Professor Ferres was a fantastic actress. In some ways we had lucked out in picking her. In other ways, that sword had two edges, and it made for some dangerous handling. We’d hit her where it hurt, and the metaphorical sword was being drawn out now.
She acted like nothing was wrong as her favored students started their work in lab one. Her favored students minus one, of course.
It was a beautiful thing, from a certain perspective. I’d grown up around Helen, and I was strongly suspicious that Ibbot had been inspired by Professor Ferres when he had designed our winsome, woesome Lamb. Long exposure to Helen, years of my own earnest attempts at acting and being up against some of the best around gave me a deep appreciation for Ferres’ act. The face that betrayed nothing, the fact that she could smile and act as though nothing was wrong when she was battered, bruised, and tired?
Even if I hadn’t had an agenda, it might’ve been worth doing this just to see how someone capable approached the problem.
That, and I did have reservations about targeting a youth. Betty was almost our age, but there were groups of mice that might have taken her in, had her circumstances of birth been different. Pressure and the fact that I really didn’t like Betty had helped me cross my personal line in the sand and break my own rules on this.
Ferres didn’t miss a beat as she gave instructions, “The grafts for Itsy Bitsy are in the cold room. Alvin, would you prepare to take Betty’s position in the surgical theater in case she doesn’t turn up? I’ll send someone to check on her the moment I’m free.”
Not one glance toward Jessie or me. It was good, considering that she had to suspect.
Jessie was talking numbers, rattling off equations as the others talked. For all that Betty had complained that I didn’t belong here, there were no loud complaints about Jessie. She hadn’t earned her place in the way that Betty, Alvin, Leland, Wilbert, and the other favored students had. She’d dealt with no grueling tests, she hadn’t had to prove herself, but she was holding up her end now that we were here. Everything she did was strictly by the book. Literally.
Ferres continued to give instructions. I was focusing almost the entirety of my attention on her while she was working to ignore Jessie and I. I was noticing the tics and the tells, the little catches. It had been day after day of being drugged overnight, of paralyzing chemicals, tense muscles, bedsores or tubsores, fatigue, and insufficient food. Pressure, tension, dehumanization and likely a fair amount of fear as well. All while doing an eerily good job of acting as if nothing was wrong.
“Leland, Wilbert, you’ve been mulling over the nightmare for two days now. I’ve tried to be patient, but I need you two to step it up.”
“Yes, Professor, of course.”
“If you haven’t found a working solution by the end of the day, I’ll be taking you off that project and doing it myself, and I won’t be happy about it,” Ferres said.
Jessie started gesturing as she talked, punctuating reams of ratios and ten-syllable compound names with hand movements.
I’d already noticed what Jessie was tipping me off to. Ferres was speaking faster, more aggressively.
It was minor, hard to pin down, but when it came to a formidable character like Ferres’, I was willing to take any cue I could. With a grain of salt.
“We’ve been weighing a few ideas. We could rush it, but you said you’d rather it was done well than fast.”
“I did say that,” Ferres said. She paused, and her demeanor shifted slightly. “What’s troubling you? Carbon chain boundary?”
“I think we’re covered on that front. It’s the fuel injection. Leland thinks if we provide the fuel by way of channels in the shoulder and let it flow back, scar tissue and other buildup will block it. I was suggesting a stronger scapular floor for fiercer contractions, push through the buildup, but Leland worries it would be too spurty.”
“I think you’re both right,” the Professor said. “It wouldn’t do to have our antagonist spray flaming ejaculate all over our juvenile audience, and it could be quite the spurt if we tried to counteract the full buildup.”
“I, uh, yes Professor. We agree.”
“How long would it perform?”
“Ten to fifteen minutes.”
“We’ll need twice that if we’re to hold to the script. Two-line regimen of G.H.I., increase its diet, standing guard in case it becomes hostile. Excise the upper portions of the ventral serratus if you have to to make room.”
“Room for?” Wilbert asked.
“You tell me,” Ferres said. “Go for a walk, find Betty, figure out how she’s doing, and have three good ideas in mind by the time you’re back.”
Wilbert straightened. “The girl’s dormitory? But-”
“If anyone asks, I sent you. Now don’t tarry.”
Wilbert nodded. His departure fell just short of a proper run from the premises. Academy students were sometimes like pigeons. When one student scrammed, others would take off too out of herd mentality. Looking silly for running on a thousand occasions was a fair tradeoff for the one time it meant getting a headstart against an ominous, onrushing cloud of gas or cloud of insects loaded to bear with fun drugs. It was a rule in periods of peace to avoid running wherever possible.
Professor Ferres continued to assign tasks and lay out everything that needed to be done, keeping tabs on the various projects and suggesting adjustments. Jessie gestured again, and I took note of the gesture. Jessie was keeping time, marking the fact that Ferres was much quicker to do this than she had been on previous days and weeks. Ferres was rushing, because she wanted to move on to other things. To me and to her favored student, little miss Betty.
I walked over to the table at the far side of the circular room. There were four exits to the room, with two being staircases on either side, one being access to the cells and storage rooms, and the last one being the access to the operating theater.
The table was closest to the operating theater, and I could see Alvin laying spider-limbs as long as my arms out on one table. One of the children in the cells would be put under and go under the knife. Lillian stood by the table, and her stare was accusatory.
I looked away from her and turned my attention to the papers on the table. Each set of papers was bundled together into contained booklets, titles inked out on the front pages. Names of the experiments. Bo Peep, Itsy Bitsy, Poll Parrot. There were others I hadn’t recognized right off. The three youngest children that Helen had been snuggling with would be the three blind mice, after their surgeries were done. One young lady would become the unicorn.
The books had terminology, codes, and shorthand throughout, and I could only deduce some of it. Instilled instinct, compulsion, chemical triggers, training. The individual lines, passages and behaviors were ranked by importance, reinforced by various factors.
If it was wholly up to the experiments doing what they were supposed to in order to enact their play, then making them stitched would have been enough. But there were other factors. These weren’t actors meant to play out a series of shows and stories the audience had seen countless times before.
They were toys. The audience would interact, step in, and change the course of events. Ferres was designing the various characters to appeal to a swathe of tastes and age groups. That meant countless bases needed to be covered. If the young master’s cousin found Bo Peep to their liking and wanted to play at tea with the girl, then Bo Peep was to oblige.
“You’ve taken my student, I gather?” Ferres asked.
I paged through Bo Peep’s file, not looking up. Red pen had been used to label and mark out pages. The section was simply titled ‘Story 3b.2: The Wolf Wins’. The notes were scattered in intent, written by Ferres for Ferres, referencing people she had met and what she knew about the young master’s family.
“If you take all of them, then people will wonder. It hurts you more than it hurts me,” the Professor said.
If there was a lull in the night’s entertainment, then the Big Bad Wolf would rouse and stalk its prey. Red Riding Hood would be stalked by the wolf, which would speak and taunt her while staying out of sight. Children in attendance could decide the outcome, by intervening, by cheering for one side. The needed verbal cues, tones, and situational cues were marked out clearly, mapping out how this would come to pass.
If the young lads cheered for it, then there would be violence. The Wolf would be emboldened, would close in, and Red Riding Hood would die a theatrical, gruesome, and very real death. Then, depending on the collective response to that, other antagonists would step in while the wolf retreated to the background, having raised the stakes for the evening and kindled imagination, or the wolf would even take center stage, picking off characters one by one. Bo Peep was number two to die, if the young boy at the center of the party willed it.
Red Riding Hood’s emotions would be very real in the midst of it all. So would Bo Peep’s, if the party took that particular course.
Ferres wasn’t willing to discount that possibility, and she was putting considerable effort into planning for it, making sure the Big Bad Wolf was something that could be ridden.
I’d sat back and watched things for some time now, the idle bystander while Jessie and the other students worked on this project. I’d read these scripts enough to have a general sense of the web of interactions and narratives that played out across them. There were stories for grand violence, stories for intrigue, stories for heroism and valor, for being the gentleman that saved damsels in distress. Ferres’ focus was to ensure that the young man at the center of the party received his highlight moment, whatever he chose to do.
“Are you ignoring me to get a rise out of me?” Ferres asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m ignoring you because my attention is elsewhere. The thing about having a shoddy memory is that I can put a book down and pick it up later and read it as if I’d never read it before. Every time I read through these, I pick up something new.”
“I revise them regularly. That might play a part.”
“It might,” I agreed. I put the booklet down, letting it fall to the table with a slap of paper on wood.
Now that my attention was fully on her, Ferres seemed oddly composed.
She really wanted to push me on this, to ask about Betty, but she didn’t want to give up the appearance of power by asking a question she knew full well I wasn’t going to answer. It would be groveling.
Still, I’d expected to see more weakness in her, a glimmer of something.
Why the rush through morning preparations then? Why hurry through her tasks with other students if she wasn’t hurrying to any place in particular? I’d expected a more heated confrontation, one where she might even have raised her voice at me.
“It started as something far smaller,” Ferres said. “One scene, a speaking lion for a young girl who loved lions. Child’s play, in both senses of the word. But every prominent aristocrat wanted to top the last, grander displays, more involvement. I received funding for my Academies and I was able to pursue the kind of work I wanted to do most.”
“At the expense of children,” I said, my voice low, “And let’s not pretend all of the children you bought off the Block were volunteers, whatever you told your students.”
“Very few were, I imagine.”
“Means to an end?”
“If the young master and his friends are bloodthirsty or if their military fathers egg them on, then they might call for blood and be applauded for it, and that will be the evening. But it’s by no means a sure thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure, whatever.”
“You don’t have to listen to me. If you don’t like my answer, you’re in a position of power over me. You could tell me to change my stance, you could threaten me or hurt me for saying something you disagree with. Whatever you imagine.”
“I’m hardly going to do that,” I said.
“You’ve done it countless times over the past several weeks,” she said.
“Indirect hurt,” I said. “I feel like actively slapping you or putting you in screws is a little bit too brutish for me.”
“Such a gentleman,” she said, and there was enough venom in those three words that some people on the other end of the room caught it and glanced our way.
“All of this can end, all you have to do is tell Jessie and I how to contact certain prominent professors and nobles, and help us keep abreast of any changes or developments in the big picture. We’ll handle the rest.”
“Oh, I’ve little doubt you will, young sir,” she said. “But the moment I tell you that, then I cease being useful to you. You’ll infect my Academy with black wood and ships won’t even come to port if they think their hulls might suffer. I’ll be one step among a dozen that see you do grievous damage to the Academy.”
“You’ll fall on the sword, suffer for the good of Academy and Crown?”
“I’ll endure,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “You keep saying that.”
Again, that look. The calm in the face of the storm, from someone with very little to reach out and grab hold of. I’d pushed her and I’d taken away a vital handhold, very possibly her favorite student of the now, and as weary as she was, her emotions frayed, she wasn’t faltering.
She should have been given more pause by this. It was concerning, because she should have come across as more unsteady. But something about her demeanor in this moment made me think that yes, I’d been right that she was fond of her student Betty. Yes, this had bothered her. Yet I harbored a suspicion that if I made her entire Academy and every soul in it disappear, she would still hold fast.
I was beginning to grow suspicious of why, now.
“Itsy Bitsy Spider needs his grafts,” she said. “If you wanted, you could exert your power, twist my arm, and spare him the procedure.”
“I do want,” I said.
“But?” she asked.
“No but,” I said. “Spare him. Postpone it.”
Again, she smiled slightly.
Why was this a win in her book? People would wonder, and wondering with the right voices finding the right ear would unspool everything for Jessie and I. It was Jessie and I making a play against her and seeing her refuse to budge, while she made a miniscule power play and she made me concede ground.
A small price if it helped Itsy Bitsy. I’d have to let others slide. I knew that. It would blow our cover and the whole ruse if we refused all operations and activities on Ferres’ part.
But right now I wanted to focus on Ferres and the current dilemma.
“Did someone mess up drug doses?” I heard the question from the far end of the room.
It was Leland.
“Why do you ask?” Ferres asked, stepping away from me and the table with the scripts.
“The cast members are dead quiet,” Leland said. “I thought they had actually died, but they’re awake, they’re at the cell doors, and they’re just watching while I get them water.”
“Leave it be,” I said, under my breath.
I didn’t miss the fractional pause before Ferres replied to Leland, saying, “Leave it be. I’ll check on them shortly.”
“It’s creepy,” Leland said.
“Focus on the nightmare, Leland,” Ferres said. “I expect more, better answers from you than from your partner in crime, who should be coming back with at least three ideas.”
Betty’s kidnapping had barely made Ferres miss a step.
Ferres grew distracted with the activities of the others, who were working on the nightmare and the giant. She was in the middle of the room and in Jessie’s earshot, so I deemed the situation calm enough to exchange words with Jessie.
“She’s got something,” I said.
“Something?” Jessie asked.
“Ferres. She’s got a card up her sleeve. It’s the only thing I can think of that accounts for just how hard she is to crack. I’m trying to play her as if she’s got only a few handholds left and she’s acting like she’s fine.”
“She could be very good at lying.”
“Or she’s got a card,” I said. “Both are equally worrying.”
“What card could she possibly have that she wouldn’t have already played?” Jessie asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But if you’ll have a look-see…”
I turned to look through the glass at the stairs. I’d noticed the people and the general commotion.
“…our card is playing out now.”
It was Wilbert, returning from his excursion to the girl’s dormitory.
Jessie and I hung at the periphery of the group as they approached. Wilbert’s expression was severe.
“She left,” Wilbert said. “She drugged her roommate to avoid any commotion, packed her things, and left in the dead of night.”
“Into the wasteland?” Ferres asked.
“By one of the postal ships,” Wilbert said. “We don’t know how she got on, but she seemed confident she could if she needed to, going by the letter.”
“Do you have it?” Ferres asked.
Wilbert handed it over.
“What a shame,” the Professor said. “A damn shame, with the worst possible timing.”
The effect was more profound on the other favored students than it was on Ferres. Jessie and I stood close to one another, and we watched as she spoke, we watched her move, and we even saw her eyes grow moist. Ferres as the warm individual. Unlike Helen, I fully expected that the warm, living, emotional face was the real one, the cold persona the mask.
But emotions weren’t a weakness, not always. Ferres wasn’t budging at all, and it was proving to be her best asset.
“They want to talk to you in the post area,” Wilbert said.
There we go, I thought.
“I’ll see to that. Talk with Leland, get your plan straight. I expect a thought out plan by the time I’m back.”
“I’ll come,” I decided. My speaking drew several glares of the hostile ‘we didn’t ask’ variety. I returned them with a smug smile.
The stairwell was full as students hurried to their morning classes. I spotted Evette, and I saw Lillian again. I saw a glimpse of Mauer, and I saw a multitude of friendly faces. Students and workers seeded here and there.
“You’ve taken over the post system?” the professor asked. “Is the plan to send poisoned envelopes to major figures?”
I remained silent, walking with her.
We were in the central building of the Academy, the core of the reclining woman’s torso. The Academy’s post office was a short trip.
Getting service once we were there, even with one half of ‘we’ being the Professor, well, that was a different story. We had to wait for the last of the mail to be hauled up by stitched crews and the one post worker on duty.
Rather than shove paper forms and the like for Professor Ferres to sign, the post worker simply opened the side gate and let us into the back. The benefits of access.
I closed the door behind me as I stood in the entryway to the mail room. Parcels and stacks of mail were already partially sorted, and stitched workers picked through mail before deciding where it was supposed to go.
It was a tableau of sorts, a scene where laborers worked and gave the illusion that they were doing something that they had been doing five minutes ago and would be doing every five minutes for years to come, if they were given a chance. They sorted mail, questioned obstacles, and played it safe.
Sitting in one corner was the cage. A young lady slept a drugged dream within it, her face a touch swollen.
“Is that supposed to be Betty?” the headmistress asked.
“We changed her hair and face,” I said. “It wouldn’t do if the others recognized her.”
“Others?” Ferres asked.
“Your favored students. Betty’s old colleagues,” I said. “You had a fit of inspiration, didn’t you? You’ll tell them you’re adding a new character to your performance.”
I wasn’t wholly sure, but I saw the first real crack in Ferres’ performance at that. She covered it up well, but doing so necessitated looking away from me, hiding her expression for a moment.
“She likes fairies,” I said. “Possible prey for the nightmare or the wolf, do you think? Or for a smashing by a giant, for a visceral impact.”
I saw Ferres shake her head slightly.
“Don’t worry, Professor,” I said. “Remember what you said. The audience might call for blood, but that’s by no means a sure thing. She could be fine.”
The crack ran deeper.
I saw the defeat reach her shoulders, as the strength in them subsided. I wasn’t sure if she had properly let her guard down or surrendered a stray thought while she’d been our captive. The momentary slump marked an occasion where I knew I had her.
Why then did I still feel she had a strategy to play? One that she was so determined to hold back that she would surrender before she would use it? An ominous backdrop for our ploy coming together.