The assembled Beattle rebels pulled together, a crowd forming at the hilltop to stare at the spectacle. Jessie, Helen and I stood off to one side, away from crowd and the babble of conversation.
Helen’s older brother moved slowly, as if in a daze, his head hanging, jaw slack, raising one foot, moving it a fair ways down the length of the street before bringing it down again. With the movement of the leg, smaller objects were obliterated, wagons or booths or other things of similar scale kicked to splinters. Overhanging architecture was scraped away, snow and moisture sprayed. The footfall made snow and water flow off of every rooftop near the giant, momentarily blurring the sharper edges and lines of the structures.
His arms limp at his side, he remained where he was, having just completed one lunging step, one leg bent at the knee, the other extended behind him.
“Why did Ibbot give him a…?” Jessie started. She didn’t finish the sentence, leaving things more implied.
“Figures that you’d fixate on that,” I said.
“Why does it figure?” Jessie asked.
“It sort of figures. I mean, if it was a she-giant and it had she-bits and a chest, you’d be poking fun at me.”
“Entirely true, but that’s because you’re a lech,” Jessie said.
I gasped in mock horror.
“Just because he’s equipped with a…”
“Tackle?” Helen supplied.
“Was looking for something more polite. But fine. Just because he’s equipped with a tackle that could very easily be used to knock a house down, it doesn’t mean I’m interested. That’s not how it works.”
“Isn’t it?” I asked.
“It really isn’t. And can I just stop and bemoan the fact I’m now enduring the company of the two most easily distracted Lambs? Nobody answered why he’s even…”
Jessie had trailed off again.
“So bestowed?” Helen offered.
“Bestowed to begin with,” Jessie said.
“Aesthetic?” I asked.
Jessie made a face.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s not aesthetic,” Jessie said.
“Excuse me?” Helen asked.
“Wait one second,” I said. “Wait wait wait. If I step in here and say that technically there’s nothing wrong with the picture being presented, beyond the house-destroying potential, is that a point in my favor against the lech allegations, in that I can be fair to both genders-”
“You’re still a lech,” Jessie said.
I mock-gasped again.
“I’ll remind you two that that is my brother you’re talking about and disparaging,” Helen said. “And I think he’s aesthetically sound.”
“Can’t argue that point,” I said.
Jessie made a face, then asked, “Will my memory be indelibly tainted if I ask just how many-”
“Homewreckers?” I jumped in.
“-homewreckers you’ve been exposed to?”
“It very likely will,” Helen said. “But in the interest of not injuring your brain-”
“-I’ll just say that I’ve seen babies, and stitched, and warbeasts, as some of the less brain-injuring examples. My big brother’s slumbering dragon-”
“No, Jessie,” I jumped in. “You’re supposed to be the deadpan, serious one.”
“-Is fine!” Helen protested. “You two interrupt each other and me constantly. It’s rude.”
In the distance, Helen’s big brother dragged his back foot forward. He balanced poorly on it as he set it down and to fix his balance he immediately followed with a movement of the other foot, finally stabilizing by planting his two feet far apart.
It looked like he was trying to avoid treading on and through buildings. I wasn’t wholly sure, but it didn’t look like he had been entirely successful.
“Perhaps we’re too fixated on this,” Jessie said.
“You’re just upset because Helen and I are on the same page, while you’re on the other side of the aisle, disparaging her brother’s slumbering dragon.”
Jessie tried and failed to avoid laughing again. She moved her glasses up and pressed one hand to her face.
“So rude,” Helen chided Jessie. “It’s certainly nothing to laugh about.”
“It’s really nothing to laugh about,” I said.
“It’s so inefficient!” Jessie protested. “Why even tack it on?”
“You have no reason to believe it’s inefficient,” Helen said, stern. “You haven’t seen it in use.”
That was Jessie’s cue to raise her hands to her ears, fleeing the scene. I jumped forward, throwing my arms around her and catching her in a hug from behind, keeping her from absconding.
“Let me go! No! She says things and I get mental pictures and they never go away!”
“They’ll go away in a few months when your slate is erased and you functionally die, alright?” I asked.
Jessie ceased struggling.
“But it’s torture in the meantime,” Jessie said, still with the lilt of a joke in her voice. I hadn’t killed the mood with my own joke in poor taste.
“Well suck it up,” I told her. I settled my chin on her shoulder, the side of my face pressed against her ear. One of my eyes was closed because her braid was in my face. We were both looking at the scene. “Actually, don’t suck-”
“Don’t,” Jessie interrupted me.
“Let’s drop this topic before the two of you find new and fun ways to mentally scar me.”
“Alright,” Helen said.
“I’d just like to point out,” I said.
My arms still around her, I gave Jessie a squeeze.
“-ting,” she said, with less enthusiasm. “Dang it. You’re going to insist on tormenting me with this one, aren’t you?”
“I’m just going to say that it’s winter. This particular slumbering dragon is probably more than halfway inside its cave, as slumbering dragons are wont to do when it’s cold.”
“Okay, Sy. I get it.”
“This isn’t even the full magnitude of the dragon,” I said. Helen nodded in solemn agreement.
“I get it, Sy.”
I started to pull back, ready to get serious, and Jessie reached up to hold my arms in place. My arms still encircling her, I gave her a squeeze, and I continued to watch. If she wanted to stop for a moment, I wasn’t about to complain.
“Armpits,” I said, as we watched Helen’s big brother get his bearings, sway, and then take another step, careful to tread only on roads.
“Lift up your arms,” I said.
Jessie did. I moved my hands, and as she lowered her arms, my hands were tucked beneath them, sandwiched between arm and body.
“Thank you,” I said.
“If my hands get cold, I’m going to borrow your body parts.”
“Do,” I said, into her ear.
With my arms where they were, I could feel where the blood was pumping through the brachial arteries and into her arm. I could feel the change of her heartbeat, the change in her breathing.
I liked that I got a reaction that way.
The giant slowly turned, until his back was to us.
I could hear the others react, a general murmur of complaint across the assembled Beattle students.
As I looked around, I could see that Pierre and Shirley were hanging close by. Shirley was giving me an amused sort of look.
She was close enough to have heard a lot of the interplay and teasing.
All the while, Helen’s brother was still moving ponderously. He brought his hand down.
Up to this point, we hadn’t seen him do much more than damage property and scatter wood here and there where it had been in his way. Accident more than design.
This was design, intent, a blatant attack. The hand came down, and it plunged through a roof and into the interior of a building.
Pulling his hand free, Helen’s brother checked it, found it empty, and plunged it into the building again. This time, he simply tore the hand through stone and wood. It didn’t look easy, and even with his immense size, he had to shift his weight and ensure his feet were braced right before he pushed his hand the rest of the way through the structure, up until the point that the building no longer held together. Dust and debris rose up in a cloud as the building came down.
The commentary, gasps and other feedback had mostly died out at this point. We watched from a considerable distance away as Helen’s brother scraped fingers through wreckage, stirring up more mess and debris. He raised his hand, investigating the contents, and I could see the bodies there.
He cast them away, sending them flying as if they’d been launched by a trebuchet, and then resumed rummaging.
Joking was over. The deaths were real, there were stakes, now. I pulled away from Jessie and took a second to ensure I was ready to act the moment I was done talking.
“Heads up!” I called out. I had the attention of the Beattle rebels now. “If you’re down to help, hands up, step forward. The goal here is to see what we can do about him, trying to steer him or use him. If we can even steal him, get him away from here, we force them to react. They won’t let a weapon fall into our hands. It’s a diversion of resources. Either it’s something we can capitalize on here, or we move fast and we move hard, and it’s something we capitalize on elsewhere. But it starts with this.”
There were a few nods here and there. Not as many as I might have hoped for, but Ibbot’s creation was intimidating, to put it lightly.
“The ones who aren’t helping, you set up shop at the fringes. Find a location for us to camp out and get supplies, shouldn’t be too hard if they’ve recently evacuated. Station guards, make sure you’re able to get clear if the giant starts marching in your direction. We need a location to fall back to, and depending on how this big guy works, we might have to flee a bit, regroup, flee again.”
There were more nods at that. It seemed most of our people were looking at the giant and doubting their ability to tackle him.
“All together for the time being,” I said. “We’ll split up shortly.”
There was shuffling as bags that had been set on the frozen roadtop were collected. Students with hats had removed them because they were perspiring so much, while others were putting on hats, because their ears were cold. Things had to be hurriedly retrieved or stashed away before straps were hauled up to shoulders, backpacks lifted and positioned with straps criss-crossing the chest, and medical bags rattling with their individual pill counts. Not everyone had bags, but the ones who did looked particularly miserable.
Looking back at the path, the wagons were following. They’d be with the second group, while we took our initial stab at things.
We set down the hill, and for a mob of students with tired legs and heavy bags, the faint slope down was precarious. The ground was compacted, hard, and frozen over, the people traveling over it not as sure footed as they ought to have been. Some fell, and they fell hard. It became a collaborative effort to make the way down the slope and into the city.
“Helen,” Jessie said. I was holding Jessie’s hand to stabilize her. My own collaborative contribution.
“Can you tell us about your brother? You’ve met him?”
“Once, a long time ago. When I was new and he wasn’t that old. I was half as tall as I am now, and he was half as big as he is now. Because I was new, Professor Ibbot brought me everywhere, socializing me as we went. He checked on his projects and on the people maintaining them, and I got to come see and come say hi.”
“Does he know you?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so. But then again, he isn’t awake much. He sleeps in an embryonic sac in Lake Southwold, just a ways from New Amsterdam. He was awake when I saw him, but I think he was feverish, which was why we were there.”
“History is good, but we need constructive answers,” I said. “Strengths? Abilities? Weaknesses?”
“Oh. He’s big.”
“Be serious, Helen,” I said.
“His project name is Nephilim One. If you look at his stomach, he has a bit of a belly. That’s a hidden compartment.”
“Control compartment?” I asked. “Is it where the people guiding him are?”
“I don’t know, I don’t think so,”
“Okay,” I said.
“His vision and hearing aren’t every good. There are a lot of pieces of him that you or I would think are weak, but Professor Ibbot knows all about the weak points of the body. He knows any would-be giant slayers will want to blind the giant, hamstring them, target the ankle or catch them when they are asleep. But there are things under the surface that make this harder. Sub-dermal armor, reinforcement. The senses are a lie.”
“Lie?” Jessie asked.
“He’s covered in body hair. He uses the hair to taste the environment. He’s a bloodhound. A very big bloodhound. They give him a scent or something else to go on. Then he hunts. He walks and stops to sniff, then walks more. When he finds someone, he smooshes them.”
“Smooshes?” Jessie asked.
“Like a bug, guts spilling out, but they’re important people, not bugs.”
“That’s a problem then,” I said.
“It’s a massive problem,” Davis said. The student council president was following behind us. He was joined by other notables and project leaders. Bea, Fang, Mable, Valentina, and Pierre. “I don’t want to get crushed.”
“Smooshed,” Helen corrected, very firmly.
“That’s not why it’s a problem,” I said. “It’s a problem because if this is true, if the big guy, Project Nephilim is a bloodhound, like Helen remembers, then he’s more or less under his own control. I’m assuming he’s not down for conversation?”
“No,” Helen said.
“He won’t follow gestures or codes or signals? There’s no good way to communicate a new order or get him to stop?”
“They use chemicals,” Helen said. “That gets him to a place, usually a place where he can get his face close to the ground and smell it. Bedrooms, bloodbaths, piles of dirty laundry. He takes a deep breath and he can smell those things like a shark smells blood in the water.”
“He’s after someone now,” I said.
“I think so,” Helen said. “Either that, or he’s acting very strange.”
“Okay. Streets are empty. Why?”
“Giant stomping around,” Jessie said.
“But he’s stomping around over here. Why aren’t people on the other end of this city running?”
“Hard to say.”
“Then that’s what we’re looking for. We split into groups. We scout, investigate, and see if we can’t find something critical. If they have a way of communicating with the entire city, maybe they’re using it to communicate with Nephilim One.”
“I don’t think so,” Helen said. “That’s not how Neph works.”
“The Crown, as a rule, wants control. Would they really do something like this, where they release something this big and give up all control?”
“Neph isn’t the Crown,” Helen said. “Neph is Ibbot. The same creator as me. Think, Sy.”
I pressed my lips together at that.
She wasn’t wrong. If Neph came from the same roots, the end result could be the same. A being with the same kind of fundamental logic, a basic system of understanding the world, built-in loyalty, and questionable attachments.
We’d reached the base of the hill, the outer periphery of the city. It wasn’t too large a city, which made the presence of ‘Neph’ that much more startling. If I had to guess, the population was three or four hundred thousand. It wasn’t small, it certainly wasn’t a mere town, but it lacked the trappings of some larger cities I’d seen, and I couldn’t see anything of sufficient stature to suggest a local academy, large or small.
There were more hotels and apartment buildings than actual houses, all done up in stone or brick with builder’s wood. The taller buildings themselves used builder’s wood liberally and in unique styles, creating architecture that twisted as it rose skyward. These precarious constructions were what made every movement of Helen’s brother a tense thing, movements of the lumbering giant too close to a building that was twisted enough that it looked like a broken arm, heavy footfalls around buildings that didn’t seem wholly balanced.
It was too clean a city in my estimation. The signs of industry and agriculture, of glitz, glamour, of purpose were painfully absent. I could see businesses, but they didn’t stand out. There were elements of the military by way of sturdy buildings at the harbor and here and at strategic locations, but the military wasn’t active in this crisis, which dampened that particular flavor.
It made me think that this was a city that dealt primarily with the business of business. With bookkeeping and records and hiring and firing, with whole apartment buildings of people very possibly treating this city like a waypoint before they moved to fill gaps or responsibilities elsewhere.
There was more to it, I was sure. Getting deeper into the city would reveal more. I wasn’t sure, however, if it mattered.
I was more concerned with Helen’s big brother.
‘Neph’ was standing straight, his hands full of rubble and bodies. He held it up as if barely aware of it all, and he stared at some fixed point deeper into the city.
Something had caught his attention, and he addressed that something by hurling the fistfuls of rubble and detritus and bodies at that something.
Again, the notion of the trebuchet came to mind. The throwing motion of an arm with that range and that kind of power built into it was something to behold.
‘Neph’ leaned back, swaying, and then lunged forward. He pounced as if he were pretending to be a cat or as if he were diving into deep water, both hands moving forward and together to meet at the same point, the target he wanted to utterly destroy. We weren’t in a position to see the result, so there was only the mental image, and what I could see was the way he effectively body-flopped onto the city, arms stretched out in front of him. Whatever had been beneath or in front of his hands was likely gone now.
“We spread out,” I said. “Groups of two or three. Fan through the streets. Most of you should know the signals by now, for relaying alerts and warnings. If you don’t know, pair with someone who does.”
It sounded easy, but the logistics were harder. Jessie had been able to pick up some idea of how the city was laid out, and the trick was to have everyone move in rough parallel, while avoiding the streets which would merge into others, creating wasted effort if one group was forced to merge into another or fall well behind.
Jessie, Helen and I took the central path. It was arguably the safest when it came to being surprised or targeted from the flanks, but it also gave us the chance to react fastest if one of the others reported something.
Pierre had come along, and that was our saving grace in this. He was a man who could outrun a horse on a good day, and while the winter had slowed him down a hair, both in leaving him slightly more out of shape and in making the environment more dangerous for running on two feet, it was still speed that counted for a lot.
We moved as four core groups, with Pierre a free agent that checked on each group before looping out ahead.
We made it a good way down the road before we saw Pierre hiding, his back to a wall, a finger pressed to his mouth.
He gestured, and it served to let us know that the others had already been alerted.
He gestured for us to come, and we went to his side.
“Remain within your homes!” the voice boomed. It was loud and oppressive. If Helen’s brother had been a third of the size and inclined to speaking with an aristocrat’s fine articulation and nuance, this might have been the volume I expected. “Those seen running about may be shot or they may draw the attention of the Nephilim Project!”
There was the control I’d been looking for.
“Be patient! All will return to normal soon!”
Back to normal, but for the massive property damage and the loss of lives, it seemed. Still, it made a degree of sense. There was a degree of manipulation in that people naturally gravitated toward what they knew and understood. People wanted to go back to normal. I’d offered normalcy as a bargaining chip when attempting to get people to cooperate. Some were even very willing to do abnormal things if ‘normal’ was in the cards for the future.
We joined Pierre, and we crept forward to investigate the source of the booming voice.
The source, as it turned out, was an experiment. He wore a stylized suit and a wig, and his facial features were clearly altered. He was rotund to the point that it had to be design, a sphere or near-sphere literally encased within him.
“Praise be to the Crown!” the experiment boomed out. He was moving away.
Beside us, Pierre relaxed a bit. He glanced around, then said, “I’ll check with the others. A moment.”
He was gone a second or three later.
Praise be to the Crown, I thought, trying on the words the experiment had used. I didn’t believe them in the slightest.
“This is workable,” I said. “The announcer experiment got his marching orders from someone.”
“He did,” Jessie said.
“I can hear another one,” Helen confided. “Maybe two. I think one of the two is a woman.”
Multiple announcers, then, addressing multiple parts of the city.
This wasn’t accidental. The whole setup was premeditated. The task had been carried out with a goal in mind.
“We can trace him back to the Academy people who ordered him to come here, we can co-opt or beat them, and through that we might be able to stall, stop, capture, or redirect big brother Neph.”
“He’s not much older than me. If we could train him properly, we could make him an honorary Lamb,” Helen said, smiling.
“A project for another time,” I said. “at this point, I just want to get through today. I think we should track the announcer. Let’s see where he goes in the meantime.”
The others nodded.
We moved to follow, tracing the announcer’s steps, and as we did so, we were careful to fan out, moving from cover to cover while also staying out of sight of Neph, lest he decide to throw something at us or chase us down.
He stopped to preach the importance of staying indoors and out of sight.
“We still don’t know what he’s pregnant with,” Helen said.
“Pregnant?” I askd.
“His potbelly. He’s storing something. Sometimes it’s food and water and vitamins, but sometimes it’s a weapon.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Jessie said. “Thoughts later. For now, we should see if this guy is going deeper afield or if he’s retreating to headquarters.”
“Agreed,” I said.
It seemed we wouldn’t get our answer. As we waited for him to finish his loud rant, a lone gunshot rang out.
What followed was chaos. Our lead to the Crown forces had been taken from us, and as if to add insult to injury, more deafening gunshots sounded, targeting us.
We shrank behind cover, and my mind was going a mile a minute.
‘Neph’ had been set against an enemy. It wasn’t Fray, and that left two possibilities.
Only one was really this hostile to us.
It’s been a long, long time, dear Cynthia, I thought, without much love in my heart. Cynthia had been the de-facto leader of the rebel coalition for a stretch, before Mauer had gotten his claws in and strife had divided the groups. She had been the angriest and most bitter of them, and, most critical when it came to our current issue, the least willing to cooperate with anyone, let alone Lambs.