I was coming to discover that after two hours or so of exploration, I could find the ends of the tracks that my trains of thought traveled down. It was possible to continue down those tracks, but things quickly turned into a smoking wreckage if I did. Past a certain point, there were too many variables to account for, and I started to second guess things I knew I otherwise wouldn’t.
There were animals that needed to keep swimming to keep breathing. I was in the process of discovering that with my body gone and my mind active, my brain couldn’t breathe, so to speak.
I’d always thought it would be the other way around: my brain failing, my body remaining behind.
I couldn’t turn to studying my environment, because I was trying to maintain too many things at once, and my confidence in my memory was shaken. Yes, I could make shallow observations about soldiers and doctors who passed through my field of view, but I didn’t want to go into more depth on nobodies and risk that it would push more pertinent information out of my head. Doubly so when even differentiating the various people in quarantine suits from one another was a task unto itself. I had identified only a few targets to study, and they were only in my field of view for fleeting moments.
The cup spilleth over.
Left with my mind idling, my imagination had painted the world I could see. Plague spread, and it knit together into trees. The city became wilderness, but it was a wilderness of red leaves, of vines that resembled veins, where bodies were cocooned in plague, moving only periodically. The entire cast of characters in my head was present, quietly watching as the world was swallowed up.
The wind was constant, strong, and, I’d realized, it blew constantly toward the plague. We were upwind of it, which was likely why this particular site had been chosen. Weather, geography, and safety from disease.
I was pretty sure my clothes were soaked through. Even though they were weather resistant, resistance didn’t mean immunity. I wasn’t entirely sure if it was the cold or the bug that clung to me that made my breathing more laborious than it had been. When my breathing wasn’t in my control and it was all I had to measure time by, I’d become acutely aware of the gradual decline.
My throat, too, was slowly unfreezing. It was a different thing altogether from the change in breathing, but the sum total was that my hope was diminishing, not growing.
It was in this state that Berger found me. He wore a quarantine suit, now, as did the children in his company. Berger’s suit was black, it fit his body better, and had a kind of coat built in, as if to convey the same sort of silhouette that he might’ve had on any other day.
He was also covered in the vein-like growths that came with plague having matured. It crawled over top of him, and it crawled beneath his suit, the growths digging beneath an eyelid and into an eye socket, threatening to dislodge the orb.
I blinked, very carefully, and the image disappeared – Berger was plague free. I blinked again, and the imagined plague returned.
I was careful to keep the plague situated where it was most effective. It dug into the spots on his suit nearest the vitals, nearest gaps and other weak points. The breathing tube and bladder were bad cases. A way to track the places I would strike at, given the chance.
Eric was gone, I noted. I discarded a plan.
“Well, don’t you look miserable?” Berger said.
I looked up at him, gazed past the lenses of his mask and at his plague-afflicted face, and I wore the best smile I was able.
He set his plague-afflicted medical bag on the bench next to me, leaving it closed and instead reaching for a front compartment, rummaging.
“No need to put on a brave face, Sylvester, I know you aren’t happy,” he said. “As high as my expectations are for Charles and Florence, my wife, staff and peers, for you, even, I do have some desire to minimize suffering.”
I glanced at his children. I tried to read the eyes behind the tinted lenses of the quarantine suits.
“Now, I’m going to check you’re doing alright. I know you have limited movement of your head and neck. You might be tempted to use that limited movement to hurt yourself and try to eke out an advantage,” Berger said.
He pulled his hand from the bag, revealing a thermometer, long and narrow.
“If you do aim to hurt yourself, rest assured that you’ll perforate your eardrum. You’ll bleed. The blood will travel down your eustachean tube and down your throat to your stomach. On ingesting enough blood, the stomach will rebel. You’ll vomit, or try to, and you’ll promptly aspirate your own stomach contents, given the paralysis.”
I looked at the thermometer.
“So please don’t impale yourself on my thermometer. I won’t do a thing to keep you alive, and the eventual death will be an ignoble one. If your friends are watching from a distance, then they’ll feel the need to come save you, and that will be bad for them.”
I moved my head, and I made my ear more available to him. He placed the thermometer in the canal.
“I’m left in a puzzling spot,” Berger said. “What to do when handling a child experiment who has been made as devious as is possible, and what to do with his friends? I have every reason to suspect that if we were to take the fastest route out of the city, we would be intercepted or interrupted. If we strike out at them, we’ll be flanked. I’ve spent a significant portion of the last two hours arguing with the generals in charge about why we shouldn’t take pre-emptive action.”
He made a small amused sound.
“Now I find myself confiding in you, Sylvester, as you’re one of the rare few who would truly understand this tactical dilemma I find myself facing.”
I raised one eyebrow.
“Mm hmm,” Berger said. “It’s ironic. I’ve explained to Charles and Florence, continuing their education, but while the idea no doubt found its way to their heads, I’m not sure they’ve digested it. I wouldn’t say they don’t trust me when I say it-”
I might, I thought.
“-but I do think some lessons have to be taught through hands-on experience. If the two generals lose patience and insist on an exit or a pre-emptive strike, then I suspect we’d see it unfold to your benefit, Sylvester. We’d act, only to be confounded, interrupted, hamstrung, while a valiant effort to rescue you would no doubt occur. Florence and Charles would get a lesson.”
“There’s no need for the lesson, uncle,” Charles said. “I believe you.”
“I’m glad for that,” Berger said. “But I worry it’s a superficial belief, Charles. Seeing the victory or the loss would make it that much easier for you to imagine and conceptualize similar situations for yourself. What does a win for our side look like? A defeat? What does it feel like in the pit of your stomach? You two could easily take away something from watching people die and experiencing the weight of those deaths, enemy or friendly.”
I already knew Berger wasn’t terribly concerned about the deaths of others in a humanitarian sense. I imagined a bit of plague growing over his his heart and dying for a lack of anything to eat.
He went on, “If it comes to that, Sylvester, I expect the losses to be lopsided, on your side or mine.”
I gave him my best nod.
“Let’s see that temperature. A body temperature of twenty-five degrees. That won’t do. Let’s feel your ears…”
He touched the flat of my ear.
“…nose, and extremities.”
His fingers momentarily laid across the end of my nose, and I didn’t feel anything as he manipulated my fingertips.
“We’ll need to warm you up. Charles, if you’d go to the medical tent and fetch some blankets? We’ll cover him. One of the heaters, too. Recruit someone with my say-so if you don’t think you can bring it all.”
Charles hurried off, clomping around in a quarantine suit that was too large for him.
Berger mused for a second, and then he said, “I’m not a strategist or tactician, but the man I serve was an ardent one, and I am someone who craves learning. I made use of the opportunity to absorb and observe, and now I’m forced to put the ideas into practice. As for this situation…”
“He who makes the first move loses, father?” Florence asked.
“Something like that, something like that,” Berger said. “In practice, it’s rarely that simple. Think in terms of oblique angles and feints. Sylvester’s friends will start with attacks that cannot be sourced, to begin with. They’ll aim to frustrate, deny, and distract. Their hope is that by the time they do something more overt, the generals and soldiers will be restless enough that they snap at the bait.”
He made a ‘tsk’ sound, then he bent down, and he brought his face level to mine.
I could control my expression. I could use my eyes, I could move my lips. That left me the conundrum, what face did I pose to Berger? I could allow myself to break, to betray doubt and fear, and I could do the opposite, and pose a brave expression that looked supremely confident in the status quo.
I deemed that it was the latter that would get me the results I wanted. I wore an expression of easy confidence, impervious and unbothered. As if I still expected to win.
“Your breathing…” Berger observed. He frowned a little, and then he reached back behind me. The head of the bug moved against my neck, and sensations shot down the trunk of my body and down my limbs as its grip momentarily loosened.
He kept his hand there for several seconds before removing it.
Then he pressed the back of a gloved hand to my throat, hard enough to press the knot at the front of my throat back into my windpipe.
He kept his hand there, and for a long while, I thought he was going to strangle me to near-unconsciousness as he’d done before.
“You might have bought yourself an advantage if you’d studied the Academy science,” Berger said. “You would’ve known that I would know what to look for, here. Even with your natural resistances and immunities, you shouldn’t be recovering this quickly. You’ve gained the ability to speak, haven’t you?”
I didn’t respond, staying mute. I had regained my voice, I was pretty sure, but my ability to study my immediate surroundings was a limited one. I couldn’t have been sure that there wasn’t anyone in earshot, standing a few feet behind me when I tried my hand at vocalizing.
“That tells us, Florence, that he’s hiding things,” Berger said.
“It’s only fair,” she said. “He called it a game, when he was talking to Charles. By the rules of this game, he’s allowed to do what he needs to do to come out ahead.”
“He is, but a better play would have been to reveal he could’ve spoken. He could have eked out a small advantage, surprised me, said something before I thought to shut him up.”
I opened my mouth. Berger clapped a gloved hand over it.
“The right words could have piqued my curiosity, nettled me, or achieved something with you. Past tense. The moment has passed, Sylvester.”
Berger shifted position. He reached back with the other hand and touched the bug.
With that position, he couldn’t see my face. I glanced at Florence and rolled my eyes.
Berger spoke, “You shouldn’t have had this effect on the parasite riding you. Not this quickly. Your Wyvern formula must be different from the standard… or it’s an older, harsher formulation.”
“Effect?” Florence asked.
“He’s killing it. It’s latched onto his neck here, see? And its digits are inserted here, on either side of the gap between the second and third rungs of the spine? Trace chemicals in his sweat, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid are finding its way into the air passages and stomach of the pupa ludibrius. It’s dying as we speak, and as it does, it’s losing its grip on his breathing.”
“What happens then?”
“It dies, and it takes him with it.”
Florence turned her masked face toward me. She watched me. I rolled my eyes again, raising them skyward and rocking them back and forth, as if bored.
I was nervous, though. There weren’t many openings or opportunities.
“Here Charles is,” Berger observed.
Charles arrived, carrying a stack of folded blankets. They were heavy, military issue, and they smelled like horse.
Berger took the blankets, and he unfurled them, before placing them over me, so the corners fell over my shoulders. He leaned me forward, then placed another behind me.
“Ah,” I started, aiming for an ‘I’.
Berger caught my face with one hand, and pushed me to one side. I was sitting on a bench set by a table, and my face was shoved off to one side, striking the surface of the table.
He held me there, face in snow and wet, blankets slipping off of me, for several long seconds.
“Quiet,” Berger said.
I would have liked to sigh, but I couldn’t.
He released me, and I didn’t try to speak again.
Opening his medical bag, he withdrew another bug. Eric’s, I supposed. He moved around behind me, leaving my face still pressed against the bench, and began, I presumed, removing the first bug.
“This will have to do until we’re out of the city,” he said. “It might be that I can revive the first pupa ludabris or devise another method of rendering you more or less harmless.”
The paralysis no longer gripped me. I had nothing below the neck but a morass of pins and needles I couldn’t even make out as a human shape. But I’d planned for this. I’d primed my brain while I sat here in the wet and cold. I’d drawn up an image of my body, complete with muscle memory, and now I went to great lengths to map the strange prickling sensations to the movements of my body.
I jerked, and then moved an arm beneath the blanket.
“Hold him,” Berger instructed.
Charles and Florence approached.
Desperate, I moved what I could. It felt less like the movement of a limb, and more as if I were splashing the surface of water, the pinpricks traveling on the tops of waves. The movements of fingers were painful, but still I tried to make sense of the movements.
The two children seized my arms, pinning them against my sides. In only the last second, I was able to move my right hand. I couldn’t be sure, but I was left to believe that it wound up folded against the pelvic hollow, between where my leg met my hip and my groin, just at my beltline.
Every sensation was a thousand pinpricks, sharp and alarming. Given just a bit of time, it dwindled to a mere hundred isolated pricks.
My lockpicks were clipped to my belt, slipped between my pants and my underwear. Slowly, I went for them, working my fingers, to make my hand crawl.
A layer of blankets protected me, as did the thick gloves my captors wore. It minimized sensation.
I found my lockpicks, and I set them on my lap. I began opening the little wallet that held the individual picks-
And my nostrils flared a fraction.
I could smell it. Smoke.
Berger continued his work for a moment behind my back, caught up in what he was doing.
He would notice. It was designed to draw notice. That put me in an awkward spot.
While I still had some marginal control over my hands, I moved my fingers. My middle finger found itself into a pocket where my rake-bar sat. A slender and flat bit of metal that formed a zig-zag. Used to trip the pins of a lock, it was something I’d move back and forth, until the zigs knocked the pins up. Against cheap locks it was the fastest way to open things, and one of the noiser ones too.
I couldn’t hold onto the picks, and I didn’t want to drop it if the shackles would be a factor. With that in mind-
I pushed my finger into the pocket, felt the stab of pain and then localized agony as I drove the wiggle-shaped bit of metal into the space between fingernail and finger, as deep as I could get it in the moment.
While my attention was occupied, my focus on keeping my expression straight, Charles noticed the smoke.
“Uncle?” Charles ventured.
Berger stepped around the table, into my field of view. He held the bug, with a syringe embedded in its back. “A bad time to distract me, Charles.”
“Smoke. The soldiers are noticing too.”
Berger looked up, then looked around. The plague growth on him pulsed, reacting to the movement.
I could only see a small share of the soldiers in the camp, but it was true. They were looking around, alarmed. They were also looking upwind.
The camp was placed so the slash of plague through the middle of the city was downwind, and any particles, spores, or whatever else might help the ravage spread wouldn’t be carried this way. But with the smoke being as pervasive as it was, growing stronger by the moment, it had to have a source further up the road, somewhere behind me.
“Like I said,” Berger observed, “The initial strike is one we can’t trace back to them. A feint, of sorts, trying to draw away resources and force our hands. Smoke and fire alarm. They meet a primal need.”
“What do we do?” Florence asked.
“We carry on,” Berger said.
The smoke was growing thicker by the moment, to the extent that it was becoming clear that the source was not small. Not by any means. A building had been set to burn.
“Professor!” a soldier called out.
“I’m busy,” Berger snapped the word.
“Professor, we’re being urged to leave. We have to vacate the area.”
“As soon as I’m done. They want to force our hands, and they might well have timed the fire to interrupt this very procedure I’m doing.”
“It could well be, sir, they started the fire using oil. It went up quickly – we had men guarding the building and we didn’t even see them come or go.”
“Of course,” Berger said. “We’ll go as soon as I’m done. Anything else will play into their hands.”
“If you insist, sir, but-”
“Hold on,” Berger interrupted. “Our men were guarding the building?”
“The grocery store?”
“Uh, yes sir.”
“With the bodies still piled within?”
“Yes sir. That’s why we were thinking we should vacate.”
Berger stopped, remaining where he was. Then, decision made, he turned to the man, “I agree. Evacuate. I’ll see to the last of this and be with you in a matter of heartbeats.”
The soldier nodded, then hurried off at a run. Everywhere, officers were ordering their men, and everything moved in its logical manner.
“Why?” Florence asked. “Why evacuate?”
“The attack on the train station and the rebellion’s earlier attempt at seizing it saw casualties. Some were afflicted with ravage. They stacked the bodies, afflicted and not, within the grocery store. As efficient as our masks are, they have their limitations. Burning the ravage spreads it. Smoke carries it. If we remain too long, the masks will fail. Our enemy knows this.”
“Then-” Charles started. He didn’t know what to say. The smoke was getting thicker, filling the street.
“We leave,” Berger said. “And, as I haven’t been given the time to finish with Sylvester, I’m afraid we’re forced to cut our losses. We’ll make do without our bait to set out in front of the enemy’s nose.”
I felt the claws of the bug latch onto my back, a sharp sensation among the latest wave of pins and needles.
I felt all sensation drop away from my body. Pins and needles, pain, cold. My body ceased to be. No warmth, no cold. Only oblivion.
His hands tampered with the bug. I felt, I was pretty sure, the fingers finding the little rings with the silken strings attached.
“Berger,” I said.
Again, his hand covered my mouth. Gloved fingers dug into my cheek, hard and fierce.
Standing as close as he was to me, he was able to murmur in my ears. “With luck, your allies are watching you, and my lesson will find its way to them. With better luck, they’ll try to save you, and they’ll find it’s impossible.”
He pulled the middle string.
The rush of cold that the mandibles had been pumping into my neck became something else, a vomit of heat. The sensation of nothing became everything. Every nerve ending flared to life, and then burned hotter. Heat and burning was the first sensation, followed by a wrenching. My entire body contorted as some materials did on an open fire, twisting up, straining and crumpling. Every joint bent to an extreme, too open or too closed.
Parts of me popped, like water mingling with oil in a pot, and each pop was followed with an icy coldness, running alongside the searing heat. Every part of me was impaled with a hot poker or an icicle of impossible coldness. I felt parts of me tear open. I couldn’t tell if the wet sensation was blood from skin tearing itself apart or if it was simply an illusion.
Pain and I were old, old friends. Few knew pain to the extent I’d come to know her during my appointments. All the same, we’d never been so intimately acquainted.
I was able to pull away from it. I’d always been able to, to some extent. It was an artificial construction, to disassociate from the pain. It never made the pain less, exactly. It did help to make the thought process clearer in the midst of it.
I’d never quite felt like the journey back would be so difficult as it felt it might be now.
Berger removed the bug, so what was done couldn’t be undone.
“You’ll feel compelled to try to eke in small breaths,” he told me, as he stood over me. “You could potentially stay alive for some time by doing that. Don’t do that to yourself.”
There was a long pause. I twitched and convulsed, sweat rolling off the side of my head and into my eye socket, which was already wet with involuntary tears.
“I did say I have some desire to minimize suffering,” Berger said. I could see him now, as he walked out in front of me. Smoke rolled past him, and with every trace of smoke that touched him, the plague on him grew, until he was little more than a tower of the ravage.
The tower turned away, and led its children in the direction of the evacuating soldiers. He called out orders, and men answered in voices hollowed out by the masks and breathing apparatuses they wore.
Movement wasn’t possible, nor was speech.
One by one, the Lambs joined me. Mary, Lillian, Helen, Jamie, Jessie, Gordon, Hubris. All of the little Lambs hung back. Fray, Evette, and Mauer had the decency to stay away. All were dressed in dark colors. Mary in a black dress with black lace, ribbons in her hair. Lillian in a black coat, purely by accident.
I wanted to round my thoughts together and come up with a parting message, if only to phantoms, but I couldn’t. I could disassociate, but I couldn’t operate on that level. I was left with only sentiment.
The Professor was right. Without the bug taking over, I could manage a degree of breathing. It was a torturous process, straining as if I was lifting my own body weight, but to simply make my airway stay open, straining just as hard to draw in or push out a breath, making sure my jaw wasn’t clenched and my mouth screwed shut. When I failed on that last part, I snorted mucus out of my nose, or, worse, I snorted it back, and then the next few attempts were made more difficult by faint choking.
My old friend and I made a game of it. To make it happen one more time. One breath in, one breath out.
A series of herculean efforts to draw in a breath, to release it, and I made a game of it, betting against her, against this personification of pain that sat just out of sight, betting on myself, then betting against myself, predicting if a convulsion elsewhere would trip me up and complicate this particular round.
Manage it five more times, I told myself, and I’d exert the effort and focus necessary to imagine Mary stroking my hair.
Five times after that, the sound of Helen laughing.
After that, and I was sure to order it so a lot of the better things came later, I chose the feeling of Lillian lying close to me, clinging to me.
I continued the bets. I did the math with the chips to further distance myself from it all, even as every attempt got harder. As the chip count grew, I pushed thoughts out of my head, as to whether intentionally failing would be a reward for myself or the cost of losing my last chip.
Fluids were accumulating. Mucus. Spittle I wasn’t swallowing or forcing out through my teeth. I was drenched in sweat.
Five successful rounds of breathing, and this time it was Gordon’s voice. I couldn’t gather the words, but I imagined him cussing me out. Being infuriating, like he could sometimes be. Because it pissed me off, and I needed to be pissed off to push forward, just as I needed small moments of warmth to grope for.
Five more breaths and… and then Jamie, sitting on his bed, mentioning details of the day that I’d forgotten as he scribbled in that notebook of his.
Then Jessie, after that.
I wasn’t sure what to ask Jessie for. I wasn’t even sure I was keeping count properly anymore. I might have been cheating myself.
I willed the question, and a voice answered.
“It’s dangerous here, Florence. The smoke.”
I closed my eyes. That had been five breaths. Jamie, sitting on his bed. While I pieced the scene together, I focused on doing what I needed my body to do, to breathe the next set of breaths, and I knew that I was focusing more on properly imagining Jamie than I was on the breathing.
“Why are you back here?”
I know, I thought.
Not that I could do or say anything to that effect in the here and now.
“I don’t know,” Florence said.
“That’s not a very good reason,” Charles said.
“He… Sylvester whispered something to me, earlier. He said that he could pull a trick, with our cooperation, and I’d learn more about father in five minutes than I’d learn about him in five years. I almost got my hopes up.”
“He’s good at playing that game. Sylvester is, I mean. Dad too, but it’s different. Stricter.”
I was no longer lying in the cold street. I was on the floor in my room, a twelve year old Jamie sitting on his bed, taking notes on the conversation.
He’d never been the most emotive little fellow, but I’d always felt like he’d really loved those times after lights-out, when he wrote by candlelight and it was just the two of us. They might have been his favorite times.
It was hard to juggle the things I needed to juggle. Breathing, plotting what I would do with Jessie when her turn came up, in three more breaths. Paying attention to the two children.
Two more breaths.
Jamie’s pen scritched on paper. He’d never been so fond of pencils, but he’d use them when he had to. He preferred permanence.
One more breath.
“I want to know,” Florence said.
“Uncle would never forgive you.”
“I need to know,” Florence said.
My vision was disturbed as my head moved. The pain flared anew, as if each individual kind of pain took on a new and fresh flavor in wake of the movement.
Claws latched onto my spine. Florence held a bug, and she set it in place.
From the timing of the breath, I suspected it was the drugged, poison-resistant bug I’d been given, discarded and retrieved by her. I imagined her carrying it about, cradling it as if it were a small dog, as she’d done with one of the others.
The pain stopped, and the relief was so profound it dashed all of the individual illusions and sounds I’d nested around myself to pieces.
“You had something in mind, didn’t you, Sylvester?” Florence asked.
My blood rushed in my ears. The relief was so profound that I felt transcendant.
“I’ll pull the string,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of patience. What were you going to do, before my father beat you?”
I managed a short laugh, as I gasped for breath and tried to center myself. I could barely see. I was low to the ground, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but the smoke was making my eyes water.
“Okay, I’m going to pull the string again now,” she said.
“Florence,” I said. “The plan I had in mind when I told you all that… it’s still in place.”
“Hm?” she made a sound, her voice hollow from behind her mask, echoing down the long air-tube.
“Still in place. I told you, a time would come. I’d hold the strings. I’d need your cooperation, and I’d give you what you want most in the world.”
“You told me you’d tell me more about my father in five minutes than-”
“-than-” I started, only to cough. I might have aspirated something. My voice was rough as I finished, “Than you’d get in five years. Absolutely. I stand corrected. All the cooperation I need… is just for you to remove the bug from my neck and give me forty-five seconds. I’ll guarantee you the answer you desire.”
“And if I don’t?” she asked, imperious.
I saw Mary standing behind her, all dressed in black.
I only gave Florence a small smile, and I waited. I enjoyed the transcendant relief, and I gathered my thoughts.
“You have thirty seconds,” she said. “And that includes the time it takes to get control of your body back.”
“I know,” I said, as the bug came free of my neck. Sensation flooded back into my body, in an inarticulate tide of stabbing and prickling sensations. “Charles?”
The lockpick set had been attached to my hand, one pick having been driven under one fingernail. In my convulsions, it had come free, the fingernail pried off. Barely in control of my hand, I reached between my body and the road.
“What is it?” Charles asked, wary.
“Would you please do us a favor and start counting aloud for us?” I asked him.
“Ah. Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…”
I’d asked him and chosen a wordy way of asking the question to buy myself seconds. I found the lockpick set, and found a pick. I moved, convulsing, and fumbled to draw the picks free.
I’d maintained something of a grip on the ability to move despite the pins-and-needles distorted sensations of body, through everything. Now I worked those same feelings with numb hands to manipulate the picks.
I had to trust these shackles were like ones I’d seen before. Standard issue.
I coughed at the smoke and the fluids that had gone down the wrong way.
“Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen…”
The Lambs in black watched as I worked. Gordon, who had taught me the lockpicking techniques and then retaught them as I’d allowed myself to forget them, was watching, his expression stern.
“There’s a simple answer about Berger that’s been eluding you,” I said. “One that I’m prepared to answer in a moment. Do keep count, Charles.”
“You’re stalling,” Florence said.
“If I were stalling, I wouldn’t be giving you the answer you want well before count’s up,” I said.
I rose to my feet, staggering a little as I did so.
Then, still staggering, only intentionally this time, I lurched a little in her direction.
The smoke wafted toward us, a cloud thicker than many of the others we’d endured. I lunged. I connected the shackle I’d undone to Florence’s air hose.
For a moment, it looked like she’d release the bug she held. It would leap onto me. It would paralyze me, and it would all be over.
That moment passed. Frozen, Florence held the bug firm. She’d realized very quickly that if I tumbled to the ground, paralyzed, my shackled arm would fall, and it would take her air hose with it. We were in the midst of smoke and plague. It would doom her.
“Florence,” Charles said, only belatedly realizing what had happened.
“Just a stupid little ruse? Taking me hostage?” she asked. “I’m disappointed.”
“Not at all,” I said. I drew closer to her, and I wound the chain loosely around her neck, so I stood with her in front of me, the chain binding us together. “All is still going exactly as promised. Give me the bug, now.”
“Give me the bug,” I said, firmly.
She passed it to me, and I gripped it firm. As my shaking hand seized it, it clutched at me, hook-limbs digging into my flesh.
I held it in both hands, and as if I were tearing into one of the bugs or sea-bugs they sold in the markets as dinners for the poor, I twisted it in half.
“Now we’re going to see how much your father loves you,” I said, my voice soft.
I looked over at Charles, obscured in smoke. The fire had spread to a good ten buildings further down the street.
“Is that a threat?” Charles asked.
“No, Charles,” I said. “It’s the fulfillment of my promise. In the span of five minutes, we’re most definitely going to answer that question.”
It had, in fact, been the plan from the moment I’d proposed the deal to Florence. I would find a way to take one or the other hostage, and by taking them, I would secure Berger, in the short term or the long.
Getting Florence’s cooperation in freeing me from paralysis had been… a somewhat fitting interpretation of the deal as poised. In reality, I’d simply hoped for cooperative hostages.
I waited, the smoke flowing around us, wet droplets still finding their way from the sky, drenching us. My hands shook, my entire body ached as if I’d been wrung out and beaten, and yet my mind felt crystal clear. I made it be crystal clear.
“Then let’s go,” Florence said. She said it to Charles as much as she said it to me.