The fact that Cynthia’s people knew where the others were and what they were up to was a pretty good sign that Franz here was telling the truth.
I’d grown too attached to that crowd. The idea of them being on the bad end of a group like Cynthia’s was unpleasant, to say the least. They served as my surrogate Lambs in many ways, and the idea of bad things happening to Lambs was always something that concerned me as much or more than any risk to myself. That was very much why there had been multiple rules and many a reminder about who could sacrifice themselves and when.
“That’s all very unfortunate,” I said. “I hope your people end up alright at the end of it.”
“Sure,” Franz said, sounding like he wasn’t buying the bluff at all.
Helen tightened her grip on Franz a fraction. Her legs were folded tight around the red-haired clone’s neck. They constricted, tightening on the young woman’s neck. Helen’s voice was calm as the clone’s eyes widened, one hand going up to Helen’s leg, “Carm, honey, stop talking. I can hear you.”
There were people outside. If the clone had communicated anything, then the enemies we were dealing with now might have reinforcements.
We’d walked right into the hornet’s nest, and now we didn’t even have the queen hostage. We only had one of her top soldiers.
“Let’s talk cooperation,” I said.
“I think if I cooperated, then Cynthia would have my head,” Franz said.
“If you don’t cooperate, then Helen would have yours.”
“Could be,” Franz said. He looked eerily relaxed, considering his situation. I was willing to bet that it was fifty percent bluffing and fifty percent that he wasn’t wholly there, emotionally. He added, “Worse ways to go than being embraced by a pretty girl.”
“What if I told you I wasn’t a girl?” Helen asked. “I’m not even human.”
She extended her tongue as she finished the sentence. People with guns tensed.
“You’ve got-” Franz started. He stopped as he saw the end of Helen’s tongue in his field of vision, when her head was beside and a little bit behind his own. “Tits. You smell like a girl.”
“Mm,” Helen murmured. She arched her back a little bit.
I couldn’t wholly see, but I could guess, by the way she was moving. She had flexed her ribs, opening up her ribcage, and now the points were likely digging into Franz’s back and side. I could see at one point where a rib was digging into his ribs, starting and halting as it tried and failed to find purchase.
He was in a position where he couldn’t even look and see what was happening, exactly. It made him less certain than he’d been, with strange appendages prodding and grabbing at him while he tried to focus on me.
“You okay, sir?” one of the bystanders asked.
“I’m just fine,” Franz said.
Helen’s tongue moved closer to his face, draping itself along cheekbone.
“I think that’s up for debate,” I said. “As is Helen being a good way to go. But let’s put that aside. Cynthia is running. Consider her out of the picture until things settle down. If we take you out of the picture and you retaliate and kill us, or vice versa, what happens to your soldiers here? I know you guys probably have a chain of command, but I somehow don’t see your guys doing well and keeping to the mission. There’s a reason so many rebel groups hinge around personalities. They disintegrate if they don’t have a face.”
“We’re a little-” Franz started.
Helen’s tongue moved, the tip shifting up to his eye, then abruptly slipping past eyelid and between eyelid and socket.
He twisted his head as much as he was able to with Helen’s hand and arm around his neck. He didn’t escape the tongue.
“Stop that!” one soldier called out, raising his gun.
Helen mumbled something, then turned her eyes toward me. She shifted her grip, so she was holding Franz with one hand and one arm, the other hand free, and gestured.
“She can’t stop,” I said. “It’s a liability of sorts. She backs off, or she takes her prey. So… this is how this goes. We should move this along. You were saying, Franz?”
“We’re more tenacious than… that,” Franz said.
The tongue was moving in the space of his eye socket. Helen made a small choking sound, and freed up a little bit more of her tongue, extending it further into the socket.
It was putting him off his game.
“Here’s the deal,” I said. “We have a mutual enemy in the Crown. I’m as ready to take them on as any of you are, and we’ve been building up our numbers to mount a proper attack. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, past murder attempts and threats can be left by the wayside where they belong, provided Cynthia is willing to. You guys can call off your buddies, Helen and I go rescue Cynthia, and we collaborate.”
“We tried the collaboration thing. It’s not-”
“Sir?” the soldier from before asked.
“Eyeballs can be replaced,” Franz said. He looked at me with the one eye that wasn’t fixed in place.
“I don’t understand,” the soldier said.
“She has leverage on my eye. If she wants to tear it out, let her. I’ll live. I’ll find a replacement.”
I saw the micro-movements of Helen’s hand as she tensed her grip. Her fingers were digging into the side of Franz’s neck, gripping it for purchase. There was an artery there, and she wasn’t wholly stopping all flow, but I had reason to believe she was constricting it. It wasn’t quite enough constriction to cause symptoms like numbness and a drooping face, but it had a good chance of impairing him, making it harder to put words together and string together thoughts.
“You can cooperate with us,” I said. I could transition this argument into the kind of course I might take with less intelligent opposition. Hammering in facts, expecting they couldn’t refute.
“I’d sooner order you be-”
Using her tongue, Helen pulled out his eye. It wasn’t a quick jerk, a sudden hauling of the eye and connected detritus free of the socket. The eye bulged as the widest point found its way past the lids themselves, and then seemed to grow larger still as pressure was put on it from behind, the eye pulling free.
It was slow, excruciating, and Franz grit his teeth, lips contorting against teeth and gums in the same way a hand might scrabble against a wall in vain hope of finding purchase, finding a place to grab on that would allow escape or relief.
“He said don’t shoot,” one soldier told another.
“But he’s tenacious,” I said. “Don’t you see?”
My own hostage moved slightly. I pricked his neck with the knife to remind him I was paying sufficient attention.
Franz, meanwhile, endured the slow, tearing disconnection of eye from head, individual components stretching out to their limits and then snapping or rending apart. Fluids flowed out of the socket, vitreous and crimson.
Franz was a veteran. He’d likely dealt with horrible things before. He might even have been tortured, once. He was a tough one, and I was now getting the impression that it was a toughness he had to prove. Not to the room, but to himself. It was the kind of trait that drove a good student to study harder, because being a student was so ingrained in their personality that going against it would have meant a blow to their very being.
The flip side of that observation, however, was that for the student who put so much of themselves into that identity, if the identity was taken away, the person usually crumbled. The top students who had a bad semester quickly became rooftop girls or delinquents, looking to experience everything they had been missing.
Could the defenses of an emotionally numb soldier and leader be penetrated? Would the dam breach, the emotion flooding out? Would he snap?
Helen claimed the eyeball and almost a foot of extraneous material that trailed behind it. She drew it into her mouth, and she bit down, very intentionally making a wet sound in the man’s ear.
“You can just buy a new eye as a replacement. I’ve been there,” I said.
His hand shook a fraction as he held it against the eye socket.
“Indeed,” he managed, after a momentary delay. He’d needed a second to gather composure.
Behind him, standing in the crowd, I could see Mauer.
What did the crowd want? They wanted to be validated. They looked up to their leaders, the faces of their faction, and they wouldn’t intervene so long as Franz here had a chance to show his muster.
This was a balancing act. It was a standoff shooting, and pulling the trigger first meant getting shot, barring exceptional circumstance. Manipulation was key here, and the power remained almost entirely with the rest of the people in the room.
People were coming up the stairs. The stairwell itself was already packed with people, so the incursion more or less stopped there.
“There’s the reinforcements,” Franz said. He was hunched over as much as Helen would let him hunch over, one hand to his eye. He raised his voice. “Ho, reinforcements!”
This was bad. I’d been aware I was working with a time limit, but there hadn’t been much I could do.
“Seems like they’re tied up,” I said, when the discussion carried on in the stairwell with no response for Franz.
“Seems,” he said.
“Work with us,” I stressed. Hammering in the same point, ignoring the fact that he’d tried to refute it. Helen was carefully listening for every one of his objections, refusals, and any sign that he was about to say or do something like order his men to shoot us. The treatment of his eye had been one step among several in an effort to interrupt him and throw him off his game.
There was a secondary hand being played here by our Helen. I wasn’t sure it was the best hand to play, all considered, but it was one that suited her. Most living creatures, if reprimanded with enough consistency and effect, would develop an aversion to whatever it was they were doing. Most parents didn’t get the opportunity to be perfectly consistent, and other parents didn’t have a clue, so many children slipped the leash.
Embraced by what he’d described as a very attractive girl, Franz was being sternly reprimanded in the form of losing his eye and being clawed at by Helen’s ribs. It took willpower to press on when each attempt was punished so, and future attempts promised to escalate.
I could see it in how he was taking his time to formulate a response.
Finally, he spoke. “We’ve tried the cooperation thing before. Didn’t work out. I don’t think we’re interested in trying again.”
Returning stubbornly to the same track as before. That was a peril when it came to limiting the blood flow to the man’s brain. If we made him stupider with the application of pressure, then there was a chance he might not be smart enough to see the merit in what I was saying.
“Really now?” I asked. “What’s your alternative? They have their sights on Cynthia. This is only going to be one of several major projects they employ to handle your rebellion here.”
“We’ve dealt with worse.”
“Than that? Giant project miff or whatever he’s called? No. We were supposed to be among the old ‘worse’ you dealt with, and we pretty successfully killed Cynthia’s favorite scientists and set her on fire. Everything she was building, everything she was, being the classy lady at an event with aristocrats, clandestine meetings with other rebel leaders, whatever, she was tops at what she was doing, and after the horrendous burns she became a… I don’t know.”
“Vengeful,” Franz said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Vengeful. And that’s a tricky quality in a leader. Leaders need to be passionate, yeah, but they also need to form connections, establish trust, be honest, show respect for their subordinates and respect the enemy, and they need to put something of themselves into the cause. I’m worried Cynthia misses enough of those marks that it’s problematic for you all.”
“She’s never done us wrong,” Franz said, stubborn, looking more focused in the moment than he’d looked earlier.
“I’m arguing she’s doing you wrong at this very moment, if she’s urging you all to self-immolate instead of cooperating and building something.”
“Sy,” Helen said. She had retracted her tongue.
“I think we’re running into a problem we’ve run into before. One you’ve run into before. It sounds very familiar. Rick.”
“No codes,” a rebel soldier said.
“It’s not a code,” Helen said. “I’m talking about someone we used to know.”
“I don’t remember a Rick,” I said.
I could see Helen react with mild surprise at that.
The soldier sounded ticked enough that I really believed he would shoot us if we pushed it.
Not that there was any code I was aware of. No, I suspected this was, going by Helen’s reaction, something that was supposed to be fairly blatant.
I wracked my brain for ideas on who Rick might be. Past opposition, people we had crossed paths with during jobs, the mice in Radham, the other orphans, the doctors who worked with us, the politicians in Radham. It had to be someone Helen and I were both in a position to know, which was why I kept going back to Radham.
There was no Rick, no emotional reaction to Rick, good or bad. A nonentity in the Sylvester brainscape.
“None of that,” Franz said. His words weren’t as crisp as before. He didn’t sound as confident, either, but I wasn’t sure if that was a direct relation to he pressure Helen was putting on him or an indirect one. He was slower to pick up and release sentences, too.
I needed to change course, assuming that Helen was warning me. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what course to take. I’d been so sure I would be able to hammer him down, especially as we taxed his faculties, but now Helen was saying no?
Jessie was gone at least. That was promising.
Fine, I’d change tacks, and knowing that these guys were aggressive and militant, I could try to paint the right picture.
“Listen,” I said, my voice firmer. I’d continue to press, to make use of the emotional and mental battery. “I was Academy, once, but they took my friends from me. They took my freedom, and they took most of the years of my life from me. I’m not going to say I have more right to be pissed at them, but I’m pretty pissed. We do have common ground there. I want to rescue Cynthia and free you guys to work against Crown and Academy, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re not letting me.”
“Sy-” Helen started.
“I’m not letting you,” Franz said, and he drawled a bit, “Because we’re not nice people. We don’t turn the other cheek we don’t forgive. You crossed us once, and so we’re going to remove you. Tha world keeps turning, and people shout and they cry out for justice, and it gets drowned out in the wave of news about this new transplant or that new surgery, about wonder drugs and warbeasts, and about wars overseas and twisted tales about rebellions here, only as told by the Crown. D’you unnerstand what I’m saying?”
Helen was looking at me, as if waiting for my signal to distract the man or debilitate him.
I worried that if we pushed things too much further, we might get shot.
I worried that whoever this ‘Rick’ was that I was supposed to avoid, I’d bumped right into him, and if any dam had breached with waters flooding out, then it wasn’t helpful.
I gestured for Helen to ease up on the guy’s throat. I didn’t need him delirious from having his oxygen supply intermittently limited.
“It’s about having a voice?” I asked. If I couldn’t dissuade him, if he wanted a voice, then I would give him one, lead him on, buy time. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t perfect, but it gave Jessie an opportunity. “Making a statement?”
“It’s about having a damn impact for once,” he said. “We all get caught up in their flow. The games they play. Do you know what the most important things are? The thing that drives them and that drives all of us?”
“Power,” I said. “Control. And everything that those two things aren’t. Not giving up power, not letting others dictate our paths. Having an agenda, a belief system. Being free enough to have control of our own destinies.”
“No,” he said. “No, all of that sounds pretty. But it’s not what it is. I think, we think, that it comes down to history. Deciding it, writing it. Power and control might give them the ability to hold the pen to the history books and ensure nobody else gets their hands on pen or book, but that’s not the important thing. It’s having a legacy. Having made a manifest difference.”
“And in a vain, desperate attempt to try and shout loud enough to get words printed in a book nobody will read, you’re-”
More people appeared in the doorway. Too much attention was on them, not on me.
“They’re all Ricks,” Helen said, her voice soft.
“You need to switch to a reference I remember and understand when I clearly don’t get it,” I told her.
The focus was on the door, the people were chattering, and Franz was in Helen’s grip, his attention focused on everything that was going on over there.
There weren’t many guns pointed at us. I thought about making a break for it.
The crowd parted.
“She escaped into the storm sewers,” the man at the door said. He warily eyed Helen, myself, and the various hostages we’d collected. “The monster is tearing up the ground and trying to dig out the pipes wherever she’s going, and she’s crawling for most of it, most of that crawling through or over ice water, but she’s alive and in better shape than she was. Thought you’d want to know, sir.”
Franz smiled a little, and seemed to relax a touch. “I did. I’m glad.”
I glanced at Helen. There weren’t many escape routes. Several required reaching the beam that extended across the room and I wasn’t sure we could manage that.
“Should I be saying goodbye, sir?” the man at the door asked.
“Don’t know yet,” Franz said. “But probably. Where’s Macuff?”
“The captain is outside. He’s looking after Daisy. They’re doing something that’s making her head spin. To do with sound. Captain Macuff says that means they’re probably close.”
“Which means there’s another one,” Franz said. “At least.”
His eyes widened, and I could see the expression beyond them, the realization, and the decision.
“Shoot-” he started.
Helen snapped Franz’s neck and killed the ghost, and in the doing, she managed to move Franz so he formed a limited human shield, protecting her, her arms going to her head.
I cut my hostage’s throat, dimly aware that we were surrounded by at least thirty armed men with combat expertise. In the same motion I’d flicked the knife through vitals, I swung my arm out and put it in the back of the nearest thug. I threw it at a third thug, to only moderate effect, and dove for the gun of the first man I’d killed, who was still in the process of dying, blood flooding out of his brain, which was giving him dopamine spark dreams of white and peace, to ease him into oblivion.
I knew how it was so very little, so very late. I knew that Helen was the bigger target. Even before I could reach for the gun I wanted to retrieve, people were stepping forward and making the choice to shoot.
Even among thugs of this caliber, so desperate for a voice and an impact, most were reluctant to actually pull the trigger and kill a child, even one so monstrous as Helen. She wore an innocent, scared expression well.
It would haunt me for a long time, I imagined, that it was an expression she was wearing when they pulled triggers and started putting bullets in her, penetrating her heart, stomach, arm, both legs, and face.
Whoever Rick was, I hoped he wasn’t the type to laugh or rub my nose in this.
The other Lambs emerged in full force, Evette included. Fray and Mauer stood on either side of me, Mauer nearer the crowd, and Fray nearer the Lambs.
They would help steer me through the muderous rage.
I opened my mouth to roar my defiance, and the building summarily split in two, and this was right and just. I didn’t care how it happened, only that it reflected the feeling in my heart, the pain of a few stray gunshots that caught me and only grazed me. As fire and smoke tore through the air around me, I was already hurling myself in the direction of the enemy.