Head over Heels – 16.12

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Periodic explosions provided sufficient light to see the silhouettes of the Mercies.  The light got muddier as the smoke, dust, and gas spread around the perimeter.

“Don’t be crazy!” Jessie called out.  “We’re friendlies!  Academy uniforms!”

The Mercies made their approach, and I saw the blades.  Several were drawing their weapons.  I didn’t see any putting weapons away in light of Jessie’s statement.

“I think that card is played out,” I said.

“That would be my fault,” Berger said.  “I spread the word about your little ruse twice, after I brought Sylvester to them and when we went looking for Florence and Charles.”

One of the Mercies whooped, as if he was amping himself up, working up the courage to come after us.

“As soon as the smoke clears, we’ll make a break for the gap,” I said.  I wanted to provide a kind of direction.  I’d been on the opposite side of too many squadrons and armies, sowing discord.  In war and in simple skirmishes, it was too easy for the seeds of doubt to find root.  The counter was simple instructions, clear goals, and trust.  “We deal with the Mercies in the short term, by fighting if we have to, but with running and maneuvering as the better options.”

“Stick together,” Jessie said.  “For what it’s worth, the ones with more skin and more deformed facial features are slower.”

“Are they?” I asked.

“It seems to be the case, going by what I’ve seen.  I don’t think anyone but you and me really have the ability or experience to properly leverage that, but knowing might make the difference for someone else.  I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I watched the silhouettes approaching.  They ranged from children to thirty or so, but the odd folds and wrinkles made some look older.  “They’re strong, so try not to fight them.  You have to be able to tear off your own skin.”

“They tear off their own skin?” Shirley asked, behind me.

Maybe it was a mistake to bring that up, giving our side more reason to be afraid.

“I’ll tear off your skin!” one of the Mercies called out.  It was a man, tall, and I could only see glimpses of him when the flares in the background provided light.  His skull or his skin were misshapen, leading to a too-pronounced brow, cheekbones, and chin.   He was close enough to hear us and be heard.

“We’ve gotten good at it!” another man jumped in.  His voice had a tremulous note to it.  Unhinged.  Something about his tone of voice was almost childish.  “We’re really, really good at tearing skin!”

Others picked up the calls.  I could hear one woman apologizing in the group.

The unrest of my friends, allies, and Berger was very apparent.  They were retreating a bit, now.

I lowered my voice, aware that I was almost being drowned out by the taunting and shouts of the Mercies, “If you have any experience in a fight or spat, move up to the front of the group.  If it comes down to it, go down.  Drop to the ground.  Let the people behind you step in or take a shot.  People behind?  Your reaction to fear and surprise should be to pull the damn trigger, swing whatever you’re holding.  Conventional instincts do not apply, except for the part where you’re not supposed to shoot friendlies.”

“Maybe not the best advice, Sy,” Jessie said.

“It’s great advice,” I said.  “The worst thing that can happen at this point is one of us panicking and things spiraling out of control, or a moment of hesitation becoming a minute of hesitation or outright nonaction.  If you can’t stand firm, fall, and then get right back up again.  If you have someone else’s back, protect that back.

“Can I just say that I don’t think the worst thing that happen is panic?” Gordon Two said.  “I feel like getting my skin torn off by those guys might be the worst thing.”

There were a couple of murmurs of agreement.

“Then don’t wimp out when it counts.  Panic, wimp out, and that skin thing might happen.  Otis, Archie, back me up?  And, assuming you can see my hand, Rudy…

I gestured.  Simple gestures, ending in me pointing at Berger.

Rudy didn’t hesitate, reaching out and seizing Berger by the upper arm.

“What’s this?” Berger asked.

Jessie was already bringing out the chain.  Berger only resisted a little as she slapped the shackle onto his wrist.  After a moment of hesitation, she affixed the other end of the shackle onto Shirley’s offered wrist.

“I’m not good in a fight, so it might as well be me,” Shirley said.

“That’s good thinking,” I said, my eyes not leaving the Mercies that were drawing nearer.  I gestured for Rudy to come, and made room for him at the front of the group.

The smoke was still so thick.  We’d told our junior rebels to fire only a few rounds and then be sure to let the smoke clear.  The problem was that they were taking their time between rounds, and the smoke was taking its time in dispersing, too.

We had some guns, and it looked like the Mercies only had cutting tools; mostly knives.  There were a few swords in the mix, and one or two axes.

On the other hand, they outnumbered us three to one, they were fitter, and they weren’t nearly so bothered about the growths of plague here and there on the street and nearby houses.

“I’m terribly sorry about what’s about to happen,” one of the lady Mercies said, her voice easy to pick out amid other hollers and taunts because of the melancholy tone.  “If we got to you sooner, then you wouldn’t have to suffer now.”

“You’re gonna suffer,” another Mercy said, her voice barely holding anything back.

“They’re acting weird,” I said, my voice low.

“That would be the combat drugs,” Berger said.  “It’s hard to get even a half day of work out of the Mercies without giving them something.  High click rate, for those of you who’ve done work with chimeras and genesis projects.”

“Metabolism, for lack of a better word,” Gordon Two supplied.  “They eat fast, heal fast, get tired fast.”

“See, he gets it.  Easy explanation.  Are you trying to sound pretentious, doc?” Otis asked.

“Professor,” Berger said.  “I’m not going to expect much, but call me by the title I earned.”

“Will do, doc,” Otis said.

A few of Otis’ thugs snorted in amusement and laughed.

A fresh set of explosions hit.  Not the same place.  It looked like most of what was going on was off to the side.  Our people were drawing them off to a point, which made the perimeter here a little thinner.

The problem was wind direction.  Tinted smoke was blowing across our escape route.

“I see that Sylvester surrounds himself with top quality hires,” Berger said, unimpressed.

“A little less bickering?” Jessie asked.  “Focus.”

“I like bickering,” I said.  “Bickering means we’re aware the rest of the group exists.  You don’t focus on the enemy, break ranks, or lose sight of where your allies are when you’re busy calling those allies fatheads.”

“You seem determined to be contrary tonight,” Jessie said.  “What happened to you and I being on the same page?”

That’s the bickering spirit I was talking about,” I said.

“Just wait a second, Sy,” Jessie said.  “I need to change position so I can shoot by instinct and ‘accidentally’ put a bullet in your ass.”

“Now you’re just being lewd,” I said.  “And you’re not changing position, either.  You’re lacking in follow-through.”

“How can you guys joke around in a situation like this?” Fang asked.

“I’m not so sure I’m joking,” Jessie said.

“Back up,” I said.  “Back up a bit.  They’re grouping up.”

“We want to get closer to the perimeter,” Otis said.

“There’s an alley,” Jessie said.  “Fifteen paces back.  If we can get back there, we can potentially cut around and maybe come out behind them.  There’s a chance it’s blocked, and there’s a chance it’s blocked with plague in particular, but with wind direction, the trends of the plague…”

“You’re doing that a lot,” I said.  “Extrapolating.”

“I’m trying,” Jessie said.  “Let’s not comment too much on it and we can just hope I’m right.”

“Right,” I said.  “Alley then.”

We backed up rather than turn around and do anything.  I kept my revolver trained on the largest collections of Mercies to give them reason to hang back, while holding a knife in my other hand.

“Gonna put my hands under your skin!” one of the Mercies crooned, drawing out the words.  “Reach all the way inside you!”

“I used to hang out with someone who talked like that over tea!” I called back.  “It’s not that creepy!”

“It’s a lot creepy,” Gordon Two said.

“Shh,” I said.

“Appearing strong is key here,” Jessie said, her voice quiet.  “Confidence.  I’m going to be generous and say that was probably what Sy had in mind when he played up the banter.”

“Sure,” I said.  “We can go with that.”

Shirley and Berger led the way into the alleyway, with the offensive front line leading the way.  Jessie and I were closer to the leftmost and rightmost flanks of the more offensive group of Otis, Archie, Fang, Rudy and a number of Otis and Archie’s thugs, while other thugs, Bea, and Gordon Two formed a kind of protective semi circle around Berger and Shirley.  As we filtered in, Jessie and I were closer to the front.

What followed looked, sounded, and felt like a half-ton of bricks falling on the central group.  Being closer to the front, Jessie, Otis and I weren’t in the line of fire.  Everyone else, it seemed, was caught in the collapse.

I couldn’t be sure what had actually happened, but I heard Mercies jeering and calling out from the rooftop, I was aware that people that had been standing behind me were amid a mess of wood, stone, and trash in an unrecognizable, shadowy heap, and with the trap sprung and our group reduced to a fifth of what it should be, the Mercies in front of us now felt brave enough to attack.

They’d attacked from the roof.  Dropped something on us.  It might have been a chimney, tipped over.  That didn’t explain the trash I smelled.

“Focus!” Jessie urged me.

I focused.  One was already running straight at me with scissors in each hand.  I aimed and fired.

My first instinct was that they were being smart about this.  Three of them were approaching Otis at once.  They used teamwork, they were wary of the guns, and they wanted to catch us off guard.  Lying in wait on the rooftop was the sort of thing the Lambs liked to do.

Standing at the entrance to the alleyway, I turned, aiming at an attacker I hadn’t yet heard or seen.  She approached with her right arm brushing the wall, ducking low, to present a small profile, and she carried a knife so large it might as well have been a sword.

As I saw her, she lunged, closing the rest of the distance at a sprint.  It was smart, in a way.  She had nowhere to go if she ran off to the side or away from me.  I would have had a clear shot.  As it was, I shot, the report of my gun enough to break my focus, and she stumbled but kept running at me.   I shot twice more, and she staggered into me, both hands on the knife, which she held overhead.  She tried to bring the knife down on my neck or shoulder as she collapsed against me.

I swung the knife, driving it into the side of her neck, while my gun-arm went up, blocking her forearms as I struggled to keep the knife from coming down.

The weight of her collapsing against me made me fall.  The entirety of my focus went into keeping my arm out, firmly bent, and keeping that knife from hitting anything vital.  Her skin was loose, making the sensation of her pressing against me disorienting, my sense of her body and where she was badly distorted in the chaos of the moment.

She had the wherewithal to bite my chest where her face had smushed up against it, teeth digging past sweater and shirt.  Had I zipped up my jacket to the chin, I might have been safe, but I hadn’t.

I had a muddy or slushy puddle under me, and a loose-skinned woman above me.  She had been shot three times and stabbed in the neck, but drugs gave her zeal.  She was badly injured, couldn’t weigh much more than I did, and she was still slowly winning the struggle to bring that knife down and into my face.

Two more silhouettes were briefly lit up by explosions elsewhere.

In the moment, a train of thought went to the gap we needed to break for, the hope that our allies weren’t shooting there again, making us have to endure for even longer before we found our way through.

At a glimpse of Gordon, golden haired and dressed in black jacket and slacks, looking very grim, I returned my focus to the death-and-death struggle of the woman that was on top of me, and the man with the wood axe who was approaching the two of us, drawing his weapon back with clear intent to bring it down on my head with both hands.

Otis stepped in to rescue me, kicking the woman hard where her neck met the shoulder.  Whether by accident or design, it drove her further into the knife that was embedded in the other side of her neck.  I lost my grip on my weapon as she rolled off of me.

Otis swung his club as the axe man brought his weapon down toward me.  The club met the axeman’s forearms as they were brought down.  The wood axe came free of the man’s hands, and I had a momentary visualization of the weapon flying free, end over end, to embed itself in me.

It bounced off of the wall above me and the blunt part of the weapon’s head punched me in the stomach, the thing landing practically in my hands, albeit the wrong end.

Otis outright turned his back on the man he’d just disarmed to help Jessie.  It was a scene of me on the ground, the Mercy hunched there hollering as he held his arms almost straight out in front of him, in clear agony at what might have been two fractured forearms, and one more Mercy making his approach, somewhat more warily than the axeman Mercy had.

“Get up!” Gordon shouted.

I was already getting up as Otis echoed Gordon, “Up, you fool!”

I scrambled to my feet, shifting my grip so I had a one-handed hold on the axe.  It really needed two hands, and I would’ve preferred using my right hand if I had to use any one hand, but I had reasons.  I’d trained my brain to use my left hand almost as well as my right, and if I was going to use my right hand for anything, I liked using it to shoot.

As I aimed my gun, the wary Mercy turned skittish, eyes widening as he changed direction.

I missed with my first shot, and caught him with the second.  I aimed at the axeman with the fractured arms, and he stepped back, stumbled, and fell on his ass.  Going by instinct or pure reaction, he put his arms back to catch himself as he fell.  His face contorted in what looked like it should have been a scream, but only a strangled screech came out of his mouth, his back arching and one leg kicking.

I immediately turned and focused on the others.  Jessie and Otis were overwhelmed, Jessie with blood running down one arm and off of her elbow.  Two of them and three Mercies.

I aimed and fired at the only available target – the one Otis was fighting.  The Mercy had a sword, and the sword was biting into and through Otis’ club- a sports bat for a sport I’d never seen, or a long, heavy truncheon.

The bullet gave Otis the chance to win the struggle.  He forced his opponent to the ground and snatched up the sword and summarily held it like someone who had never used a sword before.  It was a cavalry saber, and he held it like it was a heavier weapon.  He swung it like it was a heavier weapon, too.  I could see the blade turn up on impact – not a straight cut.

“Focus!” Gordon barked.

I focused.  I scanned the Mercies nearest us, and I shot twice, targeting the ones that struck me as most dangerous, going only off instinct.

The summary reaction suggested my instincts were right, because making one of the two collapse and making the other stop in his tracks seemed to give the rest pause.

If I’d had breath and if I wasn’t worried it would distract Jessie in the moment, I would have used that moment to crow about how I’d been right about the importance of trusting instinct.  But nooo, she’d been so bent on the notion of friendly fire.

“How in the goddamn hell do you not know how to fight?” Otis asked.  Veins were standing out in his forehead, and his teeth were bared as he panted, eyes wide.  “You killed people for a living!”

“I do fine,” I said.  “If they don’t see me coming.”

“Figure out how to do it when they see you and figure it fast!” Otis said.

“I keep figuring,” I said.  “And I keep forgetting.”

“Fucking hell,” Otis said.

We closed ranks, weapons at the ready.  I glanced at Jessie at the same time she glanced at me.  She was struggling to reload with one hand not cooperating as well as it should.  It didn’t help that she wore the quarantine suit, with its thick fabric gloves.  Blood still trickled in a steady stream out of the elbow of the suit.

I wished I could have seen her face and body language, to get a better sense.  I was dancing in the dark here, when it came to her.

I should have reloaded, but the gun I held wasn’t one I’d brought with me, the pants I wore weren’t the ones I’d worn into the quarantine zone, so I didn’t even have ammunition, and I didn’t want to give up my grip on the wood axe.  The threat of the gun would have to do.

Looking back at the rest of the group, I could see some movement.  It was agonizingly slow, and it involved pushing debris off of them.  I wasn’t sure that everyone involved was moving.

“Otis,” I said.  “Quick, give me the sword.”

It took him half a second to snap to what I wanted, but he did, taking the wood axe while he passed the saber to me, handle-first.

“You know how to use that?” he asked.  “That’s something at least.”

I didn’t, but I knew enough about things to know that he’d break the saber or get himself killed if he kept using it the way he had been.  The wood axe seemed more his style.

I wasn’t sure if I was seeing better in the dark or if my imagination was filling in blanks.  I imagined I could see the faint reflections of fires in the eyes of the Mercies closest to me.

I imagined I recognized one of them.

“Hello again,” I said.

“Hello,” the Small Mercy said, from the darkness.  The runt of her litter.

“I don’t suppose we can all go our separate ways?” I suggested.  “You’ve done what you’re supposed to.  You tried to stop us.  The dead and wounded will speak to that.”

I saw her head move.  The imagining of her eyes and that glimmer of light didn’t quite match the movement.  She was looking at the ones who had already fallen.

“They give us drugs,” she said.

“I know all about the drugs,” I replied.

“The drugs make us… eager.  Angry.  Hungry.  I want to eat you as much as I’ve ever wanted anything.”

“But you don’t want a bullet in your head,” I said.  I cocked the hammer of my little revolver with my thumb.

She didn’t reply to that.

“You have better, safer chances of a meal if you run off to that battlefield over there and go looking for the dead, or ask politely for your dinner.  You know they’ll have something prepared.”

“When I shuck off my skin, I get a release.  There’s pain, but there’s a rush…”

“Sure,” I said.

“Satisfaction, as sure as anything.”

“I believe it,” I said.  I barely knew what I was saying.  I was only speaking because I worried that if I didn’t keep this up as an interplay, me and her, she would monologue and convince herself to attack.

“When I go after someone else, when I hurt other people, I get a rush like that.  The drugs make me so restless.  Maybe if I take your skin off, with my teeth and my fingernails, it’ll be that kind of satisfying.  I won’t feel so restless anymore, I think.”

“Counterpoint: You won’t feel restless anymore because you’ll have a bullet in your skull,” I said.

“I’ll have to break your arms and legs before I start,” she said, her head turning as she looked in the general direction of the one Otis had disarmed.

She wasn’t listening to me.  She was convincing herself.

“Hey, Small Mercy,” I said.  I clacked the end of my sword against the wall.  “Hey!  Hey, listen, listen.  Pay attention.”

She turned her head back to me.

“Look at your dress,” I said.  “Look down, look at it.”

She did.

“We helped you get that dress,” I said.  “We-”

“Fucken’ die!” one of the other Mercies called out.  “I’ll fucken’ eat your skin!”

“Shut up!” I called back, pointing my gun at him.  I was glad that he listened.  I turned back to the Small Mercy.  “We got you that dress, didn’t we?”

“Doesn’t have anything to do with anything,” the Small Mercy said.

“But it’s something that happened, isn’t it?”

“Huh?”

“It’s a part of your story.  The story of you.  You started off weak, runt of the litter, and that makes you special.  You were left behind.  That makes you special too.  You need a story, or you’re just one face in the crowd.  You don’t eat the characters in your stories.”

“I don’t care about any of that,” the Small Mercy said.

“Well you’ve got to do something different than you’re doing.  Otherwise you’re going to get left behind again.  You need to remember how you got there so you can’t let it happen again.  You need to remember how you fixed it.  We’re how you fixed it.”

“No,” she said.

“Yes we are,” I said.

“I’m saying I don’t care about that,” she said.  She took a step closer to us, brandishing her knife.  Others stirred, pacing.  Some moved closer, others moved from left to right or right to left.

My heart sank.  I’d failed.  I’d hoped to find a crack and wriggle my way into it before tearing it open wider.

She went on, “If I go, you’re just going to get torn up by the others.”

I hadn’t failed.

“I’ll do worse than tear ’em up,” one of the woman Mercies taunted.

“You can walk away, or you can run at us and get a bullet in your skull for good measure.  It probably won’t kill you right away.  It’ll just hurt, and you’ll feel horribly, horribly restless while you die.  This feeling you’re experiencing now?  Like you’re supposed to do something?  Imagine that feeling, larger than anything, yawning wide open inside you, as your life ends and you realize you had more to do.”

The Small Mercy shook her head.

Another edged closer.  I moved my gun, aiming at him.  He stopped.

The others were getting restless.

I’d found my crack.  I knew the language they spoke, the sensations that dominated their lives.  “That’s what it’s like.  All the worst restlessness you’ve ever felt, with no ability to do anything about it.  Haven’t you ever heard about your life flashing behind your eyes?  It’s because the moment stretches out as the brain dies.  Imagine that moment, imagine that horrible restlessness you feel right now, going on for a whole lifetime.”

She shook her head again.

Others were looking restless now.

“If you go, you can go eat.  You can tear off your own skin and feel that rush, and you can do it many, many more times.”

“No,” she said.

She didn’t have the articulation or presence of mind to really argue against me.  The range of emotions I’d seen from the others suggested that they tended toward hostility, but other emotions were present, and those other emotions were heightened too.  I remembered the apologetic one.

“Which do you want?  The horrible restless yearning for a whole lifetime, or do you want to go, eat, and live the rest of your life, with all the good feelings you’ve got waiting for you?”

She raised her head, looking up, probably glaring at me.  I could only just barely make up her shoulders rising and falling.

I was dimly aware that the explosions in the background were less frequent than before.

I had no way of verifying the feeling, but somehow it felt like the rebels were pacing out the remainder of their shells and shots.  I imagined them anxiously waiting, wondering why we hadn’t yet turned up.

The Small Mercy started toward me.

“You want that horrible restlessness?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  This time it was an answer to my question, not a frustrated rejection of a negative thought process.

“No you don’t,” I said.  “Go.  There’s food waiting for you, safer prey.”

“If I go, the others will eat you.”

“If you go, others will follow you,” I said.  I left out the ‘I hope’ at the tail end of that statement.  “You’ll think about this a lot.  You might even see me again, and you can try to eat me then.”

“It feels like such a long way to walk, back to the camp,” she said.

“If it starts to feel like too long a walk, then run,” I said.  “But I’m going to tell you this.  If you try to walk or run to me?  You’re going to get a bullet in your head.”

“Might not,” another Tender Mercy called out.

Great.  Disturbing my two-path process here.

“Fine.  Let’s pretend you won’t get shot.  What happens?  You think all the others near here are just going to sit back and let you have your fun?  They’ll tear into us too.  You’ll get a morsel.  You’ll feel more frustrated.  More restless.  You’ll be angry at each other.  That’s no good.”

I could see heads turn.  The Mercies considering one another.

“But if you go?  Food waiting for you.  They’ll be all ready to feed you.  They have to be, if they’re using you as guards like this.”

“They are,” the Small Mercy said.  “They said it when I got my shot.”

“Then what are you waiting for?” I asked, trying to sound as incredulous as possible.  “That sounds great.  A lot better than a bullet in the brain.  If you go now, you might even be one of the first.  More food.”

She shifted position, moving her feet, hesitant.

Then she strode off, looking over her shoulder at others.

Other Tender Mercies that had been listening moved in her direction.  Not enough.  Not enthusiastically enough.  I felt as though the ones that were remaining still had more gravity than the Small Mercy did alone.

Jessie fired her gun at the closest Tender Mercy.  It was, as far as I could tell, a perfectly placed bullet in the brain.  As arguments went, it was a good complement to my own.

Others started to back off.  The remainder tensed, as if waiting for Jessie to move again or fire a second shot.  I suspected they would rush us en-masse.

I watched, breathing shallowly, waiting to see what might follow.  They were a bloodthirsty kind of species, and the fear of death hadn’t been set all that deep in them.  I’d tried to taint this seemingly easy meal with other fears and bad sentiments, but…

No.  Too many weren’t budging, still.  They had a kind of gravity.

“There’s no meal for you here,” I said.  “The others are going to snatch up everything.”

“I’m big,” a heavyset, woman Mercy said.  I could see the bright red of her coat in the gloom.  “I’m strong.  I’ll get enough.”

“You’ll get a bullet in your skull,” I said, driving the point home.  “No matter how big or strong you are, you’re going to die.  Slow.  Even if it takes only a moment to die, you’ll live a restless lifetime in that moment.”

The Small Mercy watched from the fringes, clearly antsy, fidgeting.

The Matron Mercy didn’t budge.  She hesitated, weighing her options, and it was clear that restlessness was winning.

Twin explosions sounded in the background, off in the distance.

“It’s not worth it,” I said.  “It doesn’t make sense.”

I desperately wanted the others behind me to pick themselves up and come to stand beside me, tall, intact, and proud.  To make the odds look worse.  It was why I was so desperately stalling.  I needed something.

I hated the sinking-gut feeling that came with the others not stepping forward or adding their numbers to ours.  It meant the others were hurt.  Or, worse, they were dead.

“No,” the Matron Mercy said.  “It doesn’t make sense.”

I could tell from her tone that she was planning to attack.  She was planning on being nonsensical, letting hunger and restless, drug-induced bloodlust win over sense and rationality.  I could tell from the fact that Jessie wasn’t shooting that Jessie was probably out of bullets, or the injury to Jessie’s arm was keeping her from aiming and firing again.

In the distance, a horn sounded.  Collectively, the Mercies turned their heads.  Light from burning wagons at the perimeter of the city caught a half-dozen faces, highlighting the imperfections, extra skin and thick skin at key places.

I stood a little straighter.  I waited, holding my sword in one hand and the gun in the other, and I looked confident.

She turned, and she left.  With her leading, the rest followed.

I remained where I was, looking confident, not turning my back, as the last stragglers followed.  The one with the broken arms.  One Jessie might have shot, who limped.

I waited and watched for the ones on the rooftop, and there was no sign of them.  They might have dropped something on us and hurried to the ground for their meal.  Maybe the Small Mercy had been one of them.

While I waited, checking to see that the coast was really clear, I asked.

“How’s your arm, Jessie?”

“I’ll live.”

“You did good.  You too, Otis.”

“You did terrible,” Otis said.  “Up until you started talking.  Then you did good.”

“It was stalling and shooting in the dark,” I said.  “And a bit of knowing how experiments like them think.”

“Well alright then,” Otis said, in his rough voice.  “You did terrible.  Then you did mediocre.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Now free to check, I hurried to the sides of the others.

A few thugs, hurt, were working with the others.  The debris had been a pair of crates loaded down with garbage.  They’d shattered and scattered their contents in our midst as they’d landed.

A few had only been clipped by the crates, or by flying debris.  One thug sat with his hand over his eyes,  blood trickling down one cheek.  Blinded or partially by something.  Archie had an injured leg and a head wound, but he wasn’t complaining.  Others demanded more attention.

Fang and Gordon Two were mostly alright.  Bea was hurt but sitting off to one side.  The Treasurer was coming to.  Rudy was still out cold, if he wasn’t dead.

At the far end of the alley, Shirley and Berger stood beside two dead Mercies.  Berger still held his improvised weapon – one of the fallen pieces of trash, it looked like, a curtain rod or pole with a ragged end.  They’d been far enough down the alley that they hadn’t been hit by the debris.

I knelt beside Rudy.

“Mercies on the roof above us dropped it on us.  Two came down, I don’t know what the rest did,” Bea said, from where she sat.

“Rudy?” I asked.  Not asking Bea in particular.

“Fang said half of Rudy’s ribcage is shattered,” Bea said.  “He’s not waking up.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we’ve got a lot of talented doctors,” I said.  “We’ll improvise a stretcher.  And we’ve got to hurry.  The place we need to run through is going to close, if it isn’t already.”

“Sy,” Bea said.  “It’s bad enough we should maybe leave him behind.”

“Improvise.  Berger’s pole there will work for one half of the stretcher.  We can use some jackets.”

“Sy, I like Rudy too, he’s a good fellow, he’s loyal to you, but-”

“Improvise!” I said, raising my voice.

“Improvise,” Jessie said.  “We’re here because we don’t leave our own behind.  It goes for Rudy too.”

“Okay,” Bea said.

I walked over to Berger, extending a hand for the pole.

He hesitated a moment, then handed it over.

“I’m surprised you didn’t take her hostage and run,” I said.

“Miss Shirley said she wouldn’t allow it,” Berger said.

In the meager light we had, I could only see the light and shadow of one side of Shirley’s face.  I imagined her jaw was set firm.

“And,” Berger said, “I was concerned the Tender Mercies would have eaten me alive.”

“Of course,” I said, turning my back on him.  I set to work helping with the stretcher.

It was a shoddy contraption, pieced together in two minutes.  Simply holding it was a chore, given the size of the piece of wood we’d used for the one side.  I was fortunate that I was deemed too tired and weak to do the heavy work.

Otis took one end.  A thug took the other.  We exited the alley, using the street now that it was clear, and we hurried toward the perimeter.

Already, the gap was closing.  Soldiers were taking position, returning from conflicts elsewhere on the perimeter.  Only a trickling, but it was a trickling of a score or so of soldiers with guns and defensive positions behind sandbags and atop wagons.  They had stitched, they had a scattered few Tender Mercies with them, and they had warbeasts.

We weren’t moving all that fast, all considered, and our momentum fell even more as we realized the nature of the wall ahead of us.

The warbeasts started barking and howling, picking up.

I looked at Jessie, and I saw Jessie blowing on the rabbit whistle, hard.  She took a deep breath, then blew again.  The process repeated until I thought she would pass out.

The answer wasn’t immediate, but it did come.

The distant warbeasts barked and howled, and they nearly drowned out the distant punching sound of mortars firing.

The soldiers at the perimeter turned to answer the threat, preparing to scatter as explosions and gas erupted around them-

But there was no gas, there were no explosions.  There was only gunfire and a concentrated attack as our people mounted an outright, direct attack on this isolated part of the perimeter.

We rushed the perimeter, moving into and through the enemy.  We transitioned from gloom and darkness into lanterns and movement and the occasional person, in plain, detailed, clear view.  It was dazzling and dreamlike and alarming.

This was the kind of fighting I could do.  Springing the attack, attacking from the flanks and the rear.

We fought past what might have been eight or ten people, catching them from behind, stabbing, shooting only a couple of times, and claiming weapons as we went.  Archie, I think it was, kicked over a lantern, setting a fire behind us.

The fighting was happening all the way to our left.  All heads were turned, all attention elsewhere.  Soldiers fired into the trees and innumerable gunshots sounded in return.  I had no idea if our people were even aiming into enemy ranks, or if they were shooting just to draw attention.

We moved past the erected defense, six people working to move the stretcher with.  From there, it was a nerve-wracking run across lantern-lit dirt road.  Darkness was safer – and the cover of trees, a dozen paces away, was safer still.  I lagged behind, making sure the group was managing.  Too many of us were limping.  We were hurt, tired, and frazzled.

I was the last one to disappear into the trees, home free.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.11

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We made our way across the least-bad patch of plague, as the Treasurer and Berger gauged it.  Here, the  shadows of the buildings and the collection of things on the streets contributed to an accumulation of wet snow. The plague crept through the water, tinting it red, and it crept beneath the snow.

Where our boots pressed the snow down and crushed tendrils of the ravage underfoot, we left crimson footprints, no different from any footprints I’d ever made after wading in blood.

“Professor Berger,” the Treasurer spoke.

“Yes?”

“You wrote the articles on radical, division-free in vivo pattern editing, if I remember right?”

“I wrote four out of the five.  I had my hands full when the fifth deadline was approaching, so I had a subordinate write it.  I demoted him and sent him to Alyeska when he missed the point.”

“The point, professor?”

I wanted to slap the Treasurer upside the back of the head for using the title and being all polite.

“What do you think the point was?” Berger countered.

“Being able to inject someone with a pattern change and have it take immediate, drastic effect, without overloading the system or having to load the system and wait for the cells to divide.”

“I’m asking you the point.  Not a summary of the article’s title.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Professor,” the Treasurer said.

“I see.  You brought up the articles for a reason.  Maybe you’ll impress me by saying something interesting about them?”

The Treasurer was silent.

“Or you won’t?” Berger asked, almost imperious.

“I thought it was an interesting, unconventional article.  When things are advancing as concretely as they are these days, we don’t see much theory.  Especially from people with strong reputations.  I thought it was commendable.”

“It wasn’t,” Berger said, sounding exasperated.  “As a matter of fact, I regret writing it, because it was a failed project that has seen endless streams of sycophants and brown-nosers approach me and fail to demonstrate how clever they are.  ”

“Hey now,” I said.

“It’s fine, Sylvester,” the Treasurer said.  I could tell from his tone that it wasn’t.  “I want to hear this.”

“If you’re sure,” I said.  I turned to Berger.  “You’re really not interested in making friends while you’re here, are you?”

“I wouldn’t mind, but I’m selective about who I call a friend,” Berger said.  He exhaled.  “I’ll ask you this-”

I jumped in.  I was sure to match Berger’s tone and even his hand gestures, speaking in sync as he asked, “Why did I write it?”

I got a few glances from the others.  Jessie looked over my way and gave me an annoyed look.  Berger looked even more displeased, which was even better.

“Are you taunting me now?” Berger asked me.

“Predicting you,” I said, “Not taunting.”

“Sylvester did that for a month or two, a few years back, when he was showing off to Mary, who had just joined the Lambs,” Jessie said.  “It was, by all accounts, obscenely annoying.”

“Did I?” I asked.

“You did.”

“Well, it’s not meant to taunt.  Look, Treasurer-”

“I have a name,” the Treasurer said.

“Let it slide,” Gordon Two said.  “Take my word for it, just let it slide.”

I ignored the both of them.  “I’ll explain, so you don’t have to put up with Berger picking at you and tearing you down.  How’s that?  Either you guess what our hostage is driving at and he feels vindicated, or you get it wrong and he gets to condescend to you as he pontificates on his true intent.  So let’s skip all of that, and we’ll approach this discussion from a constructive angle.”

“Really, now,” Berger said.

“Deny the man his fun.  Look, here’s how it goes,” I said.  I cleared my throat, and I did my best to mimic Berger’s speaking style.  I moved my hand, using my finger as a conductor might work with an orchestra, while I explained, “I wrote that paper with a particular intent.  It was an exercise, a riddle I posed to the Academies across the Crown states.  I don’t believe in theory, and I hoped students would challenge me on my points and suggestions and dare to tear my idea to shreds.  I put several clues in the work to get them started.  I hoped and even still hope that a bright mind might appear before me and do just that.  The disappointment is part of why I stopped after writing five of the six-”

“Four of the five,” Jessie corrected.

“-papers,” I finished.  I paused for effect.

“Not wholly wrong,” Berger said.  “I’m frankly pleased you assessed it as a test without even knowing what it is.”

“I assessed you, not the article-whatsit,” I said, before jumping back into Berger-voice, “But wait!  I’m not quite done.  See, the student I demoted was the perfect patsy, he allowed me to avoid facing my own mistakes.  I failed to realize that a riddle that nobody gets isn’t a good riddle, it’s a failure of the teacher, not the student.  I didn’t even have the confidence to see it all through.  Every time a student approaches me about it, it reminds me of my own failings.”

“This is getting more than a little childish,” the professor said.

“For those of you on team Sylvester and Jessie who haven’t had the benefit of dealing with the upper class, that’s polite-talk for ‘I just lost the argument, but fuck you’,” I remarked.

Berger didn’t deign to respond to that.

In retrospect, I might have played it off a little better if I hadn’t had a note of venom in my voice.  I’d been too harsh in tone, too angry.  I was tired.

Snow fell, and the sun was going down, casting the world in shades of pink and gray.  The sun combined with the stones of the street radiating heat were why we were trekking through slushy puddles and not light snow.  On the edges and in the shadows, the snow had settled.  With nighttime, I suspected the city would get a light layering of white.

Glancing back, I could see our steps into the paper-thin layer of white snow were still leaving congealing, crimson footprints.

The plague had found root here and there.  A dead horse was a basis for one outcropping to really flourish, spreading to the nearby tree and houses, a morass of crimson vines.  In another place, bodies had fallen as a group, no doubt shot en masse.  The actual nature of the heap could only be inferred, as snow and vines made what lay beneath hard to identify.

“We should cut back,” Berger said, “Take a detour.  It’s too thick here.”

I looked at the Treasurer- not because I didn’t believe Berger, but I did want to ensure that Berger hadn’t torn down the Treasurer too much.  Showing I cared about his interpretation might be what he needed.

“I agree,” he said.

“Past a certain point, it gets tricky to navigate,” Jessie said.  “I’m trying to think about which streets would be better or worse.”

“Based on what?” Berger asked.

“When I looked over the city from a distance, I could see how it was laid out, just going by rooftop.  I’m thinking about chimneys, which had smoke, which rooftops looked more residential, how narrow the streets were, wind direction…”

She went on.  The Treasurer chimed in, and I didn’t hear him.  My eyes were fixed on one heap of bodies.

With the way the vines and growths flexed and adjusted as they grew, it was hard to tell, but had that been movement?

I broke away from the group, striding forward.

I had to cut away growths to dig for it.

Yeah.  I had seen a small movement that hadn’t been a vine.

Lying beside a stitched horse, vines knitting the horse’s body to hers, was a woman, twenty-five or so.  Her hair had been done in an ‘up’ do and the vines had worked their way into it and pulled it down.  Fine tendrils crawled out of her mouth, nose, and one tear duct, covering much of her face.  If I unfocused my vision, it might have looked like a bad burn.  It was worse.

The small movement hadn’t been her, but was a baby, one that hadn’t been on this earth for a year.  The arm stuck out near her face.  Tendrils had already seized it.  The mother looked up at me.  One eyeball didn’t move, too firmly seized by tendrils, the other tracked me.

She made small pained sounds, then looked in the direction of the baby.

It wasn’t crying.  That was a bad sign.

“Can you talk?” I asked.

Breathing laboriously, she managed a, “Yes.”

“How is the pain?”

“It stops being agony.  Becomes… like I imagine a heart attack to feel… every part of me.  On the brink of death, never given it.  Have to watch her.”

“I saw her hand move,” I said.  I moved more of the tendrils of plague.

“Don’t touch.”

“I’m resistant,” I assured her.

“He is.  Let him help,” Berger said, from behind me.

I cut and moved several more tendrils.  The way they reached out from inside her but didn’t burst forth, it suggested the plague had found an entry point elsewhere.  The plague tended to grow along the skin and outer surfaces of the body, finding their way inside later.

I wanted to think the entry point was the ear closer to the ground.

“Then please,” the woman said.  “Take her.  Take her away from me.  Tell me you can save her, even if it’s a lie.  Let me believe.”

“I don’t even need to lie,” I said.  The man standing behind me?  He’s a professor of the highest caliber.  He has medals and students fawning over his papers, and he’s worked with nobles.  The crowd of younger people you can hear in the background?  Most of them are students of the Academy.  And speaking for myself, I don’t want to boast, but I’ve cut the plague out of dozens of people.”

Her eyes welled up with tears.  The eye with tendrils reaching through the tear duct produced a pink tear, the other eye was clear.

“I don’t think your kid could find better hands,” I said.

She tried to nod and failed – her head was too firmly rooted into place.

“Please,” she said.

Cutting the infant free was a task.  The mother had pressed down on top of the child, her arms under it, her body shielding it from the weather.  In a sense, the mother was the cave and shelter for the child, but the shelter was now the problem, a kind of inverse-womb that we had to extricate the child from.

“Not many people alive on this street,” I said.

“People got scared, they didn’t listen to orders…  I was on the sidelines, and I thought I was safe.  Rebels, Crown, and my neighbors all got caught up…  I’m not even sure who was shooting at who or if it was all sides shooting at each other.  My horse got shot and fell on my leg.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It manifested in and around the wound?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what it does,” Berger said, behind me.  “It blooms in and around blood that’s exposed to air.”

“I don’t think you can save me,” the woman said.

“No,” Berger said.  “I’m very talented, and I can’t save you.  I doubt Sylvester can either.”

She seemed to take that as fact.  She’d come to terms with her death already.

“I can give you a shot,” Berger said.  “You’ll drift to sleep.  For a moment before you do, you’ll be aware, but you won’t feel any pain.”

“Help her first…  Save your medicines for her and people like her.”

I kept cutting, doing what I could to get the child free.  I was now at the process where I needed to extricate her without harming her, and that wasn’t easy, given the way she’d been half-crushed beneath her mother.

“We don’t need medication for her.  Only time, patience, and a steady hand with the scalpel.  She’ll have scars, but she’ll live,” Berger said.

Retrieving the child, I handed her off to Berger.

“What’s her name?” I asked the woman.

“You name her,” the woman said.  “I can’t- I-”

She winced.  Old pain had come rushing back, or the cutting I’d done was making the vines move, which was being felt throughout her body.

“It wouldn’t be right,” I said.  “I’m an orphan, and I can assure you, it’ll make a world of difference if there’s something of yours that she can carry with her.”

“Name her,” the woman insisted, with a dogged air that only the dying and doomed could manage.  “Put something of yourself into her… and I can believe you’ll try harder… like any parent learns to do, digging deep into themselves for that last… last reserve of strength.”

“I’ll have you know I’ve fought monsters and I’ve been tortured, and I’ve endured a long winter in the company of the plague, on the other end of the Crown States.  If I wasn’t capable of giving my all and a little more, I wouldn’t be here in front of you.  It’s fine,” I said.  “The child can keep the name you gave it.”

“It’s my dying wish,” the woman said.

“Too bad,” I said.  “Tell me her real name.”

The woman stared at me, stubborn, and for a second, I thought she’d refuse.

She took another tack, glancing up at Berger.  “He called you… her name is Sylvia.”

“I think your opponent wins this time around,” Berger said, from behind me.

I didn’t have an answer to that.  More to the point, the woman looked almost at peace, and I couldn’t bring myself to disturb that.

He touched my shoulder, and I flinched.

It was the syringe.

I slipped it into the woman’s neck, and I pressed the plunger down and in.

The woman spoke, and her voice was inaudible.  It was soft because she knew what was happening, not because the drug was already taking effect, I was almost positive.  I only made out the latter three-quarters.  “…the Lord King of the Crown Empire, for arming you with knowledge and talents and putting you in front of me and Sylvia…”

This time, as her lips moved, the words weren’t there.

There was no moment of lucidity.  The whole-body relief came after the spark was extinguished, and the tendrils immediately set to pulling at the body, drawing it further in.  The effort she’d put into staying in place and trying not to move no longer held.

“Tell me the Crown didn’t make this plague,” I said.

“The Crown didn’t do this,” Berger said.

“Would they?  Have they ever?”

“Very few things in this world are quite so bad as this,” Berger said.

“But there have been some?”

“There have.  There have been accidents that were as bad or worse, but they were just that.  Accidents.  We don’t know what this is.”

“Do you know who spread it?” I asked.  “Here?  It looked like it came about artificially this time.  Something that was encouraged to happen.  Do you know?”

“That is a very easy question to ask, and it is very difficult to answer.”

“That’s a yes?”

“I have suspicions.  And when we are free and clear of this, we can have a discussion and you can entertain those same suspicions.  But it’s far more complicated than just saying one or several names.  Things have to be explained.”

“Alright,” I said.

“The systemic petechiae… this child is beyond saving, Sylvester.”

I continued kneeling by the woman, my back to Berger and Sylvia.  “I know.  I’ve seen a lot of plague victims.  You know that.  More than most.  Give Sylvia her syringe.”

“Already done.  It’ll just be one moment.”

“Good,” I said.

A moment passed.  Berger gave no signal.  I wasn’t too worried.  My team was just a short distance away, and Berger had nowhere to run that wasn’t deeper into the plague.

“In another world, if we had been able to save Sylvia there, if my allegiances lay elsewhere, would she be a candidate for the Block?”

“One as young as this?  No.  We only collected the very young from the best breeding stock, for the ones we needed to work with the most.  We usually tapped the aristocracy in those cases.”

“Right,” I said.

“You don’t seem to know very much about it, yet you aren’t asking many questions.”

“I’m trying to lull you into a false sense of security,” I said.  “I am curious just what things really look like at the top.”

“The Lord King?”

“I’m insinuating that he’s not at the top, Professor.  It’s the Academies, isn’t it?”

“It’s a delicate balancing act.  The true monsters and the men who made them.  We pull the strings, if you’ll excuse my using the term, and they obey, but…”

“There’s always a risk of mutual destruction, should you push them too far?”

“It helps that only a handful of them have really figured out that the very best of the men in black coats are calling most of the shots in the end.”

“And if this story gets out, then the altercation is forced.”

“Perhaps,” Berger said.  “Probably.  There are other problems, like the ones I spelled out for Florence and Charles.”

I nodded.

Berger’s vague shadow moved, and I rose to my feet, turning as I did so, to better act if he tried something.

He wasn’t.  He held a still Sylvia in his hands, and he rather unceremoniously dropped her onto the morass of plague above where her mother and the horse lay.

“Show some respect,” I said.

“You’re too fixated on the wrong concepts, Sylvester,” Berger said, and he sounded irritated.  “Respect?  I’m here without a mask on.  I gave them and I gave you my time, knowing that I’ll likely have red marks appear on my face before the end of the night, and I’ll have to take a scalpel to them.  I’ll do it, and if recent history is a good enough lesson on the subject, I don’t think I’ll regret it, even as I cut.  That’s respect, Sylvester.”

His irritation had given way to anger.

“Much like how you respect your daughter and nephew, Berger?” I asked.  “I think you fail to realize that you can act the gentleman for a straight decade, but people are going to remember you for the one time you shit your pants in public.  Or, in this case, we’ll remember you dropping the dead baby.”

“It’s a body, not an infant,” Berger said.  “And you can rest assured, I know better than you about the needs and demands of public perception.  For now, be content I’m answering your questions without argument and playing your game.”

I didn’t answer him immediately.  I looked over in the direction of the others.  Most had departed, moving on.  Jessie was lingering behind with some of the others in quarantine suits.

I hadn’t realized how dark it had gotten.

“Alright,” I said.  “I guess we won’t get along famously then.”

“I didn’t think we would,” Berger said.

“Thank you for the gentler deaths you gave them,” I said.

“I told you before, I don’t believe in gratuitous suffering.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I remember how that went.”

We walked back to Jessie.  She wasted no time in getting us moving, even going so far as to give me little pushes to urge me to hurry.

I cast one backward glance at the heap that had swallowed up the baby.

I’ll give you this one, mom, I thought.  Your play with the name was fit for a Lamb.  By accident or design, you gave her the name I’m least likely to forget.

We approached the perimeter of the city.  The sun had set, and the sky was growing dark.  The streetlights hadn’t been lit, and only some buildings had lights on inside.

The plague took on a new cast, now that it didn’t stand in such stark contrast to the rest of the city.  It was hard to tell the plague-ridden buildings apart from ones that had been reinforced with grown wood.

It was Bea who noticed one tangle of plague-growth in an alley, then pointed out another in the next alley.

“I have good eyes and I have poisons in my brain helping me turn my focus toward making sense of what I’m seeing in the gloom, and even I’m not seeing that as clearly as you are,” I commented.

“Modifications,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” Bea said.  “We’ve talked about this.  When the other rooftop girls were getting modded out, I’d go with, make sure they were safe while they were under, sometimes, or just oversee what was being done, so I could give better advice to the next girl.  There were a few times I got some changes.  Seeing in the dark is useful if you need to sneak out a lot.”

“Not that the Beattle staff seemed to care,” Fang said.

“No, not that they seemed to care,” Bea said.  Then, to Jessie and I, she asked, “You never got changes?”

“I’m packed to the gills with modifications as it is,” Jessie said.  “And Sylvester’s unique cocktail of chemicals doesn’t do well with implants or pattern changes.  Every time he had to get replacement skin, it would triple or quintuple the healing time.”

“That’s a shame,” Bea said.  “I think-”

She stopped.

“You think?”

“The Tender Mercies.  They’re close.  These growths in the alleys, they’re discarded skin.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably.  When the professor was found, all soldiers and stitched started pulling toward the edges.”

“You’ll want to give me a proper mask,” Berger said.  “If they see me, they’ll report back, and my ‘death’ will be over already.”

Before I could formulate a reply, Rudy pulled off his mask.

“Rudy,” I said, “No.”

“Too late anyway,” he said.  “It’s already off.  I’m done bickering, I’m done with all of this.  There’s too many bodies and I feel sorry for all of them.  Can we just get out of here?  Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said, mimicking his country accent.  “But I’m docking your pay for being problematic like this.  I’ll dock more if you get sick.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I’ll agree with that.”

Berger, now masked, walked at the tail end of our group.  Otis and Archie walked behind and to either side of him.

“Weapons out,” I said.

“I’m nervous,” Shirley said.

“Allowable,” I said.

“And weaponless,” she pointed out.

“You’ve got capable people with you,” I said, “And with luck, we won’t have to fight very hard or very long.”

“What if we don’t have luck?” she asked.

“Then we weren’t going to get out of this city in the first place,” I said.  “And we’ve been fortunate to get this far.”

“Grim,” Gordon Two said.

The movement of phantom Lambs here and there kept drawing my attention, as I pushed my brain to be more alert for things moving in the growing darkness and shadow.  It was hard when I had to be mindful of footing.  Where the plague was thickest, the tendrils reached across the ground like tree roots.  I wasn’t sure if I was stumbling over arms and legs, tendrils, loose stones or other things that lay in puddles and snow.

As the buildings thinned out, I spotted the lights of fires, torches, and lanterns.  A scattering of orange lights in darkness, giving only a vague sense of how many men and soldiers there were maintaining the perimeter.

I saw the orange lights move en masse.  A reaction, with more activity closer to us than it was further away.

“Something alerted them,” I said.

“Warbeasts,” Berger said.  “The wind is blowing upwind, so the sniffers wouldn’t have caught us, but the heeds would’ve noticed a group walking about.”

“Heeds?” I asked.

“Bat-ears,” Gordon Two supplied.  “Keen ears.”

“The Mercies are going to surround us any moment,” I said.  “Jessie?”

Jessie withdrew a whistle from the belt that still had letters and notes tucked into it.  She handed it to me.

It didn’t make a sound when I blew on it, but it did evoke a reaction.  Warbeasts started barking and howling, the heeds reacting to a sharp sound.

More satisfying was the distant report, the hollow punching sounds of weapons firing.

Little orange lights marked the placement of torches, wagons, and lanterns.  Bright orange flares marked the explosions as some canisters exploded on impact.

They were only a very small fraction of the shells being fired.  There were no truly satisfying explosions to mark the vast majority of the other canisters.  They exploded and provided gas.

We would have to wait a moment before we ventured in.  When we’d sent Pierre back to the camp with orders to get the students organized and to get students to put our shopping list together, we’d asked him to make sure we got the countermeasures for quarantine suits.  We’d put in the request when he’d first told us about the plague and Shirley being in the city, and hopefully we’d see the results.

The hope was that it would clog the filters, people would have to back off, and enemy ranks would break.  We wanted it slow, because the alternative was exposing people unnecessarily to plague, and it would have been vile to do that.

I could do bastardly things, but I wouldn’t do vile, no.

The rabbit-whistle was the signal for our army to strike, and with luck, a gap would open.

Punching sounds marked the mortars firing, no doubt from the cover of the woods.  Different locations every time.  Warbeasts would attack, but our students had guns and weapons.  With luck, our Beattle rebels would attack and then retreat, without too many injuries or casualties.

Our rebels.  Our villains.  I was hopeful about this outcome.

The mortars I’d just heard hit.  Some exploded, again.  More flares of orange light.

This time we could see the Mercies, standing in the street near us.

“Do you think you could give the order to stand down if things get hairy?” I asked Berger.

“Could I?  Yes.  Do I think they’d listen?  Having seen this project in action elsewhere, with no reason to believe they’ve made adjustments?  I would have another backup plan in mind, in addition to that particular shot in the dark.”

A hundred and fifty paces to the treeline, past wagons, campfires, and any soldiers who weren’t fleeing from the gas.

“Be prepared to run faster than you ever have,” I said.

“Is that the backup to the backup plan?” Gordon Two asked.

“It’s not not the backup to the backup plan,” I said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.10

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I didn’t have to walk for long before I found the others.  They had been watching from a distance, so I picked a safe direction to move in, the general direction that the fire and smoke were coming from, and I anticipated Jessie and the others moving to meet me there.  It helped that I was slow, by dint of my exhaustion, how cold I was, and the fact that I was managing a hostage.  Two, technically, but only one was actually in chains.

“You had me worried,” Jessie said, as she stepped out from around the corner.  We were close to the train tracks, which were close to the water, in turn.  The burning building was two blocks to our west.

“I had me worried,” I remarked.

Jessie approached me, navigated around my hostage, and wrapped her arms around me.

I returned the hug with my one available arm, wobbled, and found myself leaning heavily on her.  Florence pulled away a bit, unwinding the chain I’d put around her neck, and moved as far away as she was able, to the momentary protests of the broader crowd.

They quieted down when they realized she was still shackled.

“I forgot the signal for ‘distract’.  I’m glad you pieced it together,” I murmured.

“I had to talk it through with the group and play-act it before it clicked.  The conversation was as if you’d said ‘you ignore him’, I said ‘yes’, and then you said ‘no.  you ignore him.'”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m glad you pieced it together.”

She squeezed me harder, then pulled back, her hands supporting me so I wouldn’t tip over.

I ran stiff fingers through my hair.  My fingers weren’t moving well.  I lowered my hands, then examined the backs of them.  “I’ll need help cutting out the plague later.”

“Possibly,” Jessie said, “But not because of the smoke from that building.”

“Hm?” I asked.

“Jessie tricked some people in quarantine suits into moving the bodies out,” Gordon Two said.  “Then we got rid of them and set the building on fire.”

“There’s still a risk,” the Treasurer said.  “But it isn’t nearly as high.”

I nodded.  Berger would put the pieces together soon.

“Are you okay to stand?” Jessie asked.

I checked my balance, then nodded.  I felt like I could move properly or I could think, but not both at once.  The cold and wet had lanced right through every part of me.

As if she’d read my mind, Jessie said, “I brought you dry, clean clothes.  What’s your thought on timing and priorities?”

“We need to get out of here, for one.  I made a promise to my hostages here, to get them to agree to be hostages.  We’ll have to make that the next big thing we do.  After that, we exit.”

“That’s not the whole reason we’re here.  You also have my air hose shackled,” Florence said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s a factor in the hostage-ness, too.  Either way, the noble professor is liable to take action.  We either want to catch him now, or try to wait things out and see if the resources he’d draw on leave.  I prefer the ‘now’.”

“I do too,” Florence said.   “You said you’d give us the answer in five minutes, and we’ve waited long enough.”

“I said I’d give you the answer in the span of five minutes.  I didn’t say it immediately followed your capitulation,” I pointed out.

That didn’t win me any points with her.  I shouldn’t try to be so clever when I was this tired.

“Here.  Give me your shackle, Sy,” Jessie said.  She took my hand and began picking at the lock.  “When I’m done, you can step around the corner.  There will be water, but it’s cold, so don’t go overboard.  Get changed, get cleaned up-”

“Please,” Fang cut in.

Bea jabbed him.

“-and meet back with us,” Jessie said.  “We’ll figure out what we do next after we get that far.”

I nodded.  “I wouldn’t mind warming up.  I’ve moved well past the point where my teeth are chattering and I’m shivering.  I don’t think I have the energy to chatter or shiver.  I’m groggy, too.  Stringing words together is taking mental focus.”

Jessie pressed a thick-gloved hand to my forehead.  I couldn’t feel the warmth of her hand, so I wondered if she could feel how cool I was.

Shirley pushed her way through the crowd and put a hand out.  She wasn’t covered up, still, so the contact was warm.

“Uncle said he was twenty-something degrees,” Charles said.  He was still standing off to one side.

The alarm on the faces of both Shirley and the academy-trained students in our retinue was concerning.  My first instinct was to use it to poke fun at them or tease them, but I didn’t have the energy.

“I don’t freeze to death,” I said.  “I just hibernate, like a reptile.  Because I’m project Wyvern, right?  And wyverns are reptiles.”

“No, not right,” the Treasurer said.

“I’m pretty sure they are,” I said, toying with him.  “But my point stands-”

“It doesn’t,” he said.

“-I’m just sleepy because I’m going into hibernation mode.”

“No, I’m pretty sure that’s you working your way toward freezing to death,” the Treasurer said.  “You probably shouldn’t be conscious.  Or verbal.”

Jessie seemed unfazed.  “Rudy?  The lamp?”

“I can use Wyvern, alter my mind, force myself to stay awake,” I said.  “Too much to do.”

“It really doesn’t work that way,” the Treasurer said.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the mind,” I said.

“Or the other drugs and treatments we’ve been subjected to,” Jessie said.  “Or faulty thermometers.”

Rudy had fetched us what looked more like a hand-held stove than a lamp.  He handed it to me.

I touched the cast iron exterior, and on verifying the outside was warm but not dangerous to touch, I wrapped my arms around it, hugging it to my body.  Warmth passed into my arms and upper body.

Jessie got the stack of clothes from Gordon Two, then stacked it on top of the stove-lamp.  I pressed it down with my chin to keep it in place.

I swayed in place, feeling the heat radiate from the stove to my chest, while Jessie took my lockpicks and undid my shackle.  She took custody of Florence.

I wasn’t sure it mattered so much.  Florence wasn’t going anywhere, given how things stood.  She’d invested too much, and she wouldn’t get away.

Still, I could read the two children, and even with my thoughts somewhat slushy around the edges, I was aware of how out of their element they were.  I slid all my chips across the table, so to speak, into the area I’d sectioned off for manipulating and influencing people.

For most of their life, their lives had revolved around the expectations of family, with their father and uncle being a major part of that.  It was a lopsided deal.  The expectations went one way.  When push came to shove, Berger never really had to answer to them.  Florence, in her desperate attempt to make sense of this environment, had taken to pushing buttons and pulling strings, rebelling in ways that made human and animal suffer, while offending her father’s sensibilities.

It was a way to get a reaction.  In figuring out what to do to get her to do what I’d needed to do, I’d proven myself, and then made the promise that I could give her a far better reaction.

I didn’t look at anyone in particular as I spoke, “What comes next is that we pose Berger with a choice.  He can have Charles and Florence at the cost of helping us for a little while, or he can walk away and try to get them at a later date.”

“What kind of parent is going to walk away?” the Treasurer asked.

“A lot of us here have parents who would, and I bet a lot of people back at headquarters would say the same,” Rudy said.  “All of us ran off to join the circus because we didn’t have much tying us down.”

There was a pause.  I saw Florence and Charles glancing at each other.  I wasn’t the only one that noticed.

Florence ventured, “I don’t think my father will stay.”

“Right,” I said.  The little mini-stove was helping.  “Listen.  The answer isn’t black and white.  It isn’t ‘does he care about you or not’.  It’s a question of degrees.  But that five minute conversation?  It’s going to be telling, even accounting for his bluffs.”

“I don’t know why I agreed to this,” Florence said.

“You’ll see,” I told her.  “We’ll make this work.”

Florence pursed her lips.  Charles looked like he wanted to say something.

The moment passed, and he remained mute.

“We still need to make that conversation happen,” I said.  “With Berger, ideally alone.”

“We can work that out,” Jessie said.  “I’ve done quite a bit simply by being dressed up like an Academy soldier and handing off the right sort of forged letters.”

I nodded.

I tried thinking through the other key points.  There wasn’t anything that couldn’t wait.  I turned around, then tried to think of how to gracefully break away.

“Do you want any help?” Jessie asked.  She indicated Shirley and herself.

“No.  I’m just going to take a couple of minutes,” I said.

“We’ll be here, or we’ll be close,” she said.

I walked away.

I rounded the corner and found the area that Jessie had no doubt intended for me.  The house had an enclosure off to the side that might have been a stable once, but had been retrofitted to have a stitched horse within.  The horse was still present.

I made my way inside, and walked to the center of the room before setting the clothes and the stove-lamp down.  I put the clothes against the lamp, so they would be warm.

Leaning forward, I rested my arms on the wall, and buried my face against them.

I was so tired.  The missing fingernail smarted.  Breathing hurt, because of cold and smoke.  My skin didn’t feel like my own and the numb cold and disassociation of earlier were big contributors to that.  The brain fog combined with the sheer disconnection from the pain of earlier to make me feel like I was in a dream.

Simply relaxing for a moment made my eyes well up with tears.

I allowed myself one minute like that, getting centered, letting myself feel what I needed to feel.  Twenty or so seconds into that minute, I realized I’d left the door open.  I stood straight, wiped my face, ran my hands through my hair, and went to address that.

As I closed the door, I saw Fray, Ashton, and Helen standing on the other side.  Helen smiled as she saw me.  There was a dangerous edge to Helen, as there always was when she showed up with Fray.  Ashton… well, he was always hard to read, but now he wore more of an expression than I’d ever seen on him.  It was less of an emotionless mask and more of a casual resting expression.

“Hi,” I said.  “Changed out of the black clothes?  What does that represent?”

Helen cocked her head to one side, a less human movement, as if by turning her head one way, she could see me by the right angle and interpret me.  She always liked swaying.  As she did, her pink dress swished back and forth, accenting the curves of her body and the grace of movements that came with a keen and exact awareness of the space she occupied in the world.  Ashton, by contrast, was very still.

“You don’t understand what’s going on in your own head anymore,” Fray said.

“Right this moment, I’m just trying to get through the next few hours.  I’m really looking forward to a warm bed, except dealing with a certain professor has to come first.  I’m just… I’m gonna get changed while I talk to you.”

“Okay,” Helen said.

I disrobed, pulling off the wet jacket, shirt, and pants, before shucking off my underwear.  I raised my pants to my face and sniffed, trying to judge if I’d relieved myself while paralyzed.  They were so sodden I couldn’t even be sure.

I mostly smelled smoke.  I dropped the clothes on the floor, and returned my hands to the stove-lamp, walking around the water barrel in the corner.

“While I sat out there, I realized just how badly I missed you all,” I said.  I reached into the water barrel and hauled out the layer of ice that sat on top of it.  I let it crash to the floor.  “Hearing your laugh helped me out there, more than I could really explain here.”

“Good,” Helen said.  “I’m glad.”

“Are you?  You don’t feel emotion, exactly.  You’re more of a representation of instinct.”

“I am glad,” she said, again, as if to reaffirm her answer.  “And I’m a representation of instinct, I suppose.”

I dipped my hands into freezing water, and used them to wash myself, periodically touching them to the stove to warm them, and touching them to cold spots on my body to fix any parts that felt too cold.

I was straddling a line.  Sanity-wise, and in the care of my body.  I didn’t want to argue with phantasms.

“I don’t think even Jessie knows how close I came to not making it there, and Jessie knows almost everything,” I remarked.

“You should tell her,” Ashton said.

“Thank you, Mr. Stating-the-Obvious,” I said.  “But not now.  Not in earshot of the others.  There are appearances to be maintained.”

“Oh,” Ashton said.

“Appearances.  Clearly,” Fray said, with a raised eyebrow.

Still nude, I performed an elaborate bow, the flourish of my hand just so happening to highlight that which was on full display.

“It’s such a shame that your appointments stunted your growth,” Helen said.  She held her hands behind her back, clearly amused.

“Ha ha so funny,” I said.  “I’m fine, and I’ve still got a few years.  They worried I wouldn’t have any more growth spurts, and look at me now.  I was right.”

“You didn’t grow.  And as I remember it, you were the one who worried you wouldn’t grow.  They were the ones who were closer to right.”

“Semantics,” I said.  I ran wet, freezing hands through my hair, fixing it, and washed my face.  The water droplets that fell to the floor were tinted grey.

“You’re still short for your age,” Ashton said.  “I might even catch up soon, and I’m a lot younger than you.”

“Enough of that,” I said, waving dismissively at them.  I dried off as best as I could with my handkerchief, which amounted to very little, and then pulled on some underwear.  “What was I saying before?”

“I don’t even remember,” Helen said.

More by just touching on the thoughts nearest the surface, I found my way back to the prior topic.  “I couldn’t come up with what I wanted from Jessie, when I was trying to find my way through.  I’m worried that if it had come up and if I hadn’t had a good answer, that would have been it.  I wouldn’t have been able to bring myself to breathe, and… downhill from there, on a very steep slope.”

“You really should keep breathing,” Ashton said.

“Planning to,” I said.  I pulled on the undershirt, then warmed my hands a moment.  “It’s just sometimes things get in the way.”

“Do something nice for Jessie at another time,” Helen said.  “What about a pastry?”

“Ha,” I said.  “Maybe.”

“You know the Lambs miss you too, don’t you?” Helen said.  “It goes both ways.”

“I know,” I said.  “I don’t need the reminders, believe me.  As fond as I am of all of you, it’s really become a bittersweet fondness since I left.  Missing you all, knowing you all probably have mixed feelings where you halfway miss me and halfway just feel really relieved I’m not around pestering you.”

“You never pestered me,” Helen said.  “Not really.”

“Because you terrified me.  I still found ways to get your goat.  Meticulously describing desserts.”

“That wasn’t punishment.  The anticipation is as tasty as the meal.”

“…Conceded,” I said.  “Hm.”

“You never pestered me either,” Ashton said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I regret I wasn’t more on the ball about that, Ash.  For you and the new Lambs both.  I was preoccupied and then I was gone.”

“You did what you had to do,” he said, very diplomatically.

“Still doing it,” I said.  I put on the rest of the clothes, with the jacket being last.

As soon as I had the jacket on, I flipped up the hood, gathered up the stove-lamp and wrapped the jacket around it, so the heat was trapped in the jacket with me.  I stayed like that for a moment, trying to will my body warm.  The cold in my toes was a lot more stubborn, and I wasn’t sure how to amend that, short of standing with my feet on either side of the stove-lamp.

When I opened my eyes and looked up, all three figments were standing in the way of the door.  I felt a kind of danger from them.  Fray was a big part of that.

“So, this is what you were leading up to.  You catch me on a bad day when my mind, heart and body are tapped out, and you just… what?  Promise horrible things if I don’t kowtow to you?”

“A beautiful horrible,” Fray said, touching Helen’s hair, possessive.

“A Helen kind of horrible,” Helen said, amending the statement.

“You’re doing just what Evette did.  You all want your turns, and since you’re the figments of my brain that represent instinct and… I don’t know, common sense?  The senses?  And Fray here represents… absolutely everything going wrong, or conspiracy, or… whatever.  I don’t have the energy to do this.  You’re staging your mutiny, working to push me out?  A very complicated way of my self-preservation instincts saying ‘no more’?”

“Something like that,” Fray said.

“Well, you can go fuck a fistful of nails, Fray!  And you two-”

Helen and Ashton stared me down, unflinching.

“Don’t do the nail thing.  But do leave me alone.  I’m doing too many important things.  Go away.”

“What if I say no?” Helen asked.

“Don’t.  No.  You’re not allowed.  Not today.  I have things I need to square away.”

“Like Jessie.”

“Like a lot of things!  This is just inconvenient.  So scram.  I banish thee, and I refuse to accept you’re going to pull an Evette and say no.  You two will stand aside.  I will it so.  Just this once.”

They exchanged a look.  Helen gestured to Ashton, and then the two of them parted, giving me clear access to the door.  I passed through it.

They didn’t follow me, only watching from the door.

The world was too grey, the plague-vines that crawled across it too bright.  Smoke and rain blurred the edges of the city around me.  It looked like a painting, and the thin layer of ice at the water on the other side of the tracks really helped with that image.  The crust had picked up a coating of rain which hadn’t quite frozen, so it looked liquid, but it also looked very still.

The buildings further down the street were still burning.

The others were taking shelter from the wind, not far from where they’d been.

“Are you alright?” Fang asked.  “Because that-”

Bea elbowed him.

“Stop doing that!” Fang said.  “Your elbow is sharp.  You’ll penetrate my suit, and then I’ll die.”

“Warm?” Jessie asked, speaking over Bea’s response, as if the pair weren’t bickering.

“I used the little stove thing to warm the clothes.  The fresh clothes were a nice thought.  Thank you.”

“I wish I could have done more,” she murmured.

I shook my head.  I reached out, and I gave her hand a squeeze before dropping it.  Then I turned to the others.

The shackle had been undone from Florence’s air hose.  Otis now had Charles by one shoulder, and Archie had Florence.

I gestured to Jessie, outlining the plan.

She nodded.

We started walking, and the others followed, very naturally, our ‘muscle’ managing the hostages.

It was good to walk, to be with my people, my collection of rogues and scoundrels.  We retraced our steps, moving carefully to the fringes of places we’d already been.  The rain pattered down, and the light was fading.

We moved around the circumference of the street where I’d sat for so long.  There weren’t any signs of people.

As we moved back toward the hotel, we spotted the group.  Six squads of soldiers and Berger, with several stitched in tow.  It looked like someone high ranking was with Berger.

“He cares enough to recruit a small army to look for you,” I told Florence.

“He cares about his reputation,” she said.

“Mm,” I said.  “Five minutes haven’t started yet.  You guys want to head down the street?  Get a head start.”

“Head start?” Rudy asked.

“Trust me,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Can do.”

I did like Rudy.  Good fellow.  I wanted to do right by him.  I wanted to do right by a lot of people.

“You should go too,” Jessie said.

“Hm?”

“You’re tired, you’re slow.  Let me.”

“You’re slow in general,” I said.

“Today, you’re slower.  But you did good,” she said.  “Lean on me.  For the next little while, we take care of each other, right?”

I took that in.  Then I exhaled.  I nodded.

I gestured at the others, and I led them a ways away.

As plans went, it was a simple one.

Jessie whistled, loud, and I belatedly realized she’d have had to have removed her mask to do it.  We summoned Berger, and we fled, drawing him out, forcing him and his army to approach the signal.

When he rounded the corner with an army at his back, we weren’t there.  Jessie signaled again.

We repeated the process again.

It’s like training a dog, I thought, with a kind of grim satisfaction.  Want the treat?  Want it?  No, you’re doing it wrong, figure it out!

Seeing Helen and Ashton might have put me in a bit of a mood, like that of a cat playing with its food.  Not that I liked comparing myself to a cat.  Dogs were better.  Other things were even better than dogs.  Birds were bottom-rung, of course.

After we’d gotten settled, seen Berger with his army following, and finished getting our next head start, Jessie waiting behind to be in Berger’s earshot, I found a moment to touch Florence’s shoulder.

“How many times do we do this before he can turn around and go home?  If it’s just that he’s protecting his reputation, couldn’t he just leave, say we were luring him into a clear trap?”

“He might,” she said, as if she really hoped he would.

“Charles?” I asked.

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“Sure,” I said.

In the distance, Jessie whistled.

She gestured as she ran to us.  The enemy had split up, to better head us off.

I gestured back.  Silence.

She nodded.

We found a hiding place, perhaps a little too close to the slash of red across the city.  Then we waited.

With Jessie having handled the worst of the running, I volunteered to do the spying.  I climbed a building and edged across the roof until I could see them.  I kept the stove-lamp with me and held it close.

It took perhaps fifteen minutes, but the two army segments convened.  I signaled Jessie, and Jessie whistled.

This time, they didn’t come running after us.

This is the moment of truth.

I kept one eye on Berger’s route back.  He didn’t take it.  No, this time, Berger approached alone.  He walked rather than jogging, rain running down his black quarantine suit with its long coat built in.  I remained where I was so I could watch and see if the army came.  If they did, I could signal the others and escape.

They didn’t come.  I made my way to the ground.  I wanted to be present for this.

Berger approached the group, who had the children hostage.

“Father,” Florence said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” he said.  “Not when I’m this angry.  It will taint every apology I hear from you in the future.”

She barely seemed mollified, as far as I could tell with the quarantine suit.  Was she happy now?  Was his appearance a show of love that she hadn’t expected?

I walked up behind him.

“Berger,” I said.

“Sylvester,” he said.  With the group in front of him and me to one side, he half-turned and then backed up a ways, so he could keep both me and the group in his field of view.  “She let you go.”

“No,” Jessie said.  “We took her hostage, bug and all.  We watched everything.”

“Somehow, I’m not inclined to believe you.  The simplest answer is often the right one.”

“Then know that every time you doubt her instead of believing the truth, you’ll lose standing in her eyes,” I said.

“Hm,” Berger said.  He sighed.  “So.  I suppose you’ll be wanting the first deal you proposed?  You take me into custody?  I provide what you want, and we go on from there?”

“It gets a little more complicated, because you played that stunt,” I told him.

He spread his arms.  “How complicated?”

“Hey, Rudy,” I said.  “There’s a body in the snow there, isn’t there?”

Rudy looked over at a human-shaped lump of wet snow on the ground.  “Sure.”

“Turn it over so we can see it?” I asked.

He used one foot to pry it off the ground, then kicked it so it lay face-up.

“Sorry, mister,” he told the body.

“You die,” I told Berger.  “And you get your kids.”

“I die?”

I pointed at the corpse.  “That’s you.  Or they’ll think it is.  You give up title, name, reputation, the black coat, the status, dignity, pride, everything.  I get to do what I want with you.  In exchange, the two children are safe.  You can keep them close, or you can let them go.  They’ll go back with the army over there.”

“You’re making my uncle a slave?” Charles asked.  “This is the deal we worked for!?”

“Shush,” I said.  “I’m negotiating.”

“No need to intervene, Charles,” Berger said.  He was holding himself differently now.  It was as if he could feel the weight of all those things I’d talked about, the years leading up to this point in his life, and he was taller for it.

“The alternative,” I said, “Is-”

He raised his hand, silencing me.

I fell silent.

“There are things I can’t betray.  What you talked about, with Mr. and Mrs. Block-”

“It won’t go that far.  But you will betray Crown and Academy, obviously.  We’ll be discreet enough it doesn’t go back to the children.”

He nodded.

“You don’t want to hear the alternative?” I pressed.

“No need,” he said.  “Send them to the soldiers.”

“Father,” Florence said.  “You-”

Go,” he said.  “Tell them I’m dead, as ordered, or I presume these Lambs might actually kill me, to give the Crown less reason to pursue.”

“You presume right,” Jessie said.

“We won’t see you?” Florence asked.

“You would have been at school anyway,” he said.  “And this isn’t up for discussion.  Go.  Attend your schools.  Do me proud, in case I’m allowed to return, because you certainly didn’t make me proud today.”

That seemed to take the wind out of Florence’s sails.  Charles was a little less crestfallen, going by his posture.

I looked at them.  They had their answer.  Their father and uncle was willing to sacrifice himself and his everything for them.

He was still a jerk, but I couldn’t make water into wine.  I spread my arms a little.

The two children left, rather reluctantly.  I, meanwhile, took my heater and cracked it open.  I doused the body in oil.  Rudy had more in his bag.

I reached up and tugged off Berger’s mask, and I put it on the body.  He took it one step further, and he removed his jacket from his quarantine uniform.  We turned the body face-down and laid the jacket over its back, before putting more oil on it.

I lit a match and tossed it.

Jessie drew her pistol and fired it.  Berger’s ‘execution’, and our excuse to get the hell out of this city, which had intentionally been afflicted with plague by sources I still hadn’t riddled out.

We had our tutor, doctor, a shot at project Caterpillar, and a way to refine the plan to use the information about the Block.  We had Shirley and our gang leaders.

Our fortunes in getting out of the city and a full night of cutting away plague would tell if the cost was too high.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I was coming to discover that after two hours or so of exploration, I could find the ends of the tracks that my trains of thought traveled down.  It was possible to continue down those tracks, but things quickly turned into a smoking wreckage if I did.  Past a certain point, there were too many variables to account for, and I started to second guess things I knew I otherwise wouldn’t.

There were animals that needed to keep swimming to keep breathing.  I was in the process of discovering that with my body gone and my mind active, my brain couldn’t breathe, so to speak.

I’d always thought it would be the other way around: my brain failing, my body remaining behind.

I couldn’t turn to studying my environment, because I was trying to maintain too many things at once, and my confidence in my memory was shaken.  Yes, I could make shallow observations about soldiers and doctors who passed through my field of view, but I didn’t want to go into more depth on nobodies and risk that it would push more pertinent information out of my head.  Doubly so when even differentiating the various people in quarantine suits from one another was a task unto itself.  I had identified only a few targets to study, and they were only in my field of view for fleeting moments.

The cup spilleth over.

Left with my mind idling, my imagination had painted the world I could see.  Plague spread, and it knit together into trees.  The city became wilderness, but it was a wilderness of red leaves, of vines that resembled veins, where bodies were cocooned in plague, moving only periodically.  The entire cast of characters in my head was present, quietly watching as the world was swallowed up.

The wind was constant, strong, and, I’d realized, it blew constantly toward the plague.  We were upwind of it, which was likely why this particular site had been chosen.  Weather, geography, and safety from disease.

I was pretty sure my clothes were soaked through.  Even though they were weather resistant, resistance didn’t mean immunity.  I wasn’t entirely sure if it was the cold or the bug that clung to me that made my breathing more laborious than it had been.  When my breathing wasn’t in my control and it was all I had to measure time by, I’d become acutely aware of the gradual decline.

My throat, too, was slowly unfreezing.  It was a different thing altogether from the change in breathing, but the sum total was that my hope was diminishing, not growing.

It was in this state that Berger found me.  He wore a quarantine suit, now, as did the children in his company.  Berger’s suit was black, it fit his body better, and had a kind of coat built in, as if to convey the same sort of silhouette that he might’ve had on any other day.

He was also covered in the vein-like growths that came with plague having matured.  It crawled over top of him, and it crawled beneath his suit, the growths digging beneath an eyelid and into an eye socket, threatening to dislodge the orb.

I blinked, very carefully, and the image disappeared – Berger was plague free.  I blinked again, and the imagined plague returned.

I was careful to keep the plague situated where it was most effective.  It dug into the spots on his suit nearest the vitals, nearest gaps and other weak points.  The breathing tube and bladder were bad cases.  A way to track the places I would strike at, given the chance.

Eric was gone, I noted.  I discarded a plan.

“Well, don’t you look miserable?” Berger said.

I looked up at him, gazed past the lenses of his mask and at his plague-afflicted face, and I wore the best smile I was able.

He set his plague-afflicted medical bag on the bench next to me, leaving it closed and instead reaching for a front compartment, rummaging.

“No need to put on a brave face, Sylvester, I know you aren’t happy,” he said.  “As high as my expectations are for Charles and Florence, my wife, staff and peers, for you, even, I do have some desire to minimize suffering.”

I glanced at his children.  I tried to read the eyes behind the tinted lenses of the quarantine suits.

“Now, I’m going to check you’re doing alright.  I know you have limited movement of your head and neck.  You might be tempted to use that limited movement to hurt yourself and try to eke out an advantage,” Berger said.

He pulled his hand from the bag, revealing a thermometer, long and narrow.

“If you do aim to hurt yourself, rest assured that you’ll perforate your eardrum.  You’ll bleed.  The blood will travel down your eustachean tube and down your throat to your stomach.  On ingesting enough blood, the stomach will rebel.  You’ll vomit, or try to, and you’ll promptly aspirate your own stomach contents, given the paralysis.”

I looked at the thermometer.

“So please don’t impale yourself on my thermometer.  I won’t do a thing to keep you alive, and the eventual death will be an ignoble one.  If your friends are watching from a distance, then they’ll feel the need to come save you, and that will be bad for them.”

I moved my head, and I made my ear more available to him.  He placed the thermometer in the canal.

“I’m left in a puzzling spot,” Berger said.  “What to do when handling a child experiment who has been made as devious as is possible, and what to do with his friends?  I have every reason to suspect that if we were to take the fastest route out of the city, we would be intercepted or interrupted.  If we strike out at them, we’ll be flanked.  I’ve spent a significant portion of the last two hours arguing with the generals in charge about why we shouldn’t take pre-emptive action.”

He made a small amused sound.

“Now I find myself confiding in you, Sylvester, as you’re one of the rare few who would truly understand this tactical dilemma I find myself facing.”

I raised one eyebrow.

“Mm hmm,” Berger said.  “It’s ironic.  I’ve explained to Charles and Florence, continuing their education, but while the idea no doubt found its way to their heads, I’m not sure they’ve digested it.  I wouldn’t say they don’t trust me when I say it-”

I might, I thought.

“-but I do think some lessons have to be taught through hands-on experience.  If the two generals lose patience and insist on an exit or a pre-emptive strike, then I suspect we’d see it unfold to your benefit, Sylvester.  We’d act, only to be confounded, interrupted, hamstrung, while a valiant effort to rescue you would no doubt occur.  Florence and Charles would get a lesson.”

“There’s no need for the lesson, uncle,” Charles said.  “I believe you.”

“I’m glad for that,” Berger said.  “But I worry it’s a superficial belief, Charles.  Seeing the victory or the loss would make it that much easier for you to imagine and conceptualize similar situations for yourself.  What does a win for our side look like?  A defeat?  What does it feel like in the pit of your stomach?  You two could easily take away something from watching people die and experiencing the weight of those deaths, enemy or friendly.”

I already knew Berger wasn’t terribly concerned about the deaths of others in a humanitarian sense.  I imagined a bit of plague growing over his his heart and dying for a lack of anything to eat.

He went on, “If it comes to that, Sylvester, I expect the losses to be lopsided, on your side or mine.”

I gave him my best nod.

“Let’s see that temperature.  A body temperature of twenty-five degrees.  That won’t do.  Let’s feel your ears…”

He touched the flat of my ear.

“…nose, and extremities.”

His fingers momentarily laid across the end of my nose, and I didn’t feel anything as he manipulated my fingertips.

“We’ll need to warm you up.  Charles, if you’d go to the medical tent and fetch some blankets?  We’ll cover him.  One of the heaters, too.  Recruit someone with my say-so if you don’t think you can bring it all.”

“Yes, uncle.”

Charles hurried off, clomping around in a quarantine suit that was too large for him.

Berger mused for a second, and then he said, “I’m not a strategist or tactician, but the man I serve was an ardent one, and I am someone who craves learning.  I made use of the opportunity to absorb and observe, and now I’m forced to put the ideas into practice.  As for this situation…”

“He who makes the first move loses, father?” Florence asked.

“Something like that, something like that,” Berger said.  “In practice, it’s rarely that simple.  Think in terms of oblique angles and feints.  Sylvester’s friends will start with attacks that cannot be sourced, to begin with.  They’ll aim to frustrate, deny, and distract.  Their hope is that by the time they do something more overt, the generals and soldiers will be restless enough that they snap at the bait.”

He made a ‘tsk’ sound, then he bent down, and he brought his face level to mine.

I could control my expression.  I could use my eyes, I could move my lips.  That left me the conundrum, what face did I pose to Berger?  I could allow myself to break, to betray doubt and fear, and I could do the opposite, and pose a brave expression that looked supremely confident in the status quo.

I deemed that it was the latter that would get me the results I wanted.  I wore an expression of easy confidence, impervious and unbothered.  As if I still expected to win.

“Your breathing…” Berger observed.  He frowned a little, and then he reached back behind me.  The head of the bug moved against my neck, and sensations shot down the trunk of my body and down my limbs as its grip momentarily loosened.

He kept his hand there for several seconds before removing it.

Then he pressed the back of a gloved hand to my throat, hard enough to press the knot at the front of my throat back into my windpipe.

He kept his hand there, and for a long while, I thought he was going to strangle me to near-unconsciousness as he’d done before.

“You might have bought yourself an advantage if you’d studied the Academy science,” Berger said.  “You would’ve known that I would know what to look for, here.  Even with your natural resistances and immunities, you shouldn’t be recovering this quickly.  You’ve gained the ability to speak, haven’t you?”

I didn’t respond, staying mute.  I had regained my voice, I was pretty sure, but my ability to study my immediate surroundings was a limited one.  I couldn’t have been sure that there wasn’t anyone in earshot, standing a few feet behind me when I tried my hand at vocalizing.

“That tells us, Florence, that he’s hiding things,” Berger said.

“It’s only fair,” she said.  “He called it a game, when he was talking to Charles.  By the rules of this game, he’s allowed to do what he needs to do to come out ahead.”

“He is, but a better play would have been to reveal he could’ve spoken.  He could have eked out a small advantage, surprised me, said something before I thought to shut him up.”

I opened my mouth.  Berger clapped a gloved hand over it.

“The right words could have piqued my curiosity, nettled me, or achieved something with you.  Past tense.  The moment has passed, Sylvester.”

Berger shifted position.  He reached back with the other hand and touched the bug.

With that position, he couldn’t see my face.  I glanced at Florence and rolled my eyes.

Berger spoke, “You shouldn’t have had this effect on the parasite riding you.  Not this quickly.  Your Wyvern formula must be different from the standard… or it’s an older, harsher formulation.”

“Effect?” Florence asked.

“He’s killing it.  It’s latched onto his neck here, see?  And its digits are inserted here, on either side of the gap between the second and third rungs of the spine?  Trace chemicals in his sweat, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid are finding its way into the air passages and stomach of the pupa ludibrius.  It’s dying as we speak, and as it does, it’s losing its grip on his breathing.”

“What happens then?”

“It dies, and it takes him with it.”

Florence turned her masked face toward me.  She watched me.  I rolled my eyes again, raising them skyward and rocking them back and forth, as if bored.

I was nervous, though.  There weren’t many openings or opportunities.

“Here Charles is,” Berger observed.

Charles arrived, carrying a stack of folded blankets.  They were heavy, military issue, and they smelled like horse.

Berger took the blankets, and he unfurled them, before placing them over me, so the corners fell over my shoulders.  He leaned me forward, then placed another behind me.

“Ah,” I started, aiming for an ‘I’.

Berger caught my face with one hand, and pushed me to one side.  I was sitting on a bench set by a table, and my face was shoved off to one side, striking the surface of the table.

He held me there, face in snow and wet, blankets slipping off of me, for several long seconds.

“Quiet,” Berger said.

I would have liked to sigh, but I couldn’t.

He released me, and I didn’t try to speak again.

Opening his medical bag, he withdrew another bug.  Eric’s, I supposed.  He moved around behind me, leaving my face still pressed against the bench, and began, I presumed, removing the first bug.

“This will have to do until we’re out of the city,” he said.  “It might be that I can revive the first pupa ludabris or devise another method of rendering you more or less harmless.”

The paralysis no longer gripped me.  I had nothing below the neck but a morass of pins and needles I couldn’t even make out as a human shape.  But I’d planned for this.  I’d primed my brain while I sat here in the wet and cold.  I’d drawn up an image of my body, complete with muscle memory, and now I went to great lengths to map the strange prickling sensations to the movements of my body.

I jerked, and then moved an arm beneath the blanket.

“Hold him,” Berger instructed.

Charles and Florence approached.

Desperate, I moved what I could.  It felt less like the movement of a limb, and more as if I were splashing the surface of water, the pinpricks traveling on the tops of waves.  The movements of fingers were painful, but still I tried to make sense of the movements.

The two children seized my arms, pinning them against my sides.  In only the last second, I was able to move my right hand.  I couldn’t be sure, but I was left to believe that it wound up folded against the pelvic hollow, between where my leg met my hip and my groin, just at my beltline.

Every sensation was a thousand pinpricks, sharp and alarming.  Given just a bit of time, it dwindled to a mere hundred isolated pricks.

My lockpicks were clipped to my belt, slipped between my pants and my underwear.  Slowly, I went for them, working my fingers, to make my hand crawl.

A layer of blankets protected me, as did the thick gloves my captors wore.  It minimized sensation.

I found my lockpicks, and I set them on my lap.  I began opening the little wallet that held the individual picks-

And my nostrils flared a fraction.

I could smell it.  Smoke.

Berger continued his work for a moment behind my back, caught up in what he was doing.

He would notice.  It was designed to draw notice.  That put me in an awkward spot.

While I still had some marginal control over my hands, I moved my fingers.  My middle finger found itself into a pocket where my rake-bar sat.  A slender and flat bit of metal that formed a zig-zag.  Used to trip the pins of a lock, it was something I’d move back and forth, until the zigs knocked the pins up.  Against cheap locks it was the fastest way to open things, and one of the noiser ones too.

I couldn’t hold onto the picks, and I didn’t want to drop it if the shackles would be a factor.  With that in mind-

I pushed my finger into the pocket, felt the stab of pain and then localized agony as I drove the wiggle-shaped bit of metal into the space between fingernail and finger, as deep as I could get it in the moment.

While my attention was occupied, my focus on keeping my expression straight, Charles noticed the smoke.

“Uncle?” Charles ventured.

Berger stepped around the table, into my field of view.  He held the bug, with a syringe embedded in its back.  “A bad time to distract me, Charles.”

“Smoke.  The soldiers are noticing too.”

Berger looked up, then looked around.  The plague growth on him pulsed, reacting to the movement.

I could only see a small share of the soldiers in the camp, but it was true.  They were looking around, alarmed.  They were also looking upwind.

The camp was placed so the slash of plague through the middle of the city was downwind, and any particles, spores, or whatever else might help the ravage spread wouldn’t be carried this way.  But with the smoke being as pervasive as it was, growing stronger by the moment, it had to have a source further up the road, somewhere behind me.

“Like I said,” Berger observed, “The initial strike is one we can’t trace back to them.  A feint, of sorts, trying to draw away resources and force our hands.  Smoke and fire alarm.  They meet a primal need.”

“What do we do?” Florence asked.

“We carry on,” Berger said.

The smoke was growing thicker by the moment, to the extent that it was becoming clear that the source was not small.  Not by any means.  A building had been set to burn.

“Professor!” a soldier called out.

“I’m busy,” Berger snapped the word.

“Professor, we’re being urged to leave.  We have to vacate the area.”

“As soon as I’m done.  They want to force our hands, and they might well have timed the fire to interrupt this very procedure I’m doing.”

“It could well be, sir, they started the fire using oil.  It went up quickly – we had men guarding the building and we didn’t even see them come or go.”

“Of course,” Berger said.  “We’ll go as soon as I’m done.  Anything else will play into their hands.”

“If you insist, sir, but-”

“Hold on,” Berger interrupted.  “Our men were guarding the building?”

“Yes sir.”

“The grocery store?”

“Uh, yes sir.”

“With the bodies still piled within?”

“Yes sir.  That’s why we were thinking we should vacate.”

Berger stopped, remaining where he was.  Then, decision made, he turned to the man, “I agree.  Evacuate.  I’ll see to the last of this and be with you in a matter of heartbeats.”

The soldier nodded, then hurried off at a run.  Everywhere, officers were ordering their men, and everything moved in its logical manner.

“Why?” Florence asked.  “Why evacuate?”

“The attack on the train station and the rebellion’s earlier attempt at seizing it saw casualties.  Some were afflicted with ravage.  They stacked the bodies, afflicted and not, within the grocery store.  As efficient as our masks are, they have their limitations.  Burning the ravage spreads it.  Smoke carries it.  If we remain too long, the masks will fail.  Our enemy knows this.”

“Then-” Charles started.  He didn’t know what to say.  The smoke was getting thicker, filling the street.

“We leave,” Berger said.  “And, as I haven’t been given the time to finish with Sylvester, I’m afraid we’re forced to cut our losses.  We’ll make do without our bait to set out in front of the enemy’s nose.”

I felt the claws of the bug latch onto my back, a sharp sensation among the latest wave of pins and needles.

I felt all sensation drop away from my body.  Pins and needles, pain, cold.  My body ceased to be.  No warmth, no cold.  Only oblivion.

His hands tampered with the bug.  I felt, I was pretty sure, the fingers finding the little rings with the silken strings attached.

“Berger,” I said.

Again, his hand covered my mouth.  Gloved fingers dug into my cheek, hard and fierce.

Standing as close as he was to me, he was able to murmur in my ears.  “With luck, your allies are watching you, and my lesson will find its way to them.  With better luck, they’ll try to save you, and they’ll find it’s impossible.”

He pulled the middle string.

The rush of cold that the mandibles had been pumping into my neck became something else, a vomit of heat.  The sensation of nothing became everything.  Every nerve ending flared to life, and then burned hotter.  Heat and burning was the first sensation, followed by a wrenching.  My entire body contorted as some materials did on an open fire, twisting up, straining and crumpling.  Every joint bent to an extreme, too open or too closed.

Parts of me popped, like water mingling with oil in a pot, and each pop was followed with an icy coldness, running alongside the searing heat.  Every part of me was impaled with a hot poker or an icicle of impossible coldness.  I felt parts of me tear open.  I couldn’t tell if the wet sensation was blood from skin tearing itself apart or if it was simply an illusion.

Pain and I were old, old friends.  Few knew pain to the extent I’d come to know her during my appointments.  All the same, we’d never been so intimately acquainted.

I was able to pull away from it.  I’d always been able to, to some extent.  It was an artificial construction, to disassociate from the pain.  It never made the pain less, exactly.  It did help to make the thought process clearer in the midst of it.

I’d never quite felt like the journey back would be so difficult as it felt it might be now.

Berger removed the bug, so what was done couldn’t be undone.

“You’ll feel compelled to try to eke in small breaths,” he told me, as he stood over me.  “You could potentially stay alive for some time by doing that.  Don’t do that to yourself.”

There was a long pause.  I twitched and convulsed, sweat rolling off the side of my head and into my eye socket, which was already wet with involuntary tears.

“I did say I have some desire to minimize suffering,” Berger said.  I could see him now, as he walked out in front of me.  Smoke rolled past him, and with every trace of smoke that touched him, the plague on him grew, until he was little more than a tower of the ravage.

The tower turned away, and led its children in the direction of the evacuating soldiers.  He called out orders, and men answered in voices hollowed out by the masks and breathing apparatuses they wore.

Movement wasn’t possible, nor was speech.

One by one, the Lambs joined me.  Mary, Lillian, Helen, Jamie, Jessie, Gordon, Hubris.  All of the little Lambs hung back.  Fray, Evette, and Mauer had the decency to stay away.  All were dressed in dark colors.  Mary in a black dress with black lace, ribbons in her hair.  Lillian in a black coat, purely by accident.

I wanted to round my thoughts together and come up with a parting message, if only to phantoms, but I couldn’t.  I could disassociate, but I couldn’t operate on that level.  I was left with only sentiment.

The Professor was right.  Without the bug taking over, I could manage a degree of breathing.  It was a torturous process, straining as if I was lifting my own body weight, but to simply make my airway stay open, straining just as hard to draw in or push out a breath, making sure my jaw wasn’t clenched and my mouth screwed shut.  When I failed on that last part, I snorted mucus out of my nose, or, worse, I snorted it back, and then the next few attempts were made more difficult by faint choking.

My old friend and I made a game of it.  To make it happen one more time.  One breath in, one breath out.

A series of herculean efforts to draw in a breath, to release it, and I made a game of it, betting against her, against this personification of pain that sat just out of sight, betting on myself, then betting against myself, predicting if a convulsion elsewhere would trip me up and complicate this particular round.

Manage it five more times, I told myself, and I’d exert the effort and focus necessary to imagine Mary stroking my hair.

Five times after that, the sound of Helen laughing.

After that, and I was sure to order it so a lot of the better things came later, I chose the feeling of Lillian lying close to me, clinging to me.

I continued the bets.  I did the math with the chips to further distance myself from it all, even as every attempt got harder.  As the chip count grew, I pushed thoughts out of my head, as to whether intentionally failing would be a reward for myself or the cost of losing my last chip.

Fluids were accumulating.  Mucus.  Spittle I wasn’t swallowing or forcing out through my teeth.  I was drenched in sweat.

Five successful rounds of breathing, and this time it was Gordon’s voice.  I couldn’t gather the words, but I imagined him cussing me out.  Being infuriating, like he could sometimes be.  Because it pissed me off, and I needed to be pissed off to push forward, just as I needed small moments of warmth to grope for.

Five more breaths and… and then Jamie, sitting on his bed, mentioning details of the day that I’d forgotten as he scribbled in that notebook of his.

Then Jessie, after that.

I wasn’t sure what to ask Jessie for.  I wasn’t even sure I was keeping count properly anymore.  I might have been cheating myself.

I willed the question, and a voice answered.

“Florence.”

Not Jessie.

“It’s dangerous here, Florence.  The smoke.”

“Yeah.”

I closed my eyes.  That had been five breaths.  Jamie, sitting on his bed.  While I pieced the scene together, I focused on doing what I needed my body to do, to breathe the next set of breaths, and I knew that I was focusing more on properly imagining Jamie than I was on the breathing.

“Why are you back here?”

I know, I thought.

Not that I could do or say anything to that effect in the here and now.

“I don’t know,” Florence said.

“That’s not a very good reason,” Charles said.

“He… Sylvester whispered something to me, earlier.  He said that he could pull a trick, with our cooperation, and I’d learn more about father in five minutes than I’d learn about him in five years.  I almost got my hopes up.”

“He’s good at playing that game.  Sylvester is, I mean.  Dad too, but it’s different.  Stricter.”

I was no longer lying in the cold street.  I was on the floor in my room, a twelve year old Jamie sitting on his bed, taking notes on the conversation.

He’d never been the most emotive little fellow, but I’d always felt like he’d really loved those times after lights-out, when he wrote by candlelight and it was just the two of us.  They might have been his favorite times.

It was hard to juggle the things I needed to juggle.  Breathing, plotting what I would do with Jessie when her turn came up, in three more breaths.  Paying attention to the two children.

In.  Out.

Two more breaths.

Jamie’s pen scritched on paper.  He’d never been so fond of pencils, but he’d use them when he had to.  He preferred permanence.

In.  Out.

One more breath.

“I want to know,” Florence said.

“Uncle would never forgive you.”

“I need to know,” Florence said.

My vision was disturbed as my head moved.  The pain flared anew, as if each individual kind of pain took on a new and fresh flavor in wake of the movement.

Claws latched onto my spine.  Florence held a bug, and she set it in place.

From the timing of the breath, I suspected it was the drugged, poison-resistant bug I’d been given, discarded and retrieved by her.  I imagined her carrying it about, cradling it as if it were a small dog, as she’d done with one of the others.

The pain stopped, and the relief was so profound it dashed all of the individual illusions and sounds I’d nested around myself to pieces.

“You had something in mind, didn’t you, Sylvester?” Florence asked.

My blood rushed in my ears.  The relief was so profound that I felt transcendant.

“I’ll pull the string,” she said.  “I don’t have a lot of patience.  What were you going to do, before my father beat you?”

I managed a short laugh, as I gasped for breath and tried to center myself.  I could barely see.  I was low to the ground, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but the smoke was making my eyes water.

“Okay, I’m going to pull the string again now,” she said.

“Florence,” I said.  “The plan I had in mind when I told you all that… it’s still in place.”

“Hm?” she made a sound, her voice hollow from behind her mask, echoing down the long air-tube.

“Still in place.  I told you, a time would come.  I’d hold the strings.  I’d need your cooperation, and I’d give you what you want most in the world.”

“You told me you’d tell me more about my father in five minutes than-”

“-than-” I started, only to cough.  I might have aspirated something.  My voice was rough as I finished, “Than you’d get in five years.  Absolutely.  I stand corrected.  All the cooperation I need… is just for you to remove the bug from my neck and give me forty-five seconds.  I’ll guarantee you the answer you desire.”

“And if I don’t?” she asked, imperious.

I saw Mary standing behind her, all dressed in black.

I only gave Florence a small smile, and I waited.  I enjoyed the transcendant relief, and I gathered my thoughts.

“You have thirty seconds,” she said.  “And that includes the time it takes to get control of your body back.”

“I know,” I said, as the bug came free of my neck.  Sensation flooded back into my body, in an inarticulate tide of stabbing and prickling sensations.  “Charles?”

The lockpick set had been attached to my hand, one pick having been driven under one fingernail.  In my convulsions, it had come free, the fingernail pried off.  Barely in control of my hand, I reached between my body and the road.

“What is it?” Charles asked, wary.

“Would you please do us a favor and start counting aloud for us?” I asked him.

“Ah.  Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…”

I’d asked him and chosen a wordy way of asking the question to buy myself seconds.  I found the lockpick set, and found a pick.  I moved, convulsing, and fumbled to draw the picks free.

I’d maintained something of a grip on the ability to move despite the pins-and-needles distorted sensations of body, through everything.  Now I worked those same feelings with numb hands to manipulate the picks.

I had to trust these shackles were like ones I’d seen before.  Standard issue.

I coughed at the smoke and the fluids that had gone down the wrong way.

“Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen…”

The Lambs in black watched as I worked.  Gordon, who had taught me the lockpicking techniques and then retaught them as I’d allowed myself to forget them, was watching, his expression stern.

“There’s a simple answer about Berger that’s been eluding you,” I said.  “One that I’m prepared to answer in a moment.  Do keep count, Charles.”

“You’re stalling,” Florence said.

“Twelve, eleven…”

“If I were stalling, I wouldn’t be giving you the answer you want well before count’s up,” I said.

I rose to my feet, staggering a little as I did so.

Then, still staggering, only intentionally this time, I lurched a little in her direction.

The smoke wafted toward us, a cloud thicker than many of the others we’d endured.  I lunged.  I connected the shackle I’d undone to Florence’s air hose.

For a moment, it looked like she’d release the bug she held.  It would leap onto me.  It would paralyze me, and it would all be over.

That moment passed.  Frozen, Florence held the bug firm.  She’d realized very quickly that if I tumbled to the ground, paralyzed, my shackled arm would fall, and it would take her air hose with it.  We were in the midst of smoke and plague.  It would doom her.

“Florence,” Charles said, only belatedly realizing what had happened.

“Just a stupid little ruse?  Taking me hostage?” she asked.  “I’m disappointed.”

“Not at all,” I said.  I drew closer to her, and I wound the chain loosely around her neck, so I stood with her in front of me, the chain binding us together.  “All is still going exactly as promised.  Give me the bug, now.”

She hesitated.

“Give me the bug,” I said, firmly.

She passed it to me, and I gripped it firm.  As my shaking hand seized it, it clutched at me, hook-limbs digging into my flesh.

I held it in both hands, and as if I were tearing into one of the bugs or sea-bugs they sold in the markets as dinners for the poor, I twisted it in half.

“Now we’re going to see how much your father loves you,” I said, my voice soft.

Florence stiffened.

I looked over at Charles, obscured in smoke.  The fire had spread to a good ten buildings further down the street.

“Is that a threat?” Charles asked.

“No, Charles,” I said.  “It’s the fulfillment of my promise.  In the span of five minutes, we’re most definitely going to answer that question.”

It had, in fact, been the plan from the moment I’d proposed the deal to Florence.  I would find a way to take one or the other hostage, and by taking them, I would secure Berger, in the short term or the long.

Getting Florence’s cooperation in freeing me from paralysis had been… a somewhat fitting interpretation of the deal as poised.  In reality, I’d simply hoped for cooperative hostages.

I waited, the smoke flowing around us, wet droplets still finding their way from the sky, drenching us.  My hands shook, my entire body ached as if I’d been wrung out and beaten, and yet my mind felt crystal clear.  I made it be crystal clear.

“Then let’s go,” Florence said.  She said it to Charles as much as she said it to me.

Charles nodded.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.8

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The insect that had latched onto my spine rocked back and forth in a rhythmic way.  With it, my lungs kept operating, breathing in, breathing out.  The control wasn’t mine.  I felt a cold sensation, as if winter-chilled water was trickling into the back of my neck to my throat, spine, and pooling in my actual body and extremities.  Venom of a sort, from the mouthpiece of the insect.  I opened my mouth, and that numb cold kept me from properly speaking.  I could make only a few, limited sounds that consisted of the regular exhalations and some mouth shapes.  Not proper speech.

It didn’t help that one side of my face pressed against the ground.

I heard commotion, the tromp of footsteps, and then a hand seized me by the neck.  I was lifted up, my face no longer on cold wet road.  I had no idea what the rest of my body was doing.

“What do you think you’ll accomplish?” Berger asked.

I couldn’t answer, and the question wasn’t directed at me anyway.

“I wouldn’t be doing it alone,” a man I didn’t recognize said.  One of Otis’ thugs.  “I’m thinking we can make you let go of him, then we get around to tearing the giblets out of you.”

“Sylvester said to go,” I heard Shirley.  “He had a reason, I imagine.”

My mind was flying through possibilities, which was just as well, considering it was the only part of me that was working. Shirley was right.  I did have a reason.  Berger was the sort who wouldn’t pull something like this unless he was sure he could see it through.  So, rather than risk good people, I’d jumped straight to letting Berger see things through, which bypassed the question of how entirely.

Had I had more time, I would have double-guessed him.  I would have accounted for the possibility that he was thinking I’d think this way, and perhaps urged everyone present to turn on him.  Perhaps.  He was a control freak, and-

“Fuck this,” Otis’ thug said.

“Don’t-” Shirley started.

I was dropped on my face again.  I heard what followed, and I deliberately put it out of mind, keeping myself from connecting to who was where and what was happening so I could think more clearly about what I needed to think about.

I could move my eyes and I could blink.  This was all I had at my disposal.  Eye movements weren’t worth a lot, unless I wanted to look at someone in particular.  I was left with blinks.  The tap code worked for blinks, but only Jessie knew it.

What was Berger going to do?  He was going to retreat to safety.  No man’s land was his land.  So long as he had Eric and me with him, his black coat in full display, there weren’t really any people who would open fire on him.  He could retreat, find sanctuary amid the Crown forces, and move on from there.

Someone fell to the ground near me.  A large hand smacked my rear end before sliding off, coming to rest beside my leg.

“Stop, just stop-” Shirley started.  Then, more fiercely, she called out, “Back off!  Everyone back!”

“Do as she says!” Otis barked.

A hand seized me again, wrapping around to the front of my throat.

I was held by the rebel leader, who was puppeteered by Berger in turn.  He raised me up, holding me by the throat, facing outward, so I could see the small crowd in front of us.  Two of our thugs lay on the ground.

Berger was a control freak, and he wasn’t about to put things in strange hands.  He had the tools necessary to seize control of the situation, dispatch anyone who tried to rescue me, and now he dragged me a little distance back, venturing away from the barricade and a few strides back down the street that constituted the no man’s land around the Little Castle.

I looked past Shirley, past the thugs that were still standing, and to the barricade.

Jessie.

The tap code was the same mechanism as the hand signs, in a broad sense.  When we had to be even more subtle, we could communicate a code by touch using two variations.  Short and long, hard and soft.  It worked with sound, light, anything we could translate into time and two separate notes.  We’d really only worked out the basic signs.  The six or seven basic ones we’d used with gestures and a couple of others.

I needed to communicate something to Jessie.  I did what I could to work out the message to be conveyed.  I settled on ‘You distract Berger, I free myself.’

You.  I indicated the crowd, eyes moving to all the key players I could see, with repetition and regular blinks for emphasis.  Otis, Jessie, Shirley, Jessie, Archie, Jessie.

“You’re sure we can’t negotiate?” Jessie called out.  She signaled yes.

Berger backed up a little more.  “I don’t see what you have that I want.”

Jessie paused.  Then she gestured.  Certain.  Question.

Was I sure?  How confident was I in my plan?

Fifty five percent?

Did that count as sure?

Probably not.  But the alternative was that Jessie and the others would mount an effort to free me, in a territory stricken by plague.  It meant time and effort, and every second spent exposed to this air was a risk.

I blinked once for ‘yes’, then dropped my head as much as I was able.

“What if we have something you don’t want?” Jessie said.

“What is this?  A game?” Berger asked.

I felt my blood run cold.

I’m not that sure, Jessie!

Whatever.  I had to work extra hard now.  Distract.  Two quick blinks for no, then a glance away.  I returned my gaze to Jessie, realized someone was beside her that hadn’t been when I’d looked away-

And I experienced a feeling much like Jessie must have when she’d dropped a memory back in Laureas.  I stared into oblivion as I reached for something I knew had to be there, and found nothing.

“While investigating, we crossed paths with a Mr. and Mrs. Block, Professor.  They were integral to tutoring young nobles, before they were even out to the public.  We found them in New Amsterdam, and we’ve secreted them away.”

No, no, no no.

Yes, this would normally be something I could leverage, but not when I wasn’t prepared to follow through.  No, no, no.

Now the cat was out of the bag.  I couldn’t even tell Jessie to stop, because then the cat would be out of the bag and we wouldn’t have leverage.

I’d always held onto the Lambs.  I’d always held onto the cardinal and core skills.  The gestures, the carved mouse-signs, the dances that went hand in hand with being in near-perfect coordination with someone.

The tap code wasn’t at that level of importance, but it had been important.  It had been related to something integral.

I reached for the interpretation of distract.  No and then focus, then Berger.  It should have been simple.  I still knew the gesture for focus, for learn, memorize, study.  I just couldn’t translate it to tap-code.  It eluded me.

Evette stood shoulder to shoulder with Jessie, and she shook her head, because she was fully aware.  I’d had it, and now it was gone.  A memory and thing I’d been very intent with practicing and keeping.

“That’s knowledge that hurts you more than it hurts me,” Berger said.  He’d stopped dragging me back away from the others.

“You’ve got roots in the Crown States, Professor Berger.  Family, friends, your children.  I researched you once upon a time.  I know the particulars, and I know that you’re immersed in the politics on this side of the pond, you know what’s at play.  Yes, it hurts all of us if this gets out, but you lose everything but your education and what you manage to take with you when you travel overseas.  Assuming you get the chance.”

Not distract then.  Occupy?  I could play off the tap-code for manipulate, operate, use, control, turn it into a negative.  I could tell Jessie to keep the professor’s hands full.

Evette shook her head.

Blank.  The void in front of me yawned open even wider.  If I could have even tapped on the side of my leg, the tactile aspect of it could have helped me access it.  I couldn’t.  There was only oblivion.  The Wyvern had eaten a piece of me without my being aware of it.

Berger, too, stood blindfolded before a chasm.  He could hope there was a bridge, or he could buckle, and submit to the people who had driven him to this point.

I knew which way he would move, though.

Berger stepped back, moving me with him, setting foot on the bridge.  “I’ll take my chances and trust you’re smart enough to leave Mr. and Mrs. Block where they are.”

“The problem with that,” Jessie said, her voice modulated by the gas mask she wore, “is that you all created a collection of little Lambs with absolutely nothing to lose.  We don’t have any more than a few years.  You’ve read our files, no doubt.  If you’re threatening to set our world on fire, that’s fine.  Do it.  We’ll do as much damage to you as we can in the meantime.”

I’d already signaled no.  That left me the negations of the other core signs, the other tap codes we’d worked out.

No aggression?  Leave Berger alone?  Just the opposite of what I wanted.  I needed a window.

No support?  No protection?  Again, I wanted the opposite, I needed help.  and the negations of that one were too muddled.

No cooperation?  No.

“The problem with that, little Lamb, is that just ten minutes ago, your friend Sylvester here went to great lengths to save Miss Shirley over there, and it was abundantly clear just how much he cares about her.  I’m going to call that a bluff.”

Seeing Shirley react to being used against us in that capacity almost sucked as much as anything.

A lot of this sucked.  I might have felt gorge in my throat if I’d been able to feel my throat.  I might have felt my heart hammer and felt the need to control my breathing to avoid showing signs of panic, but I was a head with no connection to its body.

Other options.

‘No go’?  Don’t approach Berger?  It amounted to a sacrifice.  It meant to stay away.  Trust me.  It meant implying to Jessie that I could handle this.  There were a dozen possibilities that unfolded from that command, and if I were Jessie and using a memory database of Sylvester to simulate what I might do in that circumstance, it could imply a bomb going off, a lot of chaos that I needed her and the others to steer clear of.  Except I didn’t.  I’d get dragged away, Jessie would hopefully get out of this city and retreat to the Sedge camp, and she’d wait for me until it became clear I wasn’t going to make it back to her.

It was the best way to keep her clear of this.  As far as the various commands went, it was the only good option so far.

“Berger,” Jessie said.  “You know it’s not that simple.  We could tie you up in it.  Make you culpable.”

Berger chuckled.  A motion in my peripheral vision suggested he’d gestured, or the rebel leader had.  A way of the finger.

Jessie was trying to buy time.  I needed to finish communicating.

Except for the part where it would tear her up, see her putting pieces together in the wrong way.

The only sign left was watch, alert, attention.  Fundamental, one of the first we’d learned, that we’d taught Catcher, that we’d taught Mary.  Negated, it could be implied to mean blinding him.  Confounding his senses.  It could also be implied to mean that Jessie should ignore Berger.  The problem was that the first sign I’d forgotten would’ve implied distract, and the overlap was heavy enough that Jessie might connect the dots all wrong, and assume the ‘ignore’ interpretation.  Because why would I say confound if I could have said distract?

It was the interpretation I would’ve made.

“I have a long history with the Academies and Crown.  If I would’ve been culpable in anything, I had a lot more opportunities before, Lamb.”

“It’s precisely because you don’t have opportunities that you’re at risk now, Professor Berger,” Jessie said.  “You had a noble to look after and now he’s gone.”

Was I supposed to tell Jessie to blind him, and risk that she’d think I told her to ignore this, and contradict me to throw herself headlong into the problem, or tell her to go, to trust me when I was at my least trustworthy and least capable?

No.  Blink.  Eyes closed for one second.  Eyes open.  Eyes closed for another second.

No watch.  Blind.

I looked over to my peripheral vision, at Berger.

“He’s gone, and maybe you’re hedging your bets.” Jessie said.  She gestured.  Yes.

I blinked, quickly, no.  Then I repeated.  Blink, eyes closed-

“I’m very much hedging my bets,” Berger said.  “You can be sure I’ll have words with others about this.  I would be very careful about how you move forward, now.  You might already have gravely misstepped.”

– eyes closed again.  Then reafirrmed Jessie, then Berger.

Please understand me.

I looked down, stuck out my tongue, so I was looking at it.  A silly face to be making, and nobody smiled.  I was trying to indicate me, when I couldn’t even move to provide a part of myself to look at.

My last message had been a no.  Now I blinked, followed by closing my eyes for a second.  That-

My world lurched.  As I opened my eyes, I saw that I no longer faced Jessie.  They used the rebels as shields, and retreated down the street, dragging me with.  My heel dragging on the ground, friction had dragged one of my boots off.  I couldn’t even feel the wet or the cold.

“Grab his ankle, Charles,” Berger said.

Charles’ rebel reached down, fumbled for my numb leg, and seized it.  I was carried by one ankle and a hold around my upper body, and we moved collectively away from the congregation of strange rebels, Shirley, Jessie, Otis, Archie, Beattle thugs and our Beattle rebels.

“Who were the Blocks, father?”  Florence’s voice was muffled by the mask she wore, much as Jessie’s had been.

“If you ever find out, Florence, you’ll either be wearing a black coat and serving at one of the highest stations the Academy has, or your world will be nothing but gas, plague, famine, and fire.”

“I gathered the latter from how the Lamb in the quarantine suit talked.”

“That would have to have been Jamie Lambsbridge, who was reported dead.  But yes.  He figured out something he shouldn’t have.”

“And it has to do with these people?  Mr. and Mrs. Block?  Who have information this vital but who aren’t protected?”

“If you want to know more, then earn a black coat, and then earn your station.  Don’t abuse leverage for childish curiosity like you did when you pulled the string in the little castle or strangled the animal in Haverhill.”

“Sylvester noticed,” she said.

“What?” Berger asked.

“He noticed.  He knows why I pulled the string.  He knows why I suffocated the animal in Haverhill and cut the girl’s hair in the Cape of Flowers-”

“That was you?” Berger asked, his voice raising.  “She was the daughter of-”

Father.

I could hear the huff of Berger breathing hard through his nostrils, anger barely held back.

“What did Sylvester notice?” he asked.  “Rest assured, if it’s not a good answer, I’ll use a piece of wire to whip your rear end and the backs of your thighs into ribbons, have a doctor piece you together again, and whip it into ribbons once more.”

There was a pause, and I could imagine Florence hesitating, actually taken aback.

“Father,” she said, in a very measured way.  “I was pulling strings.  All my life, I’ve been raised to be proper, to know which fork to use, how to dress, how to do up my face.  I’ve been given an education.  I’ve been given class and status.”

“Cutting off all of the hair of the daughter of a headmaster of a prominent school could be said to be an abuse of those gifts you’ve been given by station and birth.”

“All my life, I’ve been given so much, but what I want and need is to know what happens in times of crisis.  I engineered the crisis so I could see how the great minds and talented politicians handled the matter.  I know I frittered away goodwill and made myself the obvious cause for those crises, but- but I do believe I’m just young enough that I’ll be forgiven it, by dint of my being as young as I am.”

Florence had insinuated to me that she hadn’t entirely known what she was doing.

Either she’d lied to my face and she’d done it well enough for me to not read it as an outright falsehood, or she’d figured out this particular argument and excuse for her behavior in retrospect, and she was now pitching it to her father as a kind of currency.

Both were rather amazing.

“I suppose this is a backhanded compliment?  I was the only person there when you pulled the string and made the rebel seize up.  Great minds and talented politicians.  Or were your eyes on Sylvester?”

“Both of you, father.”

“Hm,” Berger said.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’m eager, father.  I want to learn more, even if it means you striking me in the face or holding me face down in the trough.  And I want to know more about Mr. and Mrs. Block.”

“Eager is good,” Professor Berger said.  “What I wouldn’t give for this kind of determination from Charles.”

There was silence from the children.  Berger steered Eric and me around so we faced the children.  We were a ways down the street, Jessie and the Beattle rebels no longer in sight, and we were in the shadow of a larger building.  I could see the Little Castle a ways down the road, the stone edifice towering over the surrounding buildings.  Wet snow fell all around us.

“But trust is hard earned and easily lost.  Perhaps I’m overly wary after having so recently dealt with Sylvester, left second guessing things I wouldn’t, like the fact that you’re wearing the quarantine suit provided by one of his people, but I only half believe you.”

Dressed in the quarantine suit, Florence still visibly rocked back at that.

“With that in mind, half of the punishment I stated.  The one whipping, followed by immediate treatment.”

Charles looked over at Florence.  Florence, meanwhile, only bowed her head a little and curtsied.  “Yes, father.”

I caught Charles’ eye.  In the moment, I widened my eyes a bit, then gave him a wink.

“Uncle,” Charles said, as if he had to push himself to say it.  He was pre-emptively flinching, and he’d only said one word.

“Charles.  What is it?”

“Sylvester knew she was going to pull the string before she even do it.  He told me, and then it happened.”

“Hardly a miracle, Charles.  I suspected she might do something in that vein.  Granted, I had the benefit of the strangulation of the beast in the stables in Haverhill in my recent memory, but it wasn’t the leap you’re making it out to be.”

“I believe Florence when she says what she’s saying,” Charles said.

I believe that you want to save your cousin from her whipping,” Professor Berger said.  He sighed.  “The two of you have so much potential.  But you’re too soft and Florence is too vicious.  Come.  Let’s get to safety first.  You’ll each get your punishments tonight.”

“I’m being punished?” Charles asked, alarmed.

“You’ll split the punishment between you,” Berger said.  “Come.”

“Uncle!” Charles said, and there was emotion in his voice.

“No complaining now.  You can guess how that will end up.”

“Sylvester said-  he said, just when he was getting up to go to you, that the game I played with the city boys and town boys, he’s played it all his life.  That it was the same game he and you were playing.”

“Most games originated as a way to learn skills, Charles.”

“He said- I didn’t want to say this, but he said that if you ever hauled your own head out of your ass, you might see that Florence was learning to play the game too.”

I hadn’t actually said that.  But a very stern Charles had set his jaw and told the baldfaced lie.

Berger moved, passing around to Eric’s side, one hand still reaching back to manipulate strings.  The movement did move some strings, making the rebel boss lurch a bit and tighten his hold.

From his new position, Berger reached out and took hold of my face.  He turned it around and up so I was looking up at him.

“The games we play, hm?” he asked.

I smiled a little.

“Considering that I was busy preparing the bug you’re now wearing, I think I made the better move,” he said.  He smiled and let go of my face, leaving my head to loll, though he remained in my field of vision.

My smile remained fixed in place.  I didn’t quite feel like smiling, though.

I kind of agreed with him.

“Ready to move on?” Berger asked his children.

“Father.  While we’re stopped, can you help me switch hands?  Holding one hand over my head is growing troublesome,” Florence said.

“Leave him.  We can make do with the two.”

“I can let go of the strings?”

“Do.”

Florence moved her arm, and the man she was controlling dropped limp to the ground.  She removed the bug and cradled it in her arms.

“How are you managing, Charles?”

“Sore, but if it’s not far, I’ll carry on like this.”

“Good, Charles, good,” Berger said.  He paused.  “Florence.”

“Father?”

“All further games?  You won’t play them with me.”

“Yes, father.”

“And I expect more… art.  Subtlety.  You should come across well whether you’re caught or not.  The brutish way you did what you did, you looked poorly whether you were found out or if you got off scot-free.”

Florence paused, then curtsied again, still cradling the bug as if it were a doll.  “I will, father.”

“Then we’ll forget the whipping so long as you remember this lesson.”

“Yes, father.  Charles won’t be whipped either?”

“No, no he won’t.  But if we don’t hurry, tonight will be bloody all the same.  We’re exposed, and we’ll be exposed for a while yet.  The infection will happen, and when it does, the plague will need to be cut out.  Let’s go to the people best able to treat us.”

“Yes sir,” Florence and Charles said, in near-unison.

Turning, moving back around to his position behind Eric, Professor Berger shot me a final look.  I suspected it was to communicate something, as if he was making it known that he had this situation in hand, and that the manipulation of the children in his care had been effectively turned to his own ends, rather than mine.

I also suspected that he was too busy working with the strings and getting Eric turned around to see that, just off to our side, then behind his back as he, Eric and I led the way, Florence and Charles had reached out for each other’s hands.

They were very different children, but they had achieved a victory here.  Now they celebrated it, clasping hands, squeezing.  Maybe they even walked hand in hand for the moment.

My foot was collected.  Again, I was suspended, held by both Charles’ rebel and the rebel boss, limp as a rag doll.

In this manner, we walked.

“Florence, you wanted to know about Mr. and Mrs. Block,” Berger said.

“Yes, father.”

“I can only speak in generalities.  No particulars.”

“I understand.”

“If Mr. and Mrs. Block were found, it was their bodies.  Maybe written record, but even there, we are careful.  If they or anyone like them were in a position to be found, they would be killed pre-emptively.  I’ve had my turn, once, ensuring this was done.  With luck, you will too.”

The two were silent.

“Nobles represent our best work, our best people.  Yet you know that some of them, despite our best efforts, despite breeding going back to before the Crown Empire was an Empire, and was only one island country in the middle of a place we called Europe… some nobles disappoint.  I know the both of you have met the Baron Richmond.  He would be an example of such a disappointment.”

“Yes father,” was one response.

“Yes uncle,” was another, softer response.

“The Blocks… you could say they’re responsible for the nobles being as noble as they are.  Much like how Florence talked about dressing one way, putting on makeup, learning manners, Mr. and Mrs. Block were among those responsible for one stage in the noble’s development.  They are in a unique position to know just how many disappointing individuals there are that the public never sees, do you understand?  The faces and natures of nobles who never properly become nobles in the public eye.”

The two children remained quiet, clearly taken aback with the gravity of what was being said.

“Pride, reputation, and status are things that build on each other, and we have built very tall towers in the last century.  At the top, the towers are supported by people like my wife.  Her family, and families like hers.  At the bottom, the towers are supported by a firm foundation, given food and stone and all the resources they need by a people who look up and respect the height and fortitude of those constructions.  But when an empire grows to a certain measure of strength, it cannot be torn down by guns, weapons, or warbeasts.  Only by division from within, a severe crisis of faith.

I felt Eric’s hand tighten on my throat, only by a little.  The regular breath my body was providing became insufficient.

“This would be such a crisis, Father?”

I hadn’t been taking very deep breaths before, so the strangulation was going further than it might otherwise.  I couldn’t even defend myself.

“Who can say?  But I think the Crown Empire would rather risk a thousand wars over one test of that faith and pride.  Because they can win a thousand wars, but one such test?  We don’t know.”

My vision was going dark.

“As you grow older, and as you progress in the Academies… and you will progress to places of status in some of the best Academies, because you will have no other choice now that you know what I’ve told you… some of the details I’ve shared will take on new light.  You’ll keep silent throughout, even to each other.  If you must speak of it, you’ll speak of it only to me.  I will be keeping a closer eye on you as you grow up, and at the slightest hint that you’ve abused this knowledge I’ve just given you, it won’t be a whipping.  It’ll be your throats.”

With that, the hand tightened.

“I understand, father,” Florence said.

“Yes, uncle,” Charles said.

He’d told them for a reason, I knew.

This wasn’t too much confidence, given to the children.  He’d recognized what was at play.  I’d worked my way into their confidence, I’d taken one side on the divide they felt between them and their father figure.  I’d posed it as a game.

He’d made this real, and he’d disarmed me in the process.

I’d had a plan, and he was countering it.  He might have countered it outright.

The hand relaxed its grip on my throat.  It shifted, though I wasn’t sure how, but it must’ve been holding a different part of me, like my collarbone or shoulder.

But my breaths were too regular.  I couldn’t gasp for more, and so the regular mouthfuls were insufficient.  Blood pounded in my head, hard, throbbing in my eye sockets and ears.

Even though I was no longer being strangled, the aftermath of it wasn’t much better.  Rather than try to conserve the oxygen that remained, my brain and body seemed to give up.  Everything went all light and fluttery.

I need to be awake and aware in case Jessie helps, I thought.

If Jessie helps.

I could see the street out of one corner of my eye.  I could see the red slash of plague across snow, not all that far away.  With each pulse of blood in my eyes and ears, the plague seemed to lunge outward by ten strides, then by twenty.  I closed my eyes and the darkness of it hurt, the fluttery nature of things threatened to sweep me off into sleep.  I opened my eyes again.

Even with Wyvern giving me some control over the reins, I was fighting an uphill battle.

I saw Mary, standing in the shadows with a lacy red dress and a black jacket, and I felt a pang of empathy.  She watched without any emotion as I was carried off.

I knew why I was thinking of Mary.  She’d been a victim of the puppeteer, before we’d called him Mr. Percy.  Now I was the one with his strings cut.

Was this the way it went?  I’d brought her into the fold, and it had been my first true free act as a member of the Lambs.

Stories often ended as a reflection of how they began.  To start as a baby that shit itself, to become a child, a man, an old man, and then an invalid who shit himself.

Freeing a puppet at the start, becoming one at the end.

I almost wanted to faint, I realized, rather than to be left alone with my thoughts.  There wasn’t much I could do to help it along.  The darkness that had crept in receded, as did the bright spots.  I was left only with a tuning-fork hum in one ear and a pounding headache.

“Don’t shoot!” Berger called out.  “Professor approaching.”

“Professor Berger?” was the answer.  I could hear the surprise.

“The one and the same,” Berger said.  “I brought a fugitive and the leader of the rebel faction, wouldn’t you believe?  Hopefully it’ll do something to make up for the trouble I’ve caused the Crown.”

Things hadn’t been supposed to get this far.  We couldn’t let Berger know we knew, and then give him the chance to talk to others.  Jessie was supposed to intervene along the way.  To blind Berger.

“This way,” the soldier said.  I wished it was a voice I recognized, but it wasn’t.

They carried me past the barricade, and deeper into the camp.  I wished it was a trick, part of Jessie’s ruse.  It was a real Academy fortification, one with hundreds of soldiers.  People reacted to Berger with surprise and pleasure.  They hadn’t expected to get the man they’d been sent in to retrieve, not really.

The grip on me shifted.  Berger warned soldiers about the bug as they took custody of me.

“Chain him up,” Berger said.  “Again, watch the bug on his back.  The shackles will be redundant with the paralysis, but we can’t be too sure.”

“Where?” a soldier asked.

“Where we can keep an eye on everything,” Berger said.  He indicated a seat at a table in the middle of the camp.  “I have matters to discuss with the men in charge.  If you can escort me?”

Mute, unable to move, I was seated on the bench in question.  Shackles bound me to the bench, and I imagined they would have been cold if I could have felt them.  A box was placed next to me so I wouldn’t simply tip over, and I heard orders given to some rookies, who found seats nearby to watch me.

In that manner, a puppet with my strings abandoned, I sat, staring out into the distance at the red slash in the distance, and perhaps with the help of delusion and the powerful imagination Wyvern had gifted me, I imagined I watched it swell and grow visibly over the minutes or the timeless hour I sat there, breathing my regular breaths.

I had company at least.  Mary, Lillian, Evette, Mauer, Gordon, Fray, Helen, Duncan, Ashton.  All took their seats next to me.  Even the new Lambs.  Some sat for longer, some for shorter.  Some talked about nothing in particular, to take my mind off the tuning-fork whistle where the near-unconsciousness had hurt my hearing, and others were silent.

Mary sat at the beginning, and she sat at the end.  She didn’t do any talking, but I pushed my imagination to its limit, and I could imagine that I could feel her hand as she held mine in her lap, her palm and lap warm and the lace of the black dress she wore was soft.

Together, we imagined we watched the plague spread so fast it swept over the city, and we waited.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.7

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“Kill-” the rebel boss started, and the word, though forceful, was mumbled, as if he’d had a stroke.  I might’ve taken it to be ‘hill’ or ‘fill’ if I’d not known better.  He stopped.

I waited as he stayed where he was, frozen.  I was tense but doing my best not to show it.  The people in the room were watching me as much as him.  I was aware that they were stirring, the harsh word having gotten their attention, and my relative calm and a simple raised eyebrow from me were the only cues they had to go on.

Slowly, haltingly, the rebel boss’s hand raised, finding its way to his face.

“Eric?” one of the other men in the room asked.  He was one I’d considered as being one of the leaders – I’d picked out people who looked like they had some leadership ability, to better cull the population of the room and leave them more open to outside influence.  I would have picked him, just based on how he held himself and how others looked at him, but I’d been unsure about my ability to get Berger to make the rebel boss point at him, given where he sat and the people in the way.

The rebel boss, Eric, opened his mouth again, and managed only an abrupt, “Ugh.”

He drew in a breath, then exhaled.

I saw an opening.  I could read Berger’s thought process here.  A hand raised to his face to muffle him, to buy a second to think.  Now I suspected Berger was thinking about freeing Eric’s voice again, because that was all he could really do.

But we didn’t control his voice.  We controlled his movements.

I motioned, indicating the arm that was closer to his face.  I motioned for him to lower it, two fingers curled in the direction of the arm, twitching down.

His hand dropped.  I gestured for Berger to stop and the arm halted midway.  Eric looked momentarily surprised when it did.

Shirley was gesturing.  Question.  She wanted to know what was going on.  With Archie having gotten caught gesturing to me, I was reluctant to do with forty or fifty sets of eyes watching me.

We could parcel out control in very limited quantities.  With luck, Berger could sense some of the hesitation on Eric’s part.

Slowly, the rebel leader’s arm moved, until it pointed at the one who’d called out and named him.  Eric’s expression was blank, his eyes filled with emotion.  The other man’s face was anything but, on both counts.

“The hell?  Eric, you’ve got it wrong.  They’ve-”

The people near the man in question grabbed him.  There was a momentary scuffle, and the man was thrown to the ground, then held down.

“Eric!” the man called out.  “You’ve-”

One side of his face knocked against the ground as someone threw their weight onto his back.  The men who now grappled with their former boss or friend didn’t look like they enjoyed what they were having to do.  It wouldn’t take much to make them stop.

“You’re being manipulated!  I haven’t talked to anyone!  We’re friends, you morbid bastard!”

Eric the rebel boss stood in the doorway, his hand falling to his side.  He turned his head and glanced down at me.  I tried to read the expression and body language of a man with a partially paralyzed face and no control over his own body.  Just behind him, in the large man’s shadow, I could see Berger, the faintest sheen of sweat on his face.

Berger hadn’t trusted me to see the situation through on my own, he’d given the rebel boss the chance to speak, thinking he’d cowed the man, and he’d been wrong.  Had the boss’s face not been paralyzed by the syringe to relax his features, he might have gotten a fuller sentence out, clearly and unambiguously.

But he hadn’t.  We walked a tightrope now.

There were two ways to go, now.  I could try to wrangle things myself, and I could probably fail, in light of the current situation, or I could roll the dice myself.

I stared at him for as long as I could without looking suspicious, then looked away.  I surveyed the room.

“We’ve had enough killing already,” I said.  “Tie that guy’s hands, take him with.  We’ll quiz him about what else he talked to the Academy about, and if he’s not up to something, then he’ll live-”

“You’re all insane!”

“-but for right now, we need to get moving.  That’s the biggest priority.  We get out with our lives, and we resolve questions of loyalty later.  Head downstairs.  Gather near the double doors, be ready to file out two by two.”

Then, positive that this was the point where things came together or shattered to pieces, I signaled Berger, moving my hand as if it were a duck’s bill, four fingers for the upper bill, thumb for the lower one, opening and closing it, miming ‘talking’.

The rebel boss grunted, drew in a breath, and freed to speak for a second time, he said, “Do as the boy says.”

I made sure not to show my relief.  People spoke up, commenting, but I could see whole tracts who looked concerned, introspective, or lost in the chaos.  People who might otherwise have been able to turn to the people who had led them weren’t able to.  I’d removed those leaders from the picture.

“Go,” I said.

The rebel leader nodded, raised a hand and pointed.

It took a moment, but the room got itself sorted out.  Rebels started making their way to the stairs and down to the front hallway.

I turned to Berger and the leader, and I began talking.

“We’re going to need to cross the street.  Obviously we’ll follow up the rear.  My allies won’t shoot at any of us here.  If there’s trouble, we may have to run for it.  How many people are elsewhere in the building?”

“My people or people like him?” the boss asked me.  His entire body was taut with tension.

“Either or.  Trying to figure out what needs to be done, if more hostages need to be taken.”

“Some gunmen at the windows.”

I made sure that bystanders heard me as I said, “We’ll have them follow up last.  When they leave the window their absence will draw attention, and the enemy forces will move.”

“Mm,” he grunted.

I suspected he knew that the gunmen in the windows wouldn’t follow up.  It didn’t make sense to go find them and have more of his men with guns around us.

“We’ll send someone up?  You, with the little boy.  Can you do it?”

I asked the question, and standing as close as I was to Eric the puppet, I was free to move a hand without people in the larger lobby seeing.  I gestured for Charles and his rebel puppet to move off to one side, out of sight.

“That’s that,” I said.

The conversation was key, to give us a reason to be lingering behind, to keep others from approaching and joining in.  The scary look on Eric’s face was a help in that.  To their perception, he’d been willing to order the killing of a former lieutenant, pointing out the man.  I’d been the merciful one.

The bulk of the people left.  The clusters remained at different points in the room.

“What do you want us to do with the hostages?” a man called out.  He didn’t look like one of the brighter individuals, which made sense, given his bravery in calling out to his boss when the man looked so unhinged.

Eric looked down at me.

“Let them go,” I said, as if suggesting it.  “You made a deal with me.”

“Let them go,” he said, volume high, the syllables still a little slushy.

The men turned to the task.

“Changed your mind?” Berger asked, his voice barely audible.

No, I thought.  No, Eric hadn’t exactly changed his mind.  Yes, he’d been ready to give the order to have us killed, likely knowing he would die.  Berger’s ability to wrest control of the situation and my own actions following it, they made it clear that we held the cards.

I’d picked up on his disposition fairly early on.  Death held a different meaning for him.  They’d been trapped here and he’d been lackadaisical about it, slouching in his seat.  His priorities had sat in a different way, more intent on murdering or capturing Berger than on finding a way out.  I suspected the men who followed him knew that, and his willingness to kill traitors here fit into a kind of acceptance of death and willingness to kill perceived enemies.

I’d chosen to read the look in his eyes or the fact that he’d chosen to look down at me in particular to be an effort at negotiation.  Where he’d instinctively clutched for freedom the moment he’d been given his voice, we’d made it clear that the choice wasn’t so cut and dry.  There were people he valued more, it seemed.  Four had died in the stairwell, more had died upstairs, and even if he spoke now, it was no protection against further death.

Eric hadn’t changed his mind, really.  Given the choice to take an unambiguous win, I suspected he would still do so, without exception.  The situation had changed, I had clouded the waters with Berger’s help, and the rebel leader was playing along.  He cooperated, as Berger had ordered him to do three hundred times in ten minutes.

My hostages were freed.  The people who had freed them backed off, growing more outnumbered as more of their allies made their way down to the first floor.

Only a few lingered, glancing back at their boss.

“Go,” he said.  “I need to have words with the boy.”

His words carried weight.  They took their time doing it, but they made their way downstairs, glancing back.

He didn’t have their confidence.  They no doubt felt something was up, I knew that.  At the same time, to speak up or raise those dim and inarticulate suspicions was difficult.  They had no real rudders, they were being told the same things by multiple sources, including an authority they trusted, and they were being told to take this course of action to live, which was something they wanted.

Given time, they would find a time and place to voice those doubts.  In the now, they would go with the flow.

Shirley hugged the quarantine suit that I’d brought along to give her, not yet having put it on.  She gave Eric a nervous look.

“I don’t know how you managed that,” she said.  “But thank you.”

“Wasn’t entirely me,” I said.  “They hurt you?”

She pursed her lips, then said, “Yes.”

“How?  Why?”

She didn’t look eager to say.  It was Archie who spoke up.

“We gathered together with Pierre to figure out what we were doing.  We knew we couldn’t get out of the city, but Pierre might.  One of the younger rebels from this group saw it unfold.  When we turned up here with some of the other evacuees, they collapsed in on us.”

“And they knew about Shirley’s involvement with you from that?” I asked.

“They thought she was Otis’ girl.  They grilled him for information,” Archie said.  “He didn’t give much up, until he got talkative and started mocking them.”

“They threw me to the ground with my hands tied and kicked me,” Otis said.  “As these things go, it wasn’t even that bad.”

“Watch your words,” Archie said.  His voice wasn’t sharp, the rebuke not that heavy as such things went, but it seemed like such a strange thing to say.

Until I saw Shirley’s face.  She didn’t make eye contact with me or even anyone else.

I stepped forward and took her hands in mine.  She flinched a little.  I led her a little ways away from everyone else.  Otis and Archie followed at a partial distance, glancing back at the rebel leader and Berger.  They remained just at the edge of earshot.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I’m trying to be tougher than I once was,” she said.  Her shoulders went up, like she was shrugging but not shrugging.  A shrug aborted.  Defensive.

“I’m sorry,” I said, again, with just a little bit more emphasis.  “I’ll make this up to you.”

“I don’t blame you at all,” she said.  She finally made eye contact with me, which she hadn’t done since she’d approached and spoken to me.  “Really.  And I don’t want people to get hurt or die because of this.  This is how things are, and things just really-”

Her voice went high at the end there, and she broke off talking.

I gave her hands a squeeze.

“Really suck sometimes,” she said, with more composure.

I kissed the back of her hands.

“Can I ask Archie or Otis what happened, after?  I need to get the measure of these guys.”

“It looked like you have their measure already,” Shirley said.  Then her shoulders went up again, in a kind of shrug, as if she were unsure.  “I can tell you.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Some of the younger ones and one of the people you called into the stairwell, one of the traitors?”

“Not traitors.  People I needed to remove.”

She nodded, as if that made all the sense in the world.

“They threw me to the ground and they kicked me.  Because I think they thought they could get to Otis by doing that.”

Shirley’s hand pulled out of mine, and touched points all along her ribs and stomach, then moved her hair, so I could see where blood had run down into the basin of her ear, just by the canal.

“Okay,” I said.

“They said I needed to be searched for signs of plague.  It meant disrobing some.  Where everyone can see.  They didn’t search Otis or Archie or any of our people.  I’m not modest-”

She offered a one-note laugh at her own words.

“-but it was meant to humiliate.  And to get to Otis.”

I was going to say something to reassure, but Otis spoke up in his characteristic rough-edged voice, a voice belonging to an old man, used by a middle-aged one.  “Shirley toughed it out, glared daggers at them.  Came out looking fierce.”

I wondered if he was trying to reassure in his own way.

“I talked,” Otis said, very casually.  “Told them what they wanted to know, so they’d leave her alone before taking it any further.  They were curious where our rabbit ran off to, I said we had a camp outside the city.  That he’d get reinforcements.  I said we were led by a boy less than half my age.  I said we were making weapons.”

“I told them about you,” Shirley said.  “Jessie some, but you mostly.  I said if Pierre got out of the city, that you’d come.  They didn’t think our reinforcements were worth much, and I said more.  Talked you up.  That’s where they got the ‘moving mountains’ part.  I even- I used the word devastating, because I thought it would help you forgive me for costing you the element of surprise.”

“No, Shirley, that’s-”

She talked over me, as if she just needed to say it, “I just needed the courage right then, so I rambled.”

“It’s fine!” I raised my voice, to be sure to interrupt her before the justifications could keep coming.  “You’re worrying over nothing there.  I wouldn’t have had the element of surprise anyway, having to approach like I did.  I didn’t have a chance of getting into the building without them knowing about it.  They would have had questions, and the unknown is cause for fear.  You talking me up put me in their heads, made me into a possible solution for them, a reality they wanted to see and understand.  Above all else, it took away what would’ve been a reactive fear.  If I’d been an unknown, strange boy who just showed up at their door, I might’ve gotten shot.”

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Shirley said.

“I’m not lying.  I might have been fine for the start of it, whichever way it had gone, whatever you’d said, but your instincts were right.  The odds were better.  This way was better.”

She didn’t look like she believed me.

I took her other hand, which she’d pulled out of my grip to indicate where the injuries were, and I moved her hands together, enfolding them in mine, best as I was able.  I squeezed them, looking into her eyes with utmost sincerity and directness, and I said, “This way was better.”

“You come across as more believable when you’re casually lying,” she said.

“I’ve warned you in advance about this,” I said.

She smiled, and I could see moisture in her eyes.  “My first time seeing it happen.”

Then she stepped closer and she gave me a kiss on the forehead.

“Then you believe me?” I asked.  “Because I am honestly telling you the truth here.”

“I’m working on it,” she said.  She touched my hair.  “You have other things to focus on.”

“One of those things is my promise to Pierre.  Get the quarantine suit on,” I said.  I wagged a finger at her.  She smiled some, and I was free to turn away, checking on Otis and Archie, as well as the other thugs they had in tow.  “All good?”

“I wouldn’t mind getting out of this fucking city,” Otis said.  “See some of your kid doctors.”

“I thought the beating wasn’t anything special?” Archie asked.

“It’s still a beating, indian,” Otis said.  “And painkillers are nice.  We recruited a few hundred kid doctors, why can’t we use ’em when we’re sore?”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “We’ll get right on that.  For now, watch Shirley, watch my back, and clean that blood off.  The plague likes blood.”

Otis rubbed at the space beneath his bloody nose, pulled out a handkerchief, and began cleaning off his face.  He nearly dropped it when he saw how Berger was controlling Eric.

Berger had emerged from the hallway, Eric ahead of him and the children in tow, each controlling their respective puppets.

“How many others are in the building?” I asked.  “Non-soldiers?”

“Sixty or so,” Archie said, his voice soft.  “It’s a guess, don’t take it as gospel.”

“They’re holed up at the third floor,” Berger said.  “We went higher because higher ground is better, and I had the key for the door.”

“Keep the kids out of the way,” I said.  “Berger, with me.  Bring Eric, or else we should stow him out of sight for a minute.  The others will make sure nobody sees.  We’ll get the other civilians in the meantime.”

“I thought time was of the essence,” he said.  “You wanted to save your allies.  Fine.  But now you’re adding others to it?”

“This is integral,” I lied.

“Then we’ll do it fast,” he said.

I turned to Otis and Archie.  “Get people started on crossing the street in two single-file lines.  The Crown soldiers at the barricade should be ours.  One of you go first if the others are reluctant.  One of you stay behind to help, keep some of your guys with.”

That got me some nods in response.

Berger and I moved into the stairwell, and he pulled the strings necessary to paralyze Eric.  The bug remained in place, the rebel leader was laid face down across the stairs, and with the strings removed, he was unable to do anything but breathe.  I collected my knife, and we took the stairs two at a time to get up to the next floor.  I knocked on the first door after I’d exited the open stairwell.

“Evacuation,” Berger called out.

I heard muffled voices.  They didn’t respond.

“Give me your badge, or some official papers or something,” I said.

Berger stopped just short of rolling his eyes, reached into a coat pocket, produced a paper with a crest on it, and handed it over.

I slid the paper beneath the door.

The lock clicked.  A man in nice clothes, his family standing further back in the room, too nervous to sit down on the bed or chair within.

“Evacuating,” I said.  “Get yourselves downstairs.  Stick with the people guarding the door at the second floor.”

I moved on to the next door, repeating the process.  Three families in one room.  Not aristocrats, not well-to-do folks.  They’d retreated here because it was the largest, sturdiest building, much as Shirley, Otis and Archie had.  I gave similar instructions.

At the third door, they responded to the knock, before I got to the part with the paper.  I was greeted by a man with a revolver in hand.  I caught his wrist and punched a knife into his upper stomach.  He grunted, and I stuck him two more times.

He hadn’t even collapsed all the way to the ground before I crossed the length of the little apartment’s hallway.  I saw the shadow across the floor before I saw any sign of him, and was already swinging the knife at his general neck level before he even stepped into view.  He spun, collapsing hard onto the floor, and blood bubbled at his neck as oxygen escaped his windpipe and forced its way through the mess that was spilling out of the wound.

I’d suspected the first one wouldn’t be in the room alone.  People kept each other attentive and sane.

His hand gripped my wrist, and blood ran down from the knife to the heel of his hand to my arm.  I walked forward, pushing the knife deeper, and he staggered back.  I forcibly sat him down in the chair by the window, so anyone looking through binoculars might see him.

I cleared the remainder of the rooms on the third floor.  I realized after the second conflict with rebel soldiers that they’d been stationed in the corner rooms and didn’t interfere there.  I was quieter in respect to the rooms neighboring those, shushing the people within as they opened the doors.

We headed back down.  A good thing too, as it seemed Berger was looking increasingly impatient.

“One thing, before we go any further,” I said.

“If this is about me letting the rebel speak to the room-”

“No,” I said.  “No.  That’s a separate issue, and what’s done is done.”

“Then what is it?”

“One of the syringes you had was empty.”

“And?  A mild stimulant, to keep myself alert.  It allows me faster reactions, calm in a time of crisis.”

The last group of people we’d ushered out of their rooms had reached the crowd at the base of the stairs now.  We followed them, and we started to make our way through the gathered crowd.  They saw Berger and parted a way for him.

“I’m very good at telling when people are lying to me, Professor.  You’re lying to me.”

“Perhaps,” he said.  He knelt by Eric and began manipulating the strings.  “I’ll tell you this.  During my tenure as a student, I learned that most fellow students lied to me in some capacity.  Most treated me as a hostile entity.  Had I fought them on every last point, I would have exhausted myself.  I had to pick my battles.  You have to decide.  Is this battle worth fighting?”

People muttered as he raised Eric to his feet.

“I asked,” I said.  “I clearly think it’s a point worth addressing.  Doubly so now that you’re being evasive.”

“Then are you going to use that Wyvern-washed brain of yours and find a line of questioning that makes me talk about the syringe?  Torture me and my children?”

He was surrounded by citizens and aristocrats that saw him as someone friendly and someone to be respected.  That had to play a part in his power play here.  His confidence level hadn’t changed, but it seemed innate.  I might almost believe that a drug had given him that confidence level, but I’d met too many other professors over the years.

Could I shake him?  Possibly.  Could I worm my way into his head and get what I needed out of him?  Yes, given time.

He knew I didn’t want to spare the time.

“You know who and what I am, professor.  You’ve read my file.”

“I do.  I have.”

“Then let’s leave it at that,” I said.  “You know enough to know the consequences.”

He didn’t flinch.  He only pulled his strings and commanded his puppet.

I turned away, my mind whirling, working out all the possibilities.  I had friends nearby, I had more friends on the other side of that open space of no man’s land.  He had only a few key opportunities for attack.  Had he given himself the contents of the syringe?  Eric?  One of the children?

Was it a bluff?

I turned toward the crowd, and I raised my voice as I spoke to them.  “There are more rebels downstairs.  You all stick near me, don’t speak of anything relating to the professor, and this all goes smoothly.  Let’s head down to the first floor.”

The people were a buffer.  They put bodies between me and the lesser rebels, they blocked vision, and, I was suspicious, they were ostensibly on my side rather than the rebel’s.

Shirley and Otis drew nearer to me, and our reduced collection of thugs followed.  More security.  More of a buffer.  I was given pause when I saw that Shirley wasn’t wearing the quarantine outfit.

Florence was.  She was small enough that it bunched up all around her.  It wasn’t even a complete outfit, because she’d left one glove off, freeing her hand to manipulate strings.  She wore a leather glove, tight against her small hand, and some of the adhesive wrap blocked off the gap, but it wasn’t the same thing.

“Pierre is going to be mad at me,” I said.  “I made him promises.”

“He’ll understand if you explain.”

“He’ll understand, but he’ll be mad,” I said.

“Please?” she asked.

I looked over at Florence.

“She reminds me of myself as a child,” Shirley said.

“Having actually talked to her for a short while, I’m pretty sure you couldn’t find anyone more different,” I said.  “In looks, yeah, she has a lot going for her, she’ll grow up to be a beauty, but-”

Shirley swatted my shoulder lightly.

“-I don’t see any of my favorite parts of you in her.  Okay, maybe the cleverness, but-”

“You’re a relentless flirt, Sy,” she said.

Doctor bad, I gestured.  Children bad.  Betrayal soon.  “I don’t see that as flirting.  You should see me when I really flex that angle.”

Yes, was her only gesture.  She didn’t have a lot of vocabulary.  She got most gestures when I communicated to her, but it didn’t go the other way, from her to me.  She’d picked up my message.

“I’m still not wearing that suit,” she said.

I drew in a breath, then nodded.

We made our way down the stairs, at the tail end of the group.

I was careful to position people between myself and the professor.  He had Eric in tow, and I made sure that the professor and Eric couldn’t lunge for me.

I met the eyes of Charles, who looked very concerned for entirely normal reasons that had to do with venturing into the cold, plague ridden, conflict-torn outside.

I looked for Florence and I saw her near Berger.  She wore the suit, and her head was aimed more toward the ground, one leather-gloved hand on the strings, the other hand in a thicker glove, on the man’s back, giving her balance as she focused on descending the stairs while wearing a quarantine mask with virtually no visibility.

The lowered head was indicative of something else, too.  The nearer she was to Berger, the more submissive she appeared, her head bent low, as if expecting him to strike her at any moment.  I wondered the degree to which that was true, the degree to which it was meat to manipulate him, and the degree to which it was meant to manipulate me.

I would’ve liked to see more of her face and body to read her for cues, given the difficulty in reading an accomplished liar and politician like Berger, but I wasn’t so lucky.

The stream of people flowed out the door with almost no hiccups.  Some mismatches of people got wedged in the double doors, too large or trying to go in three-across instead of two-across.  Others stumbled or slipped as they transitioned from hard floor to a street covered in wet snow that had been trampled by a hundred people ahead of them.

Jessie and her squad waited on the other side.  I saw their postures change noticeably as they spotted Shirley and I.  Perking up, taking notice.

Berger slowed to a noticeable degree.  Lagging.

I expected him to draw a gun, perhaps, or to pull the bug free and release the rebel leader with some prearranged agreement to attack me, augmented by drugs.  I expected a gas canister.  The position I’d chosen in this careful stampede of my own design was meant to account for all of that.  So was the position I’d chosen for Shirley.  Tall thugs from Otis’ group.

He didn’t go high.  He didn’t try to go through.  He didn’t even do anything overt.

It had to amount to reaching into a part of his voluminous lab coat and simply dropping it to the ground.

The bug leaped from a point on the wet ground, passing through a narrow gap between two of Otis’ people, and lunged straight for me.  I was primed and on the alert, and my hand went out, grabbing for it.  Hook-like limb-ends caught on my arm, found purchase in the flesh of my forearm, and like the hammer of a gun firing, it fired forward in another explosive leap, going for my neck this time.

Straight for me, of all the possible targets.

I’d stood too close to him as I’d worked my shenanigans on the roomful of people.  He’d given it a thorough sniff of me.

“Go,” I said, in the same moment I realized I couldn’t tear it free without the risk of the hook-limb tearing at something vital in my neck.  “Leave me!”

It moved of its own accord, crawling around the side of my neck to my spine.

Whatever he’d dosed it with, it seemed more or less immune to my poisonous taste.

I landed face down on the road, paralyzed from the neck down, and I didn’t see anything else of what followed.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.6

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Cooperate,” the professor murmured.

He pulled the strings of the rebel leader, and the leader found his way to his feet, moving like a stitched might.  I could see his expression now that he wasn’t face down on the ground anymore.  His face contorted and his head leaned over to one side, the side of his face grinding hard into one shoulder.

“Good,” professor Berger said.  It was the first thing he’d said that wasn’t ‘cooperate’ for several minutes now.

I was getting rather sick of standing here, and the smell of it was getting to me.  I had endured foul places, and had even made my way through sewer drains, but shit was shit, and far too many of these men had shit and pissed in their pants

“Good?” I asked.  “What are our limitations here?”

“Limitations?”

“What’s he good for?”

“He walks and moves at my allowance.  Each string controls a limb.  Feedback on my end in the form of tension and vibration suggests just how he is moving that limb, and I can stop him.  He either elects not to move at all, or he moves the way I want him to.”

“Can you make him point?” I asked.

“I can.  The act of pointing to something specific is trickier but doable.”

I studied the bearded rebel leader, rubbing my chin.  “Can you get him to stop doing that thing with his head?”

Strings were manipulated.  The leader tensed up, face turning red for a moment, and then he relaxed.  He started to move his head in that direction, his shoulders tightened, and he stopped.

“Good,” I said.  “We should get two more.  Then I think we can crack this.  Will it take long?”

“Not long,” Berger said.  “Charles, come here.”

The Berger’s nephew approached.  The boy was small, with large eyes that made him look younger than he was, black hair neatly parted.  He wore a crisp, thoroughly-starched shirt with a sweater vest and wore slacks with shoes, not boots, despite the weather outside.

At his uncle’s instruction, he reached overhead and took the strings.

“If you relax them, he’ll collapse.  If you pull back on them, he’ll have more range of movement.  Given a choice between the two, if your arm gets tired, make him collapse.  Understand?”

Charles nodded, solemn.

“If he fights you, or if you feel the strings moving because he’s trying to move, if he starts making noise, often a squeal, or if there’s any other trouble at all, you pull back on the middle one.  Everything connected to his nervous system will seize.  By all reports, it is indescribably painful.  At that stage, we can let him die or I can take over again.”

“What if I can’t?” Charles asked.  “What if I can’t pull?”

Berger reached over, and he ran his fingers through the front of Charles’ hair, as if to fix the part, when it needed no fixing.  He said, “I would be immensely proud of you if you could, Charles.  So would your father, were he with us.  If the need arises and you cannot manage your patient, I’m sure Sylvester would keep him from getting too far.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I’ll see about our second patient, then.  Would you keep an eye out for trouble while keeping an eye on Charles and his patient?”

“I can,” I said.

Berger knelt by another ‘patient’, and he started work.

I turned to Charles.  “Spending time with your uncle?”

Berger was the one who answered.  “My duties being what they are, I don’t often have time to look after the children.  My extended family steps in and does what they can, but I’m between appointments, and I saw an opportunity.  They’re old enough to start thinking about which Academies they will attend, and I needed to see some people in various Academies.  We’re on our way back from the Cape of Flowers.”

“With a bunch of body-controlling bugs on hand,” I said.  “Which is curious.”

Berger stopped what he was doing, looked up, and met my eyes.  “I’m not your enemy today, Sylvester.  There’s no need to analyze me or pick me to pieces.”

“Oh, not to worry.  I pick even my friends to pieces, and while you aren’t my enemy, you’re not my friend.”

“All the same, perhaps you should focus on our mutual enemy?”

“The benefit of Wyvern and my particular mental architecture is that I’m very good at maintaining several trains of thought at once.  I can pester you and think about how to deal with the enemy at the same time.  It’s even constructive, since things in our conversation here might inspire me.”

“The time and energy I spend in responding to you is time and energy I’m not focusing on this,” professor Berger said.

“Bullcrap,” I said.  I leaned back against the bars that encircled the stairs and looked down, making sure nobody was coming up.  “All you’re doing there is playing a patience game.  Waiting for the ‘patient’ there to figure out how he’s supposed to move while you’re pulling his strings.  I’m sure that we can have a conversation.”

Charles was watching me very closely.  He glanced at his uncle, and I saw momentary concern as Berger pressed his lips together and didn’t fire back a response.

Is that the first time you’ve seen someone talk back to your uncle?  I thought.

I didn’t have the full picture yet.  Was Berger the equivalent of someone who had a bad day on the street, came home, and beat his wife?  Would he take what I was dishing out now and turn around to take it out on the children?

I only asked because he seemed like a peculiar individual.  Controlling, uncompromising, and so lacking in empathy that he seemed to think less of Charles for having some.  The closest thing I’d seen to kindness from Berger, the touching of his nephew’s hair, had been so calculated that Charles had to have seen through it.

I wasn’t about to say it was the case, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Berger was the sort of man who only really expressed kindness by wearing a particularly thick glove when hitting the children.

“Did you have a favorite stop?” I asked Charles.

Mute, Charles glanced back at his uncle.

“You can answer,” Berger said.

“I liked Peachtree,” Charles said.

“How come?” I asked him.  Again, I checked the stairs to make sure the coast was clear.

“I made some friends there.  I got their addresses.  We’re going to exchange letters,” Charles said.

His arm moved a little, and the rebel leader stiffened.  Charles adjusted, and the man relaxed.  I thought about offering to take over, but I had suspicions about how that would play out.  Not yet, not now.

“Atlantica Academy is ranked eighth in the Crown States,” Berger said.  “I’d rather Charles attend something more prestigious, but we’ve discussed it.  If he keeps up with his studies, I may allow him to go there for Academy prep.”

Academy prep, like Mothmont in Radham.

“I find that language interesting,” I said.  “You may allow him.  I mean, you’re not even committing to a proper Academy, just the prep school, and you can’t even make it a promise?”

“I don’t like promises,” Berger said.  “And I don’t like guaranteeing anything for much the same reason.  I find they mean very little to people if kept, and they cost you a great deal if they’re broken.  Exceptions for present company, of course, you and I are in a life and death circumstance.”

“Sure,” I said.  “It warrants, hm, being political?”

“In that vein,” Berger said.

“Yet by choosing not to promise like that, you’re really playing at politics with family, aren’t you?”

“Sylvester,” professor Berger said.  “Please do not question how I raise the children in my care.”

I started to respond, and then I saw Charles and the girl staring at me.

I smiled.  “As you wish, professor.”

Berger took that at face value, turning his attention to his patient and completely missed the wink I shot Charles in the meantime.  The professor tapped one of his patient’s arms and told the young man,  “Right arm now.”

“What about you, miss…?” I asked.

“Florence,” Berger volunteered.

Florence’s hair was black, much like Charles’.  My experience in watching Helen suggested that it likely took a two-person team and an hour’s time to properly set up the hair and the light makeup, everything in place, with just a bit of ornamentation.

She looked like a doll, hair carefully coiffed, a dress that looked more decorative than functional, with embroidery from shoulder to hem, and fine lace at the edges.

“Hello, Flo,” I said.

“Florence,” she said.

“Florence, sure,” I said.  “Your favorite stop on your trip with dad?”

“I call him father,” she told me.

“I stand corrected,” I said.  “What was your favorite stop on your trip with father?”

“If I had to choose, I quite liked Haverhill Academy,” she said.

“Setting your sights high,” I said.

“But if I got to choose anywhere, I would choose one of the Academies in New Amsterdam, or Crown Capitol in London.”

“Setting your sights at the very top.”

“Naturally,” she said.

She didn’t even glance at her father.  I wondered if-

“She’s a strong student, and my name has some pull.  She can achieve it if she works hard,” professor Berger said.

She’d looked his way as he started talking.  My wondering was cut short.  Too quick to look, betraying the fact that she’d been acting aloof and avoiding looking to see if she’d earned the approval she was shooting for until she had an excuse.

Berger didn’t seem to catch it, or didn’t seem to care if he had.

“I like the name Peachtree.  Sounds warm,” I said.  Turning my attention back to Charles.

“It wasn’t when we went,” Charles said.  “It was wet and cold.”

“Wet and cold.  It must have something going for it.  Girls?”

Charles made a face.

“Give it time, Charles.  Something else that’s neat, then?”

“They have tunnels and trenches and orchards everywhere, and the city boys and the town boys go to war over it all.”

“Ah,” I said.

“The city boys didn’t like me much at first, but I proved myself.  It was muddy in the trenches, so I got bits of pig that were being slaughtered for parts, paid for the bits with my allowance, and I made a stitched pig.”

“It was clever,” Berger said.  Then, because he had to temper any compliment, he added, “Simple, but clever.”

Charles, subdued a little, said, “We let it loose in the downhill part of the tunnels.  Scared the wits out of the townies.”

“Something they’ll tell tales of for months to come.”

“Herman Anthony, he was the leader of the city boys, he told me I was proper legendary, those are the two words he used, and he considered it a point of honor to be a fast friend with me.  He’s one of the boys I’m going to write when I get back home.”

Charles was talking, and I was doing my best to look attentive, but in the background, Berger had finished with the second man.  He beckoned Florence, and carefully passed management of the strings over to her.

The instructions were the same as the ones he’d given to Charles.  I could tell already that she’d heard the prior instructions.  She looked attentive, eyes on her father, but the way her eyes moved suggested she wasn’t really listening.  She was studying the man.

I double checked for anyone coming up the stairs, then moved away from the stairs, closer to Charles and the rebel leader.

“She’s going to pull the string,” I whispered to Charles.

“What?” he asked.

“If he gets too stubborn, or if he starts pulling away from the controls, which might happen if there are old injuries or if you get a patient with exceptional willpower, then you pull-”

She pulled the string before the sentence was done.

The young rebel toppled forward, sprawling on the ground, every part of him clenching, straining, or bending.  His eyes rolled up into his head, and his mouth jerked open and closed, like a particularly crude stitched trying to chomp at a large apple.

In the midst of that chomping, the young rebel vomited, then choked on the vomit, coughing some of it out.

Berger was swift to drop to the man’s side, taking control of the strings that had pulled free from Florence’s fingers.  He made the young rebel stop seizing, then reached into the man’s mouth to clear the throat, before ensuring that the man did not asphyxiate.

Once the man was breathing again, Berger stood.

“Berger,” I said, raising my voice.

Florence didn’t flinch as she squared off against her father.  She raised her chin, and Berger slapped her full across the face.

“Professor!” I raised my voice, sharpening it.

“Save your commentary, Sylvester,” the professor said.  He shook the hand he’d used to slap his daughter, and flecks of the mess he’d scooped out of the young rebel’s mouth and throat fell free.  “It’s not your place.”

“You set her up to fail,” I said.  “That, or you’re oblivious.”

“Its not your place, Sylvester.  Let it be.  You lack context, and any further argument from you is going to be painful to listen to.”

“I can guess at the context.  This isn’t a first time.  Which goes back to you setting her up to fail.”

“There’s such a thing as ineptitude, Sylvester,” he said, his voice hard.  “And there’s such a thing as malicious ineptitude.  Ineptitude can be amended with counsel and careful instruction.  Malicious ineptitude is amended with the rod.”

“Or the open palm,” I said.

“Leave it be,” the professor said.

Florence hadn’t even moved since she’d been slapped.  Her head had turned with the force of the blow, and flecks of another man’s vomit still clung to her face and hair, and she had remained like that, chin set, eyes fixed on some distant point of ground.  Her cheek was red, and I could see the general oval of the handprint.

Her father took her hand, and as if she were a statue or a doll, he posed her hand above her head, hooked the rings over each finger, and left it like that.

“Does your wife speak out on the subject?  Who gainsays you, if not the fugitive experiment you’re working with out of necessity?”

Berger sighed heavily, and seemed to be resolved to ignoring me.  He knelt by the third rebel.  He was choosing ones that hadn’t defecated in or pissed their pants.

“I see you’re not about to answer.  Can I help your daughter clean her face, at least?  If you’re all going to be keeping me company, I could do without the lingering smell of vomit on top of the general aroma of piss and shit.”

“Use that marvelous Wyvern treated brain of yours and turn off your sense of smell, if you’re so particular,” the man said.

He sounded snippy.  Maybe I’d gotten to him a little.

“Oh, I forgot I could do that,” I said, lying while needling the man just a little more.

I waited, patient, walking back to the cage that encircled the staircase, looking for any incoming parties.  If anything brought them up to the fourth floor, it would be the smell of shit wafting down to them.

“I suppose we have to endure the smell.  If you’re sure nobody’s coming, then please do clean her face.”

I approached Florence.  She’d shifted position to be more comfortable, but as something resembling a point of pride, she hadn’t cleaned off her face.  She stared me down as I approached.

I drew a handkerchief square from a coat pocket with a bit of a flourish.  “Clean ‘kerchief.  Want?”

She gave me a small nod.

I handed it over.

She wiped at the one side of her face, which streaked the makeup a small amount.

I spoke, my voice low, just for her.  “That’s kind of an admirable skill to have.  A big bad professor for a father, one of the foremost professors in the Crown States before the latest contingent of nobles arrived with the Infante, clearly very clever with the Academy science and on the political front.  And you figure out the strings to pull.  Crude at first, maybe, but you’ve got his measure.  Given time, you figure out what gets what response, and you get more nuanced.  Something you can apply to all the men in your life?”

“Maybe I didn’t put that much thought into it,” she said.

She handed back the handkerchief.

I mimed a motion toward her face.  She nodded, and she raised her chin.  I got some of the bits that had escaped her.

“Maybe didn’t put that much conscious thought into it, but I think family is often an arena of sorts for our testing of boundaries and the various games we play with peer and enemy alike.  You were testing, as anyone does, but you were testing in a very interesting way, that got to a man like him.  I sure tested the people closest to me for a long time.  Still do.”

“You said something about them before.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Some are downstairs.”

“What happens,” she asked, while I was focused on getting a bit of food out of her hair, “If I pull the wrong string down there, and they die?”

“Then you don’t make it out of this building alive,” I said.  “Your father and cousin either.”

She seemed to take a moment to process that.

It was boundary pushing, figuring out how a given action altered the world around her.  This was unfamiliar territory, and here she was, trying to figure out what this particular nervous system looked like, or which direction the blood flowed.  Having heard her phrase that question and direct it at me, I was almost certain she’d been intentionally testing her father, trying to wrap her mind around him and how he worked, even if it meant enduring a little bit of pain in the now.

There was something else at play, but voicing it aloud wouldn’t help me worm my way into her confidence.  Elaborately dressed up, hair and clothing perfect, but for a trace amount of mess that I couldn’t get with the handkerchief, she was a bird in a cage.  She craved some measure of control over her environment.

Control and power.  The cornerstones of the Academies.  When someone lacked either or both, they would often hurt themselves to grab for something that sufficed.

I could offer her both, however, and I was willing to bet she’d bite.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I said.  “Not because I’m scared you’ll pull the wrong string downstairs, mind you, but because I think the results would be interesting.”

“I think you’re a very dangerous person,” she said.

“Absolutely,” I said.  “If all goes well, I’m a dangerous person that’s going to drag you guys with me, and together we’re going to reach a crisis point, with a lot of parallels to you and this man here.  Much like you hold this man’s strings, I’m going to hold yours, or I’ll hold Charles’.  You’ll have the ability of holding your ground and being stubborn, or cooperating.”

I’d gone by instinct, measuring Professor Berger’s pace, and I was pretty sure he was counting to a set number between each uttered ‘Cooperate’.  Within a second or two of my saying the word, he echoed me.

Florence glanced at her father and then back at me.

I leaned a bit closer, and I said, “Cooperate, and I promise you’ll come to no harm, you’ll lose nothing, and you’ll learn more about your father in five minutes than you could learn about him in five more years of experimenting and getting slapped in the face.”

“How do I cooperate if you hold my cousin’s strings?” she asked.

I winked at her, and then walked away, back to the railing.

Berger was watching me.  He hadn’t overheard any of the conversation, but he had to have known that was a longer talk than wiping someone’s face or hair required.

Why don’t you care? I wondered.

Something up your sleeve?

“Charles,” I said.  “What makes a town boy a town boy and a city boy a city boy?”

“Hm?”

“In Peachtree.”

“Money, I think.  Class.  There’s more town boys, but they’re not as up to snuff and they’re not as organized.  And the city boys control the tunnels at the top of the hill and near downtown.  The best tunnels.  Not much wet, close to food and water and toilets, and they go to a lot of places, so we can mount good attacks on them all.  Their tunnels and trenches flood a lot.”

“You control it because of the fact that you’re all closer?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m afraid I’d be a town boy,” I told him.

“I won’t hold it against you,” Charles said, very diplomatically, and with the utmost seriousness.

“Ever see any marks sketched out in the dirt or carved into the wood?” I asked.

“Hm?” he asked.

I fished in a pocket for paper, then dug out a pen.  I scrawled out some basic symbols that were fairly consistent across locations.  The etchings of ‘mice’.

“Something like this?” I asked, showing him.

“Maybe.”

“It’s a code,” I told him.  “Secret.  ‘Townie’ people all over the Crown States and probably the Crown Cities use this code or one like it.  This one means ‘the vulnerable will be protected’.  Usually townie kids.  This one means protector.  Sometimes they change.  I know in some places it’ll be a rabbit instead of a mouse for this one, or a wolf instead of a fox.”

“What’s the difference between a wolf or a fox when you’re drawing it?”

I sketched it out.  “Straight lines, for when you’re carving it into wood, right?  I know some places have a distinction.  The fox is generally a bad person, but the wolf is drawn so he looks one way.  Up, down, left, right.  Each one means different things.”

“What do they mean?”

“I think the wolf that looks right looks deceptively friendly, the one that looks left is scary or especially mean.  I forget what up and down mean.  Might be position of authority or has friends for looking up, and then ‘is sneaky’ for looking down?  Or was there something else?  Maybe there were eight directions to look.  They didn’t use the wolf in my hometown.”

“Uh huh,” Charles said, sounding lost.

“But if you want to win points with the top city boy, the guy who called you legendary?”

He nodded at that.  He wanted to.

“Grab a townie boy, take him hostage or something.  Ask him what the signs mean.  If nothing else, it’ll give the city boys a better idea of how things work in Peachtree.”

Charles seemed intrigued by the idea.

I left out that maybe, just maybe, it would afford the city boys a kind of empathy for the town boys, once they realized what the town boys went through.

Maybe I could hammer that in a bit.

“In fact, if you wanted to win points and if you wanted to give him a clue into how to look really cool in front of the townies, you could tell him that he could offer help with one of the foxes-” I pointed.  “-or one of the wolves.  But he’d have to make sure those were signs the boys in Peachtree used.”

“Huh,” Charles said.  “Why would we want to help out townies?”

“In war, there is always room for negotiation.  What if they captured the top city boy?  Or his sister?  You need something to offer, don’t you?”

“You’re a lot better at this than I am,” he said.

“I’ve played the game all my life,” I said, smiling.  “I’m playing it now, with you.”

“What?” Charles asked.  He was suddenly very confused.

Professor Berger brought the third of the rebels to a standing position.

“All done?” I called out to the man.

“We can move on, so long as you’ve found time to come up with a plan while corrupting the children in my care,” Berger said.

“Fantastic,” I said.  “I came up with a plan before you even started, but I could do with another five minutes of corruption, if that’s alright?  I could hold the strings of that fellow while you used the lavatory, maybe?”

“Best we get underway,” the man said, dryly.

“Fair enough,” I said.  I walked past Charles.  I approached him, and as I passed him, I turned around, walking backwards as I continued talking in a low voice, “See?  Your uncle knows I’m playing townie against city, working my townie wiles on you and your cousin.  But he doesn’t care.  Soon I’ll find out why.”

“But we weren’t playing,” Charles said.

“People like your uncle and I are always playing this game,” I said.

Charles’ eyes widened, and I could see things falling into place.

Perhaps, in that moment, his world expanded, and the world beyond his immediate experience made more sense.  Or less sense.

At the professor’s behest, I took ownership of the third rebel, one of the young ones, while he took the rebel leader.  Charles approached me and took the strings.  Once that was done, he began instructing the two children in how to puppeteer the men and make them walk.  Freeing one leg at a time while being sure not to paralyze a given leg.

I approached all of the men we weren’t using, and, going one by one, I stabbed them in the backs, carefully avoiding the bugs that had latched onto their spines.  Charles watched me while I did it, with a quiet and subtle kind of alarm.

He still had a goodness to him, it seemed.  His cousin had put that goodness away to seize some influence over her surroundings, and his uncle lacked any.  In this, Charles was mostly alone.  He wasn’t merciful.

Slowly, they each practiced walking.  Professor Berger was a practiced hand with puppeteering, but the puppets and the children weren’t so experienced.  It took some doing.

“If they don’t cooperate, let them fall flat on their faces,” Berger said.

“Nosebleeds get in the way of my plan,” I said.

“I can stop nosebleeds,” he said.

“Can you stop them from looking like they’re all trying to push a full-sized tree branch through their arseholes?”

“Push-” Berger started.  He gave me a look, as if I was one of his children and I’d disappointed him.  “There are children present.”

I looked at him for a moment, then over at the dead bodies.  My eye traveled over the blood, piss, vomit, shit, the bugs, the puppets, the children being used to control them, and finally back to Berger.

“Of course,” I said.

“They look strained, you’re right,” Berger said.  He withdrew syringes from his pocket.  One was spent, the others weren’t.

Reaching forward, he stuck one syringe into the face of the gang leader, moved around to the other side of the face, and injected other locations.

“All of this stuff you’re packing, I can’t hep but notice a big focus on movement, expression, controlling a useless body, making it do what you want,” I said.  “I wonder if your colleagues are on a similar page, or if they’re studying brains.  Say, a brain riddled with bullets?”

Berger gave me an unimpressed look.

“I had to ask,” I said.

He gave the others the same treatment with a second syringe.

“Watch the stairs, Charles, Florence.  They’ll find it tricky, and bodies rolling down the stairs draw notice,” Berger said.  To me, he said.  “Let me have my turn.  A question for you.”

“No objection.”

“Your plan?”

“Ah.  The plan is that the rebel leader steps into the doorway, and he points at the people I indicate,” I said.  “Easy.  We have… two floors to lead our plodding guests down.  We can work out a quick system.”

“We need more than that,” Berger said.

“The rest is positioning, knowing the enemy.  Look.  You apparently know me well enough to know I can probably get you out of this situation.  Trust me to see it through.  Alright?”

“All I lose if I’m wrong is my life, my daughter’s life, and my nephew’s life.”

“Exactly,” I said.  “But if you don’t take this leap of faith, then you lose those anyway, so buck up.  You’ll want the rebel leader beside me, and then, cornering you, we have the other two, the ones Charles and Florence are controlling.  As if they’ve got you.  Maybe if one had a hand on your shoulder?”

“Third string, the one I hooked onto your ring finger, Florence,” Berger said.

It was clumsy, halting, but the hand fell into place.

“The system we’ll use is that he’ll extend his arm.  You make him stop when he gets far enough.  Or you can paralyze the arm and let it fall.  We pick three or four, depending on how smooth we’ve got it.  I’ll signal you when you’re pointing at the right person.”

I gave the signal behind the rebel leader’s back.

“As for you, Mr. rebel leader,” I said.  “I fully plan to leave you alive.  I’m going to make the offer to bring you guys on board with my rebel faction.  It’s a good setup, I think.  Better than what you’ve got.  So decide if you’ll join, if you’ll go your separate way when we’re done here, barely any hard feelings on my end and a little bit of trauma on yours, or if you want to Professor Berger there to pull the middle string and remove the bug, and let you die in incredible kinds of pain.  The little details, the little kinds of help you give us, they go a long way.”

The dark eyes of the rebel leader looked down at me.  His face was slack now.  Almost too relaxed, a little tired looking, but the tension was utterly gone.  The drugs had done their job.

The syringes had been applied to the faces of the other two as well.  One was a little more slack than the other.

All together, we approached the second floor.

My heart sank as I saw some hanging out at the base of the stairs.  They were in our way.

I signaled behind the rebel leader’s back.

The man raised his hand, and made a sweeping motion.

The rebel soldiers further down the stairs picked themselves up.  They glanced up at us, curious, before heading into the wider space where Shirley and the others were.  I, the professor, the children and our hostages made our way down.

All together, we stood in the doorway.

The rebel boss raised his arm, pointing.

Putting me in the situation where I had to pick the key players.  In a moment, I had to read the room, spot the people who others looked to when they were confused.  I had to spot the lynchpins, the elders and the ones who led individual squads.

I’d already forgotten some particulars and some faces, and matters weren’t helped by the fact that some had moved, left, or changed from standing to sitting positions and vice-versa.

I picked out four.

When the finger found one, I signaled.  The finger stopped.

He pointed out two more.

With the fourth, we ran into a snag.  The man pointed to himself, as if for confirmation.

Berger’s hand touched the back of the rebel boss’s head.

No string to pull, but the rebel boss nodded slowly.

Before the men in question could come through the doorway, I motioned for Berger and the others to move away.

“You got the professor,” the first one we’d pointed out said, as he drew near.  “You can move mountains after all.”

“Nothing so fancy,” I said.  “I just asked.”

“Didn’t shoot him, though,” the older rebel said.

“Like I said, we need him.  And it was a term of the asking.  He lives, for now.”

Talking to the man drew his attention, and it bought Berger a moment to walk up a few stairs and turn around, the bugs securely out of sight instead of just halfways out of sight.

“What’s this about?” another of the four men asked.

“Making sure we have a plan, rounding up all the ones with guns in the windows,” I said.

“Could just give the signal.”

“Nah,” I said.  “We want to play this careful.  There are still people in the building, and the Crown has resources.”

He made a face.

The four men we’d picked out found positions on lower stairs, looking up at the rebel boss.

The nature of the stairs and my short stature posed a problem.  I had to reach over to the railing to find a good vantage point, which occupied a hand, and limited what I could do.

Still, I was silent as I did it, and the men simply waited restlessly for their mute boss to speak.

I knifed the first and the second quickly, choosing to target much the same points the bugs had, slamming my knife between one vertebrae, hauling it out, then slamming it into the next man.  He turned as I swung, and then fell in a way that trapped the knife blade between the bones I was aiming between.

It cost me seconds, as I had to haul out another knife.  The third and fourth man heard the sound of the first rebel hitting the floor, and turned on me.

The rebel boss, controlled by Berger, reached out and grabbed one of his comrades around the neck.  Charles’ rebel might have been trying to do much the same thing, but he wasn’t as well-controlled.  His arms went out, and one clubbed the last rebel across the face.

Smacked, grunting loud enough to be heard below, the man tumbled down the stairs.  I sprung on top of him, and I buried my spare knife in his chest.

People appeared in the door.  Rebels with weapons.

They looked up at us.

Their eyes fell on the boss, who wore a dead expression and had his hands wrapped around another man’s neck.  He’d placed his hands right, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the strength he was displaying was enhanced by the control being exerted on him, pushing him past pain tolerances and normal limits.  His eyes were even darker than before.  To him, he’d just had to kill a friend.  But to these witnesses…

I double checked the children were safely hidden behind the men they were controlling.

“Traitors,” I said.  I picked myself up, cleaning my knife.  I made myself the picture of calm, as if the ones in the door posed no risk at all.  “They gave you guys up.  Why do you think the professor here was able to slip away?  He knew in advance.  Or the Academy surrounded you all so fast?”

That wasn’t why the professor had slipped away.  The Academy hadn’t surrounded them that fast – they’d just been slow to exit.

But for these rebels who were looking up at this scene, they wanted to be spoon-fed a story they could believe.  They wanted something easy, in an already uncertain situation.

“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s leave the man alone for a second.”

Behind me, the rebel leader let go of the man he’d just strangled to death.  The body tumbled hard onto the stairs.

The rebel leader nodded.

The bugs only controlled him from the neck down.  This was of his own volition.

I wondered if he would fight back.

“Let’s leave him alone,” I said, again, to drive the point home.  My heart hammered.  If this became a question of one group of hostages against the other, well, I was pretty sure we had the upper hand, but I really didn’t want to test it.

The men retreated back into the room.  There was some commotion there.  Things took on a different tone when I passed through the door.

“Traitors,” I said, again.  “There might be more.  Be wary.  But for the time being, before any groups reinforce the perimeter, we’re going to want to get out of here.  The soldiers at the barricade are friendlies, except for the ones who are being held hostage, but more on that later.  We-”

I saw the room change.  Alarm, on the faces of everyone from young rebel to old, Shirley to Otis.

Behind me, the rebel boss had stepped into the doorway.  He had a look in his eyes, like a mother who had just watched her child die, or a man who had lost not just a battle, but a war.

Berger was right behind him, the other puppet-rebels behind Berger.

“We move across as one group.  No stopping, no shenanigans.  Don’t shoot, you’ll only draw attention to yourselves and draw answering fire.  We do this quick, and we do this discreet.  And give up my friends already.  I’ve delivered, now it’s your turn.”

The rebel boss exhaled, and it was a long, shuddering, ugly sound.

I looked past him at Berger, and I saw the professor’s expression.  Tension.  He was prepared for disaster.

I had the situation well in hand, I thought.  You didn’t have to roll the dice.

The rebel leader, his chest and lungs freed enough for him to speak, gave his order.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Stalemate.

For the most part, the Academy forces had formed a perimeter around the city.  There were two places we were aware of that they were busily gathering their forces.  Two points of contention.  The first was the train station, where a train was being held hostage.  The second was the Little Castle.

It was a nice building, looking much as if a doctor had somehow taken a manor and a castle and blended the two into an appealing sort of building-chimera.  This architectural chimera was wounded, scarred and scorched by flame, with holes in the walls where something had exploded, bringing down wood and stone.  The rebels had invaded it, making their way inside, and if they’d planned to accomplish something and then get out, they’d only completed the first objective, if they’d even gotten that far.

Now there were rebels in the windows with guns and there were Crown soldiers parked by barricades all around the building.  The soldiers were all wearing the quarantine outfits, and were accompanied by what I assume were very disposable stitched and warbeasts, as well as a scattered few Tender Mercies.

Jessie had written letters while in the carriage, presumably during the handful of periods that we’d stopped, much as we had with the warbeast.  She and the Beattle rebels approached the Crown forces, and she handed over one letter.

I watched through binoculars as a man in a quarantine suit with decoration on his lapel fumbled with the letter, working to unfold it.  He took his time reading it, and then he handed it back.

The wind whistled as it blew down the otherwise quiet street.

Jessie didn’t move, waiting dutifully.  The others mostly took her cue, but someone I was fairly sure was Fang was antsy.  He moved his weight from foot to foot.

It took a kind of courage to wear the mask with confidence, knowing what the scores of people around you would do if they could see beyond it.  Fang didn’t have that kind of courage.  There were people among the Beattle rebels who had their talents, and I was enjoying seeing those talents emerge.  Bea drew people in, particularly strong people, if not the most capable.  Important distinction.  Davis knew parts of the textbooks by heart and was good at both execution and teaching, and his role as student council president suggested he was a strong leader.  Valentina had a good hand for surgery and a keen eye for relationships, which had secured her the vice presidency.

Mabel, now leading the green students, was a keen observer of details, with a good eye for traps, deception, any unrest or resentment, and she was good with biochemistry and pheromones.  It was a large part of why the current background project of the Beattle group involved the stuff.  That, and Junior was a good hand with the chemistry and biochemistry, owing to his experience producing the drugs as head of the Rank.

Rudy, Rita and Posie took on different focuses.  Rudy was driven, less of a master of one field and more a capable student in many, with a good background in things ranging from the mechanical to farming, and handyman work, and I suspected I could point him in a direction and see him draw it all together to be well above average while still maintaining some breadth.  Rita was a listener with a good eye for those who needed listening to, and she was able to adapt and react with the snap of a finger, so to speak.  Posie was a mechanic, and she enjoyed building.  She was the one supplying our furniture in the main lodge, both the basic log benches and the more refined work.

I could see myself, were I given a good year to do it, nurturing them all into individual forces.  I wanted to bring out their strengths and make them sharp.  But in the doing, I had to accept that there were some cases where achieving that was an uphill battle.  Gordon Two was good in his particular fields of interest, but only good.  I kept him close because he was a good barometer for me when it came to other students, and I used him because I’d kept him close for long enough that I could trust him to do as I needed him to do.

Possum, in much the same vein, wasn’t an exceptional student, and she didn’t have any particular skills, but I valued her all the same.  She was loyal, and nobody seemed to actively dislike her, while a number liked her.  My approach to her was more in the realm that I wanted her to come away from all of this happy, not as someone devastating.

My take on Fang was that he was likely good in a fight and likely bad at a great many things.  I wouldn’t tell Bea not to use him, but I didn’t want to give him a great deal of my attention.

I was constantly watching, looking for signs that any one student should be prioritized or set aside.  I took notes now and again, but Jessie was the real repository of the particulars and my sum thoughts.  The rest of it was something I played by ear, trusting that each student in a position of any power was someone I’d put there for a good reason.

Mauer, standing on another rooftop, watching me, the others, and the rebel army in the Little Castle, seemed intent on lingering there, reminding me that it was a house of cards that could and would collapse.

Or perhaps that was just me, filling in the blanks with thoughts that were lingering just beneath the surface.

The leader of the contingent of Crown soldiers finished speaking with his subordinates.  He gave some final orders, and they signaled their men.

Of the two hundred soldiers I could see from my vantage point on a rooftop, approximately seventy-five peeled off, moving at a brisk pace as they headed toward another part of the city.  Someone who the general had talked to was running off in a perpendicular direction to the main group.  I suspected he’d round up more from battle lines I couldn’t see.

Maybe a hundred soldiers removed from the picture.  As part of that, there were holes to fill, people spread thinner, and groups had to be moved.

Jessie’s group received their new orders.  I watched as they obeyed.

No, not obeying.  From the ground, it was hard to see particulars.  Even the general was only in a position to see a mere half of the people and barricades within a hundred yards of him, and that was a special case, a location chosen for that much awareness.  Others weren’t so fortunate.  They could see one or two of the groups to their flanks.

Such was the nature of the urban battlefield.  Buildings, streets, fences, and the same barricades that protected obstructed fields of vision.

Jessie had clearly used information gleaned from conversations with other groups to sell herself and her squad as a proper member of the local forces.  The general then trusted her enough to assign her group a space to fill, and I could see as she walked right past that space.

She moved along the perimeter, and I shadowed her, as she traveled a half circle around the Little Castle.

She finally found a good vantage point.  She spoke to a squad of soldiers, and sent them off on patrol with something that sounded official.  Her squad relieved theirs, settling in.

Her hand signals consisted of long, right, short, right, long.

I moved along the rooftop, watching as they traveled a very careful route on their way out, with a clear destination in mind.  A straight line on their way out, then a right turn…

They took the prescribed route, and I signaled confirmation.

As quickly as they’d settled in, Jessie’s group picked up and moved on.

Wet snow continued to fall around us.  I had to descend to the ground to get to the next building I could climb on top of.  By the time I’d arrived, Jessie had already relieved a second unit and was looking skyward as if she was expecting me to show up exactly as I did.

She signaled, and I glanced back before confirming.

She had a letter in hand and was tucking it away.  I suspected it was a very similar picture to the one she’d painted for the commander.  All of this was us sending more and more soldiers to reinforce a location that likely had nothing of substance going on.

I looked over from the rooftop in the direction the soldiers were going.

They were moving out in the direction of the water.  I wondered if she’d painted a picture of rebels coming from the end of the river with intent to land and attack from the sea.  It would be a beautiful way to leave a hundred or two hundred Crown soldiers sitting in the cold at the harbor, watching and waiting for people to show up.

She moved on to a third group.  I worried that she was pushing our collective luck, that this group would make for too many soldiers in total sent to the harbor.  I was right on one front.

These soldiers were skeptical.  I could catch the tone of argument, and see Jessie’s hand signal as she requested possible assistance.  I was only partway to them when things escalated.  In a moment, Jessie and the other Beattle rebels had pulled their weapons on the soldiers at the barricade.  Fang and Rudy knocked two people to the ground, Fang hooking a bayonet blade against the one soldier’s air hose, Rudy pressing his bayonet blade against a soldier’s neck.

Jessie took weapons from each of the soldiers.

I finished my approach.

“Sorry,” Jessie said.

“Sorry?”

“I didn’t leave any for you,” she said.

“Well, it’s the thought that counts,” I said.

“Coast should be clear.  Nobody’s watching this corner of the building now.  Group further down won’t see because of barricade, groups further down the road can’t see because of the faint bend in the road or because of how they’re positioned.”

“I’m wondering if they realize,” I said.  I glanced at the windows.  “If they’re discreet about it, they can just leave.”

“They should realize,” Jessie said.

“Then they have a reason for staying,” I said.  I sighed.

“A reason?” Gordon Two asked.

“Stalemates within stalemates,” I said.  “They’re stuck.  They should have been in and out, but something kept them from making a hasty exit.  The ones at the window look pretty calm, all things considered, so it’s not a hostile party.”

“A stubborn one,” Rudy said.

“Crown can’t attack because the rebels have a hostage.  Rebels can’t exit because… they have a hostage,” I said.  “One that’s proving difficult, I imagine.”

“I don’t get a feeling of urgency from them,” Jessie said.  “The general was waiting out the clock.  Then he gets to leave, the city burns, and his men don’t die.  He’d rather this didn’t go anywhere.  This is about continuing the testing of the Tender Mercy project and putting in a token effort.  He’s wanting to reach out and try to open negotiations, but there’s a swathe of no man’s land between Crown forces and the Little Castle.  Nobody wants to cross it.”

“Which leads back to playing it safe,” I said.

“The clock is running out.  We don’t have a lot of time.  People are going to notice that logistics are off and positions aren’t defended,” Jessie said.

“Noted,” I said.  “I don’t suppose any of you are particularly keen to lose the suits and come with?”

Nobody was particularly keen.  Jessie raised her hand.

“Not you.  I don’t want to cut the plague out of you a second time.  The rest of you cover my back,” I said.  “I’ll go in alone, then.  Where is the bag with the suit?”

Rudy pulled off his bag.  The bag with the suit and mask inside was strapped to the top, a separate bag.  He unstrapped it, then handed it to me.  I slung it over my shoulder, wearing it as I might a satchel.

“Do you want to take more suits?” Jessie asked.

I glanced down at the soldiers that were lying face down on the ground, hands on heads.

“Don’t want to burden myself too much,” I said.

What was the best way to do this?

Murder was the easiest, but…

“Crown soldiers,” I said, and I lowered my voice rather than raise it, to seem more dangerous, and to ensure they were listening.  “I’m going to give you two options.  That gives you three, because the third option is one you’re already aware of and debating.  You can fight us, struggle, try to make noise, and we’ll execute you all in very painful ways.  I have traps, and the people you’ve alerted will trip them.  They’ll die in painful ways.  People will notice.  All hell will break loose, the Crown will start fighting, the Rebels will start fighting, people will die, and far too many people don’t get to go home to their families tonight.”

“That would be option one,” Rudy supplied, in a voice that was very good at sounding dangerous.  He was a big, scary fellow when he wanted to be and oftentimes when he didn’t.  He pulled it off effortlessly.

“Option one, yes, well, the option you’re currently debating.  The options I’m providing are simple ones.  We can execute you all quietly, and you can all go out with as little pain as anyone can hope for.  If you believe in something after death, however much the Crown tries to suppress those beliefs, then you can look forward to that.  Otherwise, it’s quiet oblivion.  I want to see some nodding heads, to be sure you all understand me.”

I saw some nodding heads.

“Option three is that you’re all going to give me your masks.  We’ll stick you somewhere the air is very still, the risk of transmission at its minimum, you all stay quiet and we’ll give the masks back soon after that.”

“You want us to break quarantine?” one of the soldiers asked.

I took a rifle from Jessie and put a bayonet blade to the soldier’s neck.

“A possible horrible death or a sure clean death,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

His gloved hands moved behind his head, fumbling with straps.

“Let’s move you somewhere out of the way, where the air isn’t moving as much,” I told him.

He nodded, hands moving away.

We put him in the dark recess beneath a tall set of wooden stairs, by a stack of firewood beneath one house.  Stairs and firewood provided some shelter from the wind.

He pulled the mask off, disconnected the hose, and pressed the hose against his lower face, breathing through it.

The seven others followed his lead, moving to spaces next to him, but only one other brought the hose to his mouth.

I collected the masks, walked over to the barricade that they’d erected, and half-climbed the barricade.

I stuck the mask over, past the spikes that lined the top of the barricade, and braced myself for a possible gunshot hitting the thing.

None came.

I moved the mask as a puppeteer might move a puppet, bobbing it as if it was walking, over, over, over, then stopping at my leftmost corner of the wall.

I did much the same with the second mask, hanging it by the strap to one spike, next to the first, and carried on.

Once all eight masks were mounted, I dared to peek out around the side, raising my binoculars to search the windows.

The windows with gunmen were fairly easy to see.  Most were cracked open so the shooters would have a clear shot.  The one that caught my eye was open, but with cloth wedged in the two sides.  Enough room for the gun’s nozzle to move a little, but the cloth would keep the cold from flowing indoors.

The gunman was talking to buddies, who were peering out the window, looking at my display.

I ventured out a little further.  Nobody shot me.

Arms spread, I crossed out into the street.  I watched out to either side as I did, verifying that Jessie’s observations had been correct.  There weren’t any other Crown soldiers situated near us who could really see me and take a clear shot at me.

As I approached the door, I heard it unlatch.  It opened.

Guns were already pointed at me as I passed through the doorway and stepped inside.  A dozen soldiers in one room, so cramped I doubt any single soldier had a clear shot that wouldn’t potentially put a friendly at risk.  They were all young, none older than twenty-five, and all men.  Their clothing looked more rural, and many of them wore long jackets with a military cut that were made with substandard leather with coarse stitching.

Rebels, but they’d all come from a place very like Sedge, where we were camped, if I was guessing right.

“Sylvester Lambsbridge,” one of them said.

“My reputation precedes me,” I said.

“Not so much.  You have a friend upstairs,” he said.

I nodded.  Shirley?

“She’s a pretty girl,” he said.

“That she is,” I said, staying calm.  Shirley.

I wasn’t sure what the statement meant.  He was probing me, but I wasn’t sure what for or why.  Was it interest in Shirley, or was it an implication?

Either way, staying cool and calm in the moment was what was important.

He looked past me and out the door, his pistol still pointed at me.  “You just walked over.  How?”

“Take me to my friend,” I said.  “I’ll explain.”

“Bag,” he said.

I handed over the bag with the extra quarantine suit.

He motioned with the gun.  I brushed past several people as I made my way through the overcrowded room.  I could have done something clever like pilfer something from a pocket, but I didn’t want to try my luck, and Shirley had informed them of who I was.

The place was nice, but it had more of a lodge feel than a palace feel.  The walls were stone up to the halfway point and then oiled wood up to the ceiling.  Pictures hung on walls, with family crests and portraits of nobles and important people.  Each hallway had a strip of carpet running down it.

The bulk of the rebels were here.  In this room, more of them were older, tending toward the thirty to thirty-five range.  There was a hierarchy, and the older ones wore more facial hair, beards and muttonchops, while sitting a little more comfortably.  They led because they were elders.  The younger ones were doing the legwork.

I spotted Shirley in the crowd.  Four men stood next to her, two had weapons drawn, and one of those two was holding her wrist in an iron grip.

I saw Otis and his men off to one side, sitting against the wall, wrists bound and resting on a knee or in laps.  Otis held a bloody rag to his face.  Archie stood in a corner with some of his men, wrists similarly bound, though he didn’t sit.

The man I’d talked to tossed the bag to a man I presumed to be the one in charge.  I couldn’t tell if he was blond with a shock of dark hair running through it or dark haired and going prematurely gray.  He slouched in a chair.

The man opened the bag and pulled the contents free.  He didn’t react any as he saw what it was, and simply let the mask and outfit fall so it draped across his lap and the arm of his chair.  He looked me up and down.

“Shorter than they made you out to be,” the leader drawled.

“They talked about my height?” I asked.

“No, but they talked about you like you were capable of moving mountains, boy,” the leader said.  “And you look a little small to be pulling any of that off.”

There was a look in his eyes that made me think that he was a very dangerous man.  Something approximating the weariness I’d seen in Mauer, or the lack of light I’d seen in Avis’ eyes when I’d seen her in the dungeon, but I suspected the light had died in him long ago, if it had ever been kindled.  Dark eyes, heavily lined by fatigue, and a kind of casual resignation in posture and expression that suggested that I could draw a gun, open fire on the room, and he wouldn’t care.

He wouldn’t care, but he would draw and do his level best to gun me down.  Then, if I happened to lie bleeding on the floor after, he wouldn’t act much different than if our positions were reversed.

This was the leader of this particular group of rebels.  A man who had given up long ago, who expected nothing but a battle that he’d inevitably lose.

“He walked across no man’s land.  Not a whisper, no gunshots, no nonsense,” the one who’d met me downstairs said.

“Did he now?”

I didn’t answer or justify.  Better to let him take away what he wanted to take away from it.

“Do we have a way out?” the leader asked his subordinate.

“Depends on a lot of things,” I answered, as if he’d asked me directly.

“Like?”

“I know Shirley over there is a particularly dangerous one.  Four young, able bodied men restraining  her like that.  Did they treat you well, Shirley?  No trouble?”

I gestured as I asked.  Question.

Two of the men stepped a little away from Shirley as I addressed her.

They weren’t focusing this much on Shirley because she was dangerous, of course.  They were focused on her because she was pretty, and as far as I could tell, this band of merry men were all men.

To her credit, she was standing tall.  She was using tricks I’d taught her to look confident.  The tilt of her head, the look in her eyes, and the faint look of frustration was a look I’d had her practice in the mirror.  Neck drawn out longer, breathing deep, I’d told her to imagine a feral cat.

“They treated me as well as can be reasonably expected,” she said, and she said it as well as I could’ve hoped.  Her hand jerked where one man was gripping her wrist, before he reasserted his hold, leaving finger marks where his fingers had been.  The gesture that went with her hand movement was a ‘no.

A lie.

“That’s good,” I lied.  “Sorry about all of this.  We’ll see about getting you out of here.”

“Thank you, Sylvester,” she said.  She closed her eyes a moment.  “Thank you for coming.  Did Pierre make it out alright?”

“He made it out of the city without a problem.  No signs of plague just yet, but it’s unpredictable.”

“I know.  I remember Tynewear.”

I nodded.  I turned the other way and said.  “Otis?  Sporting a bloody nose there, friend.”

“I don’t do well with being confined,” the man said.  He was the oldest one present, by roughly ten years, but his life had been one of hard living, and he looked and sounded more like he had fifteen or twenty years of seniority.

“Is it going to be forgivable if we make our way out of this city and we take these guys with?”

Otis shot me a look, like he really didn’t want to say yes.

“Say yes,” I told him.

“Sure,” he said.  “World’s gonna keep turning if you let ’em go.”

I nodded.  “Archie?”

Archie, tall, long-haired, with the brown skin of an indian, was uninjured, but he looked a little angrier than Otis had, strangely enough.

“You want the honest answer or do you want the lie?” he asked.

Alright, he was a lot angrier than Otis had been.

“Lie,” the leader that was slouching in the chair said.

“Lie,” I said.

“All’s well,” Archie said, in the most unconvincing manner possible.

He gestured as he spoke.  He’d picked up the vocabulary, but that was maybe a bad thing.  As he carefully chose the words, he moved his hands in a deliberate, mechanical way.

Enemies.  Hurt.  Girl.

They’d hurt Shirley.  But I’d known that already, in a general sense.

One of the other rebels standing near him reached out, seizing Archie’s hand, gripping it hard enough to bend fingers the wrong way.

“You casting a spell or something?” the man asked.

“What’s this?” the leader asked.  He rose out of his seat a little, twisting around and resting one arm on his knee.  “Spell?”

“Don’t know what he was doing.  He was moving his fingers all creepy-like.”

“Nervous habit,” Archie said, sounding far more convincing than he had.

“Yeah, you weren’t nervous up until now, red?” the fellow that held Archie’s fingers asked.

No,” Archie said, and he made it an insult or an epithet.

I sighed a little to myself.

“You know what that’s all about, boy?” the rebel leader asked.

“Communication,” I said.  I held up my hand, gesturing.  “Time.  Short.  Escape.  Window.  Closing.”

The corresponding gestures really meant, Enemy rebels here die today.

“Talking with your fingers?” someone asked.  “That’s bullshit.”

“Fucking trickery,” the soldier who’d held Archie’s fingers said.

He hit Archie hard across the face.

The man in charge of him didn’t seem to care.  No, the rebel leader was more interested in my reaction.

I mimicked him, copying some of his mannerisms, including his eerie coldness.  I made it appear like I didn’t care much.

“I came here with the expectation of giving you all a deal,” I said.  “These are my terms.  You’ll give that suit to Shirley.  I promised someone I’d give it to her and get her safely out of the city.  You don’t hurt any of my people.  In exchange, I get you all clear of this city.  If anyone catches the plague, I can try my hand at cutting it out.  I’ve done it before.  I’ll get you all clear of trouble.”

“No can do,” the leader said.

“No can do?” I asked.

I’d offered an out, he’d refused, and his men didn’t look as dismayed as they should.

“Does your reasoning have to do with the good Professor?” I asked.

“The words ‘good’ and ‘Professor’ don’t go hand in hand,” the leader said.  “That’s a man who needs to die.”

Even if it means the rest of you die?  I thought.

“I’ll get him, but I want to bring him with.  I’ll question him, then hand him over to you before midnight.  If you judge that he needs to die, then you can handle it.  We’ll part ways then,” I said.

“You’ll get him?  Just like that?”

“I can move mountains, apparently.  I can do this,” I said.

I was cognizant of the time limit.

He rose to his feet.  “Then let’s see you move mountains, boy.”

We had to pass up two flights of stairs.  Each floor, it seemed, was arranged so that the stairway rose up through the middle, an ornate cage separating it from the hallway.  The first floor had been facilities like the dining hall.  The second floor was twelve or so apartments, the third floor was six.  The fourth floor had four apartments, one in each cardinal direction.  From what I could see as I glanced upward, the top floor was a penthouse suite, fit only for the uppermost of visiting nobles.

But we didn’t go that far.  We exited the stairwell into the fourth floor.  There were more of the rebel soldiers here.

The heavy door and the walls to either side of it had bullet holes in it.  They’d fired indiscriminately.  It didn’t look like most shots had had the power to penetrate wood, thick wall, and exit the other side.  Some had, however.  I could peer through some holes and see light on the other side.

“Stand back,” I said.  I cracked my knuckles.

Amazingly enough, some did.

“Door’s barricaded on the other side,” one of the rebel soldiers said.

“I figured that much out,” I said.

I crackled my knuckles again for emphasis, and then I rolled my shoulders, before drawing in a deep breath.

“Professor,” I called out.  “It’s Sylvester Lambsbridge.”

There was a pause.

“I believe we’ve met?” I tried.

“We’ve met,” came the voice on the other side.  “Sylvester.  Didn’t think I’d meet you here.  Wrong coast, for one thing.”

“Well, being where you’re not expected to be is part of being a fugitive of the Crown.”

“Been taking your Wyvern, I assume?” he asked.

“Regularly enough,” I said.  I wondered why he’d asked.  “You’ll have to remind me of your name.  There are a few professors you could be.”

“Professor Berger.”

I had no idea who that was.

“Yeah,” I said.  “You know how these things go, and you know me.  I have a vested interest in getting you out of here alive, getting some answers from you.  Dots I need to connect.  You know what it means if you stay.  You’ve seen more quarantines than I’ve seen years on this planet.”

“I can see out the window.  There’s an army on our doorstep.”

“They don’t care about whether you live or die.  You were the Duke’s attendant.  You’ve seen battlefields aplenty.  Does that army look particularly motivated?  Or are they planning to wait until they can just say you probably died to plague, they tried their hardest, but there was no saving you?”

“I think they’re motivated enough, Sylvester,” Berger said.

“Professor,” I said, exasperated.  “You’re a smart man.  You know how things are, I know how things are.  Let’s accept that.  Let’s not lie to each other about the simple things.”

“The building is reinforced,” he said.  “It might last the fire.”

“If that’s true, I’ll let you stay here,” I said.  “But I don’t think it’s true.  Or it might last the fire, only for them to unleash other measures to be sure the plague is gone, and you’d be caught by that.  Open the door, professor.  Come out.  I’ll take you hostage, ask you some questions you won’t particularly mind answering, no need for torture.  You’ll be alive.”

“And then?” he asked.

I’d known he was going to ask that, but I left the ‘then’ out to prompt the question, getting him to buy into the narrative a bit, to wonder on the future and be on the same page as me for one moment.

“Then… I’m not sure.  It’s up for negotiation,” I said.  Another way of getting you to buy in.  “Ransom you to the Crown, perhaps.”

“I’d need more assurances.”

“It’s about project Caterpillar,” I said.  “Expiry date is fast approaching.  The Duke showed interest in Caterpillar.  Several times.  I’m thinking you’ve at least read up on it.”

I thought of the Duke standing in the room when I’d first lost Jamie.

“I’ve read up on it.”

“I need you alive if there’s any chance you can provide some answers on that.  Right now, I think I’m the only person who needs you alive.”

“No,” he said.  “No, not the only person.”

But the door latch clicked.

I knew the rebel leader was about to execute the professor the moment he saw him.  He had no reason to do otherwise.

I knew the professor that was cooped up in that room was being very incautious, considering that the rebels here had opened fire on the door.  Why hadn’t he asked about them?

He’d asked about my Wyvern formula?

He hadn’t asked about them because they weren’t a consideration.

I pushed the door open, and I stepped clear out of the way.

They sprung forward like grasshoppers, or pellets from a slingshot.  Too fast to follow with the eye, each one the size of a human hand.

Two of them latched onto me, leaving bloody marks as hook-like feet caught on the skin of my arm for footing while they launched forward to their next vantage point.

They went for the spine, one crawling beneath coat, sweater and shirt to find the small of my back, the other finding the nape of my neck.

They bit, and I felt all sensation leave everything from the shoulders down.  I fell to the ground, my entire body paralyzed.

Long seconds passed, and the mandibles came free.

Sensation came back in a pins and needles fashion.

Berger stood over me as I found my way to my feet.  He watched with cold eyes.  He was an older man, approaching fifty, his hair shorn short, a bit of stubble on his chin.  His eyebrows were the longest hairs I could see on his head.  He had lips twisted into an expression I couldn’t read, possibly disgust, and eyes that naturally glared.

I looked at the rest of the Little Castle rebels who had been in the hall.  They lay sprawled on the carpet, massive bugs latched onto their spines, mandibles and limbs latched in.  Half of them were actively pissing and shitting themselves.

He approached one rebel and bent down.  Fingers hooked on ring-like growths on the back of one of the bugs.  He pulled back, and there were silken strands between ring and bug.

Moving one, he made one of the young rebel’s arms move.  Moving another, he moved a leg.

The man grunted.

“Cooperate,” he instructed the fallen rebel.  “Stand.”

He moved the strings.  The rebel flopped like a fish on dry land.

“Cooperate,” Professor Berger told the fallen rebel, once more.

Again, he moved the strings.

He apparently didn’t like the result, because he pulled back on another ring with silken strand attached.  The rebel made choked, strangled sounds as his body contorted to the point I thought things would break or dislocate.  Within two seconds, the rebel’s face was red, veins standing out, spittle frothing as he pushed it out between clenched teeth.

The Professor eased back on the string, and the man relaxed correspondingly.  His breathing returned to what seemed to be an overly regular pattern, but the recent stress gave those regular breaths a whiny, panting note.

“Cooperate,” the professor said, moving strings.

The man still flopped like a fish on dry land, but the professor seemed to appreciate his efforts more, because there was no punishment this time.

“In case the implication isn’t clear,” the professor said, “we’re not working alongside these rebels.”

“I had no plans to.  On that note, it might be better to do something with the rebel leader,” I said.  I indicated the man in question.

Berger looked over, then came to a decision.  He pulled back on the string, forcing the convulsions, and then pried the bug off.

The bandit he’d been working on seized, the process not stopping, as Berger knelt by the bandit leader.

“This should do,” he said.

“Sure,” I said.  I was still recovering, myself.

“You’ll get us out of here.  I’ll supply what you need for Caterpillar.  You’ll let us go, rather than ransom us.”

“Us?” I asked.

He turned his head.  I looked.

Standing in the doorway, watching, were two small children.  Eleven or so.  One boy, one girl, roughly the same age.

“Yours?”

“My daughter and nephew,” he said.  “You’ll save them or you won’t get my cooperation on any front.”

“There are others to save,” I said. “I have comrades downstairs.  They’re captive, and watched by a crowd.”

“If I thought I could deal with all of the rebels I’d seen before retreating to safety up here, I’d have done it myself.  We’re not equipped to deal with a small army.  Reconsider,” the Professor said.

I wondered if Pierre had caught wind of the children.  It was no secret I tried to protect children when given the chance.  If he’d told me, combined it with the knowledge that this was an Academy professor with valuable information…

I was disappointed he hadn’t told me.

“We’ll save everyone we can,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I was.

“As you wish,” Professor Berger said.

“I don’t suppose you can make him say what we need him to say?”

Professor Berger shook his head.

Then, while his daughter and nephew watched, he pulled on a string and gave the instruction, “Cooperate.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Head over Heels – 16.4

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

This was Jessie’s show, at least for now.

Adjustments had to be made.  My memory was worse than it had been a year ago, and a good memory was a necessary element in a good set of lies and falsehoods.  I could act, and I could manipulate others, but there was a certain point where forgetting a key detail would derail a good deceptive play.

I was in an awkward position when it came to classifying Jessie.

Helen was the best actor among the Lambs, but she had trouble on several fronts.  By most standards, she was among the most attractive young ladies that anyone she met would have met.  She faced an uphill struggle when it came to blending in or avoiding attention.

Gordon and I were perhaps the best actors, by dint of our ability to appear as young gentlemen, urchins, students, or our ability to blend into a crowd.  He was a little bigger than average, I was a little smaller, but we did well.

Had done well, I corrected myself.  He had been a little bigger.  Gordon had been, changing to past tense yet again, roughly matched with me in terms of acting ability and flexibility.  I glanced at Gordon, who was keeping me company, and reminded myself that he wasn’t really present, that he’d been gone for a while now.

That thought lingering in my mind, I paused as I ascended the slope of a rooftop.  I was by the chimney, and I could use the hot air and smoke emanating from it to warm up while I watched Jessie and the others trudge through the snow from a distance.  I wished I could stick my head over it and warm my face, but doing that for any extended period of time struck me as a very good way to pass out, fall down a chimney, and surprise a family that was hiding out from plague somewhere below me.

Helen was only one half-step behind us, and could do leaps and bounds better than us in the right situations.  Could I say Jessie was the worst of the Lambs when it came to acting?  No, because I considered Lillian to be a Lamb, and I likely could have picked five random ex-students from among the Beattle rebels and found one or two who were better than Lillian at playing a part.

I was fond of Lillian, I respected her wholeheartedly, but she had her strengths, she had her weaknesses, and deception wasn’t foremost among her strengths, or even in the top five of them.

I had to consider Ashton, too.  Ashton was about as good at acting as any of the logs burning down in the fireplace below me.  Myself, Gordon, and Helen at the front of the pack, Lillian and Ashton at the rear, and Mary and Jamie somewhere toward the middle.  Mary was good, and I could have searched and tested the entire Beattle group and found one or two students among hundreds on Mary’s level.  She had no particular weaknesses, and she had a number of strengths.

Jessie was like Helen in that she had some marvelous strengths, but she also had weaknesses.  In her case, her weakness was a slower reaction speed, difficulty in adapting to changing situations and crises.  It wasn’t much slower, but one to three seconds she needed to find an answer or detail was enough time for someone to second guess her act.

She was playing to her strengths right now.

I was feeling the cold, which was the reason for my stop at the chimney, while the others were taking their time navigating the city.  Were I the one in uniform, I might have avoided anyone who wasn’t integral to what I needed, but Jessie allowed meetings to happen.  I’d been following them for close to twenty minutes now, and she had already talked to two groups of Tender Mercies, two civilians who’d been looking for shelter and one squad of quarantine soldiers.

She looked confident and unbothered as yet another group of Tender Mercies approached, three men this time.  It seemed like the Tender Mercies wore virtually every shade of red but the one that matched the red flowers.

The man who led this group of Tender Mercies looked like the human equivalent of a wrinkly dog from the East Crown nations I’d seen once in Tynewear, all folds of skin, his features lost amid it all.  He wore his hair in a black ponytail, much like Jamie had worn, once.

I raised my binoculars, and watched as Jessie talked to them.

The man’s face made lipreading next to impossible.  Jessie, however, moved her hands, gesturing as she talked.  The thick gloves made nuance difficult, but through some combination of her gestures and the wrinkled man’s mouth movements, I was able to get the main thrust of the dialogue.

How long?   Time gesture from Jessie, as the wrinkled man spoke.

Head shake from Jessie, a negation hand sign.  No updates, no idea.  Change tacks, casual, easy.  Just want this to be over.

A sort of smile from the wrinkled man, real smiles the other Tenders with him.  We were made for this.

I filled in blanks with guesswork and cues from Jessie’s hand signs.  Is this your first outing?

No, the Wrinkled man said.  I caught that one.  Jessie was nodding, as if this wasn’t surprising.

There was a brief discussion.  Jessie didn’t really translate much of it.  Places, I suspected.  A brief history on this particular trio of Tenders.

The Tenders said something more, and it was the Treasurer who responded.  Jessie followed.  Knowledge-expert.   The Treasurer got his chance to show his stuff, and in the doing, gave the group some legitimacy.  I could see how that translated to trust and back-and-forth with the Tenders.

Any problems?  Jessie asked.

The wrinkled man gestured toward the train station, said something.  Jessie gestured, negation.  The equivalent of a short head shake, a so-so.  Nothing new there.

Then he said something else.  I waited for the gestures.  Jessie wasn’t moving her hand, though.  I wondered if one of the three Tenders had glanced at her hand in a curious way.  I was disappointed in myself if I had missed something like that, binoculars and bad weather or no.

I hadn’t.  Jessie resumed gesturing, as if she was using her hands to make up for the lack of expression on her face while she wore the mask.  Slowly, she caught me up, filling me in.  I used what I’d managed to pick up from the wrinkled man earlier to fill in the blanks now.

Stalemate-stalemate.  The Tender Mercies are waiting to receive orders.  Here for a reason.  Rabbit’s doctor.  Noble doctor.

Jessie and her squad started to move, even as she said some parting words to the Tenders.

Good luck, dog.

She hadn’t actually said dog, but I knew what she meant.  She’d been a little patronizing, adopting the same tone Duncan had taken when talking to us lesser creations of the Academy.

The three Tenders seemed to take it in stride.  If anything, I suspected Jessie had made a good impression on them.

Jessie, meanwhile, seemed to be standing a little straighter, taking a little more authority with the rest of her group.  The hand signals in the meanwhile were for me.

Castle.  Noble Doctor.  Shirley.  Go.

I checked the coast was clear, moved away from the chimney, slid down the slope of the roof, and dropped the fifteen feet to the road below.

I kept my distance so I wouldn’t compromise them, navigated between bloody bodies, and ducked into alleys.

I was in the process of looking for a way up to higher ground when I heard a sharp knocking sound, a rifle against a wall.

I changed direction, and I walked toward the others.

Jessie’s group met me in the alley.

“You catch all of that?” Jessie asked.

“Most of it,” I said.

I drew my handkerchief out of my pocket, and used it to wipe the lenses of Jessie’s mask free of the wet snow and moisture.  With her thick gloves, I knew she couldn’t do a proper clean.  She hated smudged glasses, which was why I tried to smudge them as much as possible when I sought to annoy her.  Easy reflex to hammer at.

Plus it made it seem all the nicer when I reversed course and did the opposite.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Do me?” Bea asked.

I started cleaning more lenses, starting with Bea.  “Why is this noble professor so important?”

“You caught all that?” Fang asked.

“You stop being surprised at these things after a little while,” Rudy said.

“They aren’t saying why they are so interested in the professor,” Jessie said, ignoring the gallery.  “More because I don’t think they have any idea, not because they’re being evasive.  But the Crown is deploying the Mercies with specific orders about the professor, so keep that in mind.”

“It makes sense they don’t know.  They’re low level,” I said.  “We might have to tap another source, or go straight to the doctor.  Hopefully finding him might mean finding Shirley.  At this level, we’re just getting dogs following orders.”

“Dogs?  I can’t tell if you’re being unkind,” Gordon le Deux said.

“I’d be being unkind if I said they were cats,” I pointed out.

“He’s echoing me,” Jessie said.  “I used the word ‘dog’ first, when I was using my hand to communicate with Sylvester.”

I tilted my head, wiping at Rudy’s lenses.  “What was the dog line?  ‘You experiments be safe?'”

Jessie made an amused sound.  “Close.  ‘Don’t tarry too long, experiments.'”

“Eerie,” Fang said.

“Again,” Rudy said, “This is not surprising.  They’re good with the hand signs.”

“I’m more bothered by the conspicuous lack of ‘dog’ in that exchange,” Bea said.

“This is not surprising either,” Second Gordon said, mimicking Rudy’s tone and speech.  “These two are hard to keep up with.”

Rudy’s masked face turned in Second’s direction.  I suspected he was smirking.  The two were getting along to some degree.

“It was nuance,” Jessie explained, patiently, “the word dog implying the tone.”

I added, “A condescending sort of ‘you are lesser than I, but I like you’ entitlement.  Believe me, we got that all the time when we were with the Academy.  Once you start hearing it, you won’t miss it.”

“Oh, there’s tone, too?  How do you have tones in hand signals?” Fang asked, looking down at his hand.  “Fuckin’ hell.  I only know four of these hand gestures and you’re speaking a whole ‘nother language.”

“You’re supposed to know six hand signals,” Jessie said.

“Well, I learned five, and I get the eyes, perception sign mixed up with the knowledge, patience sign.”

“Which means you only really know three,” Bea said.  “Don’t go and make me look bad after I invited you along.”

Fang snorted.  “That’s the entirety of who I am, Bea-baby, ruining reputations of pretty girls.”

Bea made an amused sound at that.

“Watch,” I said.  I held up my hand to show him, three fingers splayed, pinky and thumb tucked in.  Then I put the three fingers together for, “Learn.”

“Fingers apart for watch,” Second said.  “Looks kind of like a ‘w’.”

“That’s good,” Fang said.  “That’s the kind of thing I can remember.”

“Three fingers together for a tower,” Jessie said.  “Ivory tower, place of learning.”

“That’s just going to make me think of a watchtower or something, that only confuses me more,” Fang said.

Jessie huffed out a sigh, and her mask made it sound odd.

“Jessie,” I said.

I got her attention, which distracted her from her failure to counsel Fang.

“You knocked on the wall to bring me over here.  Did you need anything particular?”

“I wanted to ask, how are you holding up?” she asked.  “Cold?”

“Cold,” I said.  “I wouldn’t mind getting indoors soon.  The Castle place?”

Jessie nodded.  “The Little Castle.  We’ll head straight there.  There’s a regiment of soldiers out on the streets.  If they poke their heads around the corner here, you make yourself scarce.  One of us can make noises about being a little nauseous about the bodies.  Treasurer, maybe?”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re a student,” I said.  “You can get away with being a wimp.”

“But I’m not,” the Treasurer said.  “I’m less of a wimp than anyone here except you two.  I’ve seen bodies.  I’ve dissected victims of lesser plagues and sci-weapons.”

“I wouldn’t have used the word ‘wimp’,” Jessie said, aiming that at me.

The Treasurer was a proud person, it seemed.  Maybe he feared that after today, after he burned his suit, he wouldn’t be able to have another day like today, where he got to shine.

“I wouldn’t either,” I said.  “Bad word choice.  I saw how you talked to the Tenders, it worked well.  If you conveyed yourself as the expert on deck, then admitted you were having trouble dealing, it attaches the lie to the truth, explains away why you’re all talking in an alley, and gives them no reason to doubt.”

“Hmph,” the Treasurer made a sound.  The ‘m’ sound of the utterance was caught by the tube, making a low sound like one might get by blowing over the top of a bottle.

“I wouldn’t mind getting somewhere warm too,” Bea said.  “Somewhere with privacy.  I’m wearing pants that don’t fit over ones that do and they’re both-”

I raised my hand, quick, gesturing.

Alert.

I caught a shuffling sound.  I glanced at Jessie, and I saw her nod a little.

I stepped away from the street, deeper into the alley, before I heard the moan.  I changed direction, a moment too late.

She hadn’t made much noise because she was barefoot, walking on ice and on ground without snow.  She barely wore anything more than rags in the cold and she walked in a staggering sort of way.  She was hunched over, moving almost blindly, and was clearly in an incredible amount of pain.  Her hands wrapped around her body as if she were wearing a straightjacket, and blood ran down her arms, dripping and streaming from the elbows.

I realized, as she moved the hand at one side down, fingertips leading the way, that she was digging her fingers under the skin.  Sheer tenacity let her carry on the downward process, separating connective tissue by using nails, fingertips, and hands as a wedge.  The movement was jerky as she found an in, broke a key piece of tissue, and tore skin, only to hit another stopping point.

In this manner, the one hand traveled down toward her hip, as she tore her own skin away.  I could, even with her standing fifty feet away, see the way her hand trembled, the skin stretched thin and tight against the knuckles and splayed fingers.

The Treasurer raised his gun, aiming at her.

I gestured, and Jessie was quick to say, “No.”

“No?” the Treasurer asked.

At the sound of the voices, the young lady looked up.  Her hair was in disarray, and most of her face was hidden, only one eye positioned to peer through the messy, blood-slick hair.  She’d used fingernails to tear off part of her own face.

“It would be a mercy,” the Treasurer said.

“It is a Mercy,” Jessie said.

She’d realized after I’d signaled for her to wait.

I was subtly changing up my expression and stance to look more horrified, less capable.  I made myself smaller, and I retreated a bit.

Jessie, meanwhile, stood tall, and advanced toward the Mercy.  It was the youngest we’d seen yet.  Likely inexperienced, too.

The Mercy, breathing hard and whimpering a little with each breath, shifted her stance, then tilted her body some, back twisting a little.  I couldn’t tell if she was trying to curtsy or bow or if she was trying to stand straight without losing any of the ground she’d gained in tearing off her own skin.

“Hello captain,” the Mercy said, lowering her head a little.  When she looked up again, it was still one bloodshot eye peering through messy hair.

“Hello, experiment.  You seem to be in a bind,” Jessie said.

The Mercy laughed at that, a surprisingly human sound, perfectly fitting to the moment, for someone who was in a bind but who did find the word choice amusing.  I wondered if she’d been human once.

“Do you want help?” Jessie asked.

The Mercy nodded.  “Please, sir.  Or ma’am.”

Jessie reached for her boot, where she’d tucked a knife into the strap that cinched the boot tight against the leg.  She held it out by the handle.

The Mercy took the knife, and proceeded to use one hand and the knife to flense the skin off her body.

“Where’s the rest of your unit, experiment?”

“They left me behind,” the Mercy said.  “I’m a little slower than some.”

“Where are your clothes, then?  And your weapon?”

“The clothes got blood on them,” the Mercy said.  “The blood started to smell.  I lost my weapon along the way.”

“When you say smell, you mean it smelled like plague?”

The Mercy nodded.  “I think it likes how I taste.”

“Could be you’re in the wrong place for it,” the Treasurer said, from the sidelines.

“Could be,” the Mercy said.  She flashed the Treasurer a smile, which was fairly dramatic.  She only had scraps of flesh on her head where it met her hairline.  I wasn’t sure, and I was trying to look afraid, which meant averting my eyes and looking less closely at her, but her scalp might have been something that wasn’t skin.  Artificial.

She tore off the skin over her breasts, and then with the help of the knife to cut connective tissue, removed almost a third of the skin from her upper body and her previously untouched right leg.

From there, it was an easy process to get the rest.  Skin at the feet, skin at the arms.  She stood there, shaking from cold and from pain, the one eye we could see lacking eyelids.  Flayed.

Slowly but surely, however, things were filling in.  The blood flow was stopping, the darker grooves between muscles and muscle fibers smoothing out.

No, probably not human at any point.  Just very high quality work.

Work with biological processes that fast meant biological demands.

I gestured at Jessie with a hand the experiment couldn’t see.  Food.  Man.  Eat.

As if reading my mind, her eye fell on me.

“He’s not for eating,” Jessie said, firm.

“He’s supposed to die,” the Mercy said.  “They all are.”

“It’s not your place to contravene my orders, experiment,” Jessie said.

He’s supposed to die,” the Mercy said, more firmly, insistent, as if she could will Jessie to agree with her.  “I need food, and I need clothes, and he has both.  I’m hardy, but not that hardy.”

“He has information,” Jessie said, still firm.  “He knows something about the standoff at the Little Castle.”

“I see,” the Mercy said.  “Captain, ma’am-”

I liked that Jessie in stern librarian mode was coming across as a ‘ma’am’, even as covered up as she was.

“-You know one of my roles is getting information,” the Mercy finished.  Her skin was almost starting to look like skin.  More in some areas than others.

The way she said it, I knew she meant torture.

Find the cats and cockroaches who could become long-term carriers, check for information, eat them.  A tightly contained, efficient process cycle.  The torturing for information and the eating could even be folded into one another.

“We need his ongoing assistance,”  Jessie said.  “Emphasis on ongoing.  I’d prefer it’s enthusiastic assistance.”

“It’s very enthusiastic assistance now,” I said.  I feigned fear and concern for my own hide, though I knew full well that the others had guns.  “I very much appreciate you not feeding me to her.”

“Make yourself useful when the time comes,” Jessie told me, still sounding as authoritarian as she ever did.

The Mercy curtsied, which looked strange given she was stark naked, new skin beaded with wet snow.

Then, rather than march off to go find her next mean, she sagged, leaning hard against the nearest wall.  Her breathing was getting less heavy, but she looked very tired.  She had maybe half of her skin now.  The rest of it looked more like the result of a moderate scald than a fresh flaying.

She was an efficient little machine, from what I could tell.  Strong enough to tear her own skin off, the particulars of her physiology and metabolism finely tuned and balanced.

It made me rethink how to approach the rest of the Mercies.

“I’m put in mind of the adage about the scorpion and the frog,” Jessie murmured.

“Hm?” I asked.  I drew the connection.  “No.  It’s fine.”

“I know for a fact that you like girls, Sylvester.”

“This is not untrue,” I said.

She moved closer, talking quieter, “I know you like unusual people, you feel an affinity for experiments, and the Tender Mercy right there is both.   Your desire to take care of others is proportionate to your age, and she’s close enough to our age I can imagine you likening her to the other Lambs.”

“I hadn’t actually,” I said.

I’d come close, but I hadn’t.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t help her, but I am saying that I’m thinking of the scorpion and the frog.”

“She could be useful,” I said.

“She could be.  So could a lot of people.  There are a lot of people in this city who need help.  We can’t save all of them.  We might not be able to save her.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But-”

But I didn’t have a good argument.

Jessie was patient, giving me time.

The Mercy was crouching down now.  She used water from a shallow puddle and cleaned herself as a racoon or rodent might, wetting her hands and wiping her new skin.  Wetting hands and wiping.  She bent her head down and used the same method to get the blood out of her hair.

“I just worry that if I leave her behind like this, it’s going to be one of those nagging memories that sticks in my head, taking up valuable real estate.”

“Why?” Rudy asked.  “She’s a killer.”

“So am I.  So are a lot of the people I grew up with,” I said.

“You actually want to bring her with us?” Bea asked, sounding alarmed.

“Temporarily,” Jessie said.  “Only temporarily.”

The Mercy, hair mostly clean, looked up at us.  She’d caught that.  The skin around one eye had grown in too thick, pinching it shut, and from the way she kept her hair, covering half of her face, only the one eye showing, I suspected it was intentional.  She kept washing and fixing her hair with her hands as she watched us.

“We don’t have to,” I told Jessie.

“Valuable memory space,” Jessie said.  “You said it yourself.”

The Mercy’s fingers worked furtively.  She set her now-wet hair, and it moved in a way that suggested it had to be close to frozen.  Hair on the one half of her face hung down, covering her one eye.  The hair on the other side was tied back, braided or knotted without the help of cord or pin.

“We’ll find you some clothes,” Jessie said, “And we’ll find you some food.”

The Mercy nodded, a quick motion.  She moved away from the wall, and she stumbled a little as she walked.  She held Jessie’s knife, and she didn’t give it back.

Hardy, yes, but the cold did get to her.  She joined our group, looking at each of us.  She watched me as if affronted by my existence.

I pulled off my coat, and held it out.

She didn’t take it.

“Is there a reason you’re refusing his offer?” Jessie asked.

“No, captain.”

“You wanted to kill him to take his clothes before, but you won’t now?”

I could understand what Jessie was doing, maintaining her fiction.  Still, it was disappointing.

Doubly so, that even after taking the coat, which only barely long enough to cover everything that needed covering, she looked at me as the young man who shouldn’t be alive.

She turned her attention to Jessie, bowing her head a little.  “Thank you, captain, for your kindness.”

“Will you warm up if we get you more clothes?  You’ll need to give that coat back.”

“I think so, captain.  I can resume hunting.”

Jessie glanced at me.

Resuming hunting wasn’t great.

“You’d need to eat on a regular basis?” Bea asked.

“Every two hours at a minimum while I’m active and using skin like this,” the Mercy said.  “Hourly is recommended but I don’t think anyone does.  It takes time.”

“Were you made in New Amsterdam or Trimountaine?” I asked.

“Winthrop Academy in Trimountaine,” the Mercy said.  She gave me a surprised look.  “How did you-”

“Like I said, he has information,” Jessie said.  “And it’s not that hard of a guess.  High quality work.”

The Mercy seemed bewildered by that.  “Thank you, captain.”

“How accurate is your ability to smell plague?”

“Not very, captain.  Only when it’s active.  But it helps.”

Rudy offered her one arm for support.  It made for an odd picture.

I was careful to walk behind and to one side of her.  If I’d walked directly behind her, she couldn’t have looked at me while maintaining her stride.  Instead, I was able to gauge just how much of her attention was on me.

I was disappointed that it was as much as it was.  That the look on her face didn’t change.

Too single minded.  Too efficient an encapsulated system, perhaps.

I looked across the street, not meeting this Mercy’s gaze.  I saw Fray, and I thought of what Fray had told me about.  It had lurked in my mind.

The places the Crown destroyed, the cats and cockroaches.  Continents laid to waste.  I imagined a future where this plague had taken the Crown States.  Fields of red flowers, with vein-like vines constricting the trees to death, crawling over stones in varying thicknesses.  I imagined the landscape devoid of humans, but for a few survivors.

Would the Tender Mercies survive?  Foraging for food, interacting, breeding more Tender Mercies?

It was a grim, quiet sort of picture.  I wasn’t sure how to place it.

We found more bodies, killed in the street, then dragged off to one side to be piled on the welcome mat of one house.

The Mercy cast off my coat, letting it fall in the snow, and hurried over to the bodies.

I could see her excitement as she found a red and white checked dress.

“I wonder,” I said.  I picked up my coat, shook it off, and pulled it back on.

“At what?” Jessie asked.

“I wonder at the timing.  The Tender Mercies are a… novel answer for this particular plague.”

“Too fast a development?”

“Too… easy to imagine where it goes.  Remember when we first discussed the plague?  It’s too clear that it was designed, and designed by a talented hand.  Which makes me think two things.  What if the person who created the plague created the Mercies?  I mean, that’s a fairly obvious conclusion, right?”

“Intuitive enough,” Jessie said.

“But I had a second thought, and I’m just putting it out there… what if they didn’t?  Beattle rebels, feel free to chime in, correct me, but there seems to be a lot of variance in the project.  The man with the very thick skin Jessie talked to, the one with the heavy brow and chin, then this one… it’s the early stages of things, when an established project of this kind of quality should have nailed down those ratios.”

“You’re not wrong,” the Treasurer said.

“They started down one path, then made an abrupt turn, to put things on a different course and answer a need,” Gordon Two concluded.

“Reminds me of someone,” Jessie said, looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah.  That’s what I’m thinking.  But this is a lot of effort and a small population of a very resilient, loyal set of people that they clearly invested a lot into.  Whether you imagine they were made to answer the red plague or they were made to answer something else, maybe something else that the Academy might have released in the same vein as the plague, isn’t it really easy to imagine creatures like this adapting to the new environment, keeping things mostly operational in the meantime, and then handing things back over to the Crown in a few decades or a century?  Doesn’t that seem like a much better use for what these Tender Mercies seem to be?”

The others were silent.  Our eyes were on the Mercy, who was pulling on boots over stockinged feet.

“A bit fanciful,” Jessie said.  But she gestured maybe.

I gestured the rest of my thought at Jessie while I worked through the idea.  Fray had suggested the Crown was prepared to wipe whole regions off the map, given the chance.  Now I was wondering if they weren’t already preparing to do so?  Were things proving too hard to pin down?  A nation too spread out, with too many active rebellions and too many dead nobles?

The Tender Mercy approached us.  She’d donned a red and white dress under a black coat, with red stockings and black boots.

The look she gave me was an ugly one.

“If it weren’t for him, we would have left you there,” Bea said.

The look didn’t change, but there was more confusion.

She wasn’t human, in the end.  But she didn’t own the wrongs she committed and the ugliness that drove her.

It was hard to convince myself not to shoot her, or to justify having helped her.

I felt like I understood something I hadn’t, about what the Mercies might be, or how they functioned, but I felt like this was a lose-lose situation.  Saving her, letting her die.

“You’re under strict orders,” Jessie said, “To spare the civilians.”

Why?

“There might be a cure among them,” Jessie said.  “It’s why we want the professor.”

The Mercy narrowed her eyes.

“Pass on word.  Gather any others you see,” Jessie said.  She reached to her belt, and fumbled at a paper that stuck out.

I moved closer and picked it out.  There were several.  I caught a glimpse of each.

Letters.  Penned out in various handwriting styles.  Each signed with different names.  Official orders, forged using details from memory.

Jessie picked one and handed it to the Mercy.

“I can’t read,” she said.

“I’m one of several who have letters like this.  We’re here to get it to the higher-ups at the other end of the city.  I’m passing that responsibility onto you.  Show that letter around.”

She frowned, looked at the paper, and then looked at me.

No fondness, no understanding.  Only confusion at my existence.

I might have agreed with her, if the timing were different.

The small Mercy strode off.

“The Little Castle is there,” Jessie pointed.  Two streets down and two streets over.  Easy to miss amid the peaking, snow-covered roofs.  “We’re close.”

She was trying to distract me from the subject of the Mercy.  A creature I’d wanted to identify with.

I bent my brain to the task of helping Shirley, and pushed the thought of the experiment ninety percent of the way out of my head.

In the moment before I succeeded, I saw Fray.

Fray alone.  Fray without rhyme or reason, still indistinct.

It meant something.  I wasn’t sure what.  Did it have to do with the Mercy?  A runt of an experiment, feeling lost without her people, caught up in things bigger than her?

Leaving things as unresolved as they were nagged at me, and I suspected my limited space for memories might well be more occupied thinking about her, despite our attempts to prevent that very thing from happening.

Or did Fray’s appearance have to do with the bigger things?  My suspicions about the Crown, the measures they might take?  Or was it about the dawning feeling that Pierre’s intuition had been right, in that this noble-employed professor was an important factor in answering these questions, and that ignoring him in favor of Shirley might not be the easy answer we’d hoped for?

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Head over Heels – 16.3

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Jessie led the horses off.  We’d unhitched them from the wagon, but the yoke that connected one horse to the other remained in place, as did the bridles and reins.  She had a rifle slung over one shoulder, the rest of her well bundled up, with hat, hood, scarf, and coat, all black with blonde hair pinned against her neck by the scarf, only the ends sticking out.

The others clustered around me, helping me retrieve our things from the back of the carriage.  Rudy took one of the bags, slinging it over his shoulders and belting it in place.  The other piece of equipment I’d packed was heavier, and took a few sets of hands.  Second Gordon and Rudy both helped me haul it out.

The launcher was mounted to a metal plate, builder’s wood framing a shaft and tube, with two cranks and several dials fixed to different points.

I collected canisters and clipped them to my belt, while everyone else retrieved the clothing, bags, and packs we’d put in around the launcher to pad it and keep any structural elements or dials from being jarred or broken.

Pierre had outlined the situation, and I’d told people what to bring, giving them a little bit of leeway in deciding for themselves.  My hope was that they could learn for themselves, develop their individual styles and talents, and round themselves out with some Academy know-how.

For now, Rudy was carrying the heavy stuff, Gordon Two had the tools and extraneous medical supplies, Bea and Fang had expressed some willingness to dip into combat drugs if absolutely required, and were thus equipped for a brawl, with truncheons, knives, and the same guns that I’d given the rest of the group, Pierre excepted.

Pierre had provided particulars about what and where after we’d arrived, and now we’d see if the Beattle rebels could adapt and keep their heads and hands working in a crisis.

The Treasurer was donning his lab equipment.  It was of a more custom uniform, the bottom of the coat hanging lower, the collar high enough to touch his lips.  He had a Beattle crest on the chest and sleeve, with the academy’ s navy blue, gold, and white braided trim.

He attached a hood of the same materials and colors , clipping it on, pulled on thicker gloves over his winter gloves, and then pulled on a mask, the edges of the mask pressing the fabric of the hood and collar tight against his face.  It was hard metal with built-in goggles, tinted blue.  A tube ran down to a leather bag of air that he attached to his belt.

Rudy, Second and I set up the gun.  We found a stump by the side of the road, set it down, and worked the built-in screws in, to fix the plate to the stump.  Jessie disappeared out of sight, and the Treasurer wrapped adhesive ribbon around his collar and hood, then where his gloves met his special lab coat.  His breath hissed as it inflated and deflated the bladder of air.

“High quality bit of work there,” Bea commented.  “Custom buy?”

The Treasurer nodded.

“Get any use out of it?” Rudy asked.

Again, the Treasurer nodded.

Then the air bladder hissed, he moved a loop of metal by the hose, and spoke, sounding as if he came from the end of a deep tunnel that was pointing in a direction that wasn’t ours, “I’ll have to burn this after today.  I’ve heard bad things about this red plague and don’t want to take chances.  I’m going to miss this suit.”

“You could bag it and drown it,” Bea suggested.  “Freeze it, then bake it.”

The Treasurer paused, as if considering, then ventured, “I’m not sure.  Better to be safe.”

“If the plague can survive all four of those treatments, humanity might be done for.”

“Not done for,” the Treasurer said.  “Cats and cockroaches.”

“If you’re having to invoke cats and cockroaches,” I said.  I had a screwdriver sticking through the metal loop, and used it for leverage as I screwed the gun in deeper.  “Then the worst has happened and you aren’t talking about the happiest of endings.  Just the opposite.”

“Won’t deny that,” the Treasurer said, his voice still hollow.  “I might argue about unhappy endings.  The most important thing is that we survive.  Even if it’s only the cats and cockroaches among us.”

“I’m not so sure,” Rudy commented.  “I think life is hard for the cats.  Lamed, broken, nowhere to go, surviving without dignity.  Having purpose is important.  Survival alone isn’t enough.”

Rudy was speaking from experience.  To him, losing Beattle had been an event on par with the destruction of civilization.  The loss of everything he’d worked toward and wanted.

“I’m inclined to agree with Rudy,” I said.  I tightened the screws, tried moving the gun to see if it was loose, and judged it secure.  I worked the crank, rotating the gun, and checked the dials for angle.  I spoke without taking my eye off the machine.  “I’ve tried survival alone.  It’s doable, but your personality atrophies and dies if that’s all you have.”

“Perhaps,” the Treasurer said, still applying the green ribbon, sealing himself off from the world.  “I think you can live in hope that good things will happen someday.  If that’s not possible, then you can live on with the intent of destroying your enemy.  If that’s not possible, you create an opening, so the people who follow in your footsteps have a chance of good things or destroying your enemy.  So long as you survive, you can find your way to those things.  There is always a path.”

“In that order?” I asked.  “Hope, destruction, helping others?”

“I think so,” the Treasurer said.

“Alright,” I said.  “I’ll keep that in mind.  I don’t agree, but if it works for you, I won’t gainsay that.”

He nodded, air hissing as he breathed.

In the distance, a whole dozen guns could be heard firing, each one emptying their clips.  Too far away to be Jessie or any of ours.  A squad of soldiers maintaining the quarantine, perhaps firing at a crowd.

“Sounds bitter to me,” Gordon Two said.  I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the gunfire or the Treasurer, but I suspected the latter.

The Treasurer’s head shook as much as it was able to shake with the hood, mask, and collar all taped into a sealed configuration.  “Not bitter.  Most mornings, I get up on my own, because I know what I want to do, I care about it, and I think it’s important.  Some mornings, hope or the will to help others gets me up.  Some mornings, the desire to ruin my enemies is why I keep working.”

“I’d prefer to have good reasons every morning,” Gordon Two said.  “Not angry ones.”

“If you meet any of the people in the city there, after the plague has hit, you ask them if they want to try searching for the good reason tomorrow morning or if they want justice.”

A fine line between justice and revenge, I thought, but I didn’t comment.

I heard a distant whistle.  I raised my binoculars, and I scanned the surroundings until I saw the target.  The Crown soldiers were set up by the wagon, a fire burning a few feet away, while they crouched around it, watching the roads out of the city that the hill overlooked.

The horses, abandoned by Jessie, were rushing in their direction.  They heard and turned.

I turned and looked at the others – Rudy, Gordon the Second, Bea, Fang, the Treasurer and Pierre.

“Cover your ears,” I said.

I slid one canister of gas into the gun.  I cranked it, adjusting for wind, gauged distance, and waited, looking through the binoculars.

The stitched horses Jessie had sent their way crashed against the side of the soldier’s cart.  The soldiers stood, startled, backing away from the scene.  They found their courage and approached- just in time to see the gas billowing out.  Jessie’s set timer had expired, and the canister we’d placed in the yoke between the two horses was now releasing its contents.  Gas blew in the general direction of the soldiers.

I watched how they moved in the initial moments, then cranked hard, adjusting, before kicking the priming pin into place, hauling back on the crank, and then stomping on the trigger, my hands going to my ears.

It woofed rather than anything else, a low, flat, dull sound that wanted to knock me on my ass and only barely failed to do so.  The canister, meanwhile, sailed skyward.

Seeing its initial trajectory, I began cranking, adjusting, and then placed another canister inside the tube.

Beattle was a poor school, an Academy that accepted the bottom-rung students.  It hadn’t been a place for innovation, and the course work of students had been, in part, an effort to pay the school’s dues.  Drugs had been one thing, and the Rank had gone to some effort to learn that lesson and take it elsewhere.  Stitched had been another thing, a mass-produced export.  Munitions like the one I was using were yet another.

I hadn’t had to ask too many people or go to any great effort to figure out what we needed to produce gas canisters and then get teams in place to make it a reality.  The canister launcher required a few more questions and a bit more searching before I found students ready and able to make one.

I kicked the primer pin into place again, hauled back on the crank, and fired the second shot.

My first shot landed, and wind carried smoke in the general direction of the squadron of soldiers.  Only traces reached them, but it gave them pause, enough to keep them from running in our general direction.  I could see their confusion, and judge that they weren’t even positive about the direction the canister had come from.  The benefit of a high arc.

Delayed, the second shot landed closer to them.  The impact of it striking road was enough to startle their horses and disturb the normally resilient stitched horses.  The soldier’s horses reared a little, snorting, while the stitched horses moved forward.

Aside from the dull sound of the canister launcher, which the snow would dampen, it was a quiet weapon.  There were some distant shouts, but no explosions, no ear-splitting cracks or sounds of metal and wood tearing apart.

I loaded another canister, adjusted, and fired.

“Pierre,” I said.  I didn’t wait to see where the canister had landed.  “Go report to the students back in Sedge.  They should pack up, be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.  We don’t know how many people will come to reinforce, or which direction they’ll come from.  Everyone arms up.  Wait there, eat, rest.  We might need you in the future.”

“You get Shirley,” he said.  “Not that doctor.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

The rabbit-headed man nodded, turned, and sprinted off.

“Follow a ways behind,” I told the others.  The shot I’d fired from the canister was still in the air.

I ran in the opposite direction Pierre had, away from the country road, toward the wagon I’d just bombarded.

I raised my binoculars.  I could see the squad of soldiers pulling on the masks with tubes leading down to air bladders.

All but one.  One of them, a woman, reached for a trumpet on the side of the wagon, one arm covering her lower face.

My head and binoculars bobbing as I ran, I missed the instant that Jessie acted.  The sound of the rifle shot reached me in the moment after the bullet made contact, piercing the base of the soldier’s hand.  It looked like a graze of a hit, but it gave her reason to rethink using the trumpet and signaling other camps of soldiers.

The third canister had landed, and between the gas from the canister placed with the horses, the one I’d placed between myself and them, my test shot that had erred on the side of landing too close to me, and the other two canisters I’d planted around them, the gas that was being pumped out flowed all around them.  They’d pulled on gas masks with attached ox bladders, but they’d had to pass through smoke to do it.  I could see how they moved as if debilitated.

Blind, coughing.  The one who’d been shot in the hand had no mask, and she’d inhaled something while gasping in pain.  Now she was doubled over, coughing.

Jessie had a clear shot for the entire group from her vantage point, and Jessie didn’t shoot.

I closed the distance, found cover by a short fence, and closed my eyes as the smoke wafted over me, so it wouldn’t blind me.

“Throw your weapons down!” I called out.  “Get down on the ground, hands up in the air behind you!”

I heard a voice cussing.

Someone shot in my general direction.  The bullet pinged off of something metal.

I heard Jessie’s gunshot and I heard the body hit the ground.  The sound was out of sync, the answering cries and curses of the soldiers, all muffled by gas masks and interrupted by coughing fits.  It was an eerie thing.

I waited.  There were no more gunshots from Jessie, and the only sounds I heard were swears.  I peeked over the fence.

They were down.

I quickly hurdled the fence, drawing my pistol to point it at different soldiers as I moved among them, collecting the guns.

I signaled for the others to wait as they showed up, brought the guns over to them, and collected the canisters, throwing them down the hill.

“Talk,” I told the one unmasked soldier.

She opened her mouth to speak and choked on her words, coughing.  Her eyes and nose were blood red, her eyes damp with irritation.

“We’re taking you prisoner.  You’ll get medical care for that hand and a little bit of warmth, but only if you cooperate.  If you don’t cooperate, we put bullets in you and carry on.”

I looked very pointedly at the one Jessie had dispatched.

“Robbie… had a child,” she said.

Robbie was the one who’d died?

“How many children are in Dorchester here?  You’re just corralling them and waiting for the plague to get them.”

“They’re already as good as dead,” she said, her voice hoarse, barely above a whisper.  She coughed.  “One more body doesn’t change that.”

“We’ll see,” I said.  “Stand.”

She stood, arms out to the side.

One by one, I got them to stand.  The others used the soldiers’ rifles and bayonets to keep them in line, as we marched them single file back to the carriage we’d used.

“Strip,” I told the lead officer.

He turned his face, gas mask and all, toward me.

I waved the bayonet blade in his direction, and he obliged.  Gas mask off, Academy uniform off.  Academy-white slacks off, the boots they’d issued the soldiers came off.

He hurried into the carriage, hands still raised, wearing only an undershirt and underwear.

By the time Jessie had caught up with us, only two soldiers remained.  Rudy, Gordon Two and Fang had changed into the discarded uniforms, pulling on the gas masks.  Crown colors.  Jessie started doing the same.

Bea was tending to the woman soldier’s hand, bandaging it.  As she finished, I asked, “You want to come with us, or stay in the carriage with your buddies?”

“It’s a choice?” the soldier asked.

“It’s a choice,” I said.  “If you’re in the carriage, you’ll be found soon.  If you’re with us, you won’t need to worry.”

“I don’t need to worry,” she said, firm.  “I’ve been with these fellows a long time.  I was with Robbie a long time.”

“Lose the uniform, then.  Use the heat lamp,” I said.  “Huddle with the blankets.”

She was slow to oblige, what with the injured hand, and it made the process difficult.  I trusted Bea and Jessie to watch her and had the others stand guard off to the side, to afford some limited privacy.

We didn’t need the last guy to disrobe, what with the Treasurer having his own outfit, but I had him do it all the same.  We ushered him into the vehicle while Bea pulled on the female soldier’s gear over her own winter clothing.

Doors closed.  I got a chain from the back, encircled the carriage, pinning the doors closed, and then looped it around again, so it made it harder to get out of the windows.

Would they be able to break the windows and slip free?  Yes.  But getting past shards of glass and squeezing past chain, venturing out into the cold, leaving others with wind blowing into the window and then running through puddles, ice, and wet snow to get to their friends?  I doubted they’d feel that brave.

The Treasurer supplied the loops of adhesive ribbon to everyone, sealing the outfits so they were quarantine-safe.  White gas masks with tinted lenses, heavy coats with maximum coverage, all able to be sealed shut, heavy gloves with the gaps taped, slacks taped to the inner uniform coat, the gaps at the top of each boot taped against the leg.

Showing his expertise, the Treasurer spelled out everything about the process of sealing things, asked about any escaping puffs of air as he patted people down, and outlined the process for removing the quarantine outfits, if he wasn’t alive or conscious to walk them through the process.

He was a dark fellow, the Treasurer.  Angry, morbid.  The fact that he might die didn’t seem to bother him enough, yet he’d gone on about surviving.

I wanted to have tea with him and play poker with him.

“You’re not immune,” Jessie reminded me, her voice modified by the gas mask.  I’d elected not to wear the uniform.

“I can move faster without the bulky layers.  I’d rather move faster and carve any growths out than move too slow.”

“Someone has to pore over your naked body to search for signs of those growths, remember?”

“Reliable sources suggest I’m not bad to look at.  I have no doubt I could find several interested young ladies among our recruits.”

Jessie punched me, right where my heart was.  The protective, padded glove made for a light hit.

Then, with her other hand, she handed me her glasses.

“You sure?”

“The mask serves the same purpose.”

I nodded, folded up the glasses, and slipped them into a front pocket.

I stepped back and looked at my Academy soldiers, with their student in tow.  All matching, all in white, with coats of arms at the chest and upper sleeve, some embroidery here and there on their slacks and hoods to evoke some consistency.  The tinted lenses were unreadable.

“Kevin won’t stand out like this?” Rudy asked.

Jessie shook her head.

“I’ve walked other quarantine zones,” the Treasurer said.  “Only at my last school and Beattle, on Academy grounds, when a student fucked up.  I went around with soldiers, told them about protocols.  If Jessie doesn’t want to, and we run into someone, I’ll take point.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Jessie said.  She looked at me.

“I’ll be out and about, staying out of sight,” I said.  “You all know the hand signals?”

They nodded.  Fang looked less certain than the others.  He wasn’t really a part of the inner circle.  More an accompaniment for Bea, our queen Rooftop Girl who had made a habit of collecting and civilizing some of the troublemakers and delinquents in camp.

I signaled, and they set off.  Right from the get-go, I took a different path as they tromped their way down the hill in heavy boots.

The windows and walls near the ground level were riddled with bullet holes.  Scorch marks and bloodstains marked where there had been fighting.  Falling snow and rain worked to erase what it could, but signs remained here and there.

I thought of what Fray had said, about the red plague being something that looked for this kind of violence.

The initial violence and the officers at the perimeter had scared people further toward the town center.  Nature was working to cover up what had happened here, with snow and rain, the muting effect of heavy snow and the sound-obscuring patter of rain.

Periodically, I could hear a gunshot, which likely sounded further away than it was.

A ghost town, this, in a very different way than Sedge was.  Sedge had been sapped of life, a husk, and repopulated, only the exoskeleton intact.  This was a living town, the outer shell frostbitten and dead while the flesh lived, stagnating.

Inside these buildings, people were huddled, panicking.  The plague crawled among the people, taking root.

The journey was quiet, the streets largely empty.  I kept my distance, navigating between and over buildings while keeping one eye on the Beattle students in soldier uniforms and masks.

They moved past a series of lumps in the road, and they didn’t realize what the lumps were until Bea kicked one by accident.  The covering of snow on one stiff arm was knocked away, the frozen hand exposed.

It was one of the boys that reacted the worst to that.  Second Gordon, I was fairly sure.  He didn’t scream, cry, or get upset, but it took some doing before he would look away from the sight.

A worse one awaited.

It looked like bloodstains, but on closer inspection, it proved to be the flowers.  They reached out for moisture, and the snow was nothing but.  They colored it red, reaching out and across, and they died, or went dormant.

The bodies here in the center were worse.  Carriages had stopped in their tracks.  People had clustered, particularly around building entrances.  Some had tried to break in, seeking refuge from cold and plague.  In the mere hours since Pierre had witnessed the initial scene and we had made our trip to the city, this particular scene had unfolded and then been sealed.  The flowers were already spreading, reaching out over the bodies, connecting one to the next, and crawling up building faces, searching for more victims.

They picked their way through, and I could see the change in body language.  The stiffness, the fact that they were trying not to look.

Only Jessie seemed matter of fact about it.  Only Jessie saw the others approach.

Two men and two women in red clothing.  I had the feeling the red was chosen so it wouldn’t match the red flowers.  Their clothing could almost be mistaken for quarantine outfits, but the coats weren’t long coats, and they wore no masks.

They weren’t good looking people.  Their features were exaggerated, even as they were dressed up in what looked like fine clothing in matching colors.  A man in a red peacoat with a black scarf, with a jutting chin and neanderthal brow, his hair immaculately styled, his ears protected by red earmuffs.  A woman with wavy black hair tied up into a ponytail, her smile perpetual and literally ear to ear, her teeth white and lips painted crimson.  The other woman was similar, but her hair straight, her face too long, her prim nature exaggerated, with pursed lips, a long nose.

Experiments, all four.

They made a beeline for Jessie and the others, and my hand went straight to my waist for my pistol.

The people in red talked to Jessie and the others, and it was the Treasurer who took the lead.

Crouching in the snow, I took aim, waiting and ready for an excuse.

The conversation finished quickly enough.  Jessie and the others moved on with their course, crossing this stripe of plague that had swiped across the town.  The people in red walked along it, as if it was a path for them to travel.  They moved from body to body, checking.

The smiling woman drew a hatchet from her coat – a well hidden weapon, considering I hadn’t seen it.  She raised it overhead, then brought it down on one corpse’s neck.

I couldn’t follow Jessie and the others without crossing these people in red, so I let them go ahead.

Ducking further into cover, raising my binoculars, I watched Jessie.

Her hands moved in the gestures.

Gentle-sugar, gentle-kill.

My head turned over the connected words.  I tried to figure out the meaning, and wished there was a faster way for Jessie to spell the letters out.  The system we had worked out wasn’t great for the task.

She gestured more words.

More red.  Many many.  Careful Sylvester.

There were more than just the four.  Considerably more.

I watched as they moved among the bodies, checking, eyes alert.  They searched every single one on the street before they gathered, approaching a doorway.

The man with the jutting chin kicked the door in, drawing twin cleavers from his pocket.  I knew right away that the people he was using the cleavers on weren’t the frozen bodies.

I almost, almost gave chase, closing the distance, seeing if I couldn’t dispatch them and save the people in the house.

But I saw two flashes of red, and I saw more people walking down the street.  I wouldn’t be able to approach unobserved.

What were the alternate meanings for gentle in the gestures?  Kind?  Soft touch?  Emotionally careful?

What was the alternate meaning for sugar?  I thought of Helen.  My mind stumbled across possible meanings.  Sweet.  Gentle-sweet?  Gentle-sweet gentle-kill?  Murder?  Execution? 

The ones in red called themselves the Tender Mercies.

I hoped Shirley hadn’t faced any such Mercy thus far, as I looked for my opportunity to cross the street and catch up with the others.  I hoped they wouldn’t find Tender Mercy either.

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