I banged the door, hard enough to disturb the neighbors. I glanced around, but nobody was opening any windows or stepping outside to cuss at me.
We had tried to occupy places where there weren’t too many people to bother, but it wasn’t always easy. We wanted space too, and this particular town had sprung up as a localized bed of industry. The layout of this town was such that lumber mills and slaughterhouses had cropped up here and there with dormitories and cottages set up around them. Using the old mills and slaughterhouses meant having neighbors.
It meant having neighbors who were of the type to want to avoid the cities or avoid people. Some had some stake in the aforementioned slaughterhouses and mills and were willing to endure our presence in exchange for some money for the use of the premises.
The snow that fell was a wet, rainy sort, melting as soon as it hit the ground. The town was one of peeling paint on cabins and roads that were losing ground to dirt and weeds.
The residents of this particular building were taking their sweet time in getting to the door. I pulled out my picks, and began working on the lock. It wasn’t an easy job – I’d picked up some good locks on the last trip into the city, enough so that I was a little slow in working through them.
I didn’t rush the job, but I didn’t go slow either.
I was four-fifths of the way done when I heard the noise on the other side.
I pulled my lockpicks out as the latch turned on the other side. I held them up as the door opened.
The boy who opened the door wore a sleep-shirt and pants with the suspenders hanging down near his knees. He looked rumpled, tired, and rather alarmed as he saw me. He glanced back over his shoulder.
“If you’d taken longer than I did to open the door, I would have docked your pay,” I told him. “You were just in time.”
“Oh,” he said. He blinked, a little blearily. “Can you tell the others that?”
“Remind me,” I said, as I let myself in, slipping past him. “Are you all getting up to trouble?”
“No,” the boy said.
“You’re doing something wrong then,” I said. “You should be rebelling a little.”
He closed the door behind me, cutting off the flow of cold, wet air, and he rubbed at his arms.
“We were playing cards until late,” he said.
“That’s a little bit better,” I said. “A start, anyway.”
I walked over to the wood stove in the one corner, used the tongs to move the screen and open the stove, and grabbed a log to chuck onto the embers.
“Fire went out,” I commented. “You all staying warm up there?”
With the tongs, I pointed in the direction of the stairs to the second floor.
He didn’t respond, instead giving me a smile, much like I’d imagine an insecure kid half his age wearing if they were standing at the front of the class with a picture they were proud of.
“I’ll take that as a yes?”
The silly-happy smile got wider. “Yes. We have a stove up there we use sometimes, more for light than heat. But we’re warm.”
“Good,” I said. “I need everyone downstairs within the next few minutes or I will dock pay. There were stipulations if you wanted to stay in one of the main labs.”
He nodded quickly, then he ran off, taking stairs two at a time.
I could hear the commotion upstairs. I ignored it, carrying on with finding the kettle, sloshing the contents and sniffing it to make sure it was only water. I put more water inside and put it on the stove.
Upstairs, there was a commotion. Things moved, ex-students chattered in a rushed tone, and bottles clinked and rolled across the floor. I washed teacups at the lab sink and listened as they roused.
If I finished these mugs before they came down the stairs…
I didn’t. Again, they ducked just under the wire. I could appreciate that. Six boys and four girls came down the stairs, wearing expressions that alternated from the vaguely ashamed to the mischievous. One plump girl that looked a little younger than me was grinning, her hair sticking up on one side, eyes sparkling, a bounce in her step.
I didn’t recognize her enough to know her by name, but I’d seen her around. She was cute, and I appreciated the devilish but happy gleam in her eyes. It suggested I was doing something right.
“Hands out in front of you, like you’re going to shake my hand,” I said.
The ten students did as I’d asked.
I carried on washing the cups, watching them with my peripheral vision. One of the boys at the tail end of the group dropped his hand within a few seconds of holding it out. A tall fellow with dark circles under his eyes and a mop of hair he peeked through.
“Keep your hand there,” I told him.
He put his hand out, held it there for a second, then moved it to smooth out his clothing before sticking it back in place.
“Hands down,” I said. I turned to face them, my attention going to one of the girls first.
“You’re drunk,” I told her. “You’re swaying.”
Her eyes dropped, giving me a mumbled, abbreviated, “S’ry.”
I filled a cup with cold water and handed it to her. “Drink.”
“Something in it?” she asked.
I shook my head. “It’s water. Drink it.”
Ten sets of eyes were on her as she emptied the cup.
“Go upstairs. Sleep, stay hydrated,” I said. “I’m docking your pay by half. If I have to do it again, you move out of this lab and into one of the other buildings. You get free lodging if you’re here in this building or one of the other main labs, but the deal is you’re ready to work in the mornings.”
“Have fun, enjoy being free, but I’ve brought you on board to do something, right?”
She nodded again, quick, “I’m actually really sorry. I know my numbers and ratios, I knew, but I got sloppy as I drank and made a bad call.”
“Go. Sleep it off. I’ll only be upset if it becomes a thing. You’ve learned your lesson and they’ve hopefully learned the same lesson.”
She ducked out, heading back upstairs.
I turned to the fidgety guy. “You take some drug?”
“Did you use stuff bought with my and Jessie’s money to get yourself high?”
He shook his head. He and another two boys jumped in all at once, talking over each other.
“Stop stop stop,” I said. When they did, I indicated one of the boys.
“We made sure he didn’t,” the boy said.
“Okay. Same deal as whatshername drinking,” I told him. “I need you sober and in full possession of your faculties when you wake up. Outside of that, unless it’s becoming too regular a thing, I don’t care.”
“I’m in possession,” he said, a little belligerent. “I’m sober.”
“You’re shaky and you can’t stand still,” I told him. “You might fog a centrifuge or give a lab rat motion sickness or something.”
“Those aren’t things,” the boy who had opened the door said. He’d pulled on a shirt and sweater.
“They are things in my head and that’s what matters,” I said. “And you were supposed to remind me of something.”
“If I hadn’t opened the door when I did, everyone’s pay would have been docked.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Everyone, thank him.”
In unsteady unison, almost sing-song, they said some variations on, “Thank you, Dustin.”
“Perfect,” I said. “And Dustin gets a bonus. Because I do incentives, not just punishments. He’ll get the money that whatshername and shaky here are getting docked. Because he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”
“They pushed me out of bed and made me get the door,” Dustin said.
“And you won the prize! Funny how that works, isn’t it?” I asked him. “You decide if they deserve any of it. Maybe as a starting point, you distribute a quarter of it to the other seven who aren’t getting docked, and take the rest?”
“Uh,” he said. “Maybe I take half? And I share the other half with the rest of the group, including Cole and John?”
“Perfect!” I said, pleased that he’d caught on. I’d lowballed my suggestion, giving him room to adjust and look generous for his circle of friends. “As for the boy I assume is John, meet mr. cup of water. Drink it.”
He took the teacup and he drank. He looked surly throughout.
“All is well,” I told him. “But you all are my hands, my eyes, my ears, and my academy-educated brains. I’m paying you to work toward my purposes, and for that, I need you to be reasonably predictable. Which means not being on anything while you’re on duty.”
“Uh huh,” he said. He didn’t smile or even really look me in the eye. “Can I go?”
“Sure,” I said.
He left. I drew a notebook out of my pocket and made notes. Then I turned back a few pages, and I tore out three. I slapped them down on the desk. “Those of you who are on proper, paying duty, read.”
The remaining five boys and three girls approached, clustering at the table to read. I got the kettle and poured out the cups.
“Pheromone gland,” I said, giving the basic points of what was on the paper. “Lab one is already working on something that can detect pheromones. We had it in mind for another purpose, but something came up and we want to use it now. Get up to speed, get something going. It’s going in a modified stitched and all we need is for it to leave a scent trail. I asked other students if it’s doable in three days and they said it might be doable in two. What do you say?”
There was a bit of hesitation.
I gestured, urging a response.
“Um, I could maybe do it, the others can help” one of the girls said. “I’m thinking a modified anal gland. Maybe we should have someone else who knows the particulars better. Mabel from team Green?”
The Greenhouse Gang had become Team Green as the winter had progressed. Sometimes they were just the Green.
“Mabel’s busy,” I said. “But talk to her. She’s in lab one. She can probably tell you other students who know anything about this. Grab two at most for this team, give them space upstairs if they need or want it, try to get along.”
“You make that sound like we’re not going to,” one of the boys said.
“There’s always friction,” I said. “Try to get along, that’s all I’m asking. If I’m wrong and there are no problems, then that’s great.”
There were some mumbles of acknowledgement, with an overenthusiastic, “Yessir!” from the girl with the blonde pillow hair.
“Try not to look so happy,” I told her, as I prepared the tea. “You’re supposed to be hung over.”
“Every part of me hurts,” she said. “The sound of the spoon clinking against the side of the cup is making me see stars.”
“Then stop smiling,” I told her. “You’re too bright to look at.”
“We played cards, I won most of the chips.”
“Yeah? Maybe I’ll invite you to Sylvester’s weekly card game with me, Jessie, and the other top players of the Beattle rebels.”
“Do you have the red chips and blue chips?” she asked.
The girl next to her elbowed her.
“Just the one kind of chips, five dollar buy-in,” I said. “I pay triple for any hands I lose, and Jessie pays double.”
“Really? Really makes me wish you used the blue chips too,” she asked. She looked very merry at the notion. The girl next to her elbowed her again.
I almost wanted to reveal that my paying triple was a stingy play on my part, not a generous one, but I kept my mouth shut. I settled for wagging my finger at her.
“I’ll be good,” she said, looking very much like she wouldn’t.
“You’re in the wrong place if you’re going to do that. Just keep it to a controlled, not-interfering-with-lab-work kind of bad and I’ll be rooting for you,” I said. “In the meantime, before the idea completely disappears from my mind, are the anal glands absolutely necessary?”
“They’re the best deployment for pheromones and scents that I know of,” was the answer from the girl who’d volunteered to lead.
“Reconsider,” I told her.
“Or don’t. But don’t complain later. And, on a natural departure from the subject of anal glands, do you all want breakfast?”
One hundred percent affirmative, including a noise from upstairs.
“Have your tea, start organizing, prepare to work I’ll send someone with breakfast,” I said. “You have until noon to figure out if you need anything ordered. That’s a good place to start.”
I collected my cup of tea, found the milk, and added it, before carrying it and a cup of black tea toward the door.
“You’re stealing our teacups?” the blonde girl asked.
“I’m nefarious,” I said. “And they keep my hands warmer.”
I let myself outside, and winced as I stepped out into the cold and the wet. I hunched over the cups, letting the steam warm my face, and hurried over to the largest of the old slaughterhouses.
It was a rural town, lost in the wilderness. Where so many cities were an organism, settling near a body of water and then organically growing, with all of the myriad cells, organs, and systems to thrive, this town was a parasite, a tick of a city that was simple, defenseless, once nourished on a narrow selection of resources, swelling rapidly up until the food source was cut off.
A parasite was apparently responsible for the mass-death of the Academy-designed groves of trees. From there, it had mutated to eat into the greater, more varied forest. The slaughterhouses had maintained course for a while, but the town of Sedge had died a rapid death all the same, half of its reason for being gone. Now the tick was an empty husk.
We were the parasites now, in our own way.
The largest of the slaughterhouses, ‘the big house’, was our headquarters. The smell, which had soaked into chemically-treated flooring was faintly unpleasant, but it was spacious enough to serve as our mess hall, have some room for our largest lab, and still have some space off in the adjunct building for sitting, talking, and planning. Many of the benches in the mess hall were halved tree trunks with the bark stripped off and legs nailed into them, and tables weren’t much fancier.
There were fifty or so students who were milling about, waiting for, eating, or just having finished breakfast, or going to and from lab one. A table was set with fruit and some other things for quick snacking, in case anyone didn’t want to wait in line. I cut in line and collected some biscuits.
“Possum!” I called out to the kitchen, juggling two teacups and three biscuits.
“Lab two, ten breakfasts, sans poison.”
“Stop saying it like that!” she chided me from across the floor. “It makes people uneasy!”
“They already have tea to start them off.”
“We’re running low on food,” she said.
“I know we’re running low on food,” I said. “Run into town later today.”
A dozen different students perked up at that. Some dropped what they were doing to turn my way and start to approach.
“Before anyone asks, no runs into town until later this week, all seats on today’s carriage are spoken for,” I announced to the room. “We’re keeping a low profile. If you want something, leave the wishlist and the money with Rudy. We’ll see if we can cheat something in the month or week before we move elsewhere.”
In the spring, I thought.
That announcement was enough to forestall the cluster of ex-students who would have tried to bother me.
The building adjunct to the big ‘house had a neat aesthetic. The far wall was all grown wood, and it had grown in rough, like a forest with trees nesting in so close to one another that there were no gaps between them. Skulls from beasts that had been hunted, animals from the slaughterhouse, feral wolves and dogs, and one battle-scarred skull of a warbeast hung along one wall. Furniture, admittedly scarce throughout the town, had been collected from various buildings and gathered here, so there was one room at least that was functional. The second and third floors were only half-floors, with railings overlooking the meeting room and the wall of skulls ranging from fist-sized to the one-hundred-and-fifty-pound warbeast skull.
Jessie was on the second floor, sitting in an armchair by the window and the fire, with a blanket around her.
I set my cup of tea down, adjusted the blanket, posed one cup in her lap, and used my free hand to put her hands around it.
She stirred awake at the warmth. Her eyes went straight to the clock on the wall. It was next to a wall-mounted fish that had suffered badly for the years of neglect since Sedge’s occupants had left and we had arrived. There was none of the false life that a good taxidermist managed. This was a very clearly dead, dessicated fish corpse, once nice and now horrifying, mounted on a plaque and set on the wall.
“Crummy day to go into the city,” I commented. “You and Bubbles have the right idea.”
“The credit goes to Bubbles,” Jessie said, curling up more.
I sat on the arm of the armchair and Jessie leaned against my leg.
Stacking the biscuits on one side of my knee, I freed my hand to open my notebook. “Lab one is underway, they already have their list of things to buy. Lab two will get us the list before noon. We can grab lunch to go and head into the city. Touch base with Pierre and our delinquents there-”
“Interview our doctor. We need a second doctor.”
I scribbled that down.
“Try not to scare this next one away, Sy.”
“I’ll scare him away if I have to,” I said. “The last one was a little too bright eyed and eager when I suggested that there were a number of rebellious fourteen to eighteen year old boys and girls here for him, with emphasis on boys and girls.”
“Maybe he was just eager to teach. Some people just want to disseminate knowledge.”
“He wanted to ‘seminate something,” I said, very pleased with myself. Sitting on the arm of the armchair, I had to crane my neck to see Jessie’s face. She was smiling, but the type of smile… I paused. “We’ve had this conversation before. I’ve made that joke before.”
“Five times,” Jessie said. “I give you the setup because you enjoy it so much.”
I reached over to mess up her hair a little.
“It does get inconvenient, disposing of the ones we reject, after you’ve given them critical details,” Jessie pointed out.
“I handle most disposals, so I don’t know why you’re the one complaining about inconvenience here.”
“You could prevent the problem by assessing them more thoroughly without actually revealing anything critical.”
“I have a very recognizable face, and wanted posters all over the place. Best to be thorough.”
“I think you’re motivated by the need to brag. You want to monologue at people, show off, boast about your rebellion faction.”
“It’s a faction that warrants bragging about. Full of rebellious fourteen to eighteen year olds, some of whom are very attractive.”
“Yes Sy. I’m aware.”
“Did you see what I did there? Because I linked back to what we were saying…” I trailed off as I was rewarded with a very dramatic eye roll from Jessie.
“On the topic of rebellions, we should see what news we can glean about the other rebel factions,” Jessie said. “We haven’t made such a detour from Fray’s plan that she couldn’t find us, we don’t know what Cynthia is doing, Mauer is oddly silent and quiet, and there are some other groups making noise.”
“There’s always going to be new groups making noise. The trick is figuring out which ones are worth listening and paying attention to.”
“Yeah,” Jessie said. She settled in deeper into her nest of blankets, legs tucked in beside her, and took a bite of biscuit, followed by a bit of tea. “For example, there’s this one rebellion leader who has a thing for poison and setting things on fire.”
“Sounds like a swell guy.”
“Skirts, too. Fire, poison, skirts, and repeating the same jokes over and over again. He’s one of those faction leaders that’s best ignored.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“He might steal away one of the girls that’s interested in you. Once you get past the fact that he’s only about as tall as a typical girl his age, he’s pretty good looking.”
“Bubbles is on my side. We’ll go and kick his ass. I bet I can take him in a fight.”
“Anyone can, unless he gets the drop on them,” Jessie said.
“Good. He won’t see me coming.”
“I genuinely believe you on that score,” Jessie said.
The interplay of the moment was broken by a movement of the flames and by Mauer crossing the room to stand by the window. He was looking out at my rebel faction. That was his favored activity, ever since he had arrived. Watching over operations.
The only thing I really disliked about the appearance of Mauer and Fray were the ways they interacted with the Lambs. When Mauer showed up, the Lambs went away. I could look for them and spot them in the crowd, but they were never close. The appearances of Lambs was very natural and unassuming, while the arrival of Mauer was often something that made my heart jump a bit with alarm. I’d’ve rather have had the former than the latter.
The appearances of Fray were rather different. The Lambs liked her. Evette was a common one, but each of the Lambs could be seen with Fray now and then. Every time, it felt ominous and unpleasant. Helen’s eyes were cold and dead, only the monster and not my monster. Gordon looked angry in Fray’s company, with dark looks in his eye, the brute rather than the golden boy. Jamie could so often be seen sitting very still, hugging his book, while Mary and Lillian listened attentively to Fray. Mary paced while she listened, with no grace at all, and Lillian resembled the girl I’d seen with a fresh dose of Wyvern in her.
Rather than dwell too much on Mauer or the thought of Fray, for fear Mauer might stay longer or Fray might come to visit with a Lamb in tow, I turned my attention to the flames in front of Jessie and I.
“I’m envious of your cocoon, little caterpillar,” I said, indicating the blankets Jessie had swaddled herself in as she sat in the armchair.
“It took some doing, but I’m willing to undo it if you want in. A bit of a squeeze.”
“Another time. There’s a lot to do,” I said. “I’m getting underway as soon as the tea and biscuit are done.”
“I’ll come,” Jessie said. “I should get moving, keep exercising. I’m worried about what happens if I sleep to much and move too little. Atrophy is a thing.”
“We have an entire collection of ex-students to use and abuse if you want to work out solutions to atrophy,” I said. “Stay comfortable. Do what you need to do.”
“I need to do what I can on my own. If and when I go blank-slate again, I don’t want to regret that the last few months were all about me sleeping.”
“Arright,” I said, drawling the word.
Footsteps on the stairs drew my attention.
Jessie pulled away from the blankets to get a better view, while I swiveled in my seat, catching a falling biscuit between two fingers.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Jessie said.
The fact that he didn’t respond right away was telling.
Shirley, and our gang leaders, stationed in the city.
“How bad?” I asked.
The fact that he didn’t respond was telling.