Avis sat in the indent around the window, watching in silence. Ashton stood next to her, cradling Helen in his arms, his focus on the events beyond the window.
Mary had removed her coat, blouse, and skirt. She was wearing only her underthings, her weapons in plain view where they had hung beneath her clothes. Where rainwater had splashed or otherwise found its way to bare skin, it had left red tracks, raw, the skin swollen and pink on either side of it. Beads of water had formed round marks. Lillian was rubbing a salve in place. Mary flinched every time Lillian daubed some salve near one of the tracks.
Only a quarter of the blades were still there, the rest of her stock depleted.
The room was metal, floor to ceiling, which was rare, because wood was more versatile and often almost as strong. Sheets and panes of steel were bolted to one another. Beams had been sunken into the walls, reinforcing the plates while making it impossible to even find a good edge to pry at. The door was metal, too, big enough to drive a wagon through, with a single round window. Were the glass to be removed, one of us could have put an arm through it, but that was it. Even Helen at her best or a current Helen that was somehow ambulatory wouldn’t have fit through it.
The room hadn’t been scrubbed well enough after housing its prior occupant. It didn’t smell, not exactly, but the air was stale, and the ground was browner and more corroded than any of the other surfaces.
Not that there was anything we could use.
“We’re slowing down,” Ashton said. He had his shirt off. Duncan was going over his hair with a fine metal comb. The window he peered through wasn’t any bigger than the one in the door. From the exterior, the vaguely rounded bulge with the circle set in the middle might have looked like the orb of an eye, with an unmoving pupil.
It was structurally unsound, as the bends and curves in metal were easier to tear and damage than the flat expanses. It was no doubt meant to be that way. If the ship were prepared for war, then munitions sufficient to damage it would open up this space, and the denizen, no doubt a large warbeast or other experiment, would be unleashed, set to go after whoever had opened fire.
I would have liked to think that was a feature we could exploit, but our side didn’t have those kinds of munitions, we didn’t have the means to breach our way out using that same weakpoint.
Our captors were smart. They knew their experiments, and all but two of us were experiments. They’d contained us effectively, and we were making our peace with the fact. Duncan and Lillian had doled out medicine, they’d looked after Helen briefly, the rest of us had done our best to signal the people on the outside, and now we were dealing with the secondary things. Checking for plague, resting, gathering our strength, and thinking.
I worried it would be our last gasp for air before we took the plunge.
“I miss having Jessie to keep track of timing,” I said. My fingers were intertwined with Jessie’s, and she lay beside me, her head in my lap. I raised her hand and kissed the back of it. Was it my imagination, if her expression softened in the direction of a smile, at that? “How far away is the town where the attacking army holed up?”
“Still a little far. It’ll be five or ten minutes,” Ashton said. “The streets are empty. There were soldiers there and now there aren’t. Others have moved far enough back that they aren’t in the acid rain.”
“Good to know,” I said. I visualized it. I didn’t want to move far from Jessie, and I didn’t want to spend unnecessary energy. My right leg was twitching in protest of what I’d subjected it to. I’d pushed myself so hard already. “The army probably didn’t vacate in entirety. They would’ve gone inside the houses and other buildings.”
“There are Tangles,” Ashton said. “They aren’t too big though. That might keep them inside.”
“Not so many Harvesters,” Duncan said. He raised his head to look out the window. “Don’t squeeze her too tight, Ashton.”
“I’m not,” Ashton said, adjusting his grip on Helen.
“Alright,” Duncan said. “Almost done.”
“I’m checking Mary’s back. Keep your backs turned, boys,” Lillian said. She slipped the straps of Mary’s camisole from her shoulders. I turned my head away. Ashton turned his head, probably to see why he was supposed to have his back turned, and I reached out to touch his chin, averting his gaze. Duncan shifted position, blocking Ashton’s view.
“I don’t mind,” Mary said. “Everyone here has seen me undressed or given me surgery.”
“I like how you mention surgery,” I said.
“I don’t think there’s anything more intimate or invasive than touching muscle directly or knitting a wound together. Well, creating the wounds in the first place is pretty intimate and personal.”
“You’re so weird,” I said.
“You’re one to talk,” Mary said, at the same time Lillian said, “Says you.”
“No plague, acid burns aren’t too bad here, nothing close to the spine. If we can actually get out of here and get through what comes next, I’ll check you over tonight,” Lillian said. She gave Mary a pat on the shoulder.
Mary stood and began pulling her clothes back on.
“Be gentle, Ashton,” Duncan said.
“Duncan,” Ashton said, exasperated. “I’m being very gentle.”
“The work we did is delicate. There are a few square pegs attached to triangular holes there, and they’re one ripped stitch from being unattached. I’d like to get to an actual lab to put more permanent things in place. Ports, artificial tubing, inject some fluids to top her up. Maybe some regulatory measures. We’ll have to do it sooner or later, to inject some proteins to the pyloric sac. Get the cloning of organs and tissues started, of course.”
“Of course,” Ashton said.
“After that, you’ll be able to hug her as tight as you want. But for now, be gentle.”
“Oh,” Ashton said, “I remember back at the Academy, one of the doctors made a pet for her little sister back home. It was like a puppy, but it didn’t have fur, and it didn’t have bones, and you could squeeze it and its eyes would pop out. We could do that, when we make her more huggable. Not that she has eyes, but we could give her some.”
“We’re not going to do that to Helen, Ashton,” Duncan said.
“But she’d like it. You could squeeze one of the eyeballs while it was bugged out and the other one would double in size, when it was already big. You could squeeze one of the little legs and move all the fluids and stuff to the foot, to make the foot so huge.”
“We’re not going to do that to Helen.”
“It could move too. She’d like to be able to move again, I think. The puppy thing flopped around. I’m no expert, but I think the mechanism was very simple. I’d say it had one point of articulation, like a pillow with a hinge in the middle, but more squishy.”
“What’s going on outside?” I interrupted. “I’d check, but Jessie’s leaning on my shoulder, and I’m trying to conserve my energy.”
Ashton turned, peering past Avis’ feet to look out the window.
Duncan gestured at me. Thanks.
“We should check each other over, Duncan,” Lillian said. She was helping Mary keep wires in place as she pulled her clothes on.
“Alright,” Duncan said. He started unbuttoning his shirt. “Who does who first?”
My mind was still keyed toward visualization, from the fight with the Infante and his pet. I could visualize Lillian and Duncan checking each other over.
“Checking for plague and scars?” I asked. “Nothing more?”
“And any signs of stray parasites, damage from exposure to gas, um, the borrowed quarantine suits rubbed skin raw in places, and those places would be vulnerable to anything invasive, chemicals, or even some gases.”
“Come,” I said. “I’ve got experience with this, from… that city where Jamie and I lived for a while, after leaving Radham. Before Jessie. I check you, you check Duncan. Primate style grooming.”
Lillian glanced at Duncan, who shrugged. She approached me, unbuttoning her top, and I averted my eyes. I wasn’t sure why. She stood in front of the table I was sitting on, and I turned her around, leaning her against the table’s edge, my knees on either side of her hips, holding her in place there.
“Any more flashes?” I asked. I helped Lillian pull off her top.
“No,” Ashton said.
“Probably not many, then. They’ll be trying to organize,” I said. I examined Lillian’s back by the windowlight. The light illuminated the fine little hairs and the the texture of the skin, goosebumps and all.
The plague tended to start with the smallest markings. A red circle, no bigger than a goosebump, with a darker spot of red in the middle.
Duncan settled in in front of Lillian.
“Are we getting out of this?” Lillian asked.
“It’s far from impossible,” I said. “We have a lot of assets out there, in a variety of types. It could be as simple as an explosive, to take the head of whatever creature it is that drags this ship. Put it well in front of the ship while we’re parked here, detonate it when it gets far enough along, and it stops. Dead in the metaphorical water.”
I slipped my finger under Lillian’s brassiere strap, moving it to a different point on her shoulder. She shivered.
Mary was in the background, sitting against a table by the door out. I could look over Lillian’s shoulder and see her, staring me down.
I used my fingers, touching points on either side of the faint red mark the strap had made, pressing against the skin of her shoulder and shoulder blade. I moved the fingers apart, making the skin between them whiten with the tension.
“I’m not sure that’s what I meant,” Lillian said. She began looking after Duncan. Duncan had his back to her, while she had her back to me.
“What did you mean?” I asked.
“Are we all walking away from this?”
“Helen isn’t,” I said. “Walking, I mean. She’s missing something like fifty parts necessary for that.”
“Sy,” Duncan said. “Come on.”
“Jessie isn’t walking either. I give the rest of us fifty-fifty odds.”
I saw Lillian draw in a deep breath. Her sigh was heavy.
I checked beneath the other strap. The water had soaked into her clothing, and the places where seams met and rubbed against skin were more susceptible than some. Here, the prolonged contact of damp cloth had made the skin red, and where it was red, it was starting to look… threadbare, for lack of a better word. The skin looked like it could tear and start bleeding if I stretched or stressed it too much.
Lillian passed me the salve without turning around. I applied the salve, then took the offered bandage, setting it in place and letting the strap rest against the padding, pressing it down against the minor wound.
I undid her brassiere at the back, and I checked beneath it, in much the same fashion. The goosebumps were more pronounced, now. The fine hairs stood on end. My hand moved along the expanse of her back, me measuring my way, remembering what I’d covered and examined already.
“I don’t see anything resembling normal ahead of us,” she said.
“Normal was never the point,” I said. “Two more gods to slay. We bring about a change. Because the way things worked and the destiny that was set forth before? They weren’t workable. Not tolerable.”
“I don’t disagree,” she said.
I brushed her hair to one side, exposing the nape of her neck. I examined it.
“I need a scalpel,” she said.
“Damn it,” Duncan said. He reached over her shoulder, passing one to her.
“Looks like a carnacari. Not so bad,” Lillian said. “But I wouldn’t want to rule out it passing the plague from person to person. We’ll remove it.”
“Please,” Duncan said.
She cut away a small ‘o’ of flesh near his armpit.
“I need a comb,” I said.
Ashton handed me the comb that Duncan had used on him. I pored my way over Lillian’s scalp.
“I don’t disagree, that we had to change things from the intolerable, unworkable state they were in,” Lillian said. As I swept the comb through her hair, her head lolled a touch with it. As if I was the snake charmer, moving my flute, captivating her with the steady, fluid movement. “But. I don’t know if I see a tolerable, workable future ahead of us, here. Losing Helen hurts.”
“It sucks,” I said, combing, searching. “But you two will piece her together again.”
“Describe it to me, Sy,” Lillian said. “What happens next?”
“I don’t know what happens next.”
“Come on, Sy,” she said.
“We’re in the shadow of the first god, we’re enduring his death rattles, and the fact that someone who stands that tall takes a long time to fall and he falls hard. There are ramifications and we’ll ride this wave as best we can. Hopefully we ride it back in that direction. Two gods more stand between us and where we want to go. So I can’t tell you, because I don’t know what Fray’s done. She always stays her hand, she holds back, and then she overturns everything. The landscape could be very different once she makes her play.”
“Hayle is the third god, then?”
“Kind of,” I said, daubing salve on some acid burns behind her ear. I couldn’t search the top of her scalp without standing over her or having her bend over with the top of her head facing me. Which was a fun position to imagine, but not practical when she was still looking after Duncan.
I undid Lillian’s skirt at the side. She paused in her work.
I could see the way she’d stopped breathing, I could see the vague definition of muscle against skin, at her back, and it wasn’t shifting as she breathed. She resumed working, then resumed breathing a moment later.
Ashton turned his head to look, and I stuck my finger out, poking his chin, and turned his face back toward the window again. I said, “I’m not worried about what Hayle might do to the landscape.”
“To you?” Lillian asked.
“Maybe,” I said. I folded the band of her skirt down, then turned my attention to the band of the underclothing beneath. I started checking it much as I had the straps of her brassiere.
“To all of us?”
“To a degree,” I said. I continued my examination. My thumb brushed against the hard bone of pelvis, above her right leg, and her hand dropped down, laying over mine, stopping me from progressing further.
Lillian was focused on another excision. That one looked like plague, but she wasn’t saying as much. It looked early and isolated, from what I could see over her shoulder.
“He set our expiration dates. Very deliberately,” I said, my voice soft. “He was going to set yours, in a way, when he denied you your black coat and laid the groundwork to keep you from ever getting it. He asserted a degree of control.”
“You said control wasn’t it.”
“It wasn’t,” I said. “The shadow Hayle is casting, that makes it hard to see what lies on the other side… it’s like he was there when we all got our start. Duncan excepted, to a degree. He set our ending.”
“Beginnings and endings? The journey?” Duncan asked.
I was slightly annoyed that he was chiming in, while I sat behind Lillian, my knees pressing against her hips, my hand laying against that bone, my fingertips tracing the skin of her stomach, feeling her breathe in and out. It spoiled the moment a bit.
Perhaps unfair. He hadn’t really chosen this venue or circumstance.
“Maybe one way of putting it,” I said. “It was actually what I first thought of, when I was trying to wrap my head around the obstacles ahead of us. But not quite.”
“You don’t need to check me below the waist,” Lillian said. “I was careful to minimize exposure. I took off the top half and tied it down, but I secured the waist tight before I did so, and I followed quarantine protocol.”
“That’s good,” I said, keeping my voice neutral.
She could have told me that minutes ago, before I’d undone the side of her skirt.
I shifted my hand, and she let me pull it away. I fixed her skirt at the side, then gathered up her uniform shirt.
I waited, watching the muscles move beneath skin, hair sliding from where I’d moved it over one shoulder to view her neck, tracing tickling lines against her.
Suppressing a sigh, I drew back, relaxing. My hand lowered, resting on Jessie’s cheek.
I wished Jessie was awake. I wanted to wake her up- I had to keep myself from forming and prioritizing a list of questions. It was too easy to start thinking about what I might ask, in what order, if I could wake her up for two minutes, get two minutes of answers.
Too easy for that ‘what I might ask’ to become ‘what I would ask’, while I left the if in place. Then it would, somewhere along the line, cease being in place.
She had wanted to be here, if I was remembering right. No guarantees on that. She’d wanted to keep me from sacrificing myself, to keep me sane, and to ensure that I had a Lamb with me at all times, even in part.
“I’m done, Duncan,” Lillian said.
“I’ll assume you haven’t had a chance to put your shirt back on,” Duncan said. “I’ll keep my back turned.”
“It hardly matters, when you’re a Doctor,” Lillian said.
“I’m your friend, too. It’s not as if I only ever see you during clinic hours at the Hedge.”
He walked away, buttoning up his shirt.
“You sound like Mary, being all cavalier like that” I said, in Lillian’s ear. “And Mary sounds a bit like Helen. Duncan sounds like he’s picking up some of the best traits of all of us.”
“And me?” Ashton asked, brightly, from a few feet to my left.
“I’m momentarily pretending you don’t exist,” I said.
“You’re so rude, Sy,” Ashton said. “Rude people don’t make friends.”
“I’ve got better people than mere friends,” I said. “I’ve got Lambs. Now keep watching out that window, but cover your ears, please, and give us a moment of privacy.”
Ashton set Helen down on the table next to me, then raised his hands, covering his ears. He shifted position, so his back was to us, but his body pressed against the table. Presumably he was providing a barrier so that Helen wouldn’t fall or get knocked off somehow.
“As for you, Doctor, give me your hands,” I told Lillian.
She put her arms back, and I slid the her uniform shirt over her hands, helping her into it. My hands on the front of the shirt, I brought it forward and around her upper body, until I was hugging her from behind.
“Whatever happens,” I murmured. “I have believed that you were one of the good ones since I believed that good ones existed at all. I have thoroughly believed, since a short while after that, that you had it in you to bring about a better future. I might not know what Hayle is doing, I might be seriously concerned about the cards Fray is holding up her sleeve, but I trust in the Lambs. I have faith in you. All of you, but you and Jessie in particular. It’s why I can trust you when I don’t trust myself.”
Lillian nodded. She pulled at my arms, making the hug tighter. “You should have faith in yourself, Sy.”
“Too dangerous,” I said.
“You should,” she said, quiet, her voice firm.
Across the room, Mary’s head turned. A face had appeared in the window.
I didn’t let go of Lillian. I watched them.
I really wished they’d open the door to check on us or say something. It would have given us an out. But they weren’t that stupid. They wouldn’t.
There were few things I hated more than being contained. Being kept. I could remember some incidents after my appointments, where the pain had been too great, the confinement too awful. I’d rebelled against my surroundings.
“Sy,” Lillian said. “I feel like you’re preparing to sacrifice yourself. That this is the last hug, the last time we really speak, and you’re going to hurl yourself out into whatever reality Hayle and Fray have painted for us.”
“Avis is sitting in the bowl of the window, next to Ashton,” I said.
“She is. She’s always been the messenger. So that’s what I’m doing, saying what I need to say. Conveying the message.”
Ashton lowered his hands from his ears. “Sorry, but something’s happening out there.”
I released Lillian from the hug. I glanced at Duncan and Mary, who were talking at the other end of the room.
Lillian moved away. I had to extricate myself, with Helen against one leg and Jessie leaning against my one shoulder. I placed Helen in Jessie’s arms, and hopped down from the table.
The town was being segregated. The people were hard to make out, but they were being forced out of the houses, out into the rain. Others were being gathered. Where the one group was being pushed out, unformed ranks and casual citizens in no organization whatsoever, moved further from the ship, the ones who were being allowed to gather closer to the ship were organizing themselves into rank and file.
Quarantine, or the premise of quarantine.
I wasn’t sure it was her, but Lady Gloria appeared to be one of the figures being sent out with the teeming masses. The sick, the ones without quarantine suits and requisite rank.
Depending on the degree to which that was a thing, it could utterly disarm us. The vulnerable would be our rebels, the key figures the Infante had no doubt run into, Gloria included, who we’d been using to steer things. They were the biggest fish of the small lakes and ponds, but the Infante’s Professors trumped even then.
I’d expected this to a degree. I hadn’t expected it to be nearly this severe.
I’d expected them to use guns and fire. We’d seen something like it in… I grasped for the city’s name.
Lugh. In Lugh. Where Gordon had died. There, the cordon had closed, and everything within it destroyed.
Here, it was almost more awful. The houses and homes were emptied, explosives shook the town where the inhabitants might not have opened the doors quickly enough or willingly left. People were sent out and left to stumble their way through the streets, trying to cover their heads.
The battalion of soldiers lowered their weapons in unison, and then they began firing. Those who didn’t move fast enough were gunned down. Those who did move fast enough were forced into the open fields, beyond the town, where the rain could pour on them, where the scattered few harvesters might lurk in the taller grass or the irrigated rows of crops.
I worried some of those might be ours.
While everyone fled, it was the tall woman who moved in the opposite direction. Against the flow.
The tall woman, who marched against the tide, charging at the Infante’s Professors and the elite soldiers they were retaining for the voyage home. She endured the hail of bullets until she was three-quarters of the way to them. She stumbled for the first time, found her feet, and only made it another two steps before stumbling again. Then she fell.
This was grim. More of the horrors of war, more of a reminder why I wanted to fight where we were fighting.
I took a step away. I moved Helen aside, and I gathered Jessie up, preparing to lift her.
My knees wobbled. I stopped. I’d tired myself out.
“I’ll take her,” Lillian said.
“I’ll take care of her. Don’t worry.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Lillian gathered Jessie up. “She’s light.”
“You didn’t say no, you know,” Lillian said. She pulled Jessie closer to her, and secured Jessie’s grip. “When I guessed you were planning on sacrificing yourself.”
“No,” I said.
“Don’t,” she said. “I know you’re thinking about it, I suspect you’re faking being tired, so I take her, and you no longer have that burden that keeps you from throwing yourself into danger.”
“I’m not thinking about it,” I said. The scenes outside were very clear in my mind. The Infante. The soldiers on the deck. “I won’t.”
“You said that so easily,” she said. She sounded sad as she said it.
She moved away, joining the others by the door. They were getting prepared, pulling boots back on, gathering their equipment.
“Ashton,” I said. “Do you have the light?”
He raised the light to the window.
“Are they there?”
Ashton flashed. The pattern was right for ‘question’. I remembered that much.
Standing just behind him, I could see the response.
The response was visible from within the rank and file of elite soldiers.
“Remind me,” I said.
“No. Aggress,” Ashton said, moving his free hand in the pattern. “Aggress. They said it twice.”
“We used to do that,” Mary said. “Blanks. They got our initial message. They knew the quarantine measures were coming. They’re firing blanks.”
Good. That was good.
We had soldiers among the crew that would board this ship. They would come to us. We had troops among the ‘fallen’, if they weren’t entirely ours. I hoped they had protected themselves against the acid rain, or that the rain had thinned out enough, this far from the city, that it wouldn’t hurt them too much.
All we needed was for the Infante’s Professors to let their guards down. They could torch the town and walk away, seeing it as a job well done, and they could leave all of this behind… let their guards down, at least to some degree, and we could turn the tables.
I almost felt like this was workable. Almost.
Then Fray made her move.