Esprit de Corpse – 5.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Mary was finishing her trip around the perimeter when we caught up with her.  The sounds of shells and gunfire in the background were joined by a singular, high screech.

“No si-” Mary started to say, before the sharp crack of an explosion stopped her.  She winced.  “No sign of the assassins.”

“One was on the battlefield,” Gordon said.  “Sy’s gunman.”

“Why is he mine?  I don’t want him!” I protested.

Mary’s eyes had lit up with anticipation at Gordon’s statement, however.  “The others have to be close.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Gordon said.  He frowned.  “We need to talk.  And not about them.”

“They’re an issue,” Mary said, insistent.

And here is the point that marks the difference between Gordon and Mary, I mused.  Gordon was flexible, he was well rounded enough to adapt.  Mary’s focus had been honed to a point.  She was wired to go after an enemy.  Her ‘parents’, as it were, but even so.

“Dangerous enemy,” I agreed.  “I can attest.”

“Yes,” she said.

A rolling rumble, like thunder, marked the collapse of a part of the mountainside, cliff, or road.  My heart was racing, just hearing it all.

“But all the talking in the world won’t uncover more about them,” I said.  “We’ll keep an eye out, work under the assumption they’re here, but there’s something more complicated we need to discuss.  The assassins are only a small part of the big picture.”

“They nearly killed you,” she said.  “You want to ignore that?”

The gunfire in the background was incessant. It didn’t help that, as we walked beneath eaves as a trio, I would occasionally get a fat sucker of a raindrop dropping down with considerable force.  Just enough of a ‘tap’ that a small part of me thought I’d been shot again.

“No, Mary,” I told her.  I sighed a little.  “What do you want to do?  What are you thinking would be best, for the Lambs’ plan of action?”

“We go after them.  Lay a trap, take them out.”

“Lay a trap how?” I asked.  I was on the attack now, in a manner of speaking.  “They could come after us or any of the superior officers.  It’s pretty clear they have enhanced awareness on a lot of fronts.  That’s a hard trap to lay.”

“You’re good at thinking outside the box,” she said.  “This is doable.”

“Maybe doable.  Probably.  But ‘doable’ doesn’t mean ‘we should do it’.”

“But-”

“And thinking outside the box is only doable if there is a box and if I know what the box is and how it works,” I said.  “They’re a box I don’t know.”

“You’re making less sense as you go along, Sy,” Gordon said.

“I’m injured,” I pointed out.

“Which would be a great excuse if you got shot in the brain,” Mary told me, with a very unimpressed tone.  Even as we talked, she was scanning the surroundings, watching the darker parts of the street.

She was itching to go up against this new enemy.

“Sy’s right.  It doesn’t make sense,” Gordon said.

Mary shifted position, impatient, annoyed.

“If we let this slide,” Mary said, halting as the noise in the background reached a crescendo, “if- I just don’t want this mission to be stillborn like this.  I want a win, Sy.”

That,” I seized on the opportunity, “Is exactly what we hoped to talk about.”

Gordon nodded.

Mary was paying attention now, even if her eyes didn’t show it.  She was still looking out for trouble.  But her hands weren’t clenched and scrunchy the little lines that tended to appear between her eyebrows and on the bridge of her nose when she was upset weren’t as pronounced.

Even as we stepped out of the way of the streetlight and into darkness, her silhouette had changed in how poised it was.  She’d been coiled like a spring, ready to pounce or react, and now she wasn’t.  Not as much, anyway.

“You’re being sly, Sy,” she said, wary but interested.  “Gordon too.”

“This is more Gordon than me,” I said.  I said it because it was true.  It was Gordon’s plan.  But also because Mary was more likely to listen to Gordon than to me.

She was closer to me, I felt, but she was more likely to listen to Gordon.

Gordon cleared his throat.  Mary fixed her attention on him.  The pair slowed to a stop, and I realized Gordon had a hand on Mary’s shoulder.  He wanted her full attention.

I walked a bit forward, the two of them behind me.  Taking over Mary’s watch, so to speak.  Looking out for trouble.

Behind me, Gordon asked, “Do you agree with the Brigadier?”

“No,” Mary said.

“Sy told me you didn’t have high expectations about how this would turn out, even before we talked to the man.”

“I don’t feel the killer instinct,” she said.  “We talked about this after leaving the meeting, but I was thinking about it.  They hate us.  Their side is angry, they have a cause.  This side, I don’t know how much they really want to fight.”

“I’m asking,” Gordon said.  “Because if it came down to it, and the Brigadier exited the picture, but we found ourselves in a position to win this battle…”

Mary made a sudden movement, and I turned to get a better  look.  A hand to her mouth.  Connecting the dots.

The sound of explosions drowned out the start of Gordon’s statement.  Men came running down the street, a crew of stitched following them.  I glanced over them as they passed under the light, looking for the unique facial features of the assassins.

“-would you be?” Gordon asked.

“Not very,” Mary said.

There were two ways that could be taken, without context.  I wished I’d heard how Gordon had framed it.

But I saw Gordon’s shoulders relax.  His hand dropped from where he’d been resting it on her shoulder, and the two of them walked to catch up with me a bit.  Gordon looked pleased.

“It depends, though,” Mary said.  “On execution.”

“Doesn’t it always?” Gordon asked.  “Let’s sound out the others before we start discussing particulars.”

“Sure,” Mary said.

“For the record,” I said.  “I’m not entirely on board with this.  I see where Gordon’s coming from, I get it, but I have concerns.”

Gordon nodded.

“Gordon’s the reckless one for once?” Mary observed.

“You should have seen him when he was younger,” I said.  “He was as bad as I was.”

Gordon chuckled.  “I wanted to learn the good stuff so very badly, and they wouldn’t teach it to me.  Sy cottoned on and the two of us would take off.  Every day.  They’d find new ways to lock us in or station new guards, Sy and I would compete to see who could get out and free the other one.”

I was very aware that our conversation and banter had taken on a lighter tone.  It was a contrast to the ongoing fight that we could do so little about.  The seriousness of what it was that Gordon wanted to do here.

“What Gordon’s thinking, if he’s thinking what I’m thinking he’s thinking,” I said, “Is-”

“If you say thinking one more time I’m slapping you across the back of the head,” Gordon warned me.

“Is going to put us in a risky position.  We do this right, the Academy will let it slide.  But if we pull the ‘traitor’ move and we fail, we’ll have to off the Brigadier and blame the assassins.”

Mary nodded somberly.

I couldn’t see in the dark, but I was suspicious that if I could, she’d be showing me a mischievous grin while maintaining a poker face on the other side, for Gordon’s benefit.

“Okay,” Gordon said.  “I know Sy is joking-”

The sentence was cut off as a building detonated.  Flame and flying bits of whatever erupted from a rooftop, halfway between us and the wall where the fighting had been happening.

Bells were rung, people mobilized.  Civilians this time, some in nightclothes.

Putting out the fire.

“Wow,” Mary said.  “If they keep that up…”

“They won’t,” Gordon said.  “So far, the Academy’s been seeing how well they can hold back the enemy with the minimum possible resources.  But they won’t let that go unanswered.”

There were calls and orders.  Permissions given.

Unleashing the monsters.

I thought, as Specialists stepped to the fore, joined by the scientists who were looking after the individual projects.  Men pulled on chains, hauling experiments out of the enclosures where they had been contained.

Three were large, with the massive horns, thick hide, and shaggy fur.  Nothing fancy, probably no special qualities.  It kind of amazed me when I dwelt on it.  Someone had played god, they had made an entirely new life, and they had done it for a grade, halfway through their Academy education.  Exercising the fundamentals.

Give Lillian two more years and she might just put something like that together.  Except she’d do it different.  I would be deeply disappointed in her if she didn’t learn something meaningful from all of our adventures.

The gates swung open, and the creatures charged through.  Each one was probably pretty darn close to being bulletproof.

We picked up our pace as we moved further away from the site of the explosion.

Can’t think straight, this close to it all, I told myself.

“If this goes badly, it’s going to cost us,” I said.  “They’ve got Ashton Le Deux or Evette the Second in the works.  I don’t want them getting second thoughts about moving forward with that.”

“They’re not going to cancel a project they’ve already invested into,” Gordon said.

“In wartime?” I asked.  “War is the best excuse ever.  Not just for scrapping projects or changing things up.”

“Right,” he said.

“Don’t get me wrong.  That guy pisses me off more than any enemy we’ve gone up against.  I’d love to pull this one off, play it off like we haven’t in a while, but… I have questions, Gordon.”

“For me, specifically?”

“Yeah.  Mary, look, since we’re almost there, you maybe want to handle rounding up the others?  With some officers and people in the building, it’s a bad place to hold this conversation.  I need to ask Gordon something.”

I hated to ask.  I knew that Mary didn’t like being left out.  Her isolation had been the tool I’d used to get her away from Percy.

We continued walking, and I felt a little nervous, between Mary’s silence and Gordon’s reaction to my earlier concerns.

“How long do you need, for your chat?” Mary asked.

“Not long,” I said.  “You don’t have to dawdle.  But don’t rush to get everyone out the door either?”

“Alright,” she said.

I reached out and took her hand, giving it a squeeze.  She smiled at me.

We reached the house where we were staying, and Mary stepped inside.  I gestured, and Gordon and I stepped away from the door, to the corner of the house.  We stood under the eaves, streams of water coming down in front of us, like the vertical iron bars of a cell.  Our backs were to the wall, and we watched the surroundings.  Men were marching in the opposite direction from the gate that was under siege.

The city of Westmore was laid out between mountains.  It zig-zagged more than it sprawled, and the various exits from the city were all mountain roads and paths, blocked off by sturdy gates much like the one at the front.

It somehow made me think of Westmore as being weaker than it was strong.  That the Academy had taken it by force only weeks ago suggested that it wasn’t impregnable.

Weakness…

“Gordon,” I said.  “First thing I gotta ask.  It’s bugging me, and Mary probably knows the answer, but I gotta hear it from you.”

“Ah,” he said.  He heaved out a sigh.

“I know it’s a touchy subject, but… this morning.  You were sitting on the wagon instead of helping out.  You can tell me, straight up, if you were hurt in a very normal, conventional way, or lie to me and tell me you were, and I’ll leave it be.  But-”

“I’m not going to lie to you, Sy,” he said.

I felt my heart plummet.  “What happened, exactly?”

“Phantom pains,” he told me.  “Couldn’t coordinate my fingers right.”

He lifted his hand.  He touched his thumb to forefinger, middle finger, ring finger, then pinky, then did it back and forth, faster and faster.

I swallowed.

“It’s better now,” he said.  “It was minor, when it happened.  But it was a wake-up call.  That things can go wrong.  That maybe this is the very first step.  I start breaking down, things start going wrong.  Little things, and only for a short while each time, but the times get longer and the issues get bigger, and eventually, I dunno.  I’m lying in a bed and nothing works or works together, and it all hurts, and the Academy decides it’s too much trouble to keep the Griffon project alive?”

He was speaking in an artificially low voice.  One that he tried on now and again as his voice steadily and smoothly changed.  Burying emotion, doing what he could to control the words and keep them steady.  Except at the very end, he was having to try more.

He’d made it a question.  I had the answers.  He knew that.

“I could tell you what I know,” I said.  “The projected outcomes.  Timelines.  But I think you’d resent me for telling you, after, when the sun was up and things were a little brighter.  Because it would cast a shadow over every good day from here on out.  You’d take what I told you and convince yourself it was worse than it was, or something.”

“Damn it, Sy,” he said.  His voice was rough, a little choked.  He wasn’t looking at me.

“Does Mary know?”

“Yeah.  I had to explain.  Gladys, too.”

I nodded.  “The others?”

“Lillian.  Not Jamie.  Not Helen.”

He wouldn’t have had an opportunity with Jamie and Helen.

I didn’t say anything, just thinking.  The sound of battle was dying.  It wasn’t just that we were far away.  The bomb blast on the one rooftop and the subsequent release of the warbeasts had ended things.

They’d forced the Academy to play their hand.  The rebellion had spooked the Academy forces of Westmore, and they’d proved they’d spooked us.  Psychologically, it was what I’d want to do, if I was leading the enemy.  Not that I’d mount a frontal attack.

“They put me together with the best pieces they could get.  Augmented, altered, fixed, matched to what I needed.  I’m a chimera.  A hodgepodge puzzle of about twenty-six people and some things that weren’t ever people,” Gordon said.  “Everything wired perfectly, with treatments to keep it all in alignment.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve had trouble with coordination before.  Early on.  But the phantom pain… I had my hand, but my brain was trying to tell me I had a second, and it was caught in this- this ice cold vise, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing.  It wasn’t the pain that got me, or that I couldn’t get my hand to do what I wanted it to.  It was… I was worried about what it meant.

“The second hand?”

“Yeah,” he said.  His voice had that rough edge to it still.  He was having a hard time keeping it steady, but he was managing it.  “Sy.  They didn’t just work with muscle and bone and the frame of my body.  They took a few brains, took them apart, with a few choice pieces in mind, and they jigsawed it all together.”

“You’re wondering what happens if your brain starts doing what your hand was.”

“I know phantom pain and the connections don’t work that way.  But phantom pains like I felt, they’re a disconnect between the brain and the body in the first place.  I just-”

He stopped mid-sentence.

I gave him time to find the words to speak, or the ability to create the words without letting something emotional slip through.

The gunfire had stopped altogether.  There was distant shouting, but that probably had more to do with the fallout from the one shell that had hit the roof.

I heaved out a sigh.

“You don’t have anything to worry about just yet,” I said.

He raised his voice, “I told you not-”

“I know I know I know,” I said, cutting him off.  “I know.  But you gotta hear it.  And I have to say it.  I can’t have that tearing at you like that.”

He nodded.

“Okay,” I said.  “Right.  That took longer than I thought it would.  You know you can talk to me about it, right?”

“But you won’t tell me, if I ask?”

“If you really ask, I’ll tell.  If you need to know, or if it looks like there won’t be any good days, I’ll tell.”

He nodded.

I could hear the others inside the house, coming down the stairs.

“Shit,” I said.  “Okay, look.  Gotta ask.  This plan of yours, being entirely honest, how on board with it would you be if we were doing this six months ago?”

“What do you mean?”

“Fray.  You were going to go with her.”

The tension in the air was awful.  I honestly felt like he was going to reach out and grab me.

He didn’t say a word.

“Are you wanting to do this because a part of you thinks that if it goes horribly wrong, maybe we’ll all have to pick up and go to Fray?”

Silence.

“Or because of the phantom pain?  The feeling that you might be breaking down?”

“Sy,” he said.

“I gotta ask.  We gotta go into this with our eyes open.  No fooling.  Knowing that you might cut corners or shift priorities because you feel like you have an ‘out’ in Fray…”

“You want to know what the box looks like,” Gordon said.

“Yeah.”

“Yes,” he said.  “Not going to lie because I know you’ll see right through it.  Yes.  There’s a bit of a feeling of having an out.  We don’t need the pills anymore.  The chemical is everywhere.”

“Alright,” I said.

“Does-” he started to say.  The front door opened, and Gordon pursed his lips.  He gave me a look, as if I’d timed things specifically to end the conversation there and leave him hanging.

Jamie, Helen, Lillian, and Mary all stepped out, wearing raincoats, Jamie with his bookbag.  Jamie’s coat was a bit too big, swallowing him up.

“Where’s Gladys?” Gordon asked.

“Sound asleep,” Mary said.  “Thought about it, but…”

“-she’s not a Lamb,” I said.

Mary nodded.

Gordon bristled at that, but he didn’t argue.  I suspected it had something to do with the fact that he had no idea where I stood, since his confession.  Lillian gave me a look, almost inquiring.  But she was enough of a Lamb to be included here.

We moved as a group, in the opposite direction from the gate.

“What’s this about?” Lillian asked.  “You’re making me nervous.”

“Mutiny,” I said.

Gordon gave me a sharp look.

I was too busy watching the others to figure out where things stood.  Fear in Lillian’s eyes, as she looked at each of us, trying to figure out what was going on, or what we were thinking.  Jamie looked concerned, and rightly so.  Helen gave no sign, of course.

“The first foray didn’t go well?” Jamie asked.

“Nope,” I said.  “The people of the small township of Whitney are angry on a number of levels.  They’re devastated, scared, and armed.  The spider thing backfired, without the follow-up attack.  They found their courage, they’re attacking, trying desperately to hurt us before we can do something like that again.”

“If they knew how much work it took,” Mary muttered.

Gordon was watching me carefully.  I’d never told him which direction I was leaning with this plan.

“They’re not going to let up,” I said.  “It’s our feeling, given where things stand, that this isn’t going to end well for the Academy.  We’re the only people who’ve seen both sides of things.  We don’t have enough anger to drive us to go for the jugular.  Brigadier Tylor is a good indication of that.  He wants a safe win.”

“And you want mutiny?” Lillian asked.

“You were as mad as any of us, after that meeting,” Gordon said.

“But mutiny.”

“Sy’s choice of words, not mine,” he said.

“How would you put it?” Jamie asked, quiet.  His first time speaking up since stepping outside.

Gordon explained, “We disable Tylor.  Either we do it and we take over, acting in Tylor’s place, to give the orders and manage this end of the war ourselves, and we plan to do well enough that he has to keep quiet and take the credit, or we disable him in a way that won’t raise suspicion, someone else takes charge, and we lean heavily on the new leader to get the results we need.”

“I feel like if we do this, we’re going to want to do it fast,” I said.  “They’re not going to let up.  They’ll regroup, the people in charge will fan the flames, and they’ll make another attempt.  Before dawn.”

“I have thoughts on that,” Gordon said, “But let’s not get distracted.”

I nodded.

“You three are pretty committed to this?” Jamie asked.

“No,” I said.  “I have reservations.”

Jamie nodded.  I thought I detected relief.

“Reservations is putting it lightly,” Lillian said.  “Are you nuts?

“A little,” I said.

“This is dangerous,” she said.

“We talked about that part,” I said.

“It’s not just the sort of thing that screws us up and makes it so they don’t trust us anymore.  It’s the sort of thing that ends the Lamb project.”

“We could make a case,” Gordon said.

“You think they’d let you?  I’ve sat in on meetings where they talked about the Lambs project.  They asked for my opinions.  How often you were each getting hurt, what your growth looked like, development, promising elements, challenges.  I know they were testing me as much as they were evaluating you.”

“You’re worried this will damage your rep?” I asked.  “That you won’t get invited to sit in on meetings?  You’ll lose all of the trust and favors you’ve bought by helping get this far?”

“Wow,” Lillian said.  “That’s unfair.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it?  You’ve earned a kind of status, respect and an ability to dialogue with higher-ups that a lot of people four or five years ahead of you in the Academy haven’t been able to obtain.”

Lillian’s eyes narrowed.

“Hey, I don’t begrudge you that.  I only want to know where your protests are really coming from.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Are you saying no as an Academy student, or as a Lamb?” I asked.

Playing dirty.  Sorry Lil.

“The two aren’t- it can be both!”

“They can be not-both,” I said.

“I’m sorry, Sy,” Lillian said.  “I’m mad, I don’t like this, but I can’t do this in good conscience.  The risks aren’t worth it.

Jamie nodded.  He was already healing from the wounds to his face, but he still looked a little haggard, and despite Lillian’s ministrations, there were still parts of him which had the drops of resin clinging to him.  She’d cleaned his hair, at least, but the light occasionally caught bits of the glue-like stuff.

“You too?” Gordon asked.

“I’m with Lillian.  It feels reckless.”

“And Helen?” Gordon asked.

“I’d like to find another way to be helpful,” Helen said.  She was healing faster than Jamie, but she also had bits of the resin on her that caught the light.  Like tiny raindrops frozen in time.  “If we tried to take over the Brigadier’s position, I think I’d be the least helpful.  I don’t want to be useless.”

Gordon was frowning.

“Question,” I said.  “If we found out a plan that was guaranteed to work, would any of you three change your minds?”

“I might,” Jamie said.  “I trust you guys more than I trust myself w-when it comes to some things.”

I only caught it because of the way he’d stuttered, but he was cold enough he was shivering.  His teeth were chattering.

The smoke had taken a lot out of him.  Medicine could do a lot, but the body did have to carry its own weight.  Sometimes nutrients needed to be supplied, the body needed time to take in the medicines and use the resources the medics or the doctors had so kindly provided.

Jamie was frail, and it looked like he was fighting to stay standing.

I approached him, coming to stand next to him by the wall, so the side of my body pressed against the side of his.

“I’ll break the tie, then,” I said.  “I’m defecting to their side.  It’s too hard to do, too risky.”

“Okay,” Gordon said.  He raised his chin a little.

When he looked at me, it felt a little like he was looking a little bit through me.

At a certain point, Gordon had stopped being quite the Rebel and had started to fall in line with the Academy’s expectations.  He’d done marvelously.  Now he was returning to the kind of person he’d once been.  A little bit reckless.

When we’re babies, we shit ourselves, we struggle to walk, we struggle to communicate.  When we’re old, we shit ourselves, we struggle to walk, we struggle to communicate.

As things began, so did they end.

Did Gordon recognize that?  Was he touching base with his roots, as he got his first warning that he was moving toward his conclusion?

I almost changed my mind right there.  I might have defected a second time, trying to convince the others.

I wanted to give him this.

“Go inside,” I said.  “Get some rest.  Gordon, you do a walk around the city?  Maybe with Mary, if she’s up to it?  I’ll meet you when you’re back.  Then you and I will do a walk around, then Mary and I.”

“Can I?” Lillian asked.  “I don’t- I mean, I want to help, I don’t want to be useless or for there to be hard feelings, because I think that it’s crazy to try and do something to the Brigadier.”

“It’s okay, Lillian,” Gordon murmured.

“Go with one of the pairs,” I said.  “But maybe let Gordon and Mary go alone, first?”

“I don’t need to vent or rant,” Gordon said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Then Lillian can go if she wants.  Jamie and Helen hang back, recuperate.”

Jamie and Helen nodded.

“What are you doing, then?” Gordon asked me.

I smiled.

“Seriously.”

“Going for a walk,” I said, walking backward, away from the group.

“That’s suspicious,” Gordon said.

“Yeah, well, that’s me in a nutshell,” I said, still smiling.

“Am I going to be happy when I find out what you were up to?” Gordon asked.  “Are we?”

“You won’t be unhappy,” I told him, still walking backward, still giving them my fake smile.

There was no response, there were no accusations.  I turned, walking into the rain, and I could hear Mary mutter something.  Clearly unhappy.  We’d gotten her hopes up.

The closer I got to the gate, the more intense the smell of the smoke was.  The building had taken a nasty hit, possibly a storehouse, and the fire had burned well enough that I suspected the bomb blast or explosion had been intended to spread fires.

Interesting on its own.  Fire was a typical countermeasure to stitched.  The more they depended on that primal, alligator part of the brain, the less they liked it.  Newer stitched were capable of ignoring fire, defaulting to a frozen state or marching headlong into it with no heed for personal harm, which was only a marginal improvement over the fits of rage or panic that it had caused in prior generations.

Our enemy had a surprising number of tools that were very effective against us.  The warbeasts had likely forced a retreat, suggesting they didn’t have a countermeasure to that, but something told me that the person in charge of the attack had ordered a retreat the moment the bomb had hit the roof.  They’d bloodied us, they knew we had to retaliate, so they minimized the damage that retaliation could have caused.

The warbeasts were loping back toward their pens now, making their way into the gate.  I approached the man at the gate, saw him frown.

“Keep out of the way,” he told me.

I raised the badge, and I saw his expression change.  Eyebrows up.  Lines of what I almost read as disgust on either side of his mouth.  Indignation.

“There are four assassins on the periphery of Whitney,” I said.  “Each one modified.  Any time you open the gates, you need to commit people to searching wagons, checking faces.  Even if it slows things down.  If they can slip past the walls, the leadership of Westmore is going to be dead within hours.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

“Double guards on each of the gates, too,” I said.  “Doesn’t matter if they’re hurt.  Just so long as their eyes work.”

He gave me a curious stare.  I turned and left.

He wasn’t the reason I’d gone back.

I retraced my steps, going back, and crossed the street.  In the zig-zag of the city, the building was placed at one of the sharp turns, positioned in such a way that it had more space around it.  Elbow room.

The Brigadier’s lodge.

As I approached the door, two stitched stiffened, hands on their bayonets.

I held up my badge again.  “Let me in.”

They didn’t budge.

Had he passed on word to the soldiers, but not the stitched?

“Tell Brigadier Tylor there’s a little boy here to see him,” I said.  “Please.”

The stitched took an interminably long time before turning and passing through the door.

Almost a minute passed before the door opened again.  The stitched took time getting back into position at his post, lips slightly parted, eyes unfocused, before he addressed me again.  “Go in.”

I stepped inside.  I took my time removing my raincoat, which made my stomach ache, and bending over to remove my boots, which made it ache more.  My coat and boots were half the size of the ones that were already present.

Tylor was in the room with several of his superior officers.  They were gathered around the table at the far end, opposite his desk, the fireplace off to one side, oil lamps and candles burning throughout.  Many of the officers had cigarettes or pipes.  The high ceiling kept the room from being too smoky, and because the light didn’t quite reach the peak, the darkness had a nebulousness to it.  Shifting, moving, almost alive.

“Something of import?” the Brigadier asked me.

“No.  Not of import.  No emergency.  But we do need to talk.”

“One minute, then,” he said, before returning to business.

He was crisp in the orders he gave to his men.  Who was stationed where, and which weapons to keep at the ready.

I walked around to his desk, finger tracing the heavily lacquered wood.

Papers, letters, bottles of ink and quill pens, actual metal pens, and stacks of mail.  Opened and unopened.  He had a nice little letter opener, with a dog engraved into the top of it.

My finger touched the handle of the drawers.  I knew from earlier that he had a bottle of something in the one.

Had we collectively agreed to commit treason, then this would have been the moment I discreetly opened the drawer and dropped something Lillian-provided into the bottle.

Instead, I kept circling the desk.

There.  Half-tucked beneath a stack of papers were envelopes, many with curls of paper peeling off of them.  Opened, empty, the contents neatly placed elsewhere.

Probably intended for the fire.

I took one of his nice pens, one with actual gold inlaid into it and making up the metal parts, the nib excepted.  I began penning out short statements on the blank side of each envelope.

I lined them up, turning them over.

The Brigadier was true to his word.  About a minute and a half after he’d told me to wait, he sent his men away.  They pulled their boots and coats on, and the cold outdoor air blew into the lodge as they pulled the door open and stepped outside.

“Excuse me,” the Brigadier said.

I stepped out of the way, and allowed him to reach his chair, where he promptly set himself down.

“Can I ask what the plan is?”

“We have weapons.  We’ll have at least two warbeasts on guard at any time.  If there’s a problem, we open the gates and set them on the enemy.  Artillery emplacements will be moved here and there, mostly to the forward gate.  It took a lot of damage.”

I nodded.

“You’ve redecorated my desk,” he said, noting the envelopes I’d laid out.  “Am I  supposed to keep it this way?”

“I want to play a game,” I said.  I leaned against the corner of the desk.

“A game?” he asked.  I could see the struggle of his thoughts on his face as he very briefly considered going off on me for making light of the situation.  But he composed himself.  “How do we play?”

“It’s a proposal more than anything,” I said.  I tapped the envelope nearest to me, “My prediction for the enemy’s next move.”

“Hm,” he said.  “And the other three?”

“More predictions.  The game is simple.  If I’m right, and I turn over an envelope, then you give us more power.  More say, more ability to decide how our side fights this war.  If I’m wrong, then we get less power.  We do what you say, we don’t get in your way.”

He nodded slowly.  “What if I said that this isn’t worth it to me?  I could say I stand to gain very little.”

“You can,” I said.  “It’s your right, sir.”

“Mm,” he made a sound.  “You were already right about how tenacious they were.  They didn’t feel like a broken enemy.”

He stood from his seat, looking down at the envelopes.

Starting with the leftmost one, closest to me, he turned each one of them over.

That’s not how you play my game, I thought.  I suspected I was getting a sense of what Mary had felt when we’d told her we weren’t focusing on the assassins.

“One.  They attack before dawn.  They leave within the next two hours, time of attack depends on how long the path to the nearest available side gate is.  That side gate gets attacked, similar to how the first one was.  They either bring out the big guns, they attack two fronts at once, or they utilize a bomb at the gate.”

I nodded.

“Two.  Just before dawn, we get hit for the third time tonight.  Chaos in our ranks.  The attack in the previous envelope was a distraction to get one of the assassins into the camp.  Superior officers die.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Three.  The assassin, if not caught, manages a signal to the others.  Now that the Westmore forces are looking out for him or her, the assassin only moves in concert with scheduled attacks.”

I nodded.

“The second part of that message is, if the assassin is caught, ahem, because the Lambs are awesome, then the schedule we find on the paper the assassin is carrying is incorrect.  They attack by another schedule or means.  Repeating steps one and two, to get assassins in place.  It is very possible they enter and/or attack using the mine system or any sewer.”

“I don’t know Westmore enough to know the particulars there.”

“We don’t have a sewer system they could abuse like that,” the Brigadier said.  “Waste runs off into one of the mine systems, where it drops into a steady current underground.”

“Impressive,” I said.

“The Academy has its strengths.  They’re more likely to use a mine shaft.  We have enough of them.  But they won’t do this to get their assassins in the first time?”

“I don’t imagine so,” I said.  “It would risk tipping their hand.”

“You know this how?  You studied them that carefully?”

I shook my head.  “All of that, it’s what I would do.”

He turned to the fourth envelope.  He tapped his finger on it.  Something told me I’d insulted him.

“The Academy forces of Westmore that are led by Brigadier Tylor lose,” he recited, giving me a level stare.

I didn’t budge, only meeting his eyes.

“You were right on the first one,” he said.  “That gives you one win.  If you want something, and it doesn’t cost me anything, I’ll grant it.”

I nodded.

“We’ll take measures to react to this attack on the second gate you’re predicting.  That does cost me something, it’s less men and resources on the forward gate.  But I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“First thing I want that doesn’t cost you anything, I want to call the rest of the Lambs here.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next