Gut Feeling – 17.8

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I waited, my back to the doorframe, listening.

A question from Mabel.  A muted response.

I counted ninety long seconds before I heard Mabel’s boots scrape and shuffle.

She exited the room, wearing another improvised quarantine suit.

“Alright?” I asked.

I wasn’t sure if I was asking if she was alright or if the situation was.

“I don’t think I want to do that ever again,” she said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Sorry.”

She shook her head.  The makeshift quarantine suit was all raincoat fabric and tape, and it didn’t move as her head did.  “It needed to be done.  It was the nicest way to end her pain, and I don’t mind that it was me.  But between last night and this, this morning, I’m almost as emotionally exhausted as I’ve ever been.”

“We’ll have to see what we can do about fixing that,” I said.  “How do you normally shore things up when they’re crumbling?”

“Hm?” she asked.

“What?” I asked.

“No, just… weird wording.  I think I usually wait.  Rest.  Or I just push forward until I get to a good stopping point.  End of a shitty day of class, or the next weekend where I don’t have a lot to do, or the end of a tough semester.”

“How well does that work for you?” I asked.

“Well enough, I think,” she said.  “I don’t know.  I think this is going to sit with me for a long time.”

I invited her into the hallway, glanced within, and then closed the door.  I picked up my tools, and I started removing the doorknob.

“It’s allowed, letting it sit with you for a while.”

“Uh huh,” Mabel said.

“It’s a way of respecting her,” I said.  “You carry that with you.  It’s good if someone passes and life gets a little harder, if there’s a weight and a ripple that extends outward.”

I pulled the doorknob out.  I put it in the toolbox.

“You’ve been involved in a lot of lost lives,” she said.

I looked down the hall.  They hadn’t been there before I started looking, but they were there by the time my head finished moving and my eyes found the shadows to either side of the window.  Jamie, Gordon, and Hubris.

“I carry them with me in other ways,” I said.  I collected a hammer and a few long nails from the toolbox.

“Oh, you mean the phantoms,” Mabel said.  “I was thinking of other deaths.”

I looked her way.

“In your tenure as a Lamb?”

Oh.  The people I’d killed.

That was a thing too.

“I carry them too, I suppose,” I said.

“Sorry if I made things queer, bringing attention to that.”

I shook my head.  “I’m a queer fellow.  I hear you talk about things like how you unwind from emotional exhaustion, and I don’t know what to say.”

“No?” she asked.

I drove the nail into the door at an angle, so it penetrated both one edge of the door and the frame itself.  With the amount of my back and shoulder that had been carved away, it was a bit of a task to drive the nail home.

“I don’t know that I get emotionally exhausted.  I get emotional, I get exhausted, but when push comes to shove, and my feelings are tested and fail the test, it’s my brain that breaks more than my heart.”

“I think that’s a reflection of heartbreak, Sy.”

“You might think differently if you were there,” I said.  “It might be what happens when you have the right tools-”

I paused to made sure I drove the next nail in straight.

“-to dodge the worst of the heartbreak and go down another path.  I have lots of fun tools like that.”

“I see.”

“Rest and time don’t do much for me, either.  Time heals all wounds, but you have to let it, and I’m not willing to let it.  If you’re a Sylvester with a brain like clay under running water, you can shape that brain, sure, but you’ve got to make the choice.  That painful memory of that person you cherish, do you let it go?  Or do you make the effort to keep that memory clear and safe from being washed away?  Do you keep etching it in and reinforcing it?”

“You etch.”

“Yeah.  I etch,” I said.  Still holding the hammer, I grabbed a small paint can, pried off the lid, and stuck my fingers inside.  I finger-painted letters on the door.  “As best I can.”

Plague, my letters wrote.

I made a mark below the warning, using fingerprints and smears to form something akin to a leaf with a curling line beside it, then crouched a bit before finger-painting another message.

Edna-Joan Eccles.

“How did it go?” I asked.  “That quote that Edna’s friend from the animal team said?”

“I was busy getting my suit taped up.  I barely heard what you were all talking about, and the girls were crying.  I thought you would remember.”

“You’re putting far too much stock in my brain.  Something beastly?”

“Um.  Wasn’t it something like, ‘roar, my beast friend?'”

“Sure,” I said.  “Beast?”

“I think it’s a play on best friend, and because she liked animals and warbeasts?  She was really excited about the pheromone warbeast we were going to be working on, even though she wasn’t project lead.”

I was already painting the letters before Mabel had finished talking.  “It’s an especially large shame then.  I like people who are passionate about what they do.”

Mabel nodded, but she didn’t verbally respond.

It took a while to write even the short sentence, one stroke at a time.

“There,” I said, when I was done.  I set the can of paint down without closing it, and abandoned the tools where they were.  An oily rug helped me get most of the paint off of my hand.  I didn’t fuss too much over getting perfectly clean.

“I wish I could take her somewhere she could be properly buried,” Mabel said.  “Shit.  I never used to be sentimental.”

“She was fused to the chair and floor,” I said.  “It’s not worth the risk to you.”

Mabel nodded.  Again, her quarantine suit obscured the motion.

“Burial is a funny thing, too, the more I think about it, but I think that’s mostly personal perception.  Come on, let’s get out of here.”

I discarded the rag with paint.  My hand had the oily residue and traces of paint in the cracks, the wear and tear and the lines emphasized.  Scratches new and old, abrasions and calluses all stood out with the paint highlighting them.  My fingers stuck to each other.

“What makes burial a funny thing?” Mabel asked.

“It’s a little odd to imagine a burial for someone like me, but that’s me, not for someone like her,” I said.  “Otis and some others got buried and if we had more people with quarantine suits and a clear way to get her out of here and out to a new burial plot, I’d be all for it.”

“You don’t want to be buried?  You’re dancing around the subject.”

“My memory is bad, but I feel like I’ve never really sat down and imagined myself being lowered into a burial plot, never imagined myself getting a funeral.  It’s kind of absurd, isn’t it?  I’ve thought about dying and I’ve known I was going to die for a long time, but the scene probably never struck me.”

“I don’t think it’s absurd at all,” she said.  “You’re… a victim of queer circumstance.”

“Sure,” I said.  “We can go with that.”

“If not a burial plot, then how does it end?”

“Violent ends.  Get myself into trouble I can’t get out of.  Fed to warbeasts, beheaded, shot…” I said.  I looked for and found Gordon in the crowd, sticking near Jessie and Helen.  “Cremation would be a nice way to go, but suffocation or drowning are up there.”

“You’re being morbid,” Mabel said.

“Uh huh.  Trying to scare you off at this point,” I said.

“My dad was unbalanced, spiteful, and self-involved.  He lost one wife after another, and after that, he had no forgiveness in his heart for anyone.  Especially not me.  It still took losing my last shot at the Academy for me to walk away.  You’re going to have to try harder if you want to scare me off.”

There were things I could say about that, but I had a feeling they would end in bitter words.

I took hold of her elbow as we made our way down the stairs to the ground floor.  With oversized boots and the alternating constriction and abundance of room that came with the makeshift quarantine suit, she was a little wobbly.  She fared well enough that I doubted she needed me, but she wasn’t complaining at the gesture, either.

As we ventured outside, we could see the rank and file of the Beattle rebels, the additions we’d picked up in our travels, and the older gang members.  They’d gathered, and the carriages and wagons were all loaded down with supplies and bags.  Some of our people were still lashing bags and containers down.

Jessie raised an arm, waving.  I waved back.

She gestured a question, and I gave the go-ahead.

The signal was given, the wagons started off, and with a few words from Jessie, the leaders of individual groups got their contingents moving.

I drew a knife from my back pocket and set about cutting the tape and peeling Mabel out of the quarantine suit.

The damage and bandages at my back limited my range of movement, particularly with my right arm, while Mabel was limited by the fact that she had taped herself into the suit and it was hard to untape herself with gloves on.

“Sorry if I made things awkward,” she said.

She hadn’t been wearing the quarantine suit for long.  A five minute walk between buildings, time inside the dormitory, walking up a flight of stairs and down the hall, seeing to Edna Joan, and then exiting the building.  But the outfit wasn’t one that breathed, by design.  She practically steamed with the body heat that had been contained within.

No, ‘awkward’ was helping Mabel out of her outfit while her team of chemists and greenhouse gangers watched her and the collection of Pierre, Shirley, Jessie and Helen watched me.  Moisture beaded her skin, made her hair stick to her neck.  She wasn’t wearing heavy clothes with the quarantine suit, her clothing choice barely different from underclothes, and the clothes she was wearing were sticking to her.

She was standing with an orientation that meant the onlookers couldn’t really see her face.  She had been crying, but with the mask and suit on, she hadn’t been able to wipe away the tears.  The moment her arms were free, the upper half of the suit hanging from her waist, she brought her hands to her face, wiping sweat, tears, and hair back and away.

I was very aware that her back arched a little with that, and that her chest stuck out unconsciously in my direction.  But I was also aware that people were watching me and her and wanted to see if I would look, and I played at being the gentleman.

I moved around behind her, very conscious of how the sweat caught the light, or how one tiny rivulet of sweat traced the line of her shoulderblade.  I pulled off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders.

“You don’t need to do that,” she said.

“You’ll get cold,” I said.

You’ll get cold, and you’re recovering from surgery.”

“You’ll get cold, and you’re drenched.  It’ll cut through you in a moment if the wind blows the wrong way.  Wear the jacket until you have your own.  If you start off a long hike by freezing yourself to the bone, someone is going to have to give up a much-needed seat.”

“Alright,” Mabel said.  “I’ve learned better than to argue with you.”

“Good,” I said.

“But your jacket is going to stink,” she said.  “I haven’t had a chance to shower today, I was roasting in that quarantine suit, I’m drenched, as you put it.”

“Oh, the horror.  No.  Girl sweat is a good smell.”

Mabel made a face.  “Gross.”

“It’s the way it goes,” I told her.  “Left leg.”

She lifted her left leg, and I helped cut where the waders were taped to the boots.  I repeated the process for the right leg.

She put her hands on my shoulders for balance as she kicked off the waders.

Together, we got her to the members of the greenhouse gang, who had her actual boots, winter jacket and clothing in custody.  One of them already had a towel ready to hand to her, which immediately went to her damp hair.

“Walk with us?” she asked.

“I need to catch up with Jessie and Helen,” I said.  “Strategy and grander plans.  I want you and some of the others to join in the discussion, but let us cut through some of the initial gristle and grit first.  We’ll tackle some stuff first, then make it a wider discussion.”

“Okay,” Mabel said.  I could hear the disappointment.

“It really is more stuff you don’t want to hear.  In the meantime, you guys should talk while you walk.  Discuss the possibilities of the arm and skin I’m gifting you.  How you’ll figure out what you can use, tests you can run, whichever else.  Tap other groups if it keeps them busy and if you don’t fall too far behind.  But see what you can do?”

“We’ll try,” Mabel said.  “We don’t have a lab, so I can’t make promises.”

“And keeping in mind you’ve been running around and helping on my behalf for the better part of the day, I’ll see what I can do to thank you by arranging a warm bath for you after we get to our destination.”

I subtly gestured midway through saying it, making sure the other Lambs didn’t see.  Mabel didn’t give any indication she’d seen.

“Warm bath?” one of Mabel’s Greenhouse Gang kids asked, eager.

“You peasants get to fight over the tubs only after the inner circle are through with them,” I said.  I gestured again as I said, “Mabel gets first go.”

“No need to spoil me,” she said.

“There’s no need, but I’m liable to do it anyway,” I told her.  “You did good work.  I’m hoping for more.  But either way, discuss, plan, plot.  Then you and I-”

I gestured again, striving to drive the point home.

“-will discuss what your group figured out and is proposing.”

I was pretty sure she saw that last gesture.  I was also pretty sure she didn’t understand the meaning.

“I’ll be tired tonight, and I think you’re underestimating how tired you’ll be.  A surgery like the one you had last night will take a lot out of you.”

I gestured.

“We’ll see how it goes, then,” I said.  “No commitments.  But I think you’d be surprised at my stamina.”

“I think waiting and seeing is the best approach,” she said.  “And I’m sure you’re very capable.”

I smiled, gesturing subtly at the same time.

“…And I’m suddenly remembering that you’re the person to trust when it comes to this sort of thing,” she said.  “And I’m reconsidering.  If you think you’ll be up for it.”

“I definitely think I’ll be up for it,” I said.

No blushing, barely any betrayal that she’d realized what I was really going for.

Her eyes were one of the first things I had noticed about her, the attention to detail and memory.  I wondered how many times she’d seen the gestures before making the connection.

“I’ll look forward to it, then,” she told me.

I gave her a mock salute, collected my coat, and made my way to the others.  I could tell they were rearing to go before they fell behind the pack.

I’d told Mabel that I needed to get some things sorted out before I invited her to chat with us.  I was about to deal with those things.

“So adorable,” Helen said.

I rolled my eyes.

“Your pupils are dilated,” Jessie said.  “Your breathing is different.”

I rolled my eyes more emphatically, moving my head in a little circle for added emphasis.

“It was very gentlemanly of you to give her your jacket,” Shirley said.

“Not you, Shir,” I said.  “Don’t you join in.”

“It’s hard to resist,” Shirley said, offering me a pouty little moue that used the best of her pixie face and build and her large eyes.  Helen mirrored her movements.

“Helen is already a bad influence on you,” I remarked.

The mass migration was underway.  The light teasing continued, and we made our way out of Sedge and onto the back country roads.

There were enough people in our rank and file that it posed logistical issues.  The tromp of boots on wet dirt road meant that by the time the stragglers reached the same point, the ground was a mire.  Wagons churned up ground that should have been solid and hard with the cold.

The jokes and jabs stopped after a bit.  The carriages were loaded down enough that when they did reach softer ground, weight pulled them into the mud.  People started to appear at the sides of the road, as if to offer help, but our numbers discouraged a straightforward approach.

Bandits.  I wanted to talk to some, but the way things were demanded constant and careful attention.

They lingered, ominous, and I made sure to talk to the group leaders, ensuring we conveyed the right message, that we didn’t have any weak points.

Mentally, I could see the bandits making the mental decision to attack us in the late evening, after most of us had gone to bed.

The show of strength was enough for the time being.

I took Jessie’s hand, and I did it for reasons entirely unrelated to the bandits who wanted to attack us and divest us of our gathered possessions.

As all of this went, it was good.  The people, the task at hand, the possibilities, and that dim possibility that Helen had floated of something inspiring and devastating to our enemies.

I liked that in particular.

If I had quizzed Jessie for information before making promises to Mabel, I might have been told that even if we were brisk, it would take twelve hours to reach our destination by way of walking.  I might have been discouraged.

We didn’t walk.  Halfway through the afternoon, just as the sun was starting to set, we had happened across a farm.  The farmer had been willing to accept well over twice the value of his horses, carriages and spare wood in exchange for his cooperation.

Spirits were considerably higher now that anyone walking could get a turn sitting on the back of one carriage.

Helen found her way back from a conversation with Pierre.

“Helen,” I said.  “Question, Jessie and I were discussing.”

“Mm?”

“Did you ever envision a casket funeral for yourself?”

“I think if I would be in a position to get one, I’ll get taken to pieces in autopsy for my creator,” she said.  “So no.”

I nodded.  I was aware that Helen was preparing her breakfast as though she had no imagination at all.  Route and routine.

“What about a casket funeral for me?” I asked.

It was Jessie who answered.  “If you somehow earn a casket funeral for yourself, Sy, for one thing, I’m going to be ticked, because that’s not allowed.  We don’t die if we can help it.”

“Fair,” Helen said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“No throwing yourself suicidally into madcap situations with only half formulated plans,” Jessie said.  “If you can promise me that, I’ll play along with the mad plan.  I’ll help you execute it with precision.”

“Deal,” I said.

It might have been poetic for that moment to be the one where we crested the hill and found ourselves faced with the next scene, a fresh image of the Crown states.

Instead, it took another ten minutes of trudging, every part of my lower body and some parts of my upper body hurting from the exercise, before we reached the hill, so to speak.  The trees overhead knit into arches above our heads.  The arches blocked our view.

But we made it beyond the arches.  We had a clear view of the sky.

“Oh my gosh,” Helen said.  “He’s not supposed to be here!”

‘He’ was a man, as it happened.  He was naked, leathery of skin, with ragged hair and mustache.

“Don’t tell me,” I said.

“Well, I could listen and not tell you, which is boring and anxiety-inducing,” Helen said.  “Or I could break the news, and then we can discuss what to do about this.”

“What news?” Davis asked, as he happened to draw closer to us, the walking rear guard of the caravan now catching up to us on the cliff-edge, looking across the city.

Looking at the naked man.

His face contorted with emotion, his body moved as if he wasn’t familiar with it, and he acted groggy.

One of the superweapons.  He stood taller than the tallest skyscrapers in the city sprawl, and the city held close to eighty-thousand people.  Taller than a building ten stories tall.  He moved among most buildings like someone my size might have walked amid scattered books in my living room.  His joints were overlarge, he was brutish, crude, and ugly, with some resemblance to a neanderthal, and yet, somehow, he was art.  Beauty in audacity.

“He was a project that stretched the upper bounds of size limits, ratios, and weight distribution.  He’s one of the three largest non-waterborne creations on the planet,” Helen said.  “And he’s Ibbot’s work.  My half brother.”

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Gut Feeling – 17.7

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The departure of the Lambs was our cue to start packing up and getting ready to go.

We had three hundred students, fifty other individuals we’d picked up along the way, and thirty gang members that included the new and the old; adults that were willing to take orders.  Of all the gang leaders we’d started with, only Archie remained.

We couldn’t stay, and so we were left with the unenviable task of getting four hundred people ready to leave.  Most of them had been up for half the night as active agents in attacking the quarantine site and then distracting Academy forces, leading them into traps.  The average age was roughly seventeen, and being ex-students, they were a spoiled sort of seventeen that weren’t busy working to help their families put food on the tables.

Thanks for helping us get out of the quarantine zone, kids!  Hope you enjoyed your breakfasts, because we’re going to spend the rest of the day trudging through cold wet backroads.

If they had been motivated by any degree of excitement or a legitimate fear for their own lives, it still would have been a slow process.  If it had been both exciting with mortal fear driving it, maybe things might have moved along a little better.

“Limited wagons,” Jessie observed.  “We can save seven seats, including the driver’s seat.  Rudy gets one, of course.  Then Doris, Marie, Bernard, Clara, Ann, and Edwin.  Doris can drive the wagon for a stretch, but we’ll want to ensure she’s snug and comfortable.”

“Why her in particular?”

It was Helen who chimed in, “Because it’s gentlemanly, Sy.  Don’t tell me that you’ve become a degenerate in the last year.”

“It’s because she’s pregnant, Sy.  You’ve seen her around.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Conception was our fault, arguably.  The early days after we left Beattle.”

“There’s a dozen kinds of ways to avoid that,” I said.

“I’m fond of not having a uterus,” Helen said.  “Very convenient.”

“It probably is,” Jessie told Helen.  To me, she said, “They slipped the net.  You threatened Doris’ boyfriend and said you’d stitch his dick to his forehead if he didn’t step up.”

“Did I?” I asked.

“Why are you asking me?  Do you think I’m going to be wrong about something?” Jessie asked.  “Or that I forgot?”

“No, no, nothing like that.  It’s just, dang, I’m really disappointed I didn’t remember the forehead-dick-stitching.  I really like that.  I’m sort of in awe of my past self.”

“Again,” Jessie chimed in.

“He’s a bold and adventurous lad, with uncommon intelligence,” I said.  “And with a mischievous streak that may include attaching members to foreheads., without removal of either forehead or member.”

“It was inspired,” Jessie said.  “You were angry.”

“Did I have cause to try putting the inspiration to practice?” I asked.  “I’m sort of wondering at the logistics of the act, now.”

“He stepped up, you didn’t have cause.  You could say he was inspired by the lingering threat,” Jessie said.

“Well, good for him,” I said.  “Also, drat.”

“For all of his early reluctance, I think he’s more likely to be a proper parent than Doris,” Jessie said.  “Not that we’re going to say anything of the sort in earshot of Doris.”

“I’ll forget you said it before the hour is out,” I said.

“I’ll be good,” Helen said.  “And if you ever want to test those logistics on someone, Sylvester, do let me know.  I’ll be happy to help.”

“How gracious of you, madam.  Do remind me if we have any particularly annoying enemies deserving of the fate.”

Helen offered me a little curtsy, “Of course, sir.”

“You two are just going to be a right horror show, aren’t you?” Jessie asked.

“Given a chance,” I said.

“Just keep me in the loop,” Jessie said.

“Can do,” I said.

Students were making their way outside.  The ground was wet with snow, and they were reluctant to put their bags down where they would get soaked.  There weren’t many surfaces available, either, and the bags were heavy, leaving them in an awkward position.  Students were doing their best to take bags and load up the carriages and wagons, but it was quickly becoming apparent that there just wasn’t much space.

“Are we going to have to reduce the number of bags we’re bringing?” I asked.

“Probably,” Jessie said.  “Since we arrived, we’ve gathered lab equipment, materials, projects, new people, and we’ve lost wagons and carriages as of last night.”

I frowned.

“We’ll manage.  Maybe if we get students to share the load, each one carries one bag for a short leg of the journey, passes it on?”

“Or we could devise a quick hitch.  If we tore off a door and fix wheels to it from somewhere, we could add more bags,” I said.

“More load for the horses,” Jessie said.  “You’re not wrong, but let’s not overstate it.”

“Right.”

Jessie waved over one student.  “Get Charlie Cullough and Alvin Munder.  Get tools from under the stairs of the unoccupied dormitory, tear away the sliding door of the enclosed pen.  Then get the big treaded wheelbarrow wheels and axle from the rusty wheelbarrow sitting inside the mill.  Beside the brick stack.  See what you can put together.  We need something we can hitch to a carriage and pull behind, to hold bags.”

“Yeah?” the boy asked.  He glanced at us three, with Helen getting the majority of the attention.

“Make it sturdy,” Jessie said.  “We have a long trip ahead of us, and we really don’t want to stop halfway to fix it.

“Yes ma’am,” the boy said, sounding unconvinced.

“There’s a pay bonus in it for you three if you get it done fast and it lasts the entire trip,” I said.  “Be inventive.”

“Show us what you’re made of,” Helen said.  Her tone was such that I couldn’t help but think that she was actually thinking about constituent, fleshy elements when she talked about what he was made of.

Still, it did the trick.  He hurried off to do the task with zest and pep.

“That will help,” Jessie said.  “I’m just trying to put the mental building blocks together.  Quantity of cargo, the amount of space…”

“We could tell everyone to dig through their bags and throw away five items.”

“We could,” Jessie said.  “Fast way to breed resentment.”

“You’re not wrong,” I said.  “But the Academy catching up to us or us making our rebels carry two stone worth of luggage is going to see us collectively dead and dealt with or it’s going to breed even more resentment.”

“Yeah,” Jessie said.  She looked down at her notebook and began making notes, one eye on incoming refugees and the bags they were carrying.  She wrote something down.

“Why the notes?” I asked.

“Calculations, and I may have to delegate.  There’s a lot to do.”

“Got it,” I said.  “What can I do?”

“Find Shirley and Pierre?”

“On it,” I said.

“And take Helen?  Boys are stopping to stare at the new girl and it’s slowing down traffic in a logistically key place.”

“If it would help, I can drink and redistribute water across my body,” Helen said.  “Change my proportions to be less stare-worthy.”

“No,” I said.  “Not if you’re walking long distances.”

“I can expel it,” she said.

“Means stopping repeatedly.”

“I can expel it through the mouth.”

“Let’s just not,” I said.  “Come with.  We’ll get out of sight and out of mind, and maybe the hope that they get to gawk at you in the future motivates them to get going.”

“Alright,” Helen said.

“Don’t be too long!” Jessie called out.  Helen and I were already a little distance away.  “We should leave soon.”

“Got it!” I called back.

Shirley and Pierre were in the dining hall.  The room was one of the largest areas with open space, access from multiple directions and a lot of surfaces to set bags and things on.  Some of our people were packing up on tables, others pausing to rest after lugging heavy bags a distance.

Shirley’s hair had grown in a bit longer, but it remained a pixie cut of black hair.  The heavy application of product to her lashes and the makeup surrounding her eyes made her eyes look even larger.  In any other circumstance, she might have looked like an attractive cross of the seductress and the innocent, new to adulthood.  She was coordinating and giving advice.

She looked worn out.  She hadn’t had much more sleep than I had, to look at her, and her brain wasn’t so adaptable.  She was doing an admirable job, and she was doing it after being hit by plague.  Bloody bandages wrapped her forearms and hands.

Pierre hung back, looking bedraggled.  I doubted he’d slept nearly enough.

“Sylvester!” Shirley greeted me.

Which was sufficient to turn the vast majority of the crowd’s attention my way.

In moments, I was being bombarded with questions from the mundane to the serious.  How many bags could they bring?  So-and-so had been given multiple major adjustments and physical changes by some amateur surgeons, there was some concern about risk if they were to exert themselves or travel on the road.  Someone wasn’t leaving their room and there was some concern they would stay behind on a more permanent basis.

I raised a hand to suppress the rising tide of voices, and I talked to Shirley.  “Where do we stand?”

“Snags,” she said.  “This was abrupt.”

“I warned people to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, to keep a bag packed, whatever else they needed.  Hopefully this becomes something they start doing by default.”

“Most are doing fine.  But there are outliers, Sylvester.”

“How many are you stumped on?”

“Three or four,” she said.

I put a hand on her shoulder, leading her away from the crowd.  Pierre and Helen followed as we found our way to a place that was less overwhelmed with students and problems.  “Who?  Which?”

“Four students are in an ongoing dispute about… everything.  They’re fighting over everything.”

“Everything?” I asked.

“Room assignments, politics, who gets the credit for what work.  They’re entangled, enmeshed, and they aren’t congealing into a working unit.”

“A minor issue, but I’m not seeing if it really demands attention.  We have other priorities.”

“They’re refusing to budge until someone higher up steps in to decide.  Others have taken bets, which means they’re reluctant to get a move on.”

“And it’s not an easy solve, when it comes to winners and losers and hurt feelings whichever you decide,” Shirley said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Who else?”

“Student sealed herself in her room.  Scared of plague.  Doesn’t want to leave today, so soon after the scare yesterday.”

“You can’t talk her down?”

“I could, given time and one hundred percent of my focus, but there’s so much to keep track of,” Shirley said.  She looked a little bit on edge for a moment, and then she pulled herself back together.  She took in a deep breath.

“It’s never quite so bad as it seems,” Helen said.

I added, “And, it’s worth saying, there’s nothing at this stage you can do to disappoint.  You’re doing more than enough.  It pains me to see you this wound up.”

“You’re right,” Shirley said.  “But I do feel like a dunce, not being able to handle enough of this.”

“You’re fine,” I said.  “Really.  Take my word for it.”

“I do.  I will.”

“Good,” I said.  I took in a deep breath, myself.  “By the by, I’m not sure if you’ve had formal introductions.  Shirley, this is Helen.”

“We met, in very brief passing.”

“Did we?” Helen asked.

“When you broke into Sylvester’s orphanage.  You came down through the roof and charged right past me.”

“Oh,” Helen said.  “That was a fun day.”

Up until the end of it, at which point it was one of the more miserable days of my life, I thought.

“I heard she was staying.  You traded away the professor for her.”

“In a sense,” I said.  “I didn’t plan for it from the outset, but here we are.”

“She uses the same body language techniques you tried to teach me.”

Taught you,” I said.  “Didn’t try.  Please don’t malign my abilities.  And I’ll tell you this.  Those techniques?  The framing of the body, posing, balance and clothing?  Hers.”

“Mine,” Helen said.

“It’s what she does,” I said.  “Except very natural.  Spend time with her if you can.  Study Helen.  You can learn an awful lot, even if it’s hard to put into proper words.  I studied her and figured out some tricks and techniques, but she’s a natural.”

“I’m the furthest thing from natural,” Helen said.  “You’re all made up of meat and vegetables, and here I am, sweet as spun sugar.”

She’s in a poetic mood,” I whispered to Shirley.

Shirley nodded.

“Getting back to the introductions, Helen, this is Shirley someone I owe a tremendous amount to.  More than I can say.  I owe her my sanity, which she really went to great personal risk to escort safely to the brink and walk back to reality with.  With that in mind, we treat her as nicely as we would anyone.  Please.”

“I treat everyone nicely,” Helen said.

“…Yeah,” I said.  “Treat Shirley the right kind of nice.  The non-hurting kind of hugs, if you hug her at all.”

“Of course,” Helen said.  Her expression was perfect.  Entirely convincing.

Which wasn’t convincing at all, in its perfection.

“Alright,” I said.  “One student won’t leave, four students are at war, what else?”

“The youngest boy of Otis’ group.  He’s holding a grudge over a girl.  It’s not explicitly stonewalling anything, but people are nervous.  A lot of people are nervous.  Otis didn’t survive the night, his men are uneasy and frustrated, some are posturing.  I think ten or twelve students have mentioned it in passing, all with the impression that someone might come looking for revenge, or try to take command of the thugs.”

“Alright,” I said.

Shirley nodded, apparently emboldened by my lack of concern.  “Last of all, three students are having second thoughts.  They’re wondering if, if they were to leave, they could just make their way back to Beattle and lie about being kidnapped.”

“If they have to,” I said.  “Tell them to come with.  I don’t like the idea of three students wandering off in the cold because they aren’t a picture of the group.”

Shirley nodded.

“We can tackle this,” I said.  “This is all doable.”

Shirley smiled.

“How are you getting by, Pierre?” I asked.

“Doing just fine,” Pierre said.  “Tired.”

“I thought you didn’t get tired.”

“It was a lot of running yesterday, I’m sore,” he said.

I nodded.

“But I’m glad to be moving,” he said.  “Most of my favorite people survived.”

“Good,” I said.  “Good, that’s excellent.”

Four things to tackle, then.

“Shall we demonstrate our charms and wiles?” I asked Helen.

“Yes sir,” she said, giving me a crisp salute.

“We’ll start with the biggest group first,” I said.  “The group surrounding this Otis follower.”

Helen smiled.

Rather than ask for a location from Shirley I asked students to point me in the direction we had last seen the guy.  A crude method, but the people in our camp paid attention, they gathered notes and they shared information between them.  Even the normally sealed family bonds of a greater faction could be undermined by one follower with doubts.

“Want to bet?” Helen asked me.

Bet?

“On who can accomplish the most.”

“Well aren’t you feeling as lively as a figged pony today, miss Helen.”

Helen smiled.

“What’s at stake with the bet?” I asked.

“If you win,” Helen said, “then…”

She trailed off.  I noticed the shift in her posture.  There was swagger, a pronounced and cocky addition of sway.

“I’m not that easy to manipulate,” I said.  “I’m not Duncan.”

“Oh?” Helen asked, teasing.  “But I was going to say that if you won, you could do anything.  I would be your obedient slave.”

“Ha ha,” I said.  “No thanks.”

“And if I win…” she said.

“My ‘no’ doesn’t count for anything then?” I asked.  “What?”

“If I win, I get one favor,” Helen said.

“One favor?”

“One deal.  It won’t be anything you couldn’t do on your own.”

“Uh huh,” I said.  “You’d have to run that by Jessie.  She’s paranoid I’ll make a promise to do a favor and someone will take advantage of my lack of memory to get me to deliver on the favor over and over again.  You’re trustworthy, but…”

“Promises to Jessie must be kept.  That should be fine,” Helen said.  “You get me as a slave if you win, I get a favor if I win.”

“Again, I don’t want a slave,” I said.  “I have too many people to risk throwing too much away for a meager advantage.  I’m trying to dissuade them of that kind of thinking.  I want healthy thought processes and motivations in all of this.”

“It’s fine,” Helen said, still swaying and sashaying.

“Is it?”

“I won’t lose,” she said.

Oh, the figgy little miss is cocky?

“The twiggy-thin runt of the litter is complacent, I think,” Helen said.

I whistled, low and long.

Helen wasn’t actually competitive.  This wasn’t a deeper facet of Helen, I knew.  The enthusiasm, the excitement.  No, if anything, this was a reflection of how very trepiditious she was in this new environment.  Camouflage, hiding places, but it was emotional, a facade.  Blending in with the enemy ranks and then carrying out the Lamb tradition of undermining the enemy from within.

This was a mask, one purely for my benefit, to cheer and encourage.  To make bets I might well lose, to get hooks in deeper, to distract.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll try my hand at this bet of yours.”

Helen smiled.  The she reached out, putting a hand on a boy’s arm as we passed him.

Helen named our quarry, Hank Miller, and we were pointed out to the chicken coop.  I recognized the thug.  Twenty years old, wearing Otis’ style of dress, with laborer’s clothes and a fair bit of excess dirt, his ears bent down at the sides where his flat cap pressed them down.

“Miller,” I greeted Hank.

“And the boss comes calling,” Hank said.

“You expected me,” I said.

“You and the secretary,” he said.

“You’re aware that the ‘secretary’ can kick your ass?” I asked.

Hank smirked.

“Alright Hank,” I said.  “Let’s talk business and let’s talk reality, because I’m getting the impression you’re lacking both of those things.”

Hank glanced at Helen while I was talking.  I followed his gaze, saw he was staring down her chest, and I paused, very diplomatically and dramatically, in hopes of breaking the spell.

Helen was posing, and while she wore a winter coat, the ‘v’ of the collar and front of the coat was such that her cleavage was on display.

“Hank,” I said.

Hank didn’t listen up until Helen opened her mouth.  He’d gotten into trouble for the sake of a dispute over a girl, and Helen was subtituting for that same girl.  His attention had been moved off of her.

Helen’s smile as she looked at me appeared wholly, perfectly genuine, which made it all the more suspicious when I had to look past it and work out the shape glee and excitement took in her character.

You win this one, Helen, I thought.

“Why, though?” I asked.  “Something drew you three here in the first place.  You had a reason to stay.  If it was the fighting, I can assure you that isn’t going to be a regular thing.”

The three would-be defectors exchanged glances.

“If there’s something you’re looking for, I think there’s a very good chance you’ll find it or something like it if you stick with us a bit longer.  New places, new interactions, new people…”

“It’s not like that,” the sole girl in the group of four spoke.

“Okay,” I said.

“Being new, I think I can see where they’re coming from,” Helen said.

You can go get bent, Helen, I thought.  She was butting in.  I had strong suspicions about what was going to happen.  I avoided looking at the phantoms to spoil the result.

“It’s lonely,” Helen said.  “Creature comforts are a once a day thing.  Even for those of us who don’t get along with our parents, home often means treats when we want treats, tea when we want tea, hugs, sometimes, or a listening ear.”

A few heads were nodding.

I abandoned this track of strategy, deeming myself too tired for it, and I focused on the next two tasks.  I was not about to let Helen sweep me and claim four out of four victories because my focus was suffering for my mental exhaustion.

“Shirley said-“

“Shirley needs a break,” I said.  “She’s got her hands full.  Now, the four of you are in an ongoing dispute.  If I’m understanding matters right, Adams and group A here are driven by the idea.  Their idea to begin with.  Julie and Jim are driven by money.”

The pair started to protest.

“Stop fussing about,” I told them.  “It’s  the money, even if you’re pretending it’s not.  Let’s cut through the B.S.  Something about that tells me you’ll respect me talking straight to you.”

“I want respect,” Jim said.

I started to open my mouth to counter him, but he went on to continue.

“I want respect, and money is how respect is demonstrated,” Jim said.

“Great,” I told him.  “Let’s move forward like that.  You two want the lion’s share of profit if we turn around and sell your work on venomous parasites and when we decide if you sell any bonuses.  Then there’s Gerald, who wants the group to stay together and avoid burning bridges, and Christoff, who is happy to burn the bridges and force our collective hand instead.”

Helen sat back, apparently content to let me do my thing and concede the win.

Two victories for Helen, one for me.

Our little bet of manipulation, acting, and negotiation ended here, on the other side of this door.

I knocked, and the reply was muffled, unenthusiastic.  I knocked again, and the reply was the same.  Finding the door locked, I reached inside my pocket for my picks.  I started work on the lock.

Opening the door wasn’t hard.  The locks were flimsy.

The sense of victory, however, was small and short-lived.

The young lady who had been afraid to leave her room sat in the center of the room.  She’d taken a chair and moved it into position, and now she sat there.  The plague blistered on her skin, and thin vines had erupted from her skin.

Her mouth was open, vines finding lodging in, on, and around teeth, through her nose and sinuses and down her throat, and vice-versa.  She was paralyzed, her breathing limited to the shallow.

Too far gone.  I knew it immediately.

“The plague is so nice to look at,” Helen said, “But it isn’t nice to people.”

“I agree with the latter half,” I said.  “Only maybe a little bit of the former.”

Helen nodded.

She didn’t really have cause or an emotional basis to truly care, but she still was respectful and quiet as I approached the girl in the chair.

“Sorry,” I told the girl.

Plaintive eyes looked up at me.

I drew my knife, and I held it where she could see.

She couldn’t nod, but there was a peace in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before.  Hope.  Possible relief.

“We’ll look after you,” I said.

She nodded.

We’ll need medication, so she goes easy, I thought.  I joined Helen where she lurked at the door.

“This will be a fair incentive to others to move a little faster to get us all out of here,” I said.

“I think it might,” Helen said.

Plague nipping at our heels.

Helen’s bet had been a way to engage me, to get me paying attention.  Helen’s demeanor was meant to play off of me.  In a way, we were very similar in this.  Helen could conform, but there was very little beyond the primal needs at the very center.  I conformed by my nature and by the nature of Wyvern, often to my detriment.

In this, we played off each other.  The bet was minor in the grand scheme of things, but it made it easy to calibrate.

There were other motivations, I was sure.

“What were you going to do if I’d won the bet?” I asked Helen.

“Whatever you wanted.  I’m happy so long as we’re moving forward.”

“And,” I said, “Assuming that we don’t count this last one, you’re the winner of the bet, and you get to make a request.”

“I do,” Helen said, and she smiled.

“Are you going to keep me in suspense?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “No.  I think I can guess where you and Jessie want to go.  You have certain places in mind.”

“To a degree,” I said.

“I have a suggestion I’d like you both to entertain, but I want you to consider it fairly,” Helen said.

We stepped into the outside, and I winced at the cold.  I spotted students who looked older, and I flagged them down.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“Ibbot has friends,” Helen said.

“A terrible and insulting lie,” I replied.  “Marring the reputation of humanity as a whole with the implication any of us could get along with that man.”

“He has friends,” Helen said.  “He once built superweapons, remember?  He built some of the ones in use today, some of the ones the Infante wants to deploy.”

I paused, taking that in.

I looked at Helen, and I pushed my attention to her deeper, and I was aware of the wilder, more reckless edge to her.  A part of her that was less patient.

I knew it was the kind of impatience that came when one knew their time was running out.  I knew because it was the same kind I’d felt for far too long now.  Another way in which she and I were similar.

“You want to steal a superweapon?”

“I thought we might steal a professor who manages a superweapon,” Helen said.  “And what follows from that follows.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.6

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Alright,” I said.  “How about this?  Right hand, two-foot section of his stomach, skin, of course, and a section of his face and-or scalp.”

“Why are we back to the midsection?” Lillian asked.

“I like my face and-or scalp,” Ashton said.

“We’re back to the midsection because you’re vetoing the drus nodes.”

“The nodes are too blatant,” Duncan said, sounding very tired.

“I like my face and-or scalp,” Ashton said, with emphasis.

I leaned forward.  “I hear you, Ashton.”

“Good.  Because my creators worked very hard and I needed some extra luck to get a good face.  I like my hair too and I’m worried if you take any of my scalp then it will be like messing up my hair but for good.  I’m cute.”

“He is cute,” Helen said.

“Exactly,” Ashton said.  “Being cute means Helen and girls like Helen like to hug me, and hugs are warm, safe, and strategically important.  I don’t want to not be cute because you’re a bad person.”

Berger leaned back.  “Strategically important.”

“It means his spores are working,” Jessie said.

“That was less of a question,” Berger said, “And more of a realization, far too early in the morning, that I’m sitting where I’m sitting.”

“Where else would you be sitting?” Ashton asked.

“Hold on, we’re getting off track,” I said.  “How big of a danger is it really, that this hurts Ashton long-term?”

“Minimal to negligible,” Duncan said.  “He’s got good bones, so to speak.  There would be a recovery period, but after that he would be fine.”

“I would still like to veto,” Ashton said.  “Sylvester has been messing with my hair too much.  I’d like to nominate my heart for the cutting board, instead.”

“I’m fifty percent sure that would kill you, Ashton,” Lillian said.  She looked to Duncan, “You’re the Ashton expert.  The mucus membrane only had a point-eight translation rate, didn’t it?”

“Did,” Duncan said.  “It’s point-eight-two now, they substituted in the gland from one of the failed alternate projects because it had a higher rate.  Downside is Ashton complains about dry skin a lot more than he did.”

“They got around to that, then.  Point eight-two, three or more days of travel, would be… survivable but exceedingly uncomfortable for those three or more days.”

“He doesn’t particularly care,” Duncan said.

“I don’t particularly care,” Ashton echoed.  “I prefer this.  This is my suggestion.”

I spoke, “I suggested the face and scalp because it would be visible and hard to ignore.  Carving out the kid’s heart would do a good job, except it doesn’t really help with actually doing what I’m shooting for here.”

“I suggested it because I thought it would be nice and visible and Sylvester cares about the visible,” Ashton said.

“I would rather not,” Lillian said.  “Not the heart, not if something could go wrong while we’re traveling back home, delaying us.  There are too many things going on in this country and in this region.”

“You’re vetoing a perfectly good heart, Ashton’s not letting me have a bit of his face or scalp, you’re saying taking the drus nodes would be too obvious.  So we’re back to a limb or two-”

“One limb,” Lillian said.

“I’m getting one limb, and you’re wondering why I keep going back to a nice ten or so pounds of what Ashton’s got in his middle?”

“Hold on one second,” Lillian said.  “Ten pounds?”

“Work with me here,” I said.

“You’re wanting to butcher a Lamb like he’s sitting on the chopping block.  Some resistance is to be expected,” Lillian said.

“I’m just saying, I started off this argument very reasonably asking for a whole Ashton and a whole Mary.  You’re the ones that are raising the stakes here in a very weird and bizarre way.”

“Yes,” Mary said, dry, “We’re the ones being weird and bizarre.”

“You are!  I mean, it’s not often that I try to bargain with someone and they’re changing the terms in ever more disfavorable ways for themselves.”

“Disfavorable as a word hurts me,” Jessie said.

“It’s fine, I’m sure it’s a legitimate word,” I told her.

“You’re the one that started us on the topic of cutting Ashton up,” Lillian said.

“Yes, and I started off with a very reasonable suggestion of one whole limb, one partial limb, and forty percent of his skin.  We can leave his face alone.  I’m not an Academy-trained student or doctor or anything-”

“As evidenced by the fact that the Crown States aren’t a blighted crater,” Mary said.

“-As evidenced, yes, but even without training, I have a pretty good idea of how the jigsaw that is Ashton is put together.  Lobes and nodes and clusters and polyps.  He needs food, he’s got a good system there.  He needs water, he gets some through skin in moist climates, drinks the rest.  Needs carbon dioxide, well, that gets more complicated, but his heart does half the job, treating his entire body as a lung, and his skin sucks in the rest by way of mucus membrane.  Breaks it down and then just distributes it by osmosis.  Loads up his mucus with it and it gradually makes its way where it needs to be.  Yes?”

“Yes,” Duncan said.

“Cut out his heart, his skin can carry the worst of the burden, cut off his skin, and the heart will carry the remainder of the burden.”

“With difficulty,” Lillian stressed.

“Can we just accept the fact that this isn’t going to be easy peasy?” I asked.  “I’m asking for Helen, and I’m asking for a piece of Ashton.  Now you guys keep talking yourselves into giving me bigger and bigger pieces.  I think you’re being contrary.”

“Oh yes, we’re the contrary, problematic ones,” Lillian said.

“I feel the need to remark that you and Mary are sounding very alike these days,” I said.

“Let’s stay on track,” Jessie said, before anything could erupt.  But then, I’d suspected she would step in.

I spread my arms, I took a deep breath, and then lowered my arms.  Calling for a stop, an intermission, while letting people spend a moment gathering their thoughts.

I tried to assume a calm, collected demeanor.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t been calm before.  I had.  I’d even been enjoying myself.  But I had also been in he throes of trying to solve a problem, trying to divine the reality that saw Jessie and I and Lillian’s group all happy and healthy.

It was a balancing act, sending the Lambs back home, but there wasn’t another option, short of kidnapping Lillian.  Kidnapping Lillian when she was anxiously waiting to go home and check to see if she had earned her white coat would be an evil I could never dream of.

No, she still had ties to the Academy, she had dreams, and there was no way for her to walk my path.  Duncan was much the same.

“Remind me again why we can’t just take Ashton’s skin?” I asked.  “Non-face, non-scalp skin.”

“It’s too interlinked with the rest of him,” Duncan said.  “Which isn’t very interlinked on its own.  Carries hormones, blood, carbon dioxide.  The rest of the structures of his body, shelves of his brain, the individual organ clusters and the rest of him are dependent on a very narrow assortment of vehicles.  Skin is a good, healthy way for him to move things from one part of his body to another.”

“It’s fine,” Ashton said.  “I’m okay with it.  Skin and a hand.”

Lillian spoke, “Please don’t blindly agree with Sylvester or get caught up in his pace.”

“I’m not blind, and I’m not caught up.  I think if Sylvester is trading the professor to us he needs something in exchange and if that something is a piece of me then I’m happy to help.  If I could give more of me to not have to give up Helen then I would.”

“You’re a sweetheart,” Helen said.

Mary drummed her fingers on the table.

There was a faint murmur of conversation elsewhere in the room.  The kitchen staff were bringing food out, with some helpful students carting food back and forth.  Everyone was keeping one eye on our discussion, and all of the students present had the sense to either sit at the edges of the room or wait.  The tables surrounding ours were unoccupied.

“Do you want to go with Sy and Jessie, Helen?” Lillian asked.

“I think Ibbot would be very upset,” Helen said.

“That’s not a downside,” I said.

“Shh,” Lillian said.  “Don’t interfere.”

I sighed and sat back.

“I quite like being whole, and Professor Ibbot keeps me whole,” Helen said.  “He made me and I love him and I don’t like him very much.”

“I don’t want to be undiplomatic,” Duncan replied, “But I don’t think I’m treading new ground if I suggest that he’s a very hard man to like.”

Duncan was being so mindful of things with Professor Berger here.  Nevermind that Berger was already privy to damaging information.  Perhaps Duncan would be mindful of the sensitive and undiplomatic if the sky was falling.

“I like my professor less than anyone, I think,” Helen said.  “I’ve spent too many hours in his lab with him.  Smiling when told to smile.  Sometimes he works on other things, but sometimes he only works on me.”

“There’s only so much work that can be done,” Jessie said.

“Oh no,” Helen said.  “It’s really very endless, the work being done.  But he doesn’t see me as a person and he doesn’t let me tell him when he’s wrong, or say no, or let me insist that he shouldn’t tamper with parts of me.  Even when I’m with him, he’s alone for all intents and purposes.  A man who only has himself to answer to, only himself for company, with me as a prop on the side.  It makes for a skewed perspective.  I would like a vacation.  Even knowing the consequences.”

“Even knowing it might be a permanent vacation?” Mary asked.

“Even knowing,” Helen said.  “I expect I’ll be liberally bribed with sweets and goodness by Sylvester and Jessie.”

“Liberally,” I said.  “I think the kitchen is preparing something over there.”

Helen craned her head to see, investigating.

“So that’s that,” Lillian said.  “A Lamb and a pound of flesh.”

“You get the professor, and a good chance to stay in the good graces of the Academy,” I said.  “Graduate with your coat.  Look after Mary, Ashton, and the little Lambs.  Maybe even save the world from the Infante.”

“Don’t put it like that,” she said.  “As if we’re balancing the scales or a married couple breaking apart and deciding which assets go where.”

“I like how the chance to save the world is an asset,” I said.

“Don’t,” she said.  “Don’t joke.  Don’t-”

She stopped.

“You’re being very strict with me,” I pointed out.  “Don’t do this, be quiet, stop, no, please lords…”

“I did not say half of those things,” Lillian said.

“But you are being strict,” I pointed out.

“I’m not going to say I’m not,” Lillian said.  “And that makes me think… Duncan, would you like to handle the removal of the necessary pieces of Ashton?  I’d like to have a word with Sylvester.”

“We’re having a word with him now,” Duncan said.

“No, Duncan,” Ashton said.

“Personally,” Lillian said.  “Privately.”

“That might be a bad idea,” Duncan said.

“It’s fine,” Mary said.  “If Sylvester is willing?”

“Willing enough, I suppose.”

“Then I’ll guard you, Lillian,” Mary said.

We sat on makeshift chairs and sections of tree trunk that hadn’t yet been reduced into constituent elements, instead serving as makeshift stools.  All of the legs and sawed ends of tree trunk scraped against the floor as the Lambs found their way to their feet.

My back ached as I stood.  Half of it was more bandage than skin.  I’d sat still for too long, gotten chilly and then warm again.

I looked at Jessie.  “Any objection?”

“To?”

“Me talking to Lillian.”

Jessie smiled.  “Go ahead.”

“You don’t mind?  We’re getting along, you and I.  That’s important to me.”

“Go,” she said.  “We all reconvene here.  If you’re going somewhere, tell me where you’re going.  If you’re looking for someone, come to me.  I don’t think the Lambs are going to get lost.”

With that, the group scattered.  Berger, much like I would’ve preferred to do, remained at the table.  His wounds clearly hurt, as mine did, and this was far too much activity for first thing in the morning.

My lieutenants were looking on.

On my way to the door, walking in the company of Mary and Lillian, I spoke to them, “Get everyone packed and ready.  By day’s end.  Anyone who straggles will have to catch up.  Big projects… leave them for now if we really can’t move them.”

There was so much to juggle.  Professors and interpersonal relationships and Lambs and Mabel and Jessie and Lillian and Mary and the plot to end the Crown and stop what the Infante was very possibly plotting.

We stepped outside, and I lit myself a cigarette, offering to Mary and Lillian.  Both refused.

Once we’d settled at a spot across the street, me leaning into a very old-fashioned lamppost, Mary broke away.

She kept an eye on things, but remained out of earshot.

“So what’s with that?” I asked.

“That?”

“The… possessiveness.”

“I don’t know,” Lillian said.  “Well, I do know, but I don’t know how to word it.”

“That doesn’t help me any,” I said.

“If you’d stuck around, you’d know more,” Lillian said.  “About Mary’s psychology, about how we’ve bonded and broken away and gotten frustrated with each other.  About a lot of things.  But you left.”

“Out of necessity.”

“You won’t come back.”

“Not without Jessie, and they’d dissect Jessie.  Not without me being stuck in a cell in the worst, deepest floors of the dungeon so I wouldn’t pose a threat to the Crown.”

Lillian nodded.

Nothing surprising in any of that.

“What’s your aim here?” Lillian asked me.

I raised my eyebrow.  “Here?  I’m not about to divulge greater plans, you know.  We’re nemeses.”

“Not that.  What’s your concern with the Lambs?  What are you driving for?  Why take two on?  It has to go deeper than what you’ve said.”

“Deeper,” I said, ruminating on that.  “I suppose.  It’s really not all that fancy an answer.”

“But it’s something you’ve spent the last hour and a bit working on.  Clearly putting brain power toward devising solutions.  Going the extra mile.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“It’s curious.”

“I’m a curious sort.”

Lillian folded her arms.  No nonsense, but not in the stern librarian way.

“I’ll tell you,” I said.  “But on one condition.”

“I’m not sure I’m in the mood for conditions, Sylvester.”

“When we part ways this time, let’s do it favorably.  I go do what I need to do.  You guys do what you need to do.  But I’ll wish you a sincere good luck, and you do the same for me.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.  Only that I want to end this without tears.  The tears nearly destroyed me last time.  Let’s… yeah.  That’s my term.  If you agree to follow it, then I’ll tell you what I’m shooting for.”

“I find that deals with you are never wholly happy, Sylvester.”

“We once had a long-standing deal of the oldest sort, one that existed before any institution or tribe.  Boy and girl,” I said.  “I think you were happy for a stretch.”

“A frustrated sort of happy,” Lillian said.

“You liked being frustrated,” I pointed out.

Wrong thing to say.  The folded arms became more of a self-hug.  The conversation paused.

Why did this have to be so hard?

“I’ll take your deal, Sylvester.”

“Then I’ll give you your answer,” I said.  “Fray.”

“Fray?”

“She’s always there,” I said, lowering my voice.  “When the Lambs appear, she’s there, clutching at them.  She lurks close to them and brings out bad qualities.”

“Sy, is this the real Fray, or-”

“The one I can never directly look at, because she’s pieced together from fragments and I really don’t know her well, but she’s Fray.”

“Sy, no.  That’s not even funny to joke about.”

“It really isn’t,” I said.  “She’s ominous.  She threw me off to give you guys a shot at me, and now she’s up to something else.  There’s a level of intuition at play with all of this, and everything’s importance.  Every Lamb represents something.  Mauer and Fray represent things.  Mr. Bubbles represents something.  The trick is seeing the pattern, trusting the Lambs, and trusting the prey instinct.  If Fray is clutching at you in my head, I want to get you out of her reach in reality.”

“There’s a lot more to just about everything you said than that,” she said.  “You’re punching at shadows here.”

“Or,” I said, “my intuition is saying that this is worth paying attention to and being wary about.  Taking on Helen lets Jessie and I see what changes, lets us access some people, and gives us a bit of an edge we lacked in confrontations.”

“While depriving us of the same,” Lillian pointed out.

“Yeah,” I said.

“So that’s it, then?  Duncan is putting the scalpel to Ashton in some makeshift lab because you had a feeling about a hallucination you’re seeing?”

“It’s part of it,” I said.  “Or maybe it’s better to say that ‘it’ involves some longer-term thinking.  Because I don’t want to go out alone.  I want… I’ll see you before the year is up, wherever you end up.  I’ll bring Helen back.”

“You’ll come back?  To say goodbye?”

“Because I’ll be watching all of you.  I’ll be keeping an ear out, and I’ll be thinking about everything that needs thinking about.  Just like I did this time, I’ll have information and answers when we cross paths.  And I’m really hopeful that when we get that far, we can join forces.”

“It’s so sad,” Lillian said.  “This.  Mary.  Helen.  Even poor Ashton in there.”

“Duncan,” I said.

“Duncan too.”

I puffed on my cigarette.  Snow collected on and around us.

Mary, off to one side, was throwing knives at trees while keeping an eye on us.  The implication was that she could hit me with a knife if I did anything she didn’t approve of.

It was hard to figure out what to say, when my thoughts were very much elsewhere.

“I’m glad we ran into each other, even in this circumstance,” I said.  “Even with recent differences.”

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “But maybe next time we run into each other, it would be nice if I didn’t come in from the cold and the dark and nearly six months of only having Mary and my books for company and find you nicely snuggled in between Jessie and some girl.”

“Ah, yeah,” I said.

“Not that I have any claim or anything on you or what you do-”

“No, no.  I get it.”

“But the shock and surprise… I was unkind to Jessie, I was so caught off guard.”

“I get it,” I said.  I drew in a deep breath.  “Next time, I will strive to be in the midst of something even more shocking and disarming when you burst into the room to surprise me.  Something even, I dare say, disturbing.  What would you say to activities involving a funnel and large spiders?”

Lillian punched my arm, and in that moment, the world was a little bit more right than it had been a minute ago.

Helen held Ashton’s arms while Duncan cut.  She talked into his ear.

Duncan  made a fresh incision, and Ashton screamed, blood-curdling, scaring the daylights out of poor Duncan.

“I think I just had a heart attack,” Duncan said.

“Helen told me to do that.”

“You’re not helping, Helen,” Duncan said.

“Sorry,” Helen said.

He cut again.  Ashton screamed, blood-curdling, once more.

“Ha ha,” Duncan said.

“She told me to do that too.”

All around us, the students were getting packed up.  The kitchen supplies were being hauled to a wagon and cart, the students’ belongings were being moved down, and everything was being sorted out to maximize space.  Jessie was overseeing a fair bit of it.

At Duncan’s insistence, Helen gave up on holding Ashton and backed off.  Lillian took over.

I was still smoking, now on my second cigarette.  I stayed away from the murder scene in progress, and I kept an eye out for Lieutenants.

“Gordon Two,” I said.

“Gordon what?” Lillian asked from the other end of the room.

“Nobody’s trying to gather my or Jessie’s stuff?”

“Your rooms are untouched,” Gordon Two said.

“Where are Pierre and Shirley?”

“Overseeing the carriages.  It’s going to be tricky, getting everyone in.  I think two-thirds of us are walking.”

I wasn’t surprised.  We’d been under-stocked even before wagons had gotten damaged in the evening of conflict.

I kept my mouth shut, and I watched, giving occasional pointers as Duncan carved at Ashton.  He had a good sense of what he was doing, but I’d spent more time than most with the red plague.  My tips and suggestions for Duncan were of an aesthetic sort, to better make it look like the plague had done the damage to Ashton.

Seeing a cross section of Ashton proved distracting for innumerable students who were passing into and through the dining hall.

“We’ll need more wagons,” I said, absently.

Ashton was no longer screaming, but he seemed uncomfortable.  It was only natural.  He was losing a hand.  After this, he would be partially flayed.  He was a stoic little fellow.  Particular, but stoic.

When the arm came off, severed at the elbow, Helen was quick to latch onto it, the most reluctant to hand it back.  Mabel had a container waiting, and the arm went straight into safety.

“Painful,” Mabel said.  She looked at me.  “Why?”

“The thing about the Lambs is that they’re top quality work,” I said.  “One of the better projects from one of the better Academies in the Crown States.”

“And you want to replicate it?”

“No,” I said.  “No, I want to learn from it.  Jessie knows the key ratios, don’t you Jessie?”

“Absolutely,” Jessie said.

“Memorized the tables, charts, formulas?”

“Yes.”

“And we now have one piece of a pheromone-driven experiment for reference, while we’re in the midst of preparing our own such experiment.  That speeds us up?”

“Considerably,” Jessie said.

I spread my hands for Mabel.

She nodded.  I watched her watch the Lambs, and I wondered what was going through her head.

Was she, in her own perception, intruder or intruded-on?  Bystander, outsider, or someone at home?  I didn’t have enough experience with her to say one way or another.

Heads turned away as Ashton was cut into.

Ashton’s eyes settled on mine.

“You’re aware I could make this entire building implode on you?”

“Yeah, Ashton.  I’m aware.”

“Good,” he said.

Which was all.  The little man was changing.  He’d set his sights on something, said something about drives and goals, and he’d said other things I would have to ask Jessie for in order to get reminders, but he was changing, and that was a very good, positive thing.

Lillian and Jessie hugged.  Then Jessie and Mary hugged while I faced Lillian down.

I was rescued by Helen, who threw her arms around my shoulders and Lillian’s, hugging us both, while advertently putting us in closer proximity to one another.  My forehead knocked lightly against Lillian’s, and then came to rest against it.

“No spider funnel, please.  I don’t need to see that,” Lillian said.

“Noted.  Centipedes and a good stuffing stick.”

“Better.”

I had to pinch Helen to make her let go of us, which was a bit of a shame.  When I raised my head, forehead no longer pressing against Lillian’s with the strength of Helen’s grip, I let my lips graze Lillian’s forehead.

Mary hugged me, which was weird.  I didn’t take any of her weapons and she didn’t hold anything sharp or pointy to my throat.

Ashton settled for a backwards handshake, using his non-dominant hand.  Duncan took an ordinary, almost-adult handshake instead.

“Don’t die, don’t let Fray make decisions for you.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Jessie spoke, “Take care of that professor.  He was hard to retrieve.  We all suffered for it.  Sy more than most.”

I thought of the torture, of the bug latched onto my back.  The day felt a little less bright than it had.

“We’ll see him out safely,” Mary said.  “You’ll look after our Helen?”

‘Our’ Helen.

“Absolutely,” I said.  I looked at Helen.  “Yes?”

“I’ll be fine,” Helen said.

“Perfect,” Mary said.

There was an antsy caravan behind us, ex-students looking to get moving on what was liable to be a full day of travel.  They had little stake in what happened here.  The Lambs wanted to go for much the same reason.  The overall anxiety was compounded by the presence of the ‘enemy’, so to speak.

We had every reason to go, to get moving.

I looked at these Lambs, at a damaged Ashton and a stern Mary, at Lillian who I would have dearly loved to sit by a campfire with, and at Duncan, who… wasn’t disappointing me anymore, and who was impressing me now and then.

Unless that was a trick of memory.

Every reason to go… and without coming up with an excuse or voicing it, both sides were reluctant to be the first to turn away and put distance between us.

One way or another, if only half of the Lambs make it, we reunite.  We band together.  We find a way through, I thought.  We don’t end this separated.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Oh no,” Jessie said, moving her glasses up before putting her face in her hands.

“Two Lambs,” I said, repeating myself for good measure.  I made sure to look each and every one of the Lambs in the eye.  It took me a second to recall that some of the ones I was looking at weren’t alive or in the city.

“Now I’m wishing I hadn’t intentionally missed, earlier,” Mary said.

“No, Sylvester,” Lillian said.

“Yes, Lil,” I said.  “Things need to be done, we’re making a massive sacrifice to enable you to try to wrangle Berger and the Duke, and frankly, I’m wanting to prioritize the little time I have left, so I don’t want to take any big steps backward.  If I’m giving this up, I want something equitable.”

“You’re our captives,” Mary said.

“Will someone tell me what I’m missing?” Berger asked.  He looked and sounded as though he was down to one last nerve, and we were doing a good job of provoking it.  His face was still heavily bandaged, his words still mangled.

“A number of crises demand attention,” Duncan said.  “A very real crisis at home, and Sy’s… ongoing existence as the architect of crises.”

“I would argue, but I can’t quite disagree,” I said.

“What’s the crisis at home?” Berger asked.

Lillian leaned forward.  “The plague is spreading.  In the last several days, several cities have been written off.  The Infante may be looking to write off the Crown States.”

I was careful to watch Berger.  I saw him drum his fingertips on the table.

“It seems you’re not very surprised,” Jessie said.

Dang it.  I would have liked to see how Berger played it without the prompt.

“I’m not so surprised,” Berger admitted.

Lillian spoke, her voice low, “It’s the hope of the Lambs that we can take you off of Sylvester’s hands and that you’d be able to help the Duke find his voice again.  With luck, perhaps he could convince the Infante?”

Berger made a sound that might have been a laugh or a snort.  Given the state of his face, the line between the two was ambiguous.

I could see how crestfallen Lillian was at that noise.  Laugh or snort, it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“The Infante does what the Infante wants,” Berger said.  “As far as he’s concerned, the good Duke of Francis is as far below him as the Baron was below the Duke.  The noble of higher standing might allow the lesser noble to speak, but chances are good they’ve already made up their mind.  To be approached by a noble and receive unasked-for advice?  I wouldn’t say it never happens, but it’s rare.  Rarer still that the advice in question would be listened to.”

Lillian diminished just a little bit further at that.

“There has to be something we can do,” she said.

“There is,” Berger said.  “But it won’t be as direct as you’re imagining.  The Duke of Francis knows people, and if his interests align with yours, which I think they do, he’ll do just that.  But things are rarely simple.  I’ll need assistance to get close enough to him to try fixing him, and you’ll be that assistance.  We’ll need to cooperate to get the right words to the right people, and again, you’ll play a part.  This is not impossible.”

“Improbable,” Lillian said.

“The Duke of Francis can talk,” Duncan said.  “He asked for Wyvern, and we provided it.  He seems better every time we see him… not that the Infante knows.”

“Ah,” Berger said.

“Is that a problem?” Duncan asked.

“No.  But it was a risk.  There was a chance it would have exacerbated the damage to his brain.  He chose to make the gamble when he asked you.  A gamble on two fronts, as it was something the Infante might have figured out, on top of being something that could have cost him the remainder of his life or faculties.”

“He outlined the danger the Infante posed,” Duncan said.  “He wanted to wait until you were back before making a play, we were looking for Sylvester, and we were just in the next town over when word came down of the quarantine here.”

“I expect that everything that the Duke of Francis told you is material he tried to communicate to me, in the limited times we were together and unobserved,” Berger said.  “Since that discussion, I’ve come to believe that the Infante may have had a hand in the sudden and abrupt spread of plague here.”

“He was responsible for this?” Jessie asked.  “What we saw in the city?”

“I’m not sure.  But this disaster was manufactured in a manner that none of the others I’ve seen were.”

“All down the main street,” I said.  “As if they were fed it?”

“Are the rebel groups capable?  Marginally,” Berger said.  “Are they willing or wanting?  I don’t believe so.  I’d be more certain if I knew what the news was in other cities.  For now, I’m only willing to say that it looks like someone powerful, with resources and desire.  I do believe you’ve struck on the topic of his aim and desire.”

“I want this to be another one of Sylvester’s bad jokes,” Duncan said.

“No joking,” I said.

Berger spoke, “There’s too much we don’t know.  I don’t believe the Duke of Francis wants to grievously harm the Crown States.  If anything, he relishes the challenges the rebels pose.  For now, I’ll content myself with hurrying to the side of my noble, provided you Lambs can get on the same page about that.”

“Alright.  I’ve already outlined what I want.  Two Lambs,” I said.  “Mary and Ashton.”

What?” Lillian asked.

Mary looked like she might kill me.  Duncan looked aghast.

“What’s the reasoning, Sy?” Jessie asked, sounding exasperated.

“Thank you very much for asking, Jessie-”

“Please don’t thank me,” she said.  “The other Lambs aren’t liable to forgive me if you draw too much attention to it.”

“It’s the most painful and organic-looking loss, because it’s unlikely,” I said.  “We can explain away the deaths by saying the plague got ’em.  The Lambs are going to be under suspicion, whatever happens, but the clear debilitation of losing key talent and abilities will diminish that suspicion.”

“Oh, I see,” Lillian said, sounding very unimpressed.  “It’s for our benefit.”

“For the most part,” I said.  “You guys pick up the new, younger Lambs to round out your group in the meantime, and the fact that you won’t have key combat and problem solving talent makes it likely you’re taken off the front lines in the immediate future.  That gives you more time near the Infante and near the Duke.  More leeway.”

“I don’t think it’s nearly so elegant as you’re painting it,” Mary said.

“Oh, it’s crude and brutal,” I said.  “Feelings get hurt, it’s raw, it’s an ugly break that forces everyone involved to adapt and cope emotionally.  But you’ll have eyes on you.  People will see that raw ugliness and they’ll believe the pain and the deaths are real, you follow?”

Helen spoke, “Referring to a young lady’s raw ugliness is not going to win you friends.”

“True,” I said.  “But I wasn’t referring to external beauty.  I was referring to the inside stuff.  The thoughts and feelings.”

“Ah,” Helen said, “I don’t pay much mind to that.  These days, I mostly have one big hairy, bloody sugary messy feeling I try to cram inside and ignore unless I’m eating or killing.”

“That’s another thing,” I said.

I didn’t get to finish, as Lillian had something to say.

“You’re talking about taking the most loyal members of the group and making them defect,” Lillian said.  “Are you trying to manipulate us with this deal, Sy?  Because trying to slide something past us or using shady negotiation tactics to try to get your way would be a supremely shitty thing to do to friends.”

“I’m a manipulator by nature, but no, that’s not what I’m doing.  I’m making a genuine offer in terms of what should be most tactically sound.  They won’t expect the two most Crown-loyal, capable Lambs to drop dead or defect.”

“You want me to abandon my best friend?” Mary asked.

“They know you’re her best friend, that you’re close.  The person who manages the dormitory reports to higher-ups when you sleep over at the dorm.  Ms. Earles reports to the higher ups whenever Lillian stays over with you at the Orphanage.  They know what’s going on, they know the relationships between you all.  We need something that makes them think that the situation really did go crossways.”

Any marginal goodwill I’d earned with Lambs was quickly fading.  Lillian looked upset, Mary was angry, Duncan seemed offended.

“If anything,” I said, measuring my words, “I recognize that there’s a clique.  You and Mary get along famously and that’s a liability.”

Jessie, face in hands, shook her head.

“Liability how?” Lillian asked, sounding just about as dangerous as Mary looked now.

“You get along and you do your things.  Duncan and Ashton get along well, and their attention is sucked up by the new Lambs.  Your attention is sucked up by schoolwork and the major project.  And for half the time I’ve been around Helen today, and I get the feeling there’s something desperately wrong.”

All eyes turned to Helen.  Some turned back to me.

“We know,” Lillian said.

“Do you?” I asked.  I looked at Helen.  “Do they?”

“I’m desperately in need of breakfast sweets,” Helen said, looking forlornly over in the direction of the kitchen.

“We’ve discussed things over the past several months,” Duncan said.  “In some ways, our hands are tied.”

“I refuse to believe that,” I said.

“Which part?” he asked.  “That we discussed it, or that our hands are tied?”

I frowned, glancing again at Helen, then back at Jessie.  The Helen that lived in my head was so insistent, asking for very different things.

“Call it intuition,” I said.  “Call it a quirk of my brain, but I’m really concerned that Helen has fallen by the wayside.  The strong bonds between the rest of you have left her mostly out in the cold.”

“I’m fine in the cold,” Helen said.  “I like the warmth too, but in the cold, I can hug someone and break them and feel their body heat, and it is delicious.

“Helen is managing as best as she’s able,” Duncan said.  “I don’t think our involvement will change anything.”

I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t want to argue.

“Why not take Helen?” Lillian asked.

“Do you want me to?  Are you suggesting it?” I asked.

“No, and yes.  I’m wondering at your thought process.  Again, taking two of our most capable.”

“I do like being considered a proper Lamb,” Duncan explained.  “But I’m stung that I’m not considered one of the more capable, loyal Lambs.  I’ll cede capability, but you keep calling my loyalty into question as though you were bringing a battering ram to the gate.  You can’t keep saying it and make it true.”

“I’m talking about the condensed, unique package of loyalty with inhuman capability,” I said.

“Mm,” Duncan said.

“I don’t think this is going to work, Sylvester,” Lillian said.

“Then you may find that the Beattle rebels aren’t keen to let all of you leave,” I said.

“We knew what we were getting into when we came in here,” Mary said.  “I’m reasonably confident I could beat your small army and carve a way out.  Taking you hostage might even make us friends among your ranks, going by your habit of worming your way into the confidence of half the people you meet and making bitter enemies of the other half.”

“I’m wounded.  I’ve actually been a good leader, I think.  You were complimenting my troop movements earlier.”

“It’s a risk,” Mary said, “But I think I’d rather try fighting my way out of this dining hall than join you and fight my way out of a dozen more dining halls or similar places while you arrange your plan.  I’m not interested.  I am Lillian’s, and Lillian is mine.”

“Alright,” I said, a little bewildered by that.  “Not sure on the possessiveness, but… alright.”

Mary’s phantom, as I’d put it together, was only able to give me a shrug.  I’d need to think on things and try on ideas before letting it all coalesce and put that into context.

“I’m friends with Abby, Nora, Lara, and Emmett,” Ashton said.  “I’m important because I keep that team and this team connected.”

“I believe that’s one of my official responsibilities,” Duncan said.

“You’re not very good at it,” Ashton said.  “You do a very good job of taking care of them and being their doctor, but I’m better at being a friend and making sure they’re heard.  I think they would be very sad and disappointed if I weren’t there anymore, especially if I faked my death and they thought I had died in a horrible way.”

“The other Lambs would tell them what had happened,” I said.

“Even so,” Ashton said.  “I think they would be very sad and disappointed if I weren’t there anymore.”

“It’s because of your role and responsibilities that this works, Ashton,” I said.  “They know you’d be missed, that you wouldn’t want to leave without a goodbye.  This creates a dynamic, where they go looking for the goodbye, they watch for messengers and messages, and they listen for whispers.  They’ll wait and watch and listen for your message to the others, and when it doesn’t come, your death will be that much more believable.”

“It’s insane,” Lillian said.

“That’s unfair and at this particular moment, it’s unwarranted,” I said.

Nevermind the phantoms, or Mauer standing on the other end of the room, or my growing concern over what Fray was doing in my head.  Even Evette was watching the proceedings.

Lillian spoke, shaking her head, “I don’t want to put you in a bad position, but you have to see that this is too much.  You’re asking for too much.”

“No.  It’s just enough.  I have to believe it’s enough.”

The conversation seemed to die with that.  People on the fringes of the room, well out of earshot, were shuffling around, some getting up to get fruit or bowls of oatmeal from the kitchen.

Rudy still sat in the corner like a doll that had had its limbs and face smashed against the rocks, slightly slouched, enduring what had to be agony and frustration.  His gaze was fixed and serious.

Couldn’t disappoint him.  We’d spent so much to get to where we had Berger.  I wasn’t going to give him up like this.

I could see the student council, and I reminded myself that Davis was put out by the fact that I’d stolen his moment and his leadership out from under him, when he had been trying to negotiate with the Lambs.

I could fall from grace just as easily.

Bea was with the delinquents, normally the loudest bunch of students, and she’d managed to get the table quiet, so their din wouldn’t disturb our conversation.

The disturbance might have been welcome, frankly.

“If I may?” Berger asked.

“Please,” Lillian said.

“I can’t help but notice I’m sitting at this table while you discuss this.  Among you all, discussion of loyalty, of action against the Crown…”

He trailed off, but the tone of his voice was an ominous one.

I spoke, “You know what’s at stake.  You know we’re reasonably reasonable.  If you step in to provide any interim surgery or alterations to help the Lambs, then we’d be literally putting our lives in your hands.  We need to get to the point where the nation isn’t at risk.”

“I could turn you in the moment I’m out of your custody.”

“But you won’t,” I said.  “We need you on the same page as us.”

Berger didn’t respond to that, his face a mask.

“If you had to take someone, and I’m not saying this is a solution or an answer, I’d tell you to take Helen,” Lillian said.

“Helen needs care.  She’s asking for advanced care in every way except saying it outright, and knowing her, I’m not convinced she hasn’t asked and been ignored.  I’m suggesting that she stay behind because I don’t know if we can give her that care.  Given time, it becomes a time sink.  Finding professors to work with who can even begin to understand her.  Getting surgeries done, evading authorities after the fact.”

“Are we even really entertaining this?” Duncan asked.  “No offense, Sy, no offense Jessie.”

Possum and the retinue of kitchen workers were venturing out of the kitchen now, with mugs and plates.

“I’d like to think we’re entertaining it, but I’m biased,” I said.

“I don’t like it as an idea,” Duncan said.  “But I like the Lambs being together, and I… I suppose I respect you not being part of the core group, even if I don’t like it.”

And with that statement to punctuate things, breakfast was served.  People milled about, providing this and that, there was light, polite conversation, and some posturing by Mary and the other Lambs, as foreign, hostile agents in this strange, isolated little world that Jessie and I had hewn together.

“I need fresh air,” I said.

I left my plate half-touched, and I accepted assistance from Bea, who stood behind my seat.

“Ashton, guard him?”

“I’m being guarded by Ashton?

Ashton collected what looked to be the most colorful assortment of food items he could find, and gathered them up together in one fist so he could move chairs and open doors.  Countless eyes were on him and me when we made our way to the front door.

We settled off to the right of the door.  I leaned against the wall, being ginger and careful with the wound that seemed to have taken my entire back, and I fished for and found a cigarette.

Ashton provided the match.

The noise inside had crept up in volume since my exit.  People were discussing, no doubt keeping an eye on the interlopers, trying to reason out relationships and patterns.

“I have phantoms in my head representing most of the Lambs,” I said.  “My Ashton-phantom isn’t the strongest.  I don’t think I know you as well as I could.”

“I’m not very complicated,” Ashton said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s an outright lie.”

“It’s rude to call someone a liar,” Ashton said.

“What if it’s a compliment in disguise as a lie?” I asked.

“I think that’s silly.  If you’re going to compliment, then compliment.  White lies are alright, but that’s something else.”

“Black lies too,” I pointed out.

“Those aren’t a thing.”

“And green lies.  And yellow lies.”

“I don’t think those are things, Sylvester.”

I puffed on my cigarette, thinking.

“Thank you for not messing up my hair,” Ashton said.  “You’ve done it most of the times you’ve spent alone with me.”

“Yeah, Ash,” I said.  “To be honest, I sorta had this feeling that I’d made a promise, but couldn’t remember, so I avoided it to stay safe.”

“Oh,” he said.  He turned his focus toward the camp.  “Yes, you did.  You promised me, the second to last time you saw me.”

I narrowed my eyes.

“You also pledged to be more like Good Simon and to read the books.  And you said you’d do your best to act like Sadie and I got very frustrated and you wouldn’t listen.  Now I know you were teasing me, but I didn’t realize it at the time.”

I narrowed my eyes even further.

“I’m telling a lie,” Ashton said.

“So I gathered,” I said.  “That was good.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m having a very hard time resisting messing up your hair,” I told him.

He smiled, looking for all the world like he didn’t care.  If I hadn’t known better, I might have accused him of being intentionally smug, simply to rub it in deeper.

“Sylvester,” Ashton said.

“Yes, Ashton?”

“Some people have goals, and some people have drives and mostly everyone everywhere is pushed or pulled by something.  I’ve been thinking for a long time about this, and I’m thinking very hard about you in particular.”

“Sure, Ash.”

“I thought at first you were one, and then I thought you were the other, and now it feels like you’re both.  Except it’s all in different directions.  Are you trying to move in two directions at once by recruiting one of the Lambs?  Or is this the whole goal, and are you hoping that by bringing two Lambs with you you’ll eventually have us all?”

“That last one isn’t the goal, Ashton.  I just like being around the Lambs.  It feels like home.  I care about them and want to take care of them.  I worry when I can’t see you guys.  I worry when I can, like with Helen or with Mary being as angry as she is.”

“That’s just when you’re around or when we’re hunting you,” Ashton said.

Blunt, authentic honesty.  Painful, but appreciated nonetheless.

“I’d like to fix that,” I said.  “I’d like to make sure Helen gets the attention she needs.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.

“You disagree?”

“No.  I was just thinking that we’re the only ones of a very small number who pay enough attention to Helen.  And you know enough to do something about it.  I can tell Duncan but I don’t think it comes across right, once the idea has gone from one shelf of my brain to another to my mouth and then to him and his understanding.”

“I wish I could have taught you stuff,” I told Ashton.

“Well,” Ashton said, sounding put-off, “It would help if you answered the important questions I ask you.”

“What’s my goal?”

“What’s your direction?”

“Fray asked me that question a long, long time ago, when I was the same size you are now,” I told Ashton.

“What did you say?”

“Faith,” I told him.  “I was pushing forward out of faith that the Lambs could be what we needed.  That Lillian could.”

“Oh.”

“That feeling is still there.  I want this to be true and good, but I’m not sure I trust myself.  Only around Jessie- Jessie is resilient and patient, Ashton.  She doesn’t put up with my guff.  Everything else around me that isn’t resilient, I just break or taint.”

“But you’ve been making all of this happen,” he said.

“I’ve been trying.  I was hoping to do something big with it.  I have a powerful piece of information, I have hundreds of people working on my behalf, and once the message gets out, I think that number will swell.  I have protection for my people and for friends… and I have very little time.”

“None of us do.  Mary keeps having to get surgery, but she doesn’t like to talk about it.  Lillian and Duncan might get their white coats, which might mean they have other things to do that isn’t being a Lamb, or they might not get their white coats and that might mean they stop being Lambs.  Helen isn’t doing well and Ibbot isn’t treating her well.  He keeps on isolating her and keeping her in the lab with him.”

“Sounds about right,” I said.  I was trying to keep my tone casual, despite the fact that none of this was pleasant to hear.

“But you’re mostly okay, except for the seeing things, and Jessie’s okay, so it could be worse,” Ashton said.

I’m not okay.  Neither is Jessie.

“If you want to do this ‘something big’, then you should do it while there’s time,” Ashton said.

“But,” I said, taking a puff on the cigarette.  “Being expedient would mean snatching you up.  Having Mary helps with any follow-up.”

“I think maybe the others aren’t so happy with that idea,” Ashton said.

“Mary isn’t interested,” I said.  “It’s asking too much.”

“Yes.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The disappointment was poignant.

“Lillian is out.”

“I think kidnapping Lillian again would be a very bad idea,” Ashton said.

“Yeah,” I said.  My heart was heavy at the thought.  “I won’t get much use from Duncan that I don’t already get.”

“Yes,” Ashton said.

“Leaving Helen, with all the associated warts and time-consuming hassles.”

“It’s possible,” Ashton said.

I shifted position, giving Ashton a more careful glance.  He wore very tidy clothes, his pants tucked into his boots, shirt buttoned up with suspenders and a pocketwatch, his hair burnished red.

“What?” he asked.

“Just thinking… I have vague recollections of sleeping on the floor in your lab, sleeping odd hours, trying to gauge the time, hiding when people came in to check on your predecessor, and then walking over to the notepad to see what they wrote down, usually with the time.”

“Okay,” Ashton said.

“Would you be willing to give me a hand?  Maybe a bit more?  I’m thinking I know a way to make this work a little more tidily.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.  “That’s good.”

“Come on,” I said.

I led him back inside.

I was very aware that conversations that were in full swing died as my bootheels tromped on the floor.  I approached the table in the center of the room where the Lambs were eating.

“Final offer,” I said.

Jessie put her face in her hands again.

“This is a good one,” I said.  “Helen, with us.  We get her attention and care, as best as we’re available.  We get a little… flexibility in terms of how we operate.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling?” Lillian asked.

And, downgrading my previous offer,” I said.  “Instead of asking for two Lambs, I’ll ask for one and a half.”

“Half?” Jessie asked, without moving her face.  “Are you speaking of the new Lambs, who aren’t fully inducted?”

“Not in the slightest.  I’m talking about a literal half of Ashton.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.  “When you talked about me giving you a hand- you are a worse person than Sadie is, Sylvester, and Sadie is a caricature.”

“Out of the mouths of babes,” Mary said.

Helen wasn’t an easy creature to read.  Her expressions didn’t betray much, she didn’t have body language so much as she deliberately posed at a given moment, but all the same, the phantom that lingered near her seemed calmer, the agitation of the finger or the eye movement that twitched where it shouldn’t.

But with me offering to bring her onboard, with the interplay, and most likely with a dozen other factors I wasn’t yet aware of, I sensed that she was calmer and better than before.

“You’re a bad person, Sylvester,” Ashton said.

“But you’re not saying no,” I said.

A half-dozen Lambs seated at the table jumped in to protest on Ashton’s behalf.

“If you must,” Ashton said, very stoic.  “But don’t chop too much of me off.  I have people I want to help too.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.4

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We walked, Helen keeping one hand on me and one hand on Jessie, guiding us.  Instead of disappearing into the thickest part of the woods, we were working our way into more open space.  It meant I was walking face-first into less branches, but it also meant the snow was a little bit deeper.  Not that it was deep, but my hands remained tied behind my back, the ground was wet and fairly soft, and it took only one misstep for me self to slip and fall.

“You’re really going to fight us on this?” Lillian asked.

“I’m not fighting,” I said.  “I’m stressing that it’s not as cut and dry as you’re saying.  Berger is a commodity at this point.  His knowledge, his expertise, his access.”

“He may be the only person who can help the Duke, and we need the Duke to sway the Infante,” Lillian said.

I had to watch my footing.  From an exhaustion standpoint, I was at a stage where everything felt deceptively light and airy.

May be, I said, “sway.  No guarantees.  You don’t sound certain.”

“Listen, I understand that you want to help Jessie,” Lillian said.

“Which is something he didn’t actually discuss with me in advance,” Jessie pointed out.

“Either way, you can’t equate trying to stop the Infante from going crazy and leveling half of the Crown States to… whatever scheme you had in play.”

“I can,” I said.  “I can even favorably compare the two ideas.  The Duke is a lunatic.  He might be the most sane lunatic of the bunch, but you won’t get more control over the situation by throwing him into the mix.”

“What would you propose?” Lillian asked.  She didn’t ask it in a way that sounded like she was very receptive to anything I might suggest.

“I’m proposing that you have a sit-down with Professor Berger.  Get the details on how to help the Duke, pass it on if you absolutely have to, and let other doctors put it into practice.  We keep the Professor, and maybe Jessie and I escape your custody and bring Berger with us.”

“There are so many things wrong with that,” Lillian started.  She paused.  “Even the question of how much it would hurt the Lambs to have you slip away again, during such a sensitive time, put that aside, what about the fact that they probably wouldn’t even let us near a doctor or let those doctors near the Duke?”

“Do you think they’ll let Berger near the Duke?  If the man could be fixed, they would have fixed him already.  They’re keeping him sick and brain-dead for a reason.  Because the Infante wants free reign.  Giving you Berger so you can hand Berger over to the Infante would threaten the man, if he can even be threatened.  It would introduce a complication and a hassle he’d sooner remove from the picture.”

“That’s a lot of self-serving assumptions on your part,” Lillian said.

“May-” Jessie started, at the same time I said, “I’m-”

We both stopped, and we looked at each other.

“Floor is yours,” I said.

“Thank you,” Jessie said.  “I’d like to interject and ask for the discussion to stop and cool down.  It’s been the two of you going back and forth for a little while now.  We all know there are feelings in the background that are playing a role here.”

“That’s unfair,” Lillian said.  But she said it too quickly, emotion in her voice, and she seemed to realize that her denial had only proved the point, given how it was posed.  She made a face and fell silent.

“Take a minute.  We’ll discuss before we get Berger, or even after, and I’d very much like to do it as Lambs, if Lillian, Mary, Helen, Ashton and Duncan are okay with that.  As a singular group.”

“I don’t know if that’s possible,” Mary said.

“If it’s not, then I understand,” Jessie said.  “But I’d like to give it an honest shot.  After we’ve cooled off.”

Jessie’s calm was of a very different sort than Helen’s or Mary’s.  Helen’s calm was that of a predator, settling in before it struck out for its prey.  Mary’s calm was colder, borne of restraint, discipline, and confidence.

Even back with the first Jamie, there’d always been this sentiment that whatever else happened, he was the rock I could cling to in stormy seas.  A constant in uncertain water.  At least, he had been until he’d been the rock I’d broken myself against.

Jamie and now Jessie had alternated between being the rock to cling to and the rock I was flung against, with a tendency toward the ‘cling’ part in recent weeks and months.  Jessie’s calm was, as I saw it, borne of experience and careful assessment with all of the facts in hand.  It was a calm that was very easy to share with others.

Lillian and I put our debate aside for the moment.  We walked, each of us on different sides of the group.

I looked back at where Duncan and Ashton were managing Archie and Mabel, keeping an eye on them while keeping them out of earshot.

Duncan looked so down.  Poor guy.

I was sincere in thinking it, but it still felt weird, because it was Duncan.  He was a Lamb, but he was still a pain in the ass.

Was this how the others thought of me?

While Lillian and I cooled off, so to speak, Helen spoke, “I like your clothes, Jessie.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very well put together.  Very stylish.  You look smart.”

“I try,” Jessie said.  “I’m a little rumpled right now.”

“You’re fine.  Tell me, where did you get your style?”

“Where?  I’m not sure I understand.”

“When I was young, Ibbot hired people to dress me and do my hair.  Then he told me to learn.  I was introduced to beautiful women.  The wives of aristocrats, models, actresses, singers.  I was supposed to study them, their mannerisms, what they wore, how they did their makeup.”

“Jamie wrote about that.”

“I imagine he did,” Helen said.  She smiled.  “I wish he was here.  I would have liked to see him grow up.”

“I wish I could have met him in person, myself,” Jessie said.

“I can’t remember if I ever told him, but up until a certain point, I was only copying.  I think I got some things wrong.  I didn’t quite have an eye for beauty.  And then I did.  It was around the time we lost Jamie, as a matter of fact.”

“When you were burned?”

“Yes.  We were fighting Avis and I was burned, and I spent some time in bed, with Professor Ibbot looking after me.  He was very upset about the burns, and he showed me my own face in a mirror.  I remember thinking about the things I’d need to do if I needed to hide or conceal the burns, I thought about all of the people I was copying, and in the middle of it, I understood it.  I started to become me.  I was secretly excited about it, and then I was troubled by Jamie being gone, and others were troubled, and I couldn’t talk about it.”

See me, I thought.

A lot went on with Helen, and we didn’t see it because she was so self-sufficient, so capable on her own.  She didn’t cling to us or reach out to others like many of us reached out for each other, but…

“You reportedly acted out in the early days.  To be funnier or more accommodating, be warmer, to help the other Lambs,” Jessie said.

“Yes.  I paid a lot of attention to them, too.  And now I’m paying attention to you.  I’m wondering, Jessie dear, are you copying, using that marvelous brain of yours, or are you you?”

“I’m more me than I was, I think,” Jessie said.  “I was a bad copy of Jamie before.”

“Not so bad,” I said, quiet.

Jessie smiled.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Helen said.

“I’m copying,” Jessie said.  “But I think most people do.  Fashion and style are an art and only a few people are artists.  You became the artist that Ibbot wanted you to be.  I have a ways to go, and I likely won’t ever get there.”

“Who was your inspiration?”

“Women I used to notice and admire,” Jessie said.  “I would see them around Radham and notice them.  Often it was because they were reading books when I saw them, and I would think it would be nice to talk about books with them.  Sometimes they looked educated or intelligent.  Nine women I’ve noticed who fit that same general category, that I’ve seen over the years.  I would run into some several times and I’d remember them, and I could track how their style and how they changed.  I took the parts I liked most of each.”

“It’s a little bit too adult, but I do think it works for you,” Helen said.  “Did you fancy them?”

“Fancy?” Jessie asked.  She looked surprised.  “I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  Not like I fancy and fancied Sy.”

Lillian reacted a little bit to that, and she tried to hide her reaction.  She was momentarily very interested in the trees all around us.

“Of course you didn’t fancy those women like you fancy Sy,” Helen said.  “He’s Sy.  He’s someone you know, and he’s someone you’re fond of.  Just like Lillian knows Sy and is fond of Sy and fancies him so very much.”

“Helen,” Lillian said.  “Let’s let that lie.”

“And Sy knows Lillian and is fond of Lillian, and he fancies Lillian.  He clearly knows you and is fond of you and fancies you, Jessie.”

“I’d like to think so,” Jessie said.  “Sometimes I think Sy fancies anyone wearing a skirt.”

“I’m a little more discerning than that,” I said.

Jessie, though, was smiling.  Teasing.

“Sy most definitely does turn his head for virtually anyone who wears a skirt…” Helen said.

“Again, I’d like to stress that I’m a little discerning.”

“…But he holds a special place in his heart for us.  He’s fond of you two and he’s fond of me but I think any fancy for me is balanced by him being scared of me.  He fancies Mary and I don’t know why he doesn’t follow that fancy, but I think it might be because he’s scared of her or he’s scared of himself.”

“I’m not scared of nuffing,” I said.

I was joking, but I could see what Helen was doing.  In the midst of a group dynamic where there were definite rifts in the group, old feelings having long broken things apart, our wagon of goods in shambles behind us, Helen was reaching out and trying to bridge the divides.

Humor would help ease the worst of the tensions, I hoped.

“Even if Lillian gets frustrated and hurt, or if Mary shoots Sy, or if Sy runs away from you, we’re still all very close,” Helen said.  “Whatever Sy does, he does for reasons, and he most certainly cares.”

“He lost his mind a few times.  Usually when it came to saying goodbyes,” Jessie said.

“I’ll have you know I didn’t lose it.  I knew exactly where I put it.  I just didn’t want to bother with it and all of the stuff that was going on, so I let it do its own demented thing.  Except maybe the hill I set it down on was a little too steep, and so when it got rolling, it rolled a little too hard, too far.”

“Sure, Sy,” Jessie said.

“And you might never meet someone you can be sweet on as much as you’re sweet for each other, and I might never have a tart quite so good as the one I enjoyed in the tall man’s shop in New Amsterdam.  Ashton might always think fondly about the morning on the third day of the sixth month of this year, when the pollen from the flower fields and the rain from the night before mixed and the trees and the grass were painted blue because of it, and the temperature was just perfect.  Duncan dreams of me and he thinks about the girl with the large chest in his Higher Design class-”

“Ugh,” Lillian said.

“Did I hear you say my name?” Duncan called out, from the tail end of the group.

“And he thinks of you, Lillian, just a bit, because of admiration and because he spends time with you.  We’re all tied down and tied to the things around us and we want to protect those things, I think.  And even though we’re not supposed to, I think a lot of us would give our lives for others in the group, as a one-for-one trade.  So when you’re talking about what to do with Berger, I think it’s important to keep this in mind.”

“It’s not that simple,” I said.

“It’s simpler than you’re making it out to be.”

“There’s a reason I turned Mary away, way back when, and there’s a reason it didn’t work out with Lillian.  I’m a liar and a manipulator, I’m someone who pushes boundaries, targets weak points.  It’s not terribly healthy.”

“You can still get along.  When you get upset, you stop, you step back, and you think of happier times before you try again.”

“It’s not that easy,” Lillian said.

“I think it can be.  You close your eyes, you think of the other person, and of skin, and bodily fluids-”

We started protesting.  The words almost drowned her out.

“-and teeth, and squeezing, and less common bodily fluids-”

The protests became sufficiently loud and unified to mask the sound of Helen’s voice.

She gestured, several times, and it seemed she was willing to stop there.  The protests died down.

“No more about bodily fluids,” Helen said.  “I understand.”

“Thank you,” Lillian said.  She was blushing pink.

“I feel like we missed something,” Duncan said.

“Caught up?” Jessie asked.

“You all slowed down while you were shouting at each other,” Duncan said.  “It didn’t look like serious discussion.”

“It wasn’t,” Lillian said.  “Helen was being rude.”

“And wrong,” I said.

“My point is-”

“Helen, no,” I said.

“Love each other like I love pastry.  Enjoy being together like I enjoy an éclair.  Savor the moments.”

“Now you’re just going ahead and being naughty again,” I said.

“She is?” Mabel asked.

There were murmurs of agreement among the Lambs.

“She really likes cake and confectionery,” Duncan said.  “Just… take my word for it.”

Helen started talking again, and we jumped straight into drowning her out and protesting.  At this stage, it was mostly for fun.

Funner still to see Mabel’s eyes widen some as she caught Helen talking, and when Helen’s tongue extended a foot out of her mouth-

Still engaged, we passed through a cluster of trees and reached the field where the Beattle rebels were waiting.  Our protests dropped away, which meant Helen was the last one to fall silent, leaving us only with, “-all of the cream filling.  Every last bit.  And then I nibble.”

She was good at speaking with her tongue extended like that.  She made a show of drawing it back into her mouth.

Lillian was flushed red, which was nice to see, and as it turned out, Mabel wasn’t a blusher, but she apparently was one to freeze.  One of the three universal reactions, out of fight, flight, and freeze.

A hundred feet separated the Lambs from the Beattle rebels.  They were on guard.

We were, as a result of a much easier conversation than the one we’d been having, quite relaxed.

“Can we negotiate this after?” Lillian asked.  “No tricks?  No shenanigans?”

“I’ll keep them to a minimum,” I said.

“No hidden ploys?” Lillian asked.  “Nothing long-term either?”

“No,” Jessie said.

“I want to be able to trust you two,” Lillian said.

Mary reacted to that.  She was still very quiet, all in all.  She’d spoken up to shout Helen down, but she seemed caught up in her own thought processes, still.

Only fair, but I did have to wonder.

“A good show of trust would be to undo our restraints,” Jessie said.

“I think it has been a marvelous show of trust to not gag you two,” Lillian said.

“I’ll remind you there was strategy there,” Mary said.

“That too,” Lillian said.

“Strategy?” I asked.

Lillian explained, “So long as you’re talking, you’re much less likely to get up to trouble.  If we tied you up and gagged you by shoving a- I don’t know-

You know, I thought, looking at Lillian and the phantom that mirrored her.

“A sock into your mouth, and then tying it in place, then you’d turn all your focus toward turning your pocket lint into something to cut your bonds with.”

“I’m not magic,” I said.

“No,” Mary said.  “But you’re a talker.”

“Lies,” I said.  “Lies, balderdash and fuckery.  I’ll give you a ninety minute speech right here and right now, off the cuff, to tell you why it’s wrong.”

“Ha ha,” Lillian said.

“I think Helen broke his mind with the discussion of how she’d remove the cream filling from the pastry,” Jessie said.  “He’s farther gone than I’ve ever seen him.  He actually thinks he’s being funny right now.”

The group laughed, Mabel included.  Even Archie wore a faint smile.

I smiled as I turned my focus toward the Beattle rebels.

Mauer stood at the head of the crowd with Davis and Valentina.  Bea was there, as was Gordon the Second.  There had to be a hundred students present.  With everyone bundled up against the cold, the individual factions and tribes were hard to pick out.  I had to look at boots and pants, at the style of scarf and hat, and extrapolate from there.  Bea wore a red scarf with pins in it, and stood next to a girl with antlers.  I could suss out a fair number of the rooftop girls and delinquent boys from that crowd.

I was immensely glad to see Rudy at one edge of the crowd.  He was with Possum, and he sat in a chair.  It was clear from the bandages that they had carved away far too much, but somewhere along the line they had gotten ahead of the plague.  Entire muscle groups were absent now.  It was the kind of comprehensive work that virtually guaranteed that, even with high quality care, he wouldn’t ever be himself again.  It would be years before any replacement parts stopped feeling alien, and years more before it felt natural to use those replacement parts.

With lower or even moderate quality care, it stood to be much like Mauer’s experience.  Chronic pain, phantom sensations, replacement parts that were ugly or inelegant in execution.

It didn’t look like he was shedding any tears.  Rudy looked dead serious, and Possum looked divided between focusing on him and focusing on the rest of us.  One of her friends from the kitchen was with her.

“Cut me loose?  It’ll come across better,” I said.

Mary and Lillian exchanged glances.

“Come on, I’m not going to run,” I said.  “I’ve still got to redeem myself after Jessie’s last barb.”

“More of a jab than a barb,” Jessie said.

“It was slander.  And I need my hands free or those guys are going to be militant.  The president cut his teeth on military tactics last night.”

“He hated it,” Mabel said.  “He told me.”

“He might have hated it, but he did fine, by all reports.  Better than fine.”

“He did,” Mabel said.

“And people told him he did fine.  He might have hated it, but he’s a clever lad, and there isn’t anyone, guy or girl, who can lead an army, keep most of his people alive and get the job done, and not feel accomplished about it.  There’s a kind of power that comes with realizing your capability with something like that.  Like the first time you get mugged and walk away with the mugger’s wallet.”

“That’s not normal,” Lillian said.

“I’m actually kind of surprised you managed that.  You struggle a lot when caught off guard without superior weapons on hand,” Jessie said.  “Did you have a gun?”

“It’s not important,” I said.  “Point is, he’s going to be in a mood.  Not a bad one, either.  A decisive one.”

“Come here,” Mary said.

I provided her my hands.  She cut away the razor wire and ribbon.

I flexed my hands for a moment, testing them to make sure there had been no circulation problems, and then raised a hand.

I signaled the president, and beckoned him to come closer.

We approached as a group, meeting in no man’s land between the two sides, and the president brought his own retinue.  Valentina, the Treasurer, Gordon Two, Bea, and two delinquents.  Some of Archie’s people were in tow as well, but they hung further back.

“Where’s Berger?” Mary asked.

“We hid him,” Davis said.  “I think we did a pretty good job.  I know you’re all infiltrators, you’re investigators, and you’re assassins.  It’s going to take you time, all the same.”

“Davis,” I said.  “I know you’re proud of whatever system or hiding place you worked out, but we don’t need it.  We reached a deal.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” he said.

“Be sure.  Or, better yet, just accept that I’m the boss.”

“You looked happy out there.  Too happy.  Laughing.”

“That’s the unfortunate effect of being around old friends,” I said.  “Who just so happen to be on the wrong side now.”

“Let’s agree to disagree about which side is right or wrong,” Duncan chimed in.

“My concern,” Davis said, and he spoke in a very measured way, “Is… the little red-haired one.”

I looked back at Ashton.

“When we started the pheromone project, you mentioned him.”

“I also mentioned I’m immune.”

“You’re acting out of character,” Davis said.  “It’s impossible to ever know what the Academy has up its sleeve, I may have to assume malfeasance.”

“We are the malfeasance.  It’s what we’re all about.  It’s why we’re rebels.”

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “Be nice.  You know what he means.”

“I’m being nice.  Davis.  Let it be.  We’re fine.  We’ve come to an equilibrium.”

“We have?” Ashton asked.

One of the Lambs shushed him.

“For the time being, take Mabel and Archie.  Get Berger.  Bring him to the dining hall.  We’ll walk there with you.  No hostilities, no threats.”

“You told us all to assume traps, to trust our gut.  You outlined specific procedures in case of hostages, if we’re doing patrols and we see someone suspicious, you outlined what we do if supply chains are broken.”

“Yes,” I said.  “I forget exactly what I said, but I’m confident past-Sylvester did it with the best of intentions.  But I know, even if I forget the particulars, that I would’ve said that if all else fails, pass it up the ladder.  And up the ladder from you is, well, Jessie and I.”

Bea cut in, “If you’re that vital and if you’re the last line of defense, you really shouldn’t get captured.”

“Thank you, Bea.  We will keep that in mind going forward.  For now, gather everyone.  You can sit around the perimeter of the dining hall in the main building, you can keep guns pointed at us every step of the way and you can shoot us if anything untoward happens.”

He frowned.

He had only just gotten to get a taste of leadership.  It hadn’t been a flavor he’d liked, conflict and military, but the leadership itself… I imagined he was keen on it.  Now I was asking him to disregard it and set aside basic common sense.

“We’ll do it,” Valentina said.

The student council vice president.  The heartbreaker.  More emotion-driven than logic driven.  The deciding factor.

The Treasurer was nodding along, and nobody was disagreeing with her.  Davis, the student council president, was standing tall, trying to hide his indignation.

He’d tried to take a stand as leader and he’d been cut down by committee.

If Jessie and I stayed with this group, that would have to be something we balanced.

“Come on then,” Davis said.  “We’ll fetch the Professor.”

“Pass a message ahead for someone to rush to the kitchen?” I asked.  “Get the kettles going, ovens burning.  We’ll need a proper breakfast… and some pastries.”

“Yeah,” Davis said.  “I’ll pass it on.”

His group turned around and rejoined the mob, our small army of Beattle rebels.

“He’s disappointed,” Jessie said.  “He almost resembles you, Sy, when you were newer to this, less mature.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“He had a plan, and it kills him that he doesn’t get to execute it.  He’s relegated to being a messenger boy.  I remember you being disappointed on several occasions you didn’t get the spotlight you wanted.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Yeah.”

“Something to watch out for.”

“To be sure,” I said.  “Remind me.”

We started walking to the tail end of the group.  They looked pretty damn suspicious, collectively.

“You’re acting as if there’s an easy answer to this,” Lillian said, after he was out of earshot.  “But it isn’t.  There isn’t.  We can’t split Berger down the middle.  If you keep him, we’re powerless to stop the Infante.  If we keep him, you’re powerless to help Jessie.”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.

“If you’re sure,” Lillian said.

I’m not sure, I thought.

Jessie’s countdown was ticking down, and it wasn’t the only thing I was worried about.

Mary was giving me a curious look, now.

“You have something in mind, don’t you?” Mary asked.

“Yes.  But not a scheme,” I said.  “And not an easy answer.”

“Hm,” she said.

She was still so quiet.  Not that she had ever been a chatterbox.  She had perhaps learned that lesson the night I’d met her, when she had interrogated me.  Stitched lips betrayed no weaknesses.

It was something of a relief to pass through the outskirts of Sedge and into the central area where our buildings were clustered.  Bystanders and old hunters and curmudgeons watched through windows as we trailed behind the small Beattle army.

Berger was already waiting at the main table.  Students were crowded within, and voices bounced off of the walls.

The shackle had been cut off, I noted, but someone with a bayonet stood behind him, keeping him secure.  There were a few hundred students in the vicinity watching him, which didn’t help matters either.

Rudy had been brought over to the kitchen, and he was situated where he could see and talk to Possum while still having a view of the rest of the room.  One of his arms was missing at the elbow.  The other was missing half of its muscles, looking as scrawny as the arm of a child half Rudy’s age.  His legs weren’t much better, and if I had to guess, neither was his body.  Two students kept on checking on him.

“Possum,” I called out.

“Tea?” she asked me.  She looked nervous.

“Please.  And a pastry, and some breakfast.  I’m famished.”

She looked increasingly nervous at that.

Why so nervous?  Had Davis told her to do something?

Jessie elbowed me.  I looked down at her, and then I looked up, before the thoughts clicked.

It was so easy to forget the little things in the midst of chaos and a broken routine.

“And hold the poison,” I told Possum.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, more to herself than to me.

I found my seat beside Jessie, across from Mary and Lillian.  Helen sat at my side, and the smaller Helen phantom sat just a little further down.  Duncan and Ashton were sitting by Mary at the other end of the table.

I was reminded of Lambsbridge orphanage.  The clamor in the morning, the crowd, being shoulder to shoulder.

“And here we are,” Berger said.  He sounded like he’d taken some drugs for pain.  His face was still entirely made up of bloody bandages.  “Finally ready to negotiate?”

“In a way,” I said.  “We needed to hash some things out, and I think my people won’t be entirely easy with how this has played out until we get something more concrete.  Measurable.”

“Here it comes,” Mary said.

“You get Berger.  You do what you need to do,” I said.

Lillian set her lips.

“In exchange, I’d like to make a deal with you.”

“A deal.”

“Two Lambs,” I said.  “Two of you, gone.  Blame it on the plague.  They help Jessie and I out.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.3

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

A hike into the wet, cold woods was the last thing I wanted after the day I’d had yesterday.  Worse, we weren’t taking the path, but we were moving through thick brush and collections of branches.  The Lambs ahead of me had collected the bags they had hidden away in the spot where they had been observing our little city from.  They took care to avoid breaking branches as they walked through thicker areas, and stepped where there wasn’t too much mud or snow.  All to avoid leaving a clear path as to where we had gone.

Meanwhile, I made sure to walk into or onto every branch, every patch of snow, break every iced over puddle…

There wasn’t really a logic behind it.  There wasn’t a deeper scheme, it wasn’t step one out of however many to turn this situation around.  It was just satisfying to do, and I felt more than a little bit contrarian.

None of the Lambs had stayed behind.  We were together, and besides the addition of Mabel and Archie as hostages, we were only the Lambs, together again.  Good company, bad circumstance, worse weather.

“We can set up camp here,” Mary said.  “Chemical stove, no fire.”

“I think I have the tank for the chemical stove in my bag,” Duncan said.  “It’s heavy enough that it feels that way, anyhow.  Someone else has the stove part.”

“I do,” Mary said.

We settled in a ditch.  It wasn’t the right word, but I wasn’t feeling charitable enough to think about what word would work.  In the midst of the trees, the ground had formed a dip here, a bowl deep enough that I could stand within and I couldn’t quite look out and past the top.  Water had pooled at the bottom of this depression, and now that it had frozen over, that ice formed half of the floor.  Downed trees and large branches occupied most of the space.

We found seats on the drier parts of the fallen trees, using them as benches.  Duncan placed the little tank in the center, and Mary pulled the top piece and base of the little stove out of her bag, screwing them on.

It was half the size of a breadbox, a portable stove that I was mostly familiar with as something our team medics packed for the sake of boiling water in the field.  Lillian had the foldable pot, stowed in her bag partially folded with the less-used medical equipment packed within.

Tea, apparently, was the first priority.  In a moment, the stove was hissing and sputtering, periodic orange flames reaching out to lick at the underside or side of the pot.  The smoke was clean – nothing that would attract attention.

Trekking through inhospitable terrain wasn’t a comfortable thing.  Given the time of year, we didn’t have bugs, but all the same, just about every member of the group had a bit of branch to dig out of the space where their sock met their leg, clothing adjustments to make, weight to redistribute in bags for easier carrying later or frozen mud caked into the treads of their boots.  Tea was in the works, and now the Lambs cared for the small things, getting organized and comfortable.

“Cake?” Helen asked.

“Limited backpack space, and you brought cake,” Jessie said.

“You’re surprised?” Helen asked.  “It’s not confectionery, that would be a mess, but it’s still cake.”

“I would love a slice,” Jessie said.

“Me too,” I said.

Other Lambs agreed.

As resting spots went, it was good.  The walls of the ditch provided some protection from wind, and the tree cover kept the precipitation away.  The Lambs’ presence combined with that of my particular cast of Lambs to make the little spot very cozy.

I suspected Berger was more cozy, beyond the discomfort as he waited for the shackle to be removed from his wrist.

“Duncan?” Lillian asked.  “Can you check on Sy?  He’s looking a little pale.”

I frowned at that, and Lillian pretended not to notice.

“Jessie,” Lillian said.  “Are you okay?  No injuries?  You’re not too cold?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Jessie said.

“Good, I’m glad.  Mabel?  No, you’re as well as can be expected?”

“I’m alright,” Mabel said.  “I’m actually a little bit more comfortable than I was, now that I’m out here.  I know that sounds odd, but it makes me think of camping with my brother.”

“Do you need anything to be comfortable?” Lillian asked.

“My legs are a touch cold,” Mabel said.  She was wearing a skirt, and her knees were bare.  Helen supplied a blanket, one of several from the tightly folded and belted sleeping bag arrangement, and given that Mabel’s hands were tied behind her back, Helen took it upon herself to get the blanket arranged.

“And…” Helen turned to Archie.

“I’m fine,” Archie said.

The water on the little stove was already starting to form bubbles.  Even the initial steam was dramatic in the cold.

“In just a short while, we’ll go rendezvous with Sylvester’s rebels,” Mary said.  “They have Berger, we have Sylvester and Jessie.  If we have to, we’ll trade the pair away to get him.  I’d rather go back to our original plan and have the extraction be our mission.”

“Agreed,” Lillian said.

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  “They’re Sylvester-trained, they’ll be pains in the ass, but I’d rather deal with a hundred lesser Sylvester headaches than one effective, concrete Sylvester headache.”

“Three hundred,” I said.  “Minus any casualties from last night.  I’d really rather you didn’t hurt them.  I know you’re capable, but at no stage in this have I really fought you guys-”

I saw several Lambs open their mouths to protest.  I jumped straight in to say, “Unless you’re going to take issue with my playing with knives when I borrowed one of Mary’s and pretended like I was going to take one of you hostage.”

“Might,” Mary said.

I was pretending,” I said, insistent.  “Either way, my point stands.  I was willing to tell my guys to surrender so you wouldn’t have to fight.  I want everyone here to survive.  I need you all to want this too.”

Duncan checked my temperature, then measured my heartbeat.

Helen hummed as she served the tea.  With as many people as we had, there weren’t many containers to drink from, and the water from the pot of boiling water went quickly.  As was proper, Helen served us first before preparing a fresh pot of water for the little heat source.

“I want us all to be on the same page,” I said, “And that’s something that’s a lot easier to say than to accomplish.  I’d really like to think there’s a way through this.”

“We’re very different people,” Lillian said.

“Don’t say that as if it’s bad!” I said, aghast.  “Different is good!”

“Yes,” Ashton said.  It would have been easy for us to talk over him, but he’d found a moment where he could be heard.  He added, “I said something very similar to the new Lambs before.”

I jumped in, “We embrace each other and our peculiarities.  Sometimes literally.”

“Please leave my peculiarity un-embraced,” Duncan said, adjusting his belt in a way that drew attention to his groin.

There was a titter of amusement from the group.  I allowed him a smile.  Had to.  Take Archie and Mabel out of the equation, and Duncan was in a group with Mary, Lillian, Jessie and myself.  He wasn’t taking himself too seriously, he was willing to be the butt of a joke for the benefit of the group, and I wanted to reward him for that.  Leaving him hanging out to dry with his naughty implication and three girls in the area wouldn’t have been a reward.

“Seriously though,” Duncan said.  “Yes, different is good.”

Duncan continued his ministrations and care, checking I was okay.  He began peeling back the bandage at my shoulder.  I winced, but I was glad I didn’t feel the telltale agony of the plague crawling through me.

“A group of very disparate members needs several things to stay strong,” Mary was saying.  “Love, respect, honesty, caring, sharing, communication, and trust.”

Back to that.

“Yeah,” I said, simply.  “And… I forgot how this thread of conversation started.”

“We’re all very different people, everyone being on the same page,” Jessie supplied.

“Right.  Thank you, yes.  I think this is doable.  Mary touched on how.  Communication.  We need to put everything out on the table.”

“We have hostages in earshot,” Lillian said.

“Then Duncan and Lillian can dig into their kits and gather some earplugs.  Or wax, or something.  If any of you have a keypress, there’s soft wax in there, you know, the little boxes that you stick keys into to figure out the shape of them.  Dig out the wax, jam it in Mabel’s ear.”

Mabel looked a touch annoyed at that.

“That was an example,” I clarified.

“Why do I feel like this is a trap?” Mary asked.  “The moment we plug up the ears of the hostages, you’ll reveal you have a warbeast inside you, and it starts screeching or singing, and you simply clean up in the aftermath?”

I sighed.

Duncan was poking and prodding me, Helen was serving out tea in the caps from the various dewar bottles the group had brought with them.  She had cake as well, and in absence of plates, she was depositing the cake directly into hands.  It looked like new-citrus and poppyseed.

“I’ll get dirty and sticky,” Ashton complained.

“Lick your fingers clean,” Helen instructed him.

“That won’t be enough,” Ashton said, sounding as annoyed as he ever got.  Not that he got annoyed.

“Then lick better,” Helen instructed him.

Ashton proceeded to eat his slice of cake with all of the enthusiasm of a prisoner on death row walking to the gallows.

Helen, meanwhile, sat down across from Jessie, Mabel, Archie and myself.  She didn’t blink, watching each of us,

I’d proposed things, only to discover there was no trust.  No sharing, no communication, no honesty about true feelings and allegiances, no respect, no love.  This wasn’t anything that would properly stand under any real scrutiny.

Archie and Mabel were listening, more or less quiet, listening in.

Could I afford to risk it?

“We met the real Mary Cobourn,” I said.

Tea-sippers stopped mid-sip.  Cake eaters coughed with crumbs in their mouths.

Only Archie and Mabel remained blissfully unaware.

“It was a thing,” I said, simply.

“It was,” Jessie said.

I could see Mary’s phantom cluing me into Mary’s thought process as she composed herself.  She was even angry at this stage.

“Too targeted toward my weak points, too convenient in timing,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m always less believable when I’m telling the truth.”

I glanced down at my tea.  Helen, still unblinking, took it, and she dutifully gave me a drink from the cup she’d placed beside me, tipping back a small amount of the contents.  I looked at the cake, and she gave me cake.

“That’s a fiction, Sylvester,” Mary said.  “I think you once made yourself appear to be bad at that, so you could introduce ambiguity, and it became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Easily possible,” I said.

“Mary Cobourn?” Lillian asked.  “The last we heard of her was-”

“She was sent off by Percy,” I said.

“The last proper mention of her was in Percy’s notes in the Lamb’s adventure journals from the tenth day of the fifth month of nineteen twenty-one,” Jessie said.

“I can’t get away from that man,” Lillian said.

“He’s still dead.  He doesn’t have any power,” I said.  “But anyone, everyone leaves a ripple of effect and consequence when they do something.  Percy’s still rippling.  So is Mary Cobourn.  I don’t think those ripples have a lot of influence.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Block,” Archie spoke, interrupting the flow of conversation.

Dang it.

“Archie,” I said.

“You said something about those people back in the city.”

“Archie,” I said.  “No.  Ignore those people.  Trust me when I say you really shouldn’t want to know any of this.  All those times I told our people to just run, to surrender, to let things happen?  Doesn’t sound good, but I was really trying to protect them.  I’m really trying to protect you now.”

“Oh my lords,” Lillian said, her eyes widening.  “The Block.”

“Well, cat’s out of the bag now,” I commented, glancing at Jessie.

“Had to find its way out sometime,” Jessie said.

“Sometimes you can just tie it really, really tight,” I said.  “Sometimes you need that cat secured.  Sometimes there’s not really another choice.”

“You followed the lead Emmett gave you to the Block,” Lillian said.  “You found the real Mary Cobourn.  He was dealing with the Academy in a very illicit capacity.  Corruption?”

“In a way,” I said.  Off to the side, Helen was supplying Jessie with tea.  Ashton now held a cup for Mabel.  Archie had declined taking anything.

“That explains why you said Duncan would theoretically react worse to this news than I would.  He isn’t as inured to that side of things.  He holds the upper rungs of the Academy in higher regard than I do.”

“I’m not as fragile as you’re making me out to be,” Duncan said.

Lillian shook her head.  “I’m not trying to make you out to be fragile, I’m interpreting things through Sylvester’s very warped perspective-”

“Hey!”

“-and trying to work backwards to work this out.  Corruption of a deeper scale could matter,” Lillian said.  She looked to Mary for confirmation.

Mary, who had taken a seat on a branch, looked lost in thought.

“Sylvester said you were liable to defect,” Ashton pointed out, for Duncan.

“Can we please stop entertaining Sylvester’s delusion as if it’s fact?” Duncan asked.

The group continued talking.  I turned my attention toward getting more tea and cake from Helen.  If I didn’t eat something resembling breakfast now, I’d be useless later in the day.

“Thank you,” I told Helen.

“Mm hmm,” she said.

I met her eyes, taking a look at her, trying to see if anything about the current discussion resounded with her.  I didn’t find anything resounding, and that wasn’t too much of a surprise.  What I did notice was that one of her fingers was moving.  It was like an involuntary muscle twitch at one ring finger, the finger moving so little that it was barely noticeable.  Had it been a pencil instead of a finger, that small range of movements might have sufficed for a single small punctuation mark.

Helen could control her body on a fine level in order to perform her acts, that was ordinary enough.  She had masterful control over every single part of her body, over tension of skin and how open her pores were.  Her circulatory system could deliberately slow down or speed up.  To better serve her when she was the beast rather than the beauty, she was able to fall still.

On the flip side, however, being too still and perfect posed a danger if it broke her cover and made her look less human.  She was too good for that.  In most other circumstances, I might have explained that tremor away as an affectation on someone who was almost entirely affectation.

But it was so small and isolated it shouldn’t have mattered.  Why only that part?  And it was here, in the company of the Lambs, where she could be more herself, insofar as she was ever herself.

I looked up at Helen.  I studied her, in contrast to the phantom that lurked just behind her shoulder.

A dozen deviations and odd elements added up.  They lined up like a constellation-

“Sylvester,” Lillian said.

I turned my attention away from Helen.  I hated that Lillian was using my full name like that.

“Yes, Lillian?” I asked.

“I’ll bite.  If there’s a deeper explanation, now’s the time.”

“Bit of a rabbit hole,” I told her.  Putting it mildly.

“Sure, Sylvester,” Lillian said.

“I think the thing to do, then,” I said, checking again with Jessie for confirmation.  “Would be for two intrepid volunteers, perhaps Helen and Ashton, to block the ears of our two guests, ensuring they don’t hear anything.”

Helen got up from her seat, wordless.  I visualized all of the details and factors, the fact that her nails were worn down, when they were supposed to be pristine, the way she was hovering near me, when there were others deserving of cake and tea.  Yes, she gave Jessie some.  But she gave me her attention.

“See me?” I heard Helen, but Helen hadn’t spoken.

I turned my head.

She was dressed in charcoal grey-black.  Helen, hands clasped behind her, her expression dead in a way she rarely wore anymore.  She wore a slip of a dress in a strange rendition of the flapper style, with hose that was patterned in a fancy way.  More importantly, however, the Helen I was looking at was only eleven years old, if I had to guess.

Fray stood just behind her, one hand on each of Helen’s shoulders.

“Save me,” the dark, childish Helen said.

What am I supposed to do?

I could look at her, and I knew that she was a figment of my imagination.  Countless underlying elements, snippets of conversation recalled as only the sentiment, broad-strokes memory becoming intuition becoming a sense of cadence, approach, and muscle memory toward her and those things relating to her.

She was familiar to me on a level words couldn’t fully articulate.  I’d molded myself around the Lambs, to better assist them, to move in lockstep with them.  I had made mention of the keypress before, of the wax imprint that a keymaker would take into his workshop.  Then that same keymaker would file away at the real block of metal until it fit the imprint and matched the key.

I’d filed away at parts of myself since I could remember, to better work with them.  I had adapted and worked hard, and I’d attended classes, and scarcely five minutes ever went by where the Lambs didn’t cross my memory.

“It’s not confectionery,” the little Helen said.

I looked away from her to Fray.

Why are you here?  I asked.  Why again, Fray?  Is it the rule that when you show up, things go ass-backwards in short order?  Last time you were trying to tell me about the Lambs being in town, signaling the dress colors.  Or you were interfering and distracting, clouding matters.  But whether you were helping or hurting, I can’t see why you’re here, when it’s clear the little Helen is already trying to communicate a message.

“Sy?”

Another prod from Jessie.  Another jerk back to reality, taking my focus off of Helen.

They were waiting, expectant, even looking a little concerned.  Helen and Ashton were ready to cover the ears.

“I would have given the okay, but you usually like to handle this,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah.  Go ahead.”

The hands went up, blocking the ears of our hostages.

“Mary Cobourn, as we saw her, was the Falconer, a young noble in the charge of the Lord Infante, modified heavily.”

“What?” Lillian asked.

“Not unique to her.  It’s the case for all nobles.  Selected from the crop that’s sent to the Block, modified, indoctrinated.  There is no family tree, they get allocated to locations with histories made up based on how high quality they end up.  There is no Crown, really, because the Academy controls the process.  Many of the nobles don’t know, and if they were to find out, it’s not out of the question that it could spark an internecine conflict between Crown and Academy as they cease working together with the top dogs each feeling smugly superior of the other.”

“Sylvester, wait, stop, let me interrupt you.”

“You’re not interrupting.  I was more or less done.”

“You can’t- no, Sy,” Lillian said.  Then she corrected it, “Sylvester.”

“That’s it?” I asked.  “No?  Alright then.  That’s that.  Helen and Ashton can put their hands down now.”

“Sy, be fair,” Jessie told me.

“It’s not done,” Lillian said.  “You’re just not making sense.  It comes across like a headgame.”

I knew that if I argued, Lillian would push back.  There was a wall between us and too many things threatened to make it taller and wider.

I focused on the others.

Mary was lost in thought, and to all appearances, it was a deep well of thought.  I tended to think of Mary as being a wild animal barely tamed.  The hawk was a common parallel, but I could also think of her as a cat, or a wild horse brushed and beautiful.  Movement, power, danger, and nobility were all inherent in those interpretations.  She wore an adult woman’s winter coat and a violet dress, her dark brown hair done up with a brooch and ribbon at the back, her makeup was light but effective.

If she had a failing in how she portrayed herself, it was that she could be rigid if she wasn’t mindful of it.  She could act, given a push to do so, and she was fair at it, but she wasn’t emotive, and she didn’t betray much when she fixated on the job.

But I could remember Mary sleeping beside me, her face almost completely different, or the look on her face back in the day when she’d changed while I was in the room, the lines of her mouth and neck and shoulders all relaxing in a way nobody else got to see.  I could look at her now, and I could see the facade breaking, but there wasn’t a smile on the other side.

This time, on the face of someone who killed without a second thought, a kind of recognition of death?

Mary had always yearned for family.  More than I did, in a way, because what I sought wasn’t family, exactly.  She had been a member of the Bad Seeds and that hadn’t hit the mark.  She’d sought out the Lambs, and she might have found something there, except Gordon had left her, then Jamie, then me.

I was put in mind of the very young girl who had been in tears as she sought consolation from her puppeteer.  He had said a command phrase to induce something – Hayle’s interpretation of it had been a kind of mini-seizure, interrupting the processes and trains of thought at work.  I remembered how she’d reached out for my hand.  How very lost she’d been.

That was still there, beneath the surface.  It was perhaps the fuel that kept her particular furnace burning.

“I was taken with her from the beginning,” I told Mary, fully aware I was giving clues to our hostages.  “It took me a while to figure out why.”

Mary looked away, her expression one of concern.  Then concern became faint upset, and she turned her back, hands straightening her clothes, as she ostensibly made sure nobody was drawing close.

“You’d wanted to dance with her,” Jessie said.

“I did.”

I gestured.  Lillian, attention pointed to Mary, hurried to her best friend’s side, putting an arm around her, another hand taking Mary’s in her own.  When she spoke, it was into Mary’s ear, in serious whispers.

I could have eavesdropped or pried, tried to lipread, fine-tuned my hearing.  I didn’t.

I looked at Duncan.

“I’m not going to defect,” Duncan said.

“I’m not even pushing you to,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said.  “Thank you.”

Briefly, his expression was the closest thing I’d seen to a natural, not-smug smile from him in the time I’d known him.

It didn’t seem like a happy smile.  Maybe that was why it looked more natural?  If so, what did that say about me?

His eyes, too.  I watched as they moved left and right, as if he was taking it all in.  Not the things most pertinent to him, but the greater picture.

And then there was Helen and Ashton.  I wanted so badly to go to Helen, to hold her hand, and to try to figure out what I’d been caught up in earlier, when my thoughts had run away from me.  Unfortunately, I was tied up, quite literally.  Ambiguously figuratively.

As for Ashton…

“This is a secret, by the way, Ashton.”

Ashton nodded.

“Feeling very out of the loop,” Mabel said.  Her ears had been uncovered.  “I know the least here.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’ll see what I can do to gently fill you in later.”

“It’s dangerous knowledge to have,” Jessie said, stressing that for the Lambs in earshot.

“For now, though, I’m kind of hoping the Lambs understand where you and I are coming from, Jessie.  When it comes to Berger, we need him.  We need him for project Caterpillar.”

Jessie took that in, looking very concerned in the moment.

“I never asked for that.”

“But we need it,” I said.  “And we need him to get leverage and have access to the tools we need.  We have a faction, information, and a game plan we’ve been working on for a year, that’s ninety percent complete.  I want to make a better future.  We don’t get that with the Crown being what it is.”

“Okay,” Lillian said  It didn’t look like Mary wanted to talk.  Lillian considered for a moment, then said, “I don’t want to speak for the others, but I’m reasonably confident in this.  We need Berger more.”

“This issue you referred to earlier?” Jessie asked.

“The Infante is declaring parts of the Crown States unsalvageable,” Lillian said.  “Whole regions, because they have plague, or they’re close to places with plague.  Or cities with high rebel populations, out of concern that they’re deliberately spreading the illness.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said.  “It doesn’t feel rebel.  Timelines don’t match up.”

“They don’t, and it doesn’t,” Lillian said.  “At least, we don’t think so.  We talked to the Duke, insofar as he can talk.  He told us he was concerned the Infante wouldn’t stop until he had all of the Crown States.  Sealed and burned to the ground.”

I looked at Jessie.  We’d heard something like that.

“The Duke told us the Infante might loose every single last one of the superweapons in the Crown States.”

My heart dropped out of my chest at that.  Every city and every town within a short distance of the Academies themselves has one.

That wasn’t what we’d heard before.

“If we can get Berger to the Duke of Francis, he can revive him, and there’ll be an effective voice of dissent in play,” Mary said.  “The Duke is of a lower station but not so low he can be ignored.  He has resources, and if the Infante wants to preserve any appearance of propriety, he’ll have to stop or wait.  That’s the mission.”

“I think we get dibs,” Duncan said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.2

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“What’s this?  The Duke?” I asked.  “Also, gas?  Do I need to worry about Mabel?”

“Not unless we linger,” Lillian said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Back to prior questions: What’s this?  The Duke?”

“Not a discussion for strange company,” Mary said.  “We can discuss in more depth when we’re clear of your little town here and Mabel’s not here and we won’t be overheard.”

“I feel as if I’m in the way,” Mabel said.

“More like some things that need discussion are so big that anyone could be standing a hundred paces off to the side and they’d risk being in the way,” I said.  “Even if you weren’t here, it might not be a good idea to discuss certain things, because there might be eavesdroppers.”

“My hearing is very good,” Helen said.  “I think I’d know if we had listeners.”

“I’m trying to encourage Mabel here,” I said.  “You know, convince her that she isn’t in the way, that it’s fine and she won’t be hurt before you all inevitably release her?  I understand the desire to boast and be happy that your creator gave you better ears, but play along with the narrative here.”

“Narrative?” Mabel asked.

“Oh,” Helen said.  “It’s not a narrative, really.  We would be quiet, even if you weren’t here.  We don’t know what things you and the other students have made.  We’ve had enough bad experiences that we’re very careful.  The gestures are a part of that.”

“Oh,” Mabel said.  “That’s actually reassuring.  I actually believe you.”

“I like the double-use of ‘actually’ in there,” I said.  “As if you really want to emphasize I’m not that believable, even beyond your surprise that the attractive young lady that’s holding you hostage is.”

“You actually sound happy about that,” Jessie said.

I grinned.

“Had to give you that one,” Jessie said.  “And I wasn’t sure anyone was going to jump to do it.”

“It might be better if we didn’t encourage Sylvester,” Lillian said.  “I’d feel a lot better if our most unruly hostage didn’t look quite so comfortable in the role.”

“It’s because I’m home,” I said.  “I might not actually be welcome home, the baby shit its crib, the wife is yelling at me, and said yelling has nothing to do with the fact that the cat is on fire, screeching and running around in circles.  It’s still home, dangit.  I’m trying to enjoy the good side of it.”

“Can I be the cat?” Helen asked.

“No,” I said, dead serious.  “The cat is Ashton.”

“Why?” Ashton asked, and there was something resembling a plaintive emotion in the word.  “I haven’t said or done much of anything since Mary shot at you.  I don’t see why I should have to be on fire.”

“You’re the most pet-like of all of us,” Helen said.

“No,” Ashton said.  Helen wrapped her arms around him, picking him up and continuing with walking while his legs dangled for just one moment.  She nuzzled the back of his head, and he looked so entirely fine with that reality that it negated his ‘no’.  She dropped him and stepped aside so she wouldn’t walk into him as he found his stride again.

Ashton turned to me, “Is it because of my red hair?  Is that why you set me on fire?”

“Don’t try to make sense of it,” Mary said.  “He’s trying to get inside your head.”

“He’s not getting inside my head.  He’s just being wrong, which is annoying,” Ashton said.

“I’m suddenly reminded of meeting Ralph’s family,” Mabel said.  Then she seemed to remember the larger group and clarified, “Ralph was The leader of the student group I was a part of, and am still sort of a part of, even though we aren’t students.  He was always very peculiar and very particular, with a kind of buried intensity.  I wondered about it.  Then I met his family.  Sy suddenly makes a kind of sense, now that I’ve met-”

Helen snapped her fingers twice.  Then she gestured.

“-his.” Mabel finished.

“Shh,” Mary said.

In a moment, the group steered itself and us hostages into cover, all crammed between a wall and what I guessed was a tractor-truck.  I wasn’t so sure about the naming convention, and my shoddy memory might have played a part in that.

From our hiding spot, we could see a group of Beattle students run past.  They looked like Bea’s crew.  Heading to reinforce the others.

“Your troop discipline is lacking,” Mary commented, after they were gone.

“They’re teenagers,” I said.

“Fundamentals are sound, patrol routes, communication between squads, the lack of easy paths to key buildings with cover and flanking positions… all fine,” Mary said.

“‘Fine’, she says.  Dinged with faint praise, Jessie,” I said.

“You were responsible for a lot of it,” Jessie said.

“Was I?”

“You took great pleasure in giving the unruly students busywork, moving detritus, blocking off alleys, then moving it again.”

“That does sound like me.”

“And then when they got fed up with it, you ran an exercise, you carried a lantern in the dead of night and you snuck up on them while they were on guard, using the cover you asked them to dismantle.  You got to gloat about it, and you got to make yourself look just a little bit more impressive.”

“I think I might almost remember that,” I said.  “Huh.”

“But,” Mary said, sounding a little bit like a lady aristocrat deigning to talk to commoners, “Good patrol routes and guards don’t mean a lot when they get caught up talking to one another, or if they take a smoke break.  There was an in.”

“Clearly,” I said.  “At this point, I’m just going to point out that, again, they’re teenagers.”

“So are we,” Lillian said.

“They’re more ordinary teenagers.  Also?  Skeleton crew.  Most of our guys were off fending off the Academy and laying traps.  Five sixths of our total army here isn’t here, so guard duty is going to suffer.”

“Full rotation, actually,” Jessie said.  “Same guard duty that we have most nights, for what it’s worth.”

“Whose side are you on?” I asked.  “Shh.  Enough out of you.  Thirdly, Mary, if they had been more on the ball, and if they’d been a proper deterrent, that would’ve just meant that you’d brain them, knock them unconscious, or deploy some kind of drug like you did with Lillian’s thing.  Maybe you couldn’t have done what you did if we had three hundred students out there, or even one hundred and fifty, but still… that’s an exaggeration.  You would’ve found a way.”

“Probably,” Mary said.  “It’s the principle of it.”

“The principle we were operating on is that if an enemy got this far, we were probably out of luck.  This was a practice run, working on the assumption that one day we’d be out in some city or another and we’d want people who had some idea of what to do while on watch.”

“Don’t let your teenage soldiers develop bad habits early on if you’re practicing,” Mary said.

“Are you factoring in that last night was a special circumstance?  They’re looking for reassurance and camaraderie on a night that they and their buddies were in armed conflict with the Crown.”

“Are you just bullshitting until I drop the subject?” Mary asked.  “Because you know I won’t.”

“You won’t,” I said.  I frowned, then conceded, “There are asses that need kicking in my ranks.”

We moved in fits and starts, increasingly so as the patrols moved outward, in five or six groups of ten students, with a couple of Archie’s people in the mix.  Could the Lambs deal with that many teenagers with relatively little combat experience?  Yes.  But the size of the groups and the fact that there wasn’t anything guaranteed in combat made Mary and Lillian rethink leading the group into an outright attack on any of the groups.  We waited for one group to pass, and when it had, Mary would peek ahead and then stop because another group was appearing at the end of the road.

It wasn’t a big town, and most of the residential buildings were dormitories with apartments rather than houses.

The target building was what we’d termed Barracks D.  Jessie and I had purchased space in the building with the idea that if we made this a more permanent base or if we found a big opportunity to recruit in the city, we could stick people there.  We hadn’t done either, so it had been left as a set of mattress-less beds for Otis and Archie’s groups and a place to stick any kid that got drunk off of lab-brewed booze and puked on himself, had an experiment screw up, or otherwise got into a state where they weren’t worthy of sleeping in the same building as other living humans.

That last bit had led to the building getting nicknames, and I was gravely disappointed I couldn’t remember any of them off the top of my head.

“Inside,” Mary ordered.

The door was never locked.  The hallway was rarely lit by anything but light from the outside.  A wood stove sat in an alcove just to the left of the door, while a matching alcove to the right was meant to hold shoes and coats.  The stove didn’t burn, and there weren’t any shoes or coats in the alcove to the right.  Boots had tracked in snow not all that long ago, and there were still traces of wet on the ground.

Mary, entering just behind Jessie and I, put a hand on our shoulders, making us stop where we were.  When I turned to look, she was pressing a finger to her lips.

I was careful to put my mind to work with the Lambs that lurked in my head.  Mary walked up ahead, gesturing, and Helen skipped to catch up.  One set of each of them on either side of the hallway.  The Helens moved in an almost playful way, hands clasped in front of them, not walking slowly, but taking exaggerated steps that made her zig-zag left and right.  Mary was moving slowly, and the two kept perfect time with one another in their own coordinated ways.

Twin lambs matched them, not entirely matched to them.  I paid attention to the little things that deviated.  Helen’s legs were longer than the legs of the Helen in black, it affected her stride, made the steps even more exaggerated.  Her head was lower as she slouched just slightly.  the eyes didn’t match up.  My Helen’s eyes were wider, more artful, less dangerous.  The clothes were the obvious difference, as well.  My Lambs favored black.

It was a spot the difference game like any I might’ve found in the very back of one of Jamie’s dime store novels, alongside puzzles and word games.

Mary, meanwhile, hadn’t drawn a knife with her left hand, even though my Mary had.  That was curious.

“Too much wet.  People came through here,” my Mary said.

I imagined giving a signal, shouting, whistling, and I could see the steps as things played out, my Mary making me regret it.  The other Mary would do virtually the same.

I waited a moment, let them make their way down the hallway some, checking doors, and then worked out what might happen if I gave a signal or alert.

Again, I had the very strong, clear mental image of my Mary hurling a knife so it caught me somewhere non-vital.  If I was annoying about the signal, she threw two simultaneously.

I waited another few moments, and then I whistled, in a loud, shrill tone that I knew would grate Mary’s nerves just a little bit more.

She hurled a knife in my direction.  I remained still as the knife embedded itself into the wall just a handspan from my face.

The look she gave me was sharp and annoyed, but it was fleeting too.  She and Helen made a run for it.

I looked at the knife that was buried into the wall.  I wanted it.  But my hands were tied behind my back with a coat draped over them.  Taking it would require me to open my mouth, bite into that handle, and tear it free, and what did I do then?

Lillian and Duncan nudged me to move on.  I gave the knife a forlorn glance, watching as Duncan hauled it out of the wall with both hands and then tucked it into his belt.

We were pushed to follow Mary and Helen, and we did.  The element of surprise was gone, and Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton wanted to assist where needed without losing track of Jessie, Mabel and I.

At the end of the long winding hallway with small rooms on either side, we reached the kitchen in the back corner.  It wasn’t fully equipped, but it had a sink, a kettle, and another stove.  Archie, Davis, Valentina and Berger were present.

There were people who were intelligent or with very keen natural talents, and I counted Mabel as such, and there were people who worked hard and picked up a wealth of abilities, like Rudy.  Archie was someone who had a high native ability and had worked hard to build up a gang and hold a good amount of a small city with a very small gang.  I liked him a lot.  Valentina and Davis had been top students at Beattle and they’d earned their places as the vice president and president of the student council.

I supposed Berger was likely in good company, given what I’d seen of him and the station he’d managed to reach.  Which wasn’t to say that station equated intelligence, but I had no reason to think this man wasn’t intelligent.

That said, Berger knelt before them, arm shackled to the pipes of the sink with the same shackle he had used on me.  His face was mostly crimson bandages, soaked through with dark red blood.  Archie crouched behind him, the needle of a syringe at the side of Berger’s neck.

Davis and Valentina were standing off to one side, tense.  Davis had a knife, but they were otherwise unarmed.

“Let him go,” Mary said.

“Can’t do,” Davis said.  He glanced at me.  “Shackled.  Don’t have the key.”

“Not an issue,” Mary said.

“Might be,” Davis said.

“Builder’s wood,” Valentina said.  “Poured it into the lock the minute we had worked that it was an internal threat and not the Crown marching in on our camp.”

Mary absently toyed with her knife, moving it so it rolled over the back of her hand before catching it.

Berger watched everything, more or less silent.  When he talked, it was slurred.  “I meant to ask.  How did your year-end project go, Lillian.”

“There’s no need to ingratiate yourself with us, Professor,” Lillian said.  “We’re invested in getting you back where you belong, with the Crown, Duke, and Lord Infante in New Amsterdam.”

“Well,” the man with a face of bandage and blood spoke, “Those are nice words to hear.  You will have to tell me about your year-end project after things have progressed some.  You as well, Duncan.”

“I’d be willing to graft wings on, shave off seventy percent of my body weight and flap my arms to Radham if it meant hearing my results sooner,” Duncan said.

“I still remember the day I got the mail that told me I’d earned my white coat,” the Professor said.  He hung his head.  “It hurts to talk.  Please excuse my silence.”

“Of course, Professor,” Lillian said.

“I hope us going through with this wasn’t an inconvenience, Sylvester,” Davis said, from the far end of the kitchen.

“I don’t know yet,” I said.  “The main thing is that I don’t want you three to get hurt.  Not after we lost Otis and some of his men last night.  I think the thing to do is to stand down.”

“Right,” Davis said.  “Just like that, the plan is done?  We lose you, we lose everything?  Our last ditch effort here doesn’t count for anything?  Just dumb luck and we’re done here?”

“You’re still free to go,” I said.  “Presumably.  Go, survive, be free.”

“I agree with Sylvester, for the record.  Run away,” Jessie said.

“Kudos, though,” I said.  “In most other circumstances, this would have been the thing to do, you three.  It’s only because of bad luck, long associations and a bit of crazy crossed with exhaustion that it didn’t go that way.”

“That’s appreciated, Sy,” Davis said.  “But let’s focus on doing what we need to, here.  You guys went to a lot of trouble to get this professor out of there.  You had plans, we talked about those plans.  Things get tricky if those people there want to use the man.”

“Let them get tricky.  It’s better that you guys leave unharmed than get clever about what happens with Berger.  There are more professors out in the world.  The Beattle rebels can still theoretically run off and drink, kick ass, be awkwardly teenager with each other, and maybe change the world just a little, you get me?”

“I get you,” Davis said.

Which was good, because I wasn’t sure I believed what I was saying.  Getting another professor of Berger’s caliber would be a herculean effort, our chances of getting away from this weren’t strong, and I worried the massive disappointment of my being captured would fracture our little faction here.  They’d been betrayed by authority once.  My capture would be a betrayal of their trust in me.

Archie spoke, “I’m interpreting your instructions from last night.”

“I gave instructions last night?” I asked.

“Yes,” Archie said, at the same time Jessie did.

“About this hypothetical?” I asked.

“Yes,” Jessie said.  Archie, meanwhile, only gave me a curt nod.  Jessie elaborated, “About what should happened if the Academy came through or if things went sideways overnight, while everyone was fighting.”

“Past-Sylvester is really kicking rear,” I said.  “Sometimes in ways that get in the way of present-Sylvester.  You three are getting in the way now, just a little.  Let’s not make the hostage situation any more tenuous.”

“You wanted us to stall the enemy, should enemy appear when you two aren’t here,” Archie said.  “You’ll need a hacksaw and twenty Crown minutes to get through the chain.  Or a saw and five Crown minutes to get through the arm, but I don’t see you taking a surgeon’s hand off.  I’d call that a good stall, assuming they want the man.”

“We do want him,” Lillian said.

Archie smiled.

“What’s the needle?” Mary asked.

“Another stall.  None of you look strong enough to drag a tall man any distance without getting tired.  I’d be worried about you using Jessie or Sylvester there for slave labor, but they’re looking peaked.  Sylvester especially.”

Jessie spoke, “I’ll note that last night, when Sylvester was giving you instructions, we said that it mattered only up until we arrived,” Jessie said.

“I’m gonna take a liberal interpretation here and now,” Archie said, making the last three words sound like one.  “I’m gonna give these two kids a chance to run for it, unless you object, and I’ll square off and delay by threatening to poke the Professor here.  We can talk, and if you two convince me you’re good with how things stand, maybe I let the Professor go without objection.”

“I’m not leaving,” Davis said.  “I spent half the night commanding the Beattle Rebels and organizing misdirection, traps, and retreats, and that’s something I’m never going to do again.  I lost two years of my life from the stress of having that many lives in my hands.  I’m invested now.  On the chance it counts for anything, I’m staying here.”

“Yes,” Valentina said.  Not ‘yeah’ or ‘yup’ or anything like that.  Only a careful ‘yes’ in a polite and resigned voice.  There was a bit of steel in her.

“They say that clever individuals surround themselves with clever people,” Duncan said.  “I’m not too shocked to find out that the biggest human pain-in-the-corkhole in the Crown States has surrounded himself with pain-in-the-corkhole recruits.”

“I love you too, Duncan,” I said.

“Sure, Sy,” Duncan said.

“Really, though.  I’m seeing things these days.  Not a big secret.  Imagining got away from me, and I imagine the Lambs an awful lot, to keep me company.”

“Yeah, Sy,” Duncan said.

“So, for what it’s worth, that roster of Lambs includes you.”

Standing off to one side, his eyebrows raised.

“Probably your mental punching bag,” he said.

“Nah,” I said.  “The voice of politics and social engineering, I think.”

“Better to pick Hayle, I think,” he said.  I had the feeling it was a kneejerk reaction.

“Nah,” I said.  “See, they don’t always go away when I tell them to.  Mostly they show up when they decide, these days, instead of when I piece them together.  I loathe Hayle because of what he did.  To me, to most of you.  We might not get along famously, but you place pretty well on my list of people I’m willing to have up there, tracking mud through my brain as they wander.  You were one of seven and a half I was actively willing to invite in.”

Duncan frowned.  I could see a lot going on in his eyes.  They weren’t watering, but there was emotion latent, picking apart what I was saying for the manipulation.  Maybe a large part of it was me talking frankly about losing my mind and the role that the other Duncan had on that particular stage.

“Gotta say, that plays into my decision,” Archie said.  “Deciding if you’re compromised and telling me to walk away while under duress-”

“Nope,” I said, voice firm.

“If I need to make moving this guy clear of this city as irritating as I can, so you have more time to escape or for something to happen-”

“No,” I said.

“And, personally speaking, if it means I get to jab this smug blackcoat with a needle, I’m not so sure I mind.”

“Ah,” I said.  I realized I couldn’t do much about it.  I looked at Mary.  “Don’t kill him, please.”

Archie began depressing the plunger, much of his head and body hidden by his hostage.  Mary threw one arm out, and she tossed a knife, more in Valentina’s direction than in Archie’s.

The knife was attached to string.  Her other hand flicked the string, moving it, and the projectile’s course changed, flicking out to the side.

The needle, only partially depressed, was struck out of Archie’s hand.

I saw it dawn on Valentina and Davis that they’d bitten off a bit too much, here.  They backed away a bit, Davis holding his borrowed kitchen knife.

Archie rose to his feet, blood was streaming from a cut on one gloved finger where the blade had clipped him as it had divested him of the syringe.  Hunched over his wounded hand, he used the other to draw a large knife from his belt, approached, and stopped short when Mary threw two knives into his thighs, just above the knees.

Mary’s free knife, still with the cord attached, was flicked.  Archie seemed to sense that the attack would follow, and moved back and clear out of the way.  Then he moved forward with staggering steps, knife held up and out, clearly intent on using his longer reach and the blade to win the fight.

Mary didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver – the Lambs and us hostages were mostly behind her, the room here wasn’t large, and the tricks with string and knives needed room to flail around.

“Go down, you bastard,” I told Archie.  “You’ll only get hurt more.”

“Nng,” he grunted, hunching over more.

The hunch was a feint.  I knew that, Mary knew that.  He broke out of the supposed weakness and pain by stepping forward, lunging, cutting with that oversized knife of his.

But that attack in itself was a feint too.  He stood straight, unfolding, no longer hunched in pain, and he had a pistol in his more injured hand.

Mary’s leg went out as the hand aimed.  He didn’t extend his arm – he kept it close to the chest, aiming from there.  The very tip of Mary’s toe caught the bottom of the gun and kicked it skyward.

He brought the hand down, aiming, and Mary already had two blades drawn, crossed like a pair of scissors, catching the lower part of his gun hand in the crux.

With a grace and fluidity that wouldn’t have been out of place if this was one more attack in a series of attacks, the final reveal after a long chain of feints, he let the gun dangle from one finger in the trigger guard, his other hand going up.

He dropped to his knees, hands raised.

The very instant she had caught his gun hand between the two blades, he’d realized he was outmatched and surrendered.

“Face down on the ground,” Mary ordered.

Archie complied.

“Helen?” Mary asked.

Helen took over guarding Archie.  Mary, meanwhile, walked over to Berger.  Lillian hurried to Berger’s side.

“Tranquilizer,” Davis said.

“Not a full dose, judging by the fluid on the ground.  How are you, professor?” Lillian asked.

“I feel as if my mind dropped to the bottom of a very deep well.  I’m feeling vertigo from the fall, it’s dark, and it’s a long way to the surface,” Berger said.  “On the upside, the pain of not having skin on half of my face is rather muted.”

“You’re mushing up your words more,” I pointed out.

“Thank you, Sylvester.  You’ll have to excuse that I’m missing part of my lips and tongue.”

Mary checked the shackle.  She checked the lock, and then the links, and worked her way down to where it connected to the sink-pipe.  She checked the end attached to the pipe.

“Lock is wooded here, too.  Pipe is cast iron,” Mary observed, of the pipe.  “Nothing to unscrew.  It’s all one solid piece, welded together.  We could tear apart the cabinet the sink is on and try to throw this sink to the ground, destroying the pipe, but…”

“Cast iron,” Duncan observed, finishing the sentence.  “Buildings like this?  I’ve seen the pictures of the houses after fires, after bombings, after other disasters, where the house is ruined, but the bones of it stand.  Sometimes you see the piping just sticking up there like a skeletal tree, outlasting the rest of the house.”

“Helen,” Mary said.  “Can you?  Twisting the chain?  Can you brute-force it?”

Helen took the chain, testing the weight of it in her hands.  She gathered up a short length of it, and she proceeded to wring it.

Very faintly, I could hear the protest of the metal.

“Progress,” Mary said.

“Slow,” Duncan observed.  “Probably not faster than a hacksaw.”

Mary stood up, wiping hands she’d dirtied touching the pipe on a towelcloth.  She took in the scene.

“It’s a draw,” Lillian said.

Mary frowned.

“We take Sy, we take Jessie.  They keep Berger for now.  We make a…”

“Trade?” I asked.

“No,” Lillian said.  “Not a trade.  We can’t not bring you in, and we can’t leave Berger either.  You can’t let us leave without Berger.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound like a very good exchange,” I said.  “Giving up Berger for nothing.  The way I see it, I gotta keep Berger, and I gotta stay free.  Only way this works is if both sides leave unhappy.  Bonus points if we’re amicable.”

“We’ll see,” Lillian said.  She looked at Mary.  “What do you think?”

“We’ll take Mabel and this man with us,” Mary said.  “We rendezvous in an hour, due west of here.  There should be a crossroad.  We meet there, we discuss, we figure something out.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.1

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“You got me,” I told the Lambs.  My face was pressed against the ground.  “I’m sorry, Jessie.”

Jessie had sat up in bed when the gun had fired.  In the enclosed space, the sound had reverberated off of the walls.  The sound of the shot rang in my ears, and feathers continued to fall all around us.

“Don’t be sorry,” Jessie said.  She remained where she was.  She’d reached over and picked up her glasses, but she hadn’t budged from her spot.

I was sorry, though.  That I wasn’t able to put up more of a fight, that I was glad about this reunion, even if the long term wasn’t something I wanted to think about.  Even considering the idea of being taken back, facing Hayle and my old doctors-

I moved, and Mary asserted her grip, making me wince.

“Please be gentle with him,” Mabel said.  “His shoulder-”

“I know about the shoulder,” Mary said.  “If he wants me to be gentle with it, he should stop trying to be clever with knives.”

“No more cleverness here,” I said.  “I’m rather too tired for cleverness.”

“Let’s hope,” Mary said.  “It’s a long trip back to civilization, and I’m not in any mood for games.  If you push me, I’ll hurt you, and I don’t want to hurt you.”

My eyes fell on a large feather that had fallen to the floor a short distance from my nose.  I puffed out a breath and blew it a little distance across the floor.

“No interest in hurting me at all, huh?  That shot at my knee suggests otherwise,” I said.  I was trying to keep my tone light.

“That was different,” Mary said.  “Call it a warning shot, a reminder that I remember.”

“An intentional miss?” I asked.  “Good excuse, that.”

She pressed the gun against the back of my head.  “Don’t tempt me to shoot you, Sylvester.  I’m the one holding the gun because it would probably bother me the least.”

“Right,” I said.  I smiled.

I didn’t push my luck any further.  Waking up, my senses had been jumbled.  Now that I’d had a bit of time to get my thoughts all orderly, I was able to shift my head into a better mode for analysis and strategy.

I knew who I was up against.  Foolhardy as it was, given my recent misinterpretation of reality, I drew on the phantoms, bringing forth images of Lillian, Helen, Mary, and Duncan.  The shadows mirrored the Lambs, sticking close to them, looking over shoulders, or sitting on nearby surfaces, looking over the Lambs’ heads.

I looked for Fray and Mauer and I didn’t see them.  Evette was conspicuously absent, too.

Damn Fray, damn her for toying with me like this.

“You’re going by Jessie now?” Lillian asked.

“Yes,” Jessie said.  “I wanted to put some distance between myself and the original Jamie.”

“And you’re pretending to be a girl now?” Lillian asked.

“If I am, I was pretending to be a boy before too,” Jessie said.  “I wouldn’t disagree with that.”

“What’s this?” Mabel asked, sounding uncertain.

This wasn’t how I’d wanted to have the conversation.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to have the conversation at all.  Jessie seemed willing to field this, but I just wished it wasn’t in the midst of a crowd.

“Jam- Jessie is-” Duncan started.

I really wished it wasn’t Duncan supplying any answers.

“I’m an experiment,” Jessie said, before Duncan could go further.  “Nothing either way except scars.  The only thing that really made me a ‘boy’ before was that it was in the Academy’s paperwork and files, and they weren’t even that committed to it.”

It was hard for me to read Lillian’s expressions from my position on the ground.

“I’m just saying, my doctors referred to me as Project Caterpillar four hundred and sixty eight times in my recollection and Jamie’s written records, while only referring to Jamie seventy one times.  They referred to me as ‘it’ two hundred times and ‘he’ two hundred and thirty times.  I don’t think they cared that much.  So what’s tying me down?”

“I thought you were a wonderful boy,” Lillian said.  “Gentle, sensitive, thoughtful.”

“Thank you,” Jessie said.

“It meant a lot to me, growing up, that I had one or two boys around me that I could contrast with my dad and with Sy.  If it was just my dad, Sy, and Gordon, and maybe a little bit of Professor Hayle, I might have gotten a warped idea of what boys were about.  I appreciated that you were part of the mix, and now that’s gone.  I don’t think it’s fair to say you had no ties to it and you could just throw it away like that, when we spent so much time together being bookworms together, and figuring out our way through things, talking about things…”

“But how much of that was me and how much was my predecessor?”

“You and I had conversations, Jessie.  We hung out.  I visited you regularly, between my classes, I participated in the rehabilitation and life skills, speech training and everything else.  I tried to brace you about Sy not being over the loss of the first Jamie.”

“I’m not disputing that,” Jessie said.  “But that doesn’t answer my question.  Can you really draw a fine line between the time you spent with my predecessor and time you spent with me?”

Yes,” Lillian said, and it was clear she was upset.  “It was really very emotional, mourning Jamie while getting to know you in those early days.  My memory might not be perfect, but when it comes to sorting the before and after, it felt different.  You two were different.  Yes, again, I can draw a fine line.”

“Okay,” Jessie said, looking a little caught off guard.

“And I’m annoyed and hurt that you’re ignoring my points.”

“I’m sorry,” Jessie said.  “But we have to continue to grow and change while we aren’t together.”

Lillian made a face.  She met my eyes for only an instant and then flinched away.

Jessie continued, “That dark cloud that hung over things was another part of it.  Something I want to stay away from.  Every interaction for too long was tainted by association.  There weren’t many clothes I liked that weren’t also his style.  I needed a clean break.”

“I understand, I really do get it,” Lillian said.  “It makes a lot of sense, and as much as it makes sense I think it kind of sucks that I’m here and I barely recognize you.  I wasn’t a part of the conversation or the change, and neither were any of the other Lambs.  It sucks-”

She paused, looking at me, then looking at Mabel.

“This sucks on a lot of levels,” she said.  “We didn’t plan on cornering you like this, we didn’t even plan on meeting you, and then you guys forced our hand by getting to Berger before we did.”

“I know,” Jessie said.

“It doesn’t feel like a good day,” Duncan said.  “It’s a win in our column, for what very little it’s worth, but it doesn’t feel good.”

“Well said, Duncan,” Lillian said.

“For what it’s worth,” I said.  I tried to stand up, but Mary was sitting on me, and I didn’t have much strength in my shoulder.  “I can’t say the situation is good, but any day I get to see all of you is a good one.”

“He’s being sappy,” Mary said.

“He’s up to something,” Lillian concluded.

“No, really,” I said.

“You come across as far less sincere when there’s a knife lying on the floor about two feet from your hand,” Duncan said.  “Which you took off of Mary and presumably intended to use on one of us.”

“Okay, hi there Duncan, how’s it?” I said.  “And the knife was more because this would all be terribly sad and pathetic if I didn’t put up some sort of fight.  Lamb cred.  I’m sure you understand.”

“Who were you going to take hostage?” Lillian asked.

“Alright, wait,” I said.  I’d just woken up, my eyes were bleary, my shoulder hurt from the damage done with the scalpel and the way that my twisted arm was pulling at the wound, and I needed to focus, with no time to get my brain organized.  “Wait, let’s do this in order, so it all makes sense.  I’ll have you know that hugging Mary was because I was genuinely happy to see you guys and it was politically difficult to choose who to hug.  You and I have bad blood, Helen might hug me back in her Helen sort of way, I don’t know what Ashton’s got going on these days, and given the choice between Mary and Duncan, I’m going to choose Mary, even if she’s got me in an armlock with a gun pointed at me.”

“I’ll try not to take it personally,” Duncan said.

“Ha ha,” I said, with a more genuine smile on my face, to downplay the dismissal.  I was trying to keep up the patter and the good mood.  In this tense atmosphere, anything I could do to be the light in the darkness would go a long, long way.  It could win over hearts and cement my position.

And besides, I didn’t want this reunion to suck in the same sorts of ways the last one had.

“If you’re feeling lonely, I’m always available to practice hugging,” Helen said.

“Ha ha,” Duncan imitated me a bit.  He sounded a lot less dry and more flustered.

My focus was more on Helen in the instant.  When I’d seen her as a phantom, I’d imagined her as being influenced by Fray, darker, with more latent hostility, the predator side of her active and ready.  But the Fray had been a trick of my mind working against itself, the Helen had been real, and so had the aura of bloodlust.

What was going on there?

I resumed talking to the group, the worry lingering, “As for the knife you so carefully pointed out, sir, the knife was more of a ‘how are you doing’ from one master to another, a test of skill that I wouldn’t pull if I didn’t have utmost respect for Mary’s skill-”

“You are so full of shit,” Mary said.

“And, to answer the question,” I said, carrying on, “I would have taken you hostage, Lillian.  If, by some miracle, I got that far.”

“Lovely.”

“It would have been with the full knowledge that you have countermeasures.  Needles in your fingers, like Fray had, and whatever else.  You turn the tables, strut your stuff, and it breaks the ice.  Get past any awkwardness by putting you at my mercy and then adroitly putting myself at your utter mercy.  Mary’s happy shooting at me and kicking my rear end.  We’ve got more of a gap to bridge, but I can’t imagine a bit of a spar would hurt any.”

“I see, I see,” Lillian said, “Very clever.  A good analysis of the situation.”

“You sound like you’re humoring me.”

“Hi,” Lillian said, turning to Mabel.  “What’s your name?”

Ah, I see what you’re doing there, I thought.  Then I registered implications and cursed to myself.

“Mabel,” Mabel said.

I sighed.

Mary adjusted her grip and pressed the gun to my head.

I know, Mary, I know, I thought.  You want to protect Lillian and now we’ve got this going on.

“Sorry about all of this, Mabel,” Lillian said.

“Oh, no need to apologize,” Mabel said.  “Whatever you’re thinking this is, me being here, it’s not.  I did the surgery on Sylvester last night.  I was dog tired, I needed to check on him and change his bandages throughout the night.  We talked, I fell asleep.”

“Don’t worry, Mabel.  There’s nothing between Sylvester and I.”

Ouch.

“There’s nothing between him and I either, not really.  Nothing happened,” Mabel insisted.

“You’re from Beattle?”

“Yes,” Mabel said.  “I was year five.”

“What were you studying?”

“Pheromones.”

“There was a project in the other building, when we came through.  Ashton and Duncan said it looked like pheromones.”

Mabel glanced at me.

“Cat’s out of the bag, our noses are to the knifepoints.  You can share.”

“Yeah,” Mabel said.  “I’m project leader for that.  It’s going to be a warbeast with a pheromone trail.  Sylvester wanted to operate with impunity in the cities without worrying about his scent trail.”

“Can I stand up now?” I asked.  “My shoulder really is getting quite sore like this.”

There was a moment of silent communication among Lambs, a quick search of the surroundings, and the phantoms around the Lambs let me know that the Lambs were checking that letting me stand wouldn’t give me any opportunities, ways to escape, or weapons.

Mary shifted off of me and hauled me to my feet.  She didn’t have the full-body strength to hold me up, but I got my feet under me and after only a moment of wobbling knees, I found the strength to stand.

Duncan and Mabel were saying something about Pheromones.  Ashton was standing between Helen and Duncan, staring at me intently.

Helen still worried me.  I wished she was more involved in the dialogue.

Just as it had been in the stable, his expression was good.  Less dead.

“People will have heard the gunshot,” Mary said.  “We’re going to be taking you two hostage.  We already touched base with Professor Berger.”

“Noted,” I said.

“I’ll need to get dressed,” Jessie said.  “I have clothes here but I’d like privacy.”

“Helen and Lillian, if you’d escort Jessie into another room?” Mary asked.

Helen acted as cuffs of a sort for Jessie, locking her hands onto Jessie’s wrists, while Lillian carried the clothes.

I toed at the shirt I’d left in the corner, with the reams of discarded bandages.  Using my foot, I flicked it into the air.  Mary caught it, still holding me at gunpoint, and checked it with one hand before passing it to me.

Once I was more or less dressed, Mary used something to tie my hands behind my back.  I tested the bonds, and I was left fairly sure they were razor wire with ribbon or cloth strips to keep the wire from digging into flesh.  I couldn’t find the knot with my fingers.

It was just Mary, Ashton, and Duncan, now, with Mabel in the corner.

Mary gestured, watch, window.  Duncan walked over to the window to look.

“People on their way,” he said.

“Good,” Mary said.

“Listen,” I said.  “Mary.  There are things we need to talk about.  In private.”

“In private as in Helen and Duncan step out of the room, or private in the sense that you want Mabel to leave?”

“Mabel leaves.  Let me tell her to go to the others.  She can tell them not to attack.  There’s no rush, no demand on time.  We can talk things through, I can outline the things Jessie and I found out, the things that have been going on, you all decide what happens with the information.”

“How does that conversation end, Sylvester?” Mary asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Do we capitulate?  Set you free?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” I said.  “If I had to guess, I think… Lillian is left conflicted.  If there’s a reason we haven’t shared this information with you guys in full, it’s that it puts Lillian between a rock and a hard place.  You’re loyal to Lillian and the group, Mary, but you might be concerned with Percy being in the picture.”

Mary didn’t flinch.  The phantom that shadowed her did.

“Helen… I’m visualizing Helen not caring much.  Ashton too.  Just the way it goes.  So I’m left pretty on the fence here.”

“And me?” Duncan asked.  “What about me?”

I’d almost dismissed him out of hand.  He was diehard loyal, by my mental picture.  I drew in a breath, studied my Duncan-phantom and studied Duncan at the same time, and I surprised myself with the conclusion I came to.

“I think… you might be the most likely to want to defect.”

His eyes widened.

“Shame on you Duncan,” Helen said.

“I didn’t do anything.  Defect?” Duncan asked.  “You jumped straight from Mary talking about us setting you free to defection, specifically?”

“You’re a rebel, Duncan,” Helen said.

Mary spoke, “Did this piece of material you’re using to get Duncan to defect-”

“I’m not defecting.”

“-Play a part in your recruitment of the Beattle students?  Assuming it’s real?”

“Absolutely not,” I said.  “It did play a part in why I wanted to recruit them in the first place.”

“I see,” Mary said.

She led me to the window, and she glanced outside.

It looked like three dozen people, all of whom had taken defensive positions.  It was about a tenth of our number.  That left two hundred and forty or so assorted recruits elsewhere.  They had two stitched with them, laborers we’d pieced together with components from the city, used for hauling and janitorial work.  It looked like the night’s rain had pooled on the ground and frozen.

I wondered if the missing rebels were laying the false trail or fighting off the crown.  I wished I’d paid more attention to the game plan, but I’d been so tired.

“I want to negotiate here,” I said.  “Send Mabel.  Nonaggression pact.  No need to fight, you don’t hurt my people, We have a frank, serious conversation without eavesdroppers, we eat, Jessie and I stay bound.  Then if you decide it’s not worth it, and if you let my rebels go, I’ll come with you with no complaints.”

“We won’t hurt your army too badly, Sylvester,” Mary said.  “But we’re leaving straight away.  No compromise on that.”

“Cover your ears, Mabel.  I’ll-”

“If you cover your ears, I will put bullets in Sylvester until you lower your hands,” Mary said, and in her imperious tone she was fully the Mothmont lady, the teacher and instructor who had aspired to train and lead a sea of clones in beheading the monarchy.

Mabel, leader of the green team, formerly the Greenhouse Gang, daughter of some sheriff somewhere, didn’t cover her ears.

I thought we were on the same side, even if we weren’t on the same teams,” I said.  “Or is it the other way around?”

“You shot me, Sylvester,” she said.  “Six years ago, you took my hand and you asked me to trust you.  I had absolutely nothing except the ability to kill and the conviction to do so.  Then you lied to me, you manipulated me, and I was content to accept it, because I trusted you, in a way deeper than the lies and manipulations could touch.  Part of that is who and what I am, what Percy made me into.”

I looked away.

“Look at me,” Mary said.

That hawk-fierce glare was waiting for me when I did.

“I loved Gordon, Sylvester.  That was for him and I to share, separate from the Lambs.  I love Lillian.  I love Helen and Ashton in different ways.  But I trusted you.  Because I am what I am, that reaches deeper than love.  You took that trust and you shot me.  You left me to crawl back to the others, through hostile territory.”

“Would it help to know that pretty much from the point I pulled that trigger is when I really started to lose it?” I asked.

“Marginally,” Mary said.  “Except you were seeing things from the moment we set foot in Warrick, or even sooner.”

“Seeing things doesn’t and didn’t mean I was losing my mind,” I said.  “Listening to the voices and letting them destroy me or hurt me or convince me to sit out in the cold endlessly by keeping me company… that’s when I’m losing it.”

Marginal, Sylvester.  It was your own doing, in the end.  I didn’t get to choose that outcome.  You hit me where it hurt most, tore down a pillar.  I had to give my broken trust to someone.”

“Lillian,” I said.

“Or the Crown,” Mary said.  “The Academy.  I’m a Mothmont girl, after all.”

I met the real Mothmont girl, I thought.

I stopped just short of saying it.

It was too important a card to play.  If I put it out there now, then there was a risk it wouldn’t matter, that Mary might harden her heart even more, and there wouldn’t be an in.

Right now, when she was angriest, I wasn’t willing to fritter that away.

Even if the chasm between the Lambs and I seemed this wide.

I was left silent, thinking, glancing periodically at Mabel, who had dressed beneath the sheet, who was looking at me in a new, less kind light.

Jessie, Helen, and Lillian returned.  Jessie was dressed and wearing her jacket, her hands tied in front of her.

“Did you tell them?” I asked Jessie.

“I thought you wouldn’t want to tell Lillian until you were sure of the outcome,” Jessie said.  “I thought it was better to wait.”

“What’s this all about?” Lillian asked.

“It’s something Mabel can’t hear.  Anyone that isn’t a Lamb can’t hear it,” I said. I was getting more concerned now.  “Send Mabel away, have her tell the Beattle rebels to hold back.  We’ll have a discussion.  Nothing lost, we all move forward with eyes open.  I’ll trust your judgment.”

Jessie shook her head.  “They baited the Beattle rebels out.  It’s a skeleton staff in Sedge right now, less than fifty rebels.  If they take too long here, then the rebels start filtering back, our side outnumbers them.”

“And they have a plan,” I said.  “Tricks and tools.”

“We do,” Mary said.

I grit my teeth.

“Is it so important to keep me out of the loop?” Mabel asked.

I wasn’t so sure.  Did I trust her?  Mostly.  Did I know her like I knew the back of my hand?  No.  It was a tenuous thing to bid the life of the Crown States on.

“Gesture,” Duncan suggested.

“Mabel’s been learning signs.  Most of the team leaders and staff here have,” I said.  “I could write it down.  Or Jessie could.”

“We’ll discuss it after,” Mary said.  She looked at Lillian.  “Right?”

“Right,” Lillian said.

At the bottom of the stairs, Mary passed me over to Helen, gesturing.  Helen held my wrist, and she walked me to the door.

I stood in the doorway, facing the street.  The morning sun shone and the ground was coated in ice.

Thirty or forty of the Beattle rebels were out there in cover.

“Run!” I called out.  “They win.  Leave, get together with the main group, then flee.  Find work where you’re using your brains, not your trigger fingers!  But get going!  Get lost!”

It was painful to do, to discard them.

I could only hope we’d be able to find them again, if we weren’t being brought straight to the Crown and the jails.

“Run!” I called out again.  I gestured.

I looked for faces I recognized and I found too few.  Some of them were leading people away, sprinting on the ice.

A gunshot rang out to my right.  It had been a pistol fired from the window.  Mary.

The Lambs, moving through the night, had set up a trap.  A barrel in one of the labs, placed against the glass.  As the bullet shattered the glass, the barrel was free to tip, crashing against ice and spilling out its contents.  Whatever it was, and it had been ours so I should have known, it reacted on contact with the wet, frozen ground.

Steam and smoke billowed out, and the students as a whole were blinded.

From the chemical smell, there would no doubt be other effects.

“Run!” I called out, yet again, and this time my followers listened.

The Lambs marched us into the cloud, and someone put a coat over my shoulders to help me stay warm, the hood flipped up.  It would help to make me a less recognizable target in the midst of this smoke.

“Before you start,” Lillian said, cutting me off before I could launch into my monologue and explain about the Blocks, “We come with a message from the Duke.  Berger can tell us more.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Lamb (Arc 16)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Done hunting Sylvester?” Abby asked.

“No,” Ashton said.  He sat beneath a tree, half of him facing the local Academy, half of him facing wilderness.  “Sylvester is still ‘at large’, as they say it.”

Abby nodded.  She shifted Quinton around so the arm that had been taking most of the weight wasn’t, anymore.  She wore a green and white dress and a short jacket that had fur trim on the hood and down the front.

The Lambs had been tracking both Sylvester and Fray, moving to key locations, with the younger Lambs remaining behind as a kind of bait and stalling tactic.  When the area was vetted, the younger Lambs would catch up, they’d be in the same place for a little under a week, and then the Lambs would be off again.

“What were you doing?” Abby asked.

“Thinking,” Ashton said.  He hadn’t been, exactly, but he had learned that if he said the truth it often bothered or confused people.  He had been disassembling, looking at the world and dividing it into its constituent elements, decided by color.

He had also been disassembling people.  That was a more intensive process that took up more of his brain.  He’d taken the clothes off, with his head, and left them walking and standing around, then tried to determine what people looked like with no clothes at all.  He worked out what they looked like beneath the clothes, disassembled those things, and turned every one of the dozens of people he could see into an organized row, with the clothes at one end and the lymphatic system at the other.  He imagined doing things like stabbing people in various places and then worked out the effects that followed, along each of the layers, from bloodstains on the clothes and underclothes to nervous signals and disruption to the lymphatic system.  He imagined burns and how they would work, and he imagined his pheromones and tried to figure out how the body would react.

Talking about disassembling people wasn’t good conversation, he’d learned.  Most others were bothered.  Even Abby usually didn’t really want to talk about it.

“You spend a lot of time sitting and thinking,” Abby said.

“I’m good at it,” Ashton said.

Quinton bleated, walking forward and tugging against the leash that Abby held, drawing nearer to Ashton.  Ashton released a puff of good feeling and gave Quinton pats.

“What were you thinking about?” Abby asked.

Ashton had already worked out an answer for this kind of question.  Telling the truth was rarely good, so he supplied something else.  “My creators told me I needed to practice abstract thinking instead of using the building blocks I’ve been given.  They asked me what Good Simon book I would write if I had to write one.  I’m supposed to think of things that I had trouble with and then figure out how to write it.”

“Did you figure it out?” Abby asked.

“I don’t think so.  I think my problem is that I’m not bad at anything.”

“You’re bad at a lot of things, Ashton,” Abby said.

“Okay.  You’re allowed to say so.  But to me, I was very good at everything I needed to be good at from the beginning.  Sleeping, eating, drinking, walking, even talking.  Talking was hard.”

“You’re setting the bar rather low there, Ashton,” Abby said.

She took a seat beside Ashton.  He was sitting beneath the largest tree on the campus, a blanket laid out beneath him as if for a picnic, another blanket on his lap.

“The bar wasn’t even set when I started.  The Ashton before me didn’t even live.  You started out with a good bit of human.  I started from the very beginning and I think I’m pretty happy having made it this far.”

“I’m glad you lived too, but that’s not the point.”

“Most of the time now people will think I’m a very strange boy, instead of wondering if I’m an experiment, and that’s without me pushing them to feel one thing or another.  Sometimes they even think I’m normal.”

Abby busied herself with stealing some of Ashton’s blanket, settling in beside him.  Quinton the lamb found a space between their legs and settled in.  She figured out what she wanted to say and told him, “You’re not very normal.”

“But that’s what I’m saying.  I’m a xyloenterate-calceoenterate hybrid mass with a very thin approximation of human pattern to help me find the right shape only.  I can mostly defend myself, I can get food, I can find warm places to sit.  I can understand the greater world.  I can read, even if I sometimes hit snags and stall on some sentences until I ask for help.  Considering I just had to survive to make people happy, I think I’m doing very well.”

“One second,” Abby said, working to get comfortable without disturbing Quinton too much.

Ashton waited patiently.

“There’s more to it, Ashton.”

“Is there?”

“Didn’t you tell Lara and Nora that we need to do a good job?  That our survival and success depends on proving our worth to our superiors?”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t see how you’re missing the point?”

“No, I don’t.”

He had to interpret the look that Abby gave him.  That was annoyance.  Frustration and annoyance.  Anyone else would have known immediately, but he did need to figure it out some.  He also needed to figure out why she was frustrated and annoyed.  He thought through the conversation-

“You’re sort of proving yourself wrong on the ‘I’m good at sitting and thinking’ thing.”

“I am not.”

“And the good at everything thing.”

“I am not,” Ashton said.

“But you can’t just say you eat and you’re warm and you mostly look human so you’re happy.”

“But I am.  Good Simon says-”

“Oh lords,” Abby said.

“He says your feelings are your feelings and you’re the only person who gets to know and decide what you feel.  He was talking about grief over the death of a pet in that book, but I think it applies to happiness too.”

“How about this?  I’ll speak your language.  Good Simon, book six.”

“Good Simon and the Small War.”

“Sadie gets mean, and what’s the lesson at the end of the book?”

“That you need to weigh your wants, needs, and feelings and make sure that they aren’t keeping your betters from doing their jobs.”

“It’s supposed to be that you have to watch that your wants and feelings don’t infringe on the needs, wants and feelings of others.”

“But in the story, the new teacher that Sadie is mostly being mean to is supposed to be allegorical,” Ashton said.  “She represents the hard working and well-intentioned leadership we have in the Crown and the Academy and the story is really about how we need to listen to them and then everything is better.”

Abby leaned back against the tree.  She stroked Quinton, fixing some of the blanket so that Quinton was better covered.  The lamb was falling asleep now.

“You’re not supposed to recognize the hidden influences and meanings and take them as fact, Ashton.”

“I grew up with the books, and when the world and the people around me seemed very strange, I thought about the books.  I think it would be strange to rely on them that much and miss something like that.”

“My point is,” Abby said, a little more agitated than before, “You can’t just say you’re happy and leave it at that.  You can’t set the simple things as your end goal.”

“A lot of people are unhappy because they don’t have the simple things like food and shelter.  Quinton is very happy because you take care of him, because he has those things.  Why am I not supposed to be happy for that same reason?”

“Because, just like Sadie failed to pay attention to the feelings of the teacher because she was focused on her own feelings, your acceptance of basic happiness might mean you don’t try hard enough and then one of the Lambs or Lara or Nora or Emmett or me get hurt or die, because we do dangerous things.”

“What have I done that’s wrong on our past jobs?”

“Nothing major, but sometimes you’re… clumsy.  And I know I sound hypocritical, saying that,” Abby said.

“Okay.”

“And I worry when you’re clumsy with words or doing things.”

“Okay.  I’ll try harder with those things.”

“Thank you,” Abby said.

“You could have just asked me to do that from the beginning.”

“It’s about something more, Ashton.  I want you to have the right reasons.  If you have a greater goal or a… I don’t even know.  A drive, those things make it different.”

“There’s a difference?” Ashton asked.

“One pulls at you, and the other pushes you,” Abby said.  “But either one, they make it so you don’t have to be told or taught.  You start doing things and growing without needing to be urged to, every part of you starts working toward it, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ones.  It refines you.”

Ashton mused on that for a little bit.  Then, just to keep the conversation moving, he asked, “What’s your goal?”

“I want to grow up,” Abby said.  “I want to get all the way to as old as I can be before I expire.  I want to stay out of danger so I can live as long as I can, and I want to live a peaceful life with animals all around me.  I’d like it if some of you were there with me.  I was thinking maybe it could be a place for warbeasts to go when they’re done fighting, but a farm would do too.  A place like Sous Reine.”

Ashton’s mind whirled, piecing together the scenario from constitutent elements.

“I can see that,” Ashton said.  “I can take all the pictures I have of you in my head and it’s very easy to put together scenes of you doing that and being there.”

“It’s nice of you to say so,” Abby replied.  She smiled.

“I try to be nice, but I wasn’t trying there.  I was just saying the truth,” Ashton said.

Abby only smiled.  “I’ve missed these talks.”

“It’s good I didn’t frustrate you so much that you had another fit,” Ashton said.

“Almost,” Abby said.  “I asked you to wait a moment a few times to let it go away.”

She raised her knees up and hugged them.  The movement of the blanket didn’t seem to disturb Quinton.  He remained fast asleep.

“My new doctors are having people teach me to fight and use guns,” Abby said.  “I don’t think I’m going to get my goal.  I think I’m going to fight sometimes, and then I’m going to have some times when I get to do what I want.”

“I’m sorry,” Ashton said.  That was what people were supposed to say in situations like this.

“I’m sorry too,” Abby said.  “I don’t like it.”

“Was that why you came to sit with me?  Do you want to talk about it more?”

“No, and no, I don’t want to think about it too much,” Abby said.

“Oh, okay,” Ashton said.  He decided to politely ignore the fact that it did sound an awful lot like she wanted to talk about it.  He reached down to give Quinton a scratch.

“I came to find you because I wanted to ask if you wanted to meet my new friend,” she said.

“A new friend?”

“Come on,” Abby said, a little more excited and upbeat.  “Come see.”

“You just spent all that time settling down, and now you’re getting up?” Ashton said.  “That doesn’t make sense.”

Abby took Ashton’s hand, and she used every muscle in her body to help haul him to his feet, while he didn’t cooperate at all.  She scooped up a protesting, bleating Quinton and then stood there, looking satisfied, her odd features set with a smile while she huffed a little.  A moment later, she was tugging him away from his spot.

Ashton cast a forlorn glance backward at the nest of blankets he’d made.  It hadn’t been as nice as being inside and near the fire, but inside was noisy, all students and new people and they kept on pestering him and complimenting him on his hair.  The tree had thick cover that meant only a few droplets fell on him, and his jacket and hood protected him from those.  He liked the unpredictable tapping of droplets on his head.

Caldwell was a small Academy, set deep in the woods.  It looked like a castle, and it was about as cold as one.  Ashton joined Abby in passing beneath a statue that had long turned green-black, depicting a doctor working with a stitched on a table, crowing his victory with arms outspread.  The lightning from the voltaic systems around him was done up in silver, for contrast.

The students here were a grim sort, the kind that wanted to work with stitched.  Others worked on projects that needed to be kept away from civilization, but permissions for that sort of work were doled out sparingly.  Pale, dressed in dark uniforms with student’s lab coats, damp with the freezing rain, they walked in something that would’ve been a single file march if it wasn’t for the periodic clusters of friends or lab partners talking, keeping pace with those behind and in front of them.

Some in the single file march reached out.  They put coins atop what had become towers of coins at the foot of the statue.  They couldn’t stop without being jostled by students behind them, so they had to move quick, place the coins, and not disturb the towers that had come into being in front or to either side.  Some of the lower parts of towers closer to the feet of the scientist had been there through enough seasons to have become a single unit, fusing together through heat, cold, and the chemicals in the rain and snow.

Coins in the wishing well, payment to the shrine, but it was enough of a departure from prayer and close enough to being a token of tribute to the Academy and Crown that it was permitted.

Abby, Quinton, and Ashton paid little mind to the lines or the marching orders, and they had no tribute to give.  Abby led the way in a kind of determined way, heading for the gaps, steering through, dragging Ashton behind.

Some students cussed, and Quinton bleated out an equally rude reply.

“This way,” Abby said.

The castle-like Academy was perched on a hill, and the hill had a number of rocky outcroppings.  Abby led the way to the edge of the campus, where the buildings ended and there were only intermittent cliffs, rocks, and bits of grass that were stubbornly persisting through winter.

Abby hopped down, and she skidded a little ways down the cliff.

“Come on!” she urged Ashton.

“Are you sure about this?”

“Come on!” she said.

He hopped down.  Abby caught him.

“I was walking Quinton, I wanted him to get exercise, so I brought him down this hill.  We were exploring together, and we found this.”

Abby drew Ashton’s attention to a hole in the ground.  Two rocks had parted, and a shaft extended all the way down into pitch darkness.  Humid steam rose from the space.

Ashton liked the humid steam.  It was warm, when everything else was a wet sort of cold, even indoors.  He was rather less sure of the black abyss that Abby was now crawling into.

“Abby,” he said.

Abby disappeared, bringing Quinton with her.

“Abby,” Ashton said, at the same volume.  “You’re supposed to respond when someone talks.”

There was no response.

Ashton puffed out a cloud of annoyance, then descended into the pitch darkness.  The stone was wet and slick, the spaces small enough an adult couldn’t have climbed through, and, the further he descended, the more branches he ran into.  He’d taken them for roots first, but they had a rigidity he was very familiar with.  Builder’s wood.

He heard the rasp of a match, and he saw the flicker of flame.

A moment later, bioluminescence kicked in, the walls of the long corridor responding to the light of the flame with a dull yellow light of their own.  It was a horizontal shaft, the ceiling arching overhead, builder’s wood supporting the shaft all the way down.

The entire tunnel smelled like the fluids they used in a stitched.

“It responds to touch too,” she said.  “That’s how I found out about it at first.  Quinton stuck his nose into it and it glowed.”

She touched her hand to the wall.  The handprint glowed.

Ashton tried it.  The wall was clammy, the residual glow left by touch a bright, warm color.  He liked the contrast of the two things.  He traced fingers along the wall, and watched patterns emerge.

“Ashton,” Abby said.

“I like this,” he said.

“I wanted to show you something.  This wasn’t it.”

“This could be it.  This is nice,” Ashton said.  “This is good enough.”

She took hold of his arm, and she set about dragging him, to the best of her ability.  One of her arms held Quinton, however, and Ashton was as committed to staying put as he had been to anything.

“What I want to show you is neater,” she said.

“I think we’re in an area we’re not supposed to be in,” Ashton said.  “Or an area that they forgot about or wanted to forget about, or an area that they tried to seal like they seal the bowels in Radham, and they missed one crack in the wall.  It’s probably better to stay where we are.”

“Please?” Abby asked.  “Leave that wall alone, and come with me?”

“You keep taking me away from warm spots and pretty things,” he said, but he allowed her to lead him.

They walked down the length of the corridor, and they passed down a flight of stairs.  The bioluminescent algae didn’t creep along the stairwell, so their descent was a dark one.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Abby lit another match.  The cavern was larger, the glowing surfaces well out of reach, a cavern roof twenty feet over their heads.  The moisture had collected in areas, and the cave looked like the night sky.  The cavern itself was rocky, with an uneven floor littered with pebbles.

Abby whistled, a low sound, very well done, and then repeated the process, this time more of an insect sound.  “Here girl.  Let’s see you.  Say hello to Ashton.”

An outcropping halfway across the cavern floor parted.  Three eyelids on one eye moved back, and they had a distance to move.  The eye’s surface itself, flat and not rounded, would have taken twenty paces to cross.  A cloudy membrane covered the eye, a three-piece protective membrane.

“I call her Princesca,” Abby said.  “She probably has another name, but I don’t know it.”

“Hello Princesca,” Ashton said, dutifully.  He waited several moments, and then decided, “I don’t think she can understand me or respond.”

“She’s half-asleep, poor dear,” Abby said.  She bent down and she gave the ‘floor’ a rub.  “Buried under everything in a cold and wet place like this.  I think most of her body sprawls under Caldwell.”

“I don’t think we should be down here,” Ashton said.

“I know,” Abby said.  “But when you all go off and hunt Sylvester, and it’s just Emmett and me and Nora and Lara, I miss you and the other Lambs.  Emmett tries to listen to me and he does a very good job, but I don’t want to bother him too much and sometimes I need to talk about things I don’t want to bother him with.  Princesca is a good listener too.”

“I think it might be better to bother Emmett than to bother Princesca,” Ashton said.

“I’m good with animals.  When she looks at me, I can see her pupil.  If you walk a few minutes down through the tunnels you can find another eye that’s even clearer.  The tension of her skin relaxes after a little while of me talking.”

Abby rubbed the floor, both elbow and hand touching it, the rub using the whole length of her forearm, clad in her jacket.

“She likes you?”

“I think so,” Abby said.  “I have to talk in a particular sort of voice and I need to spend a little while here to make it work, but she likes me.”

“That’s good,” Ashton said.

“I think she’s bored, and she’s lonely, and she’s very tired.  Whatever it is they’re using to keep her docile and sleepy is… not easy, or not pleasant.  I felt bad for her, and that’s when I started thinking about what I wanted.  Not in the now, but in the future.”

“Ah,” Ashton said.  “You’re going to need a bigger stable if this is the kind of warbeast you want to take care of.”

Abby laughed.

With the faint and distant light, Ashton could see Abby’s face change, and with every moment that he thought he might have grasped what that particular combination of brow, eye, cheek and mouth expression was supposed to mean, it had changed, moving from one thing to another.

The laughing face was distant and she didn’t sound very happy as she said, “Between you, me, Quinton, and Princesca, I feel like all the things I want are very far away.”

“I’ll help you get there,” Ashton said.  “I’m good, I have what I want, I can help you with what you want.  I’ll help Emmett and Nora and Lara too, and the Lambs as well.”

“Bleaah,” Quinton said.

“Quinton will help too,” Ashton said.  “He’s soft, and he can listen.”

“I know,” Abby said.  “Until he gets too big, and then we get Quinton the Fourth.”

“Or a girl Quinton,” Ashton said.

“Or a girl Quinton,” Abby said.

Slowly, Princesca’s eyelids drifted closed.  Fluid bubbled and oozed out of the cracks between them as they sealed shut.

“Shh,” Abby said, giving the floor another rub.

“You seem sad,” Ashton said.

“I miss home.  I miss Sous Reine and people who spoke German, English, and French.  I miss the stables and the squirrels.  The people who worked with me there loved me, even if they weren’t there for me.  Here, you’re all there for me… until you aren’t.  People keep coming and going.”

“Don’t get too upset,” Ashton said.  “You’ll have another fit.”

Abby nodded emphatically, before rubbing at her nose and then her eye with the back of her hand.

“You’re scared of having to learn to use guns and weapons?” he asked.

“It feels like a big step I don’t want to take.”

Ashton nodded.

He had to think for a little while to decide how to answer.  It helped that Abby had fallen silent, one hand on Quinton, another arm rubbing Princesca.

“Before, I said I would help you,” Ashton said.

Abby nodded, looking up at him.

“And I said I would help Nora and Lara and Emmett and the Lambs.”

She nodded again.

“If you need me to, I’ll help just you for now.  I can talk to Duncan when he gets back, and he can figure out how to talk to others about the weapons.  He’s good at that, he’s good at negotiating and politics, and he does care about you.”

“It’s not that,” Abby said.

“What is it?”

“If I have to keep doing this, I want to learn how to fight.  But I don’t want to learn how to fight.  I don’t want to fight five days of the week so I can have the life I want on the other two.  I don’t want to fight two days a week so I can have the life I want for the other five.  I just want a peaceful life with my animals…”

She sniffled, and her arm moved funny as she brought it to her eye.

“Stop,” Ashton said, uselessly, urgently puffing out calm.

“And I’m really worried-”

He did his best to catch her before she toppled to the floor.  He sank to the floor with her, holding her twitching body while Quinton bleated.

Through the floor, he could feel the low course of fluids through Princesca’s body.  He could feel the warmth of her and he could see why Abby had been drawn here.

While he waited for Abby to calm down, the bioluminescence faded, the cavern went dark, and he had some time to sit and think.

He wished he had a Good Simon book that was more about how to help friends in trouble.  He would have made it the topic of the book he’d been asked to write, but he didn’t have the slightest idea what to do in this kind of situation.

“So this is what you were leading up to,” Sylvester said.  “You catch me on a bad day when my mind, heart, and body are tapped out, and you just… what?  Promise horrible things if I don’t kowtow to you?”

Helen touched her hair and smiled.  “A Helen kind of horrible.”

Sylvester ran his fingers through his hair, pacing.  “You’re doing just what Evette did.  You all want your turns, and since you’re the figments of my imagination that represent instinct and… I don’t know, common sense?  The senses?  And Fray here represents… absolutely everything going wrong, or conspiracy, or… whatever.  I don’t have the energy to do this.  You’re staging your mutiny, working to push me out?  A very complicated way of my self-preservation instincts saying ‘no more’?”

He wheeled around.  His voice was almost ragged, “Well, you can go fuck a fistful of nails, Fray!  And you two-”

Ashton watched Sylvester.  He was preoccupied with watching Sylvester’s emotions, trying to piece it all together.

Sylvester’s voice softened.  “Don’t do the nail thing.  But do leave me alone.  I’m doing too many important things.  Go away.”

Ashton gave Helen a sidelong glance.

“What if I say no?” Helen asked.

“Don’t.  No.  You’re not allowed.  Not today.  I have things I need to square away.”

“Like Jessie,” Helen said.

“Like a lot of things!  This is just inconvenient.  So scram.  I banish thee, and I refuse to accept you’re going to pull an Evette and say no.  You two will stand aside.  I will it so.  Just this once.”

He was gesticulating wildly, and in this, he used his hands as if to part the waters, to will them to move aside.

Ashton looked at Helen for guidance.  Wouldn’t taking Sylvester be better?  They could get him help.

But she gestured, go, and she stepped back.

Ashton mirrored her movement, stepping away from her and from the door.

Without a word, Sylvester walked through.

Sylvester trudged off, casting one or two backward glances.  He looked so hurt, so tired, so cold.

“He asked,” Helen said, answering a question Ashton hadn’t voiced.  “He didn’t ask nicely, but he asked.”

“Abby wants to leave,” Ashton said.  “She said so, a few days ago, before we came here.”

Helen approached him, wrapping her arms around him from behind, and buried her face in his damp hair, mussing it up.  He tolerated the messy hair and he puffed happiness at her.

“You can’t tell.  It’s a secret,” Ashton said, stopping with the puffs so he could be sure she listened.  It was like the period at the end of a sentence, a stab of the finger.

“I know, and I won’t,” Helen said, and she wouldn’t because she was like that.

“I was looking at Sylvester just now and I was thinking what if that was Abby standing there instead?  Sylvester didn’t look very happy.”

“There’s a difference,” Helen said.  “They’re different.”

“I know that,” Ashton said.  He puffed out disgust and irritation and agitation.  He could feel Helen snort into his hair.  “I just wish I understood better.  I really could only think of two ways she might end up happy, and this was supposed to be one.”

“They’re different.  Keep that in mind,” Helen said.  “What’s the other way?”

“I thought of asking Duncan to send her back to Sous Reine.  I thought maybe we or I could chip in money and they could give her a job in the stables or somewhere and she could save money or something.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot.”

“Ask her before you do that,” Helen said.

“Why?”

“Because she might not be as happy doing that as you think she might,” Helen said.  “And that’s if it works, if they let her go and if Sous Reine would take her.”

Ashton nodded.

“If you need help with any of that, little mushroom brother, you can ask me,” Helen said.  “I’ll do what I can.  But if you’re going to ask me for anything, sooner is better, I think.”

“Why?”

“Sooner is better,” she restated it.

Why?” he tried again.

She bit into his scalp, far harder than was necessary, and then she let go of him.

How are they different?  Ashton asked, using his head instead of his mouth.  He worried Helen would bite him again if he pressed her.

He remained quiet, thinking, as they exited the little stable.

It was a minute before he deemed it safe enough to say, “Mary is going to be so mad at us.”

“Yes she is, little brother,” Helen said, smiling merrily.  “Yes she is.”

Mary fired the gun.  It was an intentional miss, Ashton judged, but it did a good job of making Sylvester jump a good few feet off the bed.  The girl in the bed and Jessie looked spooked too.

Sylvester scrambled to use the bed for cover, as Jessie did.  The girl in the bed was furthest from that end of the bed, and simply froze.

“Come here, honey,” Helen said.  “Out of the way.”

The girl in the bed brought a sheet with her to cover herself up, ducking down swiftly to pick up her skirt and socks from the floor.

Still using the bed as defensive cover, Sylvester chuckled.  The chuckle became a laugh.

Ashton couldn’t see Sylvester, so he watched the other Lambs.  Mary was calm, cool.  Lillian had one hand on her face.

Duncan looked… concerned.

Helen was Helen.

He tried to judge if he should use something or another on Mary.  Mary was immune, but if he tried really, really hard and emptied his reserve, he might have been able to do something.

Sylvester continued laughing.  He raised his hands over his head.  When Mary didn’t put a hole in either hand, Sylvester stood, and rounded the end of the bed, wearing only his pyjama bottoms.  His back and shoulder were bandaged, and he had dark circles under his eyes that had nothing to do with how much or how little sleep he’d gotten.

He approached, and when Mary didn’t shoot him, he threw his arms around her, hugging her.

She pressed the gun to his head.

“You got me,” he said, still hugging her.

As he pulled away, turning toward Lillian, Mary seized his wrist, twisted his arm behind his back, and shoved him into the ground.

Further twisting of his arm made him drop the knife of Mary’s that he’d palmed.

“You got me,” he said, again.

“We came for the Professor,” Duncan volunteered.  “You were accidental.”

“Well, you got him too,” Sylvester said, smiling.

They were different, Helen had said.  Abby and Sylvester.

For a moment, Ashton thought he realized how.  Abby had said something about it once.  That some people were pulled, and some people were pushed.

Abby was pulled toward that dream of hers.  Of a simple life, of animals, and hopefully having friends near her.  And it looked like Sylvester was pushed.

It was a very tidy, satisfying answer, until Mary hauled Sylvester up off the ground.  For a fleeting moment, as Sylvester took in the group, Ashton could read his expression.

He’d looked like this as he rested between Jessie and the girl on the bed.  Now, captive, gun aimed at him, his plans awry, he looked very much like he’d found his farm, his animals, and all of his friends.

“You got me,” Sylvester said, not for the first time.  “Sorry Jessie.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.13

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Home sweet home, I thought.

It had taken a little bit of doing to properly quarantine ourselves as we arrived back at Sedge.  Measures had been instated by the students awaiting our arrival, and our Treasurer had pushed hard for some last minute changes and some firm rules.  As much as I’d wanted to curl up with some blankets and company by the fire, we’d had to stand around while others ran around on our behalf.  ‘Barracks Two’ was emptied out, the residents gathering their things, and we had marched inside, each one of us to a room.

The team that had gone into the city with me had mostly worn quarantine suits, but the Treasurer wanted to be careful, and I wasn’t about to complain.  Jessie, the Treasurer, Fang, Bea, and Gordon Two all went to their quarantine rooms.  Rudy, meanwhile, went to our makeshift operating theater.

The wagon that had picked us up was now on its way back to our retreating troops.  They would walk back as far as they could, with people picked up by priority each time the wagons and carriages made a trip.  Not ideal, but it would have to do.  I worried about the Academy following, but multiple people had assured me that they had planned for that even before they’d worked out the measure to fight the Academy.  They had made mention of bear traps and some tricks to mess with the warbeasts, lookouts, a system of warnings, and other things that had sounded pretty good.

Jessie had been more alert and focused than I, and seemed to think it was sound, so I was willing to leave it at that.  I was almost too tired to care.

The room had a small wood stove – I didn’t believe that all of them did, only the ones further from the kitchen.  The door was open and the screen set in place, the light from within the only source of light in the room for the time being.

I took my time disrobing.  Parts of me were sore.  I only had my jacket, sweater and shirt off when I heard the knock at the door.

“Sylvester?”

“Hi Mabel,” I said.

“We’re working on finding people who are able and willing to do the examinations for plague.  Not a lot are enthusiastic.  The chance of catching the plague if the makeshift quarantine suits we’re making don’t hold up is only part of it.  They’re more shy about having to carve it out if any red spots show, and I think they’re shy about working on the boss, which is why I haven’t found any volunteers to check on you.”

“Alright,” I said.  You’d think a bunch of Academy students would have a few people eager to be hurly burly with the scalpel.  Alas.

“I offered to look Jessie over.  She said you would handle it later.  Is that okay?”

“That’s fine,” I said.  “How’s Rudy?”

“Not good,” Mabel said.  “He-”

She stopped there.

“He?”

“His injuries gave the plague some footholds.  It’s turning an already difficult surgery into a worse one.”

I hung my head.  “Noted.”

“If this goes badly…” she said, and she said it with a lack of confidence that suggested the ‘if’ was more like a ‘when’.  “Do you have any orders?  Requests?”

“Possum will want to know.”

“Helen is outside the door, fretting.”

“I’m glad she’s there, even if I’m not glad about the reason for it.  Can you round up one or two of her friends to keep her company?  She worked in the kitchen, so if you can’t think of any names right off, you might want to check there.”

“I can do that.”

“Thanks.  She was abandoned during her last crisis, I don’t want it to happen again.  And while I’m making requests… Berger.”

“He’s locked in his room.  Davis is going to work with him.”

“Davis?  Remind me?”

“Student council president.”

I nodded.  “Have someone outside the door.  If it’s Davis, Valentina might be game.  Give her a slate and some chalk.  She eavesdrops, makes sure Berger doesn’t get sly, and she makes absolutely sure that every piece of every bit of equipment that goes in the room comes out.”

“I’ll set that up.  Do you want to talk to Rudy if he’s conscious when we realize we’re past the point of no return?”

There was the if/when confusion again.  Back to Rudy.  I stared into the fire.

“Yeah, just let me know.  If they get in too deep and start panicking, let me know.”

“Panicking?”

“Past a certain point, it starts looking like a lot of wet red mess.  Veins and vines, spots and blood splatters.  The victim squirms because the drugs don’t work as well on plague victims and you don’t want them unconscious anyway, because they can feel the plague moving through their body, you want a heads up if they’ve got pain in one extremity or another.  Even if your focus is on point and you’re doing okay discerning the patient from what you’re trying to cut away, they jump or contort once and you lose your place, or the scalpel slips.”

“Oh.”

Even through the closed door, I could tell that reality had just hit home for her.

“When you go and check on them, maybe tell them I ordered one person to be on standby, resting while the others work, making sure people are staying sane and focused.  Rotate out.  They’ll probably say it’s not necessary.  Insist.  Because things will get hairier and they’ll need to step back and take a subjective look at how things are going.”

“Alright, Sylvester.  I might scrub up and get suited to help them.”

“Actually…” I said.  “I could really do with some freedom of movement.  Get to Jessie, talk to Berger, make sure everything’s going smoothly.  You said you were willing to check up on Jessie?  Are you willing to check on me?”

“Oh.  I was trying to pair boy students with boy patients and girl students with girl patients.”

“If you’re not comfortable with it-”

“It’s fine!” Mabel said.  Too loud in contrast to her earlier volume, too fast a response.

“Or if I scared you off by talk of the nightmare the cutting poses-”

“It’s fine!” she said, a little more authoritative and assertive.  “It’s good.  I’ll be fine.  I’m going to go get someone to stay with Helen, check on Rudy, station someone with Davis and Berger, and get scrubbed up.”

I listened as her footsteps retreated down the hall.  I stared at the door until I could no longer distinguish the sound from other ambient background noises.  The fire crackled, and a log resettled violently, sending sparks flying at the screen.

The kicking feet raised my attention to Evette, who sat directly on the little cast iron stove, which was only large enough for the one log at a time.  She wore a charcoal black sweater and dress, and she was smiling.

Fray, still incoherent and abstract, stood in the shadows in the corner, watching, wearing her professor’s coat.

“You’re a bastard, asking little miss Greenhouse Gang to check on you when you know she likes you,” Evette said.  “Or is that why you asked her to do it?  Are you corrupting the sheriff’s daughter?”

“If you have to ask,” I said, “then I don’t know the answer.  But I think it mostly has to do with the fact that I’m impatient.”

“You’re lonely,” Evette said.  “You’re doing worse and worse with being alone.  Events like sitting in the cold with only the bug for company aren’t helping, either.”

“Won’t disagree,” I said.  I stood and I finished disrobing, undoing my belt and the button of my pants and then sitting on the bed.  I tried draping myself along the bed, flicking the top sheet to only barely cover myself for modesty, gave the door my best sultry look, and then decided against it.  Anyone else, and I might have tried to break the tension of the moment that way.  Not with Mabel, when she’d been so good and sweet thus far.

I sat back up, moved the sheet to cover myself more than was necessary, and stuck my feet straight out in front of me so they were closer to the fire.

“You have a professor, who will be a great source of knowledge if he makes it through the night.  You have a small army of students and they’re getting to the point where they’re almost on your wavelength.  A poor substitute for Lambs, but they’ll do, won’t they?”

Evette held a scalpel now.  She bent down by my leg, sticking the scalpel closer to it.

I felt a prick.

“Is that me, or is it one of the red spots?” she asked.

“Or is it phantom sensations coupled with skin constricting from the heat of the fire and the power of suggestion?” I asked.

She scraped the flat of the scalpel against the skin of my calf, pressing hard enough that it broke skin.  Focusing on the area, I could feel the pain there, now.  I could contort my mind, and I was left eighty percent sure it wasn’t a phantom sensation.

“You’re the Wyvern,” I said.  “The delirious, dangerous part of me that wants to fling myself into danger.  A part of me that doesn’t mesh well with the Lambs so much as it hopes the Lambs will mesh with it.”

She moved the scalpel down, away from the leg, then slashed at the bit of my ankle joint that jutted out at the side.  I felt the stab of pain there too.

“If you can feel the pain of the plague, that means it’s already starting to crawl through you,” Evette said.

She moved the scalpel, my leg jumped, and I moved it.  I looked at the site she’d cut, and I saw the damage.  It wasn’t plague, but a scrape.  I’d fallen hard against the road when the Mercy had jumped on top of me.  The skin had been shredded at the side of my calf and at the ankle.

“Why do you hate me?” I asked, continuing my earlier line of statements.

Evette wasn’t beside me anymore.  I glanced back over my shoulder at her just in time for the scalpel to come down.

I felt the stab of pain.  She repeated the gesture, hauling the scalpel out, pricking, or outright impaling, once every ten seconds or so.

“I don’t hate you, Sy,” Evette said.

“Then can you stop stabbing me?” I asked.

She moved away from me, showing me the scalpel.  The pricks and stabs of pain continued.

“Helen represents instinct, Ashton represents sense, sometimes common sense, but given the way your head works, neither really represent reality, do they?” Evette asked.  “None of the Lambs do.  You understand them, you want them close to you, but me?”

“I dunno,” I said.  “I could’ve gotten along with the real Evette.  I mean, I managed something with Duncan, and he manages to look like he just sucked a lemon and look smug at the same time, all the time.”

Evette spoke, “But Evette was never going to be someone you got along with, because we can’t exist in the same space.  If her project lived, yours died.  You only became a Lamb because she aborted.  We’re too similar and too different at the same time, so I don’t know that we would have fit together well.  All that in mind, it’s only fitting that you use her to wrap your mind around things you don’t want to think about.  Less cuddly things like the deadline looming over your head, the poison in your brain, your morbid and self destructive plans of action.  The plague that’s crawling across your back right now.”

The skin across my back prickled.  The power of suggestion again?

I resisted the urge to twist around and check.  “Yeah.”

“You can check.  There’s no use acting brave with me and Fray over there.  We know.”

“Mabel is going to be here soon,” I said.  “If it’s there, she’ll see.  Doesn’t change anything if I know in advance or not.”

“Uh huh,” Evette said.

“I know I said I wanted today free and clear of insanity and mutiny.  You’re probably edging in closer so you’re first in line if and when that door opens.  I suppose it’s inevitable.”

“I don’t care about that,” Evette said.  “She might.”

I looked over at Fray, a figure like the one that might appear in a dream, impossible to pin down or look directly at, the features still right, the positioning and attitude ambiguous.

“Who knows what she’s thinking?” Evette said.

“I wonder,” I said, studying Fray.

My wondering was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I said.

I heard the door click and open.

Wearing a rather ad-hoc quarantine outfit, Mabel let herself into the room.  her mask and air supply were the only things that weren’t improvised.  The rest involved rain clothing and copious amounts of tape.  She set a medical bag and a bright lantern on the desk by the door.

“You were talking to yourself?” Mabel asked.

I pointed.  “Evette, there.  And Fray.”

“I see,” Mabel said, faint changes in tone betraying concern.  She closed the door, took stock, and then said, “And you’re naked.”

“You’ve got to examine me, right?”

She didn’t respond to that.  I had the feeling that if blushes could radiate past filtration masks and goggles, she would be too bright to look at.

Or maybe I was projecting Lillian onto Mabel.  Mabel had a different sort of grounding.  A different set of emotional strengths and weaknesses.

She moved the lantern to the bedside table.

“Am I supposed to greet your… friends?” Mabel asked.

“They’re not friends,” I said.  “Evette was stabbing me repeatedly, just before you came in.”

“Oh.  Oh dear.”

“They’re figments.  I think… they started out as something different, but lately, they’re representing something else.  I have so many trains of thought chugging along through my brain, they… encapsulate important ideas or lines of thought.  It’s easier to bring one out and think along certain lines, sometimes.”

“Certain lines?”

“Thinking in terms of strategy, or investigating, or cooperating with others in a crisis.  Sometimes instinct, or acting, or simplifying my thinking.  Each one is a… very complex sort of set of ideas, functioning independently.  Sometimes in ways that I don’t want them to.”

“I think I sort of get it.”

“And lately, they’ve been shoring up my weaknesses, I think.  Or they’re becoming weaknesses, if there’s even a difference between using imaginary people as crutches or just leaving the weak points exposed.”

“I think there’s a difference.”

“Yeah.  Probably.  Most recently, they’ve been representing my subconscious, when I’m being a little too conscious and tunnel-visioned.  They’ll appear and remind me of something, or tell me to think along certain patterns.  Except I don’t always know what pattern they’re supposed to represent.”

“Didn’t you create them?”

“I let the garden happen.  I didn’t control what grew where.  The current, big enigma is miss Genevieve Fray, imaginary version.  I don’t know what she represents.  She’s one of the biggest question marks, in my head and out of it.”

“I’m reminded of the trick with memory they used to give us, with putting all of our memories in a different room or places in a room.  A study trick for students.”

“Jessie was a pretty literal interpretation of that trick, once upon a time.  Except the rooms were real, and they weren’t rooms so much as actual compartments in the real world.  But perhaps talking about the deeper points isn’t fair to her, if she doesn’t have a say.  I want to respect her privacy.”

In a nod to privacy, I adjusted the sheet that was draped across my lap.  Mabel glanced down, then glanced up.

“Ready?” I asked, as if I hadn’t noticed.

“Let’s get this done, then,” she said.

I nodded.

She checked my hands first, which wasn’t necessary, then my face, which was.  She got out a comb and started working her way through my hair, checking my scalp.

“Shirley has spots,” she told me.

I clenched my fist.

“It looks like it’s in the early stages.  It should be doable.”

“She has a good doctor?  Someone with a steady hand and a good eye?”

“I think so.  The others only had good things to say about him.”

I nodded.

“Otis and two of Otis’ men have them too.  Mostly on the hands.  The students working on them sounded optimistic.”

“Who else?”

“Professor Berger.”

“It’s important that Professor Berger live,” I said.  “We need someone good working on him, if at all possible.”

“We need good people working on everyone,” Mabel said.  “That’s the worst part of it, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“If it means anything, we have pretty good hands working on the Professor.  Or at least, I think they’re good.  He got pretty irate and insisted he would do the work himself.”

“He’s cutting himself open?  Without drugs?”

“He insisted.  We have two students on standby.  The spots are mostly on his face and hands.  He said he wants to work on his face in front of the mirror and do his left hand.  He’ll defer to us for his right hand at the end.”

“I really want to hear if he managed it or not.  I’m not saying I’d think less of him if he gave up, but if he actually just managed to sit down and carve himself open.  I did it countless times, while Tynewear was caught in the plague.  It’s an infernal thing, the plague.  I know bias colors my view here, but it feels like most of the time, it always demanded too much.  It set its roots too deep.”

Mabel didn’t respond.  She continued working.

I could read a lot from the feeling of her gloved fingers on my head, the movement of the comb, and the movements of the lantern.

“How’s Rudy?”

“Rudy isn’t good,” Mabel said.  “I think it wouldn’t be good even if he was free of the plague.”

I nodded.

“He was delirious.  Raving about needles and plants.  I don’t think he was even making sense of what was going on.”

“He’s tough,” I said.  “So long as he has a goal in sight, he’s a bit of a juggernaut.  He’ll just plow onward.”

“I just worry he can’t see very far, and he’s seeing less and less,” Mabel said.

Ah, so was this it?  She wanted reassurance.

I wasn’t sure I had much to give.

Perhaps in my own efforts to egg myself forward and gather the courage for this next part, I’d put too great a weight on her shoulders.

“I know about the spots on my shoulder,” I said.  “I know you’re staying quiet about it.  If you don’t feel confident, you can go track down someone who is.”

“You knew?  You saw?”

“Evette told me,” I said.

“Evette again.  I think I can do this.  Rather than disturb it, I’m going to finish checking you over first.”

I nodded.

At her direction, I stood up.

“Already checked the front bits, and if there was any plague there, I’d probably just ask you to take the scalpel to my throat instead,” I said.  “But you can check my skinny behind.”

She didn’t have a response to that.  There was no cue that she was that ruffled, either.  Maybe she wasn’t the blushing type.  Maybe her feelings had been directed elsewhere.

“It looks like it’s the back of the neck, shoulder, and the one side of your back,” she said.

I grimaced.

“Any tips before I get started?”

“No special ones, only the pointers I gave to everyone else.  Look for the spots where the tendrils are reaching into or out of veins and arteries or where the bruising surrounds places the plague set in a deeper kind of root.  Those are key areas that you want to start at and work away from.  If you’re partway through one part and you get interrupted or lose your place, go looking for another starting place, don’t get too fixated on searching.”

She was getting her things out of the medical kit as I talked.  I saw her hold a scalpel, her hand shaking a little.

“Use your hands.  It’s not a hard rule, but feel for the tendrils, they’re harder than veins and arteries, especially when they run inside veins and arteries.  If it bleeds, it might still be a tendril, don’t let that make you second guess yourself, but if it’s easy to cut, it’s probably not one.”

“I feel like all of this is just leading up to me butchering you.”

“It’s going to happen to some degree,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mabel said.  “Let’s get started, then.  Do you want drugs?  I know they aren’t as effective when the plague sets in, but they’ll help some.”

“I’m resistant to drugs,” I said.  “It’s not worth you having to keep pumping me with enough for them to work while trying to avoid killing me, when they won’t even last as long.”

“You’re sure?”

“Pain and I are old acquaintances,” I said, glancing up at Evette.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in, if you don’t mind your boys half-clothed,” I said.

Every bit of focus I could spare was going toward staying still, my fingers gripping my knees.  Blood and sweat ran down my back, and despite Mabel’s efforts to keep on top of it, the fluids had found their way into my butt crack, making me profoundly uncomfortable.  I fixed the sheets as best as I could without disturbing Mabel’s work.

The doorknob rattled for a little while before opening.

Otis stood in the doorway, head lowered.  Bloody bandages covered most of his arms and hands.  Blood had soaked through most of the bandages, and his hands trembled visibly, even with the heavy wrapping.

“Going for a walk,” he said.  “Pain’s getting to me.  Having a bit of a smoke.”

“I’d ask if you have one to spare, but I don’t think Mabel would want me smoking when it’s hard enough to see everything.”

“Please don’t,” Mabel said, lost in what she was doing.  The fingertips of one hand were buried cuticle-deep in and around my shoulder muscles, rooting for what needed to be rooted for.

Otis approached, and with his heavily bandaged hands, he fumbled for the carton, fingers barely moving like they were supposed to, as if he had doll hands and he was trying to function.  He found a  cigarette and placed it between my lips.

“For later,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.  I jerked as Mabel hit a nerve, quite literally.

“Says a lot that they dug some graves in advance, yeah?” Otis asked, in his rough voice.

“Hopefully we won’t need too many of them,” I said.

“Hopefully, Sylvester,” Otis said.  He paused, hands tremoring more than before.  “Gonna see if I can’t finish the carton.  Pain’s pretty bad though.  Might have to get down to it before long.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Look after my guys?” he asked.

Mabel’s hands stopped working as she realized what the conversation was about.

“Yeah,” I said.  I wished I could say more, but I was a little distracted.

“They’re dumb as sticks and rocks, but they’re strong, and they never complained too much.”

“I’ll look after them, Otis.”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice rougher than usual.  “Thanks.”

“You were pretty badass today,” I said.  “Fighting the Mercies like that.  Was impressive.”

He nodded, winced in pain, and then silently turned and left the room.  It took him two tries to close the door with the bandaged hands.

There wasn’t much for me to watch besides the fires, Evette, Fray, and the dark view out the window.  I was able to see, after five or so minutes, Otis lurching his way through the snow, disappearing into the treeline, a dot of orange marking his lit cigarette.

It was forty minutes later that I heard the gunshot, from that same direction.  Mabel’s hands jumped at the sound.

When I go, I don’t want to go alone like that, I thought.

“I lost my place,” Mabel said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “It’ll come back up for air, so to speak, or you’ll find it by accident while working elsewhere.  Just make a mental note of it and move on.”

What felt like hours stretched on, and Otis’ gunshot wasn’t the only one heard that night.

Mabel’s scalpel clattered against the desk.

“Done?”

“I don’t even know for sure,” she said.  “I can’t tell anymore.”

“You have good eyes and a good memory,” I said.  “One of the first things I noticed about you.”

She looked my way and smiled.

They really were quite different.  Lillian and Mabel.  Somehow I felt like Lillian, in this same situation, would look a bit like the wild, Wyvern-touched Lillian I’d seen in Lugh.  More alive, not worn to the nub.

“Let’s get you cleaned up and see this more clearly,” she said.  She washed her gloves in chemical, then collected a bowl from the top of the now-dim wood stove.

She daubed at my back, wiping skin clean.

“You have no shortage of students available to grow you some new skin,” she said.

“That’s good,” I said.  “This isn’t my first rodeo.  You know that story about the man who has his axe head and handle replaced several times over?  I’ve gotten myself injured so many times I’ve lost track of what’s still original.  I don’t even think my own mother would recognize me.”

“You have a mother?”

“Might.  I don’t think she’d recognize me anyhow,” I said.  I blinked hard.  Sweat running down my face had pooled in my eyes.

“I miss my mother,” Mabel said.

“Write her a letter, then.”

“Not exactly that simple, Sy.”

Somewhere over the course of the night, she had transitioned from the formal Sylvester to ‘Sy’.

“Write it anyway.  You don’t have to send it.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “Possibly.”

She began wrapping me with bandages.  I rocked back and forth with the regular, easy pace of it.  Periodically she placed cool things against my wounded back, which felt marvelous, and then set it in place with the bandage and gauze.

“When I was getting the bowl of water for cleanup, I asked about Rudy and the others.  Rudy was in bad shape to begin with.”

“It didn’t go well,” I said.  “I guessed.”

She continued applying the bandage for a moment, then ventured, “Your imaginary friends told you?”

“Just regular old me told me,” I said, my heart heavy.  “I’ll address it tomorrow.”

She nodded, eyes downcast.  “Can you stand?”

I stood, holding the sheet.  It turned out there was very little reason to.  The sheer amount of blood on the sheet made it stick to my legs and buttocks.

“Steady?”

“Not really,” I admitted.

“We’ll get you cleaned up,” Mabel said.  “Berger finished carving away the growths on his face and made it most of the way through his left hand before he had to defer to outside help.  Last I heard, he’s managing.”

I nodded.

“Shirley is mostly fine.  She’ll be better when we get her seamlessly patched up.”

“She’s had a hard day,” I said.  “Does she have anyone with her?”

“A few people.”

“I owe her a lot,” I said.  “Can’t have anything happening to her.”

Mabel nodded.

Then she reached out and touched my cheek.

I moved, and she jumped as though I’d run a voltaic wire through her and thrown the switch.

“I’m tired,” she said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “It’s a little more odd that you’d do it while I’m bloody like this, but-“

Her eyes were wrenched shut behind the mask.  “Please stop talking, please stop talking.”

“It’s fine,” I said, more firmly.

“It’s not.  You have Jessie, and I wasn’t thinking, and now I’m embarrassed.  Can we just pretend this never happened?”

“We could,” I said.  “I owe you for tonight.  I want to keep you around.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She looked properly mortified, even covered by the suit.

“I’ll clean myself up and get dressed, and I’ll spend the night here, if you deem me clear?”

She nodded very emphatically.  “I had a good sense of it by the end, and it didn’t grow in you nearly as quickly as it did in Rudy or any of the others.”

“It never did.  I don’t think I was contagious either, or I would’ve spread it to a lot more people while doing the rounds in Tynewear.”

“You’re clear enough to see to Jessie,” Mabel said.  The mention of Jessie made the mortification set in once more.

I nodded.

She fled the room, and I used the bowl to clean myself up as well as I was able, scrubbing away where blood had congealed and getting myself as clean as possible.  Rather stiffly, wobbling, I put another log on the fire, and I walked over to the window, to look out in the direction of the graves.

I cleaned up, got dressed, and opened the door.  Now out of her quarantine suit, Mabel offered me her arm, and we walked to Jessie’s room.  I glanced at each room with an open door that we passed, and saw reams of bloody sheets, towels, and tools scattered about.

We reached the room at the end of the hall, above the kitchen.  It was the master bedroom, and Jessie was within, sleeping.  Someone had kept the fire going.

I brushed fingers through Jessie’s hair.  She woke.

“Hi,” she said.  “You’re alive.”

“Don’t sound so disappointed.”

Jessie smiled, “Not disappointed.”

“I’ll give you a once-over, but since Mabel and I took a while and you’re not writhing in pain, it looks pretty good.”

Jessie nodded.  “Thank you for your work, Mabel.”

The sheriff’s daughter tucked her hair behind the one ear and avoided eye contact.

Jessie’s hand moved in a ‘question’ gesture.

“Mabel got affectionate,” I said, “Now she’s embarrassed.”

If the moment earlier had been like activating a voltaic current, this was like a slick of oil being lit on fire.  Slow at first, as it set in and built up steam, with an explosive finale.

“You said you wouldn’t-!”

“I said we could pretend it never happened.  But we aren’t going to.  That’d just be a festering seed of badness that spoiled things on some front.  Better to have it in the open.”

“That’s not your decision to make!” Mabel said, incensed and alarmed.  “It’s not the time for it!  People died tonight!”

“And all of that is negativity that gets tied up in the badness,” I said.  “No.  It’s-“

Jessie put her hand on my face, shushing me.

“Don’t run away, Mabel,” Jessie said.

“I just touched his face.  I-“

“Stay,” Jessie said.  “I don’t mind, whatever it was.  I might feel left out if it kept going and Sy ignored me, but I don’t mind for now.  Sy’s right, it would be ugly if you left and spent the night agonizing over it.  Stay and talk.”

“Talk?”

“Keep us company tonight.  You have to check on Sy regularly throughout the night, don’t you?”

Mabel, as if looking for a way out, said, “You could-“

“Theoretically,” Jessie said, “But while I’m happy for Sy to work on me, I couldn’t do it for him.  That’s not a memory I want in my head.”

“It’s why I asked you,” I told Mabel.

Mabel looked defeated.

“Just look away while he checks on me.  That’s all I ask.”

“Sit,” I instructed.  “End of the bed there.  Tell us about the pheromone project.”

Mabel sat, looking far from comfortable, as if she’d bolt at any second.

Mabel snored.  Her face pressed in between my shoulder and the pillow, seeking refuge from the light of morning that had streamed into the room some time ago.  She’d pulled off the bits of clothing that were uncomfortable to sleep in and settled in beneath the covers, pressed against me.

Jessie was on the other side of me, fast asleep in that Jessie way.  Dead to the world.  I’d wondered for some time how she would sleep.  Mary had always slept with her back to me, or on her back, one arm against mine.  Rigid, but there.  Girly to every sense, from the flowery smell of her to the rough lace and just how nice she’d looked with her head on the pillow.  Lillian had clung to me like I was the only thing keeping her from drowning, warmer than anything.

Jessie seemed very content to be touching me.  One hand outstretched, fingers intertwined with mine.  She would wake up now and then, check, and reach out for me if we’d broken away at some point in the night.  I was a light enough sleeper that I was aware every time it happened.

Looking at her sleep, I knew there wasn’t anyone or anything I wanted to protect quite so much.

It was a warm, pleasant now that couldn’t last.

I felt a chill and stirred, which made both girls stir on either side of me.

Fray was there, in her abstract glory, wearing her black lab coat.  Standing behind her were the Lambs.  I might have summoned them by thinking of them like I had.  Though I hadn’t been thinking of Duncan and Ashton.  They were joined by Mary, Helen, and Lillian.

None of them are wearing black today, I thought, except for Fray.  Still trying to figure out that pattern.

Mary stepped forward a little.  Lillian wouldn’t look at me.  A return to the days after I’d just left.

“I’ve got to ask, what’s with the color of the dresses?” I asked.

“That’s really not what you should be focusing on,” Mary said.

“It means something,” I said.  “Like for one thing, you seem a lot more pleasant sometimes.”

Mary reached into her jacket and pulled out a pistol.

“A lot more pleasant,” I said.  “I guess this is where I pay for that time I asked for yesterday?  Another mutiny?  A little more painful than the last?”

“Something like that,” Mary said.

“Thank you for the help earlier,” I said.  “I did appreciate it.”

“You noticed?” Duncan asked.

“Huh?” I asked, back.

Mabel stirred beside me.

“Shh,” I said, giving Mabel’s head a pat.  “I think Mary and the other Lambs just wants to go for a ride on the Sylvester train.”

Mabel made a curious sound.  She opened her eyes just in time to see Mary aiming for my kneecap.  I, meanwhile, was wondering why Fray had disappeared from the group.

Mabel realized what she was looking at, startled and cried out in alarm, which startled me, and I moved just in time to avoid having the bullet strike home.  Feathers flew everywhere.

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