I waited, my back to the doorframe, listening.
A question from Mabel. A muted response.
I counted ninety long seconds before I heard Mabel’s boots scrape and shuffle.
She exited the room, wearing another improvised quarantine suit.
“Alright?” I asked.
I wasn’t sure if I was asking if she was alright or if the situation was.
“I don’t think I want to do that ever again,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry.”
She shook her head. The makeshift quarantine suit was all raincoat fabric and tape, and it didn’t move as her head did. “It needed to be done. It was the nicest way to end her pain, and I don’t mind that it was me. But between last night and this, this morning, I’m almost as emotionally exhausted as I’ve ever been.”
“We’ll have to see what we can do about fixing that,” I said. “How do you normally shore things up when they’re crumbling?”
“Hm?” she asked.
“What?” I asked.
“No, just… weird wording. I think I usually wait. Rest. Or I just push forward until I get to a good stopping point. End of a shitty day of class, or the next weekend where I don’t have a lot to do, or the end of a tough semester.”
“How well does that work for you?” I asked.
“Well enough, I think,” she said. “I don’t know. I think this is going to sit with me for a long time.”
I invited her into the hallway, glanced within, and then closed the door. I picked up my tools, and I started removing the doorknob.
“It’s allowed, letting it sit with you for a while.”
“Uh huh,” Mabel said.
“It’s a way of respecting her,” I said. “You carry that with you. It’s good if someone passes and life gets a little harder, if there’s a weight and a ripple that extends outward.”
I pulled the doorknob out. I put it in the toolbox.
“You’ve been involved in a lot of lost lives,” she said.
I looked down the hall. They hadn’t been there before I started looking, but they were there by the time my head finished moving and my eyes found the shadows to either side of the window. Jamie, Gordon, and Hubris.
“I carry them with me in other ways,” I said. I collected a hammer and a few long nails from the toolbox.
“Oh, you mean the phantoms,” Mabel said. “I was thinking of other deaths.”
I looked her way.
“In your tenure as a Lamb?”
Oh. The people I’d killed.
That was a thing too.
“I carry them too, I suppose,” I said.
“Sorry if I made things queer, bringing attention to that.”
I shook my head. “I’m a queer fellow. I hear you talk about things like how you unwind from emotional exhaustion, and I don’t know what to say.”
“No?” she asked.
I drove the nail into the door at an angle, so it penetrated both one edge of the door and the frame itself. With the amount of my back and shoulder that had been carved away, it was a bit of a task to drive the nail home.
“I don’t know that I get emotionally exhausted. I get emotional, I get exhausted, but when push comes to shove, and my feelings are tested and fail the test, it’s my brain that breaks more than my heart.”
“I think that’s a reflection of heartbreak, Sy.”
“You might think differently if you were there,” I said. “It might be what happens when you have the right tools-”
I paused to made sure I drove the next nail in straight.
“-to dodge the worst of the heartbreak and go down another path. I have lots of fun tools like that.”
“Rest and time don’t do much for me, either. Time heals all wounds, but you have to let it, and I’m not willing to let it. If you’re a Sylvester with a brain like clay under running water, you can shape that brain, sure, but you’ve got to make the choice. That painful memory of that person you cherish, do you let it go? Or do you make the effort to keep that memory clear and safe from being washed away? Do you keep etching it in and reinforcing it?”
“Yeah. I etch,” I said. Still holding the hammer, I grabbed a small paint can, pried off the lid, and stuck my fingers inside. I finger-painted letters on the door. “As best I can.”
Plague, my letters wrote.
I made a mark below the warning, using fingerprints and smears to form something akin to a leaf with a curling line beside it, then crouched a bit before finger-painting another message.
“How did it go?” I asked. “That quote that Edna’s friend from the animal team said?”
“I was busy getting my suit taped up. I barely heard what you were all talking about, and the girls were crying. I thought you would remember.”
“You’re putting far too much stock in my brain. Something beastly?”
“Um. Wasn’t it something like, ‘roar, my beast friend?'”
“Sure,” I said. “Beast?”
“I think it’s a play on best friend, and because she liked animals and warbeasts? She was really excited about the pheromone warbeast we were going to be working on, even though she wasn’t project lead.”
I was already painting the letters before Mabel had finished talking. “It’s an especially large shame then. I like people who are passionate about what they do.”
Mabel nodded, but she didn’t verbally respond.
It took a while to write even the short sentence, one stroke at a time.
“There,” I said, when I was done. I set the can of paint down without closing it, and abandoned the tools where they were. An oily rug helped me get most of the paint off of my hand. I didn’t fuss too much over getting perfectly clean.
“I wish I could take her somewhere she could be properly buried,” Mabel said. “Shit. I never used to be sentimental.”
“She was fused to the chair and floor,” I said. “It’s not worth the risk to you.”
Mabel nodded. Again, her quarantine suit obscured the motion.
“Burial is a funny thing, too, the more I think about it, but I think that’s mostly personal perception. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
I discarded the rag with paint. My hand had the oily residue and traces of paint in the cracks, the wear and tear and the lines emphasized. Scratches new and old, abrasions and calluses all stood out with the paint highlighting them. My fingers stuck to each other.
“What makes burial a funny thing?” Mabel asked.
“It’s a little odd to imagine a burial for someone like me, but that’s me, not for someone like her,” I said. “Otis and some others got buried and if we had more people with quarantine suits and a clear way to get her out of here and out to a new burial plot, I’d be all for it.”
“You don’t want to be buried? You’re dancing around the subject.”
“My memory is bad, but I feel like I’ve never really sat down and imagined myself being lowered into a burial plot, never imagined myself getting a funeral. It’s kind of absurd, isn’t it? I’ve thought about dying and I’ve known I was going to die for a long time, but the scene probably never struck me.”
“I don’t think it’s absurd at all,” she said. “You’re… a victim of queer circumstance.”
“Sure,” I said. “We can go with that.”
“If not a burial plot, then how does it end?”
“Violent ends. Get myself into trouble I can’t get out of. Fed to warbeasts, beheaded, shot…” I said. I looked for and found Gordon in the crowd, sticking near Jessie and Helen. “Cremation would be a nice way to go, but suffocation or drowning are up there.”
“You’re being morbid,” Mabel said.
“Uh huh. Trying to scare you off at this point,” I said.
“My dad was unbalanced, spiteful, and self-involved. He lost one wife after another, and after that, he had no forgiveness in his heart for anyone. Especially not me. It still took losing my last shot at the Academy for me to walk away. You’re going to have to try harder if you want to scare me off.”
There were things I could say about that, but I had a feeling they would end in bitter words.
I took hold of her elbow as we made our way down the stairs to the ground floor. With oversized boots and the alternating constriction and abundance of room that came with the makeshift quarantine suit, she was a little wobbly. She fared well enough that I doubted she needed me, but she wasn’t complaining at the gesture, either.
As we ventured outside, we could see the rank and file of the Beattle rebels, the additions we’d picked up in our travels, and the older gang members. They’d gathered, and the carriages and wagons were all loaded down with supplies and bags. Some of our people were still lashing bags and containers down.
Jessie raised an arm, waving. I waved back.
She gestured a question, and I gave the go-ahead.
The signal was given, the wagons started off, and with a few words from Jessie, the leaders of individual groups got their contingents moving.
I drew a knife from my back pocket and set about cutting the tape and peeling Mabel out of the quarantine suit.
The damage and bandages at my back limited my range of movement, particularly with my right arm, while Mabel was limited by the fact that she had taped herself into the suit and it was hard to untape herself with gloves on.
“Sorry if I made things awkward,” she said.
She hadn’t been wearing the quarantine suit for long. A five minute walk between buildings, time inside the dormitory, walking up a flight of stairs and down the hall, seeing to Edna Joan, and then exiting the building. But the outfit wasn’t one that breathed, by design. She practically steamed with the body heat that had been contained within.
No, ‘awkward’ was helping Mabel out of her outfit while her team of chemists and greenhouse gangers watched her and the collection of Pierre, Shirley, Jessie and Helen watched me. Moisture beaded her skin, made her hair stick to her neck. She wasn’t wearing heavy clothes with the quarantine suit, her clothing choice barely different from underclothes, and the clothes she was wearing were sticking to her.
She was standing with an orientation that meant the onlookers couldn’t really see her face. She had been crying, but with the mask and suit on, she hadn’t been able to wipe away the tears. The moment her arms were free, the upper half of the suit hanging from her waist, she brought her hands to her face, wiping sweat, tears, and hair back and away.
I was very aware that her back arched a little with that, and that her chest stuck out unconsciously in my direction. But I was also aware that people were watching me and her and wanted to see if I would look, and I played at being the gentleman.
I moved around behind her, very conscious of how the sweat caught the light, or how one tiny rivulet of sweat traced the line of her shoulderblade. I pulled off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
“You don’t need to do that,” she said.
“You’ll get cold,” I said.
“You’ll get cold, and you’re recovering from surgery.”
“You’ll get cold, and you’re drenched. It’ll cut through you in a moment if the wind blows the wrong way. Wear the jacket until you have your own. If you start off a long hike by freezing yourself to the bone, someone is going to have to give up a much-needed seat.”
“Alright,” Mabel said. “I’ve learned better than to argue with you.”
“Good,” I said.
“But your jacket is going to stink,” she said. “I haven’t had a chance to shower today, I was roasting in that quarantine suit, I’m drenched, as you put it.”
“Oh, the horror. No. Girl sweat is a good smell.”
Mabel made a face. “Gross.”
“It’s the way it goes,” I told her. “Left leg.”
She lifted her left leg, and I helped cut where the waders were taped to the boots. I repeated the process for the right leg.
She put her hands on my shoulders for balance as she kicked off the waders.
Together, we got her to the members of the greenhouse gang, who had her actual boots, winter jacket and clothing in custody. One of them already had a towel ready to hand to her, which immediately went to her damp hair.
“Walk with us?” she asked.
“I need to catch up with Jessie and Helen,” I said. “Strategy and grander plans. I want you and some of the others to join in the discussion, but let us cut through some of the initial gristle and grit first. We’ll tackle some stuff first, then make it a wider discussion.”
“Okay,” Mabel said. I could hear the disappointment.
“It really is more stuff you don’t want to hear. In the meantime, you guys should talk while you walk. Discuss the possibilities of the arm and skin I’m gifting you. How you’ll figure out what you can use, tests you can run, whichever else. Tap other groups if it keeps them busy and if you don’t fall too far behind. But see what you can do?”
“We’ll try,” Mabel said. “We don’t have a lab, so I can’t make promises.”
“And keeping in mind you’ve been running around and helping on my behalf for the better part of the day, I’ll see what I can do to thank you by arranging a warm bath for you after we get to our destination.”
I subtly gestured midway through saying it, making sure the other Lambs didn’t see. Mabel didn’t give any indication she’d seen.
“Warm bath?” one of Mabel’s Greenhouse Gang kids asked, eager.
“You peasants get to fight over the tubs only after the inner circle are through with them,” I said. I gestured again as I said, “Mabel gets first go.”
“No need to spoil me,” she said.
“There’s no need, but I’m liable to do it anyway,” I told her. “You did good work. I’m hoping for more. But either way, discuss, plan, plot. Then you and I-”
I gestured again, striving to drive the point home.
“-will discuss what your group figured out and is proposing.”
I was pretty sure she saw that last gesture. I was also pretty sure she didn’t understand the meaning.
“I’ll be tired tonight, and I think you’re underestimating how tired you’ll be. A surgery like the one you had last night will take a lot out of you.”
“We’ll see how it goes, then,” I said. “No commitments. But I think you’d be surprised at my stamina.”
“I think waiting and seeing is the best approach,” she said. “And I’m sure you’re very capable.”
I smiled, gesturing subtly at the same time.
“…And I’m suddenly remembering that you’re the person to trust when it comes to this sort of thing,” she said. “And I’m reconsidering. If you think you’ll be up for it.”
“I definitely think I’ll be up for it,” I said.
No blushing, barely any betrayal that she’d realized what I was really going for.
Her eyes were one of the first things I had noticed about her, the attention to detail and memory. I wondered how many times she’d seen the gestures before making the connection.
“I’ll look forward to it, then,” she told me.
I gave her a mock salute, collected my coat, and made my way to the others. I could tell they were rearing to go before they fell behind the pack.
I’d told Mabel that I needed to get some things sorted out before I invited her to chat with us. I was about to deal with those things.
“So adorable,” Helen said.
I rolled my eyes.
“Your pupils are dilated,” Jessie said. “Your breathing is different.”
I rolled my eyes more emphatically, moving my head in a little circle for added emphasis.
“It was very gentlemanly of you to give her your jacket,” Shirley said.
“Not you, Shir,” I said. “Don’t you join in.”
“It’s hard to resist,” Shirley said, offering me a pouty little moue that used the best of her pixie face and build and her large eyes. Helen mirrored her movements.
“Helen is already a bad influence on you,” I remarked.
The mass migration was underway. The light teasing continued, and we made our way out of Sedge and onto the back country roads.
There were enough people in our rank and file that it posed logistical issues. The tromp of boots on wet dirt road meant that by the time the stragglers reached the same point, the ground was a mire. Wagons churned up ground that should have been solid and hard with the cold.
The jokes and jabs stopped after a bit. The carriages were loaded down enough that when they did reach softer ground, weight pulled them into the mud. People started to appear at the sides of the road, as if to offer help, but our numbers discouraged a straightforward approach.
Bandits. I wanted to talk to some, but the way things were demanded constant and careful attention.
They lingered, ominous, and I made sure to talk to the group leaders, ensuring we conveyed the right message, that we didn’t have any weak points.
Mentally, I could see the bandits making the mental decision to attack us in the late evening, after most of us had gone to bed.
The show of strength was enough for the time being.
I took Jessie’s hand, and I did it for reasons entirely unrelated to the bandits who wanted to attack us and divest us of our gathered possessions.
As all of this went, it was good. The people, the task at hand, the possibilities, and that dim possibility that Helen had floated of something inspiring and devastating to our enemies.
I liked that in particular.
If I had quizzed Jessie for information before making promises to Mabel, I might have been told that even if we were brisk, it would take twelve hours to reach our destination by way of walking. I might have been discouraged.
We didn’t walk. Halfway through the afternoon, just as the sun was starting to set, we had happened across a farm. The farmer had been willing to accept well over twice the value of his horses, carriages and spare wood in exchange for his cooperation.
Spirits were considerably higher now that anyone walking could get a turn sitting on the back of one carriage.
Helen found her way back from a conversation with Pierre.
“Helen,” I said. “Question, Jessie and I were discussing.”
“Did you ever envision a casket funeral for yourself?”
“I think if I would be in a position to get one, I’ll get taken to pieces in autopsy for my creator,” she said. “So no.”
I nodded. I was aware that Helen was preparing her breakfast as though she had no imagination at all. Route and routine.
“What about a casket funeral for me?” I asked.
It was Jessie who answered. “If you somehow earn a casket funeral for yourself, Sy, for one thing, I’m going to be ticked, because that’s not allowed. We don’t die if we can help it.”
“Fair,” Helen said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“No throwing yourself suicidally into madcap situations with only half formulated plans,” Jessie said. “If you can promise me that, I’ll play along with the mad plan. I’ll help you execute it with precision.”
“Deal,” I said.
It might have been poetic for that moment to be the one where we crested the hill and found ourselves faced with the next scene, a fresh image of the Crown states.
Instead, it took another ten minutes of trudging, every part of my lower body and some parts of my upper body hurting from the exercise, before we reached the hill, so to speak. The trees overhead knit into arches above our heads. The arches blocked our view.
But we made it beyond the arches. We had a clear view of the sky.
“Oh my gosh,” Helen said. “He’s not supposed to be here!”
‘He’ was a man, as it happened. He was naked, leathery of skin, with ragged hair and mustache.
“Don’t tell me,” I said.
“Well, I could listen and not tell you, which is boring and anxiety-inducing,” Helen said. “Or I could break the news, and then we can discuss what to do about this.”
“What news?” Davis asked, as he happened to draw closer to us, the walking rear guard of the caravan now catching up to us on the cliff-edge, looking across the city.
Looking at the naked man.
His face contorted with emotion, his body moved as if he wasn’t familiar with it, and he acted groggy.
One of the superweapons. He stood taller than the tallest skyscrapers in the city sprawl, and the city held close to eighty-thousand people. Taller than a building ten stories tall. He moved among most buildings like someone my size might have walked amid scattered books in my living room. His joints were overlarge, he was brutish, crude, and ugly, with some resemblance to a neanderthal, and yet, somehow, he was art. Beauty in audacity.
“He was a project that stretched the upper bounds of size limits, ratios, and weight distribution. He’s one of the three largest non-waterborne creations on the planet,” Helen said. “And he’s Ibbot’s work. My half brother.”