Head over Heels – 16.5

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Stalemate.

For the most part, the Academy forces had formed a perimeter around the city.  There were two places we were aware of that they were busily gathering their forces.  Two points of contention.  The first was the train station, where a train was being held hostage.  The second was the Little Castle.

It was a nice building, looking much as if a doctor had somehow taken a manor and a castle and blended the two into an appealing sort of building-chimera.  This architectural chimera was wounded, scarred and scorched by flame, with holes in the walls where something had exploded, bringing down wood and stone.  The rebels had invaded it, making their way inside, and if they’d planned to accomplish something and then get out, they’d only completed the first objective, if they’d even gotten that far.

Now there were rebels in the windows with guns and there were Crown soldiers parked by barricades all around the building.  The soldiers were all wearing the quarantine outfits, and were accompanied by what I assume were very disposable stitched and warbeasts, as well as a scattered few Tender Mercies.

Jessie had written letters while in the carriage, presumably during the handful of periods that we’d stopped, much as we had with the warbeast.  She and the Beattle rebels approached the Crown forces, and she handed over one letter.

I watched through binoculars as a man in a quarantine suit with decoration on his lapel fumbled with the letter, working to unfold it.  He took his time reading it, and then he handed it back.

The wind whistled as it blew down the otherwise quiet street.

Jessie didn’t move, waiting dutifully.  The others mostly took her cue, but someone I was fairly sure was Fang was antsy.  He moved his weight from foot to foot.

It took a kind of courage to wear the mask with confidence, knowing what the scores of people around you would do if they could see beyond it.  Fang didn’t have that kind of courage.  There were people among the Beattle rebels who had their talents, and I was enjoying seeing those talents emerge.  Bea drew people in, particularly strong people, if not the most capable.  Important distinction.  Davis knew parts of the textbooks by heart and was good at both execution and teaching, and his role as student council president suggested he was a strong leader.  Valentina had a good hand for surgery and a keen eye for relationships, which had secured her the vice presidency.

Mabel, now leading the green students, was a keen observer of details, with a good eye for traps, deception, any unrest or resentment, and she was good with biochemistry and pheromones.  It was a large part of why the current background project of the Beattle group involved the stuff.  That, and Junior was a good hand with the chemistry and biochemistry, owing to his experience producing the drugs as head of the Rank.

Rudy, Rita and Posie took on different focuses.  Rudy was driven, less of a master of one field and more a capable student in many, with a good background in things ranging from the mechanical to farming, and handyman work, and I suspected I could point him in a direction and see him draw it all together to be well above average while still maintaining some breadth.  Rita was a listener with a good eye for those who needed listening to, and she was able to adapt and react with the snap of a finger, so to speak.  Posie was a mechanic, and she enjoyed building.  She was the one supplying our furniture in the main lodge, both the basic log benches and the more refined work.

I could see myself, were I given a good year to do it, nurturing them all into individual forces.  I wanted to bring out their strengths and make them sharp.  But in the doing, I had to accept that there were some cases where achieving that was an uphill battle.  Gordon Two was good in his particular fields of interest, but only good.  I kept him close because he was a good barometer for me when it came to other students, and I used him because I’d kept him close for long enough that I could trust him to do as I needed him to do.

Possum, in much the same vein, wasn’t an exceptional student, and she didn’t have any particular skills, but I valued her all the same.  She was loyal, and nobody seemed to actively dislike her, while a number liked her.  My approach to her was more in the realm that I wanted her to come away from all of this happy, not as someone devastating.

My take on Fang was that he was likely good in a fight and likely bad at a great many things.  I wouldn’t tell Bea not to use him, but I didn’t want to give him a great deal of my attention.

I was constantly watching, looking for signs that any one student should be prioritized or set aside.  I took notes now and again, but Jessie was the real repository of the particulars and my sum thoughts.  The rest of it was something I played by ear, trusting that each student in a position of any power was someone I’d put there for a good reason.

Mauer, standing on another rooftop, watching me, the others, and the rebel army in the Little Castle, seemed intent on lingering there, reminding me that it was a house of cards that could and would collapse.

Or perhaps that was just me, filling in the blanks with thoughts that were lingering just beneath the surface.

The leader of the contingent of Crown soldiers finished speaking with his subordinates.  He gave some final orders, and they signaled their men.

Of the two hundred soldiers I could see from my vantage point on a rooftop, approximately seventy-five peeled off, moving at a brisk pace as they headed toward another part of the city.  Someone who the general had talked to was running off in a perpendicular direction to the main group.  I suspected he’d round up more from battle lines I couldn’t see.

Maybe a hundred soldiers removed from the picture.  As part of that, there were holes to fill, people spread thinner, and groups had to be moved.

Jessie’s group received their new orders.  I watched as they obeyed.

No, not obeying.  From the ground, it was hard to see particulars.  Even the general was only in a position to see a mere half of the people and barricades within a hundred yards of him, and that was a special case, a location chosen for that much awareness.  Others weren’t so fortunate.  They could see one or two of the groups to their flanks.

Such was the nature of the urban battlefield.  Buildings, streets, fences, and the same barricades that protected obstructed fields of vision.

Jessie had clearly used information gleaned from conversations with other groups to sell herself and her squad as a proper member of the local forces.  The general then trusted her enough to assign her group a space to fill, and I could see as she walked right past that space.

She moved along the perimeter, and I shadowed her, as she traveled a half circle around the Little Castle.

She finally found a good vantage point.  She spoke to a squad of soldiers, and sent them off on patrol with something that sounded official.  Her squad relieved theirs, settling in.

Her hand signals consisted of long, right, short, right, long.

I moved along the rooftop, watching as they traveled a very careful route on their way out, with a clear destination in mind.  A straight line on their way out, then a right turn…

They took the prescribed route, and I signaled confirmation.

As quickly as they’d settled in, Jessie’s group picked up and moved on.

Wet snow continued to fall around us.  I had to descend to the ground to get to the next building I could climb on top of.  By the time I’d arrived, Jessie had already relieved a second unit and was looking skyward as if she was expecting me to show up exactly as I did.

She signaled, and I glanced back before confirming.

She had a letter in hand and was tucking it away.  I suspected it was a very similar picture to the one she’d painted for the commander.  All of this was us sending more and more soldiers to reinforce a location that likely had nothing of substance going on.

I looked over from the rooftop in the direction the soldiers were going.

They were moving out in the direction of the water.  I wondered if she’d painted a picture of rebels coming from the end of the river with intent to land and attack from the sea.  It would be a beautiful way to leave a hundred or two hundred Crown soldiers sitting in the cold at the harbor, watching and waiting for people to show up.

She moved on to a third group.  I worried that she was pushing our collective luck, that this group would make for too many soldiers in total sent to the harbor.  I was right on one front.

These soldiers were skeptical.  I could catch the tone of argument, and see Jessie’s hand signal as she requested possible assistance.  I was only partway to them when things escalated.  In a moment, Jessie and the other Beattle rebels had pulled their weapons on the soldiers at the barricade.  Fang and Rudy knocked two people to the ground, Fang hooking a bayonet blade against the one soldier’s air hose, Rudy pressing his bayonet blade against a soldier’s neck.

Jessie took weapons from each of the soldiers.

I finished my approach.

“Sorry,” Jessie said.

“Sorry?”

“I didn’t leave any for you,” she said.

“Well, it’s the thought that counts,” I said.

“Coast should be clear.  Nobody’s watching this corner of the building now.  Group further down won’t see because of barricade, groups further down the road can’t see because of the faint bend in the road or because of how they’re positioned.”

“I’m wondering if they realize,” I said.  I glanced at the windows.  “If they’re discreet about it, they can just leave.”

“They should realize,” Jessie said.

“Then they have a reason for staying,” I said.  I sighed.

“A reason?” Gordon Two asked.

“Stalemates within stalemates,” I said.  “They’re stuck.  They should have been in and out, but something kept them from making a hasty exit.  The ones at the window look pretty calm, all things considered, so it’s not a hostile party.”

“A stubborn one,” Rudy said.

“Crown can’t attack because the rebels have a hostage.  Rebels can’t exit because… they have a hostage,” I said.  “One that’s proving difficult, I imagine.”

“I don’t get a feeling of urgency from them,” Jessie said.  “The general was waiting out the clock.  Then he gets to leave, the city burns, and his men don’t die.  He’d rather this didn’t go anywhere.  This is about continuing the testing of the Tender Mercy project and putting in a token effort.  He’s wanting to reach out and try to open negotiations, but there’s a swathe of no man’s land between Crown forces and the Little Castle.  Nobody wants to cross it.”

“Which leads back to playing it safe,” I said.

“The clock is running out.  We don’t have a lot of time.  People are going to notice that logistics are off and positions aren’t defended,” Jessie said.

“Noted,” I said.  “I don’t suppose any of you are particularly keen to lose the suits and come with?”

Nobody was particularly keen.  Jessie raised her hand.

“Not you.  I don’t want to cut the plague out of you a second time.  The rest of you cover my back,” I said.  “I’ll go in alone, then.  Where is the bag with the suit?”

Rudy pulled off his bag.  The bag with the suit and mask inside was strapped to the top, a separate bag.  He unstrapped it, then handed it to me.  I slung it over my shoulder, wearing it as I might a satchel.

“Do you want to take more suits?” Jessie asked.

I glanced down at the soldiers that were lying face down on the ground, hands on heads.

“Don’t want to burden myself too much,” I said.

What was the best way to do this?

Murder was the easiest, but…

“Crown soldiers,” I said, and I lowered my voice rather than raise it, to seem more dangerous, and to ensure they were listening.  “I’m going to give you two options.  That gives you three, because the third option is one you’re already aware of and debating.  You can fight us, struggle, try to make noise, and we’ll execute you all in very painful ways.  I have traps, and the people you’ve alerted will trip them.  They’ll die in painful ways.  People will notice.  All hell will break loose, the Crown will start fighting, the Rebels will start fighting, people will die, and far too many people don’t get to go home to their families tonight.”

“That would be option one,” Rudy supplied, in a voice that was very good at sounding dangerous.  He was a big, scary fellow when he wanted to be and oftentimes when he didn’t.  He pulled it off effortlessly.

“Option one, yes, well, the option you’re currently debating.  The options I’m providing are simple ones.  We can execute you all quietly, and you can all go out with as little pain as anyone can hope for.  If you believe in something after death, however much the Crown tries to suppress those beliefs, then you can look forward to that.  Otherwise, it’s quiet oblivion.  I want to see some nodding heads, to be sure you all understand me.”

I saw some nodding heads.

“Option three is that you’re all going to give me your masks.  We’ll stick you somewhere the air is very still, the risk of transmission at its minimum, you all stay quiet and we’ll give the masks back soon after that.”

“You want us to break quarantine?” one of the soldiers asked.

I took a rifle from Jessie and put a bayonet blade to the soldier’s neck.

“A possible horrible death or a sure clean death,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

His gloved hands moved behind his head, fumbling with straps.

“Let’s move you somewhere out of the way, where the air isn’t moving as much,” I told him.

He nodded, hands moving away.

We put him in the dark recess beneath a tall set of wooden stairs, by a stack of firewood beneath one house.  Stairs and firewood provided some shelter from the wind.

He pulled the mask off, disconnected the hose, and pressed the hose against his lower face, breathing through it.

The seven others followed his lead, moving to spaces next to him, but only one other brought the hose to his mouth.

I collected the masks, walked over to the barricade that they’d erected, and half-climbed the barricade.

I stuck the mask over, past the spikes that lined the top of the barricade, and braced myself for a possible gunshot hitting the thing.

None came.

I moved the mask as a puppeteer might move a puppet, bobbing it as if it was walking, over, over, over, then stopping at my leftmost corner of the wall.

I did much the same with the second mask, hanging it by the strap to one spike, next to the first, and carried on.

Once all eight masks were mounted, I dared to peek out around the side, raising my binoculars to search the windows.

The windows with gunmen were fairly easy to see.  Most were cracked open so the shooters would have a clear shot.  The one that caught my eye was open, but with cloth wedged in the two sides.  Enough room for the gun’s nozzle to move a little, but the cloth would keep the cold from flowing indoors.

The gunman was talking to buddies, who were peering out the window, looking at my display.

I ventured out a little further.  Nobody shot me.

Arms spread, I crossed out into the street.  I watched out to either side as I did, verifying that Jessie’s observations had been correct.  There weren’t any other Crown soldiers situated near us who could really see me and take a clear shot at me.

As I approached the door, I heard it unlatch.  It opened.

Guns were already pointed at me as I passed through the doorway and stepped inside.  A dozen soldiers in one room, so cramped I doubt any single soldier had a clear shot that wouldn’t potentially put a friendly at risk.  They were all young, none older than twenty-five, and all men.  Their clothing looked more rural, and many of them wore long jackets with a military cut that were made with substandard leather with coarse stitching.

Rebels, but they’d all come from a place very like Sedge, where we were camped, if I was guessing right.

“Sylvester Lambsbridge,” one of them said.

“My reputation precedes me,” I said.

“Not so much.  You have a friend upstairs,” he said.

I nodded.  Shirley?

“She’s a pretty girl,” he said.

“That she is,” I said, staying calm.  Shirley.

I wasn’t sure what the statement meant.  He was probing me, but I wasn’t sure what for or why.  Was it interest in Shirley, or was it an implication?

Either way, staying cool and calm in the moment was what was important.

He looked past me and out the door, his pistol still pointed at me.  “You just walked over.  How?”

“Take me to my friend,” I said.  “I’ll explain.”

“Bag,” he said.

I handed over the bag with the extra quarantine suit.

He motioned with the gun.  I brushed past several people as I made my way through the overcrowded room.  I could have done something clever like pilfer something from a pocket, but I didn’t want to try my luck, and Shirley had informed them of who I was.

The place was nice, but it had more of a lodge feel than a palace feel.  The walls were stone up to the halfway point and then oiled wood up to the ceiling.  Pictures hung on walls, with family crests and portraits of nobles and important people.  Each hallway had a strip of carpet running down it.

The bulk of the rebels were here.  In this room, more of them were older, tending toward the thirty to thirty-five range.  There was a hierarchy, and the older ones wore more facial hair, beards and muttonchops, while sitting a little more comfortably.  They led because they were elders.  The younger ones were doing the legwork.

I spotted Shirley in the crowd.  Four men stood next to her, two had weapons drawn, and one of those two was holding her wrist in an iron grip.

I saw Otis and his men off to one side, sitting against the wall, wrists bound and resting on a knee or in laps.  Otis held a bloody rag to his face.  Archie stood in a corner with some of his men, wrists similarly bound, though he didn’t sit.

The man I’d talked to tossed the bag to a man I presumed to be the one in charge.  I couldn’t tell if he was blond with a shock of dark hair running through it or dark haired and going prematurely gray.  He slouched in a chair.

The man opened the bag and pulled the contents free.  He didn’t react any as he saw what it was, and simply let the mask and outfit fall so it draped across his lap and the arm of his chair.  He looked me up and down.

“Shorter than they made you out to be,” the leader drawled.

“They talked about my height?” I asked.

“No, but they talked about you like you were capable of moving mountains, boy,” the leader said.  “And you look a little small to be pulling any of that off.”

There was a look in his eyes that made me think that he was a very dangerous man.  Something approximating the weariness I’d seen in Mauer, or the lack of light I’d seen in Avis’ eyes when I’d seen her in the dungeon, but I suspected the light had died in him long ago, if it had ever been kindled.  Dark eyes, heavily lined by fatigue, and a kind of casual resignation in posture and expression that suggested that I could draw a gun, open fire on the room, and he wouldn’t care.

He wouldn’t care, but he would draw and do his level best to gun me down.  Then, if I happened to lie bleeding on the floor after, he wouldn’t act much different than if our positions were reversed.

This was the leader of this particular group of rebels.  A man who had given up long ago, who expected nothing but a battle that he’d inevitably lose.

“He walked across no man’s land.  Not a whisper, no gunshots, no nonsense,” the one who’d met me downstairs said.

“Did he now?”

I didn’t answer or justify.  Better to let him take away what he wanted to take away from it.

“Do we have a way out?” the leader asked his subordinate.

“Depends on a lot of things,” I answered, as if he’d asked me directly.

“Like?”

“I know Shirley over there is a particularly dangerous one.  Four young, able bodied men restraining  her like that.  Did they treat you well, Shirley?  No trouble?”

I gestured as I asked.  Question.

Two of the men stepped a little away from Shirley as I addressed her.

They weren’t focusing this much on Shirley because she was dangerous, of course.  They were focused on her because she was pretty, and as far as I could tell, this band of merry men were all men.

To her credit, she was standing tall.  She was using tricks I’d taught her to look confident.  The tilt of her head, the look in her eyes, and the faint look of frustration was a look I’d had her practice in the mirror.  Neck drawn out longer, breathing deep, I’d told her to imagine a feral cat.

“They treated me as well as can be reasonably expected,” she said, and she said it as well as I could’ve hoped.  Her hand jerked where one man was gripping her wrist, before he reasserted his hold, leaving finger marks where his fingers had been.  The gesture that went with her hand movement was a ‘no.

A lie.

“That’s good,” I lied.  “Sorry about all of this.  We’ll see about getting you out of here.”

“Thank you, Sylvester,” she said.  She closed her eyes a moment.  “Thank you for coming.  Did Pierre make it out alright?”

“He made it out of the city without a problem.  No signs of plague just yet, but it’s unpredictable.”

“I know.  I remember Tynewear.”

I nodded.  I turned the other way and said.  “Otis?  Sporting a bloody nose there, friend.”

“I don’t do well with being confined,” the man said.  He was the oldest one present, by roughly ten years, but his life had been one of hard living, and he looked and sounded more like he had fifteen or twenty years of seniority.

“Is it going to be forgivable if we make our way out of this city and we take these guys with?”

Otis shot me a look, like he really didn’t want to say yes.

“Say yes,” I told him.

“Sure,” he said.  “World’s gonna keep turning if you let ’em go.”

I nodded.  “Archie?”

Archie, tall, long-haired, with the brown skin of an indian, was uninjured, but he looked a little angrier than Otis had, strangely enough.

“You want the honest answer or do you want the lie?” he asked.

Alright, he was a lot angrier than Otis had been.

“Lie,” the leader that was slouching in the chair said.

“Lie,” I said.

“All’s well,” Archie said, in the most unconvincing manner possible.

He gestured as he spoke.  He’d picked up the vocabulary, but that was maybe a bad thing.  As he carefully chose the words, he moved his hands in a deliberate, mechanical way.

Enemies.  Hurt.  Girl.

They’d hurt Shirley.  But I’d known that already, in a general sense.

One of the other rebels standing near him reached out, seizing Archie’s hand, gripping it hard enough to bend fingers the wrong way.

“You casting a spell or something?” the man asked.

“What’s this?” the leader asked.  He rose out of his seat a little, twisting around and resting one arm on his knee.  “Spell?”

“Don’t know what he was doing.  He was moving his fingers all creepy-like.”

“Nervous habit,” Archie said, sounding far more convincing than he had.

“Yeah, you weren’t nervous up until now, red?” the fellow that held Archie’s fingers asked.

No,” Archie said, and he made it an insult or an epithet.

I sighed a little to myself.

“You know what that’s all about, boy?” the rebel leader asked.

“Communication,” I said.  I held up my hand, gesturing.  “Time.  Short.  Escape.  Window.  Closing.”

The corresponding gestures really meant, Enemy rebels here die today.

“Talking with your fingers?” someone asked.  “That’s bullshit.”

“Fucking trickery,” the soldier who’d held Archie’s fingers said.

He hit Archie hard across the face.

The man in charge of him didn’t seem to care.  No, the rebel leader was more interested in my reaction.

I mimicked him, copying some of his mannerisms, including his eerie coldness.  I made it appear like I didn’t care much.

“I came here with the expectation of giving you all a deal,” I said.  “These are my terms.  You’ll give that suit to Shirley.  I promised someone I’d give it to her and get her safely out of the city.  You don’t hurt any of my people.  In exchange, I get you all clear of this city.  If anyone catches the plague, I can try my hand at cutting it out.  I’ve done it before.  I’ll get you all clear of trouble.”

“No can do,” the leader said.

“No can do?” I asked.

I’d offered an out, he’d refused, and his men didn’t look as dismayed as they should.

“Does your reasoning have to do with the good Professor?” I asked.

“The words ‘good’ and ‘Professor’ don’t go hand in hand,” the leader said.  “That’s a man who needs to die.”

Even if it means the rest of you die?  I thought.

“I’ll get him, but I want to bring him with.  I’ll question him, then hand him over to you before midnight.  If you judge that he needs to die, then you can handle it.  We’ll part ways then,” I said.

“You’ll get him?  Just like that?”

“I can move mountains, apparently.  I can do this,” I said.

I was cognizant of the time limit.

He rose to his feet.  “Then let’s see you move mountains, boy.”

We had to pass up two flights of stairs.  Each floor, it seemed, was arranged so that the stairway rose up through the middle, an ornate cage separating it from the hallway.  The first floor had been facilities like the dining hall.  The second floor was twelve or so apartments, the third floor was six.  The fourth floor had four apartments, one in each cardinal direction.  From what I could see as I glanced upward, the top floor was a penthouse suite, fit only for the uppermost of visiting nobles.

But we didn’t go that far.  We exited the stairwell into the fourth floor.  There were more of the rebel soldiers here.

The heavy door and the walls to either side of it had bullet holes in it.  They’d fired indiscriminately.  It didn’t look like most shots had had the power to penetrate wood, thick wall, and exit the other side.  Some had, however.  I could peer through some holes and see light on the other side.

“Stand back,” I said.  I cracked my knuckles.

Amazingly enough, some did.

“Door’s barricaded on the other side,” one of the rebel soldiers said.

“I figured that much out,” I said.

I crackled my knuckles again for emphasis, and then I rolled my shoulders, before drawing in a deep breath.

“Professor,” I called out.  “It’s Sylvester Lambsbridge.”

There was a pause.

“I believe we’ve met?” I tried.

“We’ve met,” came the voice on the other side.  “Sylvester.  Didn’t think I’d meet you here.  Wrong coast, for one thing.”

“Well, being where you’re not expected to be is part of being a fugitive of the Crown.”

“Been taking your Wyvern, I assume?” he asked.

“Regularly enough,” I said.  I wondered why he’d asked.  “You’ll have to remind me of your name.  There are a few professors you could be.”

“Professor Berger.”

I had no idea who that was.

“Yeah,” I said.  “You know how these things go, and you know me.  I have a vested interest in getting you out of here alive, getting some answers from you.  Dots I need to connect.  You know what it means if you stay.  You’ve seen more quarantines than I’ve seen years on this planet.”

“I can see out the window.  There’s an army on our doorstep.”

“They don’t care about whether you live or die.  You were the Duke’s attendant.  You’ve seen battlefields aplenty.  Does that army look particularly motivated?  Or are they planning to wait until they can just say you probably died to plague, they tried their hardest, but there was no saving you?”

“I think they’re motivated enough, Sylvester,” Berger said.

“Professor,” I said, exasperated.  “You’re a smart man.  You know how things are, I know how things are.  Let’s accept that.  Let’s not lie to each other about the simple things.”

“The building is reinforced,” he said.  “It might last the fire.”

“If that’s true, I’ll let you stay here,” I said.  “But I don’t think it’s true.  Or it might last the fire, only for them to unleash other measures to be sure the plague is gone, and you’d be caught by that.  Open the door, professor.  Come out.  I’ll take you hostage, ask you some questions you won’t particularly mind answering, no need for torture.  You’ll be alive.”

“And then?” he asked.

I’d known he was going to ask that, but I left the ‘then’ out to prompt the question, getting him to buy into the narrative a bit, to wonder on the future and be on the same page as me for one moment.

“Then… I’m not sure.  It’s up for negotiation,” I said.  Another way of getting you to buy in.  “Ransom you to the Crown, perhaps.”

“I’d need more assurances.”

“It’s about project Caterpillar,” I said.  “Expiry date is fast approaching.  The Duke showed interest in Caterpillar.  Several times.  I’m thinking you’ve at least read up on it.”

I thought of the Duke standing in the room when I’d first lost Jamie.

“I’ve read up on it.”

“I need you alive if there’s any chance you can provide some answers on that.  Right now, I think I’m the only person who needs you alive.”

“No,” he said.  “No, not the only person.”

But the door latch clicked.

I knew the rebel leader was about to execute the professor the moment he saw him.  He had no reason to do otherwise.

I knew the professor that was cooped up in that room was being very incautious, considering that the rebels here had opened fire on the door.  Why hadn’t he asked about them?

He’d asked about my Wyvern formula?

He hadn’t asked about them because they weren’t a consideration.

I pushed the door open, and I stepped clear out of the way.

They sprung forward like grasshoppers, or pellets from a slingshot.  Too fast to follow with the eye, each one the size of a human hand.

Two of them latched onto me, leaving bloody marks as hook-like feet caught on the skin of my arm for footing while they launched forward to their next vantage point.

They went for the spine, one crawling beneath coat, sweater and shirt to find the small of my back, the other finding the nape of my neck.

They bit, and I felt all sensation leave everything from the shoulders down.  I fell to the ground, my entire body paralyzed.

Long seconds passed, and the mandibles came free.

Sensation came back in a pins and needles fashion.

Berger stood over me as I found my way to my feet.  He watched with cold eyes.  He was an older man, approaching fifty, his hair shorn short, a bit of stubble on his chin.  His eyebrows were the longest hairs I could see on his head.  He had lips twisted into an expression I couldn’t read, possibly disgust, and eyes that naturally glared.

I looked at the rest of the Little Castle rebels who had been in the hall.  They lay sprawled on the carpet, massive bugs latched onto their spines, mandibles and limbs latched in.  Half of them were actively pissing and shitting themselves.

He approached one rebel and bent down.  Fingers hooked on ring-like growths on the back of one of the bugs.  He pulled back, and there were silken strands between ring and bug.

Moving one, he made one of the young rebel’s arms move.  Moving another, he moved a leg.

The man grunted.

“Cooperate,” he instructed the fallen rebel.  “Stand.”

He moved the strings.  The rebel flopped like a fish on dry land.

“Cooperate,” Professor Berger told the fallen rebel, once more.

Again, he moved the strings.

He apparently didn’t like the result, because he pulled back on another ring with silken strand attached.  The rebel made choked, strangled sounds as his body contorted to the point I thought things would break or dislocate.  Within two seconds, the rebel’s face was red, veins standing out, spittle frothing as he pushed it out between clenched teeth.

The Professor eased back on the string, and the man relaxed correspondingly.  His breathing returned to what seemed to be an overly regular pattern, but the recent stress gave those regular breaths a whiny, panting note.

“Cooperate,” the professor said, moving strings.

The man still flopped like a fish on dry land, but the professor seemed to appreciate his efforts more, because there was no punishment this time.

“In case the implication isn’t clear,” the professor said, “we’re not working alongside these rebels.”

“I had no plans to.  On that note, it might be better to do something with the rebel leader,” I said.  I indicated the man in question.

Berger looked over, then came to a decision.  He pulled back on the string, forcing the convulsions, and then pried the bug off.

The bandit he’d been working on seized, the process not stopping, as Berger knelt by the bandit leader.

“This should do,” he said.

“Sure,” I said.  I was still recovering, myself.

“You’ll get us out of here.  I’ll supply what you need for Caterpillar.  You’ll let us go, rather than ransom us.”

“Us?” I asked.

He turned his head.  I looked.

Standing in the doorway, watching, were two small children.  Eleven or so.  One boy, one girl, roughly the same age.

“Yours?”

“My daughter and nephew,” he said.  “You’ll save them or you won’t get my cooperation on any front.”

“There are others to save,” I said. “I have comrades downstairs.  They’re captive, and watched by a crowd.”

“If I thought I could deal with all of the rebels I’d seen before retreating to safety up here, I’d have done it myself.  We’re not equipped to deal with a small army.  Reconsider,” the Professor said.

I wondered if Pierre had caught wind of the children.  It was no secret I tried to protect children when given the chance.  If he’d told me, combined it with the knowledge that this was an Academy professor with valuable information…

I was disappointed he hadn’t told me.

“We’ll save everyone we can,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I was.

“As you wish,” Professor Berger said.

“I don’t suppose you can make him say what we need him to say?”

Professor Berger shook his head.

Then, while his daughter and nephew watched, he pulled on a string and gave the instruction, “Cooperate.”

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