“Cooperate,” the professor murmured.
He pulled the strings of the rebel leader, and the leader found his way to his feet, moving like a stitched might. I could see his expression now that he wasn’t face down on the ground anymore. His face contorted and his head leaned over to one side, the side of his face grinding hard into one shoulder.
“Good,” professor Berger said. It was the first thing he’d said that wasn’t ‘cooperate’ for several minutes now.
I was getting rather sick of standing here, and the smell of it was getting to me. I had endured foul places, and had even made my way through sewer drains, but shit was shit, and far too many of these men had shit and pissed in their pants
“Good?” I asked. “What are our limitations here?”
“What’s he good for?”
“He walks and moves at my allowance. Each string controls a limb. Feedback on my end in the form of tension and vibration suggests just how he is moving that limb, and I can stop him. He either elects not to move at all, or he moves the way I want him to.”
“Can you make him point?” I asked.
“I can. The act of pointing to something specific is trickier but doable.”
I studied the bearded rebel leader, rubbing my chin. “Can you get him to stop doing that thing with his head?”
Strings were manipulated. The leader tensed up, face turning red for a moment, and then he relaxed. He started to move his head in that direction, his shoulders tightened, and he stopped.
“Good,” I said. “We should get two more. Then I think we can crack this. Will it take long?”
“Not long,” Berger said. “Charles, come here.”
The Berger’s nephew approached. The boy was small, with large eyes that made him look younger than he was, black hair neatly parted. He wore a crisp, thoroughly-starched shirt with a sweater vest and wore slacks with shoes, not boots, despite the weather outside.
At his uncle’s instruction, he reached overhead and took the strings.
“If you relax them, he’ll collapse. If you pull back on them, he’ll have more range of movement. Given a choice between the two, if your arm gets tired, make him collapse. Understand?”
Charles nodded, solemn.
“If he fights you, or if you feel the strings moving because he’s trying to move, if he starts making noise, often a squeal, or if there’s any other trouble at all, you pull back on the middle one. Everything connected to his nervous system will seize. By all reports, it is indescribably painful. At that stage, we can let him die or I can take over again.”
“What if I can’t?” Charles asked. “What if I can’t pull?”
Berger reached over, and he ran his fingers through the front of Charles’ hair, as if to fix the part, when it needed no fixing. He said, “I would be immensely proud of you if you could, Charles. So would your father, were he with us. If the need arises and you cannot manage your patient, I’m sure Sylvester would keep him from getting too far.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ll see about our second patient, then. Would you keep an eye out for trouble while keeping an eye on Charles and his patient?”
“I can,” I said.
Berger knelt by another ‘patient’, and he started work.
I turned to Charles. “Spending time with your uncle?”
Berger was the one who answered. “My duties being what they are, I don’t often have time to look after the children. My extended family steps in and does what they can, but I’m between appointments, and I saw an opportunity. They’re old enough to start thinking about which Academies they will attend, and I needed to see some people in various Academies. We’re on our way back from the Cape of Flowers.”
“With a bunch of body-controlling bugs on hand,” I said. “Which is curious.”
Berger stopped what he was doing, looked up, and met my eyes. “I’m not your enemy today, Sylvester. There’s no need to analyze me or pick me to pieces.”
“Oh, not to worry. I pick even my friends to pieces, and while you aren’t my enemy, you’re not my friend.”
“All the same, perhaps you should focus on our mutual enemy?”
“The benefit of Wyvern and my particular mental architecture is that I’m very good at maintaining several trains of thought at once. I can pester you and think about how to deal with the enemy at the same time. It’s even constructive, since things in our conversation here might inspire me.”
“The time and energy I spend in responding to you is time and energy I’m not focusing on this,” professor Berger said.
“Bullcrap,” I said. I leaned back against the bars that encircled the stairs and looked down, making sure nobody was coming up. “All you’re doing there is playing a patience game. Waiting for the ‘patient’ there to figure out how he’s supposed to move while you’re pulling his strings. I’m sure that we can have a conversation.”
Charles was watching me very closely. He glanced at his uncle, and I saw momentary concern as Berger pressed his lips together and didn’t fire back a response.
Is that the first time you’ve seen someone talk back to your uncle? I thought.
I didn’t have the full picture yet. Was Berger the equivalent of someone who had a bad day on the street, came home, and beat his wife? Would he take what I was dishing out now and turn around to take it out on the children?
I only asked because he seemed like a peculiar individual. Controlling, uncompromising, and so lacking in empathy that he seemed to think less of Charles for having some. The closest thing I’d seen to kindness from Berger, the touching of his nephew’s hair, had been so calculated that Charles had to have seen through it.
I wasn’t about to say it was the case, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Berger was the sort of man who only really expressed kindness by wearing a particularly thick glove when hitting the children.
“Did you have a favorite stop?” I asked Charles.
Mute, Charles glanced back at his uncle.
“You can answer,” Berger said.
“I liked Peachtree,” Charles said.
“How come?” I asked him. Again, I checked the stairs to make sure the coast was clear.
“I made some friends there. I got their addresses. We’re going to exchange letters,” Charles said.
His arm moved a little, and the rebel leader stiffened. Charles adjusted, and the man relaxed. I thought about offering to take over, but I had suspicions about how that would play out. Not yet, not now.
“Atlantica Academy is ranked eighth in the Crown States,” Berger said. “I’d rather Charles attend something more prestigious, but we’ve discussed it. If he keeps up with his studies, I may allow him to go there for Academy prep.”
Academy prep, like Mothmont in Radham.
“I find that language interesting,” I said. “You may allow him. I mean, you’re not even committing to a proper Academy, just the prep school, and you can’t even make it a promise?”
“I don’t like promises,” Berger said. “And I don’t like guaranteeing anything for much the same reason. I find they mean very little to people if kept, and they cost you a great deal if they’re broken. Exceptions for present company, of course, you and I are in a life and death circumstance.”
“Sure,” I said. “It warrants, hm, being political?”
“In that vein,” Berger said.
“Yet by choosing not to promise like that, you’re really playing at politics with family, aren’t you?”
“Sylvester,” professor Berger said. “Please do not question how I raise the children in my care.”
I started to respond, and then I saw Charles and the girl staring at me.
I smiled. “As you wish, professor.”
Berger took that at face value, turning his attention to his patient and completely missed the wink I shot Charles in the meantime. The professor tapped one of his patient’s arms and told the young man, “Right arm now.”
“What about you, miss…?” I asked.
“Florence,” Berger volunteered.
Florence’s hair was black, much like Charles’. My experience in watching Helen suggested that it likely took a two-person team and an hour’s time to properly set up the hair and the light makeup, everything in place, with just a bit of ornamentation.
She looked like a doll, hair carefully coiffed, a dress that looked more decorative than functional, with embroidery from shoulder to hem, and fine lace at the edges.
“Hello, Flo,” I said.
“Florence,” she said.
“Florence, sure,” I said. “Your favorite stop on your trip with dad?”
“I call him father,” she told me.
“I stand corrected,” I said. “What was your favorite stop on your trip with father?”
“If I had to choose, I quite liked Haverhill Academy,” she said.
“Setting your sights high,” I said.
“But if I got to choose anywhere, I would choose one of the Academies in New Amsterdam, or Crown Capitol in London.”
“Setting your sights at the very top.”
“Naturally,” she said.
She didn’t even glance at her father. I wondered if-
“She’s a strong student, and my name has some pull. She can achieve it if she works hard,” professor Berger said.
She’d looked his way as he started talking. My wondering was cut short. Too quick to look, betraying the fact that she’d been acting aloof and avoiding looking to see if she’d earned the approval she was shooting for until she had an excuse.
Berger didn’t seem to catch it, or didn’t seem to care if he had.
“I like the name Peachtree. Sounds warm,” I said. Turning my attention back to Charles.
“It wasn’t when we went,” Charles said. “It was wet and cold.”
“Wet and cold. It must have something going for it. Girls?”
Charles made a face.
“Give it time, Charles. Something else that’s neat, then?”
“They have tunnels and trenches and orchards everywhere, and the city boys and the town boys go to war over it all.”
“Ah,” I said.
“The city boys didn’t like me much at first, but I proved myself. It was muddy in the trenches, so I got bits of pig that were being slaughtered for parts, paid for the bits with my allowance, and I made a stitched pig.”
“It was clever,” Berger said. Then, because he had to temper any compliment, he added, “Simple, but clever.”
Charles, subdued a little, said, “We let it loose in the downhill part of the tunnels. Scared the wits out of the townies.”
“Something they’ll tell tales of for months to come.”
“Herman Anthony, he was the leader of the city boys, he told me I was proper legendary, those are the two words he used, and he considered it a point of honor to be a fast friend with me. He’s one of the boys I’m going to write when I get back home.”
Charles was talking, and I was doing my best to look attentive, but in the background, Berger had finished with the second man. He beckoned Florence, and carefully passed management of the strings over to her.
The instructions were the same as the ones he’d given to Charles. I could tell already that she’d heard the prior instructions. She looked attentive, eyes on her father, but the way her eyes moved suggested she wasn’t really listening. She was studying the man.
I double checked for anyone coming up the stairs, then moved away from the stairs, closer to Charles and the rebel leader.
“She’s going to pull the string,” I whispered to Charles.
“What?” he asked.
“If he gets too stubborn, or if he starts pulling away from the controls, which might happen if there are old injuries or if you get a patient with exceptional willpower, then you pull-”
She pulled the string before the sentence was done.
The young rebel toppled forward, sprawling on the ground, every part of him clenching, straining, or bending. His eyes rolled up into his head, and his mouth jerked open and closed, like a particularly crude stitched trying to chomp at a large apple.
In the midst of that chomping, the young rebel vomited, then choked on the vomit, coughing some of it out.
Berger was swift to drop to the man’s side, taking control of the strings that had pulled free from Florence’s fingers. He made the young rebel stop seizing, then reached into the man’s mouth to clear the throat, before ensuring that the man did not asphyxiate.
Once the man was breathing again, Berger stood.
“Berger,” I said, raising my voice.
Florence didn’t flinch as she squared off against her father. She raised her chin, and Berger slapped her full across the face.
“Professor!” I raised my voice, sharpening it.
“Save your commentary, Sylvester,” the professor said. He shook the hand he’d used to slap his daughter, and flecks of the mess he’d scooped out of the young rebel’s mouth and throat fell free. “It’s not your place.”
“You set her up to fail,” I said. “That, or you’re oblivious.”
“Its not your place, Sylvester. Let it be. You lack context, and any further argument from you is going to be painful to listen to.”
“I can guess at the context. This isn’t a first time. Which goes back to you setting her up to fail.”
“There’s such a thing as ineptitude, Sylvester,” he said, his voice hard. “And there’s such a thing as malicious ineptitude. Ineptitude can be amended with counsel and careful instruction. Malicious ineptitude is amended with the rod.”
“Or the open palm,” I said.
“Leave it be,” the professor said.
Florence hadn’t even moved since she’d been slapped. Her head had turned with the force of the blow, and flecks of another man’s vomit still clung to her face and hair, and she had remained like that, chin set, eyes fixed on some distant point of ground. Her cheek was red, and I could see the general oval of the handprint.
Her father took her hand, and as if she were a statue or a doll, he posed her hand above her head, hooked the rings over each finger, and left it like that.
“Does your wife speak out on the subject? Who gainsays you, if not the fugitive experiment you’re working with out of necessity?”
Berger sighed heavily, and seemed to be resolved to ignoring me. He knelt by the third rebel. He was choosing ones that hadn’t defecated in or pissed their pants.
“I see you’re not about to answer. Can I help your daughter clean her face, at least? If you’re all going to be keeping me company, I could do without the lingering smell of vomit on top of the general aroma of piss and shit.”
“Use that marvelous Wyvern treated brain of yours and turn off your sense of smell, if you’re so particular,” the man said.
He sounded snippy. Maybe I’d gotten to him a little.
“Oh, I forgot I could do that,” I said, lying while needling the man just a little more.
I waited, patient, walking back to the cage that encircled the staircase, looking for any incoming parties. If anything brought them up to the fourth floor, it would be the smell of shit wafting down to them.
“I suppose we have to endure the smell. If you’re sure nobody’s coming, then please do clean her face.”
I approached Florence. She’d shifted position to be more comfortable, but as something resembling a point of pride, she hadn’t cleaned off her face. She stared me down as I approached.
I drew a handkerchief square from a coat pocket with a bit of a flourish. “Clean ‘kerchief. Want?”
She gave me a small nod.
I handed it over.
She wiped at the one side of her face, which streaked the makeup a small amount.
I spoke, my voice low, just for her. “That’s kind of an admirable skill to have. A big bad professor for a father, one of the foremost professors in the Crown States before the latest contingent of nobles arrived with the Infante, clearly very clever with the Academy science and on the political front. And you figure out the strings to pull. Crude at first, maybe, but you’ve got his measure. Given time, you figure out what gets what response, and you get more nuanced. Something you can apply to all the men in your life?”
“Maybe I didn’t put that much thought into it,” she said.
She handed back the handkerchief.
I mimed a motion toward her face. She nodded, and she raised her chin. I got some of the bits that had escaped her.
“Maybe didn’t put that much conscious thought into it, but I think family is often an arena of sorts for our testing of boundaries and the various games we play with peer and enemy alike. You were testing, as anyone does, but you were testing in a very interesting way, that got to a man like him. I sure tested the people closest to me for a long time. Still do.”
“You said something about them before.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Some are downstairs.”
“What happens,” she asked, while I was focused on getting a bit of food out of her hair, “If I pull the wrong string down there, and they die?”
“Then you don’t make it out of this building alive,” I said. “Your father and cousin either.”
She seemed to take a moment to process that.
It was boundary pushing, figuring out how a given action altered the world around her. This was unfamiliar territory, and here she was, trying to figure out what this particular nervous system looked like, or which direction the blood flowed. Having heard her phrase that question and direct it at me, I was almost certain she’d been intentionally testing her father, trying to wrap her mind around him and how he worked, even if it meant enduring a little bit of pain in the now.
There was something else at play, but voicing it aloud wouldn’t help me worm my way into her confidence. Elaborately dressed up, hair and clothing perfect, but for a trace amount of mess that I couldn’t get with the handkerchief, she was a bird in a cage. She craved some measure of control over her environment.
Control and power. The cornerstones of the Academies. When someone lacked either or both, they would often hurt themselves to grab for something that sufficed.
I could offer her both, however, and I was willing to bet she’d bite.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “Not because I’m scared you’ll pull the wrong string downstairs, mind you, but because I think the results would be interesting.”
“I think you’re a very dangerous person,” she said.
“Absolutely,” I said. “If all goes well, I’m a dangerous person that’s going to drag you guys with me, and together we’re going to reach a crisis point, with a lot of parallels to you and this man here. Much like you hold this man’s strings, I’m going to hold yours, or I’ll hold Charles’. You’ll have the ability of holding your ground and being stubborn, or cooperating.”
I’d gone by instinct, measuring Professor Berger’s pace, and I was pretty sure he was counting to a set number between each uttered ‘Cooperate’. Within a second or two of my saying the word, he echoed me.
Florence glanced at her father and then back at me.
I leaned a bit closer, and I said, “Cooperate, and I promise you’ll come to no harm, you’ll lose nothing, and you’ll learn more about your father in five minutes than you could learn about him in five more years of experimenting and getting slapped in the face.”
“How do I cooperate if you hold my cousin’s strings?” she asked.
I winked at her, and then walked away, back to the railing.
Berger was watching me. He hadn’t overheard any of the conversation, but he had to have known that was a longer talk than wiping someone’s face or hair required.
Why don’t you care? I wondered.
Something up your sleeve?
“Charles,” I said. “What makes a town boy a town boy and a city boy a city boy?”
“Money, I think. Class. There’s more town boys, but they’re not as up to snuff and they’re not as organized. And the city boys control the tunnels at the top of the hill and near downtown. The best tunnels. Not much wet, close to food and water and toilets, and they go to a lot of places, so we can mount good attacks on them all. Their tunnels and trenches flood a lot.”
“You control it because of the fact that you’re all closer?”
“I’m afraid I’d be a town boy,” I told him.
“I won’t hold it against you,” Charles said, very diplomatically, and with the utmost seriousness.
“Ever see any marks sketched out in the dirt or carved into the wood?” I asked.
“Hm?” he asked.
I fished in a pocket for paper, then dug out a pen. I scrawled out some basic symbols that were fairly consistent across locations. The etchings of ‘mice’.
“Something like this?” I asked, showing him.
“It’s a code,” I told him. “Secret. ‘Townie’ people all over the Crown States and probably the Crown Cities use this code or one like it. This one means ‘the vulnerable will be protected’. Usually townie kids. This one means protector. Sometimes they change. I know in some places it’ll be a rabbit instead of a mouse for this one, or a wolf instead of a fox.”
“What’s the difference between a wolf or a fox when you’re drawing it?”
I sketched it out. “Straight lines, for when you’re carving it into wood, right? I know some places have a distinction. The fox is generally a bad person, but the wolf is drawn so he looks one way. Up, down, left, right. Each one means different things.”
“What do they mean?”
“I think the wolf that looks right looks deceptively friendly, the one that looks left is scary or especially mean. I forget what up and down mean. Might be position of authority or has friends for looking up, and then ‘is sneaky’ for looking down? Or was there something else? Maybe there were eight directions to look. They didn’t use the wolf in my hometown.”
“Uh huh,” Charles said, sounding lost.
“But if you want to win points with the top city boy, the guy who called you legendary?”
He nodded at that. He wanted to.
“Grab a townie boy, take him hostage or something. Ask him what the signs mean. If nothing else, it’ll give the city boys a better idea of how things work in Peachtree.”
Charles seemed intrigued by the idea.
I left out that maybe, just maybe, it would afford the city boys a kind of empathy for the town boys, once they realized what the town boys went through.
Maybe I could hammer that in a bit.
“In fact, if you wanted to win points and if you wanted to give him a clue into how to look really cool in front of the townies, you could tell him that he could offer help with one of the foxes-” I pointed. “-or one of the wolves. But he’d have to make sure those were signs the boys in Peachtree used.”
“Huh,” Charles said. “Why would we want to help out townies?”
“In war, there is always room for negotiation. What if they captured the top city boy? Or his sister? You need something to offer, don’t you?”
“You’re a lot better at this than I am,” he said.
“I’ve played the game all my life,” I said, smiling. “I’m playing it now, with you.”
“What?” Charles asked. He was suddenly very confused.
Professor Berger brought the third of the rebels to a standing position.
“All done?” I called out to the man.
“We can move on, so long as you’ve found time to come up with a plan while corrupting the children in my care,” Berger said.
“Fantastic,” I said. “I came up with a plan before you even started, but I could do with another five minutes of corruption, if that’s alright? I could hold the strings of that fellow while you used the lavatory, maybe?”
“Best we get underway,” the man said, dryly.
“Fair enough,” I said. I walked past Charles. I approached him, and as I passed him, I turned around, walking backwards as I continued talking in a low voice, “See? Your uncle knows I’m playing townie against city, working my townie wiles on you and your cousin. But he doesn’t care. Soon I’ll find out why.”
“But we weren’t playing,” Charles said.
“People like your uncle and I are always playing this game,” I said.
Charles’ eyes widened, and I could see things falling into place.
Perhaps, in that moment, his world expanded, and the world beyond his immediate experience made more sense. Or less sense.
At the professor’s behest, I took ownership of the third rebel, one of the young ones, while he took the rebel leader. Charles approached me and took the strings. Once that was done, he began instructing the two children in how to puppeteer the men and make them walk. Freeing one leg at a time while being sure not to paralyze a given leg.
I approached all of the men we weren’t using, and, going one by one, I stabbed them in the backs, carefully avoiding the bugs that had latched onto their spines. Charles watched me while I did it, with a quiet and subtle kind of alarm.
He still had a goodness to him, it seemed. His cousin had put that goodness away to seize some influence over her surroundings, and his uncle lacked any. In this, Charles was mostly alone. He wasn’t merciful.
Slowly, they each practiced walking. Professor Berger was a practiced hand with puppeteering, but the puppets and the children weren’t so experienced. It took some doing.
“If they don’t cooperate, let them fall flat on their faces,” Berger said.
“Nosebleeds get in the way of my plan,” I said.
“I can stop nosebleeds,” he said.
“Can you stop them from looking like they’re all trying to push a full-sized tree branch through their arseholes?”
“Push-” Berger started. He gave me a look, as if I was one of his children and I’d disappointed him. “There are children present.”
I looked at him for a moment, then over at the dead bodies. My eye traveled over the blood, piss, vomit, shit, the bugs, the puppets, the children being used to control them, and finally back to Berger.
“Of course,” I said.
“They look strained, you’re right,” Berger said. He withdrew syringes from his pocket. One was spent, the others weren’t.
Reaching forward, he stuck one syringe into the face of the gang leader, moved around to the other side of the face, and injected other locations.
“All of this stuff you’re packing, I can’t hep but notice a big focus on movement, expression, controlling a useless body, making it do what you want,” I said. “I wonder if your colleagues are on a similar page, or if they’re studying brains. Say, a brain riddled with bullets?”
Berger gave me an unimpressed look.
“I had to ask,” I said.
He gave the others the same treatment with a second syringe.
“Watch the stairs, Charles, Florence. They’ll find it tricky, and bodies rolling down the stairs draw notice,” Berger said. To me, he said. “Let me have my turn. A question for you.”
“Ah. The plan is that the rebel leader steps into the doorway, and he points at the people I indicate,” I said. “Easy. We have… two floors to lead our plodding guests down. We can work out a quick system.”
“We need more than that,” Berger said.
“The rest is positioning, knowing the enemy. Look. You apparently know me well enough to know I can probably get you out of this situation. Trust me to see it through. Alright?”
“All I lose if I’m wrong is my life, my daughter’s life, and my nephew’s life.”
“Exactly,” I said. “But if you don’t take this leap of faith, then you lose those anyway, so buck up. You’ll want the rebel leader beside me, and then, cornering you, we have the other two, the ones Charles and Florence are controlling. As if they’ve got you. Maybe if one had a hand on your shoulder?”
“Third string, the one I hooked onto your ring finger, Florence,” Berger said.
It was clumsy, halting, but the hand fell into place.
“The system we’ll use is that he’ll extend his arm. You make him stop when he gets far enough. Or you can paralyze the arm and let it fall. We pick three or four, depending on how smooth we’ve got it. I’ll signal you when you’re pointing at the right person.”
I gave the signal behind the rebel leader’s back.
“As for you, Mr. rebel leader,” I said. “I fully plan to leave you alive. I’m going to make the offer to bring you guys on board with my rebel faction. It’s a good setup, I think. Better than what you’ve got. So decide if you’ll join, if you’ll go your separate way when we’re done here, barely any hard feelings on my end and a little bit of trauma on yours, or if you want to Professor Berger there to pull the middle string and remove the bug, and let you die in incredible kinds of pain. The little details, the little kinds of help you give us, they go a long way.”
The dark eyes of the rebel leader looked down at me. His face was slack now. Almost too relaxed, a little tired looking, but the tension was utterly gone. The drugs had done their job.
The syringes had been applied to the faces of the other two as well. One was a little more slack than the other.
All together, we approached the second floor.
My heart sank as I saw some hanging out at the base of the stairs. They were in our way.
I signaled behind the rebel leader’s back.
The man raised his hand, and made a sweeping motion.
The rebel soldiers further down the stairs picked themselves up. They glanced up at us, curious, before heading into the wider space where Shirley and the others were. I, the professor, the children and our hostages made our way down.
All together, we stood in the doorway.
The rebel boss raised his arm, pointing.
Putting me in the situation where I had to pick the key players. In a moment, I had to read the room, spot the people who others looked to when they were confused. I had to spot the lynchpins, the elders and the ones who led individual squads.
I’d already forgotten some particulars and some faces, and matters weren’t helped by the fact that some had moved, left, or changed from standing to sitting positions and vice-versa.
I picked out four.
When the finger found one, I signaled. The finger stopped.
He pointed out two more.
With the fourth, we ran into a snag. The man pointed to himself, as if for confirmation.
Berger’s hand touched the back of the rebel boss’s head.
No string to pull, but the rebel boss nodded slowly.
Before the men in question could come through the doorway, I motioned for Berger and the others to move away.
“You got the professor,” the first one we’d pointed out said, as he drew near. “You can move mountains after all.”
“Nothing so fancy,” I said. “I just asked.”
“Didn’t shoot him, though,” the older rebel said.
“Like I said, we need him. And it was a term of the asking. He lives, for now.”
Talking to the man drew his attention, and it bought Berger a moment to walk up a few stairs and turn around, the bugs securely out of sight instead of just halfways out of sight.
“What’s this about?” another of the four men asked.
“Making sure we have a plan, rounding up all the ones with guns in the windows,” I said.
“Could just give the signal.”
“Nah,” I said. “We want to play this careful. There are still people in the building, and the Crown has resources.”
He made a face.
The four men we’d picked out found positions on lower stairs, looking up at the rebel boss.
The nature of the stairs and my short stature posed a problem. I had to reach over to the railing to find a good vantage point, which occupied a hand, and limited what I could do.
Still, I was silent as I did it, and the men simply waited restlessly for their mute boss to speak.
I knifed the first and the second quickly, choosing to target much the same points the bugs had, slamming my knife between one vertebrae, hauling it out, then slamming it into the next man. He turned as I swung, and then fell in a way that trapped the knife blade between the bones I was aiming between.
It cost me seconds, as I had to haul out another knife. The third and fourth man heard the sound of the first rebel hitting the floor, and turned on me.
The rebel boss, controlled by Berger, reached out and grabbed one of his comrades around the neck. Charles’ rebel might have been trying to do much the same thing, but he wasn’t as well-controlled. His arms went out, and one clubbed the last rebel across the face.
Smacked, grunting loud enough to be heard below, the man tumbled down the stairs. I sprung on top of him, and I buried my spare knife in his chest.
People appeared in the door. Rebels with weapons.
They looked up at us.
Their eyes fell on the boss, who wore a dead expression and had his hands wrapped around another man’s neck. He’d placed his hands right, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the strength he was displaying was enhanced by the control being exerted on him, pushing him past pain tolerances and normal limits. His eyes were even darker than before. To him, he’d just had to kill a friend. But to these witnesses…
I double checked the children were safely hidden behind the men they were controlling.
“Traitors,” I said. I picked myself up, cleaning my knife. I made myself the picture of calm, as if the ones in the door posed no risk at all. “They gave you guys up. Why do you think the professor here was able to slip away? He knew in advance. Or the Academy surrounded you all so fast?”
That wasn’t why the professor had slipped away. The Academy hadn’t surrounded them that fast – they’d just been slow to exit.
But for these rebels who were looking up at this scene, they wanted to be spoon-fed a story they could believe. They wanted something easy, in an already uncertain situation.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s leave the man alone for a second.”
Behind me, the rebel leader let go of the man he’d just strangled to death. The body tumbled hard onto the stairs.
The rebel leader nodded.
The bugs only controlled him from the neck down. This was of his own volition.
I wondered if he would fight back.
“Let’s leave him alone,” I said, again, to drive the point home. My heart hammered. If this became a question of one group of hostages against the other, well, I was pretty sure we had the upper hand, but I really didn’t want to test it.
The men retreated back into the room. There was some commotion there. Things took on a different tone when I passed through the door.
“Traitors,” I said, again. “There might be more. Be wary. But for the time being, before any groups reinforce the perimeter, we’re going to want to get out of here. The soldiers at the barricade are friendlies, except for the ones who are being held hostage, but more on that later. We-”
I saw the room change. Alarm, on the faces of everyone from young rebel to old, Shirley to Otis.
Behind me, the rebel boss had stepped into the doorway. He had a look in his eyes, like a mother who had just watched her child die, or a man who had lost not just a battle, but a war.
Berger was right behind him, the other puppet-rebels behind Berger.
“We move across as one group. No stopping, no shenanigans. Don’t shoot, you’ll only draw attention to yourselves and draw answering fire. We do this quick, and we do this discreet. And give up my friends already. I’ve delivered, now it’s your turn.”
The rebel boss exhaled, and it was a long, shuddering, ugly sound.
I looked past him at Berger, and I saw the professor’s expression. Tension. He was prepared for disaster.
I had the situation well in hand, I thought. You didn’t have to roll the dice.
The rebel leader, his chest and lungs freed enough for him to speak, gave his order.