Nearly thirty Professors and military leaders, two nobles, and another twenty assorted major players were in the room. Taken as a group, they looked worse for wear. They hadn’t slept as well as they might have if they were happy and secure of their futures. Diets had been affected by parasites, and the lingering effects of toxins in blood and muscles taxed others.
An innocent bystander who stepped into the room and saw this sorry lot might have thought something was amiss, even without the cue of expressions and glares. Heck, I could smell it, when they were all in one space. The sweat, the fear, the pollution of their bodies.
I wondered if Mauer might have described the crowd as having lost their souls. Broken, their dreams and stations taken from them. Maybe he would have wanted to hold onto his idea of the soul, that it was something more sacrosanct. Or perhaps he would have wanted to say that they’d lost their souls long, long ago.
The important thing, however, was that they were at least holding up appearances when seen alone or in small groups. They looked tired and perhaps a bit unwell, but not to a degree that would shake anyone or stir too much in the way of suspicion.
Their lieutenants were now organizing the arrangement of the forces. I stared through the window, and I watched as squads tore up train tracks that led into and out of Radham. Rank and file of soldiers covered the landscape, the masses of men spiky with the long rifles they held, and more continued to file in, existing groups firming up into tighter ranks.
Running like rivers through the blocks and columns were the other things. Many were warbeasts, organized and held at bay. Others were vats and other machinery, that produced gas or held lifeforms that couldn’t quite be called ‘warbeast’. Many blocks had a different consistency, because they were made up of larger individuals, or because the individuals had the natural stillness of a war-ready stitched.
I was letting the silence stretch on, as our audience settled. The Lambs were gathered around me, as were our lieutenants. All of my allies were waiting patiently, as I’d suggested they do.
I wanted it to be a relief when I spoke, when I gave clarity and the full picture to the people who we’d only given fragments to. I wanted them to listen, and I didn’t want to give them a lot of time to start being clever, so they got the full picture now.
I spoke. “There is incontrovertible evidence that Professor Hayle has been acting as part of a conspiracy to work against the Crown States.”
I turned to face the room again, and I could see that I had their ears.
“He produced the Lambs project and eventually took on a role as headmaster of one of the Academies most renowned for its research, development, and its special projects. We have reason to believe he’s responsible for the poisoning of the water, so to speak, where countless citizens were sterilized and leashed. At a later date, he had several experiments, Lambs included, pretend to go Rogue while they continued to work for him and arranged the killing of several nobles.”
I paused for emphasis, then continued, “Many of your soldiers, followers, families and friends have been dragged here, and of them, many don’t know we’re here, or that we’re having this conversation. They still believe that all is well, and they’ll have no clue that we’re framing Professor Hayle for our own purposes.”
“Why?” one man asked. “Petty revenge?”
“I would strongly recommend not interrupting,” Mary said.
The man shut his mouth, scowling.
“He knows too much,” I said. “And he’s always been invested in keeping tabs on things. Creating projects like us, supporting other projects that could gather information. If he uncovers any of you, or if he gets ahead of any of this, then we’re done. And we’re taking you down with us. We’ve given a full third of those soldiers out there, most of you, and a lot of your people that we left behind a taste of our leash. Extricating yourselves of that leash is going to require removing us and time, and if Hayle acts, if we get revealed, or if we die, you only get half of what you need, and there’s an unhappy ending here.”
“Hayle lives,” Duncan said. “Your underlings may want to know what this is, especially as the stakes escalate. If you feel the need to tell them, you make it clear. Hayle betrayed the Crown in an unprecedented way, and he has set other things in motion. He will live because you need his knowledge to stop his plots. Understand?”
They seemed to understand, reluctant as they were to admit it.
“Go,” I said. “Be good. Don’t try to be clever. Through the gates. Seize the city step by step, until we can get to the Academy itself.”
They rose from chairs, and the ones who’d already been standing started to exit the room or held the doors for their betters.
It was curious, that they acted like that, still holding to old hierarchies. Curious that some degree of civility and culture still drove them, even when they’d all been brought low.
“Speak,” I addressed the one in the front, specifically choosing one who looked to be of lower station than the others. A woman who might’ve been an aristocrat’s wife.
“The parasites you put in me, my husband, and these others,” she said. She indicated the group. She started to speak, then stopped, changing her mind about what she was going to say. “They’re taking too much. I’ve lost four fingernails. I feel unwell.”
She showed us the fingers in question. The fingernails weren’t entirely gone- they’d broken lengthwise, individual fragments and slivers sticking out of the hangnail bed, the flesh beneath red and raw.
I might have felt bad about putting those people into that circumstance, but we’d wanted to mix up what we used on people, to make it hard for them to find a single fix and turn the tables on us, and we’d wanted overlap, so some key figures were both poisoned and under other coercion.
We’d known some of the methods we used would be uglier and more uncomfortable, and we’d turned those things toward some of the less pleasant members of Radham’s Academies and governance.
I couldn’t remember who this woman was, but I knew that some of the aristocrats we’d targeted had earned harsher constraints because of their demonstrated amorality. The culling of adults over a certain age, forced breeding programs, the leadership that had supported some places like the Baron’s Warrick, with the forced inclusions of monsters in families, and the members of one Academy that had incorporated around a reserve of natives and turned the whole tribe into experiment stock.
Whichever one this woman was, well, tearing off her fingernails in an indirect way wasn’t about to prickle consciences. Mine, least of all, lenient as it was.
“Well, that shouldn’t be happening. I’ll look after it,” Lillian said. She looked over at me. “Can I have Mary? In case this is a ploy?”
“You can,” I said. “I want her back for our opening play, though.”
“I want to be there for your opening play,” Lillian said. “You aren’t leaving me behind. We won’t be long.”
“Got it,” I said.
While Lillian and Mary went with the parasite-infested, I did what I could to get Jessie ready. I bundled her up, making sure she was comfortable, and then covered her up further, with the same sack-cloths used for sandbags.
“Okay?” I whispered. I had to reach beneath the covering to run fingers through her hair. “It would make all the sense in the world if you stayed behind, but I don’t always make a lot of sense these days, y’know?”
Jessie slept on.
“But maybe if you’re dreaming there, if your sleeping mind is putting things gently in place, where things can be put in place without doing damage, and if it’s holding firm where we need it to hold firm, and if you’re actually touching on those memories, maybe it’ll be good if you hear my voice and you have some nice memories of me, or if you hear me when I’m being devastating and it calls some other good moments to mind.”
I realized that Lillian and Mary had stopped in the doorway that led to the adjunct building, our makeshift labs. Listening. Duncan, Helen, and Ashton were at the front door, ready to venture outside. They watched.
“And maybe,” I murmured, my voice lowered, just for her. “Maybe you’ll wake up one day, and- and I know there’s a chance I won’t be there, because that’s the way I’m going. There’s a chance others won’t, because it’s not out of the question. And I know there’s a pretty good chance that no matter what we try to set in place, plugging you into a new, hacked-together project caterpillar every night, letting you sleep all the time so you don’t lose more, you might still wake up and not be Jessie. So it’s not like I’m really staking a lot of hopes on this, for the record. Just saying…”
Was it imagination when she exhaled a little harder than she had been, in the rhythmic breathing of deep sleep?
“…But maybe, maybe there’s a chance that you wake up, and I’ll be there, and I’ll be able to tell you that you were with us. I’ll tell you what happened and because you heard the voices when you were sleeping, you’ll be able to say it almost sounds familiar. And then I’ll be able to tell you that you heard it while you were sleeping and something soft and fuzzy stuck in that rigid, not-fuzzy brain-structure of yours. And you can yell at me for bringing me with, maybe. Or you’ll be secretly happy you were part of this.”
I wanted to stay.
Go, the voice said.
I obeyed. There weren’t any more of the hard exhalations, so I simply adjusted the bags and coverings to make sure she was comfortable, not too hot or too cold, that she’d be dry and that nobody would see her, and then signaled the stitched to bring her.
Mary and Lillian didn’t start moving until I was at the front door with Duncan, Ashton, and Helen.
We stepped outdoors. As much as I’d enjoyed the rain earlier, it was heavy enough now that I flipped up the hood of the military jacket I wore. My sleeve had the badge of a messenger. The others had a degree of camouflage as well. Helen and Duncan as soldiers, and Ashton as a student. We would stay out of sight and hopefully we wouldn’t draw too much notice if we were seen.
We separated. When we moved around the periphery of the warcamp, it was a kind of weaving motion, different members of our group taking a turn at the fore or moving through the actual crowd while the rest of us moved along other tracks, by way of alley or by ducking around the back of crowds. It meant we were harder to pick apart as a group of Lambs, a blonde young lady, a red-haired boy, a young man with dark curls stubbornly sticking to his forehead. Duncan was harder to pin down, but we ran too much risk of appearing to be a unit.
Especially, I noted, if we kept Jessie with us.
We took our turns walking alongside her, as well. One at the left, one at center-front, one at the right, and one walking with Jessie and the stitched that carried her.
It was our habit to move this way if we were trying to search for something, and in the doing, I ended up looking over the crowd, for Mauer’s men, for rebels, and for the people we’d captured and coerced, who might be getting adventurous.
I saw a lot of our Beattle rebels. I saw the Hackthorn defectors.
I saw Montgomery and the Moth. The nobles from the train. I was pretty sure those were their names.
I saw the Primordial Child, fatter and larger than I’d ever seen him, and I wondered what I’d fed him to make him so monstrous. I wondered if he’d continue growing until he consumed everything, or if he’d burst, and if that spelled something horrible.
The fight was mounting. A rainstorm drummed against the landscape, but the clouds that spiraled out from around Radham weren’t consistent. The low hills and flat plains of the landscape was marked in scythe-shaped swathes of darkness, where the clouds were thick enough to block out the sun, with something very near to sunlight, where the clouds were thin, if there even were any. Where the light touched the ground, it shone with the droplets of the rainfall that had touched it before.
Radham itself was drowned in shadow. The explosions of artillery shells drumming the walls didn’t seem as bright or fierce as they should have been. Rain between us and the detonations and the darkness of the clouds overhead tempered it.
The walls had no doubt been started when the full reality of plague had made itself known.
“I wonder what Hayle is thinking,” I mused. I gestured as I spoke, so the others who weren’t nearby could follow.
Duncan was the only one in earshot. “You know what I’m thinking?”
“The Duncan-ghost has been missing for a while,” I said. “I’m not as on the ball with figuring you guys out as I was when I had images of you all keeping me company and giving me hints.”
“Duncan-ghost, huh? That’s ominous.”
“It really was, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. What are you thinking, sir?”
“I’m thinking yeah, the Academy’s gone up against enemies who had back-alley doctors supporting them. They’ve gone up against enemies who had a handful of defectors, who tried their hand at targeted strikes.”
“Yeah,” I said.
The army was approaching the gates, now. We were on the fringes of the town and making our way along the expanse between it and Radham. Barricades had been hastily erected, carriages parked, and crates and supplies were already being dropped off by teams who put them down and hurried back to the wagons they could unload from.
There was every expectation this would be an all-out war.
“This is a war,” I echoed my thought.
“Yeah. But more to the point, it’s maybe unprecedented. As far as I know, we’ve never had a war or even a proper battle where it was the full force of what the Academy and Crown could bring to bear… against the full force of what the Academy and Crown could bring to bear.” He gestured as he spoke.
“Yeah, Duncan,” I said, signaling ‘agree’.
We took different paths through the barricades and collected things ahead.
“I’m not good at understanding people,” Ashton said, falling in step beside me, gesturing as he spoke. “I try, and sometimes I’m right, but sometimes I’m wrong. Even when it comes to silly things. I was very confused for a while that one of my doctors shaved his beard, and every day for a few months after that I was wondering if people would have their heads shaved the next time I saw them.”
Duncan, off in the distance, gestured something along the lines of ‘Very confused’.
Smokey-heart-stump think, I gestured, the signs segueing into one another. I asked, “Where are you going with this, Ash?”
“Ashton,” he said, emphasizing the latter half. “I’m going and gone thinking that I don’t know what to expect next. I’d be anxious but you’re mostly calm so I’m making myself be calm.”
“I don’t know where it’s going either, Ashton. But I don’t see Hayle surrendering. Not when faced with this. Maybe if we’d made contact in a different way, if Mauer hadn’t forced our hands. But not like this. So we see his opening salvo. From a distance. We shouldn’t get much closer.”
Ashton nodded, clearly thinking. I gave him a nudge, and he broke away from me.
I ducked between a carriage and a fence, and popped a cigarette into my mouth, lighting it, during the moment’s reprieve where I couldn’t see much of the proceedings and couldn’t see the others.
“From a distance,” Helen said, walking beside me as soon as I was clear of the parked row of carriages.
“Yup,” I said, still walking.
“I don’t like distance,” she said.
“I’m something like sixty percent sure distance is a good thing here,” I said.
I stopped in my tracks, standing by a barricade. I shifted the bag at my shoulder and let my thumb brush against my weapon. Soldiers rushed past us, hurrying toward the front line. I scanned the various camps and emplacements. Need to find leader. Ours.
Duncan gestured. I see. Action?
I gave my response. Tell him. Warning. Pull people back.
“I feel like your percentages are always lower, these days,” Helen said. She touched my arm. “You used to be more confident.”
“Are you scared?” she asked.
Bravado was the name of this game. I was Sylvester. I was fearless, even reckless in the face of danger.
“I’m terrified,” I said.
“You know I don’t feel fear like you, Duncan, Lillian and Mary do,” she said.
“Don’t let Mary hear you say she gets scared. She’ll deny it.”
“What were you saying?”
“I don’t feel proper fear, but my thoughts have been going in circles lately. My team has been trying to rein in my hunger, I’m having my appointments again, and Duncan is making sure Ibbot is doing it more right than he was, but I think the damage was done.”
“I think a lot about that. My thoughts circle around it but don’t ever land. Like tired birds.”
“Of course. Tired bird thoughts,” I said.
What? Duncan signed, in response to my gestured transcription. He was talking to an officer -one of the people who’d been in the meeting- and keeping an eye on us.
Helen spoke, “My thoughts do a lot of those circles. I think this is what fear is like. Except…”
“You don’t feel fear like we do. It’s… an abstract non-approximation.”
What? Duncan gestured again.
I explain after, I gestured. Warn man.
“I’d feel a lot better if I wasn’t so distant from the worst of it,” Helen said. “I want my fingers digging into meat, touching bone, feeling the blood pumping out. I want to hear the sounds they make.”
“Soon,” I said.
“How soon?” Helen asked.
I didn’t give my response right away.
My eyes moved over the crowd, over the distant scene at the gates of Radham.
A horn blew. The man Duncan had been talking to.
The forces nearest the gate began to back away. Only the group of stitched working on the gate itself remained, potentially their handlers as well.
I watched it, glanced at the general who Duncan had informed, and then looked over the young men and scattered few women in uniform. Helen had talked about fear, and these people were afraid.
I looked past them and saw Sub Rosa, in the crowd near us.
“Very soon. A matter of a minute or two before we’re properly underway. Sub Rosa says the gates are opening.”
“Does she now?” Helen asked.
“She pays attention to these things. We should split up for a moment.”
“Distance,” Helen said.
I started to say something, but she only smiled, winked, and parted ways. Heads turned to look at her as she sashayed into the crowd, hood low, even though she was just one more person in uniform.
The heavy doors of Radham’s gates were hauled open, smoke billowing around the point that a targeted explosion had occurred.
No sooner had the doors opened than a thick gas poured out. Silhouette became merely blurry shadows in the midst of gas. Men toppled.
The ones who didn’t fall immediately were savaged by things that operated from within the cloud. Experiments, spindly and clawed, which moved quickly enough that virtually all of the gunfire that was directed at them was scattered, aimless gunfire.
It took me a second to spot Helen, at one barricade, one soldier among many. She had a gun out, and her hand moved in gestures.
I really wanted it to be door-open tentacles?
She really wanted the doors to open and giant tentacles to reach out.
Another time, perhaps.
The gas served to push our forces back. It bought them time, and it bought them elbow room. From the volume of it, it was different from what we’d deployed in Hackthorn. It was continuous, the product of buildings and emplacements, much as the rain was something created by a perpetual production of seeded smoke and steam.
Radham lurched. The walls remained where they were, but the rest of the city shifted, as if something had given way and something else had surged upward. Not a great deal- ten feet, twenty. But enough that everyone present reacted.
As if that initial burst of growth had broken ground or started something, the Academy began to shift. It rose up, and staggered sections of the city rose as well. Areas slowly rotated, whatever was happening beneath them, as if there was a great corkscrew beneath.
The tunnels beneath the Academy. The interconnected infrastructure, the layout.
Jessie would want to be woken up for this. To explain it, to paint the way forward. She knew Radham better than I knew the back of my hand.
The smoke that streamed skyward from countless chimneys and vents in Radham was darkening by the moment. The gas now flowed over the top of the wall, not through the gate. The wall at one side of the Academy was cracking, even being as thick as it was.
Not all of this had been in place when we were young. Not all of it had been in place when I’d left, even. We’d known Radham harbored its superweapon and countless other weapons and resources besides, but the actual nature of it had been a closely guarded secret.
Had I ever had even an inkling that I might’ve been going to war with Radham, I might have pried at that secret. As it was, it was just one thing among countless others that I hadn’t known and assumed I would never have cause to know.
The upward progress was glacial, but it was progress. The Academy and to a lesser degree the city were rising up and out of reach. The gas and the creatures within the gas were meant to keep trouble at bay until the process was done. It was exceedingly possible that there would be more to it.
Helen had returned, finding a place by my side. Duncan and Ashton appeared.
The stitched and its great flesh suit held Jessie, standing just a little ways back.
We couldn’t move just yet. There wasn’t much to be done, no orders to give to the people in charge, no answers or questions.
Hayle would be in his tower, maybe, or he’d be at a high vantage point. He’d be looking down on us, while his Academy flexed muscles it hadn’t ever had cause to use, unsheathing claws, or releasing things that had been sleeping much, much longer than they’d ever been awake.
A gas mask slapped against the sandbag and wood-spike barricade I stood by.
Lillian, with Mary in tow.
“I can’t help but feel the gas is Hayle saying something like ‘hi, Sylvester. Isn’t this inviting? It’s entirely your thing, with poisons and gasses not affecting you. It’s totally not a trap.'”
“Or,” Duncan said. “It’s a poison gas that serves as a very effective countermeasure against invaders.”
“Maybe,” I said. I was aware that whole regiments were rushing toward the battlefront, even as others retreated. Masks like the one Lillian had in hand were in place, uniforms were taped up, and weapons were at the ready.
“If we don’t make a move now, it’ll only get harder,” Mary said.
The Academy still rose. It had yet to reveal all of its tricks.
I pulled on the mask. I turned, ready to help Jessie with hers, but Lillian was already on task.
Rather than speak, my voice muffled by the mask, I gestured.
We go. Clear the way for the army. This wasn’t something we’d manage on our own. It was never going to be, even before Mauer had alerted Radham that something was wrong. There were too many checkpoints, too much security. Radham was too mindful.
I gestured again.
We face down the second of the three gods.