The departure of the Lambs was our cue to start packing up and getting ready to go.
We had three hundred students, fifty other individuals we’d picked up along the way, and thirty gang members that included the new and the old; adults that were willing to take orders. Of all the gang leaders we’d started with, only Archie remained.
We couldn’t stay, and so we were left with the unenviable task of getting four hundred people ready to leave. Most of them had been up for half the night as active agents in attacking the quarantine site and then distracting Academy forces, leading them into traps. The average age was roughly seventeen, and being ex-students, they were a spoiled sort of seventeen that weren’t busy working to help their families put food on the tables.
Thanks for helping us get out of the quarantine zone, kids! Hope you enjoyed your breakfasts, because we’re going to spend the rest of the day trudging through cold wet backroads.
If they had been motivated by any degree of excitement or a legitimate fear for their own lives, it still would have been a slow process. If it had been both exciting with mortal fear driving it, maybe things might have moved along a little better.
“Limited wagons,” Jessie observed. “We can save seven seats, including the driver’s seat. Rudy gets one, of course. Then Doris, Marie, Bernard, Clara, Ann, and Edwin. Doris can drive the wagon for a stretch, but we’ll want to ensure she’s snug and comfortable.”
“Why her in particular?”
It was Helen who chimed in, “Because it’s gentlemanly, Sy. Don’t tell me that you’ve become a degenerate in the last year.”
“It’s because she’s pregnant, Sy. You’ve seen her around.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Conception was our fault, arguably. The early days after we left Beattle.”
“There’s a dozen kinds of ways to avoid that,” I said.
“I’m fond of not having a uterus,” Helen said. “Very convenient.”
“It probably is,” Jessie told Helen. To me, she said, “They slipped the net. You threatened Doris’ boyfriend and said you’d stitch his dick to his forehead if he didn’t step up.”
“Did I?” I asked.
“Why are you asking me? Do you think I’m going to be wrong about something?” Jessie asked. “Or that I forgot?”
“No, no, nothing like that. It’s just, dang, I’m really disappointed I didn’t remember the forehead-dick-stitching. I really like that. I’m sort of in awe of my past self.”
“Again,” Jessie chimed in.
“He’s a bold and adventurous lad, with uncommon intelligence,” I said. “And with a mischievous streak that may include attaching members to foreheads., without removal of either forehead or member.”
“It was inspired,” Jessie said. “You were angry.”
“Did I have cause to try putting the inspiration to practice?” I asked. “I’m sort of wondering at the logistics of the act, now.”
“He stepped up, you didn’t have cause. You could say he was inspired by the lingering threat,” Jessie said.
“Well, good for him,” I said. “Also, drat.”
“For all of his early reluctance, I think he’s more likely to be a proper parent than Doris,” Jessie said. “Not that we’re going to say anything of the sort in earshot of Doris.”
“I’ll forget you said it before the hour is out,” I said.
“I’ll be good,” Helen said. “And if you ever want to test those logistics on someone, Sylvester, do let me know. I’ll be happy to help.”
“How gracious of you, madam. Do remind me if we have any particularly annoying enemies deserving of the fate.”
Helen offered me a little curtsy, “Of course, sir.”
“You two are just going to be a right horror show, aren’t you?” Jessie asked.
“Given a chance,” I said.
“Just keep me in the loop,” Jessie said.
“Can do,” I said.
Students were making their way outside. The ground was wet with snow, and they were reluctant to put their bags down where they would get soaked. There weren’t many surfaces available, either, and the bags were heavy, leaving them in an awkward position. Students were doing their best to take bags and load up the carriages and wagons, but it was quickly becoming apparent that there just wasn’t much space.
“Are we going to have to reduce the number of bags we’re bringing?” I asked.
“Probably,” Jessie said. “Since we arrived, we’ve gathered lab equipment, materials, projects, new people, and we’ve lost wagons and carriages as of last night.”
“We’ll manage. Maybe if we get students to share the load, each one carries one bag for a short leg of the journey, passes it on?”
“Or we could devise a quick hitch. If we tore off a door and fix wheels to it from somewhere, we could add more bags,” I said.
“More load for the horses,” Jessie said. “You’re not wrong, but let’s not overstate it.”
Jessie waved over one student. “Get Charlie Cullough and Alvin Munder. Get tools from under the stairs of the unoccupied dormitory, tear away the sliding door of the enclosed pen. Then get the big treaded wheelbarrow wheels and axle from the rusty wheelbarrow sitting inside the mill. Beside the brick stack. See what you can put together. We need something we can hitch to a carriage and pull behind, to hold bags.”
“Yeah?” the boy asked. He glanced at us three, with Helen getting the majority of the attention.
“Make it sturdy,” Jessie said. “We have a long trip ahead of us, and we really don’t want to stop halfway to fix it.
“Yes ma’am,” the boy said, sounding unconvinced.
“There’s a pay bonus in it for you three if you get it done fast and it lasts the entire trip,” I said. “Be inventive.”
“Show us what you’re made of,” Helen said. Her tone was such that I couldn’t help but think that she was actually thinking about constituent, fleshy elements when she talked about what he was made of.
Still, it did the trick. He hurried off to do the task with zest and pep.
“That will help,” Jessie said. “I’m just trying to put the mental building blocks together. Quantity of cargo, the amount of space…”
“We could tell everyone to dig through their bags and throw away five items.”
“We could,” Jessie said. “Fast way to breed resentment.”
“You’re not wrong,” I said. “But the Academy catching up to us or us making our rebels carry two stone worth of luggage is going to see us collectively dead and dealt with or it’s going to breed even more resentment.”
“Yeah,” Jessie said. She looked down at her notebook and began making notes, one eye on incoming refugees and the bags they were carrying. She wrote something down.
“Why the notes?” I asked.
“Calculations, and I may have to delegate. There’s a lot to do.”
“Got it,” I said. “What can I do?”
“Find Shirley and Pierre?”
“On it,” I said.
“And take Helen? Boys are stopping to stare at the new girl and it’s slowing down traffic in a logistically key place.”
“If it would help, I can drink and redistribute water across my body,” Helen said. “Change my proportions to be less stare-worthy.”
“No,” I said. “Not if you’re walking long distances.”
“I can expel it,” she said.
“Means stopping repeatedly.”
“I can expel it through the mouth.”
“Let’s just not,” I said. “Come with. We’ll get out of sight and out of mind, and maybe the hope that they get to gawk at you in the future motivates them to get going.”
“Alright,” Helen said.
“Don’t be too long!” Jessie called out. Helen and I were already a little distance away. “We should leave soon.”
“Got it!” I called back.
Shirley and Pierre were in the dining hall. The room was one of the largest areas with open space, access from multiple directions and a lot of surfaces to set bags and things on. Some of our people were packing up on tables, others pausing to rest after lugging heavy bags a distance.
Shirley’s hair had grown in a bit longer, but it remained a pixie cut of black hair. The heavy application of product to her lashes and the makeup surrounding her eyes made her eyes look even larger. In any other circumstance, she might have looked like an attractive cross of the seductress and the innocent, new to adulthood. She was coordinating and giving advice.
She looked worn out. She hadn’t had much more sleep than I had, to look at her, and her brain wasn’t so adaptable. She was doing an admirable job, and she was doing it after being hit by plague. Bloody bandages wrapped her forearms and hands.
Pierre hung back, looking bedraggled. I doubted he’d slept nearly enough.
“Sylvester!” Shirley greeted me.
Which was sufficient to turn the vast majority of the crowd’s attention my way.
In moments, I was being bombarded with questions from the mundane to the serious. How many bags could they bring? So-and-so had been given multiple major adjustments and physical changes by some amateur surgeons, there was some concern about risk if they were to exert themselves or travel on the road. Someone wasn’t leaving their room and there was some concern they would stay behind on a more permanent basis.
I raised a hand to suppress the rising tide of voices, and I talked to Shirley. “Where do we stand?”
“Snags,” she said. “This was abrupt.”
“I warned people to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, to keep a bag packed, whatever else they needed. Hopefully this becomes something they start doing by default.”
“Most are doing fine. But there are outliers, Sylvester.”
“How many are you stumped on?”
“Three or four,” she said.
I put a hand on her shoulder, leading her away from the crowd. Pierre and Helen followed as we found our way to a place that was less overwhelmed with students and problems. “Who? Which?”
“Four students are in an ongoing dispute about… everything. They’re fighting over everything.”
“Everything?” I asked.
“Room assignments, politics, who gets the credit for what work. They’re entangled, enmeshed, and they aren’t congealing into a working unit.”
“A minor issue, but I’m not seeing if it really demands attention. We have other priorities.”
“They’re refusing to budge until someone higher up steps in to decide. Others have taken bets, which means they’re reluctant to get a move on.”
“And it’s not an easy solve, when it comes to winners and losers and hurt feelings whichever you decide,” Shirley said.
“Okay,” I said. “Who else?”
“Student sealed herself in her room. Scared of plague. Doesn’t want to leave today, so soon after the scare yesterday.”
“You can’t talk her down?”
“I could, given time and one hundred percent of my focus, but there’s so much to keep track of,” Shirley said. She looked a little bit on edge for a moment, and then she pulled herself back together. She took in a deep breath.
“It’s never quite so bad as it seems,” Helen said.
I added, “And, it’s worth saying, there’s nothing at this stage you can do to disappoint. You’re doing more than enough. It pains me to see you this wound up.”
“You’re right,” Shirley said. “But I do feel like a dunce, not being able to handle enough of this.”
“You’re fine,” I said. “Really. Take my word for it.”
“I do. I will.”
“Good,” I said. I took in a deep breath, myself. “By the by, I’m not sure if you’ve had formal introductions. Shirley, this is Helen.”
“We met, in very brief passing.”
“Did we?” Helen asked.
“When you broke into Sylvester’s orphanage. You came down through the roof and charged right past me.”
“Oh,” Helen said. “That was a fun day.”
Up until the end of it, at which point it was one of the more miserable days of my life, I thought.
“I heard she was staying. You traded away the professor for her.”
“In a sense,” I said. “I didn’t plan for it from the outset, but here we are.”
“She uses the same body language techniques you tried to teach me.”
“Taught you,” I said. “Didn’t try. Please don’t malign my abilities. And I’ll tell you this. Those techniques? The framing of the body, posing, balance and clothing? Hers.”
“Mine,” Helen said.
“It’s what she does,” I said. “Except very natural. Spend time with her if you can. Study Helen. You can learn an awful lot, even if it’s hard to put into proper words. I studied her and figured out some tricks and techniques, but she’s a natural.”
“I’m the furthest thing from natural,” Helen said. “You’re all made up of meat and vegetables, and here I am, sweet as spun sugar.”
“She’s in a poetic mood,” I whispered to Shirley.
“Getting back to the introductions, Helen, this is Shirley someone I owe a tremendous amount to. More than I can say. I owe her my sanity, which she really went to great personal risk to escort safely to the brink and walk back to reality with. With that in mind, we treat her as nicely as we would anyone. Please.”
“I treat everyone nicely,” Helen said.
“…Yeah,” I said. “Treat Shirley the right kind of nice. The non-hurting kind of hugs, if you hug her at all.”
“Of course,” Helen said. Her expression was perfect. Entirely convincing.
Which wasn’t convincing at all, in its perfection.
“Alright,” I said. “One student won’t leave, four students are at war, what else?”
“The youngest boy of Otis’ group. He’s holding a grudge over a girl. It’s not explicitly stonewalling anything, but people are nervous. A lot of people are nervous. Otis didn’t survive the night, his men are uneasy and frustrated, some are posturing. I think ten or twelve students have mentioned it in passing, all with the impression that someone might come looking for revenge, or try to take command of the thugs.”
“Alright,” I said.
Shirley nodded, apparently emboldened by my lack of concern. “Last of all, three students are having second thoughts. They’re wondering if, if they were to leave, they could just make their way back to Beattle and lie about being kidnapped.”
“If they have to,” I said. “Tell them to come with. I don’t like the idea of three students wandering off in the cold because they aren’t a picture of the group.”
“We can tackle this,” I said. “This is all doable.”
“How are you getting by, Pierre?” I asked.
“Doing just fine,” Pierre said. “Tired.”
“I thought you didn’t get tired.”
“It was a lot of running yesterday, I’m sore,” he said.
“But I’m glad to be moving,” he said. “Most of my favorite people survived.”
“Good,” I said. “Good, that’s excellent.”
Four things to tackle, then.
“Shall we demonstrate our charms and wiles?” I asked Helen.
“Yes sir,” she said, giving me a crisp salute.
“We’ll start with the biggest group first,” I said. “The group surrounding this Otis follower.”
Rather than ask for a location from Shirley I asked students to point me in the direction we had last seen the guy. A crude method, but the people in our camp paid attention, they gathered notes and they shared information between them. Even the normally sealed family bonds of a greater faction could be undermined by one follower with doubts.
“Want to bet?” Helen asked me.
“On who can accomplish the most.”
“Well aren’t you feeling as lively as a figged pony today, miss Helen.”
“What’s at stake with the bet?” I asked.
“If you win,” Helen said, “then…”
She trailed off. I noticed the shift in her posture. There was swagger, a pronounced and cocky addition of sway.
“I’m not that easy to manipulate,” I said. “I’m not Duncan.”
“Oh?” Helen asked, teasing. “But I was going to say that if you won, you could do anything. I would be your obedient slave.”
“Ha ha,” I said. “No thanks.”
“And if I win…” she said.
“My ‘no’ doesn’t count for anything then?” I asked. “What?”
“If I win, I get one favor,” Helen said.
“One deal. It won’t be anything you couldn’t do on your own.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “You’d have to run that by Jessie. She’s paranoid I’ll make a promise to do a favor and someone will take advantage of my lack of memory to get me to deliver on the favor over and over again. You’re trustworthy, but…”
“Promises to Jessie must be kept. That should be fine,” Helen said. “You get me as a slave if you win, I get a favor if I win.”
“Again, I don’t want a slave,” I said. “I have too many people to risk throwing too much away for a meager advantage. I’m trying to dissuade them of that kind of thinking. I want healthy thought processes and motivations in all of this.”
“It’s fine,” Helen said, still swaying and sashaying.
“I won’t lose,” she said.
“Oh, the figgy little miss is cocky?”
“The twiggy-thin runt of the litter is complacent, I think,” Helen said.
I whistled, low and long.
Helen wasn’t actually competitive. This wasn’t a deeper facet of Helen, I knew. The enthusiasm, the excitement. No, if anything, this was a reflection of how very trepiditious she was in this new environment. Camouflage, hiding places, but it was emotional, a facade. Blending in with the enemy ranks and then carrying out the Lamb tradition of undermining the enemy from within.
This was a mask, one purely for my benefit, to cheer and encourage. To make bets I might well lose, to get hooks in deeper, to distract.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll try my hand at this bet of yours.”
Helen smiled. The she reached out, putting a hand on a boy’s arm as we passed him.
Helen named our quarry, Hank Miller, and we were pointed out to the chicken coop. I recognized the thug. Twenty years old, wearing Otis’ style of dress, with laborer’s clothes and a fair bit of excess dirt, his ears bent down at the sides where his flat cap pressed them down.
“Miller,” I greeted Hank.
“And the boss comes calling,” Hank said.
“You expected me,” I said.
“You and the secretary,” he said.
“You’re aware that the ‘secretary’ can kick your ass?” I asked.
“Alright Hank,” I said. “Let’s talk business and let’s talk reality, because I’m getting the impression you’re lacking both of those things.”
Hank glanced at Helen while I was talking. I followed his gaze, saw he was staring down her chest, and I paused, very diplomatically and dramatically, in hopes of breaking the spell.
Helen was posing, and while she wore a winter coat, the ‘v’ of the collar and front of the coat was such that her cleavage was on display.
“Hank,” I said.
Hank didn’t listen up until Helen opened her mouth. He’d gotten into trouble for the sake of a dispute over a girl, and Helen was subtituting for that same girl. His attention had been moved off of her.
Helen’s smile as she looked at me appeared wholly, perfectly genuine, which made it all the more suspicious when I had to look past it and work out the shape glee and excitement took in her character.
You win this one, Helen, I thought.
“Why, though?” I asked. “Something drew you three here in the first place. You had a reason to stay. If it was the fighting, I can assure you that isn’t going to be a regular thing.”
The three would-be defectors exchanged glances.
“If there’s something you’re looking for, I think there’s a very good chance you’ll find it or something like it if you stick with us a bit longer. New places, new interactions, new people…”
“It’s not like that,” the sole girl in the group of four spoke.
“Okay,” I said.
“Being new, I think I can see where they’re coming from,” Helen said.
You can go get bent, Helen, I thought. She was butting in. I had strong suspicions about what was going to happen. I avoided looking at the phantoms to spoil the result.
“It’s lonely,” Helen said. “Creature comforts are a once a day thing. Even for those of us who don’t get along with our parents, home often means treats when we want treats, tea when we want tea, hugs, sometimes, or a listening ear.”
A few heads were nodding.
I abandoned this track of strategy, deeming myself too tired for it, and I focused on the next two tasks. I was not about to let Helen sweep me and claim four out of four victories because my focus was suffering for my mental exhaustion.
“Shirley needs a break,” I said. “She’s got her hands full. Now, the four of you are in an ongoing dispute. If I’m understanding matters right, Adams and group A here are driven by the idea. Their idea to begin with. Julie and Jim are driven by money.”
The pair started to protest.
“Stop fussing about,” I told them. “It’s the money, even if you’re pretending it’s not. Let’s cut through the B.S. Something about that tells me you’ll respect me talking straight to you.”
“I want respect,” Jim said.
I started to open my mouth to counter him, but he went on to continue.
“I want respect, and money is how respect is demonstrated,” Jim said.
“Great,” I told him. “Let’s move forward like that. You two want the lion’s share of profit if we turn around and sell your work on venomous parasites and when we decide if you sell any bonuses. Then there’s Gerald, who wants the group to stay together and avoid burning bridges, and Christoff, who is happy to burn the bridges and force our collective hand instead.”
Helen sat back, apparently content to let me do my thing and concede the win.
Two victories for Helen, one for me.
Our little bet of manipulation, acting, and negotiation ended here, on the other side of this door.
I knocked, and the reply was muffled, unenthusiastic. I knocked again, and the reply was the same. Finding the door locked, I reached inside my pocket for my picks. I started work on the lock.
Opening the door wasn’t hard. The locks were flimsy.
The sense of victory, however, was small and short-lived.
The young lady who had been afraid to leave her room sat in the center of the room. She’d taken a chair and moved it into position, and now she sat there. The plague blistered on her skin, and thin vines had erupted from her skin.
Her mouth was open, vines finding lodging in, on, and around teeth, through her nose and sinuses and down her throat, and vice-versa. She was paralyzed, her breathing limited to the shallow.
Too far gone. I knew it immediately.
“The plague is so nice to look at,” Helen said, “But it isn’t nice to people.”
“I agree with the latter half,” I said. “Only maybe a little bit of the former.”
She didn’t really have cause or an emotional basis to truly care, but she still was respectful and quiet as I approached the girl in the chair.
“Sorry,” I told the girl.
Plaintive eyes looked up at me.
I drew my knife, and I held it where she could see.
She couldn’t nod, but there was a peace in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before. Hope. Possible relief.
“We’ll look after you,” I said.
We’ll need medication, so she goes easy, I thought. I joined Helen where she lurked at the door.
“This will be a fair incentive to others to move a little faster to get us all out of here,” I said.
“I think it might,” Helen said.
Plague nipping at our heels.
Helen’s bet had been a way to engage me, to get me paying attention. Helen’s demeanor was meant to play off of me. In a way, we were very similar in this. Helen could conform, but there was very little beyond the primal needs at the very center. I conformed by my nature and by the nature of Wyvern, often to my detriment.
In this, we played off each other. The bet was minor in the grand scheme of things, but it made it easy to calibrate.
There were other motivations, I was sure.
“What were you going to do if I’d won the bet?” I asked Helen.
“Whatever you wanted. I’m happy so long as we’re moving forward.”
“And,” I said, “Assuming that we don’t count this last one, you’re the winner of the bet, and you get to make a request.”
“I do,” Helen said, and she smiled.
“Are you going to keep me in suspense?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. I think I can guess where you and Jessie want to go. You have certain places in mind.”
“To a degree,” I said.
“I have a suggestion I’d like you both to entertain, but I want you to consider it fairly,” Helen said.
We stepped into the outside, and I winced at the cold. I spotted students who looked older, and I flagged them down.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“Ibbot has friends,” Helen said.
“A terrible and insulting lie,” I replied. “Marring the reputation of humanity as a whole with the implication any of us could get along with that man.”
“He has friends,” Helen said. “He once built superweapons, remember? He built some of the ones in use today, some of the ones the Infante wants to deploy.”
I paused, taking that in.
I looked at Helen, and I pushed my attention to her deeper, and I was aware of the wilder, more reckless edge to her. A part of her that was less patient.
I knew it was the kind of impatience that came when one knew their time was running out. I knew because it was the same kind I’d felt for far too long now. Another way in which she and I were similar.
“You want to steal a superweapon?”
“I thought we might steal a professor who manages a superweapon,” Helen said. “And what follows from that follows.”