Dog Eat Dog – 18.7

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The rain was starting to come down.  With it came an awareness that the reclining lady of Hackthorn had some very minor design issues.  Aesthetically, she was pleasing, structurally she was sound.  But the curves, valleys, the windows and jutting walls did not amount to a wholly ideal flow of water.  It was a stark contrast to Radham, which had been bent beneath the rain for decades, where the attempts to control and redirect the flow of water were somewhat haphazard and forced.  Eaves and the placement of gardens did an incomplete job of keeping bridges and balconies dry.

I walked over to one edge of the balcony, where a deluge of water streamed off of a shelf high overhead, forming a sharp spray as it glanced off of the wall to one side.  The eaves overhead didn’t block all of the rain, not at the far left corner, if I stood up against the railing.

I turned my face skyward, spray and rain drenching me.  The combined downpour was enough to make it difficult for me to raise my arms.

We’d spent what felt like forever in the black wood, and it had been two weeks with minimal rain, and it had been a minimal rain I hadn’t been able to properly experience.  Then we’d had a dry spell for our stay in Hackthorn.

Being able to actually stand in the downpour helped me get centered and feel cleansed in a way that no bath could accomplish.  Even if some of it was gutter overflow.

I waited until I grew cold enough to start feeling numb before stepping back under the eaves.  The others were gathered as I turned around.  Other Lambs, crowding the balcony.  Mauer, Fray, and people who felt painfully familiar, who I felt I should have recognized.

I opened the glass doors, stepped through, and closed them behind me.

“Sy!  If we’re going somewhere, I want to come,” Helen said.  “I didn’t come with you guys to be all alone.”

“It won’t be for too long,” I said.

“Any long is too long,” Helen said.  She turned to look at me, half of her face hanging off, long pins sticking out from between eyeball and socket, more pins wedged between muscle groups that were pulled so tight that the metal fixtures were bowing and bending.

“Stop moving,” Ferres said.  “Stop talking.”

“There are things to discuss,” Helen said, firmly.  “And there’s not a lot of time.”

I didn’t want to agree with Ferres, but I couldn’t shake the mental picture of Helen’s facial muscles moving, constricting, and the metal pins snapping in explosive and sequential fashion, each snap leading to two more, leaving her face a mangled ruin of torn muscle and broken pins.

There was a lot of power in those muscles.

“I want to invite Professor Crawford,” Jessie said.  She was standing at a table, penning out a letter.

“Him?” Ferres asked, turning.

“Justify it.”

The professor frowned.

“Crawford’s the brain brain, isn’t he?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Pioneer in neurophysical design.  And you’re dripping,” Jessie said.  She reached over to a chair, and threw a towel at me.  I caught it, and draped it over my shoulders, before starting to dry my hair.

I volunteered a justification.  “Emily’s immortality was one that came with consequences, mentally.  Ferres knows this, she volunteers that information, and says she’s sure enough of her work here that she’ll allow her work to be checked by one of the best people in the Crown States when it comes to brains.”

“Good,” Jessie said.  She looked at Ferres.  “What do I need to know about you and him?”

“Politically,” Ferres said, “He and I had drinks… it must have been eleven years ago.”

“Romantic drinks?” Helen asked.

“We sat at the same bar, after attending a speech.  We talked.  It’s hard to articulate just why my reaching out to him now would draw concern.  We had zero interest in one another.  No common ground.  If our conversation were a… I don’t know, a battlefield?  A sparring match?  It was one that saw both of us deciding the other was a non-threat.”

“Aggressive non-interest?” I asked.  “Enough that it’s a problem?”

“I’ve never had to say it aloud or give words to explain the social phenomenon among Professors,” Ferres said, as she worked on Helen’s face, setting another pin in place.  “Scar tissue blocking the pneumatic channel in the second complex levator anguli oris.  Remember that for me.”

“Noted,” Jessie said.  She had been writing when I stepped out onto the balcony, and was still writing now.  While working out what to write in the letter to Crawford, it looked like she was writing form answers and incomplete letters to others, with details to be filled in.

Ferres continued, “Rising through the ranks is a struggle.  It’s a crab bucket, and any attempt to climb out sees others dragging you down.  You learn to assess people efficiently to better find your way to the top of the bucket.  I sat with Crawford, and it was the briefest of jousts.  We talked about what we were working on, and in the doing, I sought to find out if he was a rival, or if he was useful, his knowledge a possible way of advancing my own work.  He wasn’t either.  We talked about who we each knew, and cross-checked each other against the web of interactions, key individuals, political gains and political threats.  He hinted at the romantic, in case we could partner up and work as a pair, but I already had no interest in that and turned him down.  So it went.”

Jessie spoke, “You believe you came to an agreement, based on your non-involvement with one another.  Asking for his company now would make him wonder why.”

“Exactly.  If he were more of a rival or an ally, my invitation would make more sense.”

“Don’t explain it?” I suggested.  “Leave him wondering?”

“He would ask questions,” Jessie said.  “He’s cautious, deliberate, he runs a lab with an aristocratic sponsor, he’s able to operate with relatively few power games.”

“The only solution would be to invite everyone,” Ferres said.  “That would be hard to justify.”

I leaned against the wall, towel in one hand while I rubbed my chin with the other.

“No,” Jessie said, to me more than to Ferres, as if she could read my thoughts.  “What if you’re trying to make this as explicitly unpolitical as possible?”

“I’m always political,” Ferres said.

“What if you’re retiring?  Stepping down from your position, leaving only this finding as a final legacy?”

“I don’t leave obligations unfinished, and I have commitments for the next two years.”

“Well,” I said.  “What if you don’t trust your hands any longer?  Or your eyes?  A motivation to seek out immortality and eternal youth.”

“Justification, but thin, and a long road to travel to draw this particular man in,” Ferres said.  “I might suggest instead reaching out to Professor Brad Austin.  He and I are rivals, he’s a close second to Professor Crawford in the field, and it’s far less of a reach.  He would come.  He wouldn’t ask why.  He would hope I was wrong and that I would make a fool of myself, while fearing I was right and that I would surpass him in every way.”

I glanced at Jessie.

Jessie nodded, and set to writing a fresh letter.  “How do you reach out?”

“No nonsense, no flowery language, except where necessary.  He is cordially invited to see my name placed in the annals of history.  It would delight me, put a little flourish on the penmanship of delight, if he would be present.  He’ll be present.”

“Noted,” Jessie said.  “Then the aristocrat John Loft?”

“Same as I would have addressed Professor Corder.  Pleasant, genial-”

“I remember,” Jessie said.  “Pess?”

“Pleasant will do.”

Jessie continued to rattle through names, making mental note.

The storm was picking up.  As the wind changed direction, rain hammered the glass doors I’d recently passed through.

“Does that free up the other side of your face?  Can you smile with just that side?” Ferres asked.

Helen smiled.  I could see a kind of light in her eyes as she did.

“I think we found the source of the lock, then,” Ferres said.  “I can restore your face.  It will take the entire night, but then we should be done.”

We didn’t have the entire night.  Not if we wanted to get ahead of the worst of the storm.  It was looking to be the kind of dark and stormy where crossing the wastes or the dark wood would be next to impossible.  Wading through a soup of black mud while trying to keep a lantern in hand, unable to see farther than the light could reach…

“We need to figure out what we’re doing tonight,” I said.  “Who goes where.  I was thinking I might go for a walk.”

As I said that, I gestured.  School.  Attack.

“Now? I thought you were putting that off,” Jessie said.  Her voice was very calm, curious, and unbothered.  The look in her eyes was focused.  She didn’t gesture, as her hands were full with writing implements and paper.

“Storm isn’t going to get any better.”  Time.  We had a deadline.

“You’re already dripping wet.  It’ll raise eyebrows.”

“I don’t think it matters,” I said.  Prepare.  Helen stay.

If Helen was staying, the best thing to do would be to ensure that at least the initial stages of the takeover went to plan.

Helen go, Helen gestured.

“Stop fidgeting,” Ferres said.  “If I slip with this incision the work tonight will take another hour.”

Helen stay with rebels.  With professor.  Medical, I gestured.  Jessie continued to write, her eyes moving between Helen and me.

Helen go, Helen gestured again.  I heard the Professor hiss with irritation.

There were three bases to cover and three of us.  It wasn’t the easiest thing to wrangle.  We could change the division, have one Lamb handle two tasks, but it made for a wobblier path.

One Lamb to reunite the flock, one Lamb to the Shepherd, and one Lamb to remain behind.

“I’m so restless,” Helen mused aloud.

“Is this another form of torture?” Ferres asked.  “Meticulous work with an unruly, talkative patient?”

“I’m so restless I could kill something,” Helen said, expanding on the thought.

Ferres’ work with the scalpel stopped.

“You’re being uncooperative, Helen,” Jessie said.

She managed her half-smile, using the part of her face that didn’t have skin and fatty tissues pared away and needles wedged into what remained.  “I’m in an uncooperative mood these days.  You know that.  It’s why Sy wanted to keep me with you.”

Ah, the latent threat.

“We’re all wrestling with our individual issues,” Jessie said.  “We push through.”

Helen rolled her eye, the other one held in place by the pins.

I wanted to say that this was Helen’s belated adolescence, but Helen had been and might remain a creature of countless adolescences.  Countless small shifts, leaps, rebellions and adjustments.

Helen might-

She reached up, pulled a pin out of her face, and while Ferres wasn’t looking directly at her, plunged it into Ferres’ eye.

-do something like that.

The professor dropped, screaming, hand at her eye.  The needle was already so slick with fluid that she couldn’t pull it out.

“I go,” Helen said, firmly.

“You go,” I said.

Jessie’s eyes were wide and her expression concerned as she looked at me.  She’d stopped writing.

Ferres’ screams continued.

“I go?” Helen asked, happy.

I looked back at Helen.  The screams continued in my ears even as Ferres remained where she was, standing by Helen, working on Helen’s face.

Just a very realistic simulation, when and where imagined Helen and real Helen had overlapped.

A very realistic depiction of how the scene might play out.  Not directly, but in the long run.

To Jessie, I’d jumped to a conclusion.  Jessie didn’t have the benefit of being able to see how Helen might act if left to her own devices here.

She’d said it outright, she’d laid out her boundaries.  I didn’t need a hallucination to tell me that Helen was a danger.  But I did need it to remind me of what the consequences could be, and how devastating a mistake could be.

“You go, I suppose.  You have to,” I said.

“I don’t like how you got when you were alone with Helen in the black woods,” Jessie said.  “She doesn’t keep you thinking straight.”

“It’s a bad riddle, isn’t it?” I asked.  “Like the sort that Hayle used to give us.  Scorpion, centipede, butterfly, all need to get from A to B, but leave one alone…”

“Am I the butterfly?” Jessie asked.  “Or am I the centipede?”

“Let’s not overanalyze it,” I said.

“Alright,” Jessie said.

Her eyes were downcast.  She fidgeted in a way that had nothing to do with gestures or signs, as she became very aware of the pen in her hands.

“I’ll be with Helen for most of it,” I said.

Jessie nodded.

“We’d go together through the black woods.  We’d part ways when she hunted Mauer and while I rounded up the Lambs, or vice versa, and whoever finished first would help the other.  A few days apart, if we were lucky.”

“While I stay here, managing things,” Jessie said.  Her voice was a notch quieter than before.  She fixed the volume as she said, “It makes the most sense.”

She didn’t want to stay.  She didn’t want to be alone.  She was trying to be brave, and I really wondered if she would break into tears right here and right now.

The rain found another direction, and it ceased drumming on the window.  The spray hissed as it hit the balcony outside, instead.

“Or we stay together,” I said.

Jessie spoke, “This is the crossroads we’re at, isn’t it?  We stay together, and we keep each other company while accomplishing nothing, or we enact our plan, but we’re separate.  There’s a very real chance that we part ways and it’s a forever goodbye.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I know I’m strong.  I hold up pretty well, most of the time.  But I didn’t do well while you were in the black woods.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Jessie had lost memories, but she had always lost them when alone.  It wasn’t a definitive thing that it had to do with her being isolated, but it was an indicator, a bad premonition.

It reminded me of Jamie, and Jamie’s experience along those same lines.

None of us wanted to be the one to remain behind.  Whoever remained behind might break.

That was what we were, now.

“What if…” Jessie started.

I knew how that question ended.

“…Three Lambs afield, leaving the pen empty?” I asked.

Jessie nodded.

“No sure way of knowing if the wolf will be laying in wait when we return,” I said.

“You’ve trained very nice, very capable rebels,” Helen said.

“We have,” Jessie said.  “But there’s a lot they can’t do.  We’d be asking five hundred people to maintain control over a population of fifteen thousand, give or take.  If they lost control, I don’t think we’d be able to regain that same control over a wary enemy.”

“And it wouldn’t be fair to them,” I said.

Jessie nodded.

There was no good way to handle it.

Mauer was standing by the door, attention keenly on the situation, eyes bright.  Evette was sitting on the bed, smirking.

Fray stood with Ashton, one hand on his head, messing up his hair, while he stared at us with a blank expression.

Ferres, meanwhile, was very, very still, as she listened.  The Hag of Hackthorn was terrified.  As terrified as she had ever allowed me to see, even.  She was hearing us talk, hearing things come to a head, and her Academy was at stake.

“Leave me behind,” I said.

“Alone?” Jessie asked.

“Not quite alone,” I said.  “The rebels are almost another Lamb, collectively.”

Jessie stared at me.

“And… you’ll be there,” I said.

“That’s what concerns me,” Jessie said.

“In a different sense.  Just… let me believe that you’re coming back.  That you’ll be back with the Lambs.  I can look forward to that.  It’s not something that leaves me empty and hollow.  It can keep me going.  I can tough it out.”

Jessie shook her head.

“Helen wants to be out and about, and if she’s in your company for most of it, she’ll be okay, right?”

Helen nodded.  Jessie looked more dubious.

“You’ve listened and watched with one eye as Ferres worked on Helen, haven’t you?  You can do further repairs for the other half of her face.”

“Possibly,” Jessie said.

“It’s not the worst thing if it’s not possible.  I’ll manage.  You two should go,” I said.  “I’ll entertain myself.”

“That’s another thing I’m worried about,” Jessie said.  “You being entertained.”

“It’s the best way forward,” I said.

Jessie nodded.

Helen’s hand snapped up, seizing Ferres wrist, where Ferres held the scalpel.  She smiled that half smile.

“You don’t need a scalpel to put my face back together,” Helen said.  “I’m leaving soon.  So please, if you would…”

Professor Ferres stared, still frozen.  Slowly, she let the scalpel tumble from her fingers and fall to the floor.  She reached over with her free hand, reaching into her kit to get the chemicals and tools needed to seamlessly close up Helen’s face.  Helen released her other hand, still smiling.

“I’ll get us started,” I said, standing.

Jessie nodded.  Her smile was a sad one.

I was still quite damp as I exited the apartment and ventured into the hallway.  Two of Bea’s people were standing guard.  I gestured at them, and they fell in step with me.

The torso of the reclining woman was the center of the university, the point from which all other elements flowed.  Core labs and exhibition halls made up much of the center portions, set so that other areas could look through windows or down from raised areas to view the ongoing proceedings.

Many students were gathered at tables and seats throughout one of the exhibition halls, which was in the process of being set for the young master’s birthday party, later in the month.  Stage decorations were partially grown and partially built.  In the meantime, until faculty came marching through at eleven thirty to midnight, it was where boys met with girls, where student workers and staff took off their shoes and talked.  Friends gathered and talked about work and about fanciful ideas and dreams.

The various leaders of my groups all met here too, passing messages between them.  Each and every last one of them was gathered here.  Shirley was sitting at one table, where she had been talking to Possum and Rudy.  Rudy was doing tons better, but he still needed crutches to get around, and the crutches rested against the table next to him.

The fact that I was drenched, still periodically dripping, it drew attention.  I appreciated that among my people, there were some that kept talking, conversing without much break in stride.  It might have been problematic if my arrival had been followed by utter silence.

My hand moved subtly, and a score of eyes watched it.

The movement of my hand gave the signal that they had collectively been waiting for for weeks now.

School.  Two fingers held high, hand in a fist.  Very close to the sign for ‘mind’.

Fall.  Pinky and thumb extended, swept down.

I watched as the Rank stood as a group.  They marched off.  They’d been content to hang in the background, mingling with Bea’s group.  But they’d been the Rank before they’d been hanging out with the Rooftop Girls, and as the Rank they’d brewed chemicals as a collective, for sale elsewhere.  Drugs chief among them.

Getting them placed right had been about ensuring that they had lab space, little oversight, and access to key parts of the Academy.  Posie in particular had been focused on the mechanical aspect of it.

Gas.  It would sweep through whole sections of the Academy.  It would take time.  That was a part of it that had to start sooner than later.

I gestured for the others to hold on, then took a seat at the table, moving a chair and spinning it around so I sat backwards in the seat.

“I suppose I’ll get us started,” Mabel said.  She sat at the next table over, with many members of her Green Team.

I really didn’t like that she stood just as I sat down.

“I’ll come with,” Shirley said.  Mabel nodded.  I could see that Shirley looked at ease, that she wasn’t running from, but running to.

I valued that a hell of a lot, when it felt like everyone was drifting away or moving away from me and that I had to fight to keep them close.

I still owed Shirley so much.

Mabel’s Green Team would be focused on Hackthorn’s right hip and leg.  The leg was the path down into the small town below Hackthorn, the passage to the cliffs.  Controlling it would be essential not only because it was a key chokepoint, but because it was a key place where food was stored, where the stables were.  Measures were already in place to ensure that there would be no warbeasts available to anyone who tried to hold Hackthorn against us.

Shirley was traveling in that same direction, but she would carry all the way down the leg, where she would talk to Pierre and our gang members, minus Archie, who was still posing as my father, an aristocrat of note.  The people who had evacuated the city when Neph had spread black wood over it were in Shirley’s company now.  The mad baker was somewhere among them, as was the old man.

“There was a good number of students in the labs the last I checked,” the Treasurer said.  He stood, and he gave me a two-finger salute.

The labs were easy.  A small team would see it quarantined.  It was a process that took time and careful attention to reverse, however.  I was reminded of the Bowels, of being locked within with Sub Rosa.

The Treasurer’s group would need to be reinforced.  Davis was meant to be second in command, in charge of that aspect of things when I wasn’t present.  I knew from his expression that he was fully aware that my absence meant he was being forced into a position of leadership again.

Every group had a place.  There were things to look after.

Bea was dressed in an Academy uniform with no jacket and an apron instead of a coat, was representative of the students who worked at helping keep things running.  Some were assistants to faculty.  Others delivered mail or ran errands.

Bea smiled, and she almost looked as if she enjoyed this on a level nobody else had indicated, except for me.

The Rooftop Girls had been rebels before they had been rebels.  At Bea’s behest, they would act within the next thirty minutes, turning on the faculty they had been working for.  A small share of that faculty would be sequestered away and imprisoned.

Cut the head off the dragon.

We’d marked out the reclining woman as someone else might dissect a body or quarter livestock.

Gordeux would be working as a liason between Davis and the Treasurer.  He’d overseen a handful of projects.  Warbeasts, chemicals.  They would be our attack dogs, watching bridges.  For a time, we would keep students confined to the dormitories, and the projects would help with that.

Other students in the exhibition hall were looking restless.  Too many of our people were marching off with a mission.  There was nervousness apparent throughout, and that nervousness communicated itself in little ways to the bystanders.

“You’ll need to control the room,” I told Davis.  “They’re getting anxious.”

Davis nodded.  He was hesitating.

But he gathered his courage, and he turned to one of his subordinates, who sat next to him.  A junior member of the student council, young.  In another world, if Beattle hadn’t fallen, the boy might have eventually succeeded Davis as student council president and gone on to lead the student council of Beattle, a nice little note in his record that would give him a leg up.

The boy ran off, to spread the word to the able bodied Beattle students and the other rebels we’d collected who were confident with guns.

I really hoped we wouldn’t have to use them.

Davis remained seated, thinking.  He wasn’t fond of the role, even if he was good at it, and for the time being, he was introspective, preparing himself for what would come later in the evening.  His job wasn’t pretty, and I was already planning to shoulder the bulk of the burden.  At our behest, Ferres had made sure that the Academy’s native security forces were at the perimeter, facing outward, in a manner of speaking.  Watching the wastes and the water, while trouble brewed within the heart of Hackthorn.

Davis’ group would see bloodshed before the night was out, handling that side of things, reinforcing groups as the native population of students fought in defense of their Academy and, for some, their homes.

The weather outside was whipping itself up.

Rudy had his hand over Possum’s.  Possum would be running the kitchen.  We had twelve thousand students in the school.  There were more people in the city below, running the essential services, the shops and more, but in keeping students sequestered and the situation under control here, keeping the masses fed would be a task.  Possum would tackle it, with Rudy encouraging and reassuring.

But that came later.  Possum’s job for the now was to wait.

“That’ll do,” I said.  “I’ll be back in two minutes.  Running an errand.”

Davis nodded, still introspecting.  I suspected he even knew where I was going.

A quick skip down stairs.  Past students who stared or looked concerned.  One even tried to call out, asking me why a dozen students had been hurrying downstairs.  I didn’t answer.

Lab One was lit by lanterns, the voltaic lights off.  Most of the lanterns were set up in one area.

Alvin was burning the midnight oil, it seemed, looking over notes and scripts.  He didn’t notice me as I approached.

I was tempted to slit his throat, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play violent when my hallucinations were already trending that way.  Not when Jessie and Helen were leaving me alone.

I pressed the knife to his throat instead.

“What?” he asked.  He turned his head just enough so he could look back and see my face in the gloom.  “Oh no.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I knew there was something off about you,” he said.

“I get that a lot,” I said.

“Stealing projects?  Spying on Ferres?” he asked.

“No,” I said.  “Oh no, no.  Alvin, sir, you’re about to realize this is far, far worse.”

We were well ensconsced within the Academy, with staircases and hallways separating us from the exterior walls.  But the wind blew, and with it, the reclining lady shifted position.  The building creaked.

“I believe you,” he said.

“Walk with me,” I said.

With Alvin at knifepoint, I walked to the cells.  The children within the cells reacted to the light.  Faces appeared at the bars.

“Thank you for your patience,” I said.

Reaching into Alvin’s pocket, I produced the key.  I stuck it through one lock, opening it.

Goldilocks took the key I pressed into her hands, and went to the next cell.

“They’re supposed to be drugged,” Alvin said.

“They are,” I said.

“The drugs were in their systems.”

“Switched the usual drugs with sugar pills.  I gave them evening doses instead of the morning doses.  Haven’t gotten around to tonight’s.”

Alvin grew more and more tense as the number of youths and experiments around him grew thicker and thicker.  Some were irate.  Intense, hostile.

I could sense the anger, and I knew that Alvin could tell as well.  That this was a mob that had been sleeping a few moments ago, that was quickly stirring itself up.

Before anything could happen, I flung Alvin into a cell.  I slammed the door.

Poll Parrot looked even more dangerous in the gloom, his feathers crimson, his eyes a glare that suggested killing intent.  Others had more mixed emotion.  Faces that had tracks of tears on them, before they turned away or tried to hide their expressions.

Bo Peep flung herself at me, wrapping arms around me, soft wool pressing into my neck as she buried her head in my chest.

Others looked more lost and unhappy than they had been when they’d been resigned to their fates.

“Come on,” I said, barely sparing a glance for Alvin.  “Everyone stay together for now.”

Jessie and Helen were in Lab One when I emerged from among the cells.  I’d almost missed them, making sure that the littlest ones were being watched.  The three blind mice chief among them.

Jessie navigated the mob of children.

She gave me a kiss, and in the distance, I could hear the alarm bells going off.  The quarantine, the alerts that the academy was under attack.  Different parts of our hostile group would hear the sounds and use them as a cue to mobilize.

My hands went up, to hold Jessie, to draw her close and keep her for a little while.  Her hands went up too, fending me off.  She broke the kiss.

“If you hug me, I don’t think I’ll be able to let go of you,” she said.

I didn’t speak.

“Be sane when I get back?” she asked.

“I’ll try,” I said.  “I’ve got these guys to keep me company.  A box of bugs that’s been nicely shaken.  I’ll endure.”

Jessie nodded.  I thought I saw the glint of a tear in one eye.  With the lights off and the lanterns in the background, it was hard to tell.

“You have to do your part too,” I said.  “Be Jessie.”

“I’ll try.”

She stepped back, and as she pulled away, our inter-knit fingers pulled apart.  My arm fell to my side.

“Be good, Helen,” I said.  Though Helen had already faded into the gloom, following Jessie.

“Be good, Sy,” she echoed me.

I stood there, my hands tingling with what might be my last contact with Jessie.

Small hands found their way to my hands, clasping them, gripping them.  Other hands touched my forearms, and clutched at my shirt.

The Crown had made the Crown States small, so the nation was easier to control.  They had isolated, so it was easier to exert power over populations.  We’d simply taken advantage of that.  Now we did much the same, dividing and conquering that which had already been separated and left vulnerable.

We had turned Academy against Academy.  Students stolen and set against other students.  Faculty stolen, used against her own kind.

The nobility would be next on the chopping block.

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Dog Eat Dog – 18.6

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“You changed her face,” Ferres said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps,” I said.

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there?” Ferres asked.

I raised my eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

“That would defeat the purpose,” Ferres said.

“It’s all very complicated,” I said.

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

I elbowed Jessie.  “Home sweet home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True, that.  Cynthia too,” I said.

“She came from elsewhere,” Ferres said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And tenacious,” Ferres said.

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

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

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

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

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

The trump card again?

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“That would have sufficed,” Ferres said.

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

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

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

“Your file said you were gentle with children.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To professors and nobles throughout the Crown states?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Too connected to us?” Helen asked.

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

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

“And there’s the first,” I said.

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

“Psh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But not inconceivable?” I asked.

“Not inconceivable,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Prey instincts,” Ferres said.

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

“The Infante.”

“Him among many,” I said, smiling.

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

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

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

“Maybe,” I said, I smiled, “Maybe…”

I rubbed my chin.

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

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

“Out with it, skipper.”

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

She poked me in the stomach.

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

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

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

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

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

“You respected mine.”

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

Jessie shook her head.

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

Jessie and Helen nodded at that.

“Raises suspicions,” I elaborated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ferres,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

I trailed off.

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Helen said.  She curtsied.

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

“Yes,” Helen said.  “Wonderful.”

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

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

“Problem?” Jessie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“How bad?”

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

“We could pull the trigger now.”

Jessie shook her head.  “Soon.”

“Soon, then,” I said.  “Alright.”

Her breath was warm against my shoulder.

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

“Cold,” Jessie said.

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

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

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

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

I ‘tsk’ed with my tongue.

“We’ll get our ‘us’ time tonight.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Rumblings?”

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

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

“And meanwhile, for us…”

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

I nodded, smiling a little.

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

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

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

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

“Or any of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Professor Ferres was a fantastic actress.  In some ways we had lucked out in picking her.  In other ways, that sword had two edges, and it made for some dangerous handling.  We’d hit her where it hurt, and the metaphorical sword was being drawn out now.

She acted like nothing was wrong as her favored students started their work in lab one.  Her favored students minus one, of course.

It was a beautiful thing, from a certain perspective.  I’d grown up around Helen, and I was strongly suspicious that Ibbot had been inspired by Professor Ferres when he had designed our winsome, woesome Lamb.  Long exposure to Helen, years of my own earnest attempts at acting and being up against some of the best around gave me a deep appreciation for Ferres’ act.  The face that betrayed nothing, the fact that she could smile and act as though nothing was wrong when she was battered, bruised, and tired?

Even if I hadn’t had an agenda, it might’ve been worth doing this just to see how someone capable approached the problem.

That, and I did have reservations about targeting a youth.  Betty was almost our age, but there were groups of mice that might have taken her in, had her circumstances of birth been different.  Pressure and the fact that I really didn’t like Betty had helped me cross my personal line in the sand and break my own rules on this.

Ferres didn’t miss a beat as she gave instructions, “The grafts for Itsy Bitsy are in the cold room.  Alvin, would you prepare to take Betty’s position in the surgical theater in case she doesn’t turn up?  I’ll send someone to check on her the moment I’m free.”

Not one glance toward Jessie or me.  It was good, considering that she had to suspect.

Jessie was talking numbers, rattling off equations as the others talked.  For all that Betty had complained that I didn’t belong here, there were no loud complaints about Jessie.  She hadn’t earned her place in the way that Betty, Alvin, Leland, Wilbert, and the other favored students had.  She’d dealt with no grueling tests, she hadn’t had to prove herself, but she was holding up her end now that we were here.  Everything she did was strictly by the book.  Literally.

Ferres continued to give instructions.  I was focusing almost the entirety of my attention on her while she was working to ignore Jessie and I.  I was noticing the tics and the tells, the little catches.  It had been day after day of being drugged overnight, of paralyzing chemicals, tense muscles, bedsores or tubsores, fatigue, and insufficient food.  Pressure, tension, dehumanization and likely a fair amount of fear as well.  All while doing an eerily good job of acting as if nothing was wrong.

“Leland, Wilbert, you’ve been mulling over the nightmare for two days now.  I’ve tried to be patient, but I need you two to step it up.”

“Yes, Professor, of course.”

“If you haven’t found a working solution by the end of the day, I’ll be taking you off that project and doing it myself, and I won’t be happy about it,” Ferres said.

Jessie started gesturing as she talked, punctuating reams of ratios and ten-syllable compound names with hand movements.

I’d already noticed what Jessie was tipping me off to.  Ferres was speaking faster, more aggressively.

It was minor, hard to pin down, but when it came to a formidable character like Ferres’, I was willing to take any cue I could.  With a grain of salt.

“We’ve been weighing a few ideas.  We could rush it, but you said you’d rather it was done well than fast.”

“I did say that,” Ferres said.  She paused, and her demeanor shifted slightly.  “What’s troubling you?  Carbon chain boundary?”

“I think we’re covered on that front.  It’s the fuel injection.  Leland thinks if we provide the fuel by way of channels in the shoulder and let it flow back, scar tissue and other buildup will block it.  I was suggesting a stronger scapular floor for fiercer contractions, push through the buildup, but Leland worries it would be too spurty.”

“I think you’re both right,” the Professor said.  “It wouldn’t do to have our antagonist spray flaming ejaculate all over our juvenile audience, and it could be quite the spurt if we tried to counteract the full buildup.”

“I, uh, yes Professor.  We agree.”

“How long would it perform?”

“Ten to fifteen minutes.”

“We’ll need twice that if we’re to hold to the script.  Two-line regimen of G.H.I., increase its diet, standing guard in case it becomes hostile.  Excise the upper portions of the ventral serratus if you have to to make room.”

“Room for?” Wilbert asked.

“You tell me,” Ferres said.  “Go for a walk, find Betty, figure out how she’s doing, and have three good ideas in mind by the time you’re back.”

Wilbert straightened.  “The girl’s dormitory?  But-”

“If anyone asks, I sent you.  Now don’t tarry.”

Wilbert nodded.  His departure fell just short of a proper run from the premises.  Academy students were sometimes like pigeons.  When one student scrammed, others would take off too out of herd mentality.  Looking silly for running on a thousand occasions was a fair tradeoff for the one time it meant getting a headstart against an ominous, onrushing cloud of gas or cloud of insects loaded to bear with fun drugs.  It was a rule in periods of peace to avoid running wherever possible.

Professor Ferres continued to assign tasks and lay out everything that needed to be done, keeping tabs on the various projects and suggesting adjustments.  Jessie gestured again, and I took note of the gesture.  Jessie was keeping time, marking the fact that Ferres was much quicker to do this than she had been on previous days and weeks.  Ferres was rushing, because she wanted to move on to other things.  To me and to her favored student, little miss Betty.

I walked over to the table at the far side of the circular room.  There were four exits to the room, with two being staircases on either side, one being access to the cells and storage rooms, and the last one being the access to the operating theater.

The table was closest to the operating theater, and I could see Alvin laying spider-limbs as long as my arms out on one table.  One of the children in the cells would be put under and go under the knife.  Lillian stood by the table, and her stare was accusatory.

I looked away from her and turned my attention to the papers on the table.  Each set of papers was bundled together into contained booklets, titles inked out on the front pages.  Names of the experiments.  Bo Peep, Itsy Bitsy, Poll Parrot.  There were others I hadn’t recognized right off.  The three youngest children that Helen had been snuggling with would be the three blind mice, after their surgeries were done.  One young lady would become the unicorn.

The books had terminology, codes, and shorthand throughout, and I could only deduce some of it.  Instilled instinct, compulsion, chemical triggers, training.  The individual lines, passages and behaviors were ranked by importance, reinforced by various factors.

If it was wholly up to the experiments doing what they were supposed to in order to enact their play, then making them stitched would have been enough.  But there were other factors.  These weren’t actors meant to play out a series of shows and stories the audience had seen countless times before.

They were toys.  The audience would interact, step in, and change the course of events.  Ferres was designing the various characters to appeal to a swathe of tastes and age groups.  That meant countless bases needed to be covered.  If the young master’s cousin found Bo Peep to their liking and wanted to play at tea with the girl, then Bo Peep was to oblige.

“You’ve taken my student, I gather?” Ferres asked.

I paged through Bo Peep’s file, not looking up.  Red pen had been used to label and mark out pages.  The section was simply titled ‘Story 3b.2: The Wolf Wins’.  The notes were scattered in intent, written by Ferres for Ferres, referencing people she had met and what she knew about the young master’s family.

“If you take all of them, then people will wonder.  It hurts you more than it hurts me,” the Professor said.

If there was a lull in the night’s entertainment, then the Big Bad Wolf would rouse and stalk its prey.  Red Riding Hood would be stalked by the wolf, which would speak and taunt her while staying out of sight.   Children in attendance could decide the outcome, by intervening, by cheering for one side.  The needed verbal cues, tones, and situational cues were marked out clearly, mapping out how this would come to pass.

If the young lads cheered for it, then there would be violence.  The Wolf would be emboldened, would close in, and Red Riding Hood would die a theatrical, gruesome, and very real death.  Then, depending on the collective response to that, other antagonists would step in while the wolf retreated to the background, having raised the stakes for the evening and kindled imagination, or the wolf would even take center stage, picking off characters one by one.  Bo Peep was number two to die, if the young boy at the center of the party willed it.

Red Riding Hood’s emotions would be very real in the midst of it all.  So would Bo Peep’s, if the party took that particular course.

Ferres wasn’t willing to discount that possibility, and she was putting considerable effort into planning for it, making sure the Big Bad Wolf was something that could be ridden.

I’d sat back and watched things for some time now, the idle bystander while Jessie and the other students worked on this project.  I’d read these scripts enough to have a general sense of the web of interactions and narratives that played out across them.  There were stories for grand violence, stories for intrigue, stories for heroism and valor, for being the gentleman that saved damsels in distress.  Ferres’ focus was to ensure that the young man at the center of the party received his highlight moment, whatever he chose to do.

“Are you ignoring me to get a rise out of me?” Ferres asked.

“No,” I said.  “I’m ignoring you because my attention is elsewhere.  The thing about having a shoddy memory is that I can put a book down and pick it up later and read it as if I’d never read it before.  Every time I read through these, I pick up something new.”

“I revise them regularly.  That might play a part.”

“It might,” I agreed.  I put the booklet down, letting it fall to the table with a slap of paper on wood.

Now that my attention was fully on her, Ferres seemed oddly composed.

She really wanted to push me on this, to ask about Betty, but she didn’t want to give up the appearance of power by asking a question she knew full well I wasn’t going to answer.  It would be groveling.

Still, I’d expected to see more weakness in her, a glimmer of something.

Why the rush through morning preparations then?  Why hurry through her tasks with other students if she wasn’t hurrying to any place in particular?  I’d expected a more heated confrontation, one where she might even have raised her voice at me.

“It started as something far smaller,” Ferres said.  “One scene, a speaking lion for a young girl who loved lions.  Child’s play, in both senses of the word.  But every prominent aristocrat wanted to top the last, grander displays, more involvement.  I received funding for my Academies and I was able to pursue the kind of work I wanted to do most.”

“At the expense of children,” I said, my voice low, “And let’s not pretend all of the children you bought off the Block were volunteers, whatever you told your students.”

“Very few were, I imagine.”

“Means to an end?”

“If the young master and his friends are bloodthirsty or if their military fathers egg them on, then they might call for blood and be applauded for it, and that will be the evening.  But it’s by no means a sure thing.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sure, whatever.”

“You don’t have to listen to me.  If you don’t like my answer, you’re in a position of power over me.  You could tell me to change my stance, you could threaten me or hurt me for saying something you disagree with.  Whatever you imagine.”

“I’m hardly going to do that,” I said.

“You’ve done it countless times over the past several weeks,” she said.

“Indirect hurt,” I said.  “I feel like actively slapping you or putting you in screws is a little bit too brutish for me.”

“Such a gentleman,” she said, and there was enough venom in those three words that some people on the other end of the room caught it and glanced our way.

“All of this can end, all you have to do is tell Jessie and I how to contact certain prominent professors and nobles, and help us keep abreast of any changes or developments in the big picture.  We’ll handle the rest.”

“Oh, I’ve little doubt you will, young sir,” she said.  “But the moment I tell you that, then I cease being useful to you.  You’ll infect my Academy with black wood and ships won’t even come to port if they think their hulls might suffer.  I’ll be one step among a dozen that see you do grievous damage to the Academy.”

“You’ll fall on the sword, suffer for the good of Academy and Crown?”

“I’ll endure,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.  “You keep saying that.”

She smiled.

Again, that look.  The calm in the face of the storm, from someone with very little to reach out and grab hold of.  I’d pushed her and I’d taken away a vital handhold, very possibly her favorite student of the now, and as weary as she was, her emotions frayed, she wasn’t faltering.

She should have been given more pause by this.  It was concerning, because she should have come across as more unsteady.  But something about her demeanor in this moment made me think that yes, I’d been right that she was fond of her student Betty.  Yes, this had bothered her.  Yet I harbored a suspicion that if I made her entire Academy and every soul in it disappear, she would still hold fast.

I was beginning to grow suspicious of why, now.

“Itsy Bitsy Spider needs his grafts,” she said.  “If you wanted, you could exert your power, twist my arm, and spare him the procedure.”

“I do want,” I said.

“But?” she asked.

“No but,” I said.  “Spare him.  Postpone it.”

Again, she smiled slightly.

Why was this a win in her book?  People would wonder, and wondering with the right voices finding the right ear would unspool everything for Jessie and I.  It was Jessie and I making a play against her and seeing her refuse to budge, while she made a miniscule power play and she made me concede ground.

A small price if it helped Itsy Bitsy.  I’d have to let others slide.  I knew that.  It would blow our cover and the whole ruse if we refused all operations and activities on Ferres’ part.

But right now I wanted to focus on Ferres and the current dilemma.

“Did someone mess up drug doses?” I heard the question from the far end of the room.

It was Leland.

“Why do you ask?” Ferres asked, stepping away from me and the table with the scripts.

“The cast members are dead quiet,” Leland said.  “I thought they had actually died, but they’re awake, they’re at the cell doors, and they’re just watching while I get them water.”

“Leave it be,” I said, under my breath.

I didn’t miss the fractional pause before Ferres replied to Leland, saying, “Leave it be.  I’ll check on them shortly.”

“It’s creepy,” Leland said.

“Focus on the nightmare, Leland,” Ferres said.  “I expect more, better answers from you than from your partner in crime, who should be coming back with at least three ideas.”

“Yes, Professor.”

Betty’s kidnapping had barely made Ferres miss a step.

Ferres grew distracted with the activities of the others, who were working on the nightmare and the giant.  She was in the middle of the room and in Jessie’s earshot, so I deemed the situation calm enough to exchange words with Jessie.

“She’s got something,” I said.

“Something?” Jessie asked.

“Ferres.  She’s got a card up her sleeve.  It’s the only thing I can think of that accounts for just how hard she is to crack.  I’m trying to play her as if she’s got only a few handholds left and she’s acting like she’s fine.”

“She could be very good at lying.”

“Or she’s got a card,” I said.  “Both are equally worrying.”

“What card could she possibly have that she wouldn’t have already played?” Jessie asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But if you’ll have a look-see…”

I turned to look through the glass at the stairs.  I’d noticed the people and the general commotion.

“…our card is playing out now.”

It was Wilbert, returning from his excursion to the girl’s dormitory.

Jessie and I hung at the periphery of the group as they approached.  Wilbert’s expression was severe.

“She left,” Wilbert said.  “She drugged her roommate to avoid any commotion, packed her things, and left in the dead of night.”

“Into the wasteland?” Ferres asked.

“By one of the postal ships,” Wilbert said.  “We don’t know how she got on, but she seemed confident she could if she needed to, going by the letter.”

“Do you have it?” Ferres asked.

Wilbert handed it over.

“What a shame,” the Professor said.  “A damn shame, with the worst possible timing.”

The effect was more profound on the other favored students than it was on Ferres.  Jessie and I stood close to one another, and we watched as she spoke, we watched her move, and we even saw her eyes grow moist.  Ferres as the warm individual.  Unlike Helen, I fully expected that the warm, living, emotional face was the real one, the cold persona the mask.

But emotions weren’t a weakness, not always.  Ferres wasn’t budging at all, and it was proving to be her best asset.

“They want to talk to you in the post area,” Wilbert said.

There we go, I thought.

“I’ll see to that.  Talk with Leland, get your plan straight.  I expect a thought out plan by the time I’m back.”

“I’ll come,” I decided.  My speaking drew several glares of the hostile ‘we didn’t ask’ variety.  I returned them with a smug smile.

The stairwell was full as students hurried to their morning classes.  I spotted Evette, and I saw Lillian again.  I saw a glimpse of Mauer, and I saw a multitude of friendly faces.  Students and workers seeded here and there.

“You’ve taken over the post system?” the professor asked.  “Is the plan to send poisoned envelopes to major figures?”

I remained silent, walking with her.

We were in the central building of the Academy, the core of the reclining woman’s torso.  The Academy’s post office was a short trip.

Getting service once we were there, even with one half of ‘we’ being the Professor, well, that was a different story.  We had to wait for the last of the mail to be hauled up by stitched crews and the one post worker on duty.

Rather than shove paper forms and the like for Professor Ferres to sign, the post worker simply opened the side gate and let us into the back.  The benefits of access.

I closed the door behind me as I stood in the entryway to the mail room.  Parcels and stacks of mail were already partially sorted, and stitched workers picked through mail before deciding where it was supposed to go.

It was a tableau of sorts, a scene where laborers worked and gave the illusion that they were doing something that they had been doing five minutes ago and would be doing every five minutes for years to come, if they were given a chance.  They sorted mail, questioned obstacles, and played it safe.

Sitting in one corner was the cage.  A young lady slept a drugged dream within it, her face a touch swollen.

“Is that supposed to be Betty?” the headmistress asked.

“We changed her hair and face,” I said.  “It wouldn’t do if the others recognized her.”

“Others?” Ferres asked.

“Your favored students.  Betty’s old colleagues,” I said.  “You had a fit of inspiration, didn’t you?  You’ll tell them you’re adding a new character to your performance.”

I wasn’t wholly sure, but I saw the first real crack in Ferres’ performance at that.  She covered it up well, but doing so necessitated looking away from me, hiding her expression for a moment.

“She likes fairies,” I said.  “Possible prey for the nightmare or the wolf, do you think?  Or for a smashing by a giant, for a visceral impact.”

I saw Ferres shake her head slightly.

“Don’t worry, Professor,” I said.  “Remember what you said.  The audience might call for blood, but that’s by no means a sure thing.  She could be fine.”

The crack ran deeper.

I saw the defeat reach her shoulders, as the strength in them subsided.  I wasn’t sure if she had properly let her guard down or surrendered a stray thought while she’d been our captive.  The momentary slump marked an occasion where I knew I had her.

Why then did I still feel she had a strategy to play?  One that she was so determined to hold back that she would surrender before she would use it?  An ominous backdrop for our ploy coming together.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.4

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I missed the rain.  Springtime in Radham had always been when the rain came down hardest, and there was something about letting it wash over me, over face and through hair, that really appealed to me.  It was almost the inverse of Wyvern, reaching inside of me to the very core of me and polluting me in a way that was as artificial as rain was natural.

Well, most rain.

A strong, cold wind blew past the dormitory window, only a portion of it actually passing inside.  I stood off to one side, using one eye to watch the students who were huddled in the dim dormitory hallway as I kept another eye on the window itself.  The wind that blew past my cigarette made the smoke roll off it in a thin horizontal line, everything beyond was pitch darkness.  It wasn’t overcast, but there was no moon.  I could hear the waves crashing against the cliffs far below.  I could smell the ocean.

Mabel approached me.

I tapped my box of cigarettes against my leg and held it out toward her.

“No thank you,” she said.

I changed the angle and tapped the box with a finger to have the cigarette disappear back inside.  “Want to share this one?”

“My dad would kill me if he knew,” she said.

Which was a yes.  I handed it over, turning my head toward the window to exhale.

She took one draw and handed it back.

“Not your usual brand,” she said.

“They make this one in-house.  Artsy fartsy students, spending all day dressed in white uniforms while following strict rules about sterility, maintenance, schedule, authority.  Some fit that, but others need to… breathe something that isn’t Academy air.”

“I’ve seen that group.  They dress civilian when they’re off the clock, listen to music, congregate in the area of the dormitories?”

I nodded.  I offered her the cigarette again.  Her arms were folded, and she raised a hand a little, refusing me.

“Are they like Bea’s group?” Mabel asked.

“No,” I said.  “They’re rule-followers more than rule-breakers.  I think they just evolved as an adaptation to the Academy.  Some people can go all-in on the Academy thing, and that’s their identity.  Others form a kind of two-headed identity, one face for Academy and the other for themselves.  Their self-identity doesn’t take away from their Academy identity.”

“Hm.  I think I was pretty all-in.  I don’t know if I would have stayed that way.  I didn’t know what to do with life except work harder,” Mabel said.  “Life would get in the way, and then I’d crumble.  I’d piece myself together in time for the next semester.  It got easier when I had an excuse to not go home for the mid-year and end-year breaks.”

“After you got to Beattle, I assume.”

“Yeah,” Mabel said.  “I could say I only had a week and a half off for each of the breaks, it took two days to travel out, two days to travel back.  It didn’t leave a lot of time.  Thankfully.”

“Did he visit?” I asked.  The sheriff.  Mabel’s dad.

“Some,” she said.  She looked down at my cigarette.  “Gim- me.”

I was already passing it over.

“Reading my mind,” she said.

“Not so much,” I said.

“You’re a step ahead of everyone.”

“Again, not so much,” I said.  “With Jessie, Helen, sure.  I know how they think.  The other Lambs, who you met briefly?  Same sort of thing.  More Mary and Lillian than Ashton, mind you.  But Ashton isn’t hard to figure out.”

“And me?”

“I know the key points.  My memory isn’t good- you know my memory isn’t good.  I forget things, as much as I don’t want to.  But I hold on to some things.  I don’t have enough of you to hold on to.”

I’d planned to add ‘yet’ to that last sentence, much as I’d planned the innuendo with the idea of holding onto her.  Seeing her stare out the window into the darkness, I decided against the ‘yet’, let the innuendo be on its own, without emphasis or a careful eye movement.

I continued, filling the silence, “Not analyzing you on that level.  Just paying attention.  I’m on edge, ready to pull a gun if I have to, so it shouldn’t be odd I can move a second faster to pass it to you.”

I’d left the statement open for further input, a chance for her to rebut, or to build on what I’d said.

She wasn’t responding, and she was taking her time with my cigarette.  Lost in thought.

“Want to come over tonight?” I asked.  “It’s gotta be about three in the morning right now.  Your choice if we just make it high quality sleep, all together, or if we just do without sleep altogether.”

“I’m not so comfortable doing that,” she said.

“If it’s about the old woman in the bathtub,” I said.  “We could put her to sleep with an injection, throw a sheet over her or something.”

I didn’t miss that she went straight to another puff on the cigarette after I dropped that thought.  There had been a pattern to how long she’d waited before drawing in a breath, too small a sample size to be perfect, but noticeable to anyone who paid enough attention to her.  That pattern picked up.

“Bad joke,” I said.  “Sorry.”

Now you’re reading my mind.”

“You’re clever, Mabel, you’ve got a fine eye for detail, but when it comes to flipping things around, I think anybody could tell what you’re thinking.”

“You might have too high an estimation of ‘anybody’, Sy,” Mabel said.  “It’s more about coming and going, I worry I’ll blow our cover.”

“I’m adaptable,” I said.  “As for the coming, we’d be making the most noise in the dead of night, I don’t think we’d be overheard, especially with the quality of the construction over there.  As for the going, Jessie, Helen and I have done fine.  Only person to see you go is the Hag of Hackthorn, and she’s not in a position to complain.”

“All the same,” Mabel said.

Someone in the cluster of students raised a hand.  I pointed, and Mabel handed me what remained of the cigarette before hurrying over.

I needed to teach my people to walk more quietly in spaces like this.  The dormitory building was grown, all builder’s wood, and the floor wasn’t planks, but a controlled outgrowth.  It was hard to make noise when there was something approximating a bisected tree trunk underfoot, as opposed to planks that bowed under a person’s weight, and Mabel still managed to scuff the floor with her shoes.

It went back to what I’d been thinking before.  As a pair of eyes, a lookout, an investigator, a reader, she was good.  Put her to task, she did good work.  Just about tops.  But as the person watched, as the investigated, the read, the person being worked on?  Room for growth.

I wondered if I was just thinking along those lines because I wanted to find fault.

She’d left me with barely anything of my cigarette.  I took one last pull to finish it off, then spat it out the window.

As a point of pride, I moved across the floor without a sound, being sure to position myself so I wouldn’t interfere too much with the amount of light in the hallway.  The human eye was sensitive, and even the slightest of changes in light level could trip prey instincts.

One of the people gathered at the door was a young male student, one of Mabel’s from the Green Team, or whatever they were calling themselves this week.  He’d started out as one of Bea’s, and against all odds, he’d become more of a proper and dedicated student now that he’d left the Academy than he’d been when he’d been part of it.

I was pretty sure he was sweet on Mabel, too.  Entirely fair.  She was neat.

That had absolutely nothing to do with the perverse pleasure I felt when my silent appearance made him jump.

There were five of them gathered.  Jessie sat with her back to the wall, sleeping in the middle of a mission.  The three students who were kneeling at the door were wearing quarantine masks.  One held a hose and a bladder that he palpated, another held something to the gap beneath the door while making sure the hose stayed in place, and the third was the fellow I’d just spooked.  He was mixing a chemical that was feeding into a ‘Y’ shaped join in the hose, bladder, feed assembly.  Mabel checked the levels, taking a drop of the mixture into a vial, which she shook before checking the color as best as she could by the dim light.

She gestured for the go-ahead.  Her subordinate turned the key that connected the fluid hose to the bladder.

At that same moment, a doorknob rattled down the hall, the door cracking open.  The cluster of students all froze, and I moved.

I crossed the hallway, darting to the door, staying low to the ground.  As the person within stepped out, I pressed a knife to their throat.

I took stock of them.  Him.  He looked to be a rather rough-edged young man, gangly, his hair long enough that oil and wax didn’t serve to keep it all in order.  He wore an undershirt and slacks, and had a proper shirt slung over one shoulder.  His eyes went wide as he realized what the knife was.

“I-”

I moved the knife, fast, the blade pressing against his lips.

Moving slowly, I reached over and closed the door as quietly as I could.

“Uh,” he whispered.

“Shhh,” I said.  “Quiet now.  You just had a bit of bad luck, is all.”

“Uh.”

I pressed the knife against his lips, harder, until I sensed that any further pressure would break skin.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “You’ll come for a walk with me, while these guys do what they’re doing.  Then you’ll disappear.  Maybe for a little while, maybe for good.  It depends how much you cooperate.  How quiet you are.  Understand?”

I gave him my best reassuring smile.

Unwilling to nod and slice his lips open, unwilling to make a sound, he closed his eyes very deliberately, and then he opened them.

“Good,” I said.  I moved the knife to his throat.  “No noise now.  Come-”

“Sy,” I heard the whisper behind me.

Mabel.

“He’s one of ours.”

“Is he?” I whispered back.  I looked at the guy.

“Think so.  One of Bea’s?”

The flat of the knife point rested against his throat.  My grip on the knife was light, so I could swap hands or shift my hold at a moment’s notice, and I could feel the vibrations of his pulse making the knife move.

Slowly, he nodded.

I pulled the knife away.

“We’ve talked,” he said.

“Have we?”

“I went out with Bea after Fang did?  And we played cards in the big tent while on watch in the middle of the black woods?  I did the second shift?  Day two?”

“There were a lot of days, a lot of faces playing cards,” I said.  “Uh, did we talk about girls?”

“No.”

“Oh.  Well… that was a less than stellar guess.  Shucks.  Now I feel like a heel.”

“I… really don’t know what to say to that,” he whispered.

“Come on,” I said.

We joined the others.  The palpating of the bladder had resumed, and a little mixer or fan whirred at the ‘Y’-shaped connector.

“What were you doing here anyway?” I asked.  “It’s the girl’s dormitory.”

The young fellow looked startled at the question.  Then, slowly, a smile spread across his face.

“Right,” I said.  “Good night?”

His smile widened.  He had the decency to look sheepish.

“Almost ready,” Mabel said.  “I’m going to get clear.  Unless you want to let Jessie keep sleeping.”

“We need her,” I said.

“Then I’ll get clear.  Come on, Happy.”

Happy.  Right.

We’d brought a blanket and several canvas bags, and I’d draped the blanket over Jessie while everything got underway.  Supplies had been left on and around her.

I reached over and touched the underside of her chin, lifting it.

“If you were anyone but Sy, I’d have stuck you with a knife by now,” she said, as she woke.

I put the gas mask on her face for her, fixing everything in place.

“I can get away with a lot,” I said.  I set the blanket aside, then took her hands.  I hauled her to her feet.  Right at the last second, I pulled her off balance, making like I was going to drop her.

I caught her, hand at the small of her back, and flourished, the pair of us every bit the ballroom dancers.

Jessie drew her knife and made like she was going to stab me.  She stopped just shy of actually doing it.  “Not that much.  Not when I’ve just woken up.”

I grinned.

Mabel glanced back at us, as did Happy.  The others were pulling equipment aside.  The wadding at the base of the door was pulled away, and I could see the wisps of vapor.

I popped the door lock, which was of the mass-manufactured sort that assembly lines of stitched worked on, so easy to break that it really was there for show and propriety.

There were two students to a room.  Betty had divided the room up with a black-skinned girl who slept in a bed on the far side of the room, and from the looks of it, it really was more of a division than a sharing of the space.  There wasn’t a line of chalk or paint drawn down the center of the room, but it was absolutely clear which side of the room was Betty’s.  The gas was pea-soup thick, one student pulled a towel down from where it hung on the back of the door to keep more vapor from leaking into the hallway, and the other two looked to me for an a-okay for permission to illuminate the room.

“The gas isn’t flammable, right?” I asked.

“It’ll dampen the flames, but won’t put them out.”

I nodded.

The three students in the quarantine suits gathered the blanket, and they worked on rolling up Betty in the thing.  Jessie and I gathered the canvas bags and began methodically working through Betty’s space.  I packed up the clothes, three Academy uniforms with seven smocks, five days worth of non-Academy clothing that I suspected she hadn’t worn much, a seemingly disproportionately large number of underthings, and an even more disproportionate number of socks.  I swept all the jewelry into the bag.

Jessie worked through the bookcase.  She picked the books with cracked spines and wear and left the more pristine ones.  We worked swiftly to ensure the bags were neatly packed.  It was only enough possessions to fill half of a room and one small closet.

In the thick fog, it was the little personal touches that were easiest to miss.  A doodle from a notebook stuck between wall and windowframe, so it was close to the pillow while she slept.  Similar ones along her closet door, running from top to bottom.  Quotes of the motivational sort, drawings, cryptic research thoughts that had probably struck late at night and needed to be written down lest they be forgotten.

As her bundled form was carried out of the room, I moved my attention to the bed.

Betty here was a vague and flowery narrative in a number of senses.  She’d told herself stories about how the work she was doing was justified, but there were themes running through all of this.  A fantasy in the notes she wrote to herself.  ‘Create beauty’.  The fact that three out of four doodles were of fairies.

I lifted up the mattress, searching.  I reached into spaces between bed and bookshelf, searched under the bed, and then pulled out drawers, checking that nothing was stuck beneath and that there were no secret compartments.

“Sy,” Jessie said.  She held up the diary I’d been looking for.  Sitting on the bookshelf, within the folds of a larger book sleeve with no book.

If that had been found, it would have raised questions.

We erased the existence of Betty as much as we could.  I did a final sweep while Jessie stood at the desk, using Betty’s stationary, pen, and handwriting to pen out a letter.

“Going down to the city, don’t look for me?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “A post-boat leaves tonight.  She’s hitching a ride.”

“I worry about that,” I said.  “There’s a reason we didn’t boat in.  There’s security.  Oversight.”

“And Betty is determined and well connected.  We point the direction, people won’t know where she is, and they’ll have to assume she left by boat.”

I winced.

“You don’t think it’ll work?”

“It might.  I just worry about…”

I used my hands to gesture.  I tried to sketch out a shape.

“Diamond with a wizard hat?”

“There’s too many edges, too many angles others can come at it from.”

“There aren’t many places for her to go, Sy.  The boat timing works.  Anything else and they might look for her and realize she isn’t anywhere to be found.  It’s not like she’s going to hike the wasteland and black woods.”

“They won’t be able to verify with the boat?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “Not quickly enough to matter.”

“Then what’s the motivation?”

“Us.  You and me.  She doesn’t like what this has become, she’s mad at the professor.  She’s questioning the sheer number of rural folk and strangers who’ve been escorted through the black wood and allowed to take refuge at the foot of Hackthorn.”

“It’s going to draw attention to us.”

“We’re close,” Jessie said.  “Things are coming together.”

I cracked the window open so the gas could escape.  I checked the room one more time, walked over to Betty’s roommate, and checked the girl’s breathing and pulse.

Sleeping.

“You’re in a rush, Jessie,” I said.

“Yeah, Sy.  I worry about how much time we have.”

She means to say she worries how much time she has.

Or maybe she really does mean to say how much time we have.  As a pair.

“I just don’t want to cut corners and have things fall through at the last moment.”

“Yeah,” she said.

A smile touched my face, and I heard a sound from Jessie, through her mask.  A short laugh.

The same thought had hit us both at the same moment.  The role reversal.  Jessie being reckless, me being the rational one.

We bent down, and we collected the bags that hadn’t already been carried out by the others.

“And Betty’s gone,” I whispered, closing the door.

There was a larger group waiting for us outside.  We passed the heavy bags of books and clothes to others.

“Back to our rooms?” the Treasurer asked.  Even in the gloom, I could see that he was doing better.  He’d been solid, stoic, a reliable member of the team with a good head on his shoulders, especially when it came to his field of specialty, but seeing him now?  He’d filled out, he stood taller, and he looked more ready to take on the world.

Davis had perhaps gone in the other direction, but it wasn’t wholly bad.  He’d always been a pair with Valentina, and Valentina had moved on, alongside a small handful of others.  The showing and the whole situation with Neph and the black wood had done a lot to earn the faith of our people.  The change to Davis resembled someone who had gone through hard work and come out of it without an ounce of fat on him, but on a spiritual level.

Mabel had left with the others.

I’d wanted to finish my conversation with her.

“Not back to our rooms, I’m thinking,” Davis said.  “Not when everyone’s active and around.”

“No,” I agreed.  “There are things to do.”

I let Jessie do the gesture, and I watched as our people moved in response.  A dozen of our guys and gals who weren’t already seeded throughout the Academy.

The buildings of Hackthorn were like the fingers of a hand that held the great reclining woman up.  In the moonless night, she scintillated, countless labs and chambers with lamps and candles within now glowing orange, the light scattered among leaves and foliage that bristled along her skin.

At the base of that hand, however, the landscape was uneven.  The place wanted to be a city, but no two buildings were really seated on the same section of flat earth.  Even some buildings were staggered, the foundation split across two to four levels.

It did its darndest to be a proper settlement, but it was an individual, separate beast.  It served more as a spot of ugliness to offset the beauty and art of Hackthorn’s buildings and reclining woman than it did any other purpose.

All the roads were winding, stores remained open late, and it seemed like every other building was a place for students to meet for drink or food.  Like the smoking students, it was a way for students to breathe and escape the pressure.  It wasn’t a thing that a lot of Academies had.

It was presently late enough that half of those buildings had closed or were in the process of closing.  We walked past several places where windows were being shuttered and containers rinsed out outside, and we scarcely got a second glance.

The cafe we stopped at was closed.  I approached the door and knocked.

Shirley, Pierre, and a bulk of the refugees from the city where Neph had died were gathered within.  They sat at benches and tables and formed a cluster, and most of the light within came from the fires burning in the kitchen and at the other end of the building, at the end of the cafe’s dining area.

“You grace us with your presence,” a fat man said, with a fair bit of irony to the use of ‘grace’.

“Few are more graceful than we,” I said, holding Jessie’s hand, holding it up.

“How are we doing on the ground level?” Jessie asked.

Straight to business.

“We’re doing quite well,” Pierre said.  With the abundance of focus on the cosmetic, someone had tended to his head, and he looked far better.  Still ghoulish, but better.

“Are we seeded?” I asked.

“We’re seeded on the ground,” Pierre said.

I rummaged through the things I still had with me, and I found a small bag.

“Talk to me about distribution,” Jessie said.  “Military?”

“They wanted more bodies, what with things on the horizon,” the fat man said.  “We weren’t able to get many in, but we got some in.  Not going to have a regiment under your control if something goes south, but you could get information, or keys to the right locked door.”

“That might give us the control over weapons we need,” I said.  “Given timing and everything else.”

I brought the bag to Shirley, who stood in the threshhold between the dining area of the cafe and the kitchen.

“Politics?” Jessie asked.

“The groundskeeper’s stitched had an unfortunate accident, went to pieces,” the fat man said.  “He was forced to hire someone.  Pretty young lady who is entirely loyal to us.”

The groundskeeper, because having an actual mayor didn’t make sense, given the local dynamic.

“That’s thin, as seeds go,” I said.  Shirley had undone the bag.  It was a bit redundant, given that she was running this cafe, but I’d included some pastries, a trinket, and a little bottle of non-alcoholic blackberry cider that Jessie had said Shirley adored.

Shirley gave me a kiss on the forehead for that one.

Not that a little gesture like this was anything close to what I owed her.

“It’s thin, but they aren’t happy about all of us moving in and taking up space.  They don’t want to give us work.  I’m proud of that one,” the fat man said.

He had a tone of belligerence that suggested he was drunk, when he actually wasn’t drunk at all.  He was just loud and perhaps a little wanting when it came to inhibitions and delicacy.

“Factories, labor?” Jessie asked.

“We’ve got a lot going on.  They were happy to have the extra hands.  They stored a lot of lumber in advance of the black wood coming in.  Now they’re processing it.”

“Good,” Jessie said.  “Then, in case this boils down to a siege, we should talk food.”

“We’ve got tabs on the food,” Pierre said, speaking softly.  He clasped his hands in front of him.  “We made that a priority.”

“Good man,” I said, voice soft.  Pierre shot me a salute.

“If we can control that and not lose it when push comes to shove, we can win in the long run,” Jessie said.  “I’d rather not have it come to the long run, but I do like having that security.”

She was so focused on time.  It pained me a little.

“Then,” I said.  “Let’s talk about food in a different sense.  Let’s say there was an event.  Let’s say important people came.  Festival, celebration, a need to please.  If the high cuisine came in, needing to be stored, would we have a stranglehold on that as well?”

“I think we would,” Pierre said.

“Good,” I said.  “Then I think we’re moving forward nicely.”

“Are you thinking of the young master’s celebration?” Jessie asked.

“No,” I said.  I drummed my fingers on the table for a moment.  “No, I’m thinking of bigger fish.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.3

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“If you want it, you have to tell me.  Water,” I said.  I moved my hand, three fingers extended, in a horizontal direction.

Poll Parrot looked down at his wings.  No hands to gesture with.  I waited, expectant, as he moved his wings.

Finally, he extended a wing, twisted so only three of the pinion feathers at the tip extended.  He swiped it sideways.

I smiled, and he smiled back in a nervous way.  I gave him a little salute and backed away from the bars, saying, “Give me a moment.”

There was a sink at the far end of the little alley of cells.  I headed to it, glancing and paying attention to each of the experiments along the way.  Little Bo Peep got my attention, palm out, hand toward me.

She did the gesture for water, then touched her mouth.  Her facial construction was different, with a pronounced groove of the philtrum at her upper lip, a faint darker coloration there and at her upper lip.  Her hair was a shaggy growth of wool.

“Coming right up,” I said.

I rinsed and filled two cups.  Helen was just off to my right, reaching through the bars and playing some finger game with one of the smaller ones.

Bo Peep took her cup, then paused before gesturing.  Aggression.  Then she pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead, wincing.

“Headache?” I asked.

Bo Peep managed to nod at me while drinking from her cup.  Then she moved her hand.  Three fingers together, pointed up, she waggled her hand as she shook the tower to pieces.

It wasn’t the way a Lamb would’ve done it, but I quite liked it.

Given a chance, people were damned good at finding ways to communicate.

“Thinking, thought, brains.  Gone to ruin.  You can’t think clearly?”

She nodded.  She raised three fingers, separate this time.

“Can’t see clearly?  Senses fuzzy?”

She nodded.

“That’ll be the drugs.  Just like the ones they used to keep you from speaking or making noise.  When they stop experimenting on you and start getting you to practice, they’ll cut back on the drugs.  They might give you others, if they need you to be able to speak so you can act or sing, or to make you more compliant.”

She made the gesture for thinking, except she pointed it down, reversing it, and she made a confused face.

“What confused you?”  She couldn’t answer, so I tried the scattershot approach.  “Did I get something wrong?  Was it the mention of practice?  The drugs?  Do you want to know what the other drugs are?  The singing?  Making you compliant-”

At that last bit, she gestured again.  She used the other hand to drink more, greedily gulping water down, one eye watching me.

“Compliant.  It means obedient, doing what they want.”

The reversed ‘tower’ of three fingers flipped up.  Understood.

I reached through the bars and gave the three fingers a squeeze.  “Need anything else?”

She shook her head.  The mop of white wool flew left and right.

“Alright,” I said.  “Give me the glass back, or people will wonder how you got it.

She gave me the glass.  As I turned away, she reached for and grabbed my sleeve.

“Hm?”

She gestured.  Alert.  You.  Body.  Mind.  Alert.

The look in her eyes was dead serious.

I reached through the bars and brushed my hand down the bangs of her mop of hair and the front of her face.  “Stop fussing.  I’ll be fine.”

Fingers brushed down my sleeve and fingers as I withdrew my arm.  Prolonging contact.

Not because of any attraction, I was pretty sure.

Just a desire for a friendly face to stay a little bit longer.

I headed for Poll with his glass of water.  Mentally, I made a note that I would have to be careful, lest I develop a fondness or soft spot for any of them.  Bo Peep was a frontrunner, and the stylistic tie didn’t help.  I’d already run into that snag with Mary.

I put my hand and the other cup through the bars for Poll Parrot, and tipped the cup back for him so he could drink.

He snorted, and I moved the cup away.

Hand made a blade, I held it up at my sternum.  “Means I’ve heard you, I recognize you, I understand, or thank you.”

He did his best with his wing-arms.  He was like Avis in her outfit, but without the ability to lose the outfit, no hands hidden in the rigging of his wings.  Better to have him do his best and if all went according to plan, perhaps there would be an opportunity to teach him tap code later.

“Good lad,” I said.  I turned, showing others in earshot the gesture.

I heard Helen speak, and I saw her making the same gesture.  Passing it on to others who couldn’t see me, closer to the end of the hall.

He curled his wing, setting his jaw.  It was hard to track what I’d taught them, but I knew that I had taught them the core gestures that the Lambs had used to generate all of the rest.  It was fairly simple to work out what gesture he was attempting by process of elimination.

“That might not be so clear to the others.  Try your foot,” I said.

He shifted his weight to one foot.  He clenched his talon in a particular way.  Aggression, pain, force.

“Soon,” I said, echoing my statement earlier.  “And honestly?  I don’t plan to use you guys to fight.  I don’t want a battle in that sense.  Even in the best case scenario, if I had ninety percent control over the situation, I don’t know if you’ll be in cages, drugged, fresh from surgeries, or whatever else.  Okay?”

He didn’t look happy at that.  He clenched his talon again.  He struck at his chest with the leading edge of his wing, what I might otherwise have called his forearm.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  “Believe me, I know.”

He had been altered to be beautiful, and he was.  The ruby red and indigo feathers only accentuated the image.  He was twelve and he was very much an idealization of a boy his age.  If Lillian and Jamie had found something attractive in me when I was younger, then it was present in Poll.  He was fine boned and athletic, and could have been a ballet dancer in another course of events, and all of that stood in stark contrast to how very angry he was.

If I hadn’t grown up with equal parts beauty and bloodthirst, I might have been given pause by the image.

There was a stirring at the end of the hall closest to the entryway.  Rustling of arms against bars, movement, scuffs and light bangs.

“Want to help?” I asked Poll.

He nodded.

“Can I throw water at you?” I asked, showing him the cup.

He paused, then nodded.

I smiled, and I allowed my entire bearing to change.  I raised my chin, and I made the aggression gesture, hard, before throwing the water in his face.

Then I laughed, and it was a mocking, hard laughter.

I saw the shock on his face as he backed away, there was confusion and momentary hurt that hurt me in equal measure just for seeing it.  Then his eyes moved to my hand, which was still gesturing.

Feathers rustled, and he threw himself forward, kicking the bars, hard.

I’d pulled away just in time.  I continued laughing.

Now that I’d changed my position, I could see the approaching person the other prisoners had been reacting to.  One of Ferres’ favored students.  Betty, the girl of Ferres’ group, or she had been before Jessie turned up.  I turned to her with a smile on my face.

She wore a boy’s haircut, her hair considerably shorter than my own, combed in a part, but she wore makeup and white pearl earrings to match her Academy blazer and skirt.  Bold, modern, attractive, and very, very dangerous.

Poll backed away, then repeated the attack, hurling himself forward, kicking the bars with one taloned foot.

“Stop!” Betty barked out an order to Poll.  “You’re accomplishing nothing, and you’ll only hurt yourself.”

Poll stood there, and the anger I’d seen moments before was out in full force.  He panted, glaring, lines standing out in his neck, feathers bristling.  One of his talons clenched, the talon-tips digging at the floor of his cell.  His face dripped.

On seeing the young lady, Poll’s face contorted in what should have been a scream.  I could only barely hear the strangled squeak from his throat.

“Stop now, Poll,” the student said.  “You know the consequences.”

Poll stopped, still heaving for breath.  He coughed, having hurt himself in his attempt to scream, and he turned away, sitting down very forcefully on the floor of his cell.

“What are you even doing here?” Betty addressed me.

“I wanted to see how the sausage gets made,” I said, smirking.  “Call it morbid curiosity.”

“You’ve agitated them,” Betty.

“Only having a little fun,” I said.

“If your interference leads to problems with training them, it’s going to cause problems for everyone,” she said.  “It’s why access is supposed to be restricted.”

“If they’re cranky then give them more drugs,” I said.

“It’s not that simple.  We’re weaning them off for training in the coming week.”

“You’re clever,” I said.  I sauntered a bit as I approached Betty.  I gave her the most patronizing pat on the cheek as I could manage, “You’ll figure it out.”

She reached up to seize my wrist.

My condescending smile didn’t budge.

“You’re not that big,” she said.

“I’m big enough that I’m over here and the Hag of Hackthorn isn’t dragging me out herself,” I said.  “Like she said, politics.”

Her hand had tightened on my wrist when I said ‘hag’.  She was wholly in the professor’s corner.

“I can play that card too,” she said.  “My father is Harry Washburn.”

I moved my face closer to hers.  “I.  Don’t.  Care.”

“You should,” she said.  She was steeling herself now that I was invading her personal space again.  Her rebuttal didn’t have as much force behind it as it should have.

“Do you not know how to deal with someone who doesn’t shit their pants when you mention daddy, Bets?  Because that name drop might end a conversation with some commoner student, but I’m willing to carry that conversation to a proper conclusion.”

“There’s no conversation to be had,” she said.  She let go of my wrist, pushing my hand away.  “And there’s no conclusion.”

“You’ve been queen of every clique, you’re the top student type.  So tell me, why aren’t you attending one of the better schools, hm?”

“I chose this school.”

“Ah, so you felt inadequate elsewhere?  Did you have a scare somewhere along the line?”

The faintest of flinches.

I smiled.  “Better to be big fish of a medium-sized pond rather than risk attending at the Capitol proper and not measuring up.”

“You’re an embarrassment to the aristocracy,” she said.

There’s an insight into how your mind works,” I said.  “I say ‘not measuring up’ and you jump straight to embarrassment.  Is daddy embarrassed of you?  Come on, Bets.  Do you really think he’d put any effort in at all if he got a nice pleading letter from you?  How likely is it really that he makes the three day trip, hops on a boat and passes through the asshole of the reclining lady of Hackthorn?”

That might have struck too close to home, right there.  It was a cheap shot, really.  The vast majority of youths who were away from home and out of contact with mom and dad weren’t one hundred percent sure of their parents’ love.  Betty didn’t give me the impression of someone in the minority.

But there was a problem with the cheap shot that hit close to home.  Home was home, a place someone lived.  It was the familiar, and very often people were comfortable there, even if it wasn’t pretty or tidy.

“Listen,” she said, asserting herself in spite of everything I’d said, “You shouldn’t be here.”

Returning to the central argument.  She had the sense to do that, and avoid letting me drive things further away.  “And you’re here to escort me out.”

“No,” she said.  “No, you shouldn’t be here, in this Academy, in Professor Ferres’ classes, watching over your fiancee to make sure your family’s money is being well spent, throwing your weight around.”

Ah.

“If you stick to that mindset, you’ll find yourself floundering when you leave the Academy, if you don’t already struggle in that world, Betty.  The constraints of should limit only those who allow themselves to be limited by them.”

I paced as I talked, and in the doing, I was able to look down the length of the row of cells.  Helen was no longer at the end of the hall.  The door there was too obvious for her to have used.

“Tradition exists for a reason,” Betty said.

Helen’s absence was concerning.  Had she not been real?  If she wasn’t real, that meant I needed to get things in order for the grey coats.  It meant other things, but I didn’t want to touch on them.

“Hypocritical, that,” I said, absently, my mind not wholly on the argument.

“Hyp- what?”

“People are happy to push for tradition and forget what came before.  It was once traditional for violence to be the be-all and end-all.  It was once tradition for slavery to be commonplace, and for every man to face the possibility of being shackled.  It was once tradition, my dear hypocrite, for women to bow their heads and listen to the men, and if you wanted to stick to the shoulds and shouldn’ts, then women shouldn’t wear coats, be they white, grey, or black.”

Betty rolled her eyes.

“When it’s convenient, then?” I asked her.

“I don’t think I’ve ever hated someone as much as I hate you,” she said.  “You’re being reductionist.”

“And you’re being a hypocrite.  But by all means, cling to ‘should be’ when it serves you, and ignore it when it doesn’t.”

“The distinction is that tradition and establishment serve as a backbone.  We hold to them when they make us stronger as a whole.”

“When it’s convenient,” I said.  I extended an arm.  “Hey.  Look at this.  It used to be established that communities looked after their children, but hey, it’s convenient to imprison them, drug them, alter them.”

Them?” Betty asked, incredulous, indicating the cells.

“Hey, look at me,” I said.  I spread my hands.  “Not complaining.”

“You’re twisting things around,” Betty said.  “They volunteered.  The drugs mean they’ll forget all of this.  At worst, they’ll walk away richer with vague recollections of a fairy tale fantasy and the best party of their lives.  Everyone benefits.”

“Come on now,” I said.  “And the cells?”

“Expedience.  We can’t have children running around, especially with the drugs we pumped into them for surgery and to keep them compliant.”

“Is that what Professor Ferres tells you, or did you conjure up that particular shade of horseshit yourself?”

“It’s fact,” she said.  “Any operation looks ugly when you sneak a peek at the proceedings halfway through.  There’s no reason to expect this is any different.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t believe I’m missing time I could be spending with Professor Ferres to talk to you,” she said.  She looked at the youths in the cells, then shook her head.  “Don’t interfere with them.  Let them be.”

With that, she strode off, back to the central area of Lab One.

“Yeah,” I said, my voice softening.  I let the aristocratic bearing slip away, lowering the chin I’d been holding a notch too high.  I hoped the transition was obvious enough to the eyes watching to let on that I’d been acting.  I turned, looking at each of the prisoners I could see.  My voice was soft as I spoke, “I’m going to get you guys out of here soon.”

Three of the five prisoners nearest me made the gesture I’d shown to Poll Parrot.

Glasses still in hand, I walked over to the sink, putting them away, and I used the mirror over that sink to check my hair was fine.

I looked over at the cell where Helen had been playing with the children.

She was inside the cell.  The three smaller children were lying down, two with heads in Helen’s lap.

“Are you real?” I asked Helen.

“Yes,” Helen said.

“Wouldn’t you say that if you weren’t?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.  I’m very honest,” Helen said.

“You are, aren’t you?” I asked.  “Okay.  How did you get in there?”

“Squeezed through the bars.”

“Of course,” I said.  The bars that kept children who looked to be eight within their cell.

“I would have liked to be the aristocrat,” Helen said.  “I would have been better at it.”

“I’m really good at being a shitty person, though,” I said.

“Shhh,” Helen said.  “Let’s not talk like that around them.  They’ve been through so much.”

She ran her hand through the hair of one of the children with his head in her lap.  His eyes were open – he wasn’t sleeping.  Somehow I thought he wouldn’t sleep, that he might drink this up.

“You’ll be okay?” I asked Helen.

“I’ll visit everyone who’s hard to visit, and Jessie asked me to scout the armory.  She also asked me not to kill for fun, because people are getting concerned.”

“What things?”

“Stitched.  Experiments that make satisfying crunches when I squeeze them.”

“When I tell these kids soon, I mean it.  Can you hold back long enough if you know there’s something bigger coming up?”

“I can,” Helen said.

“Good.  Good.  And visit these guys when you’re free?  They’ll need a friendly face.”

Helen turned her cold expression my way.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

It didn’t look like she was going to get started with her day right this second, the children positioned where they were.

I turned around, gathered myself up into a more aristocratic bearing, and strode for Lab One.

I heard bone crunch and snap behind me.  Stopping in my tracks, I turned.

Blood sprayed, painting the wall of Helen’s cell.

I remained where I was, listening to the continued crunch, grind, snap of popping bone and gristle.  Here and there, there was another spatter of blood.  Some reached into the hallway by the sink and mirror.

I closed my eyes, holding my breath.

I couldn’t close my ears so easily.  I heard the wet noises, the dry noises, and the rustling, and my very agile mind filled in the blanks.

I pressed my hands to my ears, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen.  I wanted the sound to be all in my head and for the noises to continue with my hands over my ears at the same time I didn’t want to hear any of it at all.

But the sounds stopped.

I exhaled, and my breath hitched.  I opened my eyes at the same moment I pulled my hands from my ears.

Crunch.  A trickle of blood seeped into the hallway.

I blinked, and the blood was gone.  The noises stopped, replaced by Helen’s whisper-soft humming.

The children in the cells who weren’t looking at me were looking in Helen’s direction, listening.

My hands trembled, so I put them in my pockets.  I made sure my pose and posture were right, and I shot a smile at the nearest prisoners, reassuring them as best as I could.

Evette smirked at me as I walked past her.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said to her.

I left the cells behind, stepping out into Lab One.  Jessie had joined other students in working on the horse with the mane of nothing, set in a bed of scars.  When it was active and alive, the black horse’s mane and hooves would be alight with fire, its eyes glowing red.

Entirely impractical, but this was art.

“Is your curiosity sated, Simon?” Professor Ferres asked me.

Never,” I said.

“A shame you aren’t one of my students,” she said.

I smiled wider.  Careful there.

“I was about to leave to look after my prospective grey coats.  I was under the impression you wanted to join me?”

“I did,” I said.  “In fact, there was something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“You’re always particularly… engaged, after studying my work in progress,” she said.

“An operation halfway through,” I said.  That got me a glance from Betty, who had donned a mask and scrubs.

I looked over at Jessie.  “I’ll catch you later, hon?”

“When later?”

“After class,” I said.

“I’ll look forward to it,” she said.

I left her to it.  I joined the professor in heading upstairs.

“You’re tense,” I commented, once we’d reached a point in the flight of stairs where we weren’t in earshot of anyone.

“Somewhat,” the professor said.

“You’re thinking that you’re due for a meeting in your office with the prospective greys, and I would seem particularly out of place there.”

“You’re out of place here no matter the office or corridor, Sylvester,” the professor said.

“But see, I’m borrowing your power.  You could make the sky crimson over Hackthorn, and if you said it was fine, it would be accepted as fine.”

“Perhaps,” she said.

She gave a nod and a smile to a student who was descending the stairs.  Conversation paused for a moment, and then more students appeared, and the conversation came to an outright halt.

In those students, I saw a pair of mine.  They didn’t act like anything was amiss as they walked past me, but one did glance my way.

Ferres and I made our way up to the top floor.  As we reached it, I saw her bearing change, much in the same way mine had.

She was a little taller than me, and so she had been afforded a better view of the people on the top floor a moment before I had.  That, and I’d been watching her more than I’d been watching others.

The smile was gone, the geniality she’d offered her students stripped away.  She went cold in a way that wasn’t so distant from how Helen did it.  Because she was in the company of more common students, and because a heavyset man with fine clothes was there.

“Ibbot knew you once, didn’t he?” I asked.

“You know this.”

“Just asking.”

“He studied some of my ideas and even asked for my thoughts at one point while creating your friend with the injured face.  He didn’t use my thoughts, which would be helpful in the here and now, but that’s beside the point.  Yes, we’ve interacted,” Ferres said.  She sounded annoyed at the distraction.

“Yeah,” I said.

Seeing her go cold, adopting a crisper, administrator’s bearing, it was a good reminder that she was someone with deeper reserves.  She’d drawn something from less than a half hour’s time in the company of her favorite students, steeling herself, growing stronger.  She’d reached this position through merit and calculation, and none of that was gone.

I needed things from her.

We approached the aristocrat, and Ferres extended a hand.

He took it and kissed it.  I wanted to wince at that, but I would let it slide.

“Professor,” the aristocrat said.

“Good Sir,” she said, with no warmth at all.  “What brings you here?”

I could smell the touch of whiskey.

“He’s my father,” I said.

Ferres’ expression didn’t falter in the slightest.

“Son,” Otis’ sole surviving thug said, with the paternal warmth of a dissected frog.

I could smell more of the whiskey now.  I was suspicious he’d actually had some.  A method actor, it seemed.

“I see.  And what’s the reason for him being here?”

“He’s going to come along.  He’s drunk enough to barge in and both notable and eccentric enough to get away with it,” I said.

“I find myself wondering about this.”

“Say it with me, professor.  The sky is crimson.”

“The sky is crimson,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.  Then to my very confused father, I said, “Don’t worry about it.  You’ll watch her?”

“I’ll watch her,” he said.

“Is this the latest in the series of indignities you’re bestowing on me?” Ferres asked.  “Students will automatically link an old maid like myself with any man of roughly my age who I keep company with.”

“The horror,” I said.

“Is that the threat, then?  He’ll be my paramour, and my reputation is ruined, or you kill me?”

“Oh no, professor,” I said.  My eye moved through the crowd.  I saw more of mine seeded throughout.  Beattle students in Hackthorn uniforms.  The fact that students were giving the professor a respectful berth meant I could talk without too much worry of being overheard.  “Death is too merciful, isn’t it?  Father, you’re under strict instruction not to kill her, mind you.”

“Noted.  Son.”

He needed more acting lessons with Helen.

I looked up at Professor Ferres.  “If you cross me, I’ll give you Wyvern, professor.  It’s painful, you know.”

“Quite,” she said.

“But that won’t be the end of it.  I will make your mind malleable, and I will batter it with words.  I will play on your fears and your hopes, I will find your weak points, and I will create some.  Then I’ll give you a week to recover before doing it again, and again, and again.  I don’t have very long before I lose my mind entirely, and so this is my last real gambit.  If this plan fails, then I’ll spend all the time I have left ensuring you lose your mind too.”

Her expression was hard to read, but as she glanced away, she moved her shoulder, one of the sore ones from the long night in the hard tub, with minimal movement on her part.

“I will make you stupid, professor.  I will make your thoughts run in circles endlessly.  I will tear you down until you’re a whimpering child in a sixty year old woman’s body.  Pass on a message to the right person somehow, somehow avoid everything I’ve been putting into place for the past days and weeks, and I’ll still manage it.  And you’ll let me do it, with scarcely any resistance at all.”

“I’ll let you?” she asked.  Her curiosity sounded more intellectual than anything else.

“Because if I find you too hard to crack, on one particular night?  I’ll turn my attention to your co-conspirators.  To students and teachers you respect and admire.  And you’re too proud of what you’ve built here to allow me to do that for your benefit.”

She nodded, absorbing that.

“You’re going to not only tell me what I want to know about Crown and Academy, but you’re going to help me do it.”

“Perhaps,” she said.  “And I do see my prospective grey coats.  Do I have your leave to join them, Sylvester?”

I almost wanted to retort ‘perhaps’, but it was because the word had caught on my brain.

I waved her off, and she offered her arm to my father, who took it, walking with her to the grey coats.

It wasn’t a hallucination like the one I’d had near the cells, but I had a distinct mental picture of the students I’d seeded into the student body in an out-and-out war with the other students.  We were badly outnumbered, but the element of surprise was ours, our students were far more prepared to fight, and we were in the process of ensuring that the scales of that fight would be tipped in our favor, the weapons in our hands.

I really wanted that conflict to be at a time that suited us, not because someone had made a mistake or because the other side had gotten clever.

“Pierre wants to see you downstairs,” Davis said.  He’d approached me from the flanks.

I glanced at the student council president.  The student council president of Beattle, rather.  He wore a white coat.

“Problem?” I asked.

“Countless small problems.  I don’t know what exactly he wants you for.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Davis.”

“David.  Yes, what?”

“Are you free tonight?”

“Potentially.  Why?”

Because we need an in, and there’s not nearly enough time.

“I think the professor is about to have one of her favored students storm off and disappear on the next boat out.”

“I’ll gather some extra sets of hands,” he said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.2

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“The professor is ambulatory,” Helen commented, as Professor Ferres emerged from the bathroom.

The woman wore a towel and a black silk bathrobe.  She looked thirty, though I would have pegged her as being sixty or so, and she moved as though she was ninety, with shuffling steps and clear pain.  She had done up her hair in rollers and put on makeup, but it was an incomplete portrait.

“Did you sleep well?” I asked.

The professor ignored me.  Clutching the front of her bathrobe with one hand, she used the other to help her ease down into a kneeling position.  She pulled the drawer open, and she stopped, staring down.

“We moved in for the long term,” I said.  “It made more sense to have our clothes in the dresser.”

“I see,” she said.  She was quiet for a moment.  “Where are my clothes?”

“Linen cupboard,” I said.  “I did dust before I put them away, we can’t have you looking out of sorts.”

“Yes,” she said.  She looked like she was going to say something, and then defaulted to, “Can’t have that.”

She was slow in raising herself to a standing position.

“Your day starts at eight sharp,” Jessie said.  “Most students get their first glimpse of you by eight o’five.  You should hurry, or you’ll be behind schedule.”

“Noted,” the professor said.

She failed her first attempt at standing up, and fell to her knees, hunched over.

“If you’re shooting for pity, you won’t find any here,” I said.

“I’ve been sleeping in the bathtub night after night.  If any part of me presses too hard into a part of the bathtub, I bruise, I get sores.”

“Helen turns you,” I said.  “She should be, anyhow.”

“Every two hours,” Helen said.  “I give her a push or change her position.  I slosh water on her if she’s messy.”

I gestured, indicating Helen for the Professor’s benefit.

“Yes.  Less sores, but as you might imagine, the sleep quality leaves much to be desired.”

“Tell us what we need to know about the Academy and it’s operations and we’ll get you a cot.  You’ll get three square meals a day, and the only injections you’ll get will be the antidotes,” I said.

She turned her head, an she gave me a venomous look.  I gave her my best one back.

“I’ll endure,” she said.

“Then endure,” I said.  “And do it fast.  The clock is ticking, and if you don’t at least look like you’re in full control of your faculties and maintain business as usual, then we have to escalate.”

“As you’ve told me, again and again,” she said.  “Is this the same as what you were saying earlier?  Are you repeating yourself to try and batter down my mental defenses with repeated blows to the same points?  Are you like the Reverend Mauer or the Crooks of yesteryear?  Will you threaten me with your best attempts at hell on Earth?  Every day almost exactly the same but for the fact that it’s a little worse, hope just out of reach?”

Reaching up, she gripped the knobs of the drawers and she hauled herself halfway to her feet.  She panted.

“I don’t know the Crooks,” I told Jessie.

The professor hauled herself the rest of the way to a standing position and made her way to the cupboard with the bedsheets and towels.

Jessie supplied the answer, “Crooks as in shepherd’s crooks.  Young, clandestine religious group.  Mostly farmers.  The parents passed on religious knowledge in secret, very fervent in portraying the Academy and its doings as wrong and vile, much like the actual church in its last days.  They were found out, the parents were imprisoned, three of the worst offenders were executed.  The youths fled, spent a year staging covert strikes on the aristocracy.  They made a point of torturing anyone they got.”

“They were quite creative,” Helen said.

“They only lasted a year?”  I asked.

“Academy intervened, the Crooks made a move and failed in the face of overwhelming opposition.  The captured gave up the rest.”

“Ah,” I said.  “That’s a shame.”

“I wouldn’t say that.  They were a closer analogue to Cynthia than to Mauer.  Mauer has a mission, but the Crooks and Cynthia devolved.  No cooperation, not building anything, no beliefs.  Only wrath, rape, torture, drawing blood by any means necessary.  Even if innocents got caught in the crossfire.”

“They made pretty displays with the corpses and biblical passages,” Helen said.  “I wish I could have seen them.”

“Pretty displays or no, it sounds like it’s still a dang shame, just a shame on a different front.”

“Yes,” Jessie said.  “They were organized, they were capable, but pressing forward when you’re facing a force this daunting means having to dig deep inside yourself for more strength, more reserves.  They dug up something that was awfully ugly and in pain.”

“Why does that sound so familiar?” the professor asked.  She had found the clothes for the day in the linen cupboard.  “On an entirely unrelated topic, should I dress myself here, in plain view, so you can degrade me further, or should I step into the washroom so you don’t have to see the bedsores and bruises?”

“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Professor Ferres,” I said.

“If you intended to bait me with irony and force me to keep quiet as yet another form of pressure, then so be it.  I can endure that as well.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.  I waved her off.  “Helen, will you watch her?  Jessie and I will get ready.”

Helen nodded.

Jessie and I retired to the washroom.  We washed up quickly at the sink, scrubbing our faces and wetting our hair.  I dried my hair and then turned, hip resting against the sink as I faced Jessie.  My fingers combed through her wet hair and broke it into three plaits, which I set to braiding.  She, meanwhile, set to work with my hair, reaching over to a jar without looking and then setting everything in place.

It took more than a little coordination, but it was nice to bond, my fingers were quick with the braiding and my hair tended to stay in place better when Jessie did it.

“Remind me about her schedule for today,” I said.

“You should remember that much.”

“Except I don’t.”

“Do you not remember because I’m serving as your memory?” she asked.  “You shouldn’t lean on me that heavily.”

“It’s temporary.  I need to focus my brain on other things.  There’s a lot to coordinate.”

“There is.  I just worry.”

“I’m remembering.  I’m just remembering peripheral details.  I’m trying to stage the entirety of Hackthorn Academy in my head for the day everything goes to pieces.  I’m putting the main thrust of things aside, for you.”

“I’m going to have a bad day sooner or later, Sy.  You can’t go to pieces then.  You keep moving.  See things through.”

“I’ll try,” I said.  I reached up and scraped a bit of gunk that lingered in the corner of one of her eyes.

“Trying isn’t good enough.”

My hands still up near her face, I put my palms on her cheeks, holding her face, then kissed her.

Helen and the professor were talking in the other room, I noticed, now that our own conversation wasn’t overlapping them.

I paused mid-kiss, holding the edge of Jessie’s lower lip between my own, and turned my head a fraction toward the door.

Jessie pulled her lip free, then murmured, “Ferres said that the thing that bothered her most about this situation was that it was very possible she’d die at the hands of one of that cretin’s creations.  Ibbot’s.  Helen took offense.”

“Ah,” I murmured.  “How nice to know I have your full attention.”

“Speak for yourself, Sylvester.  I pick up on all of the background details.”

“Most, not all,” I said.  My fingers dropped from her face, and my hand went straight back up to find a loose thread on her nightgown.  I gave it an exploratory tug, and she batted my hand aside.  “Now I’ve got to ask, did you tell me the schedule and I completely forgot about it already, or did you forget?”

Jessie used scissors she had picked up from the shelf above the sink to snip the loose thread.  “She’s checking in with her pet students and bringing them as a cohort while looking after the master’s birthday party, then she’s meeting with a group of would-be grey coats about their ongoing projects, all followed by lunch, if there’s time.”

“We haven’t seeded the grey coats.”

“No we haven’t,” Jessie said.

“What’s the location?”

“Her office.  Which is actually quite inconvenient, because there’s traffic all around it.”

“Hiding under the desk?” I asked.

“Wrong kind of desk for that.”

“What if it was Helen?”

“Not even Helen.”

“We haven’t had many situations come up where we couldn’t seed, spy on proceedings, or verify everything was sufficiently crooked in our favor after she’d passed through.”

“Not any so far.  We talked about having her cancel a few days ago.”

“Did we?”

Jessie sighed.

I sighed in the same way she had, mocking her.

“Yes, we did.  Your instinct at the time was that things are too precarious for her to break pattern, graduate students are too invested in their projects to suddenly be ignored by the headmistress, she can’t delegate, and people would grumble.”

“And six abstract units of grumbling becomes one abstract unit of difficult questions.  My instincts sound about right, so I’ll trust them.”

“Any bright ideas?” she asked.  “And did you actually tie my hair in a knot to secure the braid?”

“It’s fancy,” I said, waving the end of the braid in her face.  “And pretty.”

“You’re the one that’s untying the thing.”

“Naturally.  And yes, I have bright ideas.  Not all are applicable to this situation, but give me my due.”

“If she passes on one message by way of the grey coat prospects, all of this falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I would have liked to have more control over this situation than we had.  There was a chance we could come out ahead if we happened to lose control, but I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to go there.  Blood would be shed, not all of it theirs.

“What are you thinking?” Jessie asked.  “You’ve got this tiny frown line between your eyebrows.”

“I’m thinking… I need to break her down more.  If she’s our puppet, I don’t want her pulling against the strings.”

“Break her down how?”

“I might scare her.”

“Whatever you need to do.  And the prospective grays?”

“We could take cards we aimed to play later and play them now, audaciously.”

“Is this a normal person’s take on audacious, or is it the take of a certain black haired, shorter-than-average gentleman who has normalized audacious, who is then calling this particular play audacious?”

“Shorter than average?”

“Don’t get hung up on labels.”

“It’s just heartless of you to make a point of it.  You called me a gentleman?”

“Don’t get hung up on words.  And focus.  If you lose track then I have to start this conversation over from the beginning.”

“You don’t ever have to do that.  Exaggerator.”

Focus.

“It’s something even I would call audacious, when I’m very comfortable with things the average person would call audacious.”

“Right.  If someone was to sketch out all of your thoughts as they were right this moment, how large a share of those thoughts are trying to find other solutions?”

“Um.  I think the share is the size of a large cat.”

Jessie gave me the look.

“They’re thoughts.  I’m not going to assign a number or percentage to thoughts.  They get away from me and then I sound wrong.  I don’t want to set myself up for failure.”

“Fine.  How large a share is already devoted to finding a way to make the audacious happen?”

“Take your pick of any animal large enough to sit on the medium sized cat and kill it in the process.”

Jessie sighed.

“Come on,” I said.

We stepped into the other room, and I headed straight for my pile of clothing.  Helen and the professor were still talking.

“-numbness?”

“No.  But the gnawing muscle makes a T-shape connection to the biting muscle and the T feels weak, and there’s an ‘x’ connection between the grimace muscle and the snake-mouth muscle group that’s pulling more than it should.”

“You need to make more sense, dear,” the professor said.

“You’re a terrible influence on her,” Jessie whispered in my ear.  Helen had turned her head.  She pushed her hair aside and drew lines on her cheek, illustrating.

The professor had done good work so far.  Helen looked almost like she always had.  Her face was intact, no damage apparent, no scars.  The only problem was that her expressions weren’t there.  Our perfect actress was struggling to act.  Her only face was the dead-eyed one from yesteryear.

“You two, take the bathroom while Jessie and I get dressed,” I instructed.  “Leave the door open.  I want to talk to you, Helen.”

“What about?” Helen asked, as the pair stepped into the bathroom.

“How is my father doing?”

“Your father is… coming together,” Helen said.

“I kind of want him today.”

“Your father would decline any invitations today,” Helen said.

“I kind of really want him today,” I said.  “What if he was drunk?”

“Your drunk father would possibly show his face for a short time, not staying for too long out of fear of embarrassing himself,” Helen said.

“That’ll do,” I said.  “Maybe he could be morose drunk.”

“Shall I fetch him when we’re done here?” Helen asked.

“Dab some whiskey behind his ears.”

“He’s a scotch man,” Helen said.

We dressed, with Jessie donning a uniform while I dressed up in the clothes she had set aside.  She made sure my hair was fixed, then gave me a peck on the lips.

The professor emerged from the washroom, donning her black lab coat.  She looked well put together, and except for some small issues in how she moved, nothing looked amiss.  Helen practically flew out of the Professor’s apartment.

“My dad was probably enjoying the good life, sleeping in,” I said.

“Probably,” Jessie said.

“He’s in for a rude awakening.”

The professor was quiet.  I saw her eyeing the stove.  Only scraps and scrapings remained.

“What time is it?” I asked Jessie.

“Seven fifty eight.”

“Two minutes to eat,” I told the professor.

There was no hesitation.  No grace, either, even for a woman who was normally immaculate.  She paid no mind to the fact that some fruit had bites taken out of it or that the pieces of meat too small to be worth picking out now sat in seas of congealing grease.

It was the eye of a surgeon in a moment of crisis, now turned to picking out the least bad pieces of food.  Her steady hand focused now on keeping any mess from dripping on her clothes, stripping meat from a length of bone.  She did what she could and then turned to the largest offerings.  A hunk of bread end-piece that I’d burned and left aside after toasting my bread, a glass of milk that had been mostly finished.  She alternated the two to get the bread down.

She didn’t finish either before Jessie cleared her throat.

Ferres hesitated, and for a moment, I wondered if her composure would break, if she would snap at us, or if she would abandon sense and go for the food.

Instead, she drew a handkerchief from her pocket, and she gathered herself together.  A lady in the non-noble sense, as if composure in the present could erase the desperation of moments ago.

She was in the midst of daubing at her face when her body rebelled.  She gagged, bending over, and froze, holding that position.

Twice more, she gagged, but managed to keep from retching.

Not the food so much as the gorging, if that could even be called gorging.

She straightened, resuming her act as the lady, and she gave us a nod.

We left the room as a trio.  It was a short trip down the hallway, and then we passed through a set of doors.

Spring air blew in our faces, but it was a mixed thing.  A breath of fresh air, but with a bad aftertaste.  Flowers and dewy grass and bitter death on the wind.

Hackthorn had been constructed with a particular aesthetic, because it was an Academy very focused on the aesthetic.  A project from many years past had been placed as the centerpiece of Hackthorn, and if it had ever been truly alive, it would have been a half woman, half spiderweb counterpart for Helen’s brother.  As tall as any building I’d seen, she was a connection of strands and shelves that supported one another, some shelves vertical and others horizontal, akin to a bookshelf, but always with the outer form in mind, and the outer form was that of a woman.  Akin to builder’s wood, but no external walls had been put up to guide the growth.  The story was that it had all been calculated in advance.

It was her crowning achievement, her master stroke.  She had pitched it as her specialist project and they had allowed it with the expectation she would fail.  Instead, she had stepped up the scale.  A work so impressive they had no choice but to give her a professorship, despite the fact that she was a woman.  To say no at that point would have risked her walking away and leaving the edifice to fall to pieces.

It hadn’t been her only play over the years.

Care had been given to the face, which turned skyward, and it looked like a pale woman’s face, eyes closed.  The shelves were now beds for plant life and growth, or walls had been put in place at the exterior, allowing for them to be used as pens or prison cells.  Bristling plant growth and walls formed her exterior skin, while trees that grew down formed her hair.  She draped back, with the buildings of the Academy itself as her recliner, and we walked along the bridge that was one of her arms, reaching out to the main Academy office and the apartments of headmistress and visiting dignitaries.

Even from a distance, I could see students and staff already at work with tending to this and that.

Green and thriving, against a backdrop of cliffs and ocean.

But looking in the other direction was something else entirely.  The walls of hackthorn, and then wasteland, out to the horizon.  Once forest, burned and then patrolled by beasts grown just for this purpose, who found everything that the blaze hadn’t utterly destroyed.

The black woods were only just barely visible in the distance, unable to reach Hackthorn with the wasteland of ash between us and it.

We were isolated, and entry to Hackthorn meant traveling through the woods and wasteland or it meant visiting by boat and ascending the cliffs to access Hackthorn by way of the reclining woman’s backside.

I’d gotten a good laugh out of Jessie the first time I had pointed that out.

The headmistress of Hackthorn smiled at students, and she greeted some by name.  That in itself wouldn’t have been surprising, as the students on this bridge were both early risers and notable students.  I could see the light in her eyes, and while I could see a weariness that hadn’t been there when we had first appeared in her bedroom, I believed that she was doing a good job of playing it off.

Students liked her.  They respected her.  They knew her in the sense that they could greet her.  We hadn’t stopped long enough for her to do it yet, but I knew she was willing and able to make small talk with them.  Each of those things was to her credit on its own and surprising when taken in tandem with one of the others.

But oh, that wasn’t what I was watching for.

No, it was when we stepped indoors again, off the bridge and into the armpit.  The labs.  Students were waiting.  Professor Viola Ferres’ select.  Her favored students, taken under her wing.

They were the closest to her, they were sharp, and they were very unhappy with our existence.

“First thing this morning, we make sure all is on track for the young master Baugh’s birthday celebration,” Viola Ferres said.  “First lab.”

She indicated with her hand, and the gaggle of students formed a herd around her.  Jessie and I walked side by side, joining them.  I could see her talking to the students.  More important than any of the students’ views or reactions to the professor was the professor’s reaction to her students.

She was built for this.  However much we ground her down and applied pressure, so long as she had this, I wasn’t sure I could truly break down her defenses.  We were positioned, we had laid out the groundwork for a move on the largest scale, but we lacked information, and so we groped in the dark.

Helen had taken too long.  We descended the stairs to the first lab.  It lay at the heart of the complex.  Students who ascended and descended the stairs to reach any other part of the facility passed by the lab, and in the doing, they passed by branch-framed panes of glass that looked at the work in progress.

Fairy tale monsters and monsters of fantasy done to scale.  The sea serpent and the maiden, the big bad wolf and red riding hood.  The larger members of the cast remained in the vast, open-concept laboratory with its arched ceiling.  The big bad wolf rested with the half-goat, half-fish of the zodiac.  A horse as large as any I’d ever seen stood with spine bared, burn scars on either side of the bloody schism where its mane was supposed to be.  Its bone of  tail flicked left and right as it ate from its feedbag.  A giant -hardly giant in comparison to Helen’s brother- slumped against the wall, using his long-fingered hands to shovel mountains of loose, dry cereals into a wide mouth.

Playthings.  Toys.

I didn’t mind those ones, not in particular.

I wandered, and I heard one of the members of the group comment at my wandering, though I didn’t catch the words, as my focus was elsewhere.  For all its fairy tale nature, all I could smell were sweat, blood, and offal.

“Leave him be,” Ferres said.

“I don’t see why he’s even here.  No offense, miss Montague.”

“I’ve heard all the complaints a hundred times already,” Jessie said.  She ignored the implicit meaning in his statement that he didn’t see why she was there either.

“I have as well,” Professor Ferres said.  “I’ll hear no more of it, unless you have other projects you’d like to be working on.”

“I- no,” the student said.

“It’s politics, Damian.  And forcing a superior to justify her politics is not good politics on your part.”

I didn’t listen to the rest.  Most of the members of the group had commented in some fashion already.  If everything was the way that it was supposed to be, she might even have welcomed the questions and challenges.  She was unconventional in a variety of ways, and her treatment of subordinates was one of them.

Even now, she was turning the topic around, talking about the delegation of tasks, and posing challenges to Jessie and her favored students.

I passed around a wall that blocked part of the lab off from view of the stairs.  Hidden in plain sight, a thousand students would walk by and look through the windows with excitement and wonder, but actual access to the lab was more limited.

Actual access to this area was rarer.  I had the keys to unlock the doors.

I passed by the cells.  They hadn’t all had cots before Jessie and I had arrived.  At our insistence, Professor Ferres had ordered them to protect her investment and work.

I passed by red riding hood, who would have been at home among any mouse of Radham or West Corinth.  No older than twelve, her face had been altered into something to resemble a deer or a rabbit.  An attempt at contrasting to the wolf.  Something had been done to her arms and legs.  To better enable her to run when and if the scene called for it, I supposed.

I walked past goldilocks, who was closer to my age, who had locks of actual gold.  Rapunzel reached out to touch the bars of her cell with one hand and a lock of hair.  Past Jack and past ones I couldn’t put names to.

We had sought her out because of her tie to Ibbot, and because Lillian had been taken with her.  A part of me had hoped the woman would vindicate Lillian’s opinion of her.  In some respects, she had.

In others, the complete opposite.  As bad as Ibbot, as bad as Hayle.  She was a major purveyor of the Block, an artist who worked with children.

Now playthings.  Toys.

I looked up and saw Helen standing in the shadows.  If she was here, so was my ‘father’.

I turned my eyes to the people in the cells.

“Soon,” I said, and even though my voice was soft, no less than thirty pairs of ears listened.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Dog Eat Dog – 18.1

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Before

I peered past my hand of cards to study the cards arrayed in a partial five-by-five grid on the stump.  The second column had a three, two, and a king down the middle with empty spaces at the top and bottom, and my hand had a three and two, among other things.  Two of a kind.

The chip count was good too.  I liked my numbers stacked at the top of the column.

I laid down the two, and then I laid down a nine.

“Pair,” I said.  My voice was muffled by my mask.

“You should have a three in your hand,” Jessie said, her voice similarly muffled.

She wore a quarantine mask, a tube running to a tank which rested on the log beside her.  Every breath was a hiss, but it was barely audible with the way the wind blew.  She had donned a kind of robe for her quarantine outfit, everything strapped in and then taped.  Her hair peeked out of her hood, and it was already stained black on one side.

“Helen has the three,” I lied.  I indicated Helen.

“Helen has the joker,” Jessie said, indicating with one gloved hand.  Helen wore a similar quarantine outfit.  She had painted hers with what might have been a clown face, though black dust had erased most of that, and she had also attached a hook to each glove and foot.

“Then call her a joker and be done with it,” I said.

Jessie sighed audibly, the noise carrying with the wind.  The sheet we had erected to help keep the wind from blowing away the cards was flapping violently.

Jessie put down a full house using the top right and to left corners, using my two.  She put down her chit.  She indicated Helen, hand extended, “Joker.”

Helen laid down the joker and a nine.  “Naught,” she said.

Jessie sighed audibly again.

“I get to make a rule,” Helen said.

Jessie’s hand remained extended toward Helen as she looked at me.

“What’s the rule?” I asked.

“Ummm,” she said, her voice picking up a burr as the filter of her mask caught the lower register of the ‘mmm’.

“You don’t need to pretend,” Jessie said.  She put her face in her hands, as much as the mask would let her.

“I get Sy’s dessert,” Helen said.

“No, no,” I said.  “You’re supposed to make a rule that benefits me as a bribe to later get my dessert.”

“Low hands win, then,” Helen said.

Jessie shook her head, mask still resting in gloved hands.

“Low two, two pair, and low five,” I said.  I collected the chits I had bet on the rows and columns.

The quarantine setup muffled noise, but there was no muffling the noise of the forest around us.  Trees rocked back and forth in the wind, branches scraping against branch.  The wind hissed as it carried flecks and particles of black, rolling clouds of the stuff that made seeing anything difficult beyond our wind-proofed area.  Branches of a hundred trees all around us cracked and snapped as if they were being systematically broken by a small army and yet more branches knocked and clacked together with a deep, hollow clatter.

The leaves had fallen from the trees and formed a thorny carpet on the ground, the living wood crumpling leaves as it sought leverage, before growing out into briar-like clusters of reaching branches and twigs.  The trees themselves had been sucked dry of every nutrient as the wood grew on them, the existing branches breaking as the wood twisted and pulled on them mid-growth.  In appearance, they best resembled trees mummified in black leather and caked in black dust.

Jessie was shuffling the cards as best as she was able with the gloves on.

“We could mix it up with the next rule change,” I said.

“I think I’m done with cards for a long, long while,” Jessie’s voice was hollow as it came through the filter.

The wind changed direction, and we collectively tensed, my hands moving toward the stump, which had no cards on it.  The wind wasn’t strong enough to blow the chits away, but it was strong enough to carry a cloud of black dust into our campsite.  Tents flapped and the ridges of the stump’s rings caught the dust, infinitesimally small details marked out in stark clarity by the fine powder.

All around us, black builder’s wood encased trees and then twisted them into pieces within the black shell as it grew thicker.  The splintered wood became another in for the invader, and it crept in before expanding again, causing once-straight trunks to twist even further.  Only the relative strength of the black wood kept the entire forest from toppling.

But gaps between trees and between branches grew slimmer, the charcoal-black forest floor and the trees absorbed the light that managed to filter through the clouds.  It felt increasingly claustrophobic.

“It’s only been three days for you,” I finally said.  “I kind of wanted to keep you for longer.”

Jessie sighed again.

“If you want, we could go into the tent,” I said.  “Get out of the suits, I could give you a hand washing your hair.”

Jessie shook her head.

“Sure,” I said.  I would’ve been lying if I said I wasn’t a little put out by that.

“I mean, it sounds nice, really nice,” Jessie said, pausing in the calculated shuffling to look up at me.  “But…”

She trailed off.

“It’s fine.  All good, Jessie,” I said.

She nodded, and she resumed shuffling.

“The other Helen baked me a treat,” Helen said.  “I told myself I would wait until tea time, but the anticipation is delicious.  I might actually be drooling and-”

She jerked, wriggling in her seat.

“-getting my arm through the sleeve and up to my face-”

She wriggled more, then relaxed.  “-is hard.  There.  Not much drool.”

“You’ll get some of my dessert too,” I said.

“Stop!  Gee whiz fuck, Sy, you’ll get me going again.  I think I’m going to keep my hand here for the time being.”

“We’ll see what we can do soon,” I said.  “Get your face fixed up proper this time around.”

Another professor, another two steps forward, one step back. 

“Soonish,” I said.  Soon.

Gordon and Fray moved through the trees.  As if to remind me of the deadlines.  It was a minute before we could put cards down, and I tried not to focus too much on the figures in the trees.

The wind settled down, and Jessie leaned forward.  She laid out the cards in a three-by-three, then dealt out the rest of the cards.

“Opening gambits,” she said.

We stacked our chips at different points on the perimeter.  Mine were green, Helen’s red, and Jessie’s blue.

I looked at my hand of cards, and saw how grimy they were.  Every movement of branch against branch produced some, every twist and grind grated it, producing air-light flakes ranging from leaf-sized to the finest of specks.

I held my fanned-out hand so that the faces of the cards caught more of the dust, picked out two, and laid them out.

“Helen’s rule still stands.  Before that was Sy’s rule about the king of hearts, Sy’s rule about the king of diamonds, Sy’s ‘old maid’ rule, and my lunch rule, and Sy’s rule of three winners,” Jessie said.

Jessie made her play, Helen made her play, and then Jessie announced, “Add to your gambits or make new ones.”

I stacked more chits on the thing.  Looking down at my cards, finding them sufficiently dusty, I began using the edge of one card to scrape dust, moving it.  I tried to look very interested in the state of the board to take focus off of what I was doing, then placed down two more cards.

The round continued, with Jessie getting the much-coveted royals setup.

“Flush,” I said, as I got my next turn.  I slapped down my cards.

Jessie turned a black-dusted mask toward me.  Her expression was hidden, which was a damn shame, but I could very easily guess what that expression was.

“Have you been keeping that up your sleeve the whole time?” Helen asked.  “Why are there two aces of spades?  Did you have another deck?  I’m confused!”

Jessie reached down and touched my ace of spades.  The spade smudged, revealing the club beneath.

The wind hissed, the trees cracked and audibly splintered within their black casings, and branch knocked against branch with heavy, hollow knockings.  Jessie stood from her seat, and the wood cracked and snapped as it broke away from the seat of her robe-like quarantine suit.

“Sorry,” I said.

She shook her head, standing there.

“I can’t see your face, so it’s hard to calibrate.  I thought you’d smile and call me something unkind.”

“I’m about to do something uncharacteristic and stupid,” Jessie said.

“Please don’t,” I said.

“But I hate this place.  I hate this forest,” she said.  She hung her head.  “I hate the lack of color, I hate the lack of anything.  I hate that I can smell the stale death of every living thing that died here.  I hate the waiting, I hate the fact that I can’t breathe, I hate the quarantine suits, I hate constantly changing the filters, I hate this place so much I could cry.”

“Crying can be good,” Helen said.

“Crying can be good, but you shouldn’t inflict this situation on yourself if it makes you that miserable,” I said.  “I hate the idea of you crying if it’s not because of me.”

Jessie hiccuped a laugh at that.

“Come on,” I said.  “Back to the tent with you.  Hair wash and sponge down, I can massage and tend to any places the quarantine suit is pressing at you.”

“I’m spending more and more time in the tent.  It’s only been three days and six hours.  I’m already sleeping three-quarters of every day.  At this rate, by tomorrow I’ll be in the tent all the time, sleeping for five-sixths of the time, and then what’s the point?”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said.  “Read, rest, keep the tent nice, then when I get back in through the airlock I can be all, ‘honey, I’m home!’ and stuff.”

Jessie looked skyward.

“Gee,” I said.  “I’m really not hitting the mark today, am I?”

Still looking skyward, Jessie said, “You can’t see my face right now, Sy, but I want you to imagine my most disapproving look, and then up it by a factor of two.”

I bit back my witty banter and teasing.  It wasn’t the time, and I wasn’t hitting the mark.

“Are you going back, Jessie?” Helen asked.

I leaned forward, “You do a good job watching over our guys.  I’d be sorry to see you go, but I’d really be happy knowing you were watching over things, keeping the peace.  There’s nobody I trust more than you.  I might even trust you more than I trust myself.”

“If I go back then I miss you guys,” Jessie said.  “And I end up worrying, because the last time I checked on you, Sy, Helen was taking a break to see if she could hunt deer at the edge of the black wood while wearing a quarantine suit-”

“Which I can,” Helen said, waving the hook she’d attached to her quarantine suit.

“-and you were having long, intensive conversations with Mauer.  You didn’t even recognize me.”

“I recognized you,” I said.  “I wouldn’t not recognize you.  But maybe I didn’t think you were real.  Sometimes they get crafty.”

“Sometimes they get crafty.  Yeah.  That makes me feel a lot better about leaving you on your own.”

“I’m managing,” I said.

“Are you?” Jessie asked.  She paused, very deliberately.  “How sure are you that I’m real?  Right now?”

“Right now?  Geez.  Well, you and Helen come as a package deal, because you’re interacting and they aren’t quite that canny.  Sometimes they wedge themselves into ongoing conversations, like Fray did back in Sedge, but honestly-”

“How sure?” Jessie asked, no-nonsense.

“Mostly?” I asked, sounding less than mostly sure.

Jessie looked to Helen.  “Help me out.  Please?  Give me something to work with.”

“I’ll watch him more carefully,” Helen said.  “I promise.”

“You’ve been here for eleven days, you two.  I can barely tolerate it for three.  Most of the others can’t even do a full day before their nerves start fraying.  I’m worried about you two.”

“Helen’s as happy as a clam,” I said.  “And I’m staying because I have to stay.  If I’m not available when this all comes together then there’s no point.  So I keep going because if I stop then it makes all the suffering that led up to it worthless.”

“I am as happy as a clam,” Helen said.  “I caught a deer, I have cake, I have you two.”

“I’ll rephrase.  I’m worried about you, Sy.  I hate not being able to talk to you, I hate these woods, I hate the black dust-”

In the workings of my head, something clicked.  Transference.  She was accusing me of losing my mind when…

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

“-the-  what?”  she asked.  Then she startled  a bit, before clenching her fists, “Because I was hiding it from you, you dolt.”

Helen was looking at me.  I spoke before she asked the question, “Dropped a memory.”

“And I know three is a completely arbitrary number, but I feel like three is it,” she said.

“You could have told me,” I said.  “Us.  You could have told us and you should have told us.  So don’t call me a dolt, you nubmunch.”

“I- heh,” Jessie started.  “Stop trying to make me laugh when I’m working myself into a state here.”

“You should have told me, nubmunch.”

“I would have, but I don’t want to give you added stress when you’re doing this.”

“Well, it hardly helps if you’re just wrestling with it on your own and I suddenly can’t figure you out, between all the distractions and you acting funny.  You end up suppressing everything until you snap.  Stop bottling.”

“Okay,” she said.  And then she stopped talking.  A moment passed.  She added, “We’re sitting here, waiting for the perfect timing, and I’m trying not to think about the mail Jamie read that crossed General Ames’ desk that talked about travel being suspended for certain locations, or additional countermeasures, or the fact that if they’re doing this textbook, we don’t have very long before they start releasing Academy-grown monsters into these woods.  I worry that this all goes wrong in a second, or worse, that this is how we while away the little time we have.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “Helen would probably even get a kick out of us being attacked by Academy experiments.  Might do to see if we can’t set up traps, now that I think about it.  Something to occupy ourselves with.”

“Helen’s only at seventy-five percent,” Jessie said.  Her posture changed slightly.  I imagined she closed her eyes, and now that I had connected to the fact that she had dropped a second memory, my mental model of her was making a lot more sense, with less surprises.  I’d thought it was me, after being out here too long.

“Seventy-five percent of a Helen is still pretty gosh-darn amazing,” I said.

“Thank you.”

“It is,” Jessie said.  “But…”

She stopped talking, and I saw her hand shake a little as she balled the gloved hands into fists.

Ah, here we went.

Well, what were the odds it would be a problem?  It wasn’t like we’d seen another living thing that wasn’t one of us for the last week and a half.

Jessie screamed, top of her lungs.

The scream reached through the forest, and it was oddly muted, even without accounting for the mask, the hose, or the filter.  In an ordinary forest, the hard surfaces of trees would have bounced back the sound, but the sheer amount of dust caked on every surface and the thickness of the dust in the air dampened the sound.

I wanted so badly to hug Jessie, tight as possible, to speak into her ear, to say something reassuring and intimate and make it better.  I ached to do it.

I could see Lillian, and I knew that on a level she represented compassion, but a part of me still ached for Lillian’s absence.  I could see Ashton.  It was almost as if the scream was bringing the others out.

All I could do was stand, wood breaking away where it had been striving to attach me to my seat, leaving jagged spikes and splinters where it had broken.  I walked over to Jessie with the branches snapping and breaking beneath my boots, and took her hand.

The forehead of my mask clacked against hers.

She stopped screaming.  No longer taking the background to Jessie’s anger and frustration, the hissing wind and pained creaking and breaking of trees resumed.

“I hate this,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“If it turns out that my scream screwed all of this up, gave us away, then they’ll probably mutiny.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But you needed to scream.”

“I don’t like being weak.  I don’t like being this frustrated.”

“You’re too damn stoic all the time,” I said.  I made the masks clack against each other again.

In the distance, a tree branch broke and fell.

“Incoming,” Helen said.

It took a minute for ‘incoming’ to reach us.  Two of our rebels, all in quarantine suits.

“All good!” I called out.  “Don’t shoot us!”

They stopped running.

“Sorry,” Jessie said.  “Losing my mind in here.”

“How’s the watch shift?” I asked the two rebels.

“Mind-numbing,” the larger of the two said.  “Already looking forward to whoever’s coming to relieve us.  I dropped my watch in the dust and branch bits beneath the perch and it took me fifteen minutes to find.”

I scuffed the ground with a boot. I couldn’t even see dirt beneath the detritus I’d kicked aside.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Tell you what.  You two walk Jessie back.  I’ll take watch with Helen.”

“Yeah?” the smaller one asked.

“Yeah,” I said, emulating his accent a touch.  “Go on.”

Jessie hesitated.

I pushed her arm, “Go on.  We’ll be fine.”

“I’ll send some people to keep you company,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’ll talk after.  Get caught up.  Cover all the bases.”

She nodded.

I wanted to give her more support than I could here.

Helen and I left the cards behind and we began the trudge to the perch.

We climbed the tree we had nailed rungs to, and we took our seats in a thicker cluster of branches.

It wasn’t until we were settled that I noticed one of Helen’s sleeves was still floppy, no arm in it.  The hook swung like a pendulum.

“Are you stuck?” I asked.

“Noo,” Helen said, implying she was.  “But no, really, I’m fine.  Thank you, sir.”

“You’re very welcome, madam.”

A solid fifteen minutes passed in relative silence.  Helen started humming, playing with how her filter was making her voice buzz a bit around the edges, and I joined in with my own variation.  Somewhere along the line, I started playing with my hand over the end of the air hose, near the filter, which I probably shouldn’t have been doing, but it allowed for some interesting stop-starts.

I could track the time by way of the watch that had been hung from a tiny spike of wood near my head.  Fifty minutes passed, as we went back and forth, elaborating.  Then we both trailed off.

Five minutes passed before Helen spoke.

“I spy with my little eye… something black and dusty.”

I pointed.  “Funny shaped branch over there.”

“Yes.  Then… I spy with my little eye, something black with only a little bit of dust.”

I pointed.  “I think it’s a dead thing in a tree that had leaves fall on it and made it crispy-ish.”

“How long before you get one wrong?” Helen asked.

“I can see about three more interesting things.  So… until you pick something boring.”

“Oh?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Well then,” she said.  “I hear, with my little ear-”

“-a particularly crackly bit of wood?”

“Something creaky that isn’t a tree,” she said.  “That’s pulled by a warbeast.”

I perked up.  “Really?”

“No,” she said.

I deflated.

“But yes,” she teased.  “Really.”

I perked up again.  “Well peel my cat and call me a bastard.  How far away?”

“Not far,” Helen said.

“Well dang,” I said.  “Just one?  If it’s more, I’m going to need to see how fast I can catch up to the others and if we can get back in time, maybe further down the road.”

“Just one,” Helen said.

“You’re sure.”

“Positive,” she said.

“I actually feel bad,” I said.  “And I don’t feel bad about much.  Jessie’s going to be so annoyed she missed this.”

We climbed down from the tree, and we lowered ourselves into the shrubbery.

Helen’s gestures, partially masked by the gloves, gave me a good indication of when to expect them.

The wagon appeared, a rhino-like warbeast with two horns bigger than I was on its head and a chin-spike below trampled the fallen leaves and branches that buried the road, and it pulled a heavy wagon behind it.  Industrial strength everything, from the heavy duty wagon itself, almost a rolling vault, with heavy wheels.  The thing was meant to plow on.  If it broke down, then the lone driver wouldn’t be able to fix it.

As it rolled past us, we pounced.  I latched onto the side, and Helen grabbed on next to me, before tumbling down, disappearing beneath the front of the wagon.  Any scratching or scrabbling on her part was drowned out by the noise the wagon made as it rolled over innumerable branches, leaves, and the fragile carpet of builder’s wood that knit them together.

Five.  Four.  Three.

The man screamed.

Right then.  My models of Helen weren’t that great either.

I tried to make up for the time differential by moving faster, a little more haphazardly, gloves and boots slipping on the dust-caked surface.  The worst that could happen was that I might slip, fall, and roll under the wheel.

I managed to avoid that, grabbed the seat, and hauled myself over.

Helen had pierced his hand with her hook, latching on, and had grabbed him with one hand.  He was using his free hand to fumble for a gun that was positioned in a spot which was really meant to be reached for with the hand that Helen currently held.

I threw myself forward, stomach skidding on the dusty seat, and reached him just as he pulled the gun free.

I batted the gun out of his hand before he could get a grip on it.  It was lost, off to the side, in a sea of branches and dust.  I might have said that people two thousand years in the future might find it, but I somehow couldn’t picture it.  Not the people part of it.

The resulting scuffle was short.  Helen asserted her grip and adjusted the hook, and I seized his other arm in one of my own, and once we had him secure, the fight mostly went out of him.

His breath wheezed through the air filter.

“You have options, Mr. Driver,” I said.  “Most of them are pretty good.”

I could see him taking that in.

“This gets a lot more pleasant if you cooperate,” I said.  “There isn’t a friendly face for a hundred miles around.  All you need to do is talk to me.”

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“They expecting you on time?”

“Give or take an hour,” he said.  “Horny Anne here is very regular, but the road isn’t.  We sink into the soft spots.”

“Good,” I said.  “Good, that’s just the kind of answer we need.  Do you have a horn?  Anything that would make a lot of noise?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Trumpet.  It fits onto my air filter.”

He fumbled at the side of the wagon.  Helen took one hand off of him to grab the trumpet, showing me.  She pressed it between her body and the side of the wagon and began fumbling with her air filter.

“Good,” I said.  “Perfect.  Is there anyone further back down the road?”

“No,” he said.  “Like you said, not a friendly face for quite a distance.”

He sounded a little bit depressed about it.

Good.  Perfect.

“If you’re lying, then we do something terrible, you know that right?”  I asked.  The rush of the capture, after so much dang waiting, it was making me heady, and that translated into me sounding almost excited at the prospect of doing something terrible, which was great.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I know it.”

I nodded.

“Now let’s talk security measures.  Anything I need to know before we borrow your wagon and take it to its destination?”

“Ah,” he said.  He paused.

“Ah?”

“I’m telling you this in good faith,” he said.  “Pay isn’t good enough, I love my Crown and country, but I like living too.  So I want you to know I could’ve stayed quiet and you mightn’t’ve noticed.”

I would have noticed, I thought.

“Out with it,” I said.

“It’s in my forearm.  Metal, grafted to the bone.  They have seahorse-eye things that look through my arms and read the numbers.  Has to be the right metal too.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That sounds about right.”

“This was my last trip,” he said.  “Ever since this black shit started springing up everywhere, it’s misery distilled.  Of course something like this happens when I tell myself it’s my last trip before I find another way to make money.  Of course.”

“You’re fine,” I told him.  “We’ll try to minimize the damage.”

“Tooting,” Helen said.

I raised my eyebrows behind my mask, and then winced as she raised one hand, trumpet attached to the end of her hose, and blew.

It wasn’t a lips-on-trumpet noise, but something more artificial, a braying note that changed as she adjusted the keys.

The sound carried.

Helen took her time before stopping.

“Dam-”

Helen made a smaller ‘bwat’ sound.

“Damage?” the driver asked.

“Well,” I said.  “Can’t trust you to take me where I want to be without saying anything, so… best way to go about this would be to borrow your arm.”

“Uh.”

“Then we can keep you for a while, we’ll reunite you and your arm as fast as we can, and then you’re sort of complicit, or we let you go and you can go home, and maybe you get pity points, but you also have to scrounge up to get a replacement arm, and that’s a whole mess, and there’s a third option where you kick up a stink and we put you down.”

“Uh,” he said.  “I’d kind of like my arm back sooner than later.”

“Perfect!” I said.  I was still fairly excited at the victory.  “Perfect, good.  That even means I can share the dirty details on what we’re up to, and I can ask you questions without having to mask what I’m asking.  Let’s talk about your cargo, and what they tend to do with it when you arrive.”

“Are you going to hurt people with this?” he asked.  “Is it going to be another one of these black wood bombs?  Inside the city?”

“No,” I said.  “And if you want, you can watch what we do.  We’re just going to take a barrel we’ve got stashed away somewhere not too far away, and it’s got a label on it that’s of the type that makes people want to keep it sealed-”

“Stow it somewhere dark with a lot of ventilation,” Helen added.

“-and I can tell you, it’s going to be me, her, and one other person in that barrel,” I said.  “We just want into the city, Mr. Driver, and they’re being rather ridiculously paranoid about letting people in or out.”

“You want in the city,” he said.  “What does that matter?  What’s that going to do?  Who’s that going to hurt?”

Present

I woke, and my arm was numb.  It spawned a dozen small moments of terror as I wondered if Wyvern had prematurely started to physically affect me.  There was a pressure on my chest, too.  The numb left arm and the pressure coupled with an almost nauseous twist of my stomach made me think heart attack.

But it wasn’t.  It was Jessie, lying beside me with her head on my shoulder.  The covers were thick, down-filled, and heavy, and the two of us were relatively small given the massive size of the four-poster bed.

I almost hated to get up when I had this.  This was entirely new.  I knew part of it stemmed from insecurity, but having Jessie this close wasn’t so usual.

Her hair was so messy, and I was just about the only person who got to see it like that.  She had dents on her nose where her spectacles usually sat, and she had scars reaching around her neck and at her chest where her nightgown didn’t wholly cover her, and I knew that again, I was one of the rare few that got to see it.

Moving glacially slowly, I began to extricate myself, moving the pillow, trying to get it so her head transitioned to the pillow.  She was a fairly light sleeper, all considered, so it took extra caution and carefulness.

I didn’t manage it.  Jessie stirred and woke up.

She smiled, and that smile was nice to see.

“Tried not to wake you,” I said.

“You did a terrible job,” Jessie said, yawning.  She stretched.

I reached over, grabbing her stretching hands, and stretched myself, waving her arms one way and the other, while she collapsed back on the pillow, rolling her eyes at me.

“Come on,” I said.  I tugged on her hands.  “Up.  We’ve got so much to do.”

“All day, every day,” Jessie said.

I let go of her hands, and we both rolled off of opposite ends of the bed.

There was a folded towel on the dresser, and I grabbed it, slinging it over one shoulder before pausing at Helen, who had curled up in an armchair, contorting herself.  Her face was only partially fixed.  I nudged the chair, being careful.

I trusted Helen when she was awake and in full control of her faculties.  I didn’t trust sleeping Helen.  Sleeping Helen had broken my hand two weeks ago.

Helen didn’t wake so much as she transitioned smoothly from rest to animation.  She uncurled and stepped off the chair, heading straight for the little kitchen in the corner of the room, to prepare tea and likely to raid the pantry for breakfast cookies.

All good.  There was a lingering feeling of dread at this point, of Jessie waking up blank, or Helen being even more troublesome on being woken, even pouncing from the chair, but this?  This was perfect.

I walked into the adjunct bathroom, which was far too white for my liking.  I walked past the woman in the tub, moved a bowl beneath the sink, washed my face, and fixed my hair as best as I could without wax or oils.

I took a minute or two to preen while the washbasin filled up, before I turned my full attention to the woman beside me.

Her eyes were wide enough to show the whites, and they looked in different directions, which was a nice touch, I thought.  Her mouth was ajar, her breathing shallow, and she sat there like a broken doll.  Her hair was in disarray, normally short and carefully curled, a natural brunette, and her nightgown was soiled at the lower parts.  She had relieved herself in both senses at some point in the night, and it left a runny trail that painted a line in the direction of the drain, but hadn’t actually made it all the way down.

Collecting the bowl of water, which proved heavy, I carried it over to the tub, and I splashed it into the tub.  It got all of the urine and only some of the other mess.

“Good morning,” I told her.

She didn’t respond.

“This can end at any time,” I said.  I put the bowl back under the sink and set it to fill again.  Grabbing a spare towel, I threw it over the woman’s head, and then began relieving myself in the toilet.  “You don’t get anything by being stubborn.”

I finished up, pulled the chain to flush, and used the bowl of water to wash the rest of the mess down the drain of the tub.

Opening the medicine cabinet, I got the small case of syringes out.  There were three.

“I know the spinal injection goes in the spine, but I get the rest confused.  Muscle relaxant, it goes in the muscle of the leg or buttock, antidote, it goes in the bloodstream.  Or is it the other way around?” I asked.

“You say that every morning, Sy,” Jessie said, from the other room.

Every morning,” Helen echoed.

“You guys are no fun.  I’m doing it for effect.”

“I think you’re the only one that appreciates that effect,” Jessie said.

I made sure there was no air in the syringe, then jammed the muscle relaxant in the woman’s throat.  I depressed the syringe.  I left it there while I stuck the other syringe into her leg.

“You get to live another day,” I said, leaving the second of the syringes in place.

The syringe that went into the base of her skull, however, needed more caution.  I inserted it as gently as it warranted.

“There,” I told her.  I plucked the syringes out, and I cranked the tub on.  “Now get yourself cleaned up.”

I stepped out of the bathroom, and I joined the others as they prepared breakfast.

Tea, and bacon, and eggs, and mystery meat.  I used a hot ring to toast bread directly.

“That’s a fire hazard,” Jessie pointed out.

“Yes, but I really like toast,” I said.  “Do we have butter?”

“I remembered the butter,” Jessie said.  “Give me some credit.”

We carried on, and Jessie stepped away to get our clothes sorted out.  I was letting her pick my outfits, which she seemed to like, and it seemed today was a waistcoat.

A knock at the door made us all freeze.

“Mail!” the voice on the other end called out.  “Leaving it outside!”

Jessie signaled.  High Building Girl Queen.

Rooftop girl queen.  Bea.

Checking first on the woman in the tub, making sure she hadn’t gone and drowned on me, I saw that she had enough wherewithal to sit up straighter and grip the sides of the tub.  I closed that door, then quietly slipped out into the hallway.  Jessie and Helen made more noise in the kitchen to cover me.

I moved quickly and quietly as I hurried to catch up with Bea.  She startled as I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Sy,” she said.

“Bea,” I said.  “Everything going smoothly?”

“Smoothly enough.  There’s some mutterings, people wondering about new faces, but… better than I thought.”

“Good,” I said, smiling.

She gave me a soft, one-note chuckle.  “They were talking to me about it.  As if I’ve been here for longer than I have.  They were complaining about newcomers.”

“Mailroom is invisible, and it implies status and trust,” I said.  “None of this is accidental.”

Bea nodded.

“Keep things on the down-low, don’t try to push people to tell you anything, but do listen.  We’ll meet later and I’ll tell you how to get people to want to confide in you.”

“Okay,” Bea said.

“And while we’re at it?  Tomorrow, if there’s any mail that looks official-ish, you can knock and insist she sign for it.  There’s probably something that looks like it should be signed in the mailroom, but make an excuse to see her face to face and show her your face.”

“Okay.  Why?”

“You’re going to build up trust.  At a later date, if things go smoothly, which they probably won’t, we’ll want to give her opportunities to try and get a message out.  You’ll be that opportunity.”

Bea nodded.

“Happy mailing,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.  “Really what I wanted to do with my Academy know-how.”

I scooped up the mail on my way back into the room, and very carefully closed the door behind me.  Helen and Jessie were conversing at the stove.  I listened, and I could hear the splashing of the tub.

I picked through the mail and found what I was looking for.

“Here we go,” I said.  “Took its time.”

Both of the others turned to me, expectant.

“And she said no.  Politely, but it’s a no.”

Both looked a touch crestfallen.

“It might have been a hard sell, pushing the Lambs thing,” Jessie said.

“Might’ve,” I said.  “I thought my read of Lillian was that she’d say yes, even or especially with that in mind.  I wonder if things went badly somehow, or if she got another offer, or…”

“There could have been a hundred different factors,” Jessie said.

“Dang it,” I said.

I sighed.

“Sorry,” Jessie said.

“Probably wouldn’t have worked out that neatly anyway,” I said.  I put the stack of Professor Ferres’ mail to one side.  “Now.  What are the priorities for our Academy today?”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Lamb (Arc 17)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“…You’ve each grown and taken on a fortitude that goes well beyond what your teachers and textbooks were able to impart.  Wallace called it a preservation of the favored, and you favored students sit here now, having faced the gauntlet of testing, examinations, projects, and screens.”

Lillian didn’t want to fidget and betray her anxiety, but she did dig one nail of her thumb into the underside of the other thumb’s nail.

“You are what we sought to preserve.  Recognize and be proud of the strength you have no doubt found deep within yourself, the courage, the commitment, and the willpower.  Each of you have provided a long series of minor projects and two major projects to the Academy and Crown, strengthening it, much as Crown and Academy have strengthened you.”

At the stage, Hayle stood at the podium.  Radham’s professors, the mayor, two people Lillian didn’t recognize, and one minor noble Lady she had never seen all stood or sat behind Hayle.  A man in a white coat stood by a long table.

“Civil war, rebellion, religious mobs, betrayal of the Academy by its own members, and a plague that may well be covered in textbooks your children’s children read… it paints a bleak picture, doesn’t it?” Hayle asked.  The grey-haired man stood to one side of the podium, not behind it, one of his hands behind his back, the other resting on the edge of the podium, periodically pointing.  The deep-etched lines of his face were cut darker by the lighting.  He might have resembled a fencer, given his stance, but if he was one, he was the old master.

“But I’m optimistic, and I’m optimistic in large part because of you.  You’ve witnessed and endured a great deal in the past five years.  I believe our future is in capable hands.  I trust each of you in that.  Some of you will be commended for your efforts in these trying times, others will receive accolades.  But each of you, by dint of the fact that you’ve earned your seats here, are remarkable.  Some of you will go on to manage clinics or work in labs, others will join the military to offer your services.  Others will push themselves even further, to earn your grey coats, or even your black coats.”

He smiled.  Lillian hadn’t ever seen Hayle try to be genial.  She wasn’t sure he was very good at it.

“Life, as each and every one of you know, is a remarkable thing.  Your lives, dear students, especially so.  You are better, and this is only the first leg of the journey for many of you.  Now prove yourselves even better still, whether it’s in the face of life’s winding course, or if it’s in pursuit of greater academia and the best that Crown and Academy can provide you.”

Lillian’s thumbnail dug deeper into the flesh.  It would have been nice if Duncan had been able to sit by her, but he was a row ahead of her and way off to the left.  Her second thought was Mary, but Mary would be in the audience at the very edges of the room.

“I’ll stop torturing you all now,” Hayle said.  The look on his face was especially dark as he smiled.  “You want to hear your names spoken.  I’ll cut right to it.  Owen Barr!”

The entire front row stood.  Owen strode to the stage.  Lillian watched as he hurried up the short series of steps and approached the table.  Owen must not have slept a wink the night prior, because he had dark circles under his eyes.  Had he not wanted to use medication to remove them?

Owen accepted the white coat handed to him by the man at the table, shucked off his student’s jacket, and donned the coat of a doctor.

He shook Hayle’s hand, then jumped a foot in the air as Hayle called out the next name the second his back was turned.

“William Bray!”

William ascended the stairs as Owen reached the lady noble at the far end of the stage.  He bowed, and the noble lady inclined her head in acknowledgement, smiling.

The audience at the edges of the room included powerful locals.  Radham was a good academy, and by virtue of being what it was, it spawned a vibrant ecosystem of schools, businesses, industries, and military arms.  The headmaster of Mothmont would be there, looking for young recruits to teach classes and tutor.  He wasn’t the person that had been in charge of the preparatory school when the Lambs had attended or when the Bad Seeds had struck.  That woman had been replaced.  Edward Scullion was also present, a local businessman who ran a local plant and who often contracted with Radham to use the Academy’s facilities to handle especially big orders.  His plant made psuedo-embryonic fluid for vat-grown life, custom-ordered by each given client.

“Scotty Becksie!”

Even now, they were being examined.  The unwitting might not have picked up on that, but very few got this far in their studies while also being unwitting.  Eyes were on them.  People like Scullion had come with names in mind, and they would approach the new Doctors with offers ready.  The people he picked would make more in a month than the average citizen made in a year, and if they could also earn Scullion’s favor, which was apparently not too difficult so long as they could handle their drink after hours, they would often be paired up with a local and attractive young aristocrat.

Stumble on the stairs on the way up or show fear like Owen had when Hayle had shouted, and that possible future could easily be retracted.  It was easy to make a mistake when nerves were this bad.

“I’m pleased to announce,” Professor Hayle said, “Travis Birch, with commendation.”

Lillian’s gaze was sharp as she watched a smiling Travis ascend the stairs.  Rather than don his coat himself, he was give his coat by one of the professors from Claret Hall.  After he approached Hayle, shaking the headmaster’s hand, Hayle affixed a little silver elaboration to the Academy crest just over Travis’ heart.  It was small, a little silver bar with a stylized leaf at one end.

But that was a decoration that Travis could wear for the rest of his career.  Every person who wore a lab coat knew what it meant, that he had placed himself head and shoulders above.  Sometimes they were politicized, sometimes they were downplayed, or someone might comment that a given professor handed them out freely to good looking students or any student with a nose sufficiently caked in brown… but there wasn’t a student in the auditorium that didn’t want to hear the headmaster announce them with commendation.

It opened doors, it fast tracked them along certain paths, giving them an automatic in where others would be questioned, tested, or second-guessed.  It afforded a measure of authority, all else being equal.

It, to be cynical, kept the students hungry, even after they knew they had a right to walk up on stage and claim their white coats.

She joined in with the applause, she smiled politely.  She felt the hunger, and it gnawed at her in a way; her thumbnail bit deeper into the quick of her other thumb as she clasped her hands on her lap once again.

More names.  Nicholas Booth.  Sidney Brown.  Luther Cockwill.

It wasn’t until the last names had passed into the realm of ‘D’ and two more boys had had their names called that the first girl got to walk up and claim her coat.  Jean Dahl.  Lillian had tutored her for a little while.  She hoped Jean found some measure of success.

Bruce Dearly.  D.J. Derrick.  Wesley Dillon.

“And I find I have to pause here,” Professor Hayle said.  “Because this next name deserves special mention, above and beyond even commendations.”

Lillian’s heart jumped in her chest.  Was Duncan there, at the front of the line?

“For exemplary service to Academy and Crown, for showing capability, intelligence, and skill that did the Academy proud, the collective faculty of Radham Academy is unanimous in wanting to recognize Max Fortin.”

Lillian joined the crowd in applause, watching as professors stood from their chairs, all applauding.  The noble lady, too, stepped forward.

Hayle spoke, as multiple professors, the mayor, and even the noble gave their congratulations to Max.  “As a student, now a Doctor, Max Fortin joined three members of our senior faculty in the labs, and it was his keen eyes that helped us identify two individual infection vectors for the carmine plague.”

There was no saying that someone like Max got lucky, that he had brown nosed his way into this, that he had cheated, or that he had slept with the right old pervert.  Commendations and accolades.  It was the result of committee, heated debate between staff members with favorites, with agendas, and, among people with black coats, very often people who wanted to protect the reputation of the accolades they had received, once upon a time.  They wouldn’t tarnish the elaborate decorations on the badges they wore for formal occasions.

Lillian’s disappointment staggered her.  For Duncan and for herself.  Commendations were something that were parceled out, often with each professor handing out one at most.  Accolades were a once-a-year thing.  There were tales of years with two, and a single year with three, but Lillian had long suspected that those years had been calculated, that they were dealt out primarily to give hope whose names had yet to be called.

And she did hope.  It was a bad year, wasn’t it?  It would be a good year to be generous.

“With my own commendation, Duncan Foster,” Hayle announced.

Lillian watched as Duncan ascended the stairs.  If he felt any of the same disappointment she did, he did a marvelous job at not showing it.  He smiled, extending a hand in a wave for someone at the back of the crowd, and beamed as he met Hayle at the table, shaking the headmaster’s hand before allowing Hayle to help him don the white coat.

Students to the left and right of Lillian were standing.  Lillian joined them.  She was suddenly so close to the stage.

“Alexander Fox,” Hayle announced.

Alexander ascended the stairs.  Lillian moved forward.  One student between herself and the stairs.

She could see some of the crowd at the side and back of the room now.  She saw Mary in the crowd, smiling, and was struck by the memory of Mary lying on a street that was only a twenty minute walk away from the auditorium.  Her own hands had been slick with Mary’s blood from fingertip to wrist as she had performed field surgery on her friend, Jamie’s voice calm as it spoke in her ear, helping to guide her.

She saw Ashton, still so young in appearance, and it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the others, as they had once appeared.

“Tom Gabriel,” Hayle spoke.

Tom ascended the stairs, and Lillian felt the air move in his wake.  Nothing between her and the stage now.

So many years ago now, Hayle had spoken to her in his office.  She had been terrified of him then, much as Oliver had, earlier.  He had spelled out that he needed a field medic for a project, and that the medic had to be young.  He hadn’t been headmaster then, but he had been a professor.  He talked about time away from the Academy, and how she would be compensated with allowances and some help from him and other members of the administration.  He’d spoken her praises, going over her grades from Academy prep and her introductory tests.  Was she interested?

She had almost said no, purely out of fear.  She had been such a scaredy cat.

But her fear of upsetting this terrifying man and dooming her career before she had even had her first midterm had won out.  She’d been afraid of what her parents would think or say if it somehow got back to them that she had been singled out as special and she’d said no.

Fear on one hand and fear on the other.

Seeing Mary reminded her that there was more to that story.  She had interacted with the Lambs, one particular Lamb for all of twenty minutes before she had gone straight back to Hayle to ask him to take her off the project.  He had talked her back into it.

“And I’m pleased and proud to now announce a student that I’ve followed since the beginning of her studies here.  This exceptional young lady has consistently been top of the class or close to it, and she maintained that academic standing while traveling to war zones and cities under siege at my order.  Lillian Garey, with commendations.”

Commendations.

Lillian’s eyes dropped for a second.  The fingernail of her index finger bit into the quick of her thumb for a second as she felt all of the doubts and fears she’d been keeping at bay wash over her.  The true nature of that noble on the stage, what she’d heard about Hayle’s lies and the conspiracy to keep her black coat from her, one she wasn’t entirely sure she had averted.

Getting no accolades felt like another play when it came to that conspiracy.

For an instant, she thought she might turn and walk away.

But what good did that do?  What good did it do to run, when she’d found the guts to stay in this all this time?

She could face down this particular monster.

She could put a smile on her face, ascending the stairs, acknowledging the applause.  She moved with a confidence that she hadn’t been given by her parents, in genetics or in upbringing, and she met Headmaster Hayle at the end of the table with the coats and scrolls.

The applause continued, polite applause from students and meaningful applause from others.  Mary was clapping, smiling.

Hayle bent down a fraction, speaking in her ear.  “I know.  I’m sorry.”

She shook her head, still smiling.  She had fought so hard to get here, and even being on this stage was something special, a vindication of too many moments of terror, too many times that she had bled and times that she had made others bleed.  Countless nights studying until her eyes could no longer track words on the page.

“Thank you for your help in putting me here, headmaster,” she said.

“The vast majority of it was you,” he said.  “Trust me.  Come to my office later tonight.  We’ll talk.”

“Alright,” she said.  The applause was dying down.  He offered his hand and she shook it.  She turned, allowing him to slip the lab coat into place.

Her back to the rest of the stage, her eyes passed over the crowd, her smile wistful.

She saw her parents, but she didn’t acknowledge them, she didn’t let her eyes stop for a fraction of a second as her gaze swept past them.

She searched for specific, more important faces and she didn’t see them.  It would have been insanity to expect those faces to appear here, of all places, but insanity played a fair part in defining at least one of those individuals.

I did it, Lambs, she thought.  Her hands tugged at the lapels of the coat.  It wasn’t one of the generic white coats.  This one had been made to fit her.  A special touch by Hayle, no doubt.

She turned to face him, so he could pin the commendation in place, and felt the shock of the unexpected, a hand at her arm, as he steered her, so that her turn completed without a stumble or a moment of confusion.

The noble lady stood before her.  Pale, white-haired, with oil-black lashes on her eyes and a slender, graceful frame and a gossamer-thin dress, the woman was young as nobles went, no older than twenty-five.  The noble lady’s fingers were long, the painted, pointed fingernails like a brandishing of daggers that fenced Lillian off from being able to reach out and take the commendation that lay in the cup of the palm.

No move was made to pin it on Lillian’s breast.

Automatically, Lillian curtsied.  She drew on everything she had, and she maintained her composure.

“My lady,” she said, her voice soft, almost inaudible in the dwindling applause.

The noble didn’t move, and the noble didn’t speak.

Lillian stayed still, confident, her head held high.  She was dimly aware of Mary in the background, and of Duncan, who wore a troubled expression.  She kept her eyes on the noble, though lowered in deference, and she tried very hard not to think about what the rogue Lambs had said about the nobility.

The Lady leaned close.  Lillian did her best not to flinch.

“You’ve been witness to the death of a noble,” the Lady whispered.  “And you’ve talked to so many who brought such things to pass.”

Lillian declined her head.  She was aware that five hundred eyes were watching the exchange, curious about the words being spoken.  “To my regret, my Lady.”

“Indeed,” the Lady replied.  She took hold of the commendation, rolling it in her fingers.  She exposed the point of the pin.

Poison?

No, it didn’t even have to be poison.  It only needed to make her bleed.

It took everything Lillian could summon up to hold firm as the Lady pinned the commendation in place.  The pin didn’t penetrate flesh.  No damage was done.  Lillian turned away in the same instant the noble Lady did, and she measured her steps with care so she couldn’t be perceived to be fleeing the stage.

“Chris Gateman,” Hayle announced the next name.

“You okay?” Duncan whispered, as Lillian found him in the group of students that had already stepped off the stage.

She managed to put a false smile on her face and nod, and she turned to look up at the stage.

She wasn’t okay, but she would have been hard pressed to articulate just why.  She was angry, at Hayle and at her parents and especially at the noble, this moment she had worked for tainted.

But she could look at the noble, and in a way, she had to wonder if the woman had acted as she had because of fear.

Was that creature, supposedly once a human, now simultaneously one of the most powerful people in the world and one of the most pitiable?

“Charles Gateman,” Hayle spoke.

Claret Hall was busy, as countless students were joined by parents and loved ones, gathering in the lobby and at the dining halls.  There were local business owners, politicians, teachers and other powerful figures now courting new Doctors, meeting here and there, making pitches and hearing students sell themselves.

Owing largely to the special attention from Hayle, a noble, and to the dramatic, just-long-enough pause before the commendation was pinned in place, Lillian received more than the usual share of glances and stares.

She ascended the stairs, and even on the second floor, there was a lot going on.  It wasn’t the crowd that was on the floor below, but the wide hallways and the open spaces were dotted with clusters and groups, each spaced out so they were just barely out of earshot of one another.

The top floor, however, was far quieter.  She passed one pairing of grey-coated man and new Doctor as she walked down two hallways.  She reached Professor Hayle’s office and knocked.

“Come in,” the Headmaster said.

Lillian did, closing the door behind her.

“Congratulations, Doctor,” Hayle said.  His smile seemed more natural than it had on stage.

“Thank you,” she said.  She put her hands into the pockets of her coat, enjoying the pull of it against her shoulders and neck.

“Have you had a chance to talk with your parents?”

“No,” she said.  Then she realized how it might sound.  “Perhaps after.”

“Perhaps after,” he said, nodding, digesting that.

He was standing behind his desk.  He had taken off and hung up his black coat, and his sleeves were rolled up.  Someone had brought him a tray of tea, which sat on the desk.  One cup had already been filled and sat steaming in arm’s length of his chair.

“Am I here for good news or bad news, headmaster?” she asked.

“Neither, I think,” Hayle said.  “It depends what you want to hear from me.  Again, I’m sorry for what happened on stage.  Lady Gloria invited herself.  I think she sought you out.”

“Why?”

“You likely know more than I do.  The politics of the Crown are a storm and I try to keep this ship on course in the midst of it.”

Lillian took in that statement, and turned it around in her head in light of what she’d learned about the nobles and the Block.

Was Hayle lying to her?  Did he know?

That did a lot to set the underlying tone of this conversation.

“May I?” she asked, indicating the tray of tea.

“Please do.  Help yourself to the cookies.  I’d rather not partake than deal with the heartburn or the remedy for the heartburn.”

Lillian poured herself a cup, and she tried to formulate a response while she did so.  “Would I sound petulant if I said I deserved accolades, Headmaster?”

“No,” Hayle said.  He settled into his chair, and he took hold of his cup of tea in both hands.  He didn’t elaborate.  He seemed to leave it at that.

“Was it her interference?  Or more politics that you couldn’t handle?”

“You didn’t capture Sylvester Lambsbridge, doctor,” Hayle said.  “You were put in charge of a project, with the idea of keeping the team intact, and not a single one of the original members remain.”

“I think that’s unfair,” she said.

“Gordon is dead, Helen is dead, Jamie was rumored dead, and even if that rumor was false, there’s some reason to think he was caught in one of the black wood traps with his partner in crime.  A casualty of the chaos other rebels created, if they weren’t the cause of the disasters in the first place.  No word of the pair in months.  How could I argue that case to a jury of professors?”

“Did you try?”

“No,” Hayle said.  He leaned back, holding his tea.  “As much as I’ve valued what you brought to the table, it wasn’t a sensible use of political capital.”

“I deserved for you to try,” Lillian said, not meeting his eyes.  She pursed her lips for a second, and then ventured, quiet.

“Perhaps,” Hayle said.  “I’ll see about making it up to you.”

Lillian wasn’t sure how to respond.  She already felt too entitled for pressing things this far.  She sipped the tea, testing the temperature, then took a more confident drink.  The cookies were shortbread, and they were perfect.

“I brought you here to discuss transition, change, not good or bad news,” Hayle said.  “In the interest of making things up to you… Mary is yours.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Take that in both senses it can be interpreted.  Her loyalty belongs to you already.  I am now formally handing you custody.  The doctors I tasked with her care will remain at your disposal should you ask, but whatever path you take from here, so long as you’re with the Academy, she is a project under your name, not my own.”

Lillian opened her mouth, trying to think of what to say, and then closed it.

“As for Ashton, I’ve him to Duncan’s custody.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” she said.  “And at the same time, I’m not sure if I should feel sorry for one of them, the other, both of them, or if it’s perfect.”

“A lot will depend on where he goes.”

“And my situation and Mary’s depend on where we go.”

“Yes.  No changes in her health?”

“Growths.  Largely benign, lower back and thighs mostly, some on the face and neck.  Manageable so far.”

“Good,” Hayle said, nodding.  “Good.  I’m glad.”

“But to backtrack- you said paths?” Lillian asked.  “What- I have paths?  What happened to the current path?”

The old professor nodded.  He leaned forward, elbows on the table, tea still clasped in both hands.  “The Lambs project is… in ambiguous territory.  You, Mary, and Ashton, you can be given a mission and I have confidence you could do a satisfactory job.  But it scarcely resembles what I was aiming to accomplish in the beginning.  There are the others that we used as bait…  I pay for their upkeep and I plan to do so for the indefinite future, but again, in function and form they would scarcely resemble what I hoped to create.”

“You wanted a gestalt.”

“You could say that, yes,” Hayle said.  He shook his head.  “I won’t say the project is finished or that it was a failure, but I think tying you to it in its current state is a crueler thing than failing to give you accolades.  I don’t foresee a resounding success that will launch your career forward.”

Lillian’s gaze dropped.  She helped herself to more shortbread.

“There are paths,” Hayle said.  “Right now you’re wearing that white coat with a student uniform, but that’s… a conceit for the evening, nothing more.  Tomorrow you’ll wear civilian clothes with your coat.  You might move on to work, interviews, or sign on for further study with the Academy.  Many of your fellow Doctors are in talks this very moment, deciding where they go.”

“Yes,” Lillian said.

“I’m held in some esteem, and you’re held in some esteem by me.  Some have floated interest in you for this reason.  Others have floated interest in you purely because of your own merits.”

The professor reached over, and he pushed a stack of letters and papers toward her.  Some were files, some were letters, and some were papers folded in threes and bound with cord.

“If you’d indulge me, I’d like to discuss the offers, and share my own perspective,” he said.

She put the shortbread down on the edge of her saucer and reached for the stack, sliding it closer to her.

“The letter that is on top… I put it there for a reason.  I think you should read it first, after you leave.  Calibrate expectations, digest it, be offended and insulted.  But read it and use it as a barometer to measure the others.”

“What is it?” she asked.  She lifted it up to better view it by the flickering voltaic lights.  “Sir Cory Llend?  I feel like I’ve heard that name.”

“A local aristocrat.  One of notorious stature.  He’s a boor and a pervert, he’s bad with the money he got by birthright, not effort.  More to the point, it’s not even a secret that he has an abiding fondness for intelligent, stern women.  Someone let slip that you were to be the sole female student to receive commendations at Radham this year.  He wrote to me with a message to be passed on to you.  He goes on at great length about the work Academy doctors have done on him, and his consequential… abilities.”

Lillian looked down at the letter and experienced a deep, almost existential kind of horror.

“Are my expectations being set this low?  A love letter from an embarrassment of a man?”

“No.  That wasn’t my aim in suggesting this,” Hayle said.  “But… it’s a kind of offer you should think about.  There are other letters in the pile that are from aristocratic fathers and mothers looking for respectable ladies for their sons.  I know you’ve talked about running your own Academy.  Having backing would shortcut the process, and it would make a great many things possible.”

“No, professor,” Lillian said.  “Headmaster.  I’m sorry.”

“Give it some consideration,” he insisted.  “As your mentor and advisor, I’m warning you that it’s exceptionally easy for a male doctor to miss out on the opportunity to forge a family and home and to fall into the trap that the Academy represents.  For a young lady, who only has so many years to bear children-“

Headmaster,” Lillian said, more firmly, shutting her eyes.

He fell silent.

She took a moment, waiting to see if he would say anything more, before she opened her eyes.

“It seems you’re not open to counsel on the topic,” Hayle said.  “I understand.”

Lillian felt the warmth of the cup of tea in her hands.  Her thumbnail throbbed.  She turned the sentence over in her head several times before she decided she was safe to say, “I let you dictate my childhood and adolescence, headmaster.  My relationships… I’d like to avoid that topic, past or future.  Leave them untainted.”

The man nodded, but his words betrayed the nod.  “I’m concerned I’ve already thoroughly damaged that part of you, throwing you to the wolves as I did, or to the wolf.  I’d hoped to mend that damage with some guidance tonight.”

Lillian’s mouth was dry, and she’d already downed most of the tea.  “I… if you don’t mind my saying so, I don’t think that’s for you to do.”

He could have taken it much harder than he did, but he hardly seemed to mind.  He took a moment to think, finishing his tea before standing to pour himself a fresh cup.

Lillian reached out, picking through the letters.

“The first few are overtures of a similar if less lewd nature,” Hayle said.  “The first one you might be interested in is from Professor Berger.”

Berger.  She tried not to betray interest or excitement and searched for it, making her way down the stack.

It was an envelope, sealed with wax.

“I didn’t read that one,” Hayle said, “as it was sealed with the Duke of Francis’ mark.”

Lillian nodded, and she opened the envelope.  Within were two bits of metal.

Commendations.  Pins with leaves at the end.  The leaves were marked with crowns.

“I reached out to him,” Hayle said.  “I didn’t ask for this, specifically, I merely thought he could be a resource for you as you started out, opening paths.”

Before even examining the commendations in full or reading the contents of the letter, her eye scanned the letter itself.  She saw the frayed marks at the edges of the paper.  Two, then one, then three.

She put that aside for later, and she read the contents, which were relatively brief.

“One for me, and one for Duncan.  A thank-you for his rescue.”

“He struck me as the kind of man who would do that.”

“He mentions Helen, and he talks about some things that he and I discussed while we traveled back to the city.”

“Excellent.  If he’s your ally, that’s an immensely good ally to have.”

Lillian nodded, folding up the letter.

“The remainder are job offers.  I put the one you might be most interested in at the top, near Professor Berger’s.”

The one she might be most interested in.  She picked it up, holding it for a clearer view.  The office wasn’t brightly lit, between the soft voltaic lights and the lamps on the desk, and the lines of the ink were spiderweb-fine.

“Professor Ferres?  Is this Viola Ferres?”

“I do not know of any other professors by that last name,” Hayle said.  He was smiling.

“She’s- I’ve gone on two trips just to hear her speak.  She’s an excellent mind, but she’s also one of the most capable female professors in the Crown States, she runs Hackthorn Academy.  She’s the only female professor that isn’t running an all-girl’s school.”

She almost crumpled the pages in her hurry to unfold them.

“Miss Lillian Garey, I’m writing to you because I’ve made a point of keeping my eye on the most exceptional young ladies in the Academies, and I can remember our brief but enthusiastic conversation in the summer of the year nineteen twenty-three.  I know the tales they tell about me, they call me the Hag of Hackthorn, and it would be remiss of me to neglect a rare young lady like yourself that once put a smile on the face of a hag like me.  I don’t remember making her smile.”

“If you did, you were the first person in decades to do it, by all reports,” Hayle said.  “She’s not often described as being kind or easy to get along with.”

Bewildered, Lillian read on, “I put myself in direct competition with your Professor Hayle in reaching out and attempting to recruit your mind and your services.  I want you for my Academy, Lillian Garey, to pursue a project that closely mirrors your Professor Hayle’s.  I…”

Lillian read on.

The delight faded from her features.

“She wants to start her own version of the Lambs,” Lillian said.  “She wants to take children, separate experiments, and to raise them as a unit.”

“Yes,” Hayle said.  “On one level, the Lambs left their mark.  Professor Ferres is the type to look at what others did poorly and attempt to do it better.  I harbor concerns she dwells on the cosmetic and neglects the personal, but that’s entirely beside the point.”

“What is the point?” Lillian asked.  She looked up at Hayle.  “The- I’m not trying to sound weak or upset in a way I’m not, but this bothers me and I can’t articulate why.”

For reasons that went well beyond the fact that Hayle was the one listening to the articulation.

“Because you invested a lot of yourself into the Lambs, and it could be that this kind of project is something you’ll forever take personally.  Someone who started out raising warbeasts from cub to weapon of war might forever have a soft spot for the things.  Especially if they were eleven or twelve when they started.”

Lillian frowned.

“There are others,” Hayle said.

“Others?  Others wanting to create Lambs of their own?”

“In varying ways and directions.  I thought Professor Ferres would be most interesting to you.”

Almost, almost, Lillian had considered the offer.  But the meeting with the noble on the stage weighed on her in a way she would likely be digesting for weeks to come, and then to hear that there were others?  It was one thing to step in and have a hand in things from the beginning, she could see herself doing that, acting and taking a firmer hand, illustrating the key problems, but when this was only one drop in a bucket?

“There are other factors to consider,” Hayle said.  “Come around to my side of the desk.”

Lillian did, bringing her tea with her.

Hayle moved papers and books aside.  On his desk, held down against wood by a sheet of glass, there was a map of the Crown States.  It was white parchment, of the kind an artist used, and the map had been drawn by a hand in a forceful, sketched out style that Lillian was almost certain was that of a stitched, a kind that drew reproductions.

That paper, stained slightly by age, had been painted with watercolor, possibly Hayle’s own hand.

There was red, and there was blue.  She could infer from the placement of things what the colors represented.

“Very few people truly see the current state of things in the Crown States, Doctor Garey,” Hayle said.

Her fingers touched the glass, tracing it.  The red watercolor started from the northeastern states and struck out, touching all of the dots and marring names that hadn’t been struck out with bold lines of Hayle’s pen.  A full third of the Crown States were painted with the crimson of plague.

The blue, conversely, it took another form.  It appeared almost at random, at the southwestern states, at the eastern coast, and in the English and French-speaking north.  A compass and possibly a thin brush been used to draw out circles, going by the regularity and thickness of the lines.  Some of the circles had a succession of other circles or other more irregular shapes drawn out near them.

Black wood.  It covered far more ground than she had been led to believe.  Multiple states, in some cases.

“Multiple weapons of the Crown released and unleashed on the world.  The black wood activated in seven locations.  Pre-emptive burn circles-”

Hayle tapped one of the circles drawn with the compass.

“-failed on several occasions, leading to further attempts at controlling the spread.  We think it was Fray.  A play for power that failed, a greater gambit, I couldn’t guess what unfolded.  But the rebels haven’t made a move or even shown their faces in months now.  Only Mauer is still fighting his fight after having sustained heavy losses.”

Lillian stared down at the image, committing it to memory as best as she was able.

She would need to communicate this to Professor Berger, in case he didn’t know.

Again, by Hayle’s rhetoric and his easy lies, she was reminded of how precarious this was.  That Hayle could look her in the eye and speculate about who was responsble, when Professor Berger and the Duke of Francis had confided that it was the Infante?

Either Hayle was keeping the truth from her in pursuit of the Crown’s agenda, or he was dangerously incompetent, and Hayle was not a man who lent himself to incompetence.

He continued, “Hackthorn, right here.  They’re isolated by the black wood, and you’ll want to factor that into your decision.  Getting in and out is difficult and dangerous, for a multitude of reasons.”

“I’m not going to Hackthorn,” she said.

Hayle nodded, as if this made an abundance of sense.  “I won’t steer you too firmly, given our conversation earlier.  There are other offers.  Doors are open to you.  Ask me if you need anything, if you’re curious about a name or an Academy.”

“And if I stay?” she asked.  With the Lambs, here?

“Then you’ll be eminently welcome, and you’ll have a seat in any class you wish to take,” he said.

“I’ll- it’s a great deal to think about,” she said.  “I’d like to take some time.”

“Please do.  If you still seek your black coat-”

Absolutely.

“-there are many paths that can carry you there.  I know tonight was a disappointment in some ways, doctor, but you have allies, you have a way forward.”

Almost, she turned to leave.

But too many things were weighing on her.  She wanted to be sure.

“Half of the Crown States are gone to plague or black wood, aren’t they?” she asked.

“Close to.”

“And more damage has been done by war and by the consequences of war, wood, and plague?  We’re even further diminished?”

“You may well have the sense of it.  But we will endure.  We have that capability.”

“Yes, headmaster,” she said.  She finished gathering up the letters, and she clasped them as a bundle in her hands.  “Thank you for your time, headmaster.”

“Thank you for yours, doctor,” he said.

She let herself out of Hayle’s office, closing the door.

Exhaling slowly, she took a moment to compose herself, moving papers between hands so she could tug on her lapels and get a feel for her coat, and then she set off down the hallway.  It was after hours, and only every other light was lit.

In the transition from darkness to light, Mary moved in complete silence, falling in step beside her.

“I’m yours,” Mary said.

Eavesdropping.

“I don’t like the ownership that implies,” Lillian said.

“I trust you.”

“Thank you.  I trust you too.”

“We’ll get you your accolades to go with your grey coat,” Mary said.

Lillian smiled.  She picked through the papers and then handed over the letter.  “A message from the Duke, among many other things.”

“I’ll decode it by the end of the night,” Mary said.  “What’s your plan for the evening?”

“Family,” Lillian said.

“They’ll be curious about the letters,” Mary said.

“Naturally,” Lillian said.  Being with Mary, being away from the auditorium, away from the office, it was a relief.  She could enjoy the coat, and she could put the rest behind her.

Holding Mary’s hand, she steered the way past crowds, through the doors to the outside.  With papers in her one hand and Mary’s hand in the other, she couldn’t flip her hood up to shield against the rain.  Without being signaled or asked, Mary reached up and over and flicked her hood up for her, before doing the same for herself.

There was only a moment’s confusion where they bumped shoulders before Mary realized where Lillian was going.  Then they were on the same page, heading away from the thick crowd and off to the right hand, the field office.  The stables.

“Don’t listen to her,” the voice reached them from the other end of the stable.  “I’ve seen miscarriages that expressed more sense in the five seconds they were alive than she’s expressed in her whole wretched life.”

“Terrible sister!  Pitiful sister.  You speak of sense and you’re the only thing on this living, diverse earth that could be made smarter by being made a stitched.”

“Yes,” Ashton said.  “But you- you two like to fling insults, but you’re both so mean you could make skeletons cry.”

“Terrible!” one of the twins said.

“Awful!” the other echoed.

“I never wanted to play this game,” Ashton protested.

“For good reason!  You’re so dull you enjoy watching paint dry.”

“So boring you actually derive pleasure from watching grass grow.”

“I’m fun,” Ashton said.  “See?  Whee.  Good feelings.  Whaa.”

“Let’s not drug our teammates,” Duncan chastized Ashton.

“It’s not drugs, it’s spores, Doctor Foster.”

“Don’t call me that, geez.  How many times do I have to tell you?  I’m still Duncan.”

“You have to tell him lots.  He has a brain like a cow plop.”

“Or the smelly gunk that you get from a lanced abscess.”

“Whooo.  Waaa.”

Lillian and Mary approached the end of the stable, seeing where the Lambs were gathered at the end of the stable.  Abby was asleep with an absolutely filthy blanket draped over her, nestled into the crook between a warbeast’s leg and its chest.  Nora, Lara, and Ashton sat on a hay bale, while Duncan and Emmett were standing on either side of another, a plate of food between them.

“Any word?” Duncan asked, his voice dropping.

“From the Duke of Francis?  Yes.  Mary will decode for us soon,” Lillian said.

“Excellent.”

“As for our…”

Opposition?  Errant ally?

Labels didn’t really suffice.

“…As for Sy, we’ll be ready when he pokes his head up.  Whatever he’s doing, it’s liable to be pretty big.”

“I’m kind of worried about big,” Duncan said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.18

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Alright,” I said, the second I was outside, addressing the crowd.  “They’re planning on blowing up the city.  Or something.”

That caused an uproar.  Alarm, fear, concern.  Anything else I would have said was drowned out in the ensuing reaction, not all of it from our side.  A small handful of the experiments and combatants we’d taken hostage were being just as loud or louder.

But I’d known that would be the case.  Had to break the news somehow, and delivering it like this meant that there was a moment to digest while the others extricated themselves from the house.

The next thing I did was to check on the situation with Helen’s big brother.

When we had first come across him, he had been navigating the city with a degree of delicacy.  He had avoided stepping on things, moving with deliberation.  If Helen’s indications about him sniffing out his prey were right, he would have been pausing as often as he did to get a sense of where they were.

He wasn’t doing that anymore.  Not the caution, not the deliberation.  He was building up steam, burning up every abstract resource that he had been conserving.  Twisting his face to one side, he swung his arm out wide, slapping the face of one building, to catastrophic effect.  The thunderous crack followed, as did the rumble of a good quarter of the roof tumbling to the ground some eight stories below.

His next action, flowing less than gracefully from that, was to lunge for the opposite side of the street. The skyline prevented me from seeing exactly what was going on, but I could see his head and shoulders, and I could make out the general idea of it.  He didn’t stumble to the building so much as he stumbled into the building, his chest and belly colliding with the building face.  His arms reached up and over, sweeping everything and everyone off of that rooftop. He was more cautious with one arm, protecting one wrist.

That duty done, he pushed himself away from the building so he could stumble into the next target, doing some significant damage to the structure in the process.  All of this took only a few moments.  There was no real point where he stopped moving now, and every action caused some significant damage to his surroundings, almost purely by accident.

My small army was halfway watching the scene and halfway to watching me.  They wanted my verdict, not just on the success of the mission, but on all of this.

I, for my part, turned to look as Jessie and the others emerged from the building.  They were bringing the ‘professor’.  Helen trailed behind, sticking at the rear of the group.  It looked like she’d cleaned herself up a tad.

“Where do we stand?” Jessie asked.

“Credit where credit’s due, Cynthia’s men are putting up a good fight.  I can even imagine how.”

“How?” Gordon Two asked.

“He’s dumb-” I said.  I paused momentarily as I heard the spitting sound from the rear of the group, the declaration of indignation.  “-and they’re exploiting that fact.  They figured out the amount of resources they need to commit to draw his attention, and they’re forcing him to zig-zag.  Group one finds a place to set up with an escape route, draws his attention with sustained fire, noise, targeting sensitive areas, whatever, and flees the moment that he starts toward them.  Meanwhile, groups two and three are doing the same.  They probably have a lot of groups.  Some are probably setting up traps.”

“What kind of traps work for something like that?” the Treasurer asked.

“Wagon full of something that will go up in flames, or something that might damage his feet,” I said.  “If a building looks like it can come down, maybe try to get it to fall on him.  Not that felling a building is easy, but it’s what I would look to do.”

Helen was shaking her head.

“…I have it on good authority that his feet aren’t that vulnerable, though,” I said.  “But it’s looking more and more like Cynthia’s side is going to extricate a win, and that’s a problem.”

“The blowing up?” Gordon Two asked.

“The blowing up,” I said.  I indicated the big guy.  “That swollen belly is filled with something that’s going to remove this entire city as a consideration.”

“Very probably,” Jessie said, quiet.

“Very very probably,” I said.

I turned to the older man we’d brought along as a tag-along.  “That’s why they don’t give a damn about the buildings being knocked down, it’s why you were being told to stay in your homes, it’s why these guys, these experiments and stitched, are all of the expendable sort.”

“Which might not be something our rebel army or the locals will grasp,” Jessie said.  “It only makes sense if you’ve done the tour of duty a few times.”

“No,” one of the experiments that was sitting on the ground spoke up.  He had a country drawl.  “We were.  Never had them drop us off, tell us to stay put and keep them safe, and leave.”

He was indicating the false professor.

I wasn’t sure the bystander we’d brought along was entirely sold.  He probably thought something was fishy, but was reluctant to buy into the idea that the Crown would do something like this.  Which was entirely fair, because I had a hard time reconciling the long-term strategy and play involved in this.

“We should split up and rendezvous,” Jessie said.

“Agreed,” I said.  “West of the hotels?”

Jessie nodded.

“We’re going to do our damndest to evacuate this city!” I called out.  I looked over my shoulder at the giant.  “We have…”

“Twenty minutes,” Jessie supplied.  “Maybe thirty.”

“Twenty minutes!” I called out.  “Get ten minutes out, knock on doors, shout, ring fire bells, spread the word.  You’re going to lie.  Tell them whatever you have to.  The rebels have a bioweapon.  No- Just say bioweapon enough times that it sticks.  Say science stuff.  Tell others to pass it on.  Then get as far away from the giant as you can.  We all meet again at the hill overlooking the city, where we all saw the giant.”

“What about the hostages?” one asked.

I looked down at the experiments who were sitting on the ground, many with hands on their heads.  There were some of the women with tendrils on their arms who had the tendrils gripped behind them.

“Evacuation is a priority,” I said.  “Hostages… I’ll offer you a deal.”

The one who’d spoken a short while ago looked up at me.  Fluid-filled sacs hung off of his face like a beard, with more at one eye socket and arm.  Others had already burst, doing mild damage to his own skin.

“I’ve got a good eye for trouble,” I said. “If you’re willing, I’ll pick out the troublemakers, and let the rest of you go.  If you need a place to go, we’ll offer you one.  Food, clothes, work.”

Behind me, Jessie was starting to urge some of the rebels to hurry and start with the evacuation.  The bystander we’d brought along ran across the street to talk to the other bystanders, who still had Davis.

The experiment grit his teeth, looking down at the ground.

He would say yes, but it would take a precious minute.

This was another kind of transaction.  I’d rolled the metaphorical dice with the lives of the people who worked for me, weighing gain against risk to life.  Now I was doing much the same.  I could stand here and negotiate, and it meant I wasn’t elsewhere, mitigating risk, talking to people, convincing them to evacuate.

I could reduce it down to a simple gain of a half-dozen experiments, assuming only a few would actually stay, at a risk to what, forty to a hundred people, depending on how I communicated and how many people were in nearby buildings?

A guttural voice cut in.  One of the long-haired Brunos.  “What if you eye trouble?”

“If I think you’re going to be a problem?” I asked.

Long hair draped from the man’s head, chin, and spilled out of the ‘v’ of his collar and the cuffs of his sleeves.  It was all blond and very fine, curling at the ends, where the weight of the rest of it didn’t pull it straight.  His eyes were dark, given how pale and blond the rest of him was.

“Yeah.  If you think we might be trouble,” he said, and he looked like trouble indeed, going by the look in his eyes.

Simply saying ‘a bullet in the head’ didn’t really resolve anything and caused possible ruckus.  Better to leave that for later, when I’d played my game of duck duck goose and could quickly eliminate the geese without all the ducks thinking they might be done for.

I wasn’t sure I liked the analogy.  I didn’t like birds in general, and I could prejudice myself by thinking of my potential recruits as ducks.

It wasn’t Jessie or I that gave an answer, however.  It was Helen, who had stalked along the back lines of the group, who sidled up behind the big guy.  She reached out to him.

“Don’t touch the hair,” I said.

Confused, unaware there was anyone reaching out to do any touching, the big guy twisted around to look, and then startled, flipping around a hundred and eighty degrees before sprawling on his back, hands behind him.

Helen had paused, meanwhile, to look at me.  She gave me a roll of the eye, where I could see a sliver of her eye through the hair.

“I’m just saying,” I told her.

She continued moving, reaching out with a shaking hand, and she touched fingers to the hairy guy’s cheekbone.

“She smells like blood and death,” the hairy guy said.

“Yeah,” was all I said.

Helen smiled, and her hair hid a lot of the smile.  She bared a lot of teeth, and it looked very alarming.

“He’s your responsibility if we’re keeping him,” I told her.

She looked up at me, and the smile was one intended more for humans than for… I wasn’t even sure what label to slap the big guy with.  I almost wanted to say gladiators.  Fighters, scrappers, people who had been taken from bad and hurled into worse, and who had somehow worked out that the only way to keep going was to fling themselves into worse things still.  People who had a vicious edge that might never be tempered.

I looked back in the direction of the giant.  Where Cynthia was, if she hadn’t already been killed.

Cynthia was one of them.  Not an experiment, but someone who had started out in violence and who would conclude in violence.

“You’re fine,” I told the hairy guy.  “But stick close to her.”

He nodded.

Jessie was quickly sending away the remainder of our army, leaving me with only the bare minimum needed to keep these guys in check.  “You guys, stand up, leave, or come stand behind me.  You’re all fine.  He’s dangerous, but he’s too hurt to do anything with…”

Then a cluster of dangerous ones.  I didn’t want to go left to right as I sorted or they would know what I was doing as I skipped them.  I looked to Jessie, “How are we doing for time?”

“Seventeen minutes.”

“Right,” I said.  I chose a different section to pick through.  “You, you, you, you, stand up.  Get out of the city or stick with us.”

As the group got smaller, I began picking out the remainder.  The relief of the ones who got up gave hope to the people that were going to be troublesome, the violent ones, the more monstrous ones.

Not that monstrous necessarily meant being altered more than the next guy.

“You, you, you,” I pointed out some more.  I gestured.

Three.

“And you,” I said.

Two.  One.

Jessie drew her gun as I gave the signal.  I saw the remaining five stiffen.  Some moved, lunging, in very calculated attacks – a tendril lashing out for the nearest rebel guard we had, another looking to run, hurling himself back toward the door.

Jessie picked them off, a series of shots.  Five shots, five dead or dying enough that it didn’t matter anymore.

“I don’t like that,” Gordon Two said.  “Shooting prisoners.”

“If Sy says so, they were going to make themselves a problem,” Jessie said.

“I think I like that sentiment even less than shooting prisoners,” Gordon Two said.  “If you say so.  That’s a lot of trust to put in you two.”

“Weren’t you just saying that you should trust me more?”

“On capability, not necessarily morality,” Gordon Two said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s fair.”

In the distance, a building was toppled.  When I looked, Neph was using one hand on a building to try to push himself to his feet.  It looked laborious.  I wasn’t sure how much of it was because he was hurt, and how much was because he’d been built to be big in a way that tested a lot of rules and demanded a lot, and he wasn’t so readily equipped to go from a near horizontal position to a vertical one.  Everything he had was meant to keep him more or less upright.

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “You and I, we have a place to go, for the evacuation.”

“Do we?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I was going to follow behind, make sure the other experiments we scared off aren’t going to double back and harass our guys.”

“Bea?” Jessie asked.  “Davis?  Protect the others, troubleshoot?  This bit is something Helen, Sy and I need to do.  It’ll be five minutes, which will give us time to catch you all as you start heading back.”

“Sure,” Davis said.

I gave Jessie a curious look, but she gestured, and I was willing to take her cue.

“Me alone, I don’t think they’d listen,” she said.  “I’m a girl, and I have the wrong image.”

“They?”

She touched a wall as we ran past it.  I caught a glimpse.

“Ah.”

If it hadn’t been for that, I might have realized when I heard a crow’s caw.  Convincing enough to have been a real crow, but most real birds had fled for wilderness when the whole city started rumbling with Neph’s activity.

It took only a minute of running before we got into the thick of it.  It looked like a neighborhood that had started construction and abruptly stopped.  Materials needed elsewhere, funding dropped, health scare when they found a graveyard under land plots… I’d heard any number of reasons for places like this.

We approached the center of the undeveloped area, and I brought my fingers to my lips.  I whistled.

It took a moment, but they popped out of the woodwork.  The caw had told them to go into hiding, and the whistle had drawn attention.  A half dozen youths.

Jessie reached out, pressing something into my hand.  Behind us, Helen and Hairy were only just now catching up.

The item in my hand was chalk.

“Briarjack works,” Jessie said.

On the wall, large enough to be seen at a distance, I drew three lines that crossed in the center.  The briar, or the ‘jack’ from jumping jacks, and very rarely the caltrop.  A dangerous place.  I circled it dramatically and then underlined it for emphasis.

I heard the shouts and the orders.  I saw scared kids two or three years younger than me acting as bosses, ordering younger ones.

There were a good number of mice.  More than I might have expected for a city this size.  Street urchins who had no doubt been huddled around stoves and heat lamps inside, enduring the winter.

“We’re evacuating,” I told the first of the elder children to approach.  “Entire city is going to go.  You’ve got a bed and food as long as you’re with us, and if you need, we should be able to ship you off to somewhere longer-term.”

“Where you from?” an older sister asked.

“Radham,” Jessie volunteered.

“Don’t know Radham.”

“Foxes and mice,” Jesse said.

“I traveled for a little while on the railcar.  Trying to get as far away from home as I could get,” the sister said.  “Foxes and mice were closer to home.”

“Northwest,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” the sister said.  “You’ve got food?”

“Might be shitty food in the immediate future, but it’s food,” I said.  “And we need to leave now.”

“Let’s go!” she called out, and her vote of confidence was enough to get the others moving.  “Hurry hurry!”

Helen and Hairy pointed to give direction, and Jessie and I followed.

“I’m glad you didn’t forget the briarjack,” Jessie said.

“So am I,” I replied, watching the children hurry.  But I’m trying and I can’t even remember the name of the gentle smuggler we put in charge of the orphanage back in West Corinth.

I didn’t even think of the mice when I was thinking of people we ought to save.  I would have looked for schools, or for orphanages, and the mice escaped me.

I didn’t want to be the person who would leave them behind, and I was worried I might end up becoming one, when push came to shove.

I fussed over the numbers and transactions for good reason, because sooner or later, I was going to have to start making more calls, as my brain gave me less and less room.

I studiously ignored Mauer as I shouted, gave direction, and tried to steer the group.  It was better to focus on better things, like the fact that fleeing children drew attention from adults, almost giving them permission to be scared about what was going on.

This wasn’t everyone, and it wasn’t close to everyone, but I had to accept what I got, whether it was in my head or in reality.

Neph was fighting well beyond the point that a human with equivalent injuries would have.  Somewhere along the line, somehow, Cynthia’s people had found a way to set him on fire twice.  One of the fires had been an explosion, the other something closer to a boat filled with chemicals.

Had he wanted, he could have stumbled over to the harbor and thrown himself in the water.  Given the chemicals, that might not have fully extinguished the fire, but it would have cooled him down.  The heating was more an issue than the damage the fire at his shins and feet was doing.

He steamed, and his mouth worked open and closed like a nutcracker working a stubborn nut.  He moved even more recklessly than before, with less accuracy and efficiency, almost as if he was blind, though his eyes were intact.

I gave Helen’s hand a squeeze.  She didn’t squeeze back.

“We’ll get you someone,” I told her.  “Or we could send you back.  You could sell them on you being shot and crawling back.”

“Pulling a Mary,” Jessie said.

I jabbed her.  She jabbed me back.

Helen was shaking her head.

“No?” I asked.  “Because Ibbot?”

She nodded.

“There’s a chance we may run into him,” Jessie said.  “Is that going to be a problem?  Do we have another Mary parallel?”

Helen didn’t respond.

I volunteered, “I think it doesn’t matter.”

Helen nodded.

“We need to give Helen a working voice again, or you two are going to drive me crazy,” Jessie said.

“You should know by now,” I said.  “If you tell me that there’s a blatant way to get your goat, that’s an incentive.  I move that we leave Helen voiceless for the indefinite future.”

Helen, standing beside me, simply shrugged.

No strong feelings, one way or the other.

“But if she can’t speak, she can’t articulate if she wants Possum and the kitchen crew to make carrot cake, sugar cookies, or red velvet cake,” Jessie said.

Helen made an almost inaudible gasping sound, with a rough hitch in it, as if a very different creature was trying to gasp, and the sounds overlapped.

“Dirty pool,” I said.

Jessie smiled.  Helen, meanwhile, started tapping my shoulder, pointing at her mouth when I looked her way.

“We’ll get you fixed as best we’re able,” I said.  “I’m just worried the patch-up job we do now is going to hurt you in the long run.”

She indicated her mouth.

“First priority, we fix your mouth,” I promised.  “Even though I’d rather we had someone good work on your face.”

She nodded, apparently satisfied.

Neph had slowed down enough that he was no longer zig-zagging between groups.  He staggered toward one group, which I imagined would head around a corner, and then Neph would start getting shot from behind.  I saw cannons mounted on carts in places.  I couldn’t imagine that was sustainable with the way the cannon fire would rock the carts and startle the horses, but it was a good approach for staying mobile.

There was an explosion from a source I didn’t see, and Neph fell, collapsing against a building.

“We should go,” Jessie said.  “Make absolutely sure everyone’s clear.”

“It’s been forty minutes since we said it might be twenty minutes.  If we don’t get results, if we don’t see for sure that that’s what the Academy was doing, then people will be disgruntled.  They’ll start saying I made it all up.”

“If it turns out to be a bioweapon meant to level a city, it could reach us.  Airborne parasites, another plague, biting insects with a taste for humans and very lethal poisons, any gas that’s effective at one part per million with a short lifespan…”

I bit my lip, watching.

“Or you can hem, haw, and delay on leaving, and the decision will be made for us.”

“I think I need to see for myself.  Nevermind everyone else’s opinions, dissent in the ranks… I need to know what they’re doing, how badly they want to deal with us.  If my feeling is right on this, if they’re willing to sacrifice a city to eliminate one Cynthia, one Sylvester, or one Fray, how badly do they want it?  How far are they willing to go?”

“You need it to put the fine touches on the versions of our enemies that are living in your head,” she said.

“Something like that,” I said.  “But I don’t think the Infante is going to be one of those enemies.”

“You don’t?”

Neph tore away a part of a building and hurled it, trying to make up for his inability to catch up to Cynthia’s spears with a form of ranged attack.  The chunk of building disintegrated as he threw it, with more landing on Neph’s own head than atop the group.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think that’s how it works…”

The spears responded to the thrown building chunk with a coordinated battery of cannon fire.

“…There are rules at play, even if they’re twisted Sylvester rules.  If the Infante ever starts talking to me and he’s not actually there, I think that’s it.  That’s as far as it goes.  Put me down.”

“Sure, Sy.  I can do that,” Jessie said.  She rested her head on my shoulder, holding my injured hand in her own with a delicate touch.

We watched Neph find his feet again, then fall within seconds.

I tilted my own head, and I knocked it into Jessie’s.  I did it again, then again.

“Trust you to ruin a nice moment,” she said, lifting her head from my shoulder.

I leaned over and kissed her.

When she broke the kiss, her lips were only just far enough that they grazed mine as she spoke, “Trust you to ruin a nice moment twice over.”

“That was a nice kiss!” I protested, pulling back.  “It was a good one!  I’m good enough at it that it’s caused problems in the past!”

“That was a nice kiss bookended with a headbutt on one end and…” she indicated the city, the dying giant.  “That on the other.  Soon.  The death of a Lamb’s half sibling and innumerable people we weren’t able to reach.”

“You’re so critical,” I said.

“And you’ve got terrible timing,” she said.  “But it was nice.”

“There we go,” I said.

We remained like that for nearly another minute, neither of us speaking, Jessie resting her head on my shoulder again.  I felt Helen’s hand clench faintly in reaction to some of the explosions, as if she was feeling something like sympathetic pain.

Finally, in the distance, Neph ruptured.  His belly split from crotch to sternum, as if sliced open, and an oily black spray poured out.  It caught in the air, liquid becoming gas.  Gas unfolded further, becoming a fog.  It seemed largely limited to the lower areas of the city, closer to the water level.

My instincts were right.  I wonder what the students who thought they’d run off and join Cynthia are thinking now.

There was a lot of the fluid, and with the way it seemed to multiply into a hundred times the amount of gas as it caught the air, Neph and the specks that were the spears were lost in the growing black cloud.

Some of the braver members of our army and collection of bystanders were venturing up the hill, finding places where they could stand and watch.

It wasn’t going to reach us.  It barely looked like it reached the place where we’d run into the professor and the expendable experiments.

Helen raised a hand, waving goodbye to her half-brother.

“Why was he a half-brother, by the by?” I asked.

She looked at me, moved her hand side to side, as if drawing out the arc of a rainbow, then turned back to look at her brother.

“Makes a ton of sense,” I said.

Jessie elbowed me.

“Goodbye Neph.  You were kind of one of us, in a roundabout way,” I said.

Helen nodded.

Jessie, meanwhile, moved away from me to wave over some students.  Gordon Two, Bea, Davis, and the girl from the bathroom.  Shirley followed after a short delay.

“What is it?” I asked.  “Plague vector?  Gas?”

“If I had to guess,” the Treasurer said, “It’s one of the quarantine measures.”

“Quarantine measure?” I asked.

“Black wood,” the Treasurer said.  He sounded as if he was in awe.

“No,” Davis said.  “Is it?”

“I’d think, but I don’t like how it’s not as reactive to the water.  Could be the cold, could be a diluted sample, but…”

“What’s black wood?” I asked.

“Builder’s wood,” the Treasurer said.  “But it’s meant to contain and disrupt something like a self-propagating lifeform.  Wall ’em in, and when the builder’s wood reaches maturation, it sends out spores.  Existing wood, non-meat food supplies.  Turns it into more black wood, provided the raw material is there and there’s any moisture.  A lot of builder’s wood structures crumble, I think, integrity gone.”

“We’re surrounded by forest,” I pointed out.

“Yep,” he said.  “But it’s going to take time.  Pneumonia-like symptoms for everyone in the city that breathes it in, enough to keep them put.  Minor complications with diet and eating.  Wood grows in at the usual rate, you could  give it a few days to a week before it gets as far as the city periphery.  Keeps going until a gust of wind can’t carry a spore to the next bit of green.  They’ll probably burn  a circle to control its progress.”

“And if they don’t?” I asked.

“They will.  They have to,” he said.

We’d never really fully discussed the extent the Infante might be willing to go to.  The consequences he might put into action to silence a dissenting voice.

“It would work on plague, wouldn’t it?” I asked.  “The vinelike, veinlike growths?  Turn ’em black.   Starve out the population.”

The Treasurer’s face was marked by a kind of frustrated horror, as if he desperately wanted to articulate a rebuttal and couldn’t.

“There are better ways to quarantine something like this,” he said.  “They have procedures.  There are other methods.  Ones that wouldn’t turn a large portion of the Crown States into a wasteland of charcoal-black woods.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I watched as the black fog settled, thinning out.  The snow that had been white before was now faintly grey.

“There are better ways,” the Treasurer said, as if he couldn’t comprehend this.

There are better ways, but they’re willing to give up the Crown States of today, contentious as they are, for a diminished, plague-free Crown States of tomorrow that is entirely under their control.

This won’t be the only seeding of the black wood or things like it, I thought.

I looked over at Jessie, then at Helen.

“Our hand’s been forced,” I said.  “No choice.  We accelerate the timetable.  Skip steps D, E, F, and G.”

“We didn’t label the steps,” Jessie said.

“But you know what I’m talking about,” I said.  I nudged her.

“Regrettably.  We go straight to the top.”

I turned my back on the scene.  I looked at the crowd of evacuated locals, of mice and grown men, of scattered thugs and of ex-students.  I saw an abstract, vague Fray standing among Lambs old and young, and the assorted accompanying figures, like Hubris, Quinton, and Shipman.  I saw Mauer and I saw young rebels gathered around him, and I wasn’t wholly sure if they were real or in my head.

A dozen individual trains of thought all found their home.  The things I needed to do, the things I wanted to do.

There was a way forward.

“I have a plan,” I said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Gut Feeling – 17.17

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The students Jessie and I had recruited weren’t soldiers.  They weren’t fighters, and for some this was their first altercation.  It showed.

I wasn’t a fighter, myself.  I knew how to hold a knife, I knew how to shoot a gun.  I knew how and where to hit people where it hurt.  But I wasn’t a fighter.  I was an opportunist, and I’d learned to parlay that into the knife holding, gun shooting, hurty-hitting.  That put me in an odd spot when I was now having to find and create opportunity while managing my people.

The gas cloud had spread to a point and stopped, forming a haze ten long paces wide.  Three fifths of the non-stitched enemies present had been affected in some way, coughing, sputtering, hands at burning eyes and orifices.  Another fifth, perhaps, had caught whiffs, but the effects stopped at one eye being closed, or a bit of coughing.

The stitched were backing away from the gas, and from the fear in many of their eyes, I could tell that a good share of them weren’t military grade.  Others were remaining stock still, or kept their reactions mostly in check.

That left me with a rough guess of there being a dozen experiments that weren’t incapacitated, a dozen combat-ready stitched and another thirty or forty general-use stitched.  We had them outnumbered, but only by about forty individuals.  That would change as the gas and its symptoms cleared up.

This wasn’t an easy assault, exactly.  They had undertaken some preparation before settling in.  There were places at the corners and ends of the street where fences had been knocked down, where something that might have been a shack had been pulled down, and a square of snow-less road that might have had a carriage perched over it when the real snow had fallen.  They had taken efforts to remove potential cover that anyone might use to mount an attack on them.

Had we been a matter of five people, we could have used the cover that remained, but as a mob of a hundred?

This was more Gordon’s bailiwick.  I missed that doofus.  All I could do was execute things as he would, and hope I didn’t futz it up too badly.

“Everyone with guns, fire on the group to the right!” I called out.  “Shoot!  Doesn’t matter if you hit, just-”

Someone fired.

“Just shoot!” I called out.

But with the exception of the one shot, the gunfire was delayed, hesitant.

I knew that was the way it was going to be from the moment it had opened.

“Keep shooting!” I called out, drawing my own pistol.  I’d stowed it on the opposite side of my body as usual, so the movement felt unnatural.  My damaged fingertips lacked full sensation, not helped by a layer of bandage and gloves pulled on over that, so that didn’t help either.  I aimed and I fired in the general direction of the people I’d indicated, who were stranded for the moment on the far right of the gas cloud.  The gun kicked in my hand, and as I continued running forward, I could smell the gunpowder and smoke of my own gun, and the traces of gas on the wind.

The group to the right was smaller than the group on the left, which I was leading the others in charging.  The group on the left was struggling more as the wind blew gas in their direction, but that wasn’t why I wasn’t prioritizing them.

The key in this, my lopsided approach, was directing the bulk of our initial fire on the less threatening group.  The rationale was that they were cut off from the others in volume and in sight.  To them, they were being attacked, the gas blocked off their view of friendlies, and they were already demoralized.  My hope was to turn that into a surrender.

“Bea!” I called out.  “You and delinquents, roof girls, Otis’ men, go right!  Force a surrender!  Don’t get too close!”

That left six experiments of varying types and a squadron of stitched.  The experiments didn’t have guns, but the stitched did.

Stitched typically had handlers, and the handlers weren’t present, that I could see.

An odd, ragtag defensive force, this.  My eye was on the door and windows, expecting someone to come tearing out to shout out an order to shoot.  There wasn’t one.

I was watching for an experiment to show leadership skills and turn out to be the leader for this group.  None did.  They were separate and independent, rough-looking men and women who had been through the wringer a few times before they had been experimented on and made into weapons.  They didn’t listen for orders, and didn’t even band together, not really.  Women with whips attached to their arms pulled the whips in, holding them in hands, ready to fling them out.  Men with fluid-filled sacs across their bodies shrugged out of coats, to have better access.  I saw men with heavy muscles and bodies covered in thick hair longer than some women had on their heads.

No leaders in their number.

But the stitched that weren’t looking entirely out of sorts changed their grip on their rifles, shifting their stances.  They didn’t look lost or leaderless.

I watched as one or two stitched turned, glancing at one of their number, who was coughing, drawing in a deeper breath.

Aiming, I fired the last two shots of my pistol at him.  The second of the two shots hit.

The handler had been a stitched.  Maybe high quality, a dead handler quickly revived so that his skills could be preserved, or an actual living handler dressed up like a reanimated dead man.

As his head rocked back, knocking against the wall behind him, face and wall now painted in fresh crimson, his stitched looked more alarmed.  Some of the soldier-stitched started moving of their own volition, making the call to aim at us.

“Shoot!” I called out.

I got two bullets fired at the stitched for my trouble.  It was an unenthusiastic response from my side, but that was, again, to be expected.  The nature of the mob was likely a problem, the shooters not having a clear shot because of friendlies in their way.

The stitched responded, a mere four of the forty-ish stitched shooting.  Of those four, some couldn’t see well because of the gas and its effects.

But it was bound to happen, that with our mob being dense, the stitched having some ability to aim, students to the right and left of me stumbled and went down.

That seemed to give the rest of the hesitant shooters permission to open fire.  The most soldier-like of the stitched were now the subject of our retaliatory, defensive fire.  The less soldier-like lacked leadership.

I hated the moment, the nature of those few passing heartbeats, the lingering image of the shot students tipping over before my forward movement and the rest of the crowd to either side of me blocked off my view.

It left me with a terrible, sick, angry feeling.  A lot of it was directed at myself.  The calculation, the fact that I was rationalizing that oh, only some would hit.  That I rationalized that chance of a shot being immediately lethal was low, even if internal damage might be massive with the way Academy-designed guns had bullets that were designed to bounce around their victims.  I rationalized that we were largely an army of the Academy educated.

I was rolling dice and playing with numbers and justifying, and even if I considered that the chances of an immediate, unavoidable death were in the single-digits, I was still making that call.  I felt like I could taste all of the poison of Wyvern on my tongue as I swallowed that.

But I had an army and there was no way to keep my hands entirely clean forever if I was going to use it as such, Helen needed help, and we needed someone with a black coat if we were going to accomplish what we needed to accomplish.  Failure here when morale was low would see students breaking away, looking to find their own way, which would be disastrous as the Academy cracked down, or they would join Cynthia and Mauer and face far worse numbers.

We crossed the rest of no man’s land, and the charge petered out.  Students shouted, brandishing rifles and weapons, and wary experiments backed up, whip-hands and meaty Bruno hands with long hair draping from them ready in case it became a melee brawl.

Both sides made movements as if they would throw themselves at the other, but lacked the courage to follow through.

“Surrender!” I called out.

A woman with a fifteen-foot tendril extending from her palm snapped her arm out in my direction.  It moved far faster and farther than expected, cracking the air where my head had been.  I was already moving, leaning out of the way, with the lean becoming a tilt, then a run.

I broke away from the front of my army, and threw myself into the gas cloud.

I couldn’t see in the thick gas, so I didn’t try.  My eyes were screwed closed, my breath held, and I moved through the clustered experiments blindly, shoulder bumping into one, then the other as I rebounded through them like a billiards ball.

Somewhere in the midst of it, I decided to be proactive and drew my knife.  I stuck people here and there, making more precise cuts when and where I was able to identify the shape of someone.

I brushed up against one of the long-haired individuals, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that the hair wasn’t hair at all.  It stuck to me and my clothes like briars, and it rasped as it pulled away.  Gas stung a patch of my cheek and temple in the wake of one such collision.

Another experiment was one with the external organs.  On collision, the organ popped, and the fluid drenched one of my sleeves.

I shucked off my jacket, a process that was complicated by my not wanting to drop my gun or knife, and by the presence of some kind of wriggling worms that had escaped the fluid sac when it had popped.  In my rush, occupied as I was, I bumped headlong into another long-haired bruno.  The collision was with what was likely the middle of his back, which was covered by a clothing, but I felt hair hook and pull on my sleeve and hair as an arm swiped in my direction.

In the rough center of the area, I found the speaker.  He had fallen to the ground and had only managed to rid himself of one half of the coat setup with grenades in the pockets.

I jabbed my gun into my waistband with enough force that the barrel likely gouged flesh, grabbed the coat, and pulled.  What didn’t immediately give, I slashed at.

I squinted, using light and shadow to try and make out the world, my eyes burning and tearing up, and I oriented myself to make my exit.  With some vague sense of where people were, I was able to move faster, departing.

The gas was already thinning out, but as I wrangled the remains of the coat setup that I’d collected, I was able to feel that one side was heavier than the other.

Not all of the canisters had deployed.  Between Helen and I, we hadn’t achieved full coverage in finding and activating all of the canisters.  I pulled the remaining pins, and I threw the coat into the midst of the enemy.  The still-active canisters didn’t have a lot of oomph driving the output, but it made for an expanding haze of fog, disorganization in their ranks as they tried to stay clear while maintaining battle lines.

I also managed to get some attention for myself.  I was content to step back into the smoke and move off to the side, while tentacles snapped out.  Not whip cracks this time, but lunging, reaching grabs.  One swiped across my shoulder, and I grabbed it, cutting it with my knife.

Now their attention was divided three ways.  Gas in their midst, however weak, me, and the army bearing down on them.

While I’d been absent, they had pushed forward.  Some of the tentacle women had grabbed some students and were dragging them closer by increments.  Four students were using bayonets to fend off a Bruno.

But those skirmishes were isolated.  Both sides were made up of people who wanted to live, with an exception of the stitched, who were trying to follow orders and losing ground to the chaos of the moment and the lack of their handler.  That desire to survive made for a more cowardly kind of engagement.  There was shouting, posturing, there were threats, and very few individuals were really stepping forward to act.

On the far left of the enemy group, well beyond my reach, some experiments went lunging for the guns of the fallen stitched soldiers.  A contingent of the Beattle rebels pushed forward, and it became a melee instead of a shootout.

I pitched my voice to make sure I’d be heard amid the guttural threats and low cries.  I tried to sound imperious.  “The next gas grenades go off in thirty seconds!  Surrender, kneel, and you don’t get gassed!”

Just as all but a few experiments were reluctant to truly throw themselves into the fray and risk their lives, there was an equal and opposite reluctance to give up the fight.

It had to feel horrible, to be caught in the middle, where there was so much uncertainty in surrender and mortal peril in fighting to win.

One of the tentacle women, as far as I could tell while half-blind, was being particularly persistent in trying to sweep the cloud of gas to find me.  She might have been one of the ones I’d cut.

I timed my exit so that I could duck under one of the sweeps and emerge right in front of her before she could pull her tendrils in and assault me.

My knife-tip, by intent, hit her sternum, hard.  I held it there, between her breasts, not far from her heart, and intoned the word, “Surrender.”

She brought her arms in, hands seizing me, tentacles following, reaching around my head.

I brought my arms up, pushing the knife with both hands, the blade scratching sternum and clothing, sliding up, and finally finding the soft flesh of neck.  The thrust parted flesh from the hollow of her throat to the point where her chin met her neck.  The tail end of the thrust might have severed a major vein.

I watched, wary, studying those nearby as the woman tumbled to the ground.  One of the tendrils caught on my vest and my injured shoulder as it pulled away, and I was able to keep my face still as it did so, but I wasn’t able to avoid my leg buckling and my grip on the knife faltering.  I only barely managed to keep from dropping it.

The experiments closest to me hadn’t lunged to attack at the show of weakness.  I fixed my grip, and the bloated fluid-sac experiment I was looking at at the time backed away a step.

I took one hand off the knife, and gestured at him, motioning him down.

He sat down with force, plopping himself down on the road.

People wanted to live.

The one effective surrender was cause for a domino effect.  Just as one person pulling the trigger gave others permission to shoot, one surrender gave way to another, and then another.

The experiments that were most hostile and dangerous pulled away, forming a separate group, and they drifted closer to the retreating non-soldier stitched, the laborers and filler, the dumb muscle.

That was it.  I hurried over to the coats and grenades, and, grabbing them, I hurled them in the direction of the hostiles.

The first canisters were only just running out, as new ones were flaring to life.  They backed away from the expanding cloud of gas, and then retreated wholesale, running away.

“Don’t hurt the ones who surrendered,” I said.  It wasn’t an order meant for the ears of my people, but for the ones who had given up the fight.  “Tend to the injured.  Greens, I want you to surround the building, make sure our professors aren’t running away.  Don’t chase or engage, but give us a shout if there’s a problem.”

I watched as Mabel’s group, minus Mabel, went to do as I’d bid.

Some of our people had been hurt.  I looked over our group.

“Who’s hurt?” I asked.

I heard a smattering of names, none of whom I recognized.  I heard a litany of injuries.  Shot, head injury, some medical slang that was probably ex-students retreating into comfortable, easy terminology.

“Nobody died?” I asked.

There was a pause.

“Marcus isn’t doing well, but he should pull through,” I heard.  “Some of the others are fighting over who gets to work on him.  Davis took over.”

“Good,” I said.  “You did good.”

They had, in a way.  Not perfect, a lot of hesitation, a lot of fear, but…

“You showed guts,” I said, as if talking to myself.  “That was good.”

I saw a smile on one injured person, head injury, and before I could take in more, Jessie and some of the locals were approaching.

“That was bloodier than I thought it would be,” the older man said.  He’d gone a little white, while I was probably the opposite.

“There are a lot of answers to that statement,” I said.  “But short answer is yes, it was unexpectedly bad.  Longer answer is they forced it to be, by how they laid things out.  The only approach was one that saw us collide with the defensive force they had in place.”

“You could have chosen not to fight,” he said.

“I think…” I said, and I paused, coughing, blinking, taking a moment to endure the lingering effects of the gas on me.  My skin burned with every brush of the air.  I was fairly covered up, but my face felt flushed, my skin hurt, and I was probably as red as a robin’s breast.  I stopped coughing and stayed where I was, thinking.

“No answer?” he asked.

“More that I’m trying to politely word this, knowing you still have some faith about the Academy and the Crown,” I said.

He stiffened a little at that.

The students around me were watching the exchange.  Some of them hadn’t heard the opening conversation between me and the man.

“How about this?” I asked him.  “Come inside.  Join me for a conversation with the professors who set that giant on your city.  Don’t tell them who you are.  Just listen in.”

“Why?” he asked.

Jessie spoke up, “Because if you hear what they say when they’re not talking to the public, you might well change your mind about us having to fight.”

The gas behind me was clearing up.  I could see Bea’s group, and I could see the experiments.  They had largely been pacified, the fight gone out of them as they struggled to see, breathe, and endure the pain of their skin burning.

“Alright,” the man said.  “If it means answers, I’ll listen.”

“It doesn’t mean answers,” I said.  “In the seventeen years I’ve been on this earth, I’ve spent more than half of them looking for answers to questions.  At first it was in the Academy’s service, then it was against the Academy.  I have more questions than when I started.  I don’t want you to not come, but I don’t want to lie to you either.”

“You’ll get answers to this question, maybe,” Jessie said.  “About why they acted here.”

“I’ll listen in and decide for myself,” he said.

I pointed at some people.  Helen was among them, hanging back in the midst of the group.

Helen wasn’t supposed to be alive, at this juncture, so it was risky to have her with us, but I knew she’d be upset, insofar as she got ‘upset’ in the conventional sense, if she didn’t get an opportunity to participate.  The minor play with the speaker and the Radham badge wouldn’t satisfy, I suspected.

She had her hood up, and she allowed me a small smile as she approached.

I’d picked the able bodied, rather than faces I knew.  And I’d picked Helen.  Jessie came too, as a matter of course.

I still had the bitter taste in my mouth, and gas was only a part of it.  I didn’t like this situation, this city, this attack on the Academy’s part, or this confrontation with Cynthia on one side of it.  I didn’t like the tone of it, or the way they had positioned themselves.

I didn’t like that there were a few things that weren’t connecting.

Our rebels kept an eye on the experiments while we entered the building.  It was Jessie, Helen and I who led the way, Jessie on the right, Helen on the left, and me at the lead.

The building was square, four rooms each taking up an equal share of space.  Stairs led up to the second floor.  Once we’d checked that nobody was situated on the ground floor, we made our way up the stairs.

The older man trailed behind in the company of our rebels.  He seemed to buy that we could do what we’d talked about doing, and that we could make effective use of the speaker, and I suspected Jessie had built up something of a rapport while in his company.

Helen reached out and stopped us while we were only partway up the stairs.

“What is it?” Jessie whispered.

She reached out and touched our throats.  Her hands, still suffering for the damage to her body, twitched.

It took me only a second to realize that she was intending for me to feel the twitch.

“H-h-h-h-h-h-” I made the sound, whisper quiet.

She exhaled, mirroring me.  A shuddering exhalation.  Then she inhaled.

Odd breathing.

“How many?” Jessie asked.

Helen raised her hand, then knocked it against my arm.  She was presumably doing something similar for Jessie.  Tap-tap, pause, tap-tap.

“I, uh, don’t have the tap code anymore,” I murmured.  “Or if I do, I’m not remembering the numbers these days.”

“Three,” Jessie said.  “Three people.”

Helen nodded.

I wasn’t jealous, exactly, but a part of me felt deeply disappointed that I couldn’t claim to be someone who understood Helen when all other communication failed.

We crept up, this new information in mind.  Making our way down the hallway, we reached the master room on the second floor.  The rooms lacked furniture, but for this one, which had a table and a loveseat, set a distance apart from each other, as if purely an afterthought.  There were papers on the table, and there were three individuals in the room.  Two stood, slouching, and the third sat on the arm of the loveseat.

All three wore coats.  Two grey, a man and a woman, and a man in a black coat.

I could hear their breathing now, and I could read their stances, postures, and expressions.  The agitation with seemingly no outlet or momentum to it, the spittle flecking lips, the way they stared off into space.  One held a fireplace poker and periodically let it swing left and right, like a pendulum, as if to remind himself of the heft of it.

I gestured.  Fight.  Drug.

Combat drugs.  They had dosed themselves.

Not looking to run, only to fight.

They had to make this difficult, didn’t they?

I gestured, communicating.

Jessie would take one, I would take one, and Helen and the rest could take the third.

Helen knocked my hand aside as I articulated the last bit.

Helen.  Group.  Together.

She knocked my hand aside, then she gripped it.

I still really didn’t like how weak her grip was.

She took Jessie’s hand too.  She held our hands up, and squeezed again, with far too little strength.

I could piece it together, at least.  She was using tap code as she squeezed, and Jessie and I let our eyes meet.

Trust.  Lambs.  I knew what Helen was saying.

I nodded, somewhat reluctantly.

If I’d been able to speak without our whispers potentially drawing the attention of the three people in the other room, then I might have said that trusting the Lambs to perform was one side of the equation.  The other side was that we each knew each other’s strengths and limitations, and we covered for them.

She was going to get hurt, and I wasn’t sure how much she had in her, at this stage.

Painstakingly, I communicated everything to the rest, with pen and scrap paper that Jessie supplied.

I would be the bait.  It was a role I was comfortable in.

Positioning myself at the top stair, making sure that everyone was ready, stationed in rooms off to either side of the main hallway, I whistled.

“No, no, no, no…” the man in the other room spoke.  “No!  You’re not taking me alive!  You’re not carving me up and making me a stitched, no!”

He appeared in the doorway.  “No!  I’m a professor, damn it!  I’m a professor!”

His voice reached a fever pitch.

“You’re going to have to kill me!” he screeched.

He wheeled around, and he opened fire, shooting into the room Helen was in.

Trust, I thought.

I whistled again.

He shot, this time at me.  His reaction times were amped up, and he wasn’t a bad shot either.

Come closer.

He kept firing, and with quick, deft motions, he reloaded.  I could see his shadow as he crept closer.  A sword in one hand, held close to his leg, a pistol in the other.

“Not making me a stitched!  Mommy and daddy said that I’d be made a stitched if I was bad, but I’m a professor now!  They said so!”

I was worried the others would panic.  That they would attack him, or react in fear of him shooting into their rooms.

Come closer.

He made it halfway down the hallway before I saw a glimpse of him, and he saw a glimpse of me, perched on the stairs below.  I’d anticipated it, and he still had the reaction times to nearly clip me.

“I’ve got a pretty black coat, and no matter how much blood gets on it, it never shows,” he said.  “Never shows, no, no, no.”

At least the local we’d brought along was getting an earful.

The other two entered the hallway.  The grey coats.

They were as quiet as the one in the lead was quiet.

“Mauer burns you at the stake, Fray will drown you, and Cynthia shoves her spear up your ass until it comes out the mouth,” the man in the black coat said.  “And all the lesser rebels have their special little torments.  Not for me, no, no.  If I die, we die together, that’s how the Crown does it.”

The two in the grey coats moved far enough along the hallway for the trap to spring.

The maneuver was coordinated.  The extras I’d brought along, people I’d known were brave enough on the battlefield to pull triggers or actually get involved in a fight, well, I hadn’t been able to assign them to Helen alone, so I’d told them to support all three of us as much as they could without getting in the way.

Jessie struck with surgical precision, going after the woman in the grey coat with the fireplace poker.  Her movements were remembered rather than practiced, deft, keeping her low to the ground, and the knife she planted in her target’s midsection served to catch her right at the core of the body.  The grey-coated woman was in the midst of bringing the poker around to hit Jessie, using the end closest to her two hands rather than the hooked tip, and the injury and impact together took the strength out of the hit.  Jessie was able to roll with the hit; maybe she would bruise, but it was far better than a cracked skull.

Helen, for her part, was almost the inverse.  She found a good moment to act, but the action was clumsy.  She threw herself at the man at the tail end, and she landed low, tangling herself up in his legs.

She lacked the strength to stay firm while tripping him up, but she didn’t utilize strength.  She positioned herself, so that her seven stone body was in places the man’s legs wanted to be.

He sprawled, and a knife slid away from his hand as he did so.  Helen crawled toward his upper body as he lay on his back, reaching up and over for the weapon.

Meanwhile, I simply rushed the man with the gun.  He turned to pay attention to what was happening behind him, and as he did so, I threw myself up the stairs with both hands and feet, and I pulled him back onto the stairs and onto me.  He landed partially across my good shoulder and back, and I helped him in a tumble down the stairs, grabbing his collar as I did so so I could control his fall.

Just like that, it was more or less over.  Combat drugs, yes, combatant, no.

It would make them inconvenient to deal with in the coming hour or two, however.

I just wished I had a better feeling about this whole scenario.

I made sure to collect the gun and others followed me down the stairs.

Passing custody of him to the rebels I’d brought along, I hurried up the stairs.

Helen sat astride the man’s collarbone and on top of one of his arms.  Her back bent in an impossible way, so her face was very close to his, and her tongue had stabbed into his mouth and down his throat, while he made gagging sounds.  He was trying not to vomit as she used her tongue to provoke his gag reflex.

Her arms were limp at her sides, her legs folded at either side of his shoulders.  It was only weight and a low center of gravity that she used.    He moved his hand, pulling at her, reaching for the tongue, and she interfered, batting at his hand with hers, until he finally managed a grip.

Her counter was to let him grab her tongue, hauling nearly a foot of it out of his mouth, and meanwhile, she deployed her next attack.  She heaved, vomiting what seemed like a bucket of blood on his face, nose, and into his open mouth.

His struggles took on a different tone.  He clutched at her, tried to push her off, and tried to turn his head so he could spit out the blood.  Her knees and inner thighs hugged either side of his face.  His breath formed bubbles in the pool of blood.  I heard a gasp as he managed to somehow find a way to breathe with a long length of tongue and a bucket of blood on his face.

Helen, for her part, simply heaved again.  It was bile, this time.

His hand reached for his waistband.

“Knife!” I called out.

He grabbed the knife that was at his waist and under his shirt, and he drew it.  The others near Helen weren’t fast enough to grab it before the man stabbed her.

He coughed or gagged, and there was a spurt of air exploding through the thick fluids.

Helen took the stabbing in stride, arching her body up and away so the knife pulled free of the man’s hand.  She left the knife embedded in her side, and grabbed it with one hand.

He fumbled blindly for the knife, and found only her hand.  He grabbed her wrist, trying to pull it away, and she let him, moving her body to control the positioning of everything while being quick to grab the knife handle before he could.

“I told you you’d get hurt,” I told her.

I saw her visibly sigh.

“Satisfied?” I asked.

She didn’t immediately respond.

I had one eye on the man we’d brought along, who watched the scene in abject horror.

“Jessie, Mister Bystander.  We should have a word with the professor.”

“The stab wound?” one of our rebels asked.

I’d wanted to go, and now we’d have a short discussion, and we wouldn’t go.  Slightly annoying.

“She made sure it was placed so it was almost exactly where she got shot earlier,” Jessie said.  “Presumably under the assumption that the damage is already done.”

Helen, her tongue still buried in the pool of blood and bile, and in the man’s face, nodded.

The man in the grey coat coughed again, and then the amount of fluid increased, bubbling up.  Vomit.

The fight slowly went out of him, and I could watch Helen’s back as she visibly relaxed, a weight lifted off of her shoulders, something proven, a fear resolved or a problem solved.

She had needed this, I supposed.

She turned to look at me over one shoulder, through the curtain of hair, as she slurped her tongue back into her mouth.  She spat the fluids onto the floor to the side of the man’s head.

“Satisfied,” I said, making it a statement this time.

She gave me a nod.

We left her behind as we descended the stairs.

The students had moved the professor away from the stairs and against the wall.  He still struggled with the strength of someone on combat drugs, but there were three of them, and it looked like one of his hands was injured.

I wanted to say something pithy, show off a little, and ensure that the bystander’s mind could be taken off of the scene upstairs.

But I looked down at the professor, and I felt that deep unease that had been sitting with me for a little while now.

I stooped down, reaching forward, and my injured shoulder with the flesh carved away seized up.  It took me a second attempt to grab the man’s chin.  I moved my fingers over his mouth before he could spit on me, and dug my fingers in there for leverage, staring.

“What is it?” Jessie asked.

“Look at him,” I told her.  “What do you see?”

She bent down so she was on my level.  She tilted her head one way, and then the other.

“Symmetrical.”

“Is that what I’m seeing?” I asked.

She moved her hand, holding it up so it was flat, dividing his face to the left and right sides.

Then, abrupt, she moved forward and pulled his head down, so his chin touched his collarbone, and ran her fingers through his hair.

“No real part,” she said.  “No whorl.”

“I don’t understand,” the bystander said.

“He’s not a professor,” I said, straightening.  “He’s an experiment.  Clone, vat baby, they dressed him up as a professor, gave him pretensions of being one, and gave him a supply of combat drugs to cloud the picture.  The soldiers outside…”

“An odd bunch,” Jessie said.

“United only in that they were expendable,” I said.  “It’s a trap.  The entire thing.  Neph, the giant… he’s too big a target to pass up.  He finds them or they find him.  The city… it’s entirely unimportant, it’s expendable too.”

“They want him to lose the fight against Cynthia,” Jessie said.

“Or against us, or Mauer, or Fray,” I said.  I looked at the bystander.  “We need to evacuate the city.  Now.”

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