Stitch in Time – 4.12

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Just an hour or so ago, Fray had been giving the order for Warren to attack us, to kill or maim.  Now we were following Warren to where Fray was waiting.  A little upriver from where we’d had our first discussion, near the edge of Kensford, where it bordered the woods.

There was a crowd further down the street.  They were moving toward the Academy with purpose, and we could hear the shouts, though I couldn’t make out the words.

Fray looked genuinely surprised when we turned up.  More surprised than she’d been when we’d turned up near her lab.  She raised one hand to move her hair away from her face, as the wind blew it forcefully in the most inconvenient direction.

It took her a second.  Something fell into place, and she nodded a little.  “You found them, Warren, and you brought them here, because of Wendy.”

Warren nodded.

“If you don’t catch a train soon, you’re going to be stuck here,” Fray informed us.

Now you’re being manipulative,” I said, walking up with my hands in my coat pockets.  I separated from the group and found a tree with a short stone wall built around it to contain the dirt, taking a seat on the corner of the wall, one foot propped up, the other on the ground.  “Setting a time limit?  That’s number one in the manipulation textbook.”

She shook her head.  “What is it they say about a thief being wariest of theft?”

“I never liked that saying.  Thieves deal with thieves as a matter of course.  If I’m going to steal, I’m going to steal from a thief who can’t go to authorities to complain.  It stands to reason that a thief is well justified in being wary.”

“You’re missing the point.”

“I get the point.  I’m a manipulator dealing with manipulators.  And a manipulator is particularly vulnerable to the predations of their cannier counterparts.  But okay, if you want to pretend you’re not setting an artificial time limit to put pressure on us and position yourself better for getting Wendy back, I can play along.”

The other Lambs were taking my lead, spreading out, very casually.  This encounter with Fray was very different from the last one, and very different from my first encounter with her.  We’d lost.  She’d dropped her bombshell, and now, oddly enough, we could relax.

The shouts and screams further down the street rose in volume.  People had torches, which was almost laughable.  It was so iconic for the angry mob, but now that I saw it, I wondered if they intended to set fires, or if they simply needed the light.  How did that even happen?  Did someone have a supply of torches on hand, or did one guy just pipe up and say ‘I know how to make torches!  Just give me a few minutes!’

“You’re smiling,” Fray spoke to me.

I raised my eyebrows, the smile disappearing.

“Do you have a plan, Sylvester?  A way to snare me?  One of you is missing.”

It was Gordon who replied.  “No plan to capture, no snare.  Whatever we did, you have Warren, and he could hurt or kill several of us in retaliation for whatever we did to you.  Not worth it.”

Fray nodded.  It was common sense, really – Warren wouldn’t have brought us if he thought it would hurt Fray.  It said something, though, that she’d asked, bringing things up to sound it out and gauge our reactions.  A hint of insecurity.

If I had to reason it out, I suspected we’d shocked her a little by appearing in the school and forcing her hand.  Forcing her to use Warren, and forcing her to put her plan into action.

“Are you satisfied?” Lillian asked.

“We’ll see,” Fray said, leaning back against the railing that overlooked the river.  “I’m more interested in the long-term.”

“You’ve been at this since you left the detainment center with Warren and Wendy,” I said.

She smiled.  “Have I?”

Gordon spoke, saying, “It’s done.  You won, you don’t have to be coy.”

“I can’t just outright tell you the particulars.  I could lie, but I don’t like doing that.  We’ll both see how far the ripples extend in the coming weeks and months.”

“War,” Mary said, quiet.  “There has to be.”

“I think so,” Fray agreed.  “The Academy crossed lines.  I wanted to change it from within, that didn’t work, so I’m going to force a change from the outside.  War is one way.  Changing minds is another.  There are weak points in the economic backbone, there are weaknesses in the foundations of the Academy’s work… that last one might be a weakness I’m not clever enough to exploit, I have to admit.”

“And you tell us all this with the idea that we’re going to go back and tell Radham Academy what you said, down to the word,” Jamie said.

“I expect you will, Jamie,” Fray said.

“But you’re leaving out the next part.  You’re only getting started,” I said.  “Your real method of attack isn’t one of the ones you just described.  You want us to go and we tell Hayle or Briggs what you said-”

“You mean the duke, not Briggs,” Fray said.

I raised my eyebrows.  “Funny that you know that.”

“It’s not exactly a secret,” she said.

“Sure,” I said, smiling.  “You want us to go to Hayle or the duke, listing off all those different ways you could hurt the Academy, and when they’ve busied themselves frantically working to cover all the bases, you attack us from another angle.”

She shook her head, “Or I expect you’ll say that and I use one of the methods I just named.  The Academy is too big.  Something has to give.  You know full well that you each have expiration dates – Sy wasn’t surprised when I brought it up.  The Academies are an experiment of sorts too.  Just as they’ve done with you, they’re going to keep pushing until something breaks, and then they’ll change things, approach anew with learned lessons fresh in their minds.  I’m not saying this is a dragon that can be slain.  I am saying that it can be trained.  Even if we’re on opposite sides, you can’t disagree with me on that score.”

“Want to try us?” Mary asked.

Man, Mary was in a bad mood.

Odd, considering the fact that I felt fantastic.  I wasn’t happy, exactly, but I’d become caught up in Fray’s flow.  Stagnation was the worst thing, and change was something thrilling.

“You’re smiling again, Sylvester,” Genevieve Fray told me.  “My mental picture of you told me you’d be more upset.”

“Can’t cry over spilled milk,” I said.  “There are better things to occupy my thoughts with.”

“The forced sterilization and enslavement of tens or hundreds of thousands is spilled milk?” Lillian asked, quiet.

“Close enough,” I said.  “We went into this a step behind.  You had the files on us, Fray, you knew who you were dealing with.  You have moles on the inside who are feeding you information and telling you we’re coming.”

“Someone could read that as you being a sore loser, Sylvester,” Fray said.  “We eluded you, so there must be a mole?”

“I’m thinking you know entirely too much, and you know far too much that’s up to date, like about the Duke and the fact that Mary is a Lamb.”

“She was a Lamb in the spring, when I was introduced to your file.”

“A new Lamb, with no guarantee she would work out.  You didn’t know her full capabilities, but you weren’t surprised when she turned up or demonstrated her abilities.  Everything fits better if I assume you have someone in the Academy, passing on details.  An ex-classmate or teacher?  There are a lot of possibilities, especially for a would-be professor.”

“Have to make connections to make it up the ladder,” Gordon said.

“And you told me you took the Wyvern formula to build up your ability to play the political game.  You’re telling me you didn’t cover that base?  Come on,” I said.

Fray shrugged, smiling some.

“You had this decided long before we arrived,” I said, feeling very at ease.  “You had the information on us, and we didn’t have the information on you.”

“They would have showed you my file.”

“The file that doesn’t even mention that you were taking the Wyvern formula until it comes up in the your record of termination?” Jamie asked.  “Your files on us were better than our files on you.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “This was an introduction.  We’ve said our hellos, we’ve gotten to know each other, just a little bit, Fray, Warren and Wendy meeting the Lambs, and we’re going to meet again.”

“I hope it’s soon,” Fray said.  “The offer for conversation and tea stands.  So does the offer to leave the Academy.  We can work on the expiration dates, I can save Jamie-”

“Stop,” Gordon said, voice hard.  Jamie flinched – I wasn’t sure if it was because of Fray’s words or Gordon’s reaction.

“And I obviously have the means to free you from the chemical leash,” she finished, as if she hadn’t been interrupted.  “I feel like I have to ask again, with most of you present, in light of recent events.”

“Now that you’ve ‘won’,” Mary said.  “You’re offering us a spot on the winning side?”

“I wouldn’t phrase it like that, but yes.”

There was a long pause.  Warren shifted position uncomfortably.  The shouting further down the street was coming and going, but it wasn’t the same group – people were migrating en-masse, either to Dame Cicely’s or away from it.

Odd that people could be going in such different directions and be so similar in how they were thinking.

That thought in mind, I spoke up, simply to say, “I’ve already given you my answer.  No.”

“You’re a believer,” Fray said.  “I’m a skeptic.”

“Something like that,” I said.

“I can’t entice you by saying that my way is the harder road?” she asked, smiling.  “It’s more interesting.

“Hearing you say that is pretty telling,” I said.  “I almost believe you now when you say that you’re not good at manipulating people.”

“Ah well.”

“I’m staying with the Academy,” Jamie said.

Fray nodded, accepting that, but she spoke, “Even knowing that you might never get another chance to leave?”

I saw Jamie tense at that.  Even with his winter clothes on, mittened hands holding his book, I could see the subtle change in body language.

Lillian looked anxious.  She kept looking back between Jamie and Genevieve Fray.

“That’s how it works, isn’t it?” she asked.  “Sooner or later, you can’t know for sure when, they’ll keep what you give them.”

I clenched my hands in my pockets.  This was more convincing than anything she had said to me, specifically.  This was Jamie.  She was completely and utterly right.

Jamie couldn’t be saved, not exactly, but instead of having another year or two with him, I could have six.  Or ten.

“If any of us leave, they take someone else and replace us.  Same idea, another child,” Jamie said, his voice soft.

Fray nodded.  She smiled a little.  “It’s so nice to finally meet you.  I hadn’t imagined you’d be the compassionate sort.  I thought you’d be more stiff.”

Jamie shook his head, but he didn’t say anything.

“Mary?” Fray asked.

“No.”

“No rationale, no points to debate?” Fray asked.

“No.  You disgust me, I don’t like you.  I don’t like standing here, being in your company.  I can’t imagine staying with you for a while on purpose, unless it’s to take you somewhere where they can put you down,” Mary said.

“Oh my.”

“I’m a Lamb,” Mary said.

Fray nodded.  “Gordon?  Lillian?”

Lillian was the one who answered.  “You have nothing to give me.”

“I could teach you.”

“So can they,” Lillian said.  Simple, firm.

“One-on-one, dedicated-” Fray started.  She stopped as she saw Lillian shaking her head.  “No?”

“I saw what you did with Lady Claire,” Lillian said.  “You have nothing to offer that I’d want to take.  I don’t think you even understand the ramifications of what you did.  People are going to die.  Lots of them, innocents.  People who drank this water and left the city?  Those who were just passing through?”

“People will get hurt,” Fray said.  “But the effects are diluted, they’ll have a few days.  The Academy will respond and get a stopgap measure into place.  Crateloads of pills or train cars of the fluids will go out in every direction.”

“People will die,” Lillian said.  “You said it yourself, there are no guarantees the trains will keep running.”

“The Academy can’t fix the problem.  A simple remedy for the effects of sterilization and the controlling agent would go against their very ethos.  They have to take control where it’s offered.  To survive this, they have to minimize the casualties.  I guarantee you, Lillian, the Academy will find a way to distribute a stopgap measure.  One that lets them keep this system of control in place, however much it hurts them to keep hold of the reins.”

Lillian shook her head.

I thought the debate between the two of them might have continued, but Gordon jumped in, and when he did, my heart skipped a beat.

I could read his body language.

“I talked to Sy about it earlier,” he said.

No, Gordon.

“I told him, if you made the offer to me, I’d accept.”

My heart leaped into my throat.

No.  I was not prepared to lose a Lamb like this.  Not so soon.

As Lillian had done earlier, I looked between Fray and Gordon, suddenly alarmed.

I saw the shock on Fray’s face, too, fleeting, before she masked it.  As Gordon was wont to do, he’d put her off balance.  He had a way of hitting where it hurt.

I saw the brief communication of ideas between them.  Him reading her body language, her reading his.

“That’s changed, I think,” Gordon finally said.  “The way you did this… it’s not a fight I’d want to participate in.  I don’t think I’d- when it comes to you, I don’t think-”

She found the words he was reaching for.  “You don’t think you’d have faith in me?”

“Not after this,” Gordon said, very simply.  I could hear the lie in the words.

“It goes both ways.  If only one Lamb joined me, I feel like it would have to be a double-cross,” she said.

“And it wouldn’t if all of us joined you?” Mary asked.

“If you were in a position to do that, it would be closer to an ambush than a double-cross,” Fray said.

She was distracting, turning the subject away from Gordon.  I could see him staring at her.

The two of them had communicated so much in mere moments.  He’d seen that she wasn’t ready.  Maybe she expected me to jump on board, or she had ideas on how to use Jamie.  Or maybe she had anticipated that when one domino toppled, the rest would, and the Lambs would join her wholesale.  If we were all on board, then we’d stay on board to stay together.  Our earlier discussion on the subject had suggested that we were a package deal, after all.

I couldn’t know for sure.  The interplay had been between them alone.

I wanted to say something, to joke, to step in between them.  I found my throat tight, the words didn’t come.

“Let’s talk about Wendy,” Fray said.

“Let’s,” Gordon said.  “I think we have a train to catch, so let’s not drag this out.”

I saw Warren shift position.

“You have something in mind?” Fray asked.  “I’m not going to turn myself in.”

“No,” Gordon said.  “I’ve been thinking about it, what we could do in the way of transactions, things you might agree to.  My first thought was that you should dismiss Warren.  Let the guy get some help.  He can have Wendy back, it’s clear they care about each other, he can heal.”

“And I’m left without my friend?” Fray asked us.

I found words, though I had to clear my throat to get them through.  “If you refuse, you might lose him anyway.”

Warren folded his arms, drawing attention to him.  He shook his head in a slow, dramatic fashion.

Or not.

“The second option, and this is one I think you could agree to, while keeping it meaningful,” Gordon said, “You take a time out.”

“A time out?”

“One year, you don’t pull anything else.  You don’t attack the Academies, you don’t perpetuate your plans, you don’t form allies, you don’t research for your next scheme.”

Fray frowned.  “That kind of adjustment was not in the cards.  It’s unreasonable.”

“Does Warren think so?” Mary asked.  She’d been watching the big guy.  I imagined she was thinking a lot about what she might be able to do if he picked a fight with us.

Warren didn’t budge.  He was frozen.  Not offering any tells was a tell in this case.

He didn’t see it as unreasonable.

“Three months,” Fray said.  “I don’t attack anyone or unleash anything.  I can gather allies and do research.  I have to, frankly, it would be disingenuous to say otherwise.”

“Six months,” Gordon said.

Fray didn’t look that happy with the idea.  “Four months.”

“Six,” Gordon said.

“A good compromise is something that makes everyone unhappy,” I said.

Fray gave me an unimpressed look.

She had plans.  This throws a wrench into them.  It gives the Academy a chance to recover…

Not much, not enough to undo what she did.  Not with possible civil war on the horizon.

But enough to hurt her.

“A stitched in exchange for time,” Fray said.

“Something like that,” Gordon said.

“I’d offer a handshake to seal the deal,” Fray said, “But I’m not positive you wouldn’t break my leg if I let you get that close.”

“I know about your retractable needles,” Gordon said.  “Sy recapped.  Let’s do without the handshake.”

She nodded.  “Until we meet again, then.”

“Until we meet again,” I said, before Gordon could say it.

I turned to leave, with only Jamie in my field of vision, only Jamie able to see my expression.

Gordon had been willing to go.  It hadn’t been a trick, no joke, no double-cross.  He was the most mature and independent of us, he was the one who felt his mortality, and apparently that outweighed his loyalty to us.

If he’d replied to say something about their next meeting, I wasn’t sure if I could have kept from reacting or saying something.

The next time they met, if something drastic didn’t change, Gordon would go with her.

I twisted around, avoiding looking at Gordon, instead fixating on the woman who was still leaning against the railing, rubbing her hands to keep them warm.

“Go,” she said.  “I’ll be here.  Send Wendy down this street.  But you should leave soon.  If the proverbial fires don’t ignite, then I’m going to start some, and you won’t want to be here.”

“Is the headmaster going to be okay with you starting fires?” Jamie asked.

Genevieve offered him a coy smile.

Bastard deserves what he gets, then.

We left to go get Helen and take our leave from Kensford.

The train came to a stop.  Not Radham, a smaller town.  I watched out the window as the conductor made his way down the steps to approach a man.  My eye traveled to a number of stitched guards at the entrance to the train station.  A surprisingly large number.

Was that smoke coming from within the town?  Were actual fires being started?

The conductor hurried up the stairs.  He addressed the crowd of people at the end of the train car, who were just collecting bags from the rack, or bidding stitched servants to do the collecting.  There was a murmur of conversation, hushed and tense.

Among the Lambs, we exchanged glances.  I averted my eyes from Gordon alone.

Only half of the passengers left.  We watched and waited as the others went to return to their seats, looking anxious.

We were silent even as the conductor approached us, bending down low in that way adults so often did with children.  His voice was low.  “A few problems have come up.  You were getting off at Radham, I believe?”

We nodded as a group.

“The man at the station says that word has come down the wire that a few of the cities and towns along our route are in crisis.  Do you know what that means?”

“We know what that means,” Jamie said.

“Yes, well…” the conductor paused.  “Pinesam, Evensroy, Radham and Berricksville are rioting, on fire, experiments were unleashed, or a combination of the three.  If you’d like, we’ll drop you off somewhere safer, the railroad will help you make accommodations and get in touch with anyone vital.”

“There’s no need,” Gordon said.  “We have to get off at Radham.”

“If you’re sure?  The situation sounds dire.”

“We’re sure,” Gordon said, in a way that brooked no argument.

“Take care, children,” the conductor said.

A moment later, he had moved on to the next grouping of seats.  He recited the same list of cities, informing passengers about the situation.

A full minute passed before Lillian spoke up, “Am I just crazy, or-“

“She didn’t visit Pinesam or Evensroy,” Jamie said.

“Are we sure?  Because-“

“She didn’t,” Jamie said.

Mary was turning a knife over in her hands.  I double checked that none of the train staff or other passengers were in a position to see, then left her to it.  We all had little quirks when we were stressed.

“We already knew she made friends along the way,” I said.

When we returned to Radham, it took a full fifteen minutes for them to let us in the front door.  It hadn’t been easy, with all the people pressing to get in, pushing and shoving to get us out of the way and be the ones to voice their rage and sorrow.

Five minutes of walking to get to the head office.  Lonely, with almost no souls out and about.  Everyone who was awake was elsewhere, working or hiding.

Once we’d reached it, we were left to wait for a full thirty minutes.  The ominous ticking of a clock further down the hallway helped to mark the passage of time.  It was very orderly, stiff, and calm.

In stark contrast, we had a view over the Academy walls, looking out on the sprawl of Radham.  Fires burned here and there, and bodies moved throughout the streets, black and red in contrast to a city that otherwise gleamed the silver-blue of a city in winter.  The sun was only beginning to rise, now.

We were given glasses of water by a student, and I stared long and hard at it before drinking.  I thought of Fray.

I still couldn’t look at Gordon, and I knew he’d noticed.  He knew me and I knew him well enough that we both knew why.  We could communicate on that level just like he could with Fray.  In my restlessness, I’d stood and paced away from the others, walked down the hall to look out other windows and see my city on fire from a variety of angles.

Gordon could have stood and approached, he could have said something, made excuses, shared his thoughts, and I might have forgiven him.

So ironic, considering he’d been the one to spout words about the cohesion of the team.

The rest of us were better now.  We’d reaffirmed our bonds in standing against Fray.  Any fractures were better.  Except for Gordon.

It made me feel sick, it made me angry, it made me feel helpless, and I hated feeling helpless.

When Hayle finally stepped out of the room, I practically wheeled on him, as if I was ready to attack.

“See to your appointments,” he said.  “I’ll debrief you individually, before, during, or after you’ve been looked to.  I have other things to focus on.  Helen?  You’ll find Ibbott in the Bowels.  Lillian, go get some rest.  I’ll send someone to let you know where you’re needed.”

With that, he closed the door in our faces.

It was, coming from a man who had a way of being composed, something of a shock.

We broke away, Lillian and Helen breaking away.

Gordon walked alone, not with us, and he walked faster, leaving us behind.

I exchanged looks with Mary and Jamie.

“What happened?” Mary asked quiet.  “Did I-”

“No,” I said.

“No?”

“It wasn’t you,” I said.

“We failed.  I failed.  If I hadn’t gotten hurt, if I could have gotten the drop on them, or hunted them after-”

“Like I told Fray, this was our introduction.  We’ll see her again.  This time we know who and what she is.”

Mary nodded.

“You’re going to be okay?  With your appointment?” she asked.

I nodded.  I felt less apprehensive about it than ever, oddly enough.  Dealing with Fray had changed my perspective in some small ways.

“I don’t want to go,” she said.

I raised an eyebrow.  Mary didn’t want to go, when she loved her appointments.  They were a chance to show off, to show her coordination, skill retention, fitness…

“Would it be better if you were in a room near ours?” Jamie asked.

Mary, as a new addition, had her appointments in the tower, but she was on a different floor than we were.

She nodded.  “Feels dumb when you say it out loud, though.”

“Hur hur,” Jamie said, speaking in a ‘dumb’ deeper voice.

She reached past me to give him a playful shove, bumping me in the process.

She’s lonely, and she doesn’t like a ‘loss’She senses something’s wrong, and she wants to be part of the group, in the midst of it.

She was a Lamb, through and through.

When she reached past me to swat at Jamie’s ponytail, or to pull the string from around the base, I put an arm around her.  She stopped, a little confused.

“It’s a hug, dum-dum,” I said.  “Half of one, anyway.”

“I have knives, Sy,” she said, “You don’t get to call someone dum-dum when they have knives.”

But she was smiling.  She messed up my hair.

Jamie and I watched as she took the side hallway, heading to her lab.  Jamie gave her a wave.

I saw how Jamie walked, the way he held his book.

“She didn’t ask how you felt about your appointment,” I noted.

“Nope.  It’s not being poisoned, though.”

I nodded.  “Do you want me to sit and wait?”

He didn’t respond right away, but I did see a nod out of the corner of my eye.

“I can do that,” I said.

Fray got to him.  Talking about the dangers.

We reached Jamie’s laboratory.  Project Caterpillar.

I took the book as he handed it to me.

The doctors were already waiting, and they flocked to him as he entered the room.  I remained in the doorway, watching, too far away to make out words in the jumble of voices, hugging his book to my chest

Jamie disrobed.  He pulled off his sweater and the shirt beneath, then unbuttoned his belt.  It wasn’t that he felt so casual about his nudity here, but more that there was no choice.

The scars and the ridges carried down his entire body.  They were more pronounced along his spine and between his legs, to the point that there was nothing left that was even remotely recognizable.

He half-turned, seeing me looking, and he didn’t flinch, he didn’t hide.  He handed one doctor his glasses, and undid his ponytail.

Switches were flicked.  Lights went on around the room.  Large glass containers were lit up, with gray-pink blobs within.  Brains, the largest as big around as I was tall.  Each one was connected to the next, a chain.

A caterpillar, in a way.  Segmented, promising a future transformation.  Just what that would be remained to be seen, but all I knew was that there wouldn’t be a caterpillar anymore.

Jamie made his way up a slight dias to his throne.  The chair had machinery worked into it, metal blades that weren’t sharp, with bundles of wires running from them, into the first glass tank.

I looked away as they started plugging the individual blades into the slots and gaps in Jamie’s modified, extended spine, along his arms, and beneath his hairline.

I flinched as the switch was thrown, and the lights flickered.

He was giving them all of the information he had gathered, storing it in the tanks.  They would, fingers crossed, give it back, helping him to organize, consolidate, and structure it.

One day, as Fray had said, they wouldn’t be able to give it back.

I turned my back on the scene, my eyes on the fires and the crowds, but I did stay with him for the remainder of the appointment.

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Stitch in Time – 4.9

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

I threw myself back out of the doorway, Mary moving in the opposite direction, her shoulder bumping mine.  She threw a knife, then twisted around, her still-wet boots skidding on the floor.  She grabbed the door and my offered hand to catch herself, than ran with the rest of us, her hand in mine.

We hurried down the hall, and I heard the briefest scraping sound.

I half-turned to see him stepping out into the hallway, a stool dangling from his hand.  When he threw it, he didn’t bring his arm back for more distance or wind-up.  It was a motion of the elbow and the wrist, a hard snap.

It took me a fraction of a second to see the trajectory.  I hauled on Mary’s arm, to pull her away, and I wasn’t strong enough.  The stool hit her and splintered against the wall in the same moment.  Her grip tightened on my hand, and she twisted my wrist as she stumbled into Helen, who was a step ahead of her.  Mary, Helen and I went down in a heap.

I flipped over, avoiding relying on my hand as I shifted positions to more of a crouch, my attention on Warren.  Mary’s throwing knife glinted in the light, sticking out of his chest, a few inches deep into his chest.  She had nailed her throw.  Right over the heart.

Could I call that irony?  The whole reason the Lambs even exist is that the Crown got this far, and the Crown only got this far because the Academies started making monsters that were harder to kill than conventional weapons were able to.  By the time weapons caught up, the Academies were producing other weapons, plagues and parasites, causing the sort of problems for their enemies that only the Academies could fix.

It was that cycle and the drive to stay ahead that drove so much of the Academy’s psychology.  Now we were, in our little skirmish here, a reversal of the dynamic the Academies had imposed.

Warren’s eyes stared as he approached.  He didn’t run, but he took long strides.  He was slower than us, but he didn’t seem concerned with that.

Gordon gave me and Helen a hand.  Lillian went straight to Mary.

It had been a hard hit.  A solid wood piece of furniture had been dashed to pieces, and something that could do that could have broken something important in Mary.

“Warren!”  Jamie called out.  With Helen, Mary and I still recovering, and both Gordon and Lillian helping us, it seemed like he was on point.  “Your father wants you to know he’s sorry!”

The musclebound man slowed, then stopped.  He was halfway down the hallway, hunched over.  His facial features were very normal, but he held his head at an angle that cast his eyes in shadow, the flickering light outlining his massive frame.  As he looked at Jamie, he raised his head, and for an instant, there was less shadow.

“He knows what happened to you,” Jamie said.  “It nearly killed your mother, hearing.”

The man that was facing us down reacted to that, hunching over more, recoiling from the words.  One fist clenched.

“Your father let things slide, with the farms.  He almost gave up, almost sold the farm.  Almost.  Your neighbors stepped in.  The Crowleys, the Behrs.  They’re rotating out, their adult kids have been volunteering, spending time with your dad, looking after things.”

Jamie was lying through his teeth, of course.  We’d stopped by, but the parents hadn’t talked to us, and they hadn’t been getting help, but they hadn’t been in dire shape either.  Not happy, for sure, but not dire.  They were a tough lot, and that unfortunately extended to Warren too.  Probably.

Lillian said something I didn’t hear, and Gordon helped haul Mary to her feet.  Every single inch of Mary conveyed agony on some level, with some blood here and there, the tension of her muscles, the look on her face, the tears in her eyes.  She also looked angry, and I had to chalk that up to anger at herself more than anything else.

“Frances Behrs was there when we stopped in to ask about you, gathering information so we could track you all down.  You were friends back when you were our age, right?”

The question got a slow nod in response.

Was Warren there mute?

There was a pause, and I saw Jamie look my way.  A glance, a check, and it wasn’t intended to see how hurt I might have been as it was something else.

My turn, then?

I drew in a deep breath, and I let go of my wrist, which was throbbing.  Holding hands in front, folding arms, and crossed legs were all signs of defensiveness.  The signals were subtle, but even the most untrained eye would read something into it.  Holding my wrist would do so twice over because I’d be subtly reminding him of pain.

“I know that it feels like going back is impossible.  Everything is different, and you’ve changed, in mind, body, and personality.  There’s a lot there you clearly wouldn’t want to take back home.  But your family survived this much, and they want you back, more than you know.”

“The door is open, Warren,” Jamie said.  “You can go back.”

I felt a hand touch my back.

A signal.  Were Gordon and Mary good to go?

“You should go back.”

Warren turned, then stepped to one side, revealing Fray, who was a short distance behind him.  She’d approached with his body blocking our view of her.

We backed away a little, and Warren and the woman advanced to match the distance.

“Cover your mouths,” Lillian whispered.  In case of more gas.

Fray spoke, “If I had to weigh in and say what was best for you, Warren, I’d say you should go.  Keep them out of my hair for two hours, we can consider your part of our bargain done.  Get a new body, see your family, piece your life back together.”

She was doing it again.  Denying me the footholds I needed to get a leg up on her.  How was I supposed to fight her manipulations when she was agreeing with me?

Warren’s head bowed.  The shadows covered his eyes, leaving only the blue reflections of the irises themselves.  I could read it all, the body language, the hunched shoulders, the tension that seemed to settle in him.

“You’re not going to, are you?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Can’t help someone until they want to be helped,” Fray said.  “For now, I’ll give you the support you need, Warren…”

Warren reached out without looking, and he slammed his hand into the door nearest him.  He didn’t blink as splinters flew out to decorate his custom-made outfit.

He tore out a section of the door.  An improvised weapon.

“…Even if what he needs is a good target to spend his anger on,” Fray said, quietly.

“You’re a better person than that, Warren,” Jamie said.  “Kids?

Fray said.  “As far as I understand it, and he’s a hard man to read, when he doesn’t speak, but this is my read on it… he sees you as symbols of the Academy, and Academy science, which is where the fault lies for what happened to him.”

Warren nodded.

“And you pretend you’re not good at being manipulative,” I said.  “Pushing him to go with us, knowing that the push would make him resist, push back, back into your fold.  Then you speak for him, you interpret things, and shape his thoughts in the process.”

“I’m not trying to manipulate him at all, Sylvester,” Fray said, still quiet.

I didn’t say or do anything in response to that.  There wasn’t much that I could do, in terms of options.  I’d been planting the seed for Warren’s benefit, but nothing suggested it had even gotten through to him.  The truth of the matter was, I believed her.  If she was manipulating him, it was by accident.

I studied her, watching.  She was oddly juxtaposed with the massive brute of a man, a young woman in a sweater and skirt, with high boots, relatively soft spoken, but sharp in dress, with the crimson lipstick and hair most likely styled by Lady Claire’s best.  He, by contrast, was loud in his silence, his body language and the threat of another flung weapon capturing my attention, dragging it away from anything else I might look at.

By the simple act of breathing, he made me watch him.

The antithesis of what the Lambs were.  We were a group, a network, and he was utterly alone.  We were brains, and he was brawn.

But, when I looked into those eyes and saw them watching, when I considered that he’d effectively taken Mary out of the fight with his first maneuver, I couldn’t think of him as brainless.  Not like Sub Rosa.

They advanced, we retreated.

“You portray yourself as nice, gentle.  You truly care about everyone you meet,” I said.

“I do.  I grow attached too easily.  The barriers got worn away by my Wyvern doses, along with my long-term recall.”

“But you’re going to make him hurt us?  So he can have the release he needs?”

“I’m going to let him hurt you because I don’t believe there’s anything else I can say or do that’s going to slow you down or make you stop chasing us, and you’ve clearly reached the point where you can catch up with us.”

Warren advanced a step.  Not because he was matching the speed of our slow retreat, but because he was closing the distance.

Gordon’s hand on my back moved, he grabbed my arm, and he jerked me to the side.  A knife flew through the space my head had been, sailing through the air, and passed within a foot of Warren’s head.  Ms. Fray stepped away from the projectile, though it was already pretty clearly going to miss.

“Ah,” Fray said.

Warren started forward, moving faster, and we ran.

Turning around, I had a view of the group.  Mary was hurt, and was relying on Gordon for support.  Something had stabbed through her sweater, and she was bleeding.  Again, we were faster than him.  Even Jamie.  Would have been why Fray used the stitched girl to bait us instead of Warren, now that I thought on it.

But, much as he’d done before, he made up for the lack of speed with his raw natural ability.  He hurled the piece of door he’d collected.  Gordon and I were watching, and the rest of the group was ready.  The section of door hit the ground in the middle of our group, bounced, and clipped Gordon, who nearly dropped Mary.  I put myself under her for support, my arms around her stomach, and my wrist seized up in pain as I put too much pressure on it.

Gordon recovered, I pulled away, watching over my shoulder.

No, correction, it wasn’t that he was slower than us.  It just took him time to build up steam.  He was matching our speed, finding a comfortable running pace.  The lights flickered, as they were wont to do, and there was a brief moment where only his eyes were visible.

He could see in the dark, I suspected.

“Have to slow him down,” I said.  “Mary-”

“Can’t throw.”

“Give me your knives,” I said.

She shot me a look, one that should have been reserved only for the worst class of people, like baby murderers or puppy-kickers.

There was a crashing sound behind us as Warren collected something else to throw.

“Give!” I said, more intently.

She reached under her shirt to her stomach and drew her hand away with three knives.

Extra knives in left hand, knife to be thrown in my right.  Sucked, when I was a leftie, but I’d twisted it or sprained it, but I had to make do.

I spun around and hurled the first knife, hard as I could.  The whole of my attention was on the movement, remembering what I was doing.  Focus, track, visualize… throw.

The knife chipped off the ceiling above Warren’s head.

I took a second to run and catch back up with the others, while doing my best to figure out what I’d done wrong.  Later point of release, then.

I turned around, saw Warren holding a section of door in both hands, ready to hurl it horizontally, and shouted a warning, “Down!”

The rest of the group ducked, some stumbling, while Gordon shielded Mary with his body.  I threw myself to the side as the spinning section of door flew past us, then went through the motions, throwing with a later point of release.

He raised his hand to ward off his face, but the knife sailed harmlessly past him, a few feet to the left.

With me stopping outright to throw and the rest of the group stumbling, he covered a lot of the distance between us.  I could see everything that was liable to unfold, whether we ran or whether we stayed and fought, and nothing looked good.

“Should have given the knives to Jamie,” Mary said, a few feet behind me, speaking under her breath.  “At least he might have hit something.”

“Resent that!” I said, my voice tense.

“Ditto!” Jamie said.

I passed the third knife to my good hand and took a fraction of a second to remind myself of what I’d done wrong.  The movements were fresh in my muscle memory and mind both.

If you miss, he’s going to hurt my friends.  Make it count, Sy.

I hurled the knife.

It sailed past him at eye level, a few feet to the right.

A knife slashed past Warren’s face, close to the eye, and he stumbled.

I looked, and saw Gordon.  He’d let Mary drop to the floor of the corridor, and was taking the knives she offered as fast as she could retrieve them.

Gordon’s second knife flew past Warren’s head.  Warren raised a hand to protect his face, palm outward, and Gordon seized advantage.  Two throws, one knife sinking into each palm.  Not that they were small targets.  Someone could have taken the torsos of any two lambs and stuck them together and the weight and general dimensions would have matched one of those mittens.

Two more knives.  One miss.  Another into the webbing between two fingers.  They were all sinking as deep as the hilts, when they hit.

Warren was advancing, Gordon took more weapons, and hurled them.  One knife bounced off, flying through a gap between Warren’s reaching hands and striking handle-first, the next slashed a thumb and went flying off to clatter to the floor, and the third sank into one of Warren’s palms, again.

Warren didn’t stop.  He drew closer, and we weren’t in a position to run, with Mary on the ground and Lillian leaning over her bag, with contents strewn all over the floor.

He’s protective of his head.  It’s the last part of him that’s still intact.

Mary had another two knives, but as Gordon reached for one, Lillian lunged forward, knocking Mary’s hand away, pushing a bottle into place.

“Head!” I shouted, as Gordon moved to throw.

The man’s hands were a wall in front of his face, and he wasn’t letting anything slip through.

Instead, Gordon tossed the bottle into the air, slightly forward, so it would hit the ground in front of him, snatched a knife from Mary’s hand, and then lunged forward, a full-body hurl of the knife, aimed for Warren’s groin.  It hit with the blunt side, but it was still a hard throw.

Warren, it seemed, didn’t have a particular vulnerability to strikes between the legs.  That said, no man alive wouldn’t instinctually flinch in response to that.

Gordon reached behind his back and past his shoulder, catching the bottle so it was behind him, then completed a throwing motion without ever having to stop and draw his arm back.

The bottle smashed against Warren’s face.  The man stumbled, hands pawing at his face, and then dropped to his knees.

“Won’t last long,” Lillian said.

Which was all the indicator we needed.

We turned, working together to pick up and support Mary, and then we ran, leaving Warren to paw at a door, his knife-embedded palms and fingers limiting his ability to grip.

“I would’ve hit him,” I said, a little bitter that my moment of glory had been stolen.

“We don’t have a week for you to learn, Sy,” Gordon said.

“Three more throws, I could have done it,” I said.

“If you’d taken three more throws, we would’ve been creamed,” Gordon said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

Glancing back, I saw past Warren, to the end of the hallway, where Fray stood.  She didn’t chase.  She didn’t give any sign of being alarmed, concerned, or bothered.  She simply stood there.

She had told us that she’d already completed her plan.  She was embellishing it, or extending its reach.  Seeing this, how she’d treated this as a whole, I believed her.

I believed that, barring exceptional circumstance, we wouldn’t catch her like this again.  She had a hostage, with Lady Claire, and she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

We’d lost.  We’d reached too far, too fast, we’d been caught off guard by the sudden appearance of the stitched girl, and everything else had flowed from there.  We were fighting blind, because we didn’t know what our enemy was doing.

We needed a win, on so many levels, in so many ways.

I switched mental gears, away from Fray, away from Warren.

We carried on to the end of the hall, and we reached the stairs.  A number of students were gathered around the distressed stitched girl, who was still tied to the railing.

“You!” she said, with much the same inflection she’d used when she had recognized us earlier.

“Hi,” I said, panting for breath.

“Escaped experiments on the loose,” Gordon addressed the gathered students, panting less.  “Students hurt.  Get clear!”

I saw a flash of expectation or excitement in the eyes of the young women who had gathered around Wendy.  Competition removed, more seats free, and maybe a little something beyond that.  Had Dame Cicely’s bred some sadistic streaks into the student body?  Were they that gleeful over someone getting punished, or the spectacle that might surround such?

But they did scatter.

In the midst of our running, I’d pulled ahead to the front of the group, my attention forward, on what came next, the plan.  Now, as we reached the top of the stairwell, I slowed, and the others made noises of distress and annoyance.

“Wendy,” I said.

“You,” she said, in that same inflection as before.

“Yes,” I said.  “Us.  We’re going to cut you loose in just a second, okay?”

“Okay,” she said.  Then she added, “The tea is cold.”

“What are you doing, Sy?” Gordon asked.

“Talking to Wendy.”

“Warren is comi-”

“Warren is the reason I’m talking to Wendy,” I said.

Wendy frowned at me.

“You told us you were supposed to help Warren,” I said.

“Madam Howell told me to,” she said.

I glanced back at Jamie.  He looked as surprised as I was.  We hadn’t actually had all the information there.

“That’s your job?” I asked.

“That’s my job.”

“Okay,” I said.

I reached out to Mary, and she gave me another look, but she handed me a knife.

I cut the string that bound Wendy to the railing.

“Thank you,” she said, very prim, “And you’re mean.  All of you.  You’re terrible.  Excuse me for saying so.”

“We’re very terrible,” I admitted.

“Sy,” Lillian said, “I hear footsteps.  He’s coming.”

“I know, it’s fine,” I said.

“Me, hurt.  I’m not fine,” Mary said.  “I think something snapped.

“Lillian will fix you,” I said.  “Right now, our concern is Warren.

That was all it took to get Wendy’s attention.

“Wendy,” I said, patiently, speaking very clearly.  “I’m sorry we left you tied up here.”

She stared at me, concern still clear on her face.

“But we did it for your safety.  Kind of.  People ended up getting hurt.  There was fighting.  Mary got hurt, and Warren did too.”

“Oh no.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“He’s going to be okay.  Because Miss Genevieve did such good work, didn’t she?”

“She fixed me up so nicely!  Some of the big scratches, they’re gone now!”

“We were talking about how good her work on you was.  And she gave Warren a body, didn’t she?”

Wendy nodded.

“Sylvester,” Mary said.  Her use of my full name was telling.  The pain in her voice said a lot, too.

I could hear the running footsteps.  Our pursuer wasn’t far, and he was most definitely coming after us.

I addressed Wendy, “I have something to ask you, and I want you to think very long and hard about this, okay?”

“Maybe not so long?” Gordon suggested, putting one hand on my arm.  I shrugged free.

I glanced at Gordon.  Jamie was standing behind him, and Jamie was keeping his mouth shut.  He looked spooked, but he wasn’t reminding me of stuff I already knew.

I had his trust, at least.

“Alright,” Wendy said, looking like she was prepared to give the next bout of thinking her full, concerted effort.

“Is Warren happy?”

“Happy?”

“Does he smile, does he laugh?  Is this… is this life good for him?”

Wendy’s expression faltered.

Warren was so close, now.

“We go, now,” Gordon ordered, grabbing me.

“You go, I stay,” I said.  “This is important.”

“You being with us is important!”

I looked to Mary for support, but her head hung, she was having trouble breathing, and blood was soaking through her clothes, running down her skirt.  She wasn’t with us.

Lillian was too scared.  Helen was Helen.

I looked to Jamie.

“I’m staying too,” he said.

That’s not necessary, I thought, but I couldn’t argue, because he was backing me up.

“Damn both of you,” Gordon said.  “Mary, give me some knives.”

“No!” I said.  “No.  Just… take Mary, get a bit of a head start, head for the room.  Jamie, you should go too, you’re not a fast runner.  Leave me here.  With Wendy.  We’ll manage.”

Gordon stared at me.

“Please,” I said.

He turned to go.

I looked at Wendy, and I reached up, taking the tray, before putting it on the ground.  She looked flustered at that, but visibly calmed down as I took her hand.

“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice small.

“We wait for Warren.  Just a few more seconds,” I said.

I would have been lying if I said my mouth wasn’t as dry as a bone, adrenalin thrumming through my veins.

Warren caught up, reaching the bottom of the stairs.  He’d pulled the weapons free of his palms, and blood had been smeared from the wounds onto his clothes.  He saw Wendy and I and he stopped.

“Is he happy?” I asked.

“He’s unhappy because of you.

“Is he really?” I asked.  “If I was gone, if you held me here and let him take me, would he be the same happy boy Mrs. Howell asked you to protect?”

“He wasn’t very happy then either,” she said.  “At the start, maybe.”

I knew Warren could hear us.  He didn’t move, just staring.  His reaction was more like I had a knife to the stitched woman’s throat, holding her hostage.

“I wasn’t dressed, then,” she remarked.

I shot her a look, then shook my head, “Do you think he would become as happy as he was at the start, if you gave me to him?”

“I don’t think,” she said, softly.  “I’m not very good at it.  I do what I’m told.”

“You were told to protect him.  Maybe that means protecting him from himself.”

“Complicated,” she said.  It was a negation, a stubborn refusal to understand.

“If he walks up here and hurts me, hurts my friends, I don’t think he’ll ever be happy again.  It’s crossing a line, and he may never come back.”

“Complicated,” she said, again, her voice tight.

“He’s not the sort of man that hurts children, is he?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “He’s nice.”

“You can’t let him become someone mean, right?  Mrs. Howell wouldn’t want that.”

“No,” she said, “She wouldn’t.”

He cares about you.  I can see it, looking at him.  So long as you’re around, he’s just a little more human.  He can’t cross the line and maim or kill if you’re here, watching.

“All you have to do to protect him from that, is come with us,” I said.

Something tells me he won’t leave you behind.  He’ll make Fray stay close, or she’ll have to abandon him.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

Warren started, taking a step up the stairs.

“This is the best thing for him and for you,” I said, and I actually meant it.  “Come.  Let’s run.”

I tugged on her arm, and she didn’t move.  I did it again, with no luck.

On the third tug, something seemed to fall into place.  She connected, or she pulled it together.

We ran, and Warren chased.

But at the top of the stairs, he stopped.

The shout at our backs was ragged and loud.

“Wendy!”

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Stitch in Time – 4.8

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

This was, like the rattle of the doorknob, the kind of situation that demanded a coordinated response.  When the doorknob had rattled, it had been Mary and Gordon who’d stepped forward.

This was a different sort of rattle.

Helen, Gordon and I were on point.  Well, Gordon was always on point, there weren’t many active, immediate situations where he was bad.  Much like how there weren’t many situations where Jamie and Lillian were really supposed to step up and take charge.

“Hi!” Helen said, cheery.

Fray’s stitched alone wasn’t the biggest problem.  Her stitched being in the company of other women and monsters made for something more complicated.

“What are you doing here?” Fray’s stitched asked, looking confused and mildly alarmed.

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, I thought.  A cleverer person could be invited to dance, words playing off of words and the bystanders forever kept in the dark.  The stitched wasn’t so nuanced, and she’d chosen the single hardest question to answer directly.

“We’re taking a look at the school!” Helen said, matching the stitched girl in tone.  “It’s so pretty!”

She wasn’t lying, but even ignoring that part, it sounded so genuine I almost believed her.  The problem was that it left things open, it gave the stitched girl a moment to think.

“Careful,” I said, abruptly.  “The tray, don’t drop it.”

She startled a little, looking down at the tray.

“I don’t ever drop trays.  I’m careful,” she said, voice firm.  She hadn’t been close to dropping it, but she’d had to check. 

Gordon seemed to sense what I was doing.  “How is Genevieve doing?”

“Oh.  Um,” the stitched said.  A furrow appeared between her eyebrows.  “She’s happy, and she’s working.  She’s with Claire right now.”

“We were going to go see Lady Claire,” one of the girls said.

“Yes,” I said, then I took a risk.  “We were too.”

“You know Miss Fray?” one of the girls in the group cut in.

Hadn’t expected that.  It was rude, sudden, and it didn’t fit into the flow of the conversation.

“We do,” Helen said.

Again, she was leaving things open-ended, letting the other person decide the next part of the conversation.  I had to have a talk with her about it.  A casualty of Helen being largely reactive in nature.

“How?” another girl asked.  Was her tone accusatory?

I wanted to defer to the other Lambs and let them control the flow of the conversation while I took a second to think, but I worried we were one mistake away from trouble.  Something about the collective tone and body language.

“She recommended the school to us,” I said, off the top of my head.  It tied things back to the backstory we’d already discussed.

“To you?” was the arch reply.  To a boy?

“We weren’t supposed to say, Sid,” Gordon admonished me.

I flinched, but I did catch a glimpse of the confusion on the girl’s faces.  This was a cutthroat school, one where it was every student for themselves.  Why then, did they look at each other for confirmation or feedback?

A tight-knit group, centered around Fray?

Or were they a tight-knit group, rallying against Fray?

Either way, I had a plan of attack now.  “Do you think she’s going to be angry at us?”

Gordon paused, not sure how to respond.  My mistake.

I’m miffed at you,” the stitched girl called out.  Giving her an opening to say something was another mistake.

“You know her best,” Helen said, covering, and diverting focus.  It wasn’t much, but it was something.

I nodded.  “I guess.  She’ll be mad, but she won’t show it.  She’s better than that.”

“What are you talking about?” one of the girls asked.

“I can’t say,” I said.  I was sure to say it too quickly, pausing awkwardly, feigning discomfort in the moment of silence that followed.

“Miss Genevieve is nice,” Wendy said.  “You’re not making sense.”

If these girls liked Fray, we needed to counteract that impression.  If they disliked her, then I needed to play that up.

“That’s not a word I’ve heard people use to describe her,” I said.

With that, two of the girls broke away from the group, their monsters following.

“Um,” the stitched girl said, looking at them, bewildered.

“It’s okay, Wendy,” one of the girls that had stayed behind said, interrupting her.

Shift the bias of the conversation.  Recognizing that stitched tended to be slower to react or adjust in the same way Jamie was, I could override her, build up a story, and turn these girls into a weapon we could use against Fray.

“It’s very much not okay!  That one threw a knife at my head!” Wendy said, pointing at Mary.  “Be safe.  They’re dangerous!”

That brought everything to a screeching halt.

She was a little faster on the uptake than most, then.  Had to stop making assumptions when Fray was involved, even tangentially.

“Wendy,” I said.  “We’re not dangerous.  You’re mistaken.”

“We’ve talked about this,” Lillian said, piping up.  “You have residual memories.  What you’re remembering isn’t Martha, but someone very similar to Martha, from before.

Clever Lillian.  Every stitched spent some time being trained and checked for residual memories and tics before they were cleared for their duties.  Lillian was helping to build something of a narrative, and she was helping to direct the conversation.  In the right direction, no less.

“No,” she said, stubborn.  “We haven’t talked about it and that isn’t one of my memories.  Miss Genevieve had me running all over to try and watch you and she said to be careful and then she threw a knife at my head and he pushed some bricks over so they almost fell on me, and-”

I wanted to slap a hand to my face.

“That sort of thing doesn’t happen in reality, Wendy,” Helen said, with the best gentle tone.

“It does and it did!”

I mused, We need to move the conversation to the right destination, even if we have this anchor holding us back and threatening to sink us.

Attack her stance, erode the other’s faith in her words, using the fact that she was a stitched?  Evade and distract, maybe?  Or approach things from an oblique angle?

I decided to play along.  I hated doing it, but I played the kid.

“We didn’t do that!” I said.  “We came here because she asked us to and she says we’re going to be able to go to school here later if everything works out, and-”

“What?” one of the girls cut me off.

“She’s… I wasn’t supposed to say that,” I said, for the second time.  By this time, their curiosity had to be killing them.

The girls who’d started to approach finished crossing the floor to reach us.  One of them dropped down to sit on her heels, reaching out to place a hand on my shoulder.  She smiled, “It’s okay.  You can tell us.”

I turned to look at Gordon, as if for reassurance.  He shrugged, which was perfect.

“She made friends with Lady Claire because Lady Claire knows someone who runs the Academy,” I said.  “She says, if everything works out, then this won’t be a girl’s school next year.  There’ll be men coming here, which means I can come.”

You want your precious seats?  How would you like more competition?

“That doesn’t make sense,” the girl in front of me said.  She was a pretty blonde with features that I was pretty sure had been adjusted with some Academy science.

“It’s true,” I said.  I could have used money to drive the point home, but money held more weight with people who weren’t used to wealth.  “She said that Lady Claire’s dad-”

“Uncle,” Jamie said, under his breath.

“Uncle, he’s noble, and he’s been offered a position, but the man offering the position has a daughter he doesn’t want to be studying any of this and she’s supposed to get a scholarship and-”

“Okay,” the girl cut off my ramble, which was very intentionally rambly.  Hit them with too many things they would want to ask questions about, all at once, leave them reeling.  Even if they pick apart the argument, the message underlying it all still penetrates.

Politics.  I was willing to bet they’d appreciate politics more than money.

It was a lie they could believe.

“I don’t know about any of that,” Wendy said.

I could have thrown out something in response to that, but I decided to let it sit.

Helen decided to pick it up, “It’s okay, honey.”

Damn it.

“No it’s not!  You tried to strangle Warren!”

“She keeps saying that stuff,” one of the girls said.  “Is she burning out?”

“I’m quite fine, thank you,” Wendy said, stamping a little in frustration.  The cups and saucers on the tray rattled.

“Maybe we should ask Miss Fray?”

Ugh.  That would be a disaster.

“Maybe,” said the girl, who was crouched in front of me.  “I always wondered where she came from.  It would be nice to know who I’m talking to, when I go down to see her.”

There were a hundred things I could have said, webs I could have spun, but with this proximity to the girl, I knew it would be too much, too fast.  We needed a subtler line, something to set the hook without giving our fish reason to struggle.  Besides, I was playing the kid, matching Wendy in the innocence angle.  I couldn’t deliver anything too cutting without drawing too much attention to me.

From Helen and Gordon’s silence, I suspected they sensed the same thing, and they were deferring to me.

It was the wrong hand signal, but I feigned fidgeting, putting my hands behind my back, knowing the others could all see it, and I extended two fingers, ‘walking’ them upside down.

The rabbit ears in the grass, the upside down man.  It was a sign that meant ‘sneak’.  Paired with another sign, it could mean ‘subtly’.  I pointed at my lower face.

Mary started to move around to the side, slowly.  I made a sudden gesture, clenching my fist, shifting my posture.  She stopped, and she watched as I emphasized mouth, not neck.

No, I didn’t want an ambush.

I wanted-

“I overheard my dad, once,” Jamie said, hesitant.  That wasn’t acting, it was just Jamie being Jamie, but it worked.  “He said, that lady isn’t someone you would ever want to marry or have as a business partner, but if you want to learn science and learn politics, there aren’t many people better to learn from.”

“Is that so?” the girl in front of me asked, her voice soft.

Jamie, I could kiss you right now.

He could be slow, but he was the furthest thing from stupid.  He understood how I thought.  All he needed, sometimes, was the time to get caught up and connect the dots.  When he got that, then he could be devastating.

With those words, he’d poisoned the waters.  So long as we maintained some semblance of cover, all future interactions between these girls and Fray would be colored by distrust and concern about being manipulated.

“We’re supposed to learn from her, this coming spring,” I said.  “Our parents all arranged it.”

“She’s Lady Claire’s tutor,” the other girl who’d approached us said.

“Uh, yeah,” I said.  “I guess we’ll be her students too?”

Take the bait, take the bait

“Here?” the girl in front of me asked.

“In Radham,” I said, firmly enough to leave no doubt.

She reached out, and her monster, a man with armor-crusted skin, extended a hand for her to hold on to as she straightened up, standing.

It doesn’t make sense, does it?  How could she be a proper tutor for Lady Claire here and a tutor for us there?  Something doesn’t add up, and you’ve already suggested you’re suspicious of her.  You were vaguely hostile and almost predatory when you sussed out a connection to her, which suggests you don’t like her.  You’re willing to believe the worst.

She’s selling out the school, making it co-ed, she’s selling you all out, all in the name of politics.  To top it all off, she’s manipulating Lady Claire to make it happen.

This was the story we’d spun out.

“I’m very eager to talk to this woman now,” the blonde girl who’d talked to me said, her back to us.  She approached the stairs.  “Only thing that doesn’t add up is this stitched girl.”

“I add up!” Wendy said, indignant.

“Your story doesn’t.”

“Oh.  I thought you meant arithmetics.”

“Is she running hot?” the blonde asked.

Another girl reached out and put a hand on Wendy’s forehead.  “A little warm.  Not enough for a burn-out.”

“I just made tea,” Wendy said, very patiently,  “I’m holding tea.  It’s warm, because tea is hot.  I’m telling the truth.  They’re dangerous.  All six of them.  Miss Genevieve told me to be very careful with them.”

“It’s okay,” the girl said, withdrawing her hand from Wendy’s forehead.  “We can go and ask Miss Fray, and I think everything will become clear.”

“Yes,” the blonde agreed.  “I’m looking forward to the explanation.”

It wasn’t ideal – I’d hoped to have more time.  But we had a distraction, in the form of several angry girls, we had the element of surprise.  All we needed to do was corner her, then draw the net closed.

“If you say something about us to her, we’re going to get in trouble,” I said.

The blonde turned her attention briefly to me.  I liked the look of deep-seated concern on her face, as if I’d struck a blow to the core of her being, shaking her confidence.  This was someone proud, good at what she did, and with my lies, she was no longer sure that she knew what the future had in store for her.

“I’ll be discreet,” she said.  A lie, practically to my face.  She didn’t care.

The motivation that drove her now was stopping Fray and securing her future once again.

“Thank you,” I said, pretending to accept the lie.  I moved closer to the stairs as they started to gather, ready to move on Fray as a group.  I wondered if they’d be direct or subtle about it all.  I couldn’t tell from the body language or the murmured words they were exchanging.

The blonde one looked so much angrier.  She didn’t stride forward.  She stalked, her pet with its armored skin a step behind.

Conventional wisdom was that a lie was best kept simple.  Less conventional wisdom was that a lie could be trumped by a more complex one.

The Lambs and I were close.  My eyes were on Wendy, Fray’s stitched girl.  She was confused, she kept trying to talk, and nobody was listening.

I almost felt bad.

The group turned and moved as a unit, heading downstairs to where Genevieve Fray and Lady Claire supposedly were.

Like Jamie was so prone to be, the stitched girl found herself a step behind.

I lurched forward, hurrying, as she moved around the railing to head downstairs.  Pushing her down would be crude, but getting in her way-

She stumbled a little, the cups and saucers clattering once again.

“Excuse me!” she said.  “It’s already getting cold.  I’m in a hurry!”

“Sorry,” I said.  “Let me get out of your way.”

I faked right, then moved left.  She stumbled again, then stamped a foot, clearly frustrated.

At the base of the stairs, one of the girls called up, “Wendy, are you coming?  And Sid, was it?”

“Yes!” Wendy called back.  She shot me a glare.  “Excuse me.  I need to serve the tea, and I need to tell Miss Genevieve that you said things that weren’t true.”

“It’s okay,” Mary said, catching me off guard by speaking up.  “Sid?  It’s okay.”

I frowned, but I saw her smile.

I stepped out of Wendy’s way, freeing her to go down the stairs.

She took one step, then jerked to a halt.  Tea slopped out of the cups.

“Um,” the stitched girl said.  She tried to turn around, then stopped again.  “Um.”

Mary had tied her to the railing.

She looked at me, very clearly frustrated and maybe a little lost at this point.  “Would you please take the tray?”

I shook my head.

She tried to put it on the railing, balancing it, then gave up, taking hold of it again.  Several times, she tried to move, and found herself caught firm.

All she had to do was throw the tray, but, as she’d proudly told us, she didn’t drop trays.

“Um,” she said, looking more distressed.

Gordon reached out, putting a hand on her arm.  “It’s okay.”

“I can’t move,” she said, her voice small.  She sounded like she had regressed in age.

“It’s okay,” he said, again.  “I know.  Just wait.  Things will be okay.  You have to be patient.”

She tried to move again, then stopped short.  She went still, shoulders drawn in.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Gordon said.  “Stay here.  We’ll get you help, okay?”

She nodded.  “But the tea is going to get cold.”

I started down the stairs, several of the others with me.  Only Gordon hung back, consoling the stitched girl.

“You have the teapot, don’t you?” Gordon asked.  “They like second cups, after the first is done?”

“One teabag,” she said, “So it isn’t too strong when it’s time for the second cup.”

“Good remembering,” he said.  “Do you drink tea?”

“No.  It’s not very good for me.”

“Sid,” Gordon called out.

I’d just reached the bottom of the stairs, I turned around, and so did many of the others.

Gordon spoke, his voice carrying down the stairwell.  The school was quiet enough we could hear it, even with his low volume.  “Three cups.  One for Fray, one for Claire, and…”

“One for Fray’s monster,” Mary said.

“His name is Warren,” the stitched girl said.  “And he’s not a monster!  He’s a gentleman and I’m supposed to help him!”

“No,” I said.  “He’s down there with them?”

Nobody responded.  We were already moving on.  Gordon took the steps, two at a time, leaving the stitched girl behind.  We had a problem.  Fray’s man was a monster the rest of the gang hadn’t been able to take down in a square fight.

We moved carefully, checking before any movement, not daring to move in front of a door in case Genevieve Fray or someone else spotted us.

“Sent everyone down here,” Gordon said, under his breath.  “Why?  Couldn’t you have sent them away?”

“It was a gamble,” I said.  “Yes, I could have sent them elsewhere, but it wouldn’t have been easy.  They were already heading down there, it was the place to go for answers, and they definitely wanted some, with Wendy back there drawing a connection and raising big questions.”

“Mmm,” he said.

“Hoped her monster would be off on an errand, trying to deal with us, or getting maintenance, or something.”

“Sure things are better than gambles, Sy,” he said, under his breath.  “Better to step away and find a more concrete avenue of attack.  Keep it simple.  ”

“It was.  That was as simple as I do.  I considered everything and it made the most sense.  Put her on her heels, pressure her, find an opportunity to strike, when she isn’t expecting us.”

“Well, let’s hope it happens,” he said, and he said it in a way that made it sound like I’d failed somehow.

Jerk.  He’d just been talking to me about how the group needed to work together.

We creeped forward, and in the midst of it, I felt Mary bump my arm with her elbow.  She didn’t say or do anything, but we moved forward as a pair, arms touching.

Solidarity.

When we drew closer to the end of the hall, we heard the voices, along with the sound of rushing water.

“She’s conning you, Claire.  Can’t you understand that?”

“She’s saving me.  She’s a fantastic teacher, she’s-”

“Lying to you.  Or are you saying she hasn’t contrived to meet your dad?”

“Contrived is the wrong word-”

“It’s true,” Fray said.

There was a moment of shocked silence.

“It’s not like you’ve been led to believe.  Dame Cicely’s Academy isn’t anything I’m after, and I don’t know anything about it wanting to allow men in.”

“Don’t know anything?  I don’t believe you.”

“I did approach Lady Claire as a means to an end, but that was temporary.  I became her friend in a genuine way.”

A pause.  I was sure that if I looked, I could see Fray putting on a show.

“You became her so-called friend, and you’re leaving, just like that.”

“I- yes.  Sooner than I’d like.  But that’s not an entirely bad thing, Joan.  I know you have a great admiration-” a brief but meaningful pause, “For Lady Claire.  I would be delighted to invite you into one of our study sessions, so you could take over for me when I’m done.”

“I- What were your ulterior motives, Genevieve?”

“Ah, that.  It’s complicated.”

What to do?  We had her cornered.  She was busy defending herself.  But she also had her pet in there with her.  A brute of a man with keen enough instincts to stay ahead of the rest of the Lambs.

Mary was next to me, back pressed to the wall, much as mine was.  I reached over, and I tapped the side of her leg, touching the blade that her skirt hid.  I touched my throat, then jerked a thumb in the direction of the room.

She made a so-so gesture.

Not confident?

I stepped away from the wall, pulling on her sleeve, swapping positions with her and gestured for her to wait.

Better if she was closer to the door, in case something happened.

“I wanted access,” Fray said.  “Something I’ve been lacking since I lost the Academy’s favor.  That’s why I first approached Lady Claire.  The nobility and upper class offer that access.  I thought I could play the game, work my way to a secure position.  But I’ve always had a weakness for people.  I’m bad at reducing them to simple numbers or abstracts.  I get too close to them.  Friend or foe.”

“I hope I’m a friend,” someone said.  Lady Claire, most likely.

“Most definitely,” Fray said.

Nothing suggested she was lying, prompting me to wonder, what did you want access forOr to?

“I almost believe you,” said the blonde.  Joan, if I was guessing right.  “Those children you’ve worked with-”

My heart sank.  I saw Mary tense, a throwing knife in hand.

“More people I’ve gotten too close to.  Or they’ve gotten too close to me,” Fray said.  “I think they’re upset with me.  They’re distorting the truth.  I don’t know if they realize how much they’re doing it.  Isn’t that right, Sylvester?”

My blood ran cold.

“Sylvester?” Lady Claire asked.

“One of the children.  I’d lay good money on the fact that he’s out in the hallway, listening.  Messy black hair, small, sharp eyes?”

“He was called Sid by one of the others.”

“A fake name.”

“Says the fugitive from the Crown,” I called out.  “You used your real name?”

“I lose track if I lie,” she said.  “I’m no good at that.”

“Fugitive?” this from one of the young women.  She sounded alarmed.

I didn’t like flying blind.  I put a hand on Mary’s shoulder, then stepped out into the doorway.

The lab was stone walled and stone floored, lit by voltaic lights that flickered just a touch.  Biologic power often did that.  Fish or something else that could be fed and produce the power.  The floor was thick glass, and water moved below, churning and frothing.  The light reflected off the floor and the water to make it look like the entire room was underwater.

I saw Fray’s monster.  Eight feet tall, his shoulders so broad I could have draped myself over them and still not covered the breadth.  All muscle, exaggerated, with pressed clothes that had no doubt been tailored to his specific shape.

Fray was there, with the girls we’d just been talking to.

“Your friends are there too, I assume?” Fray asked.

“They went to go do something else,” I lied.  “Think about it.”

“I am thinking about it, Sylvester, but I don’t think I believe you.”

“Before, when we talked, I found myself wondering what you’d do if we all came after you, if Wendy’s distraction attempt had failed, or if we’d organized differently.  I don’t suppose this is where I get to find out?”

Fugitive?” Lady Claire asked, a little louder, repeating herself.

“Murderer and terrorist,” I said.  I pulled out my badge.  “We’re tracking her down.  For convenience’s sake, you can imagine we’re adults in the bodies of children, for the sake of sneaking around, going unnoticed, or being discreet.”

“But you aren’t,” Fray said.

“Convenience’s sake,” I said.  I looked at the other girls, and the monsters they’d brought with.  “If she sends her monster over there after us, I highly recommend using your monsters to disable or kill her.  Be careful, she’s got retractable syringes in her fingers and a tentacled monster hidden inside her clothing.  You don’t want to be too close to her.”

I saw Lady Claire back away a step.

“Everything I told you was the truth, Claire,” Fray said, her head bowing a little.  “If you think about it, a great deal of what I told you will make more sense, in retrospect.”

“You’re really a killer,” Claire said.  She backed away again, startling a little as Joan put hands on her shoulders.

Genevieve Fray didn’t answer the question.  She turned her attention to me.

“Sylvester.”

“Fray.”

“To sate that idle curiosity of yours, I’ll tell you.  Had everyone turned up on the patio outside the cafe, and if conversation had seemed impossible, I would have told you what it is I’m aiming to do.”

“Uh huh,” I said.  “This is where you tell me, then?  Send us off to go stop your dastardly plan?”

“No,” she said, quiet, sounding almost offended.  “No.  First of all, I have this situation well in hand.”

The girls backed away a little more.  They were mindful of Fray’s monster, with its eerie blue eyes and massive frame.

“Second of all, I don’t intend to give anyone a chance to stop me.  I started and concluded my greater plot some time ago.  Anything I do now just extends its effects and gravity.  All the same, I think you and the other Lambs would feel compelled to run damage control.”

“You’ve already done what you set out to do?” I asked.

“I did after my first stop, but I’m taking the time to secure it, make sure it does what I mean it to.  Much like I’ve already decided this confrontation, and all the time we take talking is securing my position.”

I tore my eyes off her, studying the room.

I’d thought, not daring to look away, that the girls with the monsters were crouching.  But they were sagging.

Gas.  Or some concoction, or something.

She and I were resistant to it, by virtue of the Wyvern formula, and she’d treated her creature, too.  The rest weren’t so lucky.

Without the monsters to threaten her, there was nothing to stop the monster with the blue eyes.

“Warren,” Fray said, sounding genuinely disappointed.  “Go.”

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Stitch in Time – 4.3

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

“I’ll check the place,” Gordon said.

“I’ll come with,” Mary said.

“Thank you.”

It wasn’t a bad idea.  There was no guarantee that the assailant had already left.

“Watch that you don’t mess up any evidence,” Jamie said.

“We won’t,” Mary said.

Ah, evidence.  I liked where people’s thoughts were going.  Mary teaming up with Gordon, Jamie thinking about the next step.

I could have done without Jamie suggesting Gordon or Mary would have messed up, but this was a better course of things.

“Sorry, little guys,” Gordon said, under his breath, to our deceased comrades.  “You died for a good cause.  Your brothers will avenge you, hopefully.”

“It would be nice,” I said, crouching down to sit on my heels, prodding at one of the dead whelps.  It had a large beak and scaled body, it sported a long tail and narrow eyes.  The tongue trailed out of its open mouth.  I added, “My hopes aren’t high.  She’s been one step ahead for a while.  I doubt the Whelps are going to catch her off guard.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.

I stroked the thing’s side.  It was small compared to the others, I gauged it at twenty pounds, give or take, though it was hard to gauge with the sheer damage it had sustained.  A runt like me.

I prodded the lolling tongue into its mouth, before closing the beak.

The mouth popped back open, and the tongue unfurled.

I triedSorry, runt.

“Don’t get too much blood on your hands,” Jamie reminded me.

“I know.”

“I can give you something to clean your hands,” Lillian said.  Then she stopped.  “Or I could, but…”

But her bag was the biggest out of all of ours, and the contents were strewn about.

“I think I can find it.  Give me a second,” she said.

“Don’t,” I told her.  “If they possibly messed with the pills, we can’t rule out that they messed with the stuff they left on the floor.”

“But-”

“It’s okay,” Helen said, giving Lillian a pat on the shoulder.  “He was careful, and he didn’t get any blood on his hands.  The scent marker only works if they bleed on you.  Poor little fellas.”

“The Whelps know us anyway,” I added.  “Maybe not you, so much, and maybe not Mary, but they’re not about to come tearing after me.  You, maybe, but-”

“You already said that.”

“Repeating it for emphasis.”

She punched me in the arm, before dropping her arm to one side and looking down at the mess.

“We’re okay,” I said.

“I don’t think we are,” Lillian said, arms folded in a way that was hugging herself as much as it was defiance.  “Fray knows where we sleep.”

“We can go somewhere else,” Jamie said.

“If she followed us here-”

“She might follow us elsewhere,” I finished for Lillian.  “I know.  There’s no place we’re safe, and she has the upper hand.”

“Especially with the pills being an issue,” Gordon said, returning.

“There is that,” I said.

Mary made her way back, standing beside Gordon.  Between all of us, we’d formed a loose perimeter around the mess that had been left behind with the demise of the Whelps.

“Perimeter’s clear,” Mary said, a touch late.  Filling the silence rather than promptly reporting in.  “Nothing and nobody outside that I can tell.”

“Small building, fast check,” Gordon said.  “What are we thinking?”

“We’re dealing with a Sylvester that has a lot more general knowledge, less compunctions, and the upper hand,” Jamie said.

“She can’t pee standing up, so that’s a point for me,” I said.

Lillian punched me in the arm again.

“Ow!  Why?

“This is serious.  Be serious,” she admonished me.

“There was no stamp on the parcel, she would have had to know there would be a parcel arriving by mail with a guard, and she would have had to fabricate any fake pills in advance,” Gordon said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“She would have had to know we were coming, or that someone was coming,” Jamie pointed out.

“Yeah,” I said, holding my tongue as I thought, the armed mail carriage wouldn’t have been the most subtle thing for a paranoid ex-Doctor, and she was expecting someone.

Helen held up the bottle of pills, so they caught the light.

“Sealed,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Gimme?” Jamie asked.

“If it’s poison-” I warned.

“Just gimme,” Jamie said.

Helen unsealed the bottle, removed the glass stopper, then reached in to get a pill.  She threw it to me.

I caught it and handed it to Jamie.

He popped it into his mouth.  “Tastes exactly the same.  Like chalk.”

“All signs point to it being nothing more than head games,” Gordon said.

“Yeah,” I said, for the fourth time.

The silence lingered.  Nobody was saying what we were all thinking.  We could say all we wanted, but our heads knew different.

Fray was smart, and she was clever, which were two very different things.  It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility, and when our lives were at stake…

I said it, because nobody else seemed willing to, “We’re not really in a position to take a leap of faith here.  Guessing wrong before we leap means a terminal fall.”

Nobody said anything to that.  It was sobering.

“Is that it?” Mary asked, indignant.  “We pack up, use the badges, and force our way onto the next train ride back?”

“It’s the safest option,” Gordon said.  “Lillian, you were briefed on the particulars of the drug, weren’t you?”

“They filled me in before we left.  What to expect when you showed symptoms, how to handle it.  If we left tonight, assuming a two hour train journey to Radham, one or two brief stops, I don’t think there would be any major symptoms.  You’d feel like you had the flu, at worst.  I could alleviate symptoms, which would delay the deterioration.”

“Dying,” I said.

“If you want to be blunt about it,” she said.  The look in her eyes when she looked at me was steely.  Her tone was cold, and she spoke with a kind of authority.

Our lives were in her hands, as they so often were, but right here, right now, with all of us in grave peril, well, this was Lillian’s moment.

She fixed the position of her bags, betraying the nervousness behind the guise.  “When you start throwing up, the other parts of you that are breaking down will tear and rip.  Your stomach and throat will bleed, your muscles will rip, and you’ll be incapacitated by cramps.  The blood that drains into your stomach will make you throw up more.  By that point in time, every hour that passes adds a month to the time it would take you to recover.  And that’s with Academy help, and it assumes you’re taking the pills again.”

Gordon looked at me.  “You ran away once.”

Mary’s ears perked up at that.

“Didn’t leave Radham.  Couldn’t.  Planned to, but the opportunities never came up.”

“What opportunities would that be?” Gordon asked, a half-smile on his face, “Were you going to get classified as a war machine so they wean you off the leash, and somehow pass yourself off without getting caught by Dog and Catcher?”

Helen tittered, “That’s a funny mental image.  Big hulking warbeast, check.  Big hulking warbeast, check.  Big hulking warbeast, check.  Then there’s Sy, standing in the stable, fake horns on his head.  Check.”

“Then the actual medication comes in,” I said, “In the form of a three gallon syringe, to be jabbed into my tiny ass.”

There were a few smiles at that, breaking the tension.

Good.

“In seriousness, my vampire bat plan was sort of like that,” I said.

The half-smile dropped off Gordon’s face.  “What?  You’re serious.”

“Sort of,” I said.  “I needed a good back-alley doctor to help me figure out the particulars, stuff to watch out for, get the tools, but if I stole the blood of something that was being weaned off and getting the drugs that eased the transition, then gave it to myself?”

“If you gave me a week, I couldn’t list all the reasons that wouldn’t work,” Lillian said.

“But,” I said, “I could get the drugs that way, if there wasn’t any other option, right?”

“You’d kill yourself.”

“But I’d have the drugs,” I said.

Lillian frowned.  “Yes.”

“Any war machine that’s getting weaned off the Academy’s leash-drugs isn’t going to put up much of a fight if I happened to slip into its enclosure.  Maybe I could have found someone to reverse engineer the drug.  Maybe there could be a filter.  Centrifuge thing, if the drug is heavy enough?”

“No, Sy,” Lillian said.  “I can’t imagine that working.”

I nodded.

“I didn’t know that you did that,” Mary commented, voice soft.

“I’m not proud of it,” I said.

“It’s very you.

I nodded.

“You got caught, in the end?”

“I let myself get caught,” I said.  “Stayed in Radham, reached my limit, and when Dog and Catcher came sniffing around, I didn’t try to fight them.  Stayed put as Catcher came into the building, didn’t budge as Catcher came to cuff me.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said.  “I missed the others.  Being with them on the Academy’s terms was better than being without, on mine.”

Mary nodded.  It was a reply she understood.  The others gave me small smiles or nods of understanding – Gordon, Helen, even Lillian.

Jamie was the only one who didn’t.  Who knew that I was telling a half truth.  Or, more correctly, I was telling half of the truth.

Yes, I had gone back for the others.

But I had also gone back for my appointments.  I had allowed the Academy to poison my brain once again, with my body suffering as a side effect, and I’d done it because I’d missed being sharp.

Two appointments in short succession.  It had been so difficult I very nearly hadn’t come back from it.

“Sy,” Gordon said.  “Vampire bat plan?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Was this one of multiple plans?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you have other plans you intended to use then, which might apply today?  Ways to prolong the deadline?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “One.  But it won’t make us any friends.”

“Share?” Mary asked.

“Simple.  We take someone else’s.”

“That depends on there being someone from Radham here, using an experiment,” Gordon said.  “Whelps don’t count.  They’re weaned.”

“I know,” I said.  “It’s a long shot.  But it’s a long shot in favor of having another shot at her, while she’s playing games with us.”

“I want to win,” Mary said.

“I’m with Mary on this one,” Gordon said.  “It’s a stupid trick, faking us out on the pills, but she’s out-predicted us a few too many times, staying ahead of the Lambs, Hangman and Dog and Catcher.  I don’t feel safe calling her on what seems to be a shitty bluff.  I’m angry, I want to win and rub it in her face.”

“I agree,” Jamie said.  He pushed his oversized glasses up his nose.  “But we do this safely.  If we have to catch a train tonight to get back in time, then we have until tonight.  That’s only a few more hours.  We need to find leads on Fray, figure out if there’s a way to get a legitimate source for pills, and watch our backs at the same time.”

“Easy peasy,” I said.

“I’m not so sure,” he said.  “But I’d like to give this a shot, at least.”

United in crisis.

We were on more solid footing than we had been.

It made me wonder.  If the positions were reversed, me in Fray’s shoes and vice-versa, would I have been able to get a good reading on my adversary?  Would I know that the Lambs were fractured and falling apart?  That attacking them directly would rally them, while running away for the Nth time threatened to break them?

Fray was an invisible woman.  I knew her only by the maneuvers she’d made against us, the cities she chose to flee to, and the way she fled.

Jamie stepped forward.  He traced his finger along the edge of the bloody handprint on the wall.

Gordon commented, “She wants us to come after her.  This is a trap.”

“So is going home,” I said.  “We leave, she probably won’t extend another invitation to us again.  Makes me think…”

I trailed off, uncomfortable.

“Think what?”  Gordon asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Incomplete thought.  I’ll speak up the moment it’s put together in my head.”

Gordon nodded.

“Going by handprint and footprint, I don’t think I’ve seen anything that would fit the size of this guy,” Jamie said.

“Guy?”

Jamie nodded.  He pointed at the marks on the floor.  Not at blood.  The attackers weren’t so messy.  But at scuff marks, dust, and spots where dust was mottled.  “Man.  He had a lot of snow on him.  Kicked up, and he’d been standing in the snow.  It fell off in clumps, hit the floor, dappled the texture of the dust there.  Our assailant.  The head, now with a body.”

The finger moved to the floor to one side.  “Hard to see now, because Mary walked on it, but I remember it as it was.  Young woman.  Lightweight.  Tall, slender, not heavily dressed.  Odd gait.  Limp.”

“The stitched woman,” Lillian said.

Jamie nodded.

“No Fray?” Gordon asked.

Jamie shook his head.

Interesting.

She sent her underlings on a mission, but what had she been doing in the meantime?

Why was she staying with us?

“It’s a starting point,” Gordon said.  “Now, I’ve really got to visit the little boy’s room.  Then we really should get going.  We’re working with a clock.”

I liked the looks on people’s faces as they transitioned from being children to being Lambs in their element.  Being more anxious, or less.  Expressions changing, minds switching gears.

Jamie elbowed me.  Then he pointed at the door.

I nodded.

We excused ourselves and stepped outside.  My eyes roved over the storybook town, looking to see if I could spy Fray spying on us.

“When you came back, you didn’t do it purely because of us,” Jamie murmured.

I bumped his arm with my shoulder.  “It’s weird when you do that.  Pick up a thread of conversation that we dropped a while back.”

“Sure,” he said.  “You’re dodging the question.”

“Statement, not a question, Mr. Perfect Memory.”

Implied question, Mr. Tiny Ass.”

I stabbed a finger toward his face.  “Careful.”

“You’re still dodging.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.  “That wasn’t the only reason.”

“You’ve hinted at it before.  Do I have to say it, or will you admit it?”

I shrugged, “Same thing.”

“You came back because you wanted to be a Lamb, not a real boy.”

I nodded, not looking at him, but at all of the smoke pouring up from the chimneys of the oddly similar little buildings.

“What if Fray is the same?” Jamie asked.

“She wants to be a Lamb?”

“She wants the excitement.  She wants to have a brain that works differently than most, and she wants to test it.  She’s been running for so long, she’s getting bored.”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t buy it.”

“Serial killers do it.  They develop a pattern, based on who they are and how they function.  They test the limits, they get away with it, but as humans, we all have a drive to be appreciated and recognized.  We need stimulus.  I doubt Fray is going to sit down and read a book any more than you are.  She’s looking to us to satisfy a desire.”

“No, sorry,” I said.  “I respect that you’ve put a lot of thought into it, but…”

“But?”

“No.  It’s too convenient.  Her, suddenly developing a weakness, right here, when we need her to?  The thing with the pills, to throw us off balance?”

“You think it’s a trap.”

“I’d rather go up against her assuming that she didn’t have any weaknesses at all,” I said.  “I feel like anything else would be a mistake.”

Jamie nodded.  The snow continued to fall around us.  I heard Gordon coming down the stairs.

“Are you saying that,” Jamie said, with a careful sort of deliberation, “because you think Fray is that good?  Or are you saying it because you want to think she’s that good.”

“You think I need that stimulus you were just talking about?” I asked.

Jamie shrugged.

I bumped his arm with my shoulder.  He returned the favor, hard enough that I lost my footing, going wide off the stairs leading up to the front door and putting my foot into a bush.

I was only just managing to pull my foot free, cursing Jamie, when the others emerged.

All of the Lambs together and ready.

A secondary source of pills disarmed Fray’s ruse.  It was something of a priority.  We moved as a group, now, holding something of a formation.  Jamie’s eyes scanned the crowd, Mary had one flank, Gordon had another, and Helen had the front of the group.

“Post office, three buildings down this street,” Jamie said.

“What’s the approach?” Gordon asked.

“We can do it quick, we can do it pretty, and we can do it careful,” I said.  “Pick two.”

“I’d prefer-” Gordon started.

“That was a rhetorical question,” I cut him off.

“You’re a jackass.”

“We do it quick, we do it careful.  We don’t want to waste time, and we’re going to watch our backs every step of the way.  We’re not making friends today.  We’ve already scattered a handful of delinquents around the town, and the only pretty way to get the pills we need is to go home.  I don’t think any of us want to go home, do we?”

There were a few grumbles and murmurs of agreement.

I want to go home,” Lillian said.

“Too bad,” I said, before her mouth was closed. “Helen takes point on this one.  She’s pretty enough to make up for what we’re lacking.”

“Oh yay!” Helen said.  “And thank you!”

“Mary, get the back door.  Gordon, cover any bystanders, watch the front door.  Jamie, I think there was a window.”

“There was.”

“Watch for bystanders.  Keep an eye on the crowd.  Fray is going to want to watch what our next moves are, so soon after the little stunt she pulled.”

“And me?” Lillian asked.

“If we need your help, something’s gone horribly wrong,” I said.

I saw movement in one of the alleyways.  Whelps.  Three.  All larger than the runt I’d said hi to.

They were, as a weapon, a singular entity.  They weren’t joined by the brain or anything like that, but they were cloned, making them functionally identical, differing only in minor ways as their environment and exposure to food allowed.  One whelp alone could divide into two.  Left alone, they would stalk their prey from a distance, eat things that didn’t smell of human, including foodstuffs recently handled by humans, multiply, and then when they had built up sufficient numbers, they would attack en masse.  Those beaks would cut into flesh and flense it from bone.  Ten whelps could devour a man in less than a minute.

They had her scent, our delinquents had the exits covered.  By all rights, our quarry should have been cornered and under pressure.  I fully expected her to take down the delinquents with her…

“Oh guys,” I said, interrupting my own train of thought.

“What?” Jamie asked.

“Headsman?  For the head, now with body.”

“Ehhh,” Gordon said.

“It’s great!”

“Ehhhh,” he said, again.

“You lack taste,” I told him.

I picked up my own train of thought before it ran away from me.  Fray most definitely had the tools to take down any of the delinquents we’d put in her way.  My only hope was that there would be enough of a mess or commotion to clue us in to what she was doing.

Many of those delinquents had pets and creations of their own, after all.  It wasn’t likely to be tidy when she disposed of them.

We approached the post office.

“Mail would have come in with the train,” Jamie observed.  “Not all of it would have been picked up.  I can’t think of a better, faster way to check what we need to check.”

“Will you give me a boost, Mary?” Helen asked.

“Now?  Where?”

“In a few seconds, silly,” Helen said.  “Inside.

“Um,” Mary said.

“Play along,” I encouraged her.

Gordon was taking long strides forward to beat us to the door.  Ever the gentleman, he held it for the ladies as they stepped inside first.

The building was empty.  Fortuitous.

“Ah, hello again,” the postman said.  “Little lady.”

“Hello!” Helen greeted him.  She gestured at Mary, who connected the dots just in time for Helen.  She offered two hands, fingers interlaced.  Helen stepped up onto the hands, then onto the counter of the post office.

“Excuse me!” the postman said, looking alarmed.

Helen simply strode forward, hooked an arm around his neck, swinging around behind him, and wrapped her legs around his arms, pinning them to his sides.

He struggled, and he was a big fellow, almost capable of freeing himself, but her grip on his neck tightened.  He backed up, slamming her against the wall and shelf behind them, but she simply redoubled her attack.

Mary and I both hopped over the counter, Mary’s skirt swishing around stockinged legs.  Gordon was locking the door, pulling down the blind above the glass pane, while Jamie stood by the window, peering out.  Mary went to the back door, locking it, while I started looking.

Behind the desk was a grid of mail slots, with mail stacked within each square subsection.  Mary joined me in rifling through the mail.

“Here,” Mary said, holding up an envelope.

“Yeah,” I said.  Three envelopes addressed to one person, each sent from ‘Radham Academy’.  I continued looking.

Helen looked through the packages under the desk.  Her search was shorter than ours.  Lillian was only just reaching the postman, checking he was only passed out and not actually dead.

We weren’t complete monsters.

“No packages from Radham,” Helen said, standing straight.

“Another two envelopes here,” I said, holding them up.  Helen snatched them, freeing my hand for more looking.

“One more,” Mary said.  “And…”

I saw her move over to look at more slots.

“I already checked that column of slots,” I said.

“Then I’m done.”

“And,” I checked the last two boxes, flipping through envelopes.  “So am I.  That makes four people who are in Kensford, with ties to Radham.  Anyone want to take bets on them having something?”

“No,” Gordon said.  “Don’t want to take that bet.  But it’s a chance.”

Jamie held out his hand as we rounded the corner.  We handed over the envelopes.

Gordon opened the door, and we let ourselves out.

Quick, careful.

I saw Jamie’s slight frown as he watched over the crowd.  He hadn’t seen anything yet, or he would have spoken up.

Fray was watching.  Now she knew we weren’t running.  Not yet, anyway.

“No,” the man at the door said.

“Because we were told there was a brilliant researcher from Radham here,” Helen said, practically effervescent in attitude.  “We were so hoping to see his work.”

“That would not be me,” the man said.

“Would you know who it was?  We’re so short on time!”

“It’s not me, I don’t know who it would be, and you’re annoying,” he said.

The door slammed.

Helen turned around very slowly, almost dazed.

She hissed.

I gave her a very careful pat on the shoulder, from maximum arm’s length.  “You’re not annoying, Helen.”

She made a small, noncommittal sound.

“That’s three down.  One to go,” Gordon said.  “If this falls through, we need a new idea, or we need to plan to catch the next train out of here.”

Mary spat by the side of the road.  I was pretty sure I saw a bystander further down the street look horrified at the action.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Jamie,” Gordon said.  “Which way to the next place?”

Jamie had his back to us.  His attention was to the far side of the street.

“Jamie,” Gordon said.  “Which way?”

“Shh,” I said, raising a hand.

There was a long pause.  Jamie didn’t move.

I felt a pang of worry.

“Jamie,” I said, my voice soft.  “What are you seeing?”

“She’s changed clothes three times,” he said.  “The hair changed once.  The face stays the same.”

“Fray?” Mary asked.

He shook his head.

“The stitched,” I guessed.

He nodded, pointing a finger.  “She disappeared a second ago, heading east.  I was trying to see her through the crowd.  Blue dress, black jacket and shaw-“

I was already moving.  Mary was a step behind me, and Gordon a step behind her.

We ran, and I didn’t slow a fraction as I hurled myself at the thicker part of the crowd.  I turned my body sideways, I ducked low, I pushed.

She had a headstart, but she was lame.

I was spry, and I was small.

The chaos of the crowd was my medium.

Gordon and Mary were just behind me.  Gordon was bigger but stronger.  Mary was between us, but she had a natural grace.

I pulled ahead of the two, all the same.  A part of me wondered if I wanted it more, and pushed myself harder because of it.

Considering how badly Mary wanted it, that said a lot.

“Sy!” Gordon called out.  “Don’t get too far ahead!  We watch each other’s backs!”

I didn’t have the breath to spare to respond.

This might be our one chance, ever.

I saw the crowd, I watched their movements, faced the choice of an alleyway or main street.

A curious, confused glance from a bystander suggested that something in the alleyway had caught his attention.

I took the cue.

I thought of the whelps and how they had died.

I knew I could be running headlong into a trap.

But I also knew, much in the same way I knew Jamie had been wrong about Fray’s motivations, that it wasn’t something Fray seemed inclined to do.

She’d challenged us, baited us.  Simply ambushing me in an alley with the Headsman was… it was too crude.

“Sy!” Gordon called out.

He was just at the mouth of the alley.  I faced a fork in the path.

I listened, and I heard only Gordon’s pounding footsteps on snow-slick cobblestone.

Snow.  I looked at the ground.

There were a number of tracks in the snow, but one set was messier than others.

I wasn’t sure, so I pointed, told Gordon to go right.  I went down the left path.

Down the next branch of the alley, toward rushing water.

My footsteps slowed.  I stopped, panting.

The area was the sort of place that would be a garden in the spring.  There were stone boxes where plants would sprout, and a railing that looked down over a brook, bordered on both sides by stone walls.  A small, quaint stone bridge was a short distance to our left.

The stitched was there.  Steam rose off her, and she was huffing for breath too.  Not that she would get tired in the same way.

Planned.  To get this far ahead, she would have had to run the second Jamie saw her.

She’d been told to show her face.

By Fray, who was leaning over the railing, arms folded.

She turned her head to look at me, then spoke to the stitched.  “Wendy?”

“Yes, ma’am?” Wendy replied.

“Go meet Warren.  Take the other path.  Make noise, the others should hear you.  Warren will protect you if they catch up to you two.  I don’t expect a problem.”

“Yes ma’am,” Wendy said, nodding.  She drew in a deep breath, then sprinted off.

No limp.

Ms. Fray looked at me, and it was a calculating look.  She was analyzing me as I connected the dots.

She turned her back to me, and she beckoned.

“I’m glad it’s you,” she told me.  “Come talk, Sylvester.”

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Enemy (Arc 3)

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Winter

“Is Mr. Howell expecting you?” the stitched asked.

Warren stared.  There were so few of the stitched in Pontiac, and they were the sort of thing that was ignored and people who used them were looked down on.  Pontiac was still a city in the Crown’s dominion, but it was a good distance from any of the Academies and there wasn’t much love for the Academy’s work there.

Now he was home, and a dead man stood in his father’s entryway, dressed in a footman’s clothing.  Warren glanced back over his shoulder at his companion, Harry, who quirked an eyebrow in response.  Harry’s sandy-hair was tucked beneath a cap, and he wasn’t clean-shaven, unfortunately.  They’d stepped right off the train and made their way straight there.  Warren had decided to shave while braving the periodic bumps and jostles of the carriage, and had made out with only one nick at his jaw.

“I’m his son,” Warren finally managed, still a little dumbstruck.  “I sent a telegram ahead, he should be expecting me.”

“This way, sir,” he told me, stepping back and gesturing.

The stitched in Pontiac hadn’t been so well made.  They were haulers, dirty and covered up with heavy clothes and caps, they did the dangerous work until they overheated and fried.  Even before the overheating, though, they were rarely able to speak more than one slurred word at a time.  Warren had always avoided them.

It walked just a little bit stiffly.  Harry fell into step beside Warren, exaggerating the stitched’s gait.  Warren elbowed him, hard, and Harry resumed walking normally, still maintaining a shit-eating grin.

On a good day, Harry was such a character.  On a bad one, he was incorrigible.

Warren hoped Harry could lose the smirk soon.  The were just now approaching the sitting room.

The manservant opened the double doors, and Warren’s hopes were dashed.

The sitting room itself was as he remembered it.  There were three sets of arching double doors opening to the outside, partially made of glass, a large window, and more archways that hid slightly recessed bookshelves.  The hardcover books had gold lettering, some faded more than others.  The furniture was ornate, some of which had been antiques when his grandfather had been young.

His father and another man stood in the middle of the sitting room, beside what looked to be an eighteen year old girl in a state of undress from the waist up, only a brassiere covering her.

Warren’s father looked at him with a moment’s surprise, then smiled.  Harry’s grin was ear to ear, positively delighting in Warren’s situation.

“Father.”

“Warren!” his father said, approaching.  “So good to see you!”

Warren accepted the hug stiffly, not quite sure what to do.  His father was a tall man, but he’d dropped some weight, and felt surprisingly frail under Warren’s arms.  His father was from Cardiff, tall, dark, and surprisingly genial for how grim he could look.

His mother, not yet present, was short, but of brawny English-speaking German stock.  Warren had been blessed with the best traits of both, putting him above average in height and of a respectable solid build, and years at university had put some muscle on his frame.

“You look different,” his father said.

“I feel different,” Warren said, trying not to look at the elephant in the room.

His father smiled.

“It’s been a long time, Warren,” the other man in the room said.

Warren paid attention to him for the first time, an old man with a very thick beard and a white lab coat.

“Doctor Pegram?  You’re rightIt’s been forever.”

“Not since you were small.  I watched you grow up, and now your father tells me you’ve just finished your studies?”

“Halfway across the Crown States, Doctor, yes.  I’ve been learning about machines and machinery,” Warren said, feeling a little embarrassed at the admission.

“Good on you.  Not enough young people working with the hard sciences.  It’s all chemicals and biology, ratios and balances instead of numbers and calculations,” the doctor said, gesturing at himself.  “Why machines, Warren?”

“I, uh, always liked cars, sir,” Warren said.  His eye flickered toward the woman.

The doctor smiled.  “Don’t mind her.”

“It’s rather hard not to,” he admitted.

“Ah, of course,” his father said, “Wendy, get dressed, please.”

The woman moved, and immediately Warren recognized her as a stitched.  The movements were slightly off.  Her scars, however, were so faint that they only appeared in the right light, light pink and faintly reflective.

When she raised her hands up to pull her hair out from beneath her shirt, he saw how there was a piece of metal embedded into the side of her neck, back near the spine.

“She’s yours?”

“Yes.  She cleans and runs small errands.  She requires a little bit more care when instructions are given,

“I’ve been gone five years, and when I return, you’re employing stitched?”

“Times change, son.  All the arable land surrounding Radham is being co-opted by the Academy.  I manage the farms and farmers as best I can, to give them work, but the Academy grows bigger, stronger, better crops.  Blight doesn’t touch their plants, and they use stitched labor.  I have to make concessions if I want to compete.”

Warren glanced again at Harry, worried it was too sensitive a discussion when they had a guest.  Two, if Dr. Pegram was included.

“It’s alright, Warren.  There were a few bad years, but we’re managing well enough.  Using stitched for the field work was a hard choice, it meant turning some laborers away, but…”

The man sighed.

“No other choice?”

“No good ones.  I forgot what it might look like to someone coming at this from an objective standpoint, I don’t think of them as anything more than tools.”

Warren nodded.  He felt uncomfortable with the notion, but he couldn’t put his finger on why, or how he might fix it.  Instead, he changed the subject.

“I almost forgot.  Father, Dr. Pegram, this is Harry, my friend from school.  Harry, this is my father, Mr. Clifford Howell, and Dr. Pegram, the man who pulled me into this world and looked after me for the first ten or twelve years after that.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Howell, Dr. Pegram,” Harry said.  He stepped forward, hand extended.

“Is Harry only visiting Radham?” Warren’s father asked.

“I’m here to stay, as a matter of fact.  Warren and I are starting our own business, building and fixing up cars.”

“I was top of my class in the building,” Warren said.  “Harry’s grades were… less stellar, but he’s a salesman through and through, and he knows just where we can get started.”

“Excellent,” his father said.  “Might have some competition from the academy.  There’s something to be said for the carriages we’re all used to.”

“There’s something to be said for cars, too,” Harry said.

Warren half-turned as he saw a movement in the doorway.  His mother.  Smiling, he met her halfway and wrapped her in a hug.

She had to raise herself up on her toes to touch his face, and she put one hand on him to steady herself as she plucked the cap off his head.  “No hats indoors.”

“Sorry, mother,” Warren said, a little abashed to be talked to like a little boy while Harry was around.  He saw Harry snatch the cap from his own head, lightning quick.

“Sit, please,” his mother said.  “Wendy.”

The stitched girl turned.

“Fill the teapot with the boiling water from the stove, I’ve already got teabags in there.  And, let me see-”

“Don’t count me among your guests,” the doctor said.  “You’ve already been so hospitable, and I’m on my way out the door.”

“Four cups, then, Wendy.  Farewell, Doctor,” she said, giving the man a brief hug.

They settled themselves on armchairs and couches that had been positioned around the little coffee table.

The small talk never happened.  Warren’s father sat, giving him a peculiar look, then squinted.

“Father?”

“You look different, Warren.  I thought it might be your hair, or your brow, but…”

Warren felt his heart skip a beat as his father circled the table.  The grip on Warren’s chin was surprisingly strong and fierce as his father forced his head up at an angle, so he was looking up at the man.

No geniality now.  Only the grim.

“Your eyes.”

“Ah, heh,” Warren said.  “Harry convinced me.”

“It’s true, I did.”

Blue?” his father asked, no humor in his tone.

“My vision is sharper, too.  The change in color from brown was purely cosmetic.”

“It looks wrong,” his father said, and there was something in his voice that made Warren feel deeply uncomfortable.

“Clifford,” his mother said.  “Don’t make mountains out of molehills.”

“This isn’t a molehill, if my suspicions are right.  Or are you going to tell me this will go away on its own.”

“It’s permanent, father.”

“It was a lark, sir,” Harry said.  “I convinced him it was cheaper to change his eyes than to buy eyeglasses every few years.”

“Changed how?” the man’s words had a hollowness to them.  “Torn out and swapped in with another man’s?”

“They rewrote the language that determines how my eyes should be,” Warren said.

Warren’s father let go of his chin as if he’d been burned.

“I know you’re more conservative, father, but if you’re employing stitched-”

“This and that are two very different things.”

“It’s a very minor change.”

Harry chimed in, “An attractive one.  I told him it would get him all the girls, an ice blue stare, but-”

Please,” Warren’s father said, in the gentleman’s way of saying something polite while declaring that Harry might get struck if he kept talking.

Harry dutifully shut up.

“I’ve heard about this,” the older man said.  “Rewriting our very being.  I’ve heard the concerns.  It carries forward, Warren.  When you have a child, there is a very good chance it will have the same sort of eyes.  This alien blueness.”

“I… yes.  I’ve heard that,” Warren said.  The blueness was a remark on the deepness of the blue.  Most had a pale blue color to their eyes, but Warren had elected for a shade and hue that was closer to what might be found on a flower.

A moment’s decision, after drinking with Harry and several other friends.  A lark, as Harry had suggested.

“Clifford,” Warren’s mother said, standing and reaching out.  But the man was so filled with repressed anger that she seemed to hesitate to approach.

“Father,” Warren said, trying to use the moment, “It’s easily changed back.  Same process.  A needle in the arm, and a few weeks to adjust.”

“Oh?” his father asked.  “Do you have the, what do you call it, the language, the script of your eyes as they once were?  Or are you simply trying to mime the old color?  A guess on the part of whatever doctor you subject yourself to?  How is that different?”

“You make it sound like the end of the world!”

“It’s the end of us!” his father said, suddenly shouting.

The statement seemed to bring everything in the room to a standstill.

The stitched girl stood in the doorway with tea on a tray.  Her head was bowed, and the plates on the platter rattled as her hands shook.

Warren’s mother flew to the stitched girl’s side, to console and to take the tray, the murmured words indistinct.

“The end of us?” Warren asked.

“You’re the product of your mother and I, as we’re the product of those who came before.  But any child you have now will be a product of you, your wife, and the Academy’s work.  We don’t yet know how these little things will carry forward, or if there will be long term repercussions, for you or your children.  Such a stupid thing.”

The word was like a slap.  Stupid.

“It’s minor.  Nothing of importance in the grand scheme of it all,” Warren said, a little more obstinate now.

“It’s important to me.  Do you understand?  You’ve tainted the bloodline.  You’re not truly my son anymore, not in full.”

If the word ‘stupid’ had been a slap, this was a strike to the gut.  Warren felt all of the tension that had built up over the argument now seizing him.  In shock, he was no longer sure how to move or properly think.

“Warren,” Harry said, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  “Perhaps we should go.”

“That might be a good idea,” Warren’s father said.

Warren nodded, dumb.  He looked at his mother, on the other side of the room, still consoling the stitched girl.

He and Harry left, Warren more stiff than either of the stitched had been.  Down the long hallway, past the stairs, and out the door, into bright sunlight.  Radham was just on the horizon, past the patchwork white-brown and white of snow-dusted farmland, ringed by buildings that spewed dark fumes into the air.  A perpetual raincloud hung over the city.

“Warren,” his mother said, behind him.

He turned.

She pressed a slip of paper into his hand.

He looked down at it, too caught up in a storm of emotion to process it.

“Money.  To get you off the ground and tide you over the first year or so, if you’re frugal.  It was intended as a graduation present from me to you.  It is a graduation present.”

“Thank you,” he said, but he still felt adrift, confused.

“I’ll talk to him, Warren.  He cares, but he’s had to adapt so much so quickly, this caught him off guard, so soon after he’d already made monumental sacrifices.  Send us another telegram so we know where you are, so I can reunite you two when he’s calmed down.”

“Will he?” Warren asked.

“He will,” she said.  She gave his arm a squeeze.

He nodded, but the wound still felt raw.

“Take Wendy and the carriage.  Go where you need to today, to get yourself situated and run any errands.  Wendy can help you, and she can do a surprising amount of carrying.  Send them back tomorrow, if you can.  She knows how to use the carriage and how to ask for directions if she needs them.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, eyeing the young stitched dubiously.

“She needs it, frankly.  Her disposition always improves after a good carriage ride.  It would be a favor.”

Warren nodded.  His mother was lying, but perhaps she wanted to keep an eye on him.  Not an entirely bad thing.

“Look after him, Wendy,” Warren’s mother said.  “Do as he asks, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Let’s go,” Harry said, a hand on Warren’s shoulder.  He used the hand to guide Warren into the horse-driven carriage.

Warren sat and stared blankly at the wall.  He blinked as Harry slammed the door, then again as Harry sat across from him.

“Let’s go,” Harry said.  “I think you’re in dire need of an unhealthy amount of drink.”

Spring

Every morning, it was the same.  Replaying the discussion with his father, fragments of memory about the afternoon and evening that had followed.  Drinking, meeting Harry’s friends in Radham.

Some had altered themselves, more than very blue eyes.  A girl with horns, a young man who had added muscle to himself.  Among Warren and the other students in Pontiac, Harry had been the roughest around the edges, too clever for his own good, always a little disheveled.

Harry’s friends in Radham were a dozen long strides in that same direction.  Smart as a whip, all of them, but not in the academic sense.  Quick to insult, joke, jibe.  Warren hadn’t been able to keep up, especially as the drinks had added up.

He remembered blood, and he wrested his thoughts away from that particular sequence of events.

He tried to raise a hand to his face, and felt it move, felt the air against it, the shift of muscles.  But the sensation folded on itself, the sensations continuing onward in his psyche until they had dissolved into smoke.

Every morning, it was like this.  Discovering how badly things had gone, one way or another.

It was the movement in the corner of his eye that usually did it, or movement in front of him, sleep-bleary eyes making out the general shape of the surroundings.

Waking up like this might never become routine.  Perhaps because it was too far removed from the reality he understood.  Perhaps because he didn’t want to realize.  Waking up in confusion, with a dawning feeling of horror, that was better.  It was best, all things considered.  It hinted at how low his expectations should be.

There was no dawning feeling of horror in the pit of his stomach.

He didn’t feel sweat run down his back.

His hands didn’t clench.

His toes didn’t curl.

His heartbeat didn’t pick up in speed.

His blood didn’t run cold.

None of those things were, not anymore.

He turned his head, and it was difficult.  He had a limited amount of mobility, and the skin pulled tight with even a small turn.

The surroundings were dark, lit only by a slice of light that cut between curtains.  It looked to be a cellar or a basement.  One he had seen every morning for the last week.

It was the smallest of blessings that things changed locations once every week or two.  A change of scenery.

As his eyes focused, he saw the movements.  Shapes in his immediate peripheral vision, and in front of him.  Tubes, wires, and heads.

Heads without bodies, hair shorn, mounted on a piece of metal, tubes running into the spaces and mounts, giving blood, hydration and nutrients, drawing everything else out.

They moved, jaws opening wide, teeth clacking, the ones that weren’t asleep in the midst of a silent, mad rage.

He opened his mouth to speak, and the air didn’t come as he bid it.  The only tongue that moved was the one his mind conjured up, made of smoke.  His tongue had been removed a long while ago.  Too easy to bite it off and attempt to bleed out or choke.

The thought provoked the flurry of images he’d tried so hard to push out of his mind.

He remembered himself, partying with Harry and Harry’s friends.

He remembered seeing them talking among themselves, every time he came out of the washroom, or every time he found himself occupied with something or someone.  Furtive talks.  He’d imagined them discussing his situation at home, his father’s rage, and he’d deliberately ignored it, drinking more.

He remembered how, late in the evening, when it had been just them, Harry’s friends had grabbed him.

Harry had helped himself to the note that would let him access the money, then he had given the signal.

The group had lifted Warren up, then tipped him over.

He’d dropped several stories.  He remembered seeing Wendy on landing.  She and the carriage had been just outside the building.

When he’d woken up, it had been like this.

Body ruined, head salvaged, kept indefinitely on life support.

He stared through bleary eyes as a man pushed a curtain aside, where the curtain served in place of a door.  Disheveled, with a thick beard, the man wore no lab coat.  He looked more like someone who might be found sleeping at the side of the road, a bottle in hand.

“Tea,” the man said.  “The usual.  Then brush their hair and sponge them off.”

“Yes sir,” Wendy was heard to say.

Warren had only a glimpse of the stitched as she went about her day.  Left untended, she was fidgeting more, anxious.  Something about dealing with the heads left her more concerned each time, and her poor condition was part of it.

Had Warren been able to speak, he would have insisted she be taken care of, or sent back where she came from.

He doubted he would be heard.  No man that could do this had any mercy in him.

The man approached the table, and though he couldn’t breathe, Warren could smell the rank odor of the man.  He saw the man reach out and stroke the hair of one of the heads.

“Good morning, my pretties,” the man said.  He consulted a notebook.  “Thinking Machine project, version three, day… hm.  Day fifty-three.”

Warren stared.

It wasn’t the numbers that mattered, the number of days or even the implication that there had been two versions before this.

The horror that he experienced, a frustrated horror that had nowhere to go but his head, nothing to do but compound itself, was because of the words ‘good morning’.

Twelve to sixteen hours before sleep could claim him again.

Warren started screaming, twisting, face contorting, best as he was able, though no sound came out.

Summer

Sweat ran down his brow.  He felt the coolness of the water as his scalp was gently dabbed.

Wendy fidgeted.  She’d been maintained, but it had been a rough job, and had left deep scars in her flesh, where before there had been only faint ones.  The ongoing damage to her strange psyche was something else altogether.

“I’m supposed to watch over you,” she said.  “Madam said so.  I very much look forward to going home, as soon as you give the word.  This place is dark and…”

She leaned close, as if to share a secret.

“…I don’t like the dark, sir.”

Warren did his best to nod, a sympathetic look on his face.

“I have a teddy bear I hug when it’s dark.  It was a gift.  I know I’m a young lady now, but it does make me feel better,” she said.

He nodded, though it made his jaw and neck hurt.  His brain felt fried.  Wires ran in and out of his skull, connecting to the others, and several times a day, the thinking machine was put in use.  The machine would play out a long stuttering series of clicks, the madman who’d put him down here would make a few notes, then take them with him as he walked into another part of the building, peering at them and scratching his head.

“I don’t think I know how to go back,” Wendy said.  “I’m supposed to get directions to the Ossuary, then I go down… I can’t remember the road.  Then… I can’t remember what comes next.”

Every day, she talked to him.  Most days, she said the same things.  When her pattern changed, it was because she was breaking down, running too hot.  What he hadn’t picked up from idle curiosity before, back in Pontiac, he’d learned from the madman’s occasional comments.

Warren held onto this, but he wasn’t sure why.  A part of him hoped she would snap, go crazy, and end all of this, or murder the madman.  Stitched did that, didn’t they?  Or was that rumor, heard in a city that didn’t like stitched?

A part of him hoped she would leave, forgetting that she had to look after him.

And, running contrary to that, a part of him feared her leaving, above all else.

He was supposed to have lost his mind by now.  He already had, to a degree, and the memories he pulled up now and again were too real, dreamlike, while his dreams were indistinguishable from memory, or they simply brought him back here.

He was being drugged, he suspected, to keep him from panicking or having a stroke, but he still panicked with regularity, his thoughts looping over and over.  Sometimes hours passed in the blink of an eye, like that, and sometimes what felt like hours of mad panic were only as long as it took the madman to leave, cook, eat, and return.

“I miss music,” Wendy said.  “There’s this tune, it plays in my head, and it goes, ba ba ba, ba ba, ba ba ba…”

A body with only a partial brain, and a head without a body, Warren still had the phantom sensations of movements or feelings his body might have experienced, and he’d learned that, unburied by fever and stress, Wendy had phantom traces of an identity, complete with memories.

Silently, with all the focus he could bring to bear, he scrawled promises on his brain with a permanence that he might use to etch words on stone tablets.

To make amends, to show gratitude, because he couldn’t bring himself to pray and he needed to do something of magnitude to have an iota of vision for the future, he promised her a teddy bear, he promised her her music…

Autumn

The cell door slammed shut.  He stirred to wakefulness, blinking, though he hadn’t been asleep.  Reality and dream blended in together, now.

He was fantasizing, or dreaming.  The madman having his world turned upside down, screaming about the loss of his life’s work, the thinking machine.

Men of the law arresting the madman, then approaching the board, where three of the original nine heads were still functional, the number of wires tripled to compensate.

Fantasy?

No.  The smells and tastes and touches…

Wendy was standing beside him, stroking his hair.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said.

He didn’t dare hope.  Easier to think he was still in the basement, and that reality had slipped away entirely.

He realized that someone was staring at him.  The world seemed so distorted.  He was higher up than he was used to, almost five feet off the ground.

He’d once been six feet tall, he remembered.  That life felt so far away.

The person in the cell was a young woman, not much older than he was.  Or older than he’d been.  He wasn’t sure he was a he anymore.

His thoughts were rambling, he knew.

Her hair was black, a contrast to Wendy’s blonde hair, cut straight, and tucked behind one ear, while it obscured the other.  Her eyes were narrow and dark, her mouth curved in a light smile, painted crimson.

She wore a lab coat, he realized.

He looked away, bothered.  The science, the doctors, all of it, he’d seen what it came to, in the end.

Not just what he’d experienced, but Wendy.

So many horrors, so many lines crossed.

He couldn’t turn his head away, not really, but he averted his eyes, watching the officers patrolling the room.  Half of it was desks, half of it was cells, a single row with one occupant per cell.

He was good at letting time slip by, now.  He knew the techniques.  Count the cracks, count the bars.  Study the people.  The guards, their habits, their way of dress.

There were so many new sensations and things to experience that he wasn’t able to process it all.  He was free, but he wasn’t sure what that entailed.  He didn’t dare hope for one thing or the other, out of fear that if he hoped for death and got a second chance instead, or vice versa, it might break him.

The clang of the cell door opening was startling.  He’d been watching the people, but the people had taken action without him noticing.  There was a man in a grey coat in the cell in front of him, with guards gathered loosely around.

“You’ll be getting these injections twice a day for a week.  You know what these do, Ms. Fray.”

“You want to make me forget.”

“Yes.”

“Even if it does damage to other parts of my mind in the process.”

“Nothing has been proven on that front.”

She made a scoffing sound.  She sounded so cavalier.  Did she not realize what the Academy’s people were capable of doing?  Even without a lab coat, the madman and his thinking machine had been the Academy’s doing.

Warren had had enough time to puzzle that much out.

“If you do this, you can go to the underground laboratories, you can work on projects, live in dorms…”

“A half life.  I made my bid for professorship, I failed, and you take half of everything.”

“Some people would kill for this much.”

“Or carry out a crazed experiment in their basement with limited resources?  Trying to make nine heads think as one?” Ms. Fray asked.

“Even that.”

“No.  I’ll take a lifetime of imprisonment if it means keeping my brain.”

“You don’t get a choice, Ms. Fray.”

“I can tell you that I took a dose of the Wyvern formula just this morning.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Contraindicated.  Don’t tell me you got your grey coat without knowing what contraindicated means.”

“I know what it means.  I’ve never heard of the formula, and quite frankly, after having read your files, I suspect you’re lying, to delay the inevitable.”

“Ask Professor Hayle.  He’ll know.”

There was a pause.  Then, “Lock her up.  Watch her.  I’ll be back later this evening after I’ve confirmed.”

Warren watched as the guards and the doctor in the grey coat vacated the cell.  The door clanged shut, making Wendy flinch, and they went about their way, the grey-coat exiting through the door at the far end of the building.

Long minutes passed.  Ms. Fray paced, leaned against the bars to peer further into the building, and alternately watched Wendy, watched Warren, and studied the guards.

Some time had passed before she cleared her throat, standing straighter.

Within the cell, the woman raised a finger to crimson lips.

Wendy did the same, echoing the gesture.

The cell was equipped with a toilet behind a short barrier, intended for privacy.  Ms. Fray approached the toilet, then bent over it, hand going to her throat.

Warren still felt like this was all a dream.  Too surreal.

He saw Ms. Fray stand up, now with a writhing tentacle coming out of her mouth.  She gripped the tentacles, grunting and making choking sounds, as she hauled it out, excruciating inch by excruciating inch.

It took a minute and a half, by Warren’s estimation, before she’d retrieved the entire thing.  It coiled and uncoiled, tentacles reaching out and wrapping around her hands and forearms.

“What are you grunting and moaning about?” a guard asked.

But as the guard reached the cell, Ms. Fray was sitting on the toilet, the tentacled horror pinned between her back and the toilet’s tank, blocked from view by the barrier.

The guard shook her head, turned, and walked away.

Ms. Fray reached under her dress.

Warren averted his eyes, horrified.

He heard a titter.

When he looked up, she had what looked to be a large piece of glass.  No more tentacles.  From the speed with which she’d acted, he suspected it had been tucked into the band.

Again, she raised a finger to her mouth, the universal gesture for silence.  This time, however, she had a piece of glass in her hand, and the tentacle-thing held behind her back.

The second guard paced down the building, then headed back up toward Ms. Fray.

The moment he passed by the cell, she reached out, and the tentacles did as well, snaring him by the head and throat, pulling him tight against the bars.

“Feel that?” Ms. Fray asked.

“Mmph,” the guard said.

“Then don’t touch your pistol.”

The other guard had heard the crash of skull against bars.  The woman approached at a half-run from the far end of the building.

“Keys,” Ms. Fray said, calm.  “You can reach the door.  Work fast.  If she gets here before the door is open, I’m going to cut your throat so my pet is free to stop her.”

The guard fumbled, keys rattling.  He reached up, holding the keys at an awkward angle to see which one he was selecting.

The key went into the lock.  He turned it, and the door came open.

Ms. Fray hauled him in a touch deeper, then gripped the sliding door, hauling it open.  With the man’s head between the bars, the sliding door caught him in the side of the head or the neck.

Warren saw the other guard approaching at a swift run.

She rounded the corner, standing back this time, pistol raised.

Ms. Fray was crouched, the other guard’s pistol in hand, tentacles coiling at one side.

The woman guard had to take the time to figure out what was going on, the position of her target, and adjust before pulling, aiming between the bars.

Ms. Fray only had to pull the trigger as soon as the moving target came into view.

Three shots, in quick succession.

Covered in a light spattering of blood, Ms. Fray stepped out of her cell.

“You.  You saw what I just did,” she said.  “I’m going to keep doing it, over and over, in ways both dramatic and subtle.  You can come with me and help, or you can stay here and be at their mercy.”

“Me?” Wendy asked.

“Him.”

Warren blinked.

Mercy doesn’t exist.

“I’ve got to go.  They’ll have heard shots.  Yes or no, do you want revenge?”

He thought of Harry.

He thought of the Madman.

He nodded.

She reached out to scoop him up.  Wendy got in the way.

Warren rolled his eyes over to Wendy, then back to Ms. Fray, then to Wendy.

“You too, then.  Bring him.”

Wendy nodded.

Ms. Fray collected the keys.  She walked backward, facing Warren, pointing at the cells.

He looked.

A stranger.  Another stranger.  Empty.  A stranger.

The madman.

He must have given some tell.  Another shot from the pistol rang out.  The madman died, a shot through the head.

The gun twirled on Ms. Fray’s finger as she turned her back on Warren and his stitched friend, marching for the exit.

Winter

The creature squealed as it died, crushed under a meaty fist.  Bird, bug and reptile blended together, it was the size of a large dog, and surprisingly hard to kill.

Warren stretched, then heaved out a heavy breath.

“Is it safe?” Ms. Fray asked.

“Yes,” Wendy said.

Ms. Fray opened the door and stepped out of the washroom.  She looked down at the stain in disgust.  “Whelps.  One of the Academy’s weapons.”

Warren nodded.

“If there’s one here, there’ll be more.  They have our scent.  We’re relocating.”

Warren nodded, again.

Ms. Fray led the way, but she usually did.  She always walked briskly, she rarely held back, if she was even capable, and she expected everyone else to keep up.

Not that Warren had much difficulty.  He was taller than he’d been with his original body, to the point he almost had to bend double to get through the door.

The city swirled with snow.  Mad creatures and doctors were everywhere, and he felt his head hurt as he glanced at each.  It wasn’t a pleasant place, this, but it was good for camouflage.  Ms. Fray and Warren looked entirely normal walking down the street.

“I keep expecting them to lose interest, but they up the ante each time.  Academy investigators, monsters, The Hangman, Dog and Catcher… now the Whelps.  They really, really want me,” she said.

Warren nodded.

He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye.

Stray cat.  He might not have seen it if it weren’t for his sharp eyes.

A second later, a fanged beak snapped out, consuming half of the cat.  A tongue snaked around the rest, and hauled it into the creature’s gullet.

Another whelp.

“I saw it too,” Genevieve said.  She gave him a pat on the arm, where his striped sweater was rolled up to the elbow.  His forearm was bigger around than her upper body, his fist large enough that when he held Wendy’s hand, it consumed the hand and most of her forearm.  “It won’t come out into the daylight.”

His strength and new body was of her design.  She’d asked what he’d wanted, and with a writing implement in his temporary hand, he’d scrawled out a simple word.  ‘Strength’.

He didn’t trust his sanity, but he trusted his mind.  It had always been sharp.  The only flaw had been that it had been too trusting.  No longer.

Now he had a body to match the mind.

They approached the train station, amid a light snowfall.  Ms. Fray led the way toward a side street.  If they were catching a train, they’d hitch a ride in a car carrying crates or hay, so witnesses wouldn’t be able to report on them.  It had bought them some time in the past.

She put a hand to his chest, stopping mid-stride.  He had to go to some effort to stop fast enough.  Had he been any slower, he might have forced her wrist or arm backward and snapped them.

She didn’t seem to notice or care.  Her eyes were on the train station across the street.

Passengers were getting off.  Young, old, many of them women and girls attending the local women’s Academy.  A small school, but popular.  Many a father conceded to his daughter’s wishes to study, but insisted on something like this.  A quiet, safe town and an unthreatening learning environment.

“There,” Genevieve said.  “They got off a few seconds ago.”

He watched.

“The Lambs,” she said.

He frowned, then realized she was talking about the children.  Just on the verge of adolescence, all six of them, they walked with purpose, working their way through the gaps in the crowd.

“They finally caught up,” she said.  “This is good.”

He glanced at her.

“Change of plans,” she said.  “We’re staying.”