Gut Feeling – 17.17

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The students Jessie and I had recruited weren’t soldiers.  They weren’t fighters, and for some this was their first altercation.  It showed.

I wasn’t a fighter, myself.  I knew how to hold a knife, I knew how to shoot a gun.  I knew how and where to hit people where it hurt.  But I wasn’t a fighter.  I was an opportunist, and I’d learned to parlay that into the knife holding, gun shooting, hurty-hitting.  That put me in an odd spot when I was now having to find and create opportunity while managing my people.

The gas cloud had spread to a point and stopped, forming a haze ten long paces wide.  Three fifths of the non-stitched enemies present had been affected in some way, coughing, sputtering, hands at burning eyes and orifices.  Another fifth, perhaps, had caught whiffs, but the effects stopped at one eye being closed, or a bit of coughing.

The stitched were backing away from the gas, and from the fear in many of their eyes, I could tell that a good share of them weren’t military grade.  Others were remaining stock still, or kept their reactions mostly in check.

That left me with a rough guess of there being a dozen experiments that weren’t incapacitated, a dozen combat-ready stitched and another thirty or forty general-use stitched.  We had them outnumbered, but only by about forty individuals.  That would change as the gas and its symptoms cleared up.

This wasn’t an easy assault, exactly.  They had undertaken some preparation before settling in.  There were places at the corners and ends of the street where fences had been knocked down, where something that might have been a shack had been pulled down, and a square of snow-less road that might have had a carriage perched over it when the real snow had fallen.  They had taken efforts to remove potential cover that anyone might use to mount an attack on them.

Had we been a matter of five people, we could have used the cover that remained, but as a mob of a hundred?

This was more Gordon’s bailiwick.  I missed that doofus.  All I could do was execute things as he would, and hope I didn’t futz it up too badly.

“Everyone with guns, fire on the group to the right!” I called out.  “Shoot!  Doesn’t matter if you hit, just-”

Someone fired.

“Just shoot!” I called out.

But with the exception of the one shot, the gunfire was delayed, hesitant.

I knew that was the way it was going to be from the moment it had opened.

“Keep shooting!” I called out, drawing my own pistol.  I’d stowed it on the opposite side of my body as usual, so the movement felt unnatural.  My damaged fingertips lacked full sensation, not helped by a layer of bandage and gloves pulled on over that, so that didn’t help either.  I aimed and I fired in the general direction of the people I’d indicated, who were stranded for the moment on the far right of the gas cloud.  The gun kicked in my hand, and as I continued running forward, I could smell the gunpowder and smoke of my own gun, and the traces of gas on the wind.

The group to the right was smaller than the group on the left, which I was leading the others in charging.  The group on the left was struggling more as the wind blew gas in their direction, but that wasn’t why I wasn’t prioritizing them.

The key in this, my lopsided approach, was directing the bulk of our initial fire on the less threatening group.  The rationale was that they were cut off from the others in volume and in sight.  To them, they were being attacked, the gas blocked off their view of friendlies, and they were already demoralized.  My hope was to turn that into a surrender.

“Bea!” I called out.  “You and delinquents, roof girls, Otis’ men, go right!  Force a surrender!  Don’t get too close!”

That left six experiments of varying types and a squadron of stitched.  The experiments didn’t have guns, but the stitched did.

Stitched typically had handlers, and the handlers weren’t present, that I could see.

An odd, ragtag defensive force, this.  My eye was on the door and windows, expecting someone to come tearing out to shout out an order to shoot.  There wasn’t one.

I was watching for an experiment to show leadership skills and turn out to be the leader for this group.  None did.  They were separate and independent, rough-looking men and women who had been through the wringer a few times before they had been experimented on and made into weapons.  They didn’t listen for orders, and didn’t even band together, not really.  Women with whips attached to their arms pulled the whips in, holding them in hands, ready to fling them out.  Men with fluid-filled sacs across their bodies shrugged out of coats, to have better access.  I saw men with heavy muscles and bodies covered in thick hair longer than some women had on their heads.

No leaders in their number.

But the stitched that weren’t looking entirely out of sorts changed their grip on their rifles, shifting their stances.  They didn’t look lost or leaderless.

I watched as one or two stitched turned, glancing at one of their number, who was coughing, drawing in a deeper breath.

Aiming, I fired the last two shots of my pistol at him.  The second of the two shots hit.

The handler had been a stitched.  Maybe high quality, a dead handler quickly revived so that his skills could be preserved, or an actual living handler dressed up like a reanimated dead man.

As his head rocked back, knocking against the wall behind him, face and wall now painted in fresh crimson, his stitched looked more alarmed.  Some of the soldier-stitched started moving of their own volition, making the call to aim at us.

“Shoot!” I called out.

I got two bullets fired at the stitched for my trouble.  It was an unenthusiastic response from my side, but that was, again, to be expected.  The nature of the mob was likely a problem, the shooters not having a clear shot because of friendlies in their way.

The stitched responded, a mere four of the forty-ish stitched shooting.  Of those four, some couldn’t see well because of the gas and its effects.

But it was bound to happen, that with our mob being dense, the stitched having some ability to aim, students to the right and left of me stumbled and went down.

That seemed to give the rest of the hesitant shooters permission to open fire.  The most soldier-like of the stitched were now the subject of our retaliatory, defensive fire.  The less soldier-like lacked leadership.

I hated the moment, the nature of those few passing heartbeats, the lingering image of the shot students tipping over before my forward movement and the rest of the crowd to either side of me blocked off my view.

It left me with a terrible, sick, angry feeling.  A lot of it was directed at myself.  The calculation, the fact that I was rationalizing that oh, only some would hit.  That I rationalized that chance of a shot being immediately lethal was low, even if internal damage might be massive with the way Academy-designed guns had bullets that were designed to bounce around their victims.  I rationalized that we were largely an army of the Academy educated.

I was rolling dice and playing with numbers and justifying, and even if I considered that the chances of an immediate, unavoidable death were in the single-digits, I was still making that call.  I felt like I could taste all of the poison of Wyvern on my tongue as I swallowed that.

But I had an army and there was no way to keep my hands entirely clean forever if I was going to use it as such, Helen needed help, and we needed someone with a black coat if we were going to accomplish what we needed to accomplish.  Failure here when morale was low would see students breaking away, looking to find their own way, which would be disastrous as the Academy cracked down, or they would join Cynthia and Mauer and face far worse numbers.

We crossed the rest of no man’s land, and the charge petered out.  Students shouted, brandishing rifles and weapons, and wary experiments backed up, whip-hands and meaty Bruno hands with long hair draping from them ready in case it became a melee brawl.

Both sides made movements as if they would throw themselves at the other, but lacked the courage to follow through.

“Surrender!” I called out.

A woman with a fifteen-foot tendril extending from her palm snapped her arm out in my direction.  It moved far faster and farther than expected, cracking the air where my head had been.  I was already moving, leaning out of the way, with the lean becoming a tilt, then a run.

I broke away from the front of my army, and threw myself into the gas cloud.

I couldn’t see in the thick gas, so I didn’t try.  My eyes were screwed closed, my breath held, and I moved through the clustered experiments blindly, shoulder bumping into one, then the other as I rebounded through them like a billiards ball.

Somewhere in the midst of it, I decided to be proactive and drew my knife.  I stuck people here and there, making more precise cuts when and where I was able to identify the shape of someone.

I brushed up against one of the long-haired individuals, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that the hair wasn’t hair at all.  It stuck to me and my clothes like briars, and it rasped as it pulled away.  Gas stung a patch of my cheek and temple in the wake of one such collision.

Another experiment was one with the external organs.  On collision, the organ popped, and the fluid drenched one of my sleeves.

I shucked off my jacket, a process that was complicated by my not wanting to drop my gun or knife, and by the presence of some kind of wriggling worms that had escaped the fluid sac when it had popped.  In my rush, occupied as I was, I bumped headlong into another long-haired bruno.  The collision was with what was likely the middle of his back, which was covered by a clothing, but I felt hair hook and pull on my sleeve and hair as an arm swiped in my direction.

In the rough center of the area, I found the speaker.  He had fallen to the ground and had only managed to rid himself of one half of the coat setup with grenades in the pockets.

I jabbed my gun into my waistband with enough force that the barrel likely gouged flesh, grabbed the coat, and pulled.  What didn’t immediately give, I slashed at.

I squinted, using light and shadow to try and make out the world, my eyes burning and tearing up, and I oriented myself to make my exit.  With some vague sense of where people were, I was able to move faster, departing.

The gas was already thinning out, but as I wrangled the remains of the coat setup that I’d collected, I was able to feel that one side was heavier than the other.

Not all of the canisters had deployed.  Between Helen and I, we hadn’t achieved full coverage in finding and activating all of the canisters.  I pulled the remaining pins, and I threw the coat into the midst of the enemy.  The still-active canisters didn’t have a lot of oomph driving the output, but it made for an expanding haze of fog, disorganization in their ranks as they tried to stay clear while maintaining battle lines.

I also managed to get some attention for myself.  I was content to step back into the smoke and move off to the side, while tentacles snapped out.  Not whip cracks this time, but lunging, reaching grabs.  One swiped across my shoulder, and I grabbed it, cutting it with my knife.

Now their attention was divided three ways.  Gas in their midst, however weak, me, and the army bearing down on them.

While I’d been absent, they had pushed forward.  Some of the tentacle women had grabbed some students and were dragging them closer by increments.  Four students were using bayonets to fend off a Bruno.

But those skirmishes were isolated.  Both sides were made up of people who wanted to live, with an exception of the stitched, who were trying to follow orders and losing ground to the chaos of the moment and the lack of their handler.  That desire to survive made for a more cowardly kind of engagement.  There was shouting, posturing, there were threats, and very few individuals were really stepping forward to act.

On the far left of the enemy group, well beyond my reach, some experiments went lunging for the guns of the fallen stitched soldiers.  A contingent of the Beattle rebels pushed forward, and it became a melee instead of a shootout.

I pitched my voice to make sure I’d be heard amid the guttural threats and low cries.  I tried to sound imperious.  “The next gas grenades go off in thirty seconds!  Surrender, kneel, and you don’t get gassed!”

Just as all but a few experiments were reluctant to truly throw themselves into the fray and risk their lives, there was an equal and opposite reluctance to give up the fight.

It had to feel horrible, to be caught in the middle, where there was so much uncertainty in surrender and mortal peril in fighting to win.

One of the tentacle women, as far as I could tell while half-blind, was being particularly persistent in trying to sweep the cloud of gas to find me.  She might have been one of the ones I’d cut.

I timed my exit so that I could duck under one of the sweeps and emerge right in front of her before she could pull her tendrils in and assault me.

My knife-tip, by intent, hit her sternum, hard.  I held it there, between her breasts, not far from her heart, and intoned the word, “Surrender.”

She brought her arms in, hands seizing me, tentacles following, reaching around my head.

I brought my arms up, pushing the knife with both hands, the blade scratching sternum and clothing, sliding up, and finally finding the soft flesh of neck.  The thrust parted flesh from the hollow of her throat to the point where her chin met her neck.  The tail end of the thrust might have severed a major vein.

I watched, wary, studying those nearby as the woman tumbled to the ground.  One of the tendrils caught on my vest and my injured shoulder as it pulled away, and I was able to keep my face still as it did so, but I wasn’t able to avoid my leg buckling and my grip on the knife faltering.  I only barely managed to keep from dropping it.

The experiments closest to me hadn’t lunged to attack at the show of weakness.  I fixed my grip, and the bloated fluid-sac experiment I was looking at at the time backed away a step.

I took one hand off the knife, and gestured at him, motioning him down.

He sat down with force, plopping himself down on the road.

People wanted to live.

The one effective surrender was cause for a domino effect.  Just as one person pulling the trigger gave others permission to shoot, one surrender gave way to another, and then another.

The experiments that were most hostile and dangerous pulled away, forming a separate group, and they drifted closer to the retreating non-soldier stitched, the laborers and filler, the dumb muscle.

That was it.  I hurried over to the coats and grenades, and, grabbing them, I hurled them in the direction of the hostiles.

The first canisters were only just running out, as new ones were flaring to life.  They backed away from the expanding cloud of gas, and then retreated wholesale, running away.

“Don’t hurt the ones who surrendered,” I said.  It wasn’t an order meant for the ears of my people, but for the ones who had given up the fight.  “Tend to the injured.  Greens, I want you to surround the building, make sure our professors aren’t running away.  Don’t chase or engage, but give us a shout if there’s a problem.”

I watched as Mabel’s group, minus Mabel, went to do as I’d bid.

Some of our people had been hurt.  I looked over our group.

“Who’s hurt?” I asked.

I heard a smattering of names, none of whom I recognized.  I heard a litany of injuries.  Shot, head injury, some medical slang that was probably ex-students retreating into comfortable, easy terminology.

“Nobody died?” I asked.

There was a pause.

“Marcus isn’t doing well, but he should pull through,” I heard.  “Some of the others are fighting over who gets to work on him.  Davis took over.”

“Good,” I said.  “You did good.”

They had, in a way.  Not perfect, a lot of hesitation, a lot of fear, but…

“You showed guts,” I said, as if talking to myself.  “That was good.”

I saw a smile on one injured person, head injury, and before I could take in more, Jessie and some of the locals were approaching.

“That was bloodier than I thought it would be,” the older man said.  He’d gone a little white, while I was probably the opposite.

“There are a lot of answers to that statement,” I said.  “But short answer is yes, it was unexpectedly bad.  Longer answer is they forced it to be, by how they laid things out.  The only approach was one that saw us collide with the defensive force they had in place.”

“You could have chosen not to fight,” he said.

“I think…” I said, and I paused, coughing, blinking, taking a moment to endure the lingering effects of the gas on me.  My skin burned with every brush of the air.  I was fairly covered up, but my face felt flushed, my skin hurt, and I was probably as red as a robin’s breast.  I stopped coughing and stayed where I was, thinking.

“No answer?” he asked.

“More that I’m trying to politely word this, knowing you still have some faith about the Academy and the Crown,” I said.

He stiffened a little at that.

The students around me were watching the exchange.  Some of them hadn’t heard the opening conversation between me and the man.

“How about this?” I asked him.  “Come inside.  Join me for a conversation with the professors who set that giant on your city.  Don’t tell them who you are.  Just listen in.”

“Why?” he asked.

Jessie spoke up, “Because if you hear what they say when they’re not talking to the public, you might well change your mind about us having to fight.”

The gas behind me was clearing up.  I could see Bea’s group, and I could see the experiments.  They had largely been pacified, the fight gone out of them as they struggled to see, breathe, and endure the pain of their skin burning.

“Alright,” the man said.  “If it means answers, I’ll listen.”

“It doesn’t mean answers,” I said.  “In the seventeen years I’ve been on this earth, I’ve spent more than half of them looking for answers to questions.  At first it was in the Academy’s service, then it was against the Academy.  I have more questions than when I started.  I don’t want you to not come, but I don’t want to lie to you either.”

“You’ll get answers to this question, maybe,” Jessie said.  “About why they acted here.”

“I’ll listen in and decide for myself,” he said.

I pointed at some people.  Helen was among them, hanging back in the midst of the group.

Helen wasn’t supposed to be alive, at this juncture, so it was risky to have her with us, but I knew she’d be upset, insofar as she got ‘upset’ in the conventional sense, if she didn’t get an opportunity to participate.  The minor play with the speaker and the Radham badge wouldn’t satisfy, I suspected.

She had her hood up, and she allowed me a small smile as she approached.

I’d picked the able bodied, rather than faces I knew.  And I’d picked Helen.  Jessie came too, as a matter of course.

I still had the bitter taste in my mouth, and gas was only a part of it.  I didn’t like this situation, this city, this attack on the Academy’s part, or this confrontation with Cynthia on one side of it.  I didn’t like the tone of it, or the way they had positioned themselves.

I didn’t like that there were a few things that weren’t connecting.

Our rebels kept an eye on the experiments while we entered the building.  It was Jessie, Helen and I who led the way, Jessie on the right, Helen on the left, and me at the lead.

The building was square, four rooms each taking up an equal share of space.  Stairs led up to the second floor.  Once we’d checked that nobody was situated on the ground floor, we made our way up the stairs.

The older man trailed behind in the company of our rebels.  He seemed to buy that we could do what we’d talked about doing, and that we could make effective use of the speaker, and I suspected Jessie had built up something of a rapport while in his company.

Helen reached out and stopped us while we were only partway up the stairs.

“What is it?” Jessie whispered.

She reached out and touched our throats.  Her hands, still suffering for the damage to her body, twitched.

It took me only a second to realize that she was intending for me to feel the twitch.

“H-h-h-h-h-h-” I made the sound, whisper quiet.

She exhaled, mirroring me.  A shuddering exhalation.  Then she inhaled.

Odd breathing.

“How many?” Jessie asked.

Helen raised her hand, then knocked it against my arm.  She was presumably doing something similar for Jessie.  Tap-tap, pause, tap-tap.

“I, uh, don’t have the tap code anymore,” I murmured.  “Or if I do, I’m not remembering the numbers these days.”

“Three,” Jessie said.  “Three people.”

Helen nodded.

I wasn’t jealous, exactly, but a part of me felt deeply disappointed that I couldn’t claim to be someone who understood Helen when all other communication failed.

We crept up, this new information in mind.  Making our way down the hallway, we reached the master room on the second floor.  The rooms lacked furniture, but for this one, which had a table and a loveseat, set a distance apart from each other, as if purely an afterthought.  There were papers on the table, and there were three individuals in the room.  Two stood, slouching, and the third sat on the arm of the loveseat.

All three wore coats.  Two grey, a man and a woman, and a man in a black coat.

I could hear their breathing now, and I could read their stances, postures, and expressions.  The agitation with seemingly no outlet or momentum to it, the spittle flecking lips, the way they stared off into space.  One held a fireplace poker and periodically let it swing left and right, like a pendulum, as if to remind himself of the heft of it.

I gestured.  Fight.  Drug.

Combat drugs.  They had dosed themselves.

Not looking to run, only to fight.

They had to make this difficult, didn’t they?

I gestured, communicating.

Jessie would take one, I would take one, and Helen and the rest could take the third.

Helen knocked my hand aside as I articulated the last bit.

Helen.  Group.  Together.

She knocked my hand aside, then she gripped it.

I still really didn’t like how weak her grip was.

She took Jessie’s hand too.  She held our hands up, and squeezed again, with far too little strength.

I could piece it together, at least.  She was using tap code as she squeezed, and Jessie and I let our eyes meet.

Trust.  Lambs.  I knew what Helen was saying.

I nodded, somewhat reluctantly.

If I’d been able to speak without our whispers potentially drawing the attention of the three people in the other room, then I might have said that trusting the Lambs to perform was one side of the equation.  The other side was that we each knew each other’s strengths and limitations, and we covered for them.

She was going to get hurt, and I wasn’t sure how much she had in her, at this stage.

Painstakingly, I communicated everything to the rest, with pen and scrap paper that Jessie supplied.

I would be the bait.  It was a role I was comfortable in.

Positioning myself at the top stair, making sure that everyone was ready, stationed in rooms off to either side of the main hallway, I whistled.

“No, no, no, no…” the man in the other room spoke.  “No!  You’re not taking me alive!  You’re not carving me up and making me a stitched, no!”

He appeared in the doorway.  “No!  I’m a professor, damn it!  I’m a professor!”

His voice reached a fever pitch.

“You’re going to have to kill me!” he screeched.

He wheeled around, and he opened fire, shooting into the room Helen was in.

Trust, I thought.

I whistled again.

He shot, this time at me.  His reaction times were amped up, and he wasn’t a bad shot either.

Come closer.

He kept firing, and with quick, deft motions, he reloaded.  I could see his shadow as he crept closer.  A sword in one hand, held close to his leg, a pistol in the other.

“Not making me a stitched!  Mommy and daddy said that I’d be made a stitched if I was bad, but I’m a professor now!  They said so!”

I was worried the others would panic.  That they would attack him, or react in fear of him shooting into their rooms.

Come closer.

He made it halfway down the hallway before I saw a glimpse of him, and he saw a glimpse of me, perched on the stairs below.  I’d anticipated it, and he still had the reaction times to nearly clip me.

“I’ve got a pretty black coat, and no matter how much blood gets on it, it never shows,” he said.  “Never shows, no, no, no.”

At least the local we’d brought along was getting an earful.

The other two entered the hallway.  The grey coats.

They were as quiet as the one in the lead was quiet.

“Mauer burns you at the stake, Fray will drown you, and Cynthia shoves her spear up your ass until it comes out the mouth,” the man in the black coat said.  “And all the lesser rebels have their special little torments.  Not for me, no, no.  If I die, we die together, that’s how the Crown does it.”

The two in the grey coats moved far enough along the hallway for the trap to spring.

The maneuver was coordinated.  The extras I’d brought along, people I’d known were brave enough on the battlefield to pull triggers or actually get involved in a fight, well, I hadn’t been able to assign them to Helen alone, so I’d told them to support all three of us as much as they could without getting in the way.

Jessie struck with surgical precision, going after the woman in the grey coat with the fireplace poker.  Her movements were remembered rather than practiced, deft, keeping her low to the ground, and the knife she planted in her target’s midsection served to catch her right at the core of the body.  The grey-coated woman was in the midst of bringing the poker around to hit Jessie, using the end closest to her two hands rather than the hooked tip, and the injury and impact together took the strength out of the hit.  Jessie was able to roll with the hit; maybe she would bruise, but it was far better than a cracked skull.

Helen, for her part, was almost the inverse.  She found a good moment to act, but the action was clumsy.  She threw herself at the man at the tail end, and she landed low, tangling herself up in his legs.

She lacked the strength to stay firm while tripping him up, but she didn’t utilize strength.  She positioned herself, so that her seven stone body was in places the man’s legs wanted to be.

He sprawled, and a knife slid away from his hand as he did so.  Helen crawled toward his upper body as he lay on his back, reaching up and over for the weapon.

Meanwhile, I simply rushed the man with the gun.  He turned to pay attention to what was happening behind him, and as he did so, I threw myself up the stairs with both hands and feet, and I pulled him back onto the stairs and onto me.  He landed partially across my good shoulder and back, and I helped him in a tumble down the stairs, grabbing his collar as I did so so I could control his fall.

Just like that, it was more or less over.  Combat drugs, yes, combatant, no.

It would make them inconvenient to deal with in the coming hour or two, however.

I just wished I had a better feeling about this whole scenario.

I made sure to collect the gun and others followed me down the stairs.

Passing custody of him to the rebels I’d brought along, I hurried up the stairs.

Helen sat astride the man’s collarbone and on top of one of his arms.  Her back bent in an impossible way, so her face was very close to his, and her tongue had stabbed into his mouth and down his throat, while he made gagging sounds.  He was trying not to vomit as she used her tongue to provoke his gag reflex.

Her arms were limp at her sides, her legs folded at either side of his shoulders.  It was only weight and a low center of gravity that she used.    He moved his hand, pulling at her, reaching for the tongue, and she interfered, batting at his hand with hers, until he finally managed a grip.

Her counter was to let him grab her tongue, hauling nearly a foot of it out of his mouth, and meanwhile, she deployed her next attack.  She heaved, vomiting what seemed like a bucket of blood on his face, nose, and into his open mouth.

His struggles took on a different tone.  He clutched at her, tried to push her off, and tried to turn his head so he could spit out the blood.  Her knees and inner thighs hugged either side of his face.  His breath formed bubbles in the pool of blood.  I heard a gasp as he managed to somehow find a way to breathe with a long length of tongue and a bucket of blood on his face.

Helen, for her part, simply heaved again.  It was bile, this time.

His hand reached for his waistband.

“Knife!” I called out.

He grabbed the knife that was at his waist and under his shirt, and he drew it.  The others near Helen weren’t fast enough to grab it before the man stabbed her.

He coughed or gagged, and there was a spurt of air exploding through the thick fluids.

Helen took the stabbing in stride, arching her body up and away so the knife pulled free of the man’s hand.  She left the knife embedded in her side, and grabbed it with one hand.

He fumbled blindly for the knife, and found only her hand.  He grabbed her wrist, trying to pull it away, and she let him, moving her body to control the positioning of everything while being quick to grab the knife handle before he could.

“I told you you’d get hurt,” I told her.

I saw her visibly sigh.

“Satisfied?” I asked.

She didn’t immediately respond.

I had one eye on the man we’d brought along, who watched the scene in abject horror.

“Jessie, Mister Bystander.  We should have a word with the professor.”

“The stab wound?” one of our rebels asked.

I’d wanted to go, and now we’d have a short discussion, and we wouldn’t go.  Slightly annoying.

“She made sure it was placed so it was almost exactly where she got shot earlier,” Jessie said.  “Presumably under the assumption that the damage is already done.”

Helen, her tongue still buried in the pool of blood and bile, and in the man’s face, nodded.

The man in the grey coat coughed again, and then the amount of fluid increased, bubbling up.  Vomit.

The fight slowly went out of him, and I could watch Helen’s back as she visibly relaxed, a weight lifted off of her shoulders, something proven, a fear resolved or a problem solved.

She had needed this, I supposed.

She turned to look at me over one shoulder, through the curtain of hair, as she slurped her tongue back into her mouth.  She spat the fluids onto the floor to the side of the man’s head.

“Satisfied,” I said, making it a statement this time.

She gave me a nod.

We left her behind as we descended the stairs.

The students had moved the professor away from the stairs and against the wall.  He still struggled with the strength of someone on combat drugs, but there were three of them, and it looked like one of his hands was injured.

I wanted to say something pithy, show off a little, and ensure that the bystander’s mind could be taken off of the scene upstairs.

But I looked down at the professor, and I felt that deep unease that had been sitting with me for a little while now.

I stooped down, reaching forward, and my injured shoulder with the flesh carved away seized up.  It took me a second attempt to grab the man’s chin.  I moved my fingers over his mouth before he could spit on me, and dug my fingers in there for leverage, staring.

“What is it?” Jessie asked.

“Look at him,” I told her.  “What do you see?”

She bent down so she was on my level.  She tilted her head one way, and then the other.


“Is that what I’m seeing?” I asked.

She moved her hand, holding it up so it was flat, dividing his face to the left and right sides.

Then, abrupt, she moved forward and pulled his head down, so his chin touched his collarbone, and ran her fingers through his hair.

“No real part,” she said.  “No whorl.”

“I don’t understand,” the bystander said.

“He’s not a professor,” I said, straightening.  “He’s an experiment.  Clone, vat baby, they dressed him up as a professor, gave him pretensions of being one, and gave him a supply of combat drugs to cloud the picture.  The soldiers outside…”

“An odd bunch,” Jessie said.

“United only in that they were expendable,” I said.  “It’s a trap.  The entire thing.  Neph, the giant… he’s too big a target to pass up.  He finds them or they find him.  The city… it’s entirely unimportant, it’s expendable too.”

“They want him to lose the fight against Cynthia,” Jessie said.

“Or against us, or Mauer, or Fray,” I said.  I looked at the bystander.  “We need to evacuate the city.  Now.”

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