“Alright,” I said, the second I was outside, addressing the crowd. “They’re planning on blowing up the city. Or something.”
That caused an uproar. Alarm, fear, concern. Anything else I would have said was drowned out in the ensuing reaction, not all of it from our side. A small handful of the experiments and combatants we’d taken hostage were being just as loud or louder.
But I’d known that would be the case. Had to break the news somehow, and delivering it like this meant that there was a moment to digest while the others extricated themselves from the house.
The next thing I did was to check on the situation with Helen’s big brother.
When we had first come across him, he had been navigating the city with a degree of delicacy. He had avoided stepping on things, moving with deliberation. If Helen’s indications about him sniffing out his prey were right, he would have been pausing as often as he did to get a sense of where they were.
He wasn’t doing that anymore. Not the caution, not the deliberation. He was building up steam, burning up every abstract resource that he had been conserving. Twisting his face to one side, he swung his arm out wide, slapping the face of one building, to catastrophic effect. The thunderous crack followed, as did the rumble of a good quarter of the roof tumbling to the ground some eight stories below.
His next action, flowing less than gracefully from that, was to lunge for the opposite side of the street. The skyline prevented me from seeing exactly what was going on, but I could see his head and shoulders, and I could make out the general idea of it. He didn’t stumble to the building so much as he stumbled into the building, his chest and belly colliding with the building face. His arms reached up and over, sweeping everything and everyone off of that rooftop. He was more cautious with one arm, protecting one wrist.
That duty done, he pushed himself away from the building so he could stumble into the next target, doing some significant damage to the structure in the process. All of this took only a few moments. There was no real point where he stopped moving now, and every action caused some significant damage to his surroundings, almost purely by accident.
My small army was halfway watching the scene and halfway to watching me. They wanted my verdict, not just on the success of the mission, but on all of this.
I, for my part, turned to look as Jessie and the others emerged from the building. They were bringing the ‘professor’. Helen trailed behind, sticking at the rear of the group. It looked like she’d cleaned herself up a tad.
“Where do we stand?” Jessie asked.
“Credit where credit’s due, Cynthia’s men are putting up a good fight. I can even imagine how.”
“How?” Gordon Two asked.
“He’s dumb-” I said. I paused momentarily as I heard the spitting sound from the rear of the group, the declaration of indignation. “-and they’re exploiting that fact. They figured out the amount of resources they need to commit to draw his attention, and they’re forcing him to zig-zag. Group one finds a place to set up with an escape route, draws his attention with sustained fire, noise, targeting sensitive areas, whatever, and flees the moment that he starts toward them. Meanwhile, groups two and three are doing the same. They probably have a lot of groups. Some are probably setting up traps.”
“What kind of traps work for something like that?” the Treasurer asked.
“Wagon full of something that will go up in flames, or something that might damage his feet,” I said. “If a building looks like it can come down, maybe try to get it to fall on him. Not that felling a building is easy, but it’s what I would look to do.”
Helen was shaking her head.
“…I have it on good authority that his feet aren’t that vulnerable, though,” I said. “But it’s looking more and more like Cynthia’s side is going to extricate a win, and that’s a problem.”
“The blowing up?” Gordon Two asked.
“The blowing up,” I said. I indicated the big guy. “That swollen belly is filled with something that’s going to remove this entire city as a consideration.”
“Very probably,” Jessie said, quiet.
“Very very probably,” I said.
I turned to the older man we’d brought along as a tag-along. “That’s why they don’t give a damn about the buildings being knocked down, it’s why you were being told to stay in your homes, it’s why these guys, these experiments and stitched, are all of the expendable sort.”
“Which might not be something our rebel army or the locals will grasp,” Jessie said. “It only makes sense if you’ve done the tour of duty a few times.”
“No,” one of the experiments that was sitting on the ground spoke up. He had a country drawl. “We were. Never had them drop us off, tell us to stay put and keep them safe, and leave.”
He was indicating the false professor.
I wasn’t sure the bystander we’d brought along was entirely sold. He probably thought something was fishy, but was reluctant to buy into the idea that the Crown would do something like this. Which was entirely fair, because I had a hard time reconciling the long-term strategy and play involved in this.
“We should split up and rendezvous,” Jessie said.
“Agreed,” I said. “West of the hotels?”
“We’re going to do our damndest to evacuate this city!” I called out. I looked over my shoulder at the giant. “We have…”
“Twenty minutes,” Jessie supplied. “Maybe thirty.”
“Twenty minutes!” I called out. “Get ten minutes out, knock on doors, shout, ring fire bells, spread the word. You’re going to lie. Tell them whatever you have to. The rebels have a bioweapon. No- Just say bioweapon enough times that it sticks. Say science stuff. Tell others to pass it on. Then get as far away from the giant as you can. We all meet again at the hill overlooking the city, where we all saw the giant.”
“What about the hostages?” one asked.
I looked down at the experiments who were sitting on the ground, many with hands on their heads. There were some of the women with tendrils on their arms who had the tendrils gripped behind them.
“Evacuation is a priority,” I said. “Hostages… I’ll offer you a deal.”
The one who’d spoken a short while ago looked up at me. Fluid-filled sacs hung off of his face like a beard, with more at one eye socket and arm. Others had already burst, doing mild damage to his own skin.
“I’ve got a good eye for trouble,” I said. “If you’re willing, I’ll pick out the troublemakers, and let the rest of you go. If you need a place to go, we’ll offer you one. Food, clothes, work.”
Behind me, Jessie was starting to urge some of the rebels to hurry and start with the evacuation. The bystander we’d brought along ran across the street to talk to the other bystanders, who still had Davis.
The experiment grit his teeth, looking down at the ground.
He would say yes, but it would take a precious minute.
This was another kind of transaction. I’d rolled the metaphorical dice with the lives of the people who worked for me, weighing gain against risk to life. Now I was doing much the same. I could stand here and negotiate, and it meant I wasn’t elsewhere, mitigating risk, talking to people, convincing them to evacuate.
I could reduce it down to a simple gain of a half-dozen experiments, assuming only a few would actually stay, at a risk to what, forty to a hundred people, depending on how I communicated and how many people were in nearby buildings?
A guttural voice cut in. One of the long-haired Brunos. “What if you eye trouble?”
“If I think you’re going to be a problem?” I asked.
Long hair draped from the man’s head, chin, and spilled out of the ‘v’ of his collar and the cuffs of his sleeves. It was all blond and very fine, curling at the ends, where the weight of the rest of it didn’t pull it straight. His eyes were dark, given how pale and blond the rest of him was.
“Yeah. If you think we might be trouble,” he said, and he looked like trouble indeed, going by the look in his eyes.
Simply saying ‘a bullet in the head’ didn’t really resolve anything and caused possible ruckus. Better to leave that for later, when I’d played my game of duck duck goose and could quickly eliminate the geese without all the ducks thinking they might be done for.
I wasn’t sure I liked the analogy. I didn’t like birds in general, and I could prejudice myself by thinking of my potential recruits as ducks.
It wasn’t Jessie or I that gave an answer, however. It was Helen, who had stalked along the back lines of the group, who sidled up behind the big guy. She reached out to him.
“Don’t touch the hair,” I said.
Confused, unaware there was anyone reaching out to do any touching, the big guy twisted around to look, and then startled, flipping around a hundred and eighty degrees before sprawling on his back, hands behind him.
Helen had paused, meanwhile, to look at me. She gave me a roll of the eye, where I could see a sliver of her eye through the hair.
“I’m just saying,” I told her.
She continued moving, reaching out with a shaking hand, and she touched fingers to the hairy guy’s cheekbone.
“She smells like blood and death,” the hairy guy said.
“Yeah,” was all I said.
Helen smiled, and her hair hid a lot of the smile. She bared a lot of teeth, and it looked very alarming.
“He’s your responsibility if we’re keeping him,” I told her.
She looked up at me, and the smile was one intended more for humans than for… I wasn’t even sure what label to slap the big guy with. I almost wanted to say gladiators. Fighters, scrappers, people who had been taken from bad and hurled into worse, and who had somehow worked out that the only way to keep going was to fling themselves into worse things still. People who had a vicious edge that might never be tempered.
I looked back in the direction of the giant. Where Cynthia was, if she hadn’t already been killed.
Cynthia was one of them. Not an experiment, but someone who had started out in violence and who would conclude in violence.
“You’re fine,” I told the hairy guy. “But stick close to her.”
Jessie was quickly sending away the remainder of our army, leaving me with only the bare minimum needed to keep these guys in check. “You guys, stand up, leave, or come stand behind me. You’re all fine. He’s dangerous, but he’s too hurt to do anything with…”
Then a cluster of dangerous ones. I didn’t want to go left to right as I sorted or they would know what I was doing as I skipped them. I looked to Jessie, “How are we doing for time?”
“Right,” I said. I chose a different section to pick through. “You, you, you, you, stand up. Get out of the city or stick with us.”
As the group got smaller, I began picking out the remainder. The relief of the ones who got up gave hope to the people that were going to be troublesome, the violent ones, the more monstrous ones.
Not that monstrous necessarily meant being altered more than the next guy.
“You, you, you,” I pointed out some more. I gestured.
“And you,” I said.
Jessie drew her gun as I gave the signal. I saw the remaining five stiffen. Some moved, lunging, in very calculated attacks – a tendril lashing out for the nearest rebel guard we had, another looking to run, hurling himself back toward the door.
Jessie picked them off, a series of shots. Five shots, five dead or dying enough that it didn’t matter anymore.
“I don’t like that,” Gordon Two said. “Shooting prisoners.”
“If Sy says so, they were going to make themselves a problem,” Jessie said.
“I think I like that sentiment even less than shooting prisoners,” Gordon Two said. “If you say so. That’s a lot of trust to put in you two.”
“Weren’t you just saying that you should trust me more?”
“On capability, not necessarily morality,” Gordon Two said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s fair.”
In the distance, a building was toppled. When I looked, Neph was using one hand on a building to try to push himself to his feet. It looked laborious. I wasn’t sure how much of it was because he was hurt, and how much was because he’d been built to be big in a way that tested a lot of rules and demanded a lot, and he wasn’t so readily equipped to go from a near horizontal position to a vertical one. Everything he had was meant to keep him more or less upright.
“Sy,” Jessie said. “You and I, we have a place to go, for the evacuation.”
“Do we?” I asked.
“I was going to follow behind, make sure the other experiments we scared off aren’t going to double back and harass our guys.”
“Bea?” Jessie asked. “Davis? Protect the others, troubleshoot? This bit is something Helen, Sy and I need to do. It’ll be five minutes, which will give us time to catch you all as you start heading back.”
“Sure,” Davis said.
I gave Jessie a curious look, but she gestured, and I was willing to take her cue.
“Me alone, I don’t think they’d listen,” she said. “I’m a girl, and I have the wrong image.”
She touched a wall as we ran past it. I caught a glimpse.
If it hadn’t been for that, I might have realized when I heard a crow’s caw. Convincing enough to have been a real crow, but most real birds had fled for wilderness when the whole city started rumbling with Neph’s activity.
It took only a minute of running before we got into the thick of it. It looked like a neighborhood that had started construction and abruptly stopped. Materials needed elsewhere, funding dropped, health scare when they found a graveyard under land plots… I’d heard any number of reasons for places like this.
We approached the center of the undeveloped area, and I brought my fingers to my lips. I whistled.
It took a moment, but they popped out of the woodwork. The caw had told them to go into hiding, and the whistle had drawn attention. A half dozen youths.
Jessie reached out, pressing something into my hand. Behind us, Helen and Hairy were only just now catching up.
The item in my hand was chalk.
“Briarjack works,” Jessie said.
On the wall, large enough to be seen at a distance, I drew three lines that crossed in the center. The briar, or the ‘jack’ from jumping jacks, and very rarely the caltrop. A dangerous place. I circled it dramatically and then underlined it for emphasis.
I heard the shouts and the orders. I saw scared kids two or three years younger than me acting as bosses, ordering younger ones.
There were a good number of mice. More than I might have expected for a city this size. Street urchins who had no doubt been huddled around stoves and heat lamps inside, enduring the winter.
“We’re evacuating,” I told the first of the elder children to approach. “Entire city is going to go. You’ve got a bed and food as long as you’re with us, and if you need, we should be able to ship you off to somewhere longer-term.”
“Where you from?” an older sister asked.
“Radham,” Jessie volunteered.
“Don’t know Radham.”
“Foxes and mice,” Jesse said.
“I traveled for a little while on the railcar. Trying to get as far away from home as I could get,” the sister said. “Foxes and mice were closer to home.”
“Northwest,” Jessie said.
“Yeah,” the sister said. “You’ve got food?”
“Might be shitty food in the immediate future, but it’s food,” I said. “And we need to leave now.”
“Let’s go!” she called out, and her vote of confidence was enough to get the others moving. “Hurry hurry!”
Helen and Hairy pointed to give direction, and Jessie and I followed.
“I’m glad you didn’t forget the briarjack,” Jessie said.
“So am I,” I replied, watching the children hurry. But I’m trying and I can’t even remember the name of the gentle smuggler we put in charge of the orphanage back in West Corinth.
I didn’t even think of the mice when I was thinking of people we ought to save. I would have looked for schools, or for orphanages, and the mice escaped me.
I didn’t want to be the person who would leave them behind, and I was worried I might end up becoming one, when push came to shove.
I fussed over the numbers and transactions for good reason, because sooner or later, I was going to have to start making more calls, as my brain gave me less and less room.
I studiously ignored Mauer as I shouted, gave direction, and tried to steer the group. It was better to focus on better things, like the fact that fleeing children drew attention from adults, almost giving them permission to be scared about what was going on.
This wasn’t everyone, and it wasn’t close to everyone, but I had to accept what I got, whether it was in my head or in reality.
Neph was fighting well beyond the point that a human with equivalent injuries would have. Somewhere along the line, somehow, Cynthia’s people had found a way to set him on fire twice. One of the fires had been an explosion, the other something closer to a boat filled with chemicals.
Had he wanted, he could have stumbled over to the harbor and thrown himself in the water. Given the chemicals, that might not have fully extinguished the fire, but it would have cooled him down. The heating was more an issue than the damage the fire at his shins and feet was doing.
He steamed, and his mouth worked open and closed like a nutcracker working a stubborn nut. He moved even more recklessly than before, with less accuracy and efficiency, almost as if he was blind, though his eyes were intact.
I gave Helen’s hand a squeeze. She didn’t squeeze back.
“We’ll get you someone,” I told her. “Or we could send you back. You could sell them on you being shot and crawling back.”
“Pulling a Mary,” Jessie said.
I jabbed her. She jabbed me back.
Helen was shaking her head.
“No?” I asked. “Because Ibbot?”
“There’s a chance we may run into him,” Jessie said. “Is that going to be a problem? Do we have another Mary parallel?”
Helen didn’t respond.
I volunteered, “I think it doesn’t matter.”
“We need to give Helen a working voice again, or you two are going to drive me crazy,” Jessie said.
“You should know by now,” I said. “If you tell me that there’s a blatant way to get your goat, that’s an incentive. I move that we leave Helen voiceless for the indefinite future.”
Helen, standing beside me, simply shrugged.
No strong feelings, one way or the other.
“But if she can’t speak, she can’t articulate if she wants Possum and the kitchen crew to make carrot cake, sugar cookies, or red velvet cake,” Jessie said.
Helen made an almost inaudible gasping sound, with a rough hitch in it, as if a very different creature was trying to gasp, and the sounds overlapped.
“Dirty pool,” I said.
Jessie smiled. Helen, meanwhile, started tapping my shoulder, pointing at her mouth when I looked her way.
“We’ll get you fixed as best we’re able,” I said. “I’m just worried the patch-up job we do now is going to hurt you in the long run.”
She indicated her mouth.
“First priority, we fix your mouth,” I promised. “Even though I’d rather we had someone good work on your face.”
She nodded, apparently satisfied.
Neph had slowed down enough that he was no longer zig-zagging between groups. He staggered toward one group, which I imagined would head around a corner, and then Neph would start getting shot from behind. I saw cannons mounted on carts in places. I couldn’t imagine that was sustainable with the way the cannon fire would rock the carts and startle the horses, but it was a good approach for staying mobile.
There was an explosion from a source I didn’t see, and Neph fell, collapsing against a building.
“We should go,” Jessie said. “Make absolutely sure everyone’s clear.”
“It’s been forty minutes since we said it might be twenty minutes. If we don’t get results, if we don’t see for sure that that’s what the Academy was doing, then people will be disgruntled. They’ll start saying I made it all up.”
“If it turns out to be a bioweapon meant to level a city, it could reach us. Airborne parasites, another plague, biting insects with a taste for humans and very lethal poisons, any gas that’s effective at one part per million with a short lifespan…”
I bit my lip, watching.
“Or you can hem, haw, and delay on leaving, and the decision will be made for us.”
“I think I need to see for myself. Nevermind everyone else’s opinions, dissent in the ranks… I need to know what they’re doing, how badly they want to deal with us. If my feeling is right on this, if they’re willing to sacrifice a city to eliminate one Cynthia, one Sylvester, or one Fray, how badly do they want it? How far are they willing to go?”
“You need it to put the fine touches on the versions of our enemies that are living in your head,” she said.
“Something like that,” I said. “But I don’t think the Infante is going to be one of those enemies.”
Neph tore away a part of a building and hurled it, trying to make up for his inability to catch up to Cynthia’s spears with a form of ranged attack. The chunk of building disintegrated as he threw it, with more landing on Neph’s own head than atop the group.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think that’s how it works…”
The spears responded to the thrown building chunk with a coordinated battery of cannon fire.
“…There are rules at play, even if they’re twisted Sylvester rules. If the Infante ever starts talking to me and he’s not actually there, I think that’s it. That’s as far as it goes. Put me down.”
“Sure, Sy. I can do that,” Jessie said. She rested her head on my shoulder, holding my injured hand in her own with a delicate touch.
We watched Neph find his feet again, then fall within seconds.
I tilted my own head, and I knocked it into Jessie’s. I did it again, then again.
“Trust you to ruin a nice moment,” she said, lifting her head from my shoulder.
I leaned over and kissed her.
When she broke the kiss, her lips were only just far enough that they grazed mine as she spoke, “Trust you to ruin a nice moment twice over.”
“That was a nice kiss!” I protested, pulling back. “It was a good one! I’m good enough at it that it’s caused problems in the past!”
“That was a nice kiss bookended with a headbutt on one end and…” she indicated the city, the dying giant. “That on the other. Soon. The death of a Lamb’s half sibling and innumerable people we weren’t able to reach.”
“You’re so critical,” I said.
“And you’ve got terrible timing,” she said. “But it was nice.”
“There we go,” I said.
We remained like that for nearly another minute, neither of us speaking, Jessie resting her head on my shoulder again. I felt Helen’s hand clench faintly in reaction to some of the explosions, as if she was feeling something like sympathetic pain.
Finally, in the distance, Neph ruptured. His belly split from crotch to sternum, as if sliced open, and an oily black spray poured out. It caught in the air, liquid becoming gas. Gas unfolded further, becoming a fog. It seemed largely limited to the lower areas of the city, closer to the water level.
My instincts were right. I wonder what the students who thought they’d run off and join Cynthia are thinking now.
There was a lot of the fluid, and with the way it seemed to multiply into a hundred times the amount of gas as it caught the air, Neph and the specks that were the spears were lost in the growing black cloud.
Some of the braver members of our army and collection of bystanders were venturing up the hill, finding places where they could stand and watch.
It wasn’t going to reach us. It barely looked like it reached the place where we’d run into the professor and the expendable experiments.
Helen raised a hand, waving goodbye to her half-brother.
“Why was he a half-brother, by the by?” I asked.
She looked at me, moved her hand side to side, as if drawing out the arc of a rainbow, then turned back to look at her brother.
“Makes a ton of sense,” I said.
Jessie elbowed me.
“Goodbye Neph. You were kind of one of us, in a roundabout way,” I said.
Jessie, meanwhile, moved away from me to wave over some students. Gordon Two, Bea, Davis, and the girl from the bathroom. Shirley followed after a short delay.
“What is it?” I asked. “Plague vector? Gas?”
“If I had to guess,” the Treasurer said, “It’s one of the quarantine measures.”
“Quarantine measure?” I asked.
“Black wood,” the Treasurer said. He sounded as if he was in awe.
“No,” Davis said. “Is it?”
“I’d think, but I don’t like how it’s not as reactive to the water. Could be the cold, could be a diluted sample, but…”
“What’s black wood?” I asked.
“Builder’s wood,” the Treasurer said. “But it’s meant to contain and disrupt something like a self-propagating lifeform. Wall ’em in, and when the builder’s wood reaches maturation, it sends out spores. Existing wood, non-meat food supplies. Turns it into more black wood, provided the raw material is there and there’s any moisture. A lot of builder’s wood structures crumble, I think, integrity gone.”
“We’re surrounded by forest,” I pointed out.
“Yep,” he said. “But it’s going to take time. Pneumonia-like symptoms for everyone in the city that breathes it in, enough to keep them put. Minor complications with diet and eating. Wood grows in at the usual rate, you could give it a few days to a week before it gets as far as the city periphery. Keeps going until a gust of wind can’t carry a spore to the next bit of green. They’ll probably burn a circle to control its progress.”
“And if they don’t?” I asked.
“They will. They have to,” he said.
We’d never really fully discussed the extent the Infante might be willing to go to. The consequences he might put into action to silence a dissenting voice.
“It would work on plague, wouldn’t it?” I asked. “The vinelike, veinlike growths? Turn ’em black. Starve out the population.”
The Treasurer’s face was marked by a kind of frustrated horror, as if he desperately wanted to articulate a rebuttal and couldn’t.
“There are better ways to quarantine something like this,” he said. “They have procedures. There are other methods. Ones that wouldn’t turn a large portion of the Crown States into a wasteland of charcoal-black woods.”
“Yeah,” I said. I watched as the black fog settled, thinning out. The snow that had been white before was now faintly grey.
“There are better ways,” the Treasurer said, as if he couldn’t comprehend this.
There are better ways, but they’re willing to give up the Crown States of today, contentious as they are, for a diminished, plague-free Crown States of tomorrow that is entirely under their control.
This won’t be the only seeding of the black wood or things like it, I thought.
I looked over at Jessie, then at Helen.
“Our hand’s been forced,” I said. “No choice. We accelerate the timetable. Skip steps D, E, F, and G.”
“We didn’t label the steps,” Jessie said.
“But you know what I’m talking about,” I said. I nudged her.
“Regrettably. We go straight to the top.”
I turned my back on the scene. I looked at the crowd of evacuated locals, of mice and grown men, of scattered thugs and of ex-students. I saw an abstract, vague Fray standing among Lambs old and young, and the assorted accompanying figures, like Hubris, Quinton, and Shipman. I saw Mauer and I saw young rebels gathered around him, and I wasn’t wholly sure if they were real or in my head.
A dozen individual trains of thought all found their home. The things I needed to do, the things I wanted to do.
There was a way forward.
“I have a plan,” I said.