the rebels don’t win and follow up felling the giant and start burning the city to the ground. If at any point you make up your mind, let us know, we’ll move along.”
“Uh huh,” the man said.
“I don’t mind the noble killing,” the mad baker said. “It’s been a long time coming, and the Baron was always a nut.”
“He was,” I said. “But that wasn’t wholly the reason I went after him.”
“What was the reason?” another man asked. He looked more like a banker.
Another level head.
“He threatened Sylvester’s family,” Jessie said.
“That doesn’t sound like a strong reason. The deaths of nobles has caused a lot of grief,” the older man said. “This could be part of it.”
“That’s bullshit,” the mad baker said.
“The nobility exists for a reason. Nothing stands on its own,” the older man said. “One pillar has been shaken, not even destroyed, and we’re seeing the ramifications. Lunatics coming out of the woodwork, crime, plague, civil war.”
“Whole tracts of the middle and western Crown states being sterilized,” the mad baker said, sounding angry again. “Let’s not forget how this started.”
“I’m not here to have a long discussion,” I said.
“The sterilization was a mistake stemming from miscommunication,” the older man said. “One caused by initial stirrings of war. The Red Shepherd. Who later went on to kill the Duke, someone we counted on to keep us safe.”
“You’re talking about Mauer,” I said.
“That’s the name.”
“Listen,” I said. If this discussion continued, the mad baker would steer the conversation, argue the failings of the Crown, and the discussion would be dragged down into the mud. My route to success lay in arguing with the people I disagreed with here. “All the stuff you’re talking about, I’ve been there. I’ve had long conversations with Mauer, with Fray, I’ve had Cynthia of the Spears pull a gun on me. I’m here for this. I’m offering you a chance to make it end. Give that experiment to me, I’ll find the people who turned that giant on this city, and then I’ll do my damndest to make it go away. Or I’ll stop the people who want to burn the city down.”
“We only want to save lives,” Jessie said.
“It’s what I was doing when I went after the Baron,” I said. “I saved a lot of lives when I ended his reign over Warrick. They would’ve lived long, productive lives in that city, but those existences were condemned ones. Waking nightmares, shadowed by waking monsters custom-designed to each family. Trust me when I say that those long lives would’ve been worse than short lives ending in grisly death. That was a herculean task. This, right here, is absolutely something I and my people can do. If you need justification or proof, you can follow us, you can listen in, and you can leave or intervene at any time. If you need to find an outlet for your anger, my opening offer stands. You can join us.”
“No, I don’t think I’ll join you,” the older man said.
“I might,” the mad baker said.
Also as expected, unfortunately.
“Joining isn’t the important thing. Do you want to ride along? Do you want to see things with your own two eyes?” I asked the older man. I glanced at the banker, then glanced at the mad baker. “If you have any doubt about my abilities, if you want to second guess me and the Crown’s role…”
“If it matters,” Gordon Two spoke up, “I can say that all of us standing by Jessie and Sy are doing it for a reason, because he’s good at this and we believe in what he’s doing.”
Not all, I thought. The dissent in the ranks. And that’s not the question at hand. It’s whether they have the courage.
“If we step aside and give you this monster so you can try to use him to go after his makers, what’s to say you and those youths behind you won’t just ignore me? What can I do against… however many of you there are?”
“Eighty to a hundred,” the banker said.
“Collateral,” I said. “Pick any one of us. They’ll be your hostage. We move in two groups, each in sight of the other. You can watch from a distance. The person you pick can comment and explain, or you can send someone over or beckon someone to you, and we’ll send someone to make sense of things. Anything hinky happens, you can exercise your best judgment.”
The older man frowned, looking us over.
I spread my hands. “If you’re not comfortable with the idea, say the word. We’ll find another one of these guys and leave you to it.”
The distant fighting was disjointed. There was a flare of dust and smoke that rose in a sudden plume over the skyline. The sound of it followed two seconds later. After the sound and several long moments, the wind blew. Not the shockwave or the ripple of the impact, but a reaction to a large-scale change in environment and air pressures. A building or giant had fallen.
“I’m insane if I say yes to this.”
“You were a bystander in a mob of angry civilians,” I told the older man. “This is more sane, more focused. It’s a surgical strike that solves the problem.”
“The anger was a more organic thing,” the older man said. “Talking to each other, one thing leading to another. Didn’t feel wrong. Premeditation makes it worse somehow. Doing this in the shadow of talking about murdering nobles? Feels a lot worse.”
“Alright,” I said. I gestured, turning to go. It took a little bit of time for the gesture to translate into orders, lieutenants calling instructions down the line. I wondered if Cynthia did drills or if she faced the same delay between decision and action when coordinating her people. Mauer had some delay, but I suspected his communication was effective enough that he could shout jump and people would jump because he was that convincing.
Fray didn’t manage armies so much. She… preferred to put pieces in place and create an engine, or a greater organism.
I’d hoped to do that. But I wasn’t Fray. I was something else.
The mad baker, as I’d termed him, was moving like he was joining us. I didn’t want him, not really.
“Hold on,” the older man called out.
I held on, gesturing. The Beattle rebels stopped.
“I’ll come. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I stay here, I don’t change anything. If I come, at least there’s a chance I can have a say, right?”
“That’s the idea,” I said.
“He doesn’t represent me,” a woman said. “But I’ll come too.”
Slowly and surely, the group began to form, people stepping forward.
As they peeled away, a path of sorts emerged, a way to the speaker. I gestured, and Jessie turned to indicate some people. Bea’s people. Some of our stronger ones, and the thug, who looked like he’d been one of Otis’.
As one, they worked to haul the speaker to his feet.
He was beaten, battered, bruised, and he looked surly. His hair had been immaculately styled in a look that was most often worn as a wig, not as an actual hairstyle, curled into a roll at the brow, he had a baby face, and he had a lot of mass, which mostly amounted to being loaded to bear with special organs and then given a frame that could carry it all. His clothing had a weave that became a checked pattern when the light hit it, all fine clothing, but durable. I wished I could have taken some of it for myself, but it was hardly going to fit. Jessie, Mabel, Gordon Two and I could all have crammed together into his outfit.
“Get somewhere safe,” I told the people who were lingering. “Keep an eye on things. They’re only going to get uglier, and when they do, it’s going to happen fast. That giant will cross half the city before you can get out of your house with the bare essentials. The rebels will… I don’t even know, but it could be fire, it could be forced conscription. Trust your instincts.”
The banker was among the group who were staying behind. I could see his expression change, hardening at the thought of each of the scenarios.
“Good luck,” I told them.
“I’d wish you luck, but I’m not sure you deserve it,” the banker said.
“Yeah,” I said.
It took only a short time to sort things out. The older man and the woman who had been second to join discussed briefly among themselves before nominating both Jessie and Davis as their hostages. Interesting that they’d chosen two of the most put-together members of our group, the tidiest, neatest ones. Jessie was the ironed blouse and skirt pleats, the stockings, the jacket with crisp lines, her hair in one braid. Davis was neatly parted hair and a suit shirt and slacks combination that would have been a decent Academy uniform if it had only had more white.
The mad baker was an outlier in this city, I suspected, someone who was only here because certain menial service and labor jobs were necessary to keep things running and attend to the life that existed beyond what I was growing to think was a backbone of business, international banking, and information. The more level-headed members of this particular mob, the ones that represented the local color, they’d identified best with Jessie and Davis, saw them as the most valuable hostages to take.
That group crossed the street, and I could see Jessie talking to the group, explaining, outlining. She was moving her hands as she talked, and as she did, she was gesturing. It was perfect, because it meant we could maintain an ongoing dialogue.
There was something magical about being on the same page as someone, to have thoughts and ideas and not even having to say or do something specific to have other people act as an extension of those thoughts.
With four able-bodied men supporting the speaker and keeping him moving, the speaker stumbled ahead.
“Careful,” I said, as I watched him. “We don’t know if he has anything up his sleeve.”
He was focused for the moment on putting one foot in front of the other, being wrestled and jabbed this way and that. He wasn’t a fighter, and for the moment, he looked confused.
I could vaguely recall an encounter some years ago, when the Lambs had all been together. Mary had been there. We’d preyed on the relative innocence and gullibility of another experiment’s mind.
Had it been Fray’s stitched?
The speaker tripped, and only the support of the people who were holding him keeping him from outright falling flat on his face. He sagged, and we had to pause while they righted him.
He glanced at me, and I saw something sharper than I would have ever seen on Fray’s face. Not a cunning, human sharpness, but the look of an animal that was weighing its options.
“Heads up!” I called out. I clapped my hands to my ears, backing swiftly away.
There were three venues of attack here. One was self-destruction, another was noise, and a third was a combination thereof.
A moment later, the speaker opened his mouth.
He made the first real sound I’d heard from him, a noise like the horn of a large ship or cry of a train, loud enough to make the ears hurt, to disorient, and unending, a lone note held indefinitely.
With that noise, he made a hundred people stagger, and the remainder of two hundred hands that hadn’t followed my cue went to protect ears. I had no idea how many knees buckled.
I saw Otis’ thug draw a gun, and I lunged, reaching out to stop him from aiming it at the speaker.
I could adapt to the noise better than some, because adapting was part of what I did. Helen barely seemed to care about it, holding only one hand to one ear, more in the sense that she didn’t want both ears to adapt to the sound.
Someone near me reacted badly enough to the volume of the speaker that they began to dry heave.
The people who had been supporting him backed away, and the speaker dropped to his hands and knees. He had to know that doing this would see him shot or disposed of. But he would do a degree of damage to us before he went.
Helen moved, approaching him. I met her eyes, and we communicated in that instance.
The coordination, the magic of thinking and having others act as an extension of that thought with barely any communication, it wasn’t limited to me being at the center. Helen wanted to act, and I could follow her line of thinking to the conclusion.
I gestured, urging others to back away, to get clear of the worst of the sound.
Leaving Helen and the speaker alone together. A full city block away, Jessie was gesturing. I could only barely make out the signs.
She didn’t want me to leave Helen like that. Helen was weak. Helen couldn’t communicate.
With nobody holding him and the rest of us stumbling a solid fifty paces away, many with eyes screwed shut and hands at ears, the speaker was free to lurch, trying to get to his feet. He had to expect someone would find the wherewithal to shoot him in the back. But he would act in service to the Academy that had created him and the Crown he’d been a voice for, and he would do it in the simplest manner possible.
His attempt to move from being on hands and knees to a standing position was interrupted when Helen walked into him. Her mass was a fraction of his, but the timing was effective. He bowled her over, dropping again to hands and knees, while she landed on her rear end, her face a short distance from his.
He was still making that infernal noise.
Jessie gestured, suggesting a course of action. I could try disabling him. Like Helen, he had organ clusters. Jessie’s suggestion was the kidney area, and I suspected there was some trace of Academy science she had picked up that was informing the decision.
It wasn’t a bad suggestion, but Helen had dibs on this one. I gave her a minute.
Too generous by forty seconds.
Twenty seconds or so passed, and the noise stopped.
While the rest of our people were recovering, some still staggering as though their middle ears were in tatters, I found my feet. The mental adjustments were much the same as the ones I’d made in the wake of Jessie’s fertilizer explosion at the ground floor of the flower place, so they were fresh in my mind.
As I approached, I could see Helen holding one hand to the side of the speaker’s feet.
“And him?” the speaker asked. His voice was deep, and it sounded alien amid the cacophony of noise that had erupted in the silence after his one-note noise. A chaotic storm of phantom sounds to offset the lone sound he’d produced.
Helen nodded, smiling.
I watched the speaker process, juggling complicated emotions as he lay there, Helen just in front of him, and me off to one side.
“So be it. I am sorry.”
Helen shook her head, glancing at me, and I picked up the slack where she was unable to speak. “You did exactly what you were supposed to.”
“What do I do now?” he asked.
“You cooperate,” I said. “But don’t look too happy about it.”
Others were only just starting to recover. Some were creeping cautiously closer, wary of the noise starting again.
“How?” Gordon Two asked, his voice too loud. I motioned for him to keep it down.
“That’s going to draw attention,” the Treasurer said. He winced, working his jaw. “I think I have hearing damage.”
“That can be fixed,” I said.
“My own voice sounds like it’s far away,” he said. “Fuck.”
“And you’re right. That’s a concern, drawing attention,” I said. I turned to the speaker. “Will it? Will they come for you?”
“I don’t know,” the speaker said. There was a deliberate disconnect between is tone and the expression he decided to put on his face. He wasn’t very good at frowning. “I don’t think so. They might if they’re close, or if the mission changed.”
“How?” Gordon Two asked, for the second time. “I keep telling myself I’m not going to be caught off guard, I won’t be surprised, you guys do things I’d normally think are impossible, but… how?”
“Magic,” I said. “Helen magic.”
I offered Helen a hand, and even though I wasn’t in the best shape myself, I did have it in me to help her to her feet. She offered me a brief curtsy of thanks in exchange, before clinging to me for balance.
“That’s really not an answer to my question,” Gordon Two said. “That’s not a thing.”
“But it absolutely is, isn’t it?” I asked. “The magic… it’s important. We had Berger, we traded him for a Helen. Look.”
They looked. I was indicating the crowd of students behind us. The ones who had retreated and fallen, who had felt the impact of that noise the speaker had produced. Their ears hurt and their senses had been rattled, and now all was fixed. The speaker was under our thumb. As several of our strongest recruits moved up and helped haul the speaker to his feet, he pulled away from their grip some, but he didn’t have a lot of fight in him. Again, he wore that weird trying-too-hard scowl.
He’d been made and trained to smile and dispense warnings, not to frown and express proper displeasure.
So recently touched by the event, they now watched as we got the situation in hand once again. I gestured for us to move, and the lieutenants passed on orders.
They would wonder. Gordon Two was a good barometer for what the greater collective was thinking.
Wondering and wonder were two sides of the same coin.
I gave Helen a squeeze, and I signaled the go-ahead.
Reluctantly, cautiously, the speaker began to give us direction. This way, that way. Then he would need to stop to think or use a keen ear.
With his restrained cooperation, now, we were able to head straight for what we were after. The wind blew cold, boots tromped without rhythm on the ground, and distant explosions and crumbling buildings marked the ongoing conflict halfway across this odd, prim, artificial little city.
“How are your injuries, speaker?” I asked.
“Do you have another title or name?”
“A letter and a number. The ones who made us sometimes like to dress us up and give us masks and titles if we earn them.”
“Alright,” I said. “Would it be bad if I offered you something? We need you for a little bit longer. We can’t have your injuries or the elements causing any problems down the line.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Gordon Two-”
“That’s not my name, but alright.”
“There’s some people from Davis’ group that have supplies. Some are medical, but there should be blankets and jackets for in case we ran into anyone who needed it while we were running around, if they didn’t decide to pack light. I need you to grab some stuff, if possible. We’ll get this guy warm. Can you double check if we have anything we can use?”
“Sure,” Gordon Two said, giving me a curious look. “I’ll ask.”
“I’m fine,” the speaker said. “I’m built to endure.”
Helen reached up, and laid a hand on his upper arm. He looked down at her, confused.
“Consider this us giving you your own mask and title. To me, you’re speaker. You need a token of your time with us.”
He looked concerned, but with Helen’s hand still on his arm, he seemed willing to let it lie. “Alright.”
I gestured, to make sure that Gordon Two knew.
“Speaking of titles, do you want one?” I asked the speaker.
“No. I don’t not want one either. I do my job. I keep the Crown’s good citizens safe. I serve, and I am satisfied. I belong to a unit, and we march in step. If I die in pursuit of my duty, I know it is right.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think maybe that’s not so different from my own experience, way back when. My experience was more nuanced, don’t get me wrong, but not so different in the end.”
He gave me a curious look. I opted not to elaborate.
“We’re close,” he said.
And we were.
Whatever this was, it didn’t feel like what the speaker had called marching in step. It looked as though they had scraped the bottom of the test tubes and disposed of the detritus here. I could see a horde of stitched, and a host of men and women who looked surly, all of whom had been augmented or modified. All guarded the perimeter, sitting out in the cold, the bundling against the cold weather serving to hide the full extent of their modifications.
Men and women with broken veins from head to toe, with hands modified to blend flesh and technology to give them massive claws. They would have more technology beneath the sleeves of their coats and shawls, to give them the strength to use those claws.
There were women with whips built into their arms, with digits at the end, thorny in a way that looked like they attached to flesh.
Men and women who were bloated, with what looked like organs externally attached to their bodies. The connection to the body looked tenuous, to the point that I wondered if the organs could be detached and thrown, or if they were meant to be broken.
The stitched weren’t all military issue, either.
It was chaotic, the assortment. Every time I looked, I saw more things that needed attention and watching out for. They were collectively on guard, protecting a building.
We came to a halt, pausing to figure out how to approach this next part. Gordon Two arrived, and he arranged the coats and blankets across the speaker’s shoulders and back. Draping coats in place, he began buttoning the buttons of one coat through the slits of the next, so they formed a blanket of their own.
It was ingenious, and it even seemed to please the speaker. He seemed content in this limbo, while our own people peeked, and rumors were passed back, ideas and sentiment finding whispered voices in the midst of all of this.
Many of the Beattle rebels were armed, but they weren’t eager to fight, and fighting this looked to be a mess.
“What now?” the speaker asked, under his breath. I imagined he thought he was being subtle.
It didn’t particularly matter, but it helped if he thought he was being subtle.
I glanced a ways back, watching Jessie and our audience watch us.
She was gesturing, asking if I wanted help.
I signaled a no.
“What now?” I asked. “We’re letting you go. And you’re going to pass on a message.”
“You’re letting me go?”
“You’ll go back to your people,” I said. “All you have to tell them is that the battle is over, it’s been decided.”
“It’s not my job, to pass on messages like that, not internally,” the speaker said.
“It’s fine,” I said. “In fact, it makes more sense if you’re the one that delivers the message.”
“I should give your coats back,” he said.
“No,” I said. I moved past Helen, who drew closer to him, and I adjusted his regalia of coats, fixing the pockets where they were supposed to be buttoned, fixing the lines. “No, keep them. But you should hurry. Go to your people before my people get restless. Pass on the message.”
He frowned, and this time the frown was real, because he wasn’t trying.
But he rose to his feet, and glancing back at Helen and I for a moment, he then picked up speed, jogging back toward the others.
“So,” Gordon Two said. “Are you going to explain Helen’s magic? Is this a thing she does?”
“She simply told the truth,” I said.
“She can’t talk,” he pointed out.
Helen stuck out her tongue at him.
“Yeah, well, In the meantime…” I said. I indicated the speaker.
“I know how this magic works,” he said.
The speaker had been stopped by the guards at the perimeter. That was what was supposed to happen in these cases.
“Sixty second fuses?” Gordon Two asked.
“Or as close as you could get,” I said.
I might have felt ashamed at exploiting our temporary recruit, but the canisters loaded into his pockets were of a less lethal variety, and he’d been meant to endure. Gas billowed from around him, and in his confusion, he span around, which only helped distribute the stuff. He might have cried out loud in his alarm, but the gas choked him, which also served to silence that voice.
His unique clothing had been custom made to fit him. The odd weights in the pockets and the bulky nature of the raiment went unnoticed for an experiment that was unused to such things. He was large enough he wouldn’t reach behind his back.
All that had remained was to pop the canisters and set the timers going. Helen and I had both done it between us.
The cloud expanded, and in the midst of it all, the core group of the experiments and stitched guards that had gathered to meet this unexpected visitor were disabled, left reeling.
I got the attention of my people with a raised hand, paused for dramatic effect, and then I gestured.