Jessie led the horses off. We’d unhitched them from the wagon, but the yoke that connected one horse to the other remained in place, as did the bridles and reins. She had a rifle slung over one shoulder, the rest of her well bundled up, with hat, hood, scarf, and coat, all black with blonde hair pinned against her neck by the scarf, only the ends sticking out.
The others clustered around me, helping me retrieve our things from the back of the carriage. Rudy took one of the bags, slinging it over his shoulders and belting it in place. The other piece of equipment I’d packed was heavier, and took a few sets of hands. Second Gordon and Rudy both helped me haul it out.
The launcher was mounted to a metal plate, builder’s wood framing a shaft and tube, with two cranks and several dials fixed to different points.
I collected canisters and clipped them to my belt, while everyone else retrieved the clothing, bags, and packs we’d put in around the launcher to pad it and keep any structural elements or dials from being jarred or broken.
Pierre had outlined the situation, and I’d told people what to bring, giving them a little bit of leeway in deciding for themselves. My hope was that they could learn for themselves, develop their individual styles and talents, and round themselves out with some Academy know-how.
For now, Rudy was carrying the heavy stuff, Gordon Two had the tools and extraneous medical supplies, Bea and Fang had expressed some willingness to dip into combat drugs if absolutely required, and were thus equipped for a brawl, with truncheons, knives, and the same guns that I’d given the rest of the group, Pierre excepted.
Pierre had provided particulars about what and where after we’d arrived, and now we’d see if the Beattle rebels could adapt and keep their heads and hands working in a crisis.
The Treasurer was donning his lab equipment. It was of a more custom uniform, the bottom of the coat hanging lower, the collar high enough to touch his lips. He had a Beattle crest on the chest and sleeve, with the academy’ s navy blue, gold, and white braided trim.
He attached a hood of the same materials and colors , clipping it on, pulled on thicker gloves over his winter gloves, and then pulled on a mask, the edges of the mask pressing the fabric of the hood and collar tight against his face. It was hard metal with built-in goggles, tinted blue. A tube ran down to a leather bag of air that he attached to his belt.
Rudy, Second and I set up the gun. We found a stump by the side of the road, set it down, and worked the built-in screws in, to fix the plate to the stump. Jessie disappeared out of sight, and the Treasurer wrapped adhesive ribbon around his collar and hood, then where his gloves met his special lab coat. His breath hissed as it inflated and deflated the bladder of air.
“High quality bit of work there,” Bea commented. “Custom buy?”
The Treasurer nodded.
“Get any use out of it?” Rudy asked.
Again, the Treasurer nodded.
Then the air bladder hissed, he moved a loop of metal by the hose, and spoke, sounding as if he came from the end of a deep tunnel that was pointing in a direction that wasn’t ours, “I’ll have to burn this after today. I’ve heard bad things about this red plague and don’t want to take chances. I’m going to miss this suit.”
“You could bag it and drown it,” Bea suggested. “Freeze it, then bake it.”
The Treasurer paused, as if considering, then ventured, “I’m not sure. Better to be safe.”
“If the plague can survive all four of those treatments, humanity might be done for.”
“Not done for,” the Treasurer said. “Cats and cockroaches.”
“If you’re having to invoke cats and cockroaches,” I said. I had a screwdriver sticking through the metal loop, and used it for leverage as I screwed the gun in deeper. “Then the worst has happened and you aren’t talking about the happiest of endings. Just the opposite.”
“Won’t deny that,” the Treasurer said, his voice still hollow. “I might argue about unhappy endings. The most important thing is that we survive. Even if it’s only the cats and cockroaches among us.”
“I’m not so sure,” Rudy commented. “I think life is hard for the cats. Lamed, broken, nowhere to go, surviving without dignity. Having purpose is important. Survival alone isn’t enough.”
Rudy was speaking from experience. To him, losing Beattle had been an event on par with the destruction of civilization. The loss of everything he’d worked toward and wanted.
“I’m inclined to agree with Rudy,” I said. I tightened the screws, tried moving the gun to see if it was loose, and judged it secure. I worked the crank, rotating the gun, and checked the dials for angle. I spoke without taking my eye off the machine. “I’ve tried survival alone. It’s doable, but your personality atrophies and dies if that’s all you have.”
“Perhaps,” the Treasurer said, still applying the green ribbon, sealing himself off from the world. “I think you can live in hope that good things will happen someday. If that’s not possible, then you can live on with the intent of destroying your enemy. If that’s not possible, you create an opening, so the people who follow in your footsteps have a chance of good things or destroying your enemy. So long as you survive, you can find your way to those things. There is always a path.”
“In that order?” I asked. “Hope, destruction, helping others?”
“I think so,” the Treasurer said.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind. I don’t agree, but if it works for you, I won’t gainsay that.”
He nodded, air hissing as he breathed.
In the distance, a whole dozen guns could be heard firing, each one emptying their clips. Too far away to be Jessie or any of ours. A squad of soldiers maintaining the quarantine, perhaps firing at a crowd.
“Sounds bitter to me,” Gordon Two said. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the gunfire or the Treasurer, but I suspected the latter.
The Treasurer’s head shook as much as it was able to shake with the hood, mask, and collar all taped into a sealed configuration. “Not bitter. Most mornings, I get up on my own, because I know what I want to do, I care about it, and I think it’s important. Some mornings, hope or the will to help others gets me up. Some mornings, the desire to ruin my enemies is why I keep working.”
“I’d prefer to have good reasons every morning,” Gordon Two said. “Not angry ones.”
“If you meet any of the people in the city there, after the plague has hit, you ask them if they want to try searching for the good reason tomorrow morning or if they want justice.”
A fine line between justice and revenge, I thought, but I didn’t comment.
I heard a distant whistle. I raised my binoculars, and I scanned the surroundings until I saw the target. The Crown soldiers were set up by the wagon, a fire burning a few feet away, while they crouched around it, watching the roads out of the city that the hill overlooked.
The horses, abandoned by Jessie, were rushing in their direction. They heard and turned.
I turned and looked at the others – Rudy, Gordon the Second, Bea, Fang, the Treasurer and Pierre.
“Cover your ears,” I said.
I slid one canister of gas into the gun. I cranked it, adjusting for wind, gauged distance, and waited, looking through the binoculars.
The stitched horses Jessie had sent their way crashed against the side of the soldier’s cart. The soldiers stood, startled, backing away from the scene. They found their courage and approached- just in time to see the gas billowing out. Jessie’s set timer had expired, and the canister we’d placed in the yoke between the two horses was now releasing its contents. Gas blew in the general direction of the soldiers.
I watched how they moved in the initial moments, then cranked hard, adjusting, before kicking the priming pin into place, hauling back on the crank, and then stomping on the trigger, my hands going to my ears.
It woofed rather than anything else, a low, flat, dull sound that wanted to knock me on my ass and only barely failed to do so. The canister, meanwhile, sailed skyward.
Seeing its initial trajectory, I began cranking, adjusting, and then placed another canister inside the tube.
Beattle was a poor school, an Academy that accepted the bottom-rung students. It hadn’t been a place for innovation, and the course work of students had been, in part, an effort to pay the school’s dues. Drugs had been one thing, and the Rank had gone to some effort to learn that lesson and take it elsewhere. Stitched had been another thing, a mass-produced export. Munitions like the one I was using were yet another.
I hadn’t had to ask too many people or go to any great effort to figure out what we needed to produce gas canisters and then get teams in place to make it a reality. The canister launcher required a few more questions and a bit more searching before I found students ready and able to make one.
I kicked the primer pin into place again, hauled back on the crank, and fired the second shot.
My first shot landed, and wind carried smoke in the general direction of the squadron of soldiers. Only traces reached them, but it gave them pause, enough to keep them from running in our general direction. I could see their confusion, and judge that they weren’t even positive about the direction the canister had come from. The benefit of a high arc.
Delayed, the second shot landed closer to them. The impact of it striking road was enough to startle their horses and disturb the normally resilient stitched horses. The soldier’s horses reared a little, snorting, while the stitched horses moved forward.
Aside from the dull sound of the canister launcher, which the snow would dampen, it was a quiet weapon. There were some distant shouts, but no explosions, no ear-splitting cracks or sounds of metal and wood tearing apart.
I loaded another canister, adjusted, and fired.
“Pierre,” I said. I didn’t wait to see where the canister had landed. “Go report to the students back in Sedge. They should pack up, be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. We don’t know how many people will come to reinforce, or which direction they’ll come from. Everyone arms up. Wait there, eat, rest. We might need you in the future.”
“You get Shirley,” he said. “Not that doctor.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
The rabbit-headed man nodded, turned, and sprinted off.
“Follow a ways behind,” I told the others. The shot I’d fired from the canister was still in the air.
I ran in the opposite direction Pierre had, away from the country road, toward the wagon I’d just bombarded.
I raised my binoculars. I could see the squad of soldiers pulling on the masks with tubes leading down to air bladders.
All but one. One of them, a woman, reached for a trumpet on the side of the wagon, one arm covering her lower face.
My head and binoculars bobbing as I ran, I missed the instant that Jessie acted. The sound of the rifle shot reached me in the moment after the bullet made contact, piercing the base of the soldier’s hand. It looked like a graze of a hit, but it gave her reason to rethink using the trumpet and signaling other camps of soldiers.
The third canister had landed, and between the gas from the canister placed with the horses, the one I’d placed between myself and them, my test shot that had erred on the side of landing too close to me, and the other two canisters I’d planted around them, the gas that was being pumped out flowed all around them. They’d pulled on gas masks with attached ox bladders, but they’d had to pass through smoke to do it. I could see how they moved as if debilitated.
Blind, coughing. The one who’d been shot in the hand had no mask, and she’d inhaled something while gasping in pain. Now she was doubled over, coughing.
Jessie had a clear shot for the entire group from her vantage point, and Jessie didn’t shoot.
I closed the distance, found cover by a short fence, and closed my eyes as the smoke wafted over me, so it wouldn’t blind me.
“Throw your weapons down!” I called out. “Get down on the ground, hands up in the air behind you!”
I heard a voice cussing.
Someone shot in my general direction. The bullet pinged off of something metal.
I heard Jessie’s gunshot and I heard the body hit the ground. The sound was out of sync, the answering cries and curses of the soldiers, all muffled by gas masks and interrupted by coughing fits. It was an eerie thing.
I waited. There were no more gunshots from Jessie, and the only sounds I heard were swears. I peeked over the fence.
They were down.
I quickly hurdled the fence, drawing my pistol to point it at different soldiers as I moved among them, collecting the guns.
I signaled for the others to wait as they showed up, brought the guns over to them, and collected the canisters, throwing them down the hill.
“Talk,” I told the one unmasked soldier.
She opened her mouth to speak and choked on her words, coughing. Her eyes and nose were blood red, her eyes damp with irritation.
“We’re taking you prisoner. You’ll get medical care for that hand and a little bit of warmth, but only if you cooperate. If you don’t cooperate, we put bullets in you and carry on.”
I looked very pointedly at the one Jessie had dispatched.
“Robbie… had a child,” she said.
Robbie was the one who’d died?
“How many children are in Dorchester here? You’re just corralling them and waiting for the plague to get them.”
“They’re already as good as dead,” she said, her voice hoarse, barely above a whisper. She coughed. “One more body doesn’t change that.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “Stand.”
She stood, arms out to the side.
One by one, I got them to stand. The others used the soldiers’ rifles and bayonets to keep them in line, as we marched them single file back to the carriage we’d used.
“Strip,” I told the lead officer.
He turned his face, gas mask and all, toward me.
I waved the bayonet blade in his direction, and he obliged. Gas mask off, Academy uniform off. Academy-white slacks off, the boots they’d issued the soldiers came off.
He hurried into the carriage, hands still raised, wearing only an undershirt and underwear.
By the time Jessie had caught up with us, only two soldiers remained. Rudy, Gordon Two and Fang had changed into the discarded uniforms, pulling on the gas masks. Crown colors. Jessie started doing the same.
Bea was tending to the woman soldier’s hand, bandaging it. As she finished, I asked, “You want to come with us, or stay in the carriage with your buddies?”
“It’s a choice?” the soldier asked.
“It’s a choice,” I said. “If you’re in the carriage, you’ll be found soon. If you’re with us, you won’t need to worry.”
“I don’t need to worry,” she said, firm. “I’ve been with these fellows a long time. I was with Robbie a long time.”
“Lose the uniform, then. Use the heat lamp,” I said. “Huddle with the blankets.”
She was slow to oblige, what with the injured hand, and it made the process difficult. I trusted Bea and Jessie to watch her and had the others stand guard off to the side, to afford some limited privacy.
We didn’t need the last guy to disrobe, what with the Treasurer having his own outfit, but I had him do it all the same. We ushered him into the vehicle while Bea pulled on the female soldier’s gear over her own winter clothing.
Doors closed. I got a chain from the back, encircled the carriage, pinning the doors closed, and then looped it around again, so it made it harder to get out of the windows.
Would they be able to break the windows and slip free? Yes. But getting past shards of glass and squeezing past chain, venturing out into the cold, leaving others with wind blowing into the window and then running through puddles, ice, and wet snow to get to their friends? I doubted they’d feel that brave.
The Treasurer supplied the loops of adhesive ribbon to everyone, sealing the outfits so they were quarantine-safe. White gas masks with tinted lenses, heavy coats with maximum coverage, all able to be sealed shut, heavy gloves with the gaps taped, slacks taped to the inner uniform coat, the gaps at the top of each boot taped against the leg.
Showing his expertise, the Treasurer spelled out everything about the process of sealing things, asked about any escaping puffs of air as he patted people down, and outlined the process for removing the quarantine outfits, if he wasn’t alive or conscious to walk them through the process.
He was a dark fellow, the Treasurer. Angry, morbid. The fact that he might die didn’t seem to bother him enough, yet he’d gone on about surviving.
I wanted to have tea with him and play poker with him.
“You’re not immune,” Jessie reminded me, her voice modified by the gas mask. I’d elected not to wear the uniform.
“I can move faster without the bulky layers. I’d rather move faster and carve any growths out than move too slow.”
“Someone has to pore over your naked body to search for signs of those growths, remember?”
“Reliable sources suggest I’m not bad to look at. I have no doubt I could find several interested young ladies among our recruits.”
Jessie punched me, right where my heart was. The protective, padded glove made for a light hit.
Then, with her other hand, she handed me her glasses.
“The mask serves the same purpose.”
I nodded, folded up the glasses, and slipped them into a front pocket.
I stepped back and looked at my Academy soldiers, with their student in tow. All matching, all in white, with coats of arms at the chest and upper sleeve, some embroidery here and there on their slacks and hoods to evoke some consistency. The tinted lenses were unreadable.
“Kevin won’t stand out like this?” Rudy asked.
Jessie shook her head.
“I’ve walked other quarantine zones,” the Treasurer said. “Only at my last school and Beattle, on Academy grounds, when a student fucked up. I went around with soldiers, told them about protocols. If Jessie doesn’t want to, and we run into someone, I’ll take point.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Jessie said. She looked at me.
“I’ll be out and about, staying out of sight,” I said. “You all know the hand signals?”
They nodded. Fang looked less certain than the others. He wasn’t really a part of the inner circle. More an accompaniment for Bea, our queen Rooftop Girl who had made a habit of collecting and civilizing some of the troublemakers and delinquents in camp.
I signaled, and they set off. Right from the get-go, I took a different path as they tromped their way down the hill in heavy boots.
The windows and walls near the ground level were riddled with bullet holes. Scorch marks and bloodstains marked where there had been fighting. Falling snow and rain worked to erase what it could, but signs remained here and there.
I thought of what Fray had said, about the red plague being something that looked for this kind of violence.
The initial violence and the officers at the perimeter had scared people further toward the town center. Nature was working to cover up what had happened here, with snow and rain, the muting effect of heavy snow and the sound-obscuring patter of rain.
Periodically, I could hear a gunshot, which likely sounded further away than it was.
A ghost town, this, in a very different way than Sedge was. Sedge had been sapped of life, a husk, and repopulated, only the exoskeleton intact. This was a living town, the outer shell frostbitten and dead while the flesh lived, stagnating.
Inside these buildings, people were huddled, panicking. The plague crawled among the people, taking root.
The journey was quiet, the streets largely empty. I kept my distance, navigating between and over buildings while keeping one eye on the Beattle students in soldier uniforms and masks.
They moved past a series of lumps in the road, and they didn’t realize what the lumps were until Bea kicked one by accident. The covering of snow on one stiff arm was knocked away, the frozen hand exposed.
It was one of the boys that reacted the worst to that. Second Gordon, I was fairly sure. He didn’t scream, cry, or get upset, but it took some doing before he would look away from the sight.
A worse one awaited.
It looked like bloodstains, but on closer inspection, it proved to be the flowers. They reached out for moisture, and the snow was nothing but. They colored it red, reaching out and across, and they died, or went dormant.
The bodies here in the center were worse. Carriages had stopped in their tracks. People had clustered, particularly around building entrances. Some had tried to break in, seeking refuge from cold and plague. In the mere hours since Pierre had witnessed the initial scene and we had made our trip to the city, this particular scene had unfolded and then been sealed. The flowers were already spreading, reaching out over the bodies, connecting one to the next, and crawling up building faces, searching for more victims.
They picked their way through, and I could see the change in body language. The stiffness, the fact that they were trying not to look.
Only Jessie seemed matter of fact about it. Only Jessie saw the others approach.
Two men and two women in red clothing. I had the feeling the red was chosen so it wouldn’t match the red flowers. Their clothing could almost be mistaken for quarantine outfits, but the coats weren’t long coats, and they wore no masks.
They weren’t good looking people. Their features were exaggerated, even as they were dressed up in what looked like fine clothing in matching colors. A man in a red peacoat with a black scarf, with a jutting chin and neanderthal brow, his hair immaculately styled, his ears protected by red earmuffs. A woman with wavy black hair tied up into a ponytail, her smile perpetual and literally ear to ear, her teeth white and lips painted crimson. The other woman was similar, but her hair straight, her face too long, her prim nature exaggerated, with pursed lips, a long nose.
Experiments, all four.
They made a beeline for Jessie and the others, and my hand went straight to my waist for my pistol.
The people in red talked to Jessie and the others, and it was the Treasurer who took the lead.
Crouching in the snow, I took aim, waiting and ready for an excuse.
The conversation finished quickly enough. Jessie and the others moved on with their course, crossing this stripe of plague that had swiped across the town. The people in red walked along it, as if it was a path for them to travel. They moved from body to body, checking.
The smiling woman drew a hatchet from her coat – a well hidden weapon, considering I hadn’t seen it. She raised it overhead, then brought it down on one corpse’s neck.
I couldn’t follow Jessie and the others without crossing these people in red, so I let them go ahead.
Ducking further into cover, raising my binoculars, I watched Jessie.
Her hands moved in the gestures.
My head turned over the connected words. I tried to figure out the meaning, and wished there was a faster way for Jessie to spell the letters out. The system we had worked out wasn’t great for the task.
She gestured more words.
More red. Many many. Careful Sylvester.
There were more than just the four. Considerably more.
I watched as they moved among the bodies, checking, eyes alert. They searched every single one on the street before they gathered, approaching a doorway.
The man with the jutting chin kicked the door in, drawing twin cleavers from his pocket. I knew right away that the people he was using the cleavers on weren’t the frozen bodies.
I almost, almost gave chase, closing the distance, seeing if I couldn’t dispatch them and save the people in the house.
But I saw two flashes of red, and I saw more people walking down the street. I wouldn’t be able to approach unobserved.
What were the alternate meanings for gentle in the gestures? Kind? Soft touch? Emotionally careful?
What was the alternate meaning for sugar? I thought of Helen. My mind stumbled across possible meanings. Sweet. Gentle-sweet? Gentle-sweet gentle-kill? Murder? Execution?
The ones in red called themselves the Tender Mercies.
I hoped Shirley hadn’t faced any such Mercy thus far, as I looked for my opportunity to cross the street and catch up with the others. I hoped they wouldn’t find Tender Mercy either.