Dog Eat Dog – 18.6

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“You changed her face,” Ferres said.

We were outside, standing on a patio where many students lunched.  It wasn’t the lunch hour, however, which meant that the only students who would be out here at this hour would be conspirators and students looking for a space to discuss a project.  The wind was brisk enough that none of them were near.

Our vantage point to see the scenery was fairly stellar.  The scenery itself wasn’t.  Wasteland and black woods as far as the eye could see to one side, and fog-shrouded ocean to the other.

“Implants, just under the skin,” I said.  “Quick, easy.”

“If I’d moved forward and called your bluff, then the implants would be found fairly quickly.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But you’re quick enough to see what happens if you don’t play along.  Your other students come under fire.”

I watched her, and even though I couldn’t read her expression well, I was wondering if she was calculating whether it was worth it to take that risk.

“Not just your favored students.  All of your students.  If I wasn’t in the room and you were free to act from the second Jessie or I gave the go-ahead to watching eyes or listening ears, you still wouldn’t be able to get ahead of what we have staged.”

“So you say.”

I smiled, tapped a cigarette out of the box, and hunched over, hand cupped, to light it in the brisk wind.  When I was done, I leaned on the railing, looking out at the wasteland.  Ferres remained close to her Academy, arms folded, back to the exterior wall.  The reclining woman of Hackthorn’s breasts jutted out overhead.  In judging their size, I realized that Ferres had modeled the breasts on her own, probably.  On her younger self’s, anyhow.

I looked away, watching dark clouds roll in.  It looked like a storm was on the way.

“Tell me,” I said.  “When you first thought you were going to join the Academy, did you tell yourself, hey, you’d cut open kids and use them to make art pieces for some aristocratic brat to play with?”

“A little reductionist, that.  That work allows me to fund and support research that does actual good.”

“If you want to play that game, the reductionist sword cuts both ways.”

“The children were doomed to begin with.  They’re better off.  They can choose if they get restored to normal by the junior students of my Academy or if they wear those modifications to their own advantage.  Others from the Block face far worse.”

“You Academy types love to focus on the physical and gloss over the emotional and mental.”

“I don’t know what an Academy type who focused on the emotional or mental would look like.”

“Mm,” I made a sound.  “Which is still sidestepping the point.”

“I do good work,” Ferres said.  “Be it with those children or in my research.  I know you grew up with close ties to a young lady that was also an Academy student.  Without me to help pave the way, she might not have found her place by your side.”

“Perhaps,” I said.

“I don’t want to sound as if I’m bragging, but do look at the big picture.”

“I try,” I said.  “And in that big picture, honestly, I think both I and the young lady might be in agreement that my side was a pretty crummy place to be.  You might not have done any favors, putting her there.  I’m kind of a bastard.”

“Ah.”

“I’m being facetious.  I do think you could have paved the way without, you know, so very many casualties.”

“How many casualties have you racked up, Sylvester Lambsbridge?”

“Eighty-three, directly,” I said.  “Nine thousand, seven hundred and twenty-one.  By the time I’m done with your Academy, I’ll likely have racked up an even ten thousand.”

“Ah.”

“I didn’t really keep count.  I just wanted to get the last word in.”

The door opened.  Jessie and Helen.  Jessie closed the door behind her and joined me at the railing, leaning with her back against it, her arm touching mine.  Helen remained closer to Ferres.

“Ferres was about to tell us things,” I said.

“I suppose I was.  What do you want to know?” Ferres asked.  “Eerie to suppose that my voicing that question aloud completely and utterly ends my career.”

“Don’t be silly,” Helen said.  “Your career was over the moment we ambushed you in your bedroom.”

I turned around, leaning against the railing beside Jessie.  I turned my head a bit so my smoke didn’t blow in her face.

Ferres frowned.  She made an odd mirror to Helen.  Older, not as natural a beauty, or not as unnatural a beauty, depending on the lens one viewed Helen through, but there were superficial similarities in how they held themselves.

I spoke.  “There’s a code you use when communicating with other professors, Academies, and nobles.  A higher level of security.”

“Is there?” Ferres asked.

I raised my eyebrow.

She sighed.  “There is.  For all that your abilities are vaunted, you Lambs haven’t been able to crack it, hm?”

“We know where the numbers are.  Stop gloating and just tell us what the numbers mean.”

“Implants.  Mine is under my left thumbnail.  It looks like blood but isn’t, it’s an agent with a specific chemical balance.  It takes two minutes with the lab in my office to extract and find out the current percentage.  They’ll check the date and time of any messages I send against the number in the margins, match it against the same chemical they have in their offices.”

“No bruising?” Jessie asked.  “I haven’t seen any physical markers.”

“That would defeat the purpose,” Ferres said.

“It’s all very complicated,” I said.

“They pushed for higher security after the infiltration of the communications office in Radham.  We did have measures before, but we had to change them when she went rogue.”

I elbowed Jessie.  “Home sweet home.”

“Was more a home for you two than for me,” Jessie said.

“Suppose so,” I said.  “You spent… what, less than half your current life there?”

“I think of Tynewear when I think of home,” Jessie murmured.  “Or of Sedge.  Home moves from place to place.”

With me, as it happened.  I leaned over to give her a kiss on the shoulder.

Professor Ferres’ tone was bitter enough to serve as a reversal in tone from the moment with Jessie.  “If I didn’t already wince at the mention of Radham because it’s where that cretin Ibbot works, I’d be doing it now.  Nothing but misery stems from there.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said.  “There’s plenty of misery everywhere.  All Radham got was a few little Lambs to help bring it to the surface.”

Ferres’ smile was thin and humorless as I looked back at her.  She said, “You Lambs, the rogue Mavis, Fray and the Red Shepherd.”

“True, that.  Cynthia too,” I said.

“She came from elsewhere,” Ferres said.

“She popped up in a few places, as did her colleagues,” Jessie said.  “It might be worth thinking about why they stopped in Radham when they did, for as long as they did, but I think we’re getting sidetracked.”

“We’ve dealt with our share of rebels rising and falling on the eastern half of the Crown States, especially in the wake of Fray’s stunt with the water supply, but the ones from your region have proven tenacious and especially irritable.”

“Whole tracts of the population being sterilized will act that way.  Being told you need a prescription to leave the region doesn’t help,” I said.

They were freely undoing the sterilization,  which would work for the current generation, and by the time the next generation cared, it would be normalized.

“All the same,” Ferres said.  “Especially irritable.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Blame the constant rain over there.”

“And tenacious,” Ferres said.

“Blame Fray for that.  She organized them.  For a little while, anyway.”

“I find myself wanting to express blame at a number of parties.  I could talk for days on the subject.  I won’t.  Reality is what it is, and I count the fact that I haven’t had to set foot in Radham as one of the very few mercies I’ve been afforded.  If the spread of the red plague has forced your lot into my corner of the Crown States, your collective leashes artificially extended by the Crown’s attempts to keep its population alive, then that’s something more I’ll have to endure.”

“You keep saying that,” I said, while making a mental note to see if there was any way I could get all of us or even just Ferres into Radham at a later point.  “Endure.  Endure.  Endure.”

“Well, I suppose I’ve reached my limit.  You’ve broken me, targeting Betty and my children.  I throw myself on your mercy.”

Why did she not sound wholly sincere as she said that?

The trump card again?

“You won’t get much mercy,” I said.  “You’ll get a bed, proper food, whatever else it takes.  Your children will be left alone.  That’s what you get for talking freely to us.  You know what happens if we catch you in a lie or half-truth.”

“I do,” Ferres said.  “Several possibilities played through my mind once I realized you had her.  I tend to look forward.  You would have made me decide.”

“Yes.”

“What to do to her, when.  To keep up the ruse.  More of my students would disappear?”

“If I had to, I would have let the drugs wear off.  Freed up her vocal chords.  Given you time for conversation with her.  If you proved particularly stubborn, I might have had you spend the night in the cell with her.”

“That would have sufficed,” Ferres said.

The wind picked up.  To my right, Mary’s skirt, ribbons, and hair blew in the wind, brushing up against my face and leg.

Helen’s body language was as expressive as her facial expression was cold.

Ferres was taking a moment to digest the idea, and I was working through just what needed to be hammered out.  Radham was sticking in my mind.

“Your file said you were gentle with children.”

I looked over at Ferres.  “Still caught up on that?”

“I’m fatigued, and I’ve surrendered.  Do me this small courtesy and sate my curiosity.”

“Sure, yeah.  I’m gentle with kids.  Is that gentle enough, given circumstances?  If there’s a two in three chance that I’m bluffing, you still can’t bring yourself to call that bluff.”

“I put it at a much higher chance than two in three, but you’re right,” Ferres said.  “Five in six chance, perhaps?”

I shrugged.  I didn’t want to betray that if I’d had to guess at my own willingness to cross a line, I might have given exactly that number.  There was a reason Lillian hadn’t looked at me all day.

“But you’re desperate.  All three of you are expiring,” Ferres said.  She paused, then sighed.  “It complicates what would otherwise be simple.  I’m at your disposal.”

“Good,” I said.  “Then we’ll need you to write several letters.”

“To professors and nobles throughout the Crown states?”

“Exactly,” I said.  I looked at Jessie.  “What’s the word?”

“Emily, Chance, and Lainie are willing to help if we need it,” Jessie said.

I gave Ferres a long look, trying to figure out the way forward for this.

“If you’re looking to me for answers or input, those are all names I don’t recognize,” Ferres said.

“The Baron Richmond’s fiancee,” I said.  “And her two traveling companions.”

“The import of this is lost on me, except that the Baron was closely associated with places where the plague originated.”

“An aristocrat’s daughter,” I said.  “Should be immortal, or close enough to it that it drew the Baron’s attention and wasn’t entirely refuted by his doctors.  Yes.  She lived in Lugh before leaving in the Baron’s company.”

“Immortal.  This is the carrot you’re dangling before them all, to draw them here?  I’ve acquired the Baron’s fiancee and through her I’ve stumbled on true immortality?”

“To draw them wherever,” I said.  “It’s a carrot we’re considering.  But there’s a flaw with that particular carrot.  Two, really.”

“Too connected to us?” Helen asked.

“Yep.  That’s the second flaw,” I said.

“And not enough people know the story about what Emily is and why the Baron was interested in her,” Jessie said.

“And there’s the first,” I said.

“Well, we’ve discussed this,” Jessie said.  “I already knew the answer.”

“Psh.”

“There are other possible discoveries, other than immortality,” Jessie said.  “Stable, controlled primordial life?”

“A discovery of the century, if a bit of an oxymoron, plausible.  As much as they might celebrate the discovery, however, my seeking it out would be sufficient excuse for them to execute me and erase my name from history.”

“A new ratio to complement Wollstone’s set?”  I asked.

Ferres snorted.  “If the people you were attempting to bait in were first year Academy students, perhaps.  The rest know better.”

“Revival of the dead with regenerated memories?” Jessie asked.

“Possible, but the road to that particular discovery is a long and narrow one.  True immortality is something that could be uncovered from a number of directions.  True revival would require dedicated focus, and that’s far removed from anything I’ve really dealt with.  A hard sell to claim I’ve done it.”

“Then… hm,” Jessie said.  She frowned.

“Shapeshifting?” Helen jumped in.  “Or deciding one’s own pattern?”

“If you mean a new discovery that’s noteworthy enough to draw attention, then we’re fifty years to a century away from that.  Anything else would be too mundane.  There’s a gap in our abilities and tools, and claiming I crossed that gap would be far fetched at best.”

“But not inconceivable?” I asked.

“Not inconceivable,” she said.

“Then we’ll put a bookmark by that page,” I said.  “And come back around to immortality, unless someone has a better idea.”

“For immortality, I’ve dabbled in such things,” Ferres said.  “Not extensively, but others know I’ve dabbled in it.”

“We know you’ve dabbled in it,” Jessie said.  “It’s why it came up in the first place as an idea.  We thought of Emily, formerly Candida Anne Gage, and the possibility of tying things together.  If we could assign some credence to your claim by saying she had fallen into your hands or willingly turned to you, and you were able to use her incomplete immortality to devise true immortality…”

“Then you draw in the important individuals you seek, for your nefarious purposes,” Ferres said.

“Which brings us to what we needed to get you onboard for.  The letters will need to be personal.  There will need to be a strategy as if you’re making a bid for power.  I don’t want to trip anyone’s prey instincts because you’re acting funny.”

“Prey instincts,” Ferres said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “So there’s a narrative we’re going to need to discuss and outline.  And in that narrative, I’m going to want you to draw the attention of certain notable individuals.”

“The Infante.”

“Him among many,” I said, smiling.

“I wouldn’t underestimate him,” Ferres said.

“You’ll tell me what I need to know about him, or where I can get information about him, using the bait of immortality.”

“Still with the two big flaws,” Jessie said.

“Maybe,” I said, I smiled, “Maybe…”

I rubbed my chin.

“You don’t need to drag this out,” Jessie said.  “You knew how to end that sentence from the moment you suggested we put a bookmark by pattern determinism.”

I dropped my hand from my face, and gave Jessie my best frown.

“Out with it, skipper.”

“You’re really no fun,” I said.  “I wanted to do the brilliant reveal, pace it out.”

She poked me in the stomach.

We don’t try to assign claim by trying to pretend Ferres got her hands on Emily Gage and figured it out from there.  We let someone else do it.”

“Someone else in the other Lambs sense?” Jessie asked.

“You did have Candy come visit us to let us know what was going on,” Helen said.

“Emily,” Jessie corrected.  “It was a name she chose, we should respect it.”

“Should we?” Helen asked.  “Should we really?”

“You respected mine.”

“Yes,” Helen said.  “But, and this is my counterpoint, Candy is the best name.  Because candy.”

Jessie shook her head.

“Involving the other Lambs makes people wonder if we’re involved,” I said.

Jessie and Helen nodded at that.

“Raises suspicions,” I elaborated.

“You’re thinking of someone,” Jessie said.  “Only other survivors of that scene that really matter are-”

“Mauer,” I said, jumping in before Jessie could finish the sentence and cut me off, because I wanted that reveal at the very least.

“You want to work with Mauer?” Jessie asked.  And in this, she was very much on the same page with Ferres.

“See?  That incredulity?  That’s why the Crown won’t immediately jump to thinking of us.”

“The Red Shepherd has been dangerously quiet lately,” Professor Ferres said.  “Or dead.”

Jessie glanced at me, “Not many places for him to hide.  The Crown States are being overwhelmed with black wood, red plague, and the cities that haven’t fallen are either under hard security with condensed forces and manpower from all of the evacuated Academies, or they’re remote, like Hackthorn.”

“Hackthorn is also filled to the gills with condensed manpower,” Helen said.  Her tone didn’t match her dead facial expression.  “The extra manpower is actually our rebels, though.”

Our hostage and the headmistress of said Academy didn’t look particularly impressed with that.

“Ferres,” I said.

“I prefer Professor Ferres, or my actual name, but yes?”

All doctors, specialists and professors were picky about that.  Always a good way to needle them.

“You get regular reports on the troublemakers, don’t you?”

“Twice a month at the minimum, with further reports as fast as the mail can reach me, any time there’s a significant update.”

“Mauer won’t be there, but I’m interested to know what measures the Academy is using to try and find him and deal with him.  We have an idea of where he should be, but given our isolation, he may have moved.  I’d like to minimize the running around…”

I trailed off.

Professor Ferres wore the face and body of a woman half her age, but as the conversation had continued and her reality had sunk in, it was as if the years were tracing themselves on her.  In posture, in expression, the way the light hit her face, her coat billowing out as if her body had no shape at all to it, she might as well have aged twelve years since stepping out onto the outdoor patio.  When the wind blew past her, she grimaced a little and looked another five or so years older as she bore the brunt of it, hair pushed out of order, her arms folded.

Like a witch out of the story books.  The pretty ones dressed themselves up like crones, and the crones dressed themselves up like maidens.

Not that sixty was a crone, exactly, but still.

She finally ventured an answer.  “I’ll show you the papers.  What’s mine is yours, it seems.”

“Very cooperative of you.  Helen, would you shadow her and ensure she gets there without incident?  I want a word with Jessie.”

“Of course,” Helen said.  She curtsied.

“We can have a conversation about your face once there,” Ferres said.  “I assume you don’t want to be seen interacting directly with me, so I suppose I’ll see you there.”

“Yes,” Helen said.  “Wonderful.”

Ferres turned to the door, still braced against the strong wind, and let herself back inside.

Helen moved to follow, hand on the door handle.  She paused.

“Problem?” Jessie asked.

“People are talking,” Helen said.  “I’ve been keeping an ear out.”

“I’ve heard some of it.  We’ll be careful,” Jessie said.

Helen nodded.  Then she was gone, keeping an eye on our Professor.

The dark clouds were getting darker.  At the very horizon, they were near-black, and the lines of where burned wasteland met dark wood and where dark wood met sky were nearly indistinguishable.  It was as if black treacle stretched in goopy lines from sky to ground, smearing the definition out of nearly everything.

Gordon was watching it all, with Hubris standing with paws up on the railing.  Mary had moved over to stand next to him.  The little Lambs were at the garden at the far end of the patio, Ashton included, while Evette said words I couldn’t make out and tapped her fingers on a branch with the tap code I’d gone and forgotten.

Lillian stood off to one side, in Fray’s firm grasp.  Keeping warm, I supposed.

I took that cue and put my arm around Jessie’s shoulders.  From there, I drew her into a hug.  She didn’t resist much as I pulled her to me.  She was warm, slender, and starchy, the last bit being the fault of the crisp Academy uniform she wore.

I had mixed feelings about the uniform.  Clothing of choice for my first love, third heartbreak.

“You wanted to talk to me alone?” Jessie asked.

“Yeah.”

“You know I’ve read her mail, I know more than she does, probably.”

“Probably.  But before we get into that, is the gig up?” I asked.  “What with what Helen was saying?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “But people are noticing that things aren’t making enough sense.  It’s bound to happen when you stick three hundred and twenty students in an Academy and expect them to keep a story straight.  I’ve overheard whispers from more suspicious Hackthorn students and seen too many people stop talking when one of ours enter a room.”

“How bad?”

“It’s inevitable that they’ll start talking and they’ll put the pieces together, if they don’t revolt entirely.  But that’s not going to be today or even tomorrow.”

“We could pull the trigger now.”

Jessie shook her head.  “Soon.”

“Soon, then,” I said.  “Alright.”

Her breath was warm against my shoulder.

Fray wasn’t embracing Lillian the way I was embracing Jessie.  It was stiffer, Fray upright, looking out into the distance.  Lillian stared at me.

“Cold,” Jessie said.

I hugged her tighter.  I could feel the warmth of her, but that warmth wasn’t what made me feel properly nourished.

“No.  I’m thinking about weather long term,” Jessie said.

“I’m thinking this moment with you is awfully nice, for the record,” I said.

“Well, I can’t think about multiple things at once quite as gracefully as you do, Sy, and there’s a lot to think about.”

I ‘tsk’ed with my tongue.

“We’ll get our ‘us’ time tonight.”

“Is that a promise?” I asked.  I made a pleased sound.

“We have time constraints.  The coming storm may limit our movements.”

I made a displeased sound.  Then I asked, “Which?  Are you thinking we’ll need to catch a boat?”

“Possibly.  Do we have the means of finding Mauer without getting on a boat?” Jessie asked.

“The man doesn’t want to be found.  But I don’t think he’s one to sit still and keep quiet, either.”

“Rumblings?”

“Something closer to what he tried in Radham, perhaps,” I said.  “Still moving steadily toward a goal.”

“Ferres’ papers suggest some noise, but it’s almost the inverse of ours.  To the Academy, Fray has all but disappeared.  No word, no rumblings, no suggestion of activity.  They’re nervous about it.  Mauer, meanwhile, has disappeared, and there are rumblings, but they’re having trouble pinning them down.  They’ve got experiments passing through every settlement, and there isn’t a single whiff of Mauer to be had.”

“And meanwhile, for us…”

“The animals Mable created and loosed before we reached Hackthorn are traveling this way and that, confounding the sniffers.  They’re dispersing our scent as well as some other pheromones usually reserved for when Academies want to control their warbeasts.”

I nodded, smiling a little.

“It might be better to do this with the shapeshifting,” Jessie said.  “Because if you want to push the immortality thing, involve Mauer…”

“…We might have to split up,” I said.  “Too many bases to cover to do it as a trio.”

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “I don’t think any of us are in a position to do terribly well on our own.  If any one of us have a bad day, on top of dealing with dangerous situations like Hackthorn being on the brink of erupting, or Mauer-”

“Or everyone else perking their ears up when a few of the most powerful Nobles and Professors start paying attention to something in little ol’ Hackthorn?” I asked.

“Or any of it.”

“Dang it, Lillian, not taking our offer,” I said.  “Would’ve made life easier if we had a few more Lambs.”

“We’re at the stage where we could reach out, but…”

“More splitting up,” I said.  “Not just a two-one split, but a three way split.  One set of eyes on Hackthorn, one on Mauer, and one voice reaching out to the Lambs.”

“We should go before those dark clouds hit, make sure our rebels know what they’re doing, fill Helen in,” Jessie said.  “Else it might be troublesome to get clear.”

Her arms were around me, my arms around her, her breath warm against my shoulder.  We didn’t hurry, much as we should.

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