Helen’s brother stood straight for the first time in a while, finally visible over the shorter buildings. His mouth was slack, his eyes wide enough to reveal the whites even from a good ways away. He arched his back so his belly stuck out, his arms down and away from his body, and he began writhing, rocking his upper body left and right.
“What’s that about?” Jessie asked.
Helen was sitting in a chair, with three of our student doctors tending to her. Her back was to the wall next to the window, but the window was in arm’s reach. She raised a hand and tapped the window clumsily.
“Hey Helen,” I said. “Want me to interpret?”
She moved her hands in an abstract way, as if trying to reassure me. I was reminded of the doctors at the Academies who worked with clay to figure out the shape and ratios needed for a new creation.
One of her eyes looked up at me to double check I was paying attention, then tapped her collarbone with one fist, only barely missing the young lady who was investigating one of the bullet holes through her ribcage.
“You want to be clear… no. You’re clear, you’re sure?”
She made a low, pleased gurgling sound in her throat, then, hands in stiff claws, she swiped the window.
“You’re positive that he’s… scratching.”
She pointed her hands up.
“Scratching the sky.”
She paused, looked down at her body, then looked up at me and reached for my chest. The other, intact Helen that only I could see was doing much the same from the other direction. I could follow the trajectories and figure out the destinations.
“Nipple,” I said, quickly, before she could get a grip on me. Even if she was weakened, I wasn’t about to let Helen of all people flip my nip.
I was really glad I had the translation thing down as well as I did, because her hand dropped away, leaving me intact and pain free. Bullet dodged.
“Oh, I see. Have to say it with the right tone of voice. Ahem,” I said. I adopted a prim, Helen tone of voice, like she liked to do when she was being ridiculous. “It’s really quite obvious. In my expert opinion, he’s trying to scratch the sky with his nipples.”
Helen moved her arms carefully so as not to interfere with the multiple ex-students working on her, and she managed a light applause.
“Yes,” Jessie said. “Absolutely, that’s what he’s trying to do.”
“He’s stiff,” I said. “He was hunched over and working hard, tearing up the road, and he just stood up and ooh, ouch, it hurts, but oh, not used to being mobile and active, he wonders how he’s supposed to deal with this? Not socially conscious or used to his own body at all, so…”
I spread my hands.
“…So he tries to scratch the sky with his nipples,” Jessie said.
Helen’s brother remained where he was, bending over backward, barely balanced, his arms dangling behind him, facing skyward. He wriggled for a moment more without righting himself, and then made a noise that carried over the city. A moan.
Helen reached out. I caught her hand and squeezed it. “He’s just grumbling.”
She gave me a weaker squeeze back.
The ex-student who was working on Helen’s stomach sat back in the chair. He rubbed at his damp forehead with his forearm, his hands bloody to the wrists. I handed him a damp cloth from the bowl.
“Thank you,” he said. Helen was sitting in the chair, her sweater cut off and her blouse unbuttoned, though the shirt hung so it covered her breasts.
“Thoughts?” I asked him.
“Terrifying,” he said.
“That’s one thought,” I reminded him. “Without a second or third, it’s hard to mark out the points, draw a line and figure out where the thought is going.”
“Uh, yeah,” he said. He looked at the other two students, both girls, who were working on the side of Helen’s face and her leg, respectively.
Jessie spoke, “Terrifying because you’re not confident, because Helen is a marvel of science, because…”
“All of the above? I had my doubts when you asked for the the best neogenesis students in the room, but that call was right on the mark. I’m pretty good with this stuff, I worked in a lab with graduate doctors putting together life from scratch. Soups, vats, artificial uteri, blends, picks, mashes, top-downs, bottom-ups, display pieces. Hell, I even got to watch over shoulders from the beginning as the G.D.s did a human lookalike from scratch. He couldn’t do anything except sit in a chair and look pretty, but it gave me a sense of what goes into this.”
“Narcissus?” the ex-student who was digging bullet fragments out of Helen’s leg asked.
“I never heard about the second one,” she said.
“Yeah, well, it was less groundbreaking.”
“We need you to piece her together enough that she’s stabilized,” I said. “Just long enough that we can find someone with the skills to do a more comprehensive fix. Can you do that for us?”
The student had a look in his eyes that reminded me of Lillian. I’d seen it when she was focused on her external muscle project. I’d probably worn it myself countless times. His thoughts were on the work, the science, the ratios and chemical names and the obscure names for components of a nonhuman body flying through his head.
“All those things I mentioned? The soups, the containers, the top-down, bottom-up, take this working piece from this project and graft it to that one?”
“All those things,” I said, echoing him.
“All of the above,” he said. “It’s all in play. It’s like… I’m trying to think of how to explain this to ignoramuses.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
Mr. All-of-the-Above startled at the tone. “Oh! No, no, I didn’t mean that as an insult, only that you don’t know Academy science. You’re ignorant in that you don’t know.”
“Quit while you’re behind,” the girl who was working on Helen’s face said.
“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, Sylvester. Sorry Jessie.”
“It’s fine,” I said, making a hand gesture that he should keep going. “Explain it to the ignoramus.”
He was flustered enough he couldn’t quite seem to gather the thoughts necessary to make a good analogy.
“If I had to take a stab at it,” the girl working on Helen’s face said, “If you gave me a maths problem, I could do it. I’m pretty good at maths. But there’s enough at work here that it’s like asking us to go through a maths textbook, front to back, there are a few curveballs slipped in here and there that might even qualify as end-of-term projects, and you’re asking us to hurry through it.”
I pursed my lips.
“We might need equipment,” Leg-girl said. “There’s something in the hip I’d have to grow a replacement for if it’s even replaceable. I think its an endpoint for one of three distinct systems that control how it moves.”
“She,” Jessie said, voice firm.
“We’re being particular and sensitive because we’re tense,” I said. “Helen needs to come out of this okay.”
“Three systems, you said?” Mr. All-of-the-above asked. “Hydraulic, pneumatic…”
“And voltaic, I think,” Face-girl said.
“Yeah,” Leg-girl confirmed. “The hip thing, I think it’s a hydraulic sub-system. Fluid-driven, with fluid being drawn to key points or released, to tense or relax other parts or exert strength. If one key point fails, others take up the slack in the hydraulic system. If the hydraulic system fails due to damage to too many key points, then the pneumatic and voltaic systems take over.”
“Except too many systems have taken too much damage,” Face-girl said.
Off in the distance, Helen’s brother had righted himself. He was being less careful about the city now, it seemed. He gripped a clocktower and was in the process of toppling it. It was sturdy in construction, but the only horizontal pressure it was supposed to endure was a stiff wind, not one of the world’s largest humanoids pushing on it.
“Is she running purely off of voltaic strength?” All-of-the-above asked.
Helen shook her head.
The clocktower toppled. The resulting crash was most likely audible to just about everyone in the city. The building rumbled as though Big Neph had showed up and was shaking it.
Each of the three young doctors stopped what they were doing, eyes wide.
“It’s fine,” I said. Helen was tapping her chest, where a gaping hole stood out over her heart. “Helen is saying the heart-driven system is in working order.”
“What?” All-of-the-above asked. “No, honey. You have a few heart-like structures and supporting structures, but the hydraulic system is most definitely not working.”
Helen made a ‘ptah’ noise, then looked up at me, rolling the one eye I could see through the blood-sticky hair.
“Be good,” I told her.
She looked at Jessie.
“You might as well show them,” Jessie said. “So long as it won’t kill you.”
“Oh, is that how this works now?” I asked. “You ask dad and he says no, and so you ask mom? And since when am I the reasonable, conservative one in this pair, Jess-”
Helen went limp, head lolling back, and blood began pouring out of her wounds anew, with one or two arterial spurts in places where there shouldn’t be arteries.
The overlapping shouts and cries of distress of the ex-students drew attention from elsewhere, or perhaps they’d heard the crash of the falling building and were coming to alert Jessie and I. Four or so of them crowded at the door and on seeing Helen, they panicked.
She stopped the bleeding on her own and began the process of pulling herself together, righting her head and sitting up straighter.
It took a moment for the ex-students to gather themselves. The one at Helen’s leg spoke first, in a very quiet voice. “I would recommend not doing that again. You know yourself better than we do, apparently, but that put a lot of stress on an already stressed hydro.”
“Oh,” Mr. All-of-the-above said. “Oh lords. Wait, if that’s the hydraulic setup doubling as cardiac while being entirely capable of functioning at standstill, is the pneumatic-”
Helen gurgled, already nodding.
“And voltaic?” he asked, indicating his head with one bloody finger.
He made a face like he was in pain. The other two ex-students didn’t look very happy either.
“Thoughts?” I tried again.
“Bad news is I don’t think I’ve ever been this out of my depth, and I’ve sat an exam for a course I hadn’t actually attended the lectures for.”
“You can bullshit exams,” I said. “We need a liberal application of bullshit here. Just enough to postpone the final results.”
“No,” he said. “No. I failed that exam. I ended up at Beattle, remember?”
“Okay, but this isn’t an exam,” I said. “This is-”
“-Worse,” Mr. All-of-the-above said.
“I can barely wrap my head around how she works,” Face-girl said.
Mr. All-of-the-Above wiped at his hands anew with another wet cloth. “But, in the interest of being positive, there’s good news.”
“Do tell,” I said. “Please.”
“It looks like she knows something about how she works.”
Mr. All-of-the-above smiled, “Even a nod here and there can help. She might be the equivalent of next year’s maths textbook when we haven’t even finished this year’s, but she can let us know if we’re going the right direction. That’s good thing number one.”
I liked his positivity. I didn’t want to admit it out loud, but it was positivity I was sorely in need of.
“Good thing number two? She’s sturdy. Hot beans, is she sturdy.”
“Ptah,” Helen made the sound. “Tch. Tch.”
“Helen says you shouldn’t call a young lady sturdy, sir,” I translated.
Helen clapped her hands again, and Jessie rolled her eyes.
“I think I can pull this off with her help,” Mr. All-of-the-Above said. He paused. “Maybe.”
“Yeah?” I asked. I looked at the other ex-students. The two girls looked a little less positive, but they felt able to give me confirmation.
Jessie visibly sagged with relief. I took a deep breath for what felt like the first time since morning.
“But if we don’t get some more knowledgeable attention trained her way soon, this is going to be a lot less pretty,” Mr. All-of-the-Above said.
“Yeah,” I said. I moved closer to the window, one side of my body touching one side of Jessie’s. Feeling the stiffness in my back as I positioned my head, I rested my chin on her shoulder, reached up, and placed her blonde braid so it laid on top of my head.
We looked out at Big Neph, who was treading heavily through the rubble he had created with the toppling of the clocktower.
“At least we have an idea of where to look,” Jessie said.
“Mm hmm,” I murmured.
“We should wrangle our people,” she said.
“Already thinking about how,” I said.
“Good,” she said.
I lowered my voice so only Jessie could hear me. “That said, I want nothing more right now than to get Helen fixed, then to crawl into the biggest, fluffiest bed with the heaviest covers with you right next to me, and stay there for longer than necessary.”
“That sounds nice,” she said. She made her voice very small, so we wouldn’t be overheard. “Just to sleep, though?”
“We’d have to talk, of course,” I said.
She twisted around, so my chin no longer rested on her shoulder, and she gave me the over-the-glasses librarian look.
I was already grinning, mocking her with my expression, making it clear I wasn’t being serious.
She extended her arm, and hooked my elbow with hers. I caught on right away, and we walked to the door of the room together.
“You do have obligations,” she said.
“Rebel group to coordinate, Crown States to save, Infante to topple…”
“You owe Mabel a bath,” Jessie said. We were out of earshot of the others. “You promised and you’re overdue.”
“Ah, right,” I said. Then I raised an eyebrow.
“She and I talk,” Jessie said, before I could even ask the question. “She doesn’t want to overstep or get in the way, so she comes to me and asks.”
“That’s good. I like her.”
“I know you like her. I like her because she’s honest, forthright, and sharp enough to not completely fall behind. She took good care of you when you had the plague crawling across you, and that earns a lot of points in my book, because you’re important to me,” Jessie said.
I reached up and picked up the braid that normally draped over one of Jessie’s skinny shoulders, and fixed its position. I let my finger brush her neck.
I liked how put together Jessie was. The glasses, the hair, the clothing, it was all done with deliberation. She smelled like the hair products and soaps girls used, faintly floral, and I knew the smell had been carefully chosen, after an analysis of all the scents she’d come across in her lifetime as Jamie the second and then as Jessie.
She took her time responding, letting me focus on her for the moment. When she finally spoke, she said, “So give her her bath, because she deserves it. Invite her to sleep in the ridiculously fluffy bed with the heavy covers with you and me.”
“Yeah,” Jessie said, reaching up to put a hand on either side of my neck. “Because you only ever sleep well if you sleep in a puppy pile. You were content in Tynewear, you were at ease, sitting on that windowsill with our music playing and tea beside you, but you didn’t truly relax. You don’t stop unless you have a collection of people relaxed and in close proximity to you. That’s just your warped psychology.”
“Probably,” I said. I let my forehead rest against hers.
“Now put that psychology to work, Sy,” Jessie said. “Tend your flock. I remember some things Ibbot said about Helen, and I remember bits and pieces about Lillian’s work on her. I’ll try to provide guidance. If we need you, I’ll come get you.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
We broke away from each other, and I glanced back at Helen before heading down the hall.
We hadn’t settled in the apartments, in the end. The concern was that Cynthia’s people would backtrack and find us. I wasn’t sure the fear was especially valid, but we had a few hundred ex-students and scattered gang members with their individual fears and concerns. A token effort to move a few streets down went a long way.
Students had settled in various rooms of the building. The buildings at the periphery of the city had been evacuated, many people had taken their most prized possessions with them, and it was relatively easy to move ourselves in, simply to borrow beds, couches, loveseats and cots. In the effort to be conscientious, we’d tried to occupy only the empty apartments and the ones where people had clearly moved out, but having three hundred bodies made that impossible to fully guarantee.
The various group leaders were supposed to be keeping tabs on their people and keeping their individual groups to set areas, but the lines had blurred over the last several months; it was hard to truly say who belonged where.
To get any sense of where three hundred people in two separate buildings were, I needed to find people like Bea, Davis, Gordon Two and Mabel. I had been distracted by my own need for medical attention and Helen’s situation, so I’d dropped the ball, and needed to figure out where it had rolled off to. I looked for open apartment doors and listened for conversation, hoping that a combination of the two would mean finding some students who were willing and able to point me toward one of my lieutenants.
“…not saying the perks are bad or that I regret going, but how old is he? Fifteen? Sixteen?”
Seventeen, actually, I thought.
Students were talking, and I’d found myself eavesdropping.
“Listen, I know I don’t know everything. But I think about the people I saw in the three different Academies I attended at, and there were some damn smart kids there. Whip smart, enough it scared me.”
“Your point being?”
“That they were still kids. I’m not saying he doesn’t pull some good stunts. I’m not saying Jessie doesn’t have her moments either. I’m just saying that they’re not quite adults.”
“Sedge was good. I liked Sedge. It was better living than I thought it would be. Would have liked more time in the city, but I totally got that there were logistics issues with that.”
“Okay, not denying that. But Sedge felt like something they stumbled on and took credit for.”
“I don’t agree.”
“No. There have been a lot of things you could say that about. Things I know you have said things about. But I think it’s far more likely that they know how to stumble. They know where to look.”
“Maybe. Maybe. Really stressing the maybe here. Except even if that was true, is that what we want?”
“I’m happy to wait until we see the results of the big play.”
“I was happy to wait, but I heard Valentina’s pitch, I got a good look at how Cynthia’s Spears operate, I can’t help but think that if Valentina was on the level and the Spears were open to new recruits, I wouldn’t mind something more directed.”
“They know what they want. They have drive, passion, they’re angry. They give me the impression they surgically target, they do the job well, and they come back in one piece with their enemies heads in a bag. Sylvester and Jessie-”
“Won. They came out ahead.”
“They say they did. And I probably believe them. But there’s always the question mark, isn’t there? How much is our leader telling the truth? How much is he pulling our strings? There’s not as much direction there. There’s not a lot of definition. He has some old ties to the Academy and knows his stuff, okay. He has ties to the kids we saw-”
“Kind of. Vagueness, right? Ambiguity. He’s got ties to Fray that people talked about at first and now nobody really wants to say anything straight out about it, Sylvester and Jessie are running the show and people are mostly fine with it, but… it feels like they operate on instinct, in grey areas, making a lot of moves that are supposed to make sense later.”
“They have a good track record, don’t they? Or is this going to be another ‘they say’ thing?”
“I don’t know. But when they came limping back and started a conversation with those Spears that Davis and Valentina had us surrendering to, well, they were limping and bleeding. They run on instinct and if you gave me the choice between the two things, maybe I’d rather not be limping and bloody because instinct didn’t go far enough.”
“You want to be a soldier?”
“I joined because fuck the Academy. Fuck the Crown. Fuck them. Fuck them for making me disappoint my mom and aunt and sister. Fuck them for not handling the plague properly, fuck them for the constant wars. All that fucking, it needs some thrust. Point me at some moving bodies and let me make them stop moving. I want that, and all I’m saying is that if the offer was given to me right now, I might think about joining the Spears.”
“Yeah, maybe. You make a decent case. Why only ‘might’?”
“Well, the Spears look like they have an awful lot of spears and not enough spear-holders, if you know what I mean? We’ve got more skirts over here, and some of them are even school uniform skirts, which are the best ones.”
“What? I’m a guy! I’m supposed to indulge. You’re supposed to indulge.”
The conversation continued, but it quickly veered into the topic of ‘indulging’, and the biologically improbable interpretations of the act, as told by two people who had never indulged.
My thoughts lingered on the criticisms, with the lingering being deep enough that I was unaware that Pierre had been standing at the other end of the hallway for some time.
I passed in front of the open door, not glancing within, and I could hear the pause in conversation as they glimpsed me. I ignored them and joined Pierre.
“Point me to my lieutenants?” I asked.
“Can do,” he said. “How is miss Helen?”
“Odds are better than expected, so long as we can get some prompt access to a black coat with the right qualifications,” I said.
“Good,” Pierre said. We descended the stairs to the lower floors of the building.
“Did you catch that conversation?” I asked.
“Some,” he said. “I think it’s the nature of young men and women to wonder who they are and where they belong. I would blame that basic nature before anything else.”
“Maybe,” I said. A few of the criticisms still felt a touch too on point. “How widespread is this sentiment?”
A lot of other people might have waffled, asked clarifying questions. Pierre didn’t.
“One in ten or one in fifteen, if I had to guess,” he said. “Valentina is one of them. I would be more worried about the fact that they’re finding listening ears.”
“Alright,” I said. “We’ll find something for them to do soon.”
“I think a lot of people had complaints, but during the honeymoon phase, they kept them in check,” Pierre said. “I saw this happen with previous employers. Gangs. One bad event gives a lot of people permission to voice doubts they had been keeping to themselves. This scare was that.”
“I just don’t like the fact that the doubts exist, and I don’t like the idea that they’d rather be with Cynthia,” I said.
“Only a small and vocal few, mind you.”
“Even so, yes. These things often blow over, Sy,” my talking rabbit said.
“But not always,” I said.
“No, and rarely in a tidy fashion,” Pierre said.
“We’ll find something for them to do soon,” I said, again. “As soon as Helen is in at least partial working order, we move.”
“She’s coming?” Pierre asked.
I looked at Helen, who was walking down the stairs with us, not a drop of blood on her, her smile sunny. “You coming?”
“Yes,” Helen said.
“She’s coming,” I said. “She wouldn’t want to be left out in circumstances like this.”