The rain was starting to come down. With it came an awareness that the reclining lady of Hackthorn had some very minor design issues. Aesthetically, she was pleasing, structurally she was sound. But the curves, valleys, the windows and jutting walls did not amount to a wholly ideal flow of water. It was a stark contrast to Radham, which had been bent beneath the rain for decades, where the attempts to control and redirect the flow of water were somewhat haphazard and forced. Eaves and the placement of gardens did an incomplete job of keeping bridges and balconies dry.
I walked over to one edge of the balcony, where a deluge of water streamed off of a shelf high overhead, forming a sharp spray as it glanced off of the wall to one side. The eaves overhead didn’t block all of the rain, not at the far left corner, if I stood up against the railing.
I turned my face skyward, spray and rain drenching me. The combined downpour was enough to make it difficult for me to raise my arms.
We’d spent what felt like forever in the black wood, and it had been two weeks with minimal rain, and it had been a minimal rain I hadn’t been able to properly experience. Then we’d had a dry spell for our stay in Hackthorn.
Being able to actually stand in the downpour helped me get centered and feel cleansed in a way that no bath could accomplish. Even if some of it was gutter overflow.
I waited until I grew cold enough to start feeling numb before stepping back under the eaves. The others were gathered as I turned around. Other Lambs, crowding the balcony. Mauer, Fray, and people who felt painfully familiar, who I felt I should have recognized.
I opened the glass doors, stepped through, and closed them behind me.
“Sy! If we’re going somewhere, I want to come,” Helen said. “I didn’t come with you guys to be all alone.”
“It won’t be for too long,” I said.
“Any long is too long,” Helen said. She turned to look at me, half of her face hanging off, long pins sticking out from between eyeball and socket, more pins wedged between muscle groups that were pulled so tight that the metal fixtures were bowing and bending.
“Stop moving,” Ferres said. “Stop talking.”
“There are things to discuss,” Helen said, firmly. “And there’s not a lot of time.”
I didn’t want to agree with Ferres, but I couldn’t shake the mental picture of Helen’s facial muscles moving, constricting, and the metal pins snapping in explosive and sequential fashion, each snap leading to two more, leaving her face a mangled ruin of torn muscle and broken pins.
There was a lot of power in those muscles.
“I want to invite Professor Crawford,” Jessie said. She was standing at a table, penning out a letter.
“Him?” Ferres asked, turning.
The professor frowned.
“Crawford’s the brain brain, isn’t he?” I asked.
“Yeah. Pioneer in neurophysical design. And you’re dripping,” Jessie said. She reached over to a chair, and threw a towel at me. I caught it, and draped it over my shoulders, before starting to dry my hair.
I volunteered a justification. “Emily’s immortality was one that came with consequences, mentally. Ferres knows this, she volunteers that information, and says she’s sure enough of her work here that she’ll allow her work to be checked by one of the best people in the Crown States when it comes to brains.”
“Good,” Jessie said. She looked at Ferres. “What do I need to know about you and him?”
“Politically,” Ferres said, “He and I had drinks… it must have been eleven years ago.”
“Romantic drinks?” Helen asked.
“We sat at the same bar, after attending a speech. We talked. It’s hard to articulate just why my reaching out to him now would draw concern. We had zero interest in one another. No common ground. If our conversation were a… I don’t know, a battlefield? A sparring match? It was one that saw both of us deciding the other was a non-threat.”
“Aggressive non-interest?” I asked. “Enough that it’s a problem?”
“I’ve never had to say it aloud or give words to explain the social phenomenon among Professors,” Ferres said, as she worked on Helen’s face, setting another pin in place. “Scar tissue blocking the pneumatic channel in the second complex levator anguli oris. Remember that for me.”
“Noted,” Jessie said. She had been writing when I stepped out onto the balcony, and was still writing now. While working out what to write in the letter to Crawford, it looked like she was writing form answers and incomplete letters to others, with details to be filled in.
Ferres continued, “Rising through the ranks is a struggle. It’s a crab bucket, and any attempt to climb out sees others dragging you down. You learn to assess people efficiently to better find your way to the top of the bucket. I sat with Crawford, and it was the briefest of jousts. We talked about what we were working on, and in the doing, I sought to find out if he was a rival, or if he was useful, his knowledge a possible way of advancing my own work. He wasn’t either. We talked about who we each knew, and cross-checked each other against the web of interactions, key individuals, political gains and political threats. He hinted at the romantic, in case we could partner up and work as a pair, but I already had no interest in that and turned him down. So it went.”
Jessie spoke, “You believe you came to an agreement, based on your non-involvement with one another. Asking for his company now would make him wonder why.”
“Exactly. If he were more of a rival or an ally, my invitation would make more sense.”
“Don’t explain it?” I suggested. “Leave him wondering?”
“He would ask questions,” Jessie said. “He’s cautious, deliberate, he runs a lab with an aristocratic sponsor, he’s able to operate with relatively few power games.”
“The only solution would be to invite everyone,” Ferres said. “That would be hard to justify.”
I leaned against the wall, towel in one hand while I rubbed my chin with the other.
“No,” Jessie said, to me more than to Ferres, as if she could read my thoughts. “What if you’re trying to make this as explicitly unpolitical as possible?”
“I’m always political,” Ferres said.
“What if you’re retiring? Stepping down from your position, leaving only this finding as a final legacy?”
“I don’t leave obligations unfinished, and I have commitments for the next two years.”
“Well,” I said. “What if you don’t trust your hands any longer? Or your eyes? A motivation to seek out immortality and eternal youth.”
“Justification, but thin, and a long road to travel to draw this particular man in,” Ferres said. “I might suggest instead reaching out to Professor Brad Austin. He and I are rivals, he’s a close second to Professor Crawford in the field, and it’s far less of a reach. He would come. He wouldn’t ask why. He would hope I was wrong and that I would make a fool of myself, while fearing I was right and that I would surpass him in every way.”
I glanced at Jessie.
Jessie nodded, and set to writing a fresh letter. “How do you reach out?”
“No nonsense, no flowery language, except where necessary. He is cordially invited to see my name placed in the annals of history. It would delight me, put a little flourish on the penmanship of delight, if he would be present. He’ll be present.”
“Noted,” Jessie said. “Then the aristocrat John Loft?”
“Same as I would have addressed Professor Corder. Pleasant, genial-”
“I remember,” Jessie said. “Pess?”
“Pleasant will do.”
Jessie continued to rattle through names, making mental note.
The storm was picking up. As the wind changed direction, rain hammered the glass doors I’d recently passed through.
“Does that free up the other side of your face? Can you smile with just that side?” Ferres asked.
Helen smiled. I could see a kind of light in her eyes as she did.
“I think we found the source of the lock, then,” Ferres said. “I can restore your face. It will take the entire night, but then we should be done.”
We didn’t have the entire night. Not if we wanted to get ahead of the worst of the storm. It was looking to be the kind of dark and stormy where crossing the wastes or the dark wood would be next to impossible. Wading through a soup of black mud while trying to keep a lantern in hand, unable to see farther than the light could reach…
“We need to figure out what we’re doing tonight,” I said. “Who goes where. I was thinking I might go for a walk.”
As I said that, I gestured. School. Attack.
“Now? I thought you were putting that off,” Jessie said. Her voice was very calm, curious, and unbothered. The look in her eyes was focused. She didn’t gesture, as her hands were full with writing implements and paper.
“Storm isn’t going to get any better.” Time. We had a deadline.
“You’re already dripping wet. It’ll raise eyebrows.”
“I don’t think it matters,” I said. Prepare. Helen stay.
If Helen was staying, the best thing to do would be to ensure that at least the initial stages of the takeover went to plan.
Helen go, Helen gestured.
“Stop fidgeting,” Ferres said. “If I slip with this incision the work tonight will take another hour.”
Helen stay with rebels. With professor. Medical, I gestured. Jessie continued to write, her eyes moving between Helen and me.
Helen go, Helen gestured again. I heard the Professor hiss with irritation.
There were three bases to cover and three of us. It wasn’t the easiest thing to wrangle. We could change the division, have one Lamb handle two tasks, but it made for a wobblier path.
One Lamb to reunite the flock, one Lamb to the Shepherd, and one Lamb to remain behind.
“I’m so restless,” Helen mused aloud.
“Is this another form of torture?” Ferres asked. “Meticulous work with an unruly, talkative patient?”
“I’m so restless I could kill something,” Helen said, expanding on the thought.
Ferres’ work with the scalpel stopped.
“You’re being uncooperative, Helen,” Jessie said.
She managed her half-smile, using the part of her face that didn’t have skin and fatty tissues pared away and needles wedged into what remained. “I’m in an uncooperative mood these days. You know that. It’s why Sy wanted to keep me with you.”
Ah, the latent threat.
“We’re all wrestling with our individual issues,” Jessie said. “We push through.”
Helen rolled her eye, the other one held in place by the pins.
I wanted to say that this was Helen’s belated adolescence, but Helen had been and might remain a creature of countless adolescences. Countless small shifts, leaps, rebellions and adjustments.
She reached up, pulled a pin out of her face, and while Ferres wasn’t looking directly at her, plunged it into Ferres’ eye.
-do something like that.
The professor dropped, screaming, hand at her eye. The needle was already so slick with fluid that she couldn’t pull it out.
“I go,” Helen said, firmly.
“You go,” I said.
Jessie’s eyes were wide and her expression concerned as she looked at me. She’d stopped writing.
Ferres’ screams continued.
“I go?” Helen asked, happy.
I looked back at Helen. The screams continued in my ears even as Ferres remained where she was, standing by Helen, working on Helen’s face.
Just a very realistic simulation, when and where imagined Helen and real Helen had overlapped.
A very realistic depiction of how the scene might play out. Not directly, but in the long run.
To Jessie, I’d jumped to a conclusion. Jessie didn’t have the benefit of being able to see how Helen might act if left to her own devices here.
She’d said it outright, she’d laid out her boundaries. I didn’t need a hallucination to tell me that Helen was a danger. But I did need it to remind me of what the consequences could be, and how devastating a mistake could be.
“You go, I suppose. You have to,” I said.
“I don’t like how you got when you were alone with Helen in the black woods,” Jessie said. “She doesn’t keep you thinking straight.”
“It’s a bad riddle, isn’t it?” I asked. “Like the sort that Hayle used to give us. Scorpion, centipede, butterfly, all need to get from A to B, but leave one alone…”
“Am I the butterfly?” Jessie asked. “Or am I the centipede?”
“Let’s not overanalyze it,” I said.
“Alright,” Jessie said.
Her eyes were downcast. She fidgeted in a way that had nothing to do with gestures or signs, as she became very aware of the pen in her hands.
“I’ll be with Helen for most of it,” I said.
“We’d go together through the black woods. We’d part ways when she hunted Mauer and while I rounded up the Lambs, or vice versa, and whoever finished first would help the other. A few days apart, if we were lucky.”
“While I stay here, managing things,” Jessie said. Her voice was a notch quieter than before. She fixed the volume as she said, “It makes the most sense.”
She didn’t want to stay. She didn’t want to be alone. She was trying to be brave, and I really wondered if she would break into tears right here and right now.
The rain found another direction, and it ceased drumming on the window. The spray hissed as it hit the balcony outside, instead.
“Or we stay together,” I said.
Jessie spoke, “This is the crossroads we’re at, isn’t it? We stay together, and we keep each other company while accomplishing nothing, or we enact our plan, but we’re separate. There’s a very real chance that we part ways and it’s a forever goodbye.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I know I’m strong. I hold up pretty well, most of the time. But I didn’t do well while you were in the black woods.”
“Yeah,” I said. Jessie had lost memories, but she had always lost them when alone. It wasn’t a definitive thing that it had to do with her being isolated, but it was an indicator, a bad premonition.
It reminded me of Jamie, and Jamie’s experience along those same lines.
None of us wanted to be the one to remain behind. Whoever remained behind might break.
That was what we were, now.
“What if…” Jessie started.
I knew how that question ended.
“…Three Lambs afield, leaving the pen empty?” I asked.
“No sure way of knowing if the wolf will be laying in wait when we return,” I said.
“You’ve trained very nice, very capable rebels,” Helen said.
“We have,” Jessie said. “But there’s a lot they can’t do. We’d be asking five hundred people to maintain control over a population of fifteen thousand, give or take. If they lost control, I don’t think we’d be able to regain that same control over a wary enemy.”
“And it wouldn’t be fair to them,” I said.
There was no good way to handle it.
Mauer was standing by the door, attention keenly on the situation, eyes bright. Evette was sitting on the bed, smirking.
Fray stood with Ashton, one hand on his head, messing up his hair, while he stared at us with a blank expression.
Ferres, meanwhile, was very, very still, as she listened. The Hag of Hackthorn was terrified. As terrified as she had ever allowed me to see, even. She was hearing us talk, hearing things come to a head, and her Academy was at stake.
“Leave me behind,” I said.
“Alone?” Jessie asked.
“Not quite alone,” I said. “The rebels are almost another Lamb, collectively.”
Jessie stared at me.
“And… you’ll be there,” I said.
“That’s what concerns me,” Jessie said.
“In a different sense. Just… let me believe that you’re coming back. That you’ll be back with the Lambs. I can look forward to that. It’s not something that leaves me empty and hollow. It can keep me going. I can tough it out.”
Jessie shook her head.
“Helen wants to be out and about, and if she’s in your company for most of it, she’ll be okay, right?”
Helen nodded. Jessie looked more dubious.
“You’ve listened and watched with one eye as Ferres worked on Helen, haven’t you? You can do further repairs for the other half of her face.”
“Possibly,” Jessie said.
“It’s not the worst thing if it’s not possible. I’ll manage. You two should go,” I said. “I’ll entertain myself.”
“That’s another thing I’m worried about,” Jessie said. “You being entertained.”
“It’s the best way forward,” I said.
Helen’s hand snapped up, seizing Ferres wrist, where Ferres held the scalpel. She smiled that half smile.
“You don’t need a scalpel to put my face back together,” Helen said. “I’m leaving soon. So please, if you would…”
Professor Ferres stared, still frozen. Slowly, she let the scalpel tumble from her fingers and fall to the floor. She reached over with her free hand, reaching into her kit to get the chemicals and tools needed to seamlessly close up Helen’s face. Helen released her other hand, still smiling.
“I’ll get us started,” I said, standing.
Jessie nodded. Her smile was a sad one.
I was still quite damp as I exited the apartment and ventured into the hallway. Two of Bea’s people were standing guard. I gestured at them, and they fell in step with me.
The torso of the reclining woman was the center of the university, the point from which all other elements flowed. Core labs and exhibition halls made up much of the center portions, set so that other areas could look through windows or down from raised areas to view the ongoing proceedings.
Many students were gathered at tables and seats throughout one of the exhibition halls, which was in the process of being set for the young master’s birthday party, later in the month. Stage decorations were partially grown and partially built. In the meantime, until faculty came marching through at eleven thirty to midnight, it was where boys met with girls, where student workers and staff took off their shoes and talked. Friends gathered and talked about work and about fanciful ideas and dreams.
The various leaders of my groups all met here too, passing messages between them. Each and every last one of them was gathered here. Shirley was sitting at one table, where she had been talking to Possum and Rudy. Rudy was doing tons better, but he still needed crutches to get around, and the crutches rested against the table next to him.
The fact that I was drenched, still periodically dripping, it drew attention. I appreciated that among my people, there were some that kept talking, conversing without much break in stride. It might have been problematic if my arrival had been followed by utter silence.
My hand moved subtly, and a score of eyes watched it.
The movement of my hand gave the signal that they had collectively been waiting for for weeks now.
School. Two fingers held high, hand in a fist. Very close to the sign for ‘mind’.
Fall. Pinky and thumb extended, swept down.
I watched as the Rank stood as a group. They marched off. They’d been content to hang in the background, mingling with Bea’s group. But they’d been the Rank before they’d been hanging out with the Rooftop Girls, and as the Rank they’d brewed chemicals as a collective, for sale elsewhere. Drugs chief among them.
Getting them placed right had been about ensuring that they had lab space, little oversight, and access to key parts of the Academy. Posie in particular had been focused on the mechanical aspect of it.
Gas. It would sweep through whole sections of the Academy. It would take time. That was a part of it that had to start sooner than later.
I gestured for the others to hold on, then took a seat at the table, moving a chair and spinning it around so I sat backwards in the seat.
“I suppose I’ll get us started,” Mabel said. She sat at the next table over, with many members of her Green Team.
I really didn’t like that she stood just as I sat down.
“I’ll come with,” Shirley said. Mabel nodded. I could see that Shirley looked at ease, that she wasn’t running from, but running to.
I valued that a hell of a lot, when it felt like everyone was drifting away or moving away from me and that I had to fight to keep them close.
I still owed Shirley so much.
Mabel’s Green Team would be focused on Hackthorn’s right hip and leg. The leg was the path down into the small town below Hackthorn, the passage to the cliffs. Controlling it would be essential not only because it was a key chokepoint, but because it was a key place where food was stored, where the stables were. Measures were already in place to ensure that there would be no warbeasts available to anyone who tried to hold Hackthorn against us.
Shirley was traveling in that same direction, but she would carry all the way down the leg, where she would talk to Pierre and our gang members, minus Archie, who was still posing as my father, an aristocrat of note. The people who had evacuated the city when Neph had spread black wood over it were in Shirley’s company now. The mad baker was somewhere among them, as was the old man.
“There was a good number of students in the labs the last I checked,” the Treasurer said. He stood, and he gave me a two-finger salute.
The labs were easy. A small team would see it quarantined. It was a process that took time and careful attention to reverse, however. I was reminded of the Bowels, of being locked within with Sub Rosa.
The Treasurer’s group would need to be reinforced. Davis was meant to be second in command, in charge of that aspect of things when I wasn’t present. I knew from his expression that he was fully aware that my absence meant he was being forced into a position of leadership again.
Every group had a place. There were things to look after.
Bea was dressed in an Academy uniform with no jacket and an apron instead of a coat, was representative of the students who worked at helping keep things running. Some were assistants to faculty. Others delivered mail or ran errands.
Bea smiled, and she almost looked as if she enjoyed this on a level nobody else had indicated, except for me.
The Rooftop Girls had been rebels before they had been rebels. At Bea’s behest, they would act within the next thirty minutes, turning on the faculty they had been working for. A small share of that faculty would be sequestered away and imprisoned.
Cut the head off the dragon.
We’d marked out the reclining woman as someone else might dissect a body or quarter livestock.
Gordeux would be working as a liason between Davis and the Treasurer. He’d overseen a handful of projects. Warbeasts, chemicals. They would be our attack dogs, watching bridges. For a time, we would keep students confined to the dormitories, and the projects would help with that.
Other students in the exhibition hall were looking restless. Too many of our people were marching off with a mission. There was nervousness apparent throughout, and that nervousness communicated itself in little ways to the bystanders.
“You’ll need to control the room,” I told Davis. “They’re getting anxious.”
Davis nodded. He was hesitating.
But he gathered his courage, and he turned to one of his subordinates, who sat next to him. A junior member of the student council, young. In another world, if Beattle hadn’t fallen, the boy might have eventually succeeded Davis as student council president and gone on to lead the student council of Beattle, a nice little note in his record that would give him a leg up.
The boy ran off, to spread the word to the able bodied Beattle students and the other rebels we’d collected who were confident with guns.
I really hoped we wouldn’t have to use them.
Davis remained seated, thinking. He wasn’t fond of the role, even if he was good at it, and for the time being, he was introspective, preparing himself for what would come later in the evening. His job wasn’t pretty, and I was already planning to shoulder the bulk of the burden. At our behest, Ferres had made sure that the Academy’s native security forces were at the perimeter, facing outward, in a manner of speaking. Watching the wastes and the water, while trouble brewed within the heart of Hackthorn.
Davis’ group would see bloodshed before the night was out, handling that side of things, reinforcing groups as the native population of students fought in defense of their Academy and, for some, their homes.
The weather outside was whipping itself up.
Rudy had his hand over Possum’s. Possum would be running the kitchen. We had twelve thousand students in the school. There were more people in the city below, running the essential services, the shops and more, but in keeping students sequestered and the situation under control here, keeping the masses fed would be a task. Possum would tackle it, with Rudy encouraging and reassuring.
But that came later. Possum’s job for the now was to wait.
“That’ll do,” I said. “I’ll be back in two minutes. Running an errand.”
Davis nodded, still introspecting. I suspected he even knew where I was going.
A quick skip down stairs. Past students who stared or looked concerned. One even tried to call out, asking me why a dozen students had been hurrying downstairs. I didn’t answer.
Lab One was lit by lanterns, the voltaic lights off. Most of the lanterns were set up in one area.
Alvin was burning the midnight oil, it seemed, looking over notes and scripts. He didn’t notice me as I approached.
I was tempted to slit his throat, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play violent when my hallucinations were already trending that way. Not when Jessie and Helen were leaving me alone.
I pressed the knife to his throat instead.
“What?” he asked. He turned his head just enough so he could look back and see my face in the gloom. “Oh no.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I knew there was something off about you,” he said.
“I get that a lot,” I said.
“Stealing projects? Spying on Ferres?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Oh no, no. Alvin, sir, you’re about to realize this is far, far worse.”
We were well ensconsced within the Academy, with staircases and hallways separating us from the exterior walls. But the wind blew, and with it, the reclining lady shifted position. The building creaked.
“I believe you,” he said.
“Walk with me,” I said.
With Alvin at knifepoint, I walked to the cells. The children within the cells reacted to the light. Faces appeared at the bars.
“Thank you for your patience,” I said.
Reaching into Alvin’s pocket, I produced the key. I stuck it through one lock, opening it.
Goldilocks took the key I pressed into her hands, and went to the next cell.
“They’re supposed to be drugged,” Alvin said.
“They are,” I said.
“The drugs were in their systems.”
“Switched the usual drugs with sugar pills. I gave them evening doses instead of the morning doses. Haven’t gotten around to tonight’s.”
Alvin grew more and more tense as the number of youths and experiments around him grew thicker and thicker. Some were irate. Intense, hostile.
I could sense the anger, and I knew that Alvin could tell as well. That this was a mob that had been sleeping a few moments ago, that was quickly stirring itself up.
Before anything could happen, I flung Alvin into a cell. I slammed the door.
Poll Parrot looked even more dangerous in the gloom, his feathers crimson, his eyes a glare that suggested killing intent. Others had more mixed emotion. Faces that had tracks of tears on them, before they turned away or tried to hide their expressions.
Bo Peep flung herself at me, wrapping arms around me, soft wool pressing into my neck as she buried her head in my chest.
Others looked more lost and unhappy than they had been when they’d been resigned to their fates.
“Come on,” I said, barely sparing a glance for Alvin. “Everyone stay together for now.”
Jessie and Helen were in Lab One when I emerged from among the cells. I’d almost missed them, making sure that the littlest ones were being watched. The three blind mice chief among them.
Jessie navigated the mob of children.
She gave me a kiss, and in the distance, I could hear the alarm bells going off. The quarantine, the alerts that the academy was under attack. Different parts of our hostile group would hear the sounds and use them as a cue to mobilize.
My hands went up, to hold Jessie, to draw her close and keep her for a little while. Her hands went up too, fending me off. She broke the kiss.
“If you hug me, I don’t think I’ll be able to let go of you,” she said.
I didn’t speak.
“Be sane when I get back?” she asked.
“I’ll try,” I said. “I’ve got these guys to keep me company. A box of bugs that’s been nicely shaken. I’ll endure.”
Jessie nodded. I thought I saw the glint of a tear in one eye. With the lights off and the lanterns in the background, it was hard to tell.
“You have to do your part too,” I said. “Be Jessie.”
She stepped back, and as she pulled away, our inter-knit fingers pulled apart. My arm fell to my side.
“Be good, Helen,” I said. Though Helen had already faded into the gloom, following Jessie.
“Be good, Sy,” she echoed me.
I stood there, my hands tingling with what might be my last contact with Jessie.
Small hands found their way to my hands, clasping them, gripping them. Other hands touched my forearms, and clutched at my shirt.
The Crown had made the Crown States small, so the nation was easier to control. They had isolated, so it was easier to exert power over populations. We’d simply taken advantage of that. Now we did much the same, dividing and conquering that which had already been separated and left vulnerable.
We had turned Academy against Academy. Students stolen and set against other students. Faculty stolen, used against her own kind.
The nobility would be next on the chopping block.