Esprit de Corpse – 5.9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But-”

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

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

“I’m injured,” I pointed out.

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

She was itching to go up against this new enemy.

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

Mary shifted position, impatient, annoyed.

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

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

Gordon nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Mary said.

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

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

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

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

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

“-would you be?” Gordon asked.

“Not very,” Mary said.

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Mary said.

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

Gordon nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary nodded somberly.

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

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

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

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

Putting out the fire.

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

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

There were calls and orders.  Permissions given.

Unleashing the monsters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” he said.

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

“For me, specifically?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright,” she said.

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

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

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

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

Weakness…

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

“Ah,” he said.  He heaved out a sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Does Mary know?”

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

I nodded.  “The others?”

“Lillian.  Not Jamie.  Not Helen.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“The second hand?”

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

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

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

He stopped mid-sentence.

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

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

I heaved out a sigh.

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

“But you won’t tell me, if I ask?”

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

He nodded.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

He didn’t say a word.

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

Silence.

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

“Sy,” he said.

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Alright,” I said.

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

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

“Where’s Gladys?” Gordon asked.

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

“-she’s not a Lamb,” I said.

Mary nodded.

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

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

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

“Mutiny,” I said.

Gordon gave me a sharp look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you want mutiny?” Lillian asked.

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

“But mutiny.”

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

“No,” I said.  “I have reservations.”

Jamie nodded.  I thought I detected relief.

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

“A little,” I said.

“This is dangerous,” she said.

“We talked about that part,” I said.

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

“We could make a case,” Gordon said.

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

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

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

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

Lillian’s eyes narrowed.

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

“What do you mean?” she asked.

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

Playing dirty.  Sorry Lil.

“The two aren’t- it can be both!”

“They can be not-both,” I said.

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

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

“You too?” Gordon asked.

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

“And Helen?” Gordon asked.

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

Gordon was frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As things began, so did they end.

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

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

I wanted to give him this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie and Helen nodded.

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

I smiled.

“Seriously.”

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

“That’s suspicious,” Gordon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Keep out of the way,” he told me.

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

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

“Uh huh,” he said.

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

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

He wasn’t the reason I’d gone back.

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

The Brigadier’s lodge.

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

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

They didn’t budge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something of import?” the Brigadier asked me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, I kept circling the desk.

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

Probably intended for the fire.

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

I lined them up, turning them over.

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

“Excuse me,” the Brigadier said.

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

“Can I ask what the plan is?”

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

“Yes,” I said.

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

“Impressive,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t budge, only meeting his eyes.

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

I nodded.

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

“Thank you,” he said.

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

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Esprit de Corpse – 5.8

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The stitched gave each of us a pat-down.  I bit my cheek rather than protest at the pain as clumsy hands prodded my side.  It wasn’t worth it, the stitched wouldn’t care, and I didn’t want to seem weak, when we already had two members down.  The older man, now with his helmet doffed, was studying us.  Jamie and Helen were looking less than stellar, even with their injuries looked after.  I could put on a brave face.

“It would be easier-” Mary started.  She made a face as the stitched pulled a knife out from her beltline.  “If you’d let me remove the knives myself.  Or I can tell you where they all are.”

The stitched didn’t react or respond, and the Brigadier didn’t give the order.

We waited in silence while it found eight more knives, each belted around Mary’s upper thighs.  It gave her a quick pat-down, then stood straight.

“If I may…” Mary said.  She reached up and pulled a long, thin knife out from the thickest part of her hair.  More a needle than a blade.  She raised one foot up, bracing calf against knee, and pulled another knife free of the heel of her shoe with a bit of a jerk.  Rather than a handle, it had a t-shaped configuration, more a knife that was punched with than thrust.  A matching knife came out of the other shoe.

She deposited two more, another punching knife from behind her belt buckle, and one with fluid in a reservoir in the handle from behind her back.  Finally, she provided the garotte-wire that had been curled around her body, hidden on the other side of her belt.

Absolutely, utterly unnecessary.  She could have kept the items on her person and lost nothing for it, but I suspected she wanted to make a point.

“We’ll have to teach them to do better,” the Brigadier observed.

“Yes sir,” Mary said.

The Brigadier was old, a caricature of a man with a puffed out chest, bedecked in a uniform jacket, with tight leggings beneath, making it seem like his upper body was meant for a different lower body than the one he had.  He had kind eyes, as he appraised us.

I instantly disliked him.

He looked at the man who still sat on the bench of the coach, his ankles bound.  The man looked deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed.

“See that Specialist Timothy gets care.  Patrick, see that your stitched search the vehicle for more spiders.  Lambs, you can come inside,” he said.  “We’ll talk.”

We passed through the doors, joined by the stitched guards.  Formations seemed to have been ingrained into them.  As we moved two-by-two, the stitched did as well, two between Jamie and I and Mary and Lillian, and two at the rear.

Past the doors was a coatroom, and we quickly removed our things.  Adult-sized shoes were on the floor.  The Brigadier paused, taking in the shoes, examining us and our feet, then said, “if you wouldn’t mind carrying on the rest of the way in socks and stockings?”

Dutifully, we peeled off our raincoats and boots.  I stepped onto the wooden floor beyond the coatroom, lifted up one foot, and saw a muddy print.  The grime and the wet had soaked into my boots.  My socks were just as dirty as the soles of my boots, if not dirtier.

I peeled off my wet socks and progressed barefoot, which was only slightly better.

The Brigadier had chosen a lodge as his base of operations.  It was one of the largest buildings, one of the sturdiest, and I suspected that had little to nothing to do with his choice.  The exterior was stone and mortar, up to a point that was just over the top of my head, with logs extending up the rest of the way.  The roof had a tree growing across it, augmented building, and swept up at an angle, the lowest point just over the front door, the highest point of the roof at the far end, where a chimney speared up from a stone fireplace-cum-stove.  It looked like a bedroom and bathroom were to either side of the coat room, tucked in at the front.  The remainder was an open living space, with tables surrounded by nice chairs and a couch, a desk was positioned near the fireplace, and the only piece of furniture that didn’t match the decor had been placed opposite the desk, a heavy table.

A stitched boy was feeding the fire.  No older than I was.  Probably the Brigadier’s personal servant.  He looked like he’d been around for a while, a stitched with actual stitches.

The Brigadier was a man who liked his comforts.  A candle burned above the desk, and a glass held ice but no drink.  If I smelled him, I could smell a trace of drink, but not the sour tang of an alcoholic.  As the boy and his style of dress suggested, he was a man who took care of things.

Hard to read, when it came to this situation.  He was so wrapped up in himself that I couldn’t get a good sense of who he was as a strategist.

Maybe that was a hint unto itself.

We walked all the way to the end of the room, passing the area that served as a sitting room or a tea room, where books and maps were laid out.  The wood of the floor got progressively warmer as we approached the fireplace.  By the time we reached the end, it was hot enough to be on the cusp of uncomfortable.  I glanced over the table opposite the desk, and saw far more maps, as well as various letters.  Pens were scattered here and there.

He took a seat at the desk.  “If the injured feel the need to sit, you could take one of the chairs behind you and turn it around.”

Jamie did.  He dropped his backpack on the floor by the chair.  Helen remained where she was.

I did, too.

“Whitney is under attack, then,” the Brigadier said.

“Yes sir,” Gordon said.  “We moved too soon.  We hoped they would be active late at night.  When the majority of people were deep asleep, and we hoped there would be more.  Enough that their first few attempts to eradicate the spiders would fail.”

“But you were nearly ready.  You said as much in a recent missive.”

“Not that close.  Account for the fact that they’ll respond faster in the daytime, it won’t be enough.  I’d say we have less than a day before the window of opportunity closes,” Gordon said.

“I think you’re underestimating what that kind of psychological warfare will accomplish,” the Brigadier said.

“We’re well versed in that kind of warfare, we’ve dealt with experts in it for as long as we’ve been working together,” Gordon said.

“Which obviously isn’t that long,” the Brigadier said.  “Not to belittle what you do, of course.”

“Of course,” Gordon said.

Only those who knew Gordon would be aware of the subtle change of tone, or the hints that he was working just a little too hard to keep his words carefully crafted.

“They’ll break,” the Brigadier said.  “It’ll put them on their heels.  People will leave Whitney, too afraid of a repeat performance.”

“Sir,” I said.  “It’s more complicated than that.”

“Of course it is!” he said, in a laughing tone.  “There are always nuances and complications.  This is war.”

Brigadier Ernest Tylor lifted his glass, drinking the water from the melted ice, then opened a drawer to retrieve a bottle of what might have been scotch.  He tipped it into the glass.

He saw us watching, and he smiled.  “The ice is a travesty, I know, but I allow it because it goes so well with the heat of the fire.  I’d offer you drinks, to thank you for your hard work, but…”

He gestured, a kind of up-down motion.

“But we’re too short?” I asked, feigning confusion.

Jamie elbowed me from the left, and Mary kicked my leg.  It hurt more than if she’d been wearing her shoes.  Somehow.

“It’s fine, sir,” Helen said.  “Two of us can’t even drink, and I can’t even enjoy it in the same ways, myself.”

“Strange group,” the man said.  He was barely drinking what he’d poured for himself.  One sip.  A gesture of power?  Habit?

I watched and waited for him to take another sip.

The moment he did, I opened my mouth, knowing he couldn’t cut me off without sputtering.

“Sir,” I said,   “In all seriousness, what I was saying before, about complications.  They’re more prepared than you may be giving them credit for.”

He swallowed, stayed like that, glass in hand, then set it down.  “How so?”

“Three or four assassins, skilled, each augmented.  One of them was an uncanny shot with a rifle from about a kilometer away.”

He raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“They’re confident.  They know the resources you have to bear, they have countermeasures in place.  They have resources, some ace up their sleeve that we weren’t able to uncover before we had to flee the assassins.  They think they’re going to win this.”

“Then they’re idiots,” the Brigadier said.  “We outnumber them threefold.”

“Virtually every soldier they have has a gun they’ve nicknamed the Exorcist.  Designed to put down stitched and augmented creatures.”

“Not a concern.  I’ve led armies in battle.  I’ve even managed situations like this.  A fortified position, an insurgent groups with numbers on their side.  Those numbers swiftly dwindle at the first hint of defeat.  You’ve delivered that, and I’ll see that you get medals for it.”

Mary reached out and took my hand.  I squeezed it.

The look she gave me out of the corner of her eye was one of worry.  The hand-holding was for reassurance, not for some desire to celebrate the recognition and the victory.

Yeah.  That feeling we’d had was getting worse.

“There were scientists.  Ex-Academy.  This isn’t rabble, sir,” I said.  “They have knowledge they can bring to bear.  Experiments of their own.”

“Who?”

“Louis Peralta,” Jamie said.  “He specialized in pain.  Leopold Pock, produced modified, vat grown humans, of a different type than the assassins we encountered.  Edwin Grahl, John Durant, Christina Wilder, Ian Roy, Wesley Vas-”

“I get the picture,” the Brigadier said.  “How many total?”

“Eleven.”

The man nodded, rubbing his beard.  “At a certain point, it becomes academic.  Assuming the guns are twice as effective as the norm, the experiments all Academy class, they still have to reach us before they can take action.”

“Reach us, sir?” Gordon asked.

“They’re mounting an attack against an entrenched position.  We have a number of tools at our disposal, and we can frustrate their efforts.  Trust me when I say this, war is a psychological game.  Once they realize the cost of attacking, on top of your clever work with the spiders, their numbers will dwindle.  Without the support of the group, their hired scholars will drop away as well.  There will be nobody to hold the guns you’ve mentioned.”

“You don’t intend to attack,” Mary said, the disappointment and disbelief clear in her voice.  “You want to stay, fight from a defensive standpoint.”

“Exactly so,” the man said, smiling.

“Why?” she asked.  She didn’t even try to hide the accusatory tone.

I squeezed her hand, a warning.

“How refreshing,” the old man said.  “I’m not usually made to explain myself.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

He waved a hand.  “I always firmly believed that every person in a position of power should have to explain their rationale.  Your name, if you don’t mind?”

“Mary.”

“Who are we fighting against, Mary?”

“Insurgents.”

“Yes.  Rebels, revolutionaries, insurgents.  But who makes up the bulk of their number?”

Mary took a second, then connected the dots.  “The Crown’s people.”

“Assume we fought every fight by wiping out the enemy.  What would happen after?  The Academy would suffer, the Crown would suffer.  There would be long-lasting repercussions.  Resentment, hatred.  If we can minimize the losses on both sides, and still break their stride, if we do it with care, then we could very well leave them feeling thankful that we were as merciful as we were.”

“Yes, sir,” Mary said.

I wondered if the higher-ups at Radham were laughing.  Hayle had made a gambit, sending us here.  He’d believed we could be useful.  Had someone with experience with the Crown’s military allowed him to do just that, knowing just what we’d have to deal with?

There wasn’t a Lamb present, I knew, who wasn’t filled to the brim with frustration.  We’d gathered information, we’d positioned ourselves, we’d set up a trap that would lay them low enough that an army could sweep over them without much contest, and here we were.

I looked either way, down the line of Lambs.  Lillian, at the far left end, was staring down at the floor.  Her neck was rigid enough I wondered if she’d start trembling.

The others weren’t much better.

So very little gained.  He wasn’t paying attention to the information.  Lillian and Shipman’s notes on how far along they were in terms of knowing about the Academy were effectively being ignored, as was Jamie’s information on the local threats, and my details on the assassins.

“The spiders were a good ploy.  I’m glad I extended you the trust and signed off on it.  Tell me, what’s next for you?  If you want it, I’d be happy to extend you some freedom.”

“Freedom, sir?” Gordon asked.

“I imagine the Academy keeps you busy.  If you’d like, I can tell them I have need of you, and keep you for a few days.  It’s a little drab here, mines and lodges, a lot of damnable rain, but you could rest and recuperate.”

Gordon glanced at the rest of us, then said, “Speaking for all of us, sir, the offer is appreciated-”

“Excellent.”

“But I think we’d prefer to be useful, if you don’t mind my saying so.  Those of us who aren’t injured.”

The man nodded.  “Any particular duties you have in mind?”

“Something pertaining to the upcoming situation, sir?”

“Nothing to be had but turns at the watch, and trust me when I say you don’t want that task.  It’s a punishment detail.”

“Yes sir,” Gordon said.

“Let me get back to you on that tomorrow, then?” the man asked.  “It’s getting later in the day.  Recuperate, take a well-earned rest.  You’ll be staying in the Miner’s camp.  Nicer place to stay than you’d think.  Some officers and specialists there, but you’ll have enough space that you shouldn’t want for privacy.”

He was the first person I’d met who could take the Lambs in stride at first meeting, recognizing what we were and how we operated.  Gordon’s letters might have helped with that.  He was also gentle, and not above treating us with kindness.  That he’d actually considered offering us drinks said a lot. There was no deception at all in what he was saying.  He believed it all, deep down.  That veteranship of experience had layered and ingrained it all into him.  A very rare species, no doubt a grandfather, and a veteran of the Academy’s wars, his experiences mingling into someone who actually almost understood us.

I could count the number of people who fit that label with three fingers.  Hayle was the first.  This man was the third.

Yet, in my frustration, there was nothing I wanted to do than jam my thumbs into the orbs of his eyes and hear him scream.  Because he was too kind in expression as he looked down on us, because I was sure I saw a glimmer of pity that came from a place of actual understanding.

It was a surprisingly violent line of thought, even for me.

We’d been dismissed.  The others were already turning to go.  I hadn’t turned, and I still held Mary’s hand, so she hadn’t gone either.

“Sir,” I said.

“Yes.  Do you mind mentioning your name, while we’re talking?”

“Sylvester.”

He nodded.

I took that as my cue to continue.  “If you’re really grateful about what we’ve done-”

“I am, Sylvester.”

“Then I’d like to maintain a responsibility, in the meantime.  I’d need a bit of help.  I want to do some patrol rounds around Westmore, personally.”

“It’s bigger than it looks, you know.  It worms between hills and mountains.”

“I know, sir.”

“What help do you need?”

“We’re each carrying silver badges.  They have the Radham emblem on them,” I said.  I fished mine out of my pocket.  “Would you pass on word to your soldiers, that we can go where we need to and make minor requests?”

He considered.  “If it were to fall into an enemy’s hands…”

“There aren’t any children among them, as far as we know,” I said.

He rubbed his beard, musing.  “Why, then?  We have the patrols covered.”

“Because they hired assassins.  As we mentioned earlier, there are three or four,” I said.  I paused for effect.  I wished this would sink in, convince him that this was a different sort of battle, that the enemy was smarter.  “I doubt they hired assassins to keep them in Whitney.”

“If you deem it necessary, then I’ll spread the word down the chain of command.  You’re free to go where you need to, and to make minor orders.”

I nodded.  “Thank you sir.”

“Thank you, Sylvester.”

I had the vivid mental image of the eye-piercing and screaming again.  Mary let go of my hand to head to the coatroom, leaving me behind.

I turned and crossed the length of the Brigadier’s lodge to join the others, who were flanked on either side by the stitched who had come into the door, now standing on either side of the coatroom.  I ignored the discarded socks, depositing them into the raincoat pocket, and simply slipped my feet into my boots.  There were tiny rocks in there with the silty mud, but it was far from the most irritating thing to happen today.

Among the Lambs, there was an odd kind of rush to get out the door and get away.

We covered a lot of ground before we were far enough away from the Brigadier’s men to talk.

“Why?” Mary asked, sounding genuinely lost.

“Because the Academy doesn’t lose wars,” I said.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mary told me.

“It makes all the sense in the world,” Gordon said.  “He’s never lost a war.   He could lose this battle, sure.  He could lose the next five.  But if the dust settles and he’s alive, which he probably will be, then what can the Academy say?  The failure is theirs, not his.”

Mary made a fist, then moved like she was going to punch a wall.  She stopped just short.

A moment later, Lillian slammed the side of her fist into the wall, a few feet from Mary’s.  She waggled it, wincing in pain, looking like she’d regretted the gesture.

“You really hated that school, huh?” I observed.

“I thought hitting things was supposed to help relieve anger,” Lillian said.  “Ow.”

“It doesn’t,” I said.

Lillian made a face.

“I need to teach you how to throw a punch,” Mary observed.

“Don’t make me feel worse,” Lillian muttered.

It was getting dark, the rain was coming down hard.

“It’s about risk and reward,” I said.  “Going back to our earlier topic, not hitting things.  Attacking Whitney is a risk.  His career, life, and control of the situation come into jeopardy.”

The words weren’t helping with the general aura of frustration that seemed to linger.  Only Helen and Shipman seemed able to be able to handle it.  Shipman had a few years of maturity and probably some experience in seeing her hard work thrown away.  Helen might not even experience frustration in the same way we did.

We could have stood there in the rain for hours, kicking at the mud with our toes and grumbling.  It was Gordon who got us moving.

“We might be arguing about nothing at all, if the man is right.”

“He’s not,” I pointed out.  “He’s missing just how angry and dedicated our opposition is.  They won’t break as easily as he thinks.”

“Sy,” Gordon said, sounding exasperated.

“Gordon,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“I’m not arguing with you.  I’m inclined to agree.  But there’s nothing we can do about it.  Let’s go see where we’re staying,” he said.  “Get our wounded looked after.  Yourself included, Sy.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” I lied.

“You were,” he said.  He paused.  “The patrols.”

“No ulterior motives,” I said.  “I just didn’t want to get cooped up.”

“No.  Wasn’t going to ask about that.  Was just going to ask, do you mind if any of us come with you?”

“You want to patrol,” I said.

“Yeah.  And from the looks of it, Helen and Mary do too.”

Mary smiled.

“We’ll make a thing of it.  Go in pairs, maybe.  We’ve been split up for too long, doing our individual things, be nice to talk.”

A shout.

The crack of a dozen rifles firing.

Another shout, ordering a reload.

A violent explosion, screams.

It was so dark we couldn’t see, except when the explosions lit things up.  The dead of night.

Gordon and I were on the wall overlooking the sloped, waterlogged road that led down through the mountains to Whitney.  We peered over the top, watching the scene unfold.

From atop the wall, an entire regiment’s worth of rifles fired.

Bullets weren’t weightless.  They dropped as they traveled.  Having the high ground counted for something, I imagined.

Not that I was much of a fighter, or an expert on guns.

I watched as a series of explosions ripped out.  Something was coming up the path.  Stitched, but big, not all human.  It probably had a short lifespan.  But it wasn’t intended to live out an extended life of servitude.  It was about shock, awe, and giving our side a reason to doubt, if only for a minute.  It was holding a modified cannon in its arms.  It nearly fell as the cannon fired.

The collision shook the wall.  I could hear stones from the wall falling to the road below.

Gordon and I had been mid-patrol when the alert was sounded.  Now we watched.

Westmore’s stitched were firing in barrages.  I watched them, saw another flash of light as an explosion occurred further down the road, the scene highlighted in oranges and reds.

Another explosion.  The group of stitched was one fewer.  It took me a second to spot why.

“Head down!” I shouted in Gordon’s ear.  Louder than was necessary, maybe.  The explosions and gunfire was making my ears ring.

He ducked down with me, a quizzical look on his face.

“The rifleman with the eyes, the same one who shot me.  He’s picking off the commanders of the Stitched’s squads.”

“Tell someone.”

I looked at the scene.  Just when I spotted a person who looked like he was in charge, he turned, walking the other direction, gesturing.

A group of specialists in a nearby building opened a cage.

The thing that came out was a dog without a head.  The stump was an open void, and tendrils spilled out and peeled back over the dog’s body, streaming behind it as it ran.

Sharp whistles directed it, two for left, one for right, volume guiding it.

It went over the top of the wall, pouncing.

I heard gunshots, listened, trying to identify the rifleman’s.  Knowing the dog would be taking the man’s focus, I dared a look over the top.

There was a crowd at the end of the road, approaching with makeshift shields up to cover them.  They’d reached the collection of sandbags furthest down the road, the same one that the poor sod that had gotten his legs stitched together had come from.  It became cover for them.

I imagined someone was supposed to keep that from happening, but the people who were supposed to make the call were getting picked off.

The tendril-dog was limping forward, momentum broken.  Stitched were dying in droves.  They were supposed to take a half-dozen bullets before going down.  They were taking one or two at most.

The ‘exorcist’ rifles were doing their job.

Gordon pulled on my shoulder, and I ducked down.  He gestured, and I gestured back.

We descended the stairs at our side of the wall, back to the ground level.  A gun was briefly trained on us, before we were recognized.

We had to cross the length of the street before the sounds on the far side of the wall grew muffled enough that we could talk.  I spoke, looking at the forces massed on our side of the wall.   “They need to sound a retreat.”

“No retreat,” Gordon said.  “They won’t.  They can’t.  It’s only a half-dozen men out there who die, and a lot of stitched.  If they open the gate, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to close it.”

I shook my head.

“They won’t get through,” Gordon said.  “Not tonight.”

“Probably not tonight.  This was them saying they’re here.  They’re angry, they haven’t given up.  Someone in charge probably stirred them up.  People who weren’t committed to the fight picked up guns, even.”

“Maybe,” Gordon said.  “Sy.  I want to ask everyone, but since you saw, I’ll ask you first.”

We were getting further away from the site of the battle, the volume was dying down, and the horrible ringing in my ears seemed to be getting louder in comparison.

“Ask what?” I told him.

“Do you think he’ll change his mind?”

“No,” I said, without missing a beat.  “He’ll adapt his strategy, he’ll make an excuse.”

“That they expended resources.  They’ll be weaker on subsequent attempts,” Gordon said.

“Something like that.  You were thinking the same thing?  That he’d say no?”

Gordon nodded.

I had a funny feeling about the way he was acting, which was strange.  Gordon wasn’t a guy I usually devoted a lot of brainpower to figuring out, and now I’d done it twice in recent memory.  Thrice if I counted Fray.

Okay, I was lying.  A million, six hundred thousand and two times, if I counted Fray.

But the strange mood in the market, how he’d been oddly out of sorts and avoiding the heavy lifting when I’d seen him earlier in the day and how this?

“Why does the group need to make a collective call about what the Brigadier is doing?” I asked.  “It would have to be important, for you to ask for something like that.”

Except I already knew the answer.  The look in Gordon’s eyes, faint as it was with only the streetlamp to go by, was telling enough.  He knew I’d figured it out.

“Right,” I said.  “Hm.  It might be hard to convince some of the others.”

“You think?”

“Treason is typically pretty hard to sell,” I told him.

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Esprit de Corpse – 5.7

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The rain got worse as we got further up the road.  It all flowed down toward Whitney, though a cliffside took most of it, which seemed like a pretty good idea from a strategic standpoint.  Marching uphill against an entrenched position was one thing, if Whitney wanted to march on Westmore, but an uphill march against an entrenched position, against flowing water ranging from ankle-deep to knee-deep?

I was willing to bet it was an accident, but it was a happy one for the Academy’s side.

Sandbags had been piled up on the mountain road, giving clusters of stitched soldiers places to stand and wait.  Some were piled in front, to protect against gunfire, while others were piled behind, to divert the flow of water and keep the stitched soldiers drier.

Each cluster had one person with it.  I imagined the shifts were short, only an hour or three at most, but it had to be miserable.  Sitting, waiting, watching.  As the only truly intelligent set of eyes, that individual had all of the pressure placed on them, their only company the five or six dead men who stood around them.  Those same dead men would smell faintly of the less pleasant human odors, except baked in.  The scents of ozone, burned hair, and decay could and would join those.

The moisture in the air helped to carry smells to the nostrils.  I wondered if the watch was a punishment detail.

Poor bastards.

One figure at the nearest set of sandbags blew a horn, raising an arm to order us to stop.  The coach slowed, then stopped.  Two hundred feet separated us.

Three figures came down the road, and one of them was stepping very carefully on the wet, sloped path.  It was easier to tread where the sandbags broke the water’s flow, the road was wide, and I doubted there was that much danger.  Maybe if someone tripped over their own two feet, or if the spring’s chill and the damp surroundings had left their toes numb.  If and when someone did fall, though, they were likely to keep sliding.  There would only be the rocky outcroppings on one side and the steeper drop off the side of the path to the other to interrupt the slide.  Neither was fun.

The other two figures weren’t careful at all.  They walked with very natural gaits, not so much with confidence as a lack of concern.  It made it easy to tell the stitched from the living.

Lillian and Shipman had looked after us, more Lillian than Shipman by a considerable measure, but Jamie and Helen were still in unfortunate shape.  Jamie’s cough had quieted, and the two of them were powdered, to slow the flow of blood.  Mary was driving the coach, and the rest of us were within.  Gordon and Shipman exited through the one door to step out and get a better view, while Lillian stood in the doorway, standing in such a way that she could look up over the top.  I stuck my head out the window on the other side, watching as best as I could.  I liked being able to lean rather than stand.  My stomach still hurt, Lillian’s attentions notwithstanding.

“Ho!” Gordon called out.

“What are you doing?” the sole living soldier called out from a distance.  He was wearing an Academy uniform.  His hooded jacket was red, an academy’s shield sat on the breast, one I didn’t recognize, and was backed by the universal Crown, which formed a halo of sorts around the top of the shield.  The gap between the crest and the top of the halo had the man’s rank.  A dog’s head and the roman numerals for three.  Spec 3.

That was barely above the G-ranks.  I’d seen enough military types here and there to put together the details.  Just as another day of hard training in the rain out in the fields was looming, a bigwig would step up and say there was an opportunity for promotion.  They would have to miss training, there would be a long stint in classrooms, some lessons, but there would be hot tea provided.  A few people on their last legs would jump at the chance.  A promotion to ‘specialist’?  Getting some training that might help them get their foot in the door when their stint with the Academy’s forces was done?  It sounded good.

The G-twos with older brothers and friends among the higher-ups would know better.  Sure, the class was fine, there was hot tea, and it was pretty painless.  Borderline interesting, even.

The problem was that it led to this.  Being the ‘dog’ who knew the essentials of how stitched worked and how to fix them, looking after them.  Spending time in their company and their company alone.  When they weren’t the human arm and brain of a particular unit of stitched, they were doing drudge work, being among the man who dragged the dead back to camp, or who did the jobs too menial for the proper academy students to do.

Most who fell into the trap walked away as changed men.  ‘Changed men’ being the nice way of saying they ended up as assholes who resented everything and everyone they interacted with, or they were paranoid of further traps.

I watched him draw nearer, and his face was visible, a surly glare, a glowing cigarette propped between his lips, not the first nor the tenth of his watch, I was betting.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“We work for the Academy,” Gordon said.  “We’re reporting in.  I’ve got a badge, issued by Radham-”

“Stay right where you are,” the man said.

I pulled my head into the coach, looked through the window to see Gordon stepping back, the hand with the badge dropping to his side.

“Children?” the man asked.

“Yes, sir,” Gordon said.  “We’re spies.  We’ve got information regarding movements, numbers, people of interest, and events in Whitney.

“Mm,” the man murmured.  He didn’t give a clear response, hemming, hawing, and making noises, as if contemplating.

“Some of it is time-sensitive,” Gordon said.  His tone was so good, too.  Perfect pitch and intonation, authoritative and confident, without sounding arrogant.  If he’d used that same tone with one of those teachers who was just itching to find something to lecture a student about, they would have made a face and moved on to the next student.

But the words were the wrong ones.  Gordon was good at what he did.  People tended to like him.  He bent the world to his will.  He was the opposite of me; I always fought an uphill battle to get people’s trust.  I had to study them and tailor my approaches to their motivations and weaknesses.

I knew that this man we were talking to was making the most out of the very limited power and amusement he could get, here.  Gordon had showed the man a kind of weakness.

We have a need, thus it’s in your power to make us twist in the wind, I thought.

“I suppose you want me to let you into Westmore?” the man asked.

“Yes, sir,” Gordon said.

“It’s suspicious.  People don’t travel down this road, and a coach of children, no less.  Makes me think of the Trojan horse.”

“What possible danger could we pose?” Mary asked, without the slightest trace of irony.

I let my forehead bang against the frame of the window.

“What was that?” the man asked.

“My comrade.  Another spy.  We have three wounded inside the coach.”

“What wounds?”

“Two partially blinded, with burns.  One gunshot wound.”

“I’ve heard stories.  A group mingling with refugees, knowingly spreading a plague.  People carrying parasites into enemy camps, sometimes inside their bodies.  It’s easier to hide symptoms when you’re bearing injuries.”

“I understand that,” Gordon said.  “If you let us talk to your superior-”

I banged my head against the door of the coach yet again.

Make him feel impotent, why don’t you?

“Ahem.  I’ll be able to put those doubts to rest,” Gordon finished.

“Or infect a superior officer,” the Spec-three said.

“We’re more than happy to submit to quarantine procedures-”

I banged my head for a third time.

“Shut up, Sy!” Gordon called out, then resumed, “-if you’d just let us talk to someone in charge.  We’ll keep a safe distance.”

The man made a sound, then said, “I don’t think-”

“Sir.  I’ll be blunt.  Brigadier Ernest Tyler is expecting to hear from us.  I’ve corresponded with him.  I know your fellow soldiers have been doing more prep, things are changing around, there’s an energy in the air, and fear is a part of it.  The G-twos know it deep down, even if the people at the top haven’t said anything.  The Brigadier is preparing to mount an attack, he’s just waiting for the signal.  This is the signal.”

“That’s not-” the man started, then he changed his mind.  “There’s no guarantee.”

Weaker footing.

Gordon verbally bludgeoned his way through.  “We were forced to act early.  He’s going to be forced to move before he’s entirely ready.  He won’t be happy, not with us, not with the situation, and if you happen to be interfering with us and interfering with his situation, that unhappiness is going to land directly at your feet.”

He let the words hang in the air.

“Sir,” Gordon belatedly added, with that perfect measure of confidence that was so hard to call him on or slap down.

I closed my eyes, forehead resting against the frame of the window, listening.

“You go.  I’ll watch this group.”

“She’ll need to come too,” Gordon said.  No doubt indicating Shipman.  “She knows the more technical details.  We’ll need everyone to debrief, but we can give the Brigadier the immediate particulars.”

“Go,” the man said, not sounding happy.

“Yes, sir,” Gordon said.  This time he said it with a jaunty tone.  Rubbing it in.

He wasn’t above his moments of childishness.  I grinned.

I stuck my head out through the window, saw Gordon and Shipman marching the rest of the way up to the front gate of Westmore.  I pulled the window down from overhead, with flecks of water splashing inside as the latch clicked.  Lillian climbed inside too, the door slamming shut.

The coach rocked.  A weight on one side, then the other.

That would be the Spec-three, taking a seat on the driver’s bench.  Not to take us anywhere, but just to sit.

A moment later, my door opened, startling me.  Mary climbed inside.

She was wearing fairly simple clothes, but she had a habit of dressing up a little.  A thin belt with a buckle to draw the waist in, lace-trimmed ribbons in her hair -only one ribbon today-, and lace at the bottom of her dress’ skirt.  I knew she did her own sewing, to supplement what she was given.

As a covert agent, having tells was not a good thing.

As a girl, the touches defined her.  She wore a coat, but it didn’t protect the lower half of her dress.  The fabric clung to her knees and thighs, and only a second layer of fabric hid the outlines of the knives at her upper thigh.  At the knee, the parts where the fabric was white and wet were see-through.  We’d been traveling for a stretch, and I suspected she’d had her hood down for some of it, because her hair was wet, and so were her shoulders.  I could see the straps of her underclothing and the tan of her flesh at the shoulders and arms.

Raindrops still beaded her throat, parts of her face and the parts of her leg that weren’t covered by boot or dress.  Her knees were white, compared to the rest of her.  A lot of time in the market, more indirect sunlight peering through the clouds now and then than any direct sunlight, but it added up.  She was oddly prone to tan, either way.

She grabbed one portion of her dress, pulling it out to the side and inadvertently showing off more of her legs as she wrung the fabric dry, water spilling out onto the floor of the coach.

I looked up, and she was staring at me.  She let go of the wrung-out cloth, and it fell roughly into place, still bearing the wrinkles of being twisted in a way that higher quality cloth might not.

“Mary,” Lillian said, her voice cutting into the stillness.

“Mm hmm?”  Mary turned, dropping onto the bench with a bit of a flounce.  Her damp dress did its best to flounce with her, and more or less failed, falling limp around her knees.

“The coach-driver?” Lillian asked.

“I told him to turn to leave the city.  He didn’t want to.”

“He was nice.”

“He was a member of the uprising,” I said.

“He gave injured children a ride to the hospital, at no cost to himself,” Lillian said, sounding genuinely upset at my interjection.  She turned back to Mary.  “Did you- did he?”

“We rode over his knee and ankle,” Mary said.  “He’s alive.”

Lillian exhaled in audible relief.

“You wimp,” Mary said.

Lillian smiled, but she didn’t argue.  She’d been holding that little nugget of worry in for the entire ride to Westmore.

“He’ll wish he wasn’t when Shipman’s spiders get to him,” I commented.

Lillian stared at me in horror.

“What?  Were you pretending that this was all nice and sweet?”  I grinned.

“There’s something seriously wrong with you,” Lillian said.

“You’re a jerk,” Jamie mumbled.

I shook my head.  Mary was sitting opposite me, still soaking wet, and there was a definite twinkle in her eye as she met mine.

“Sorry,” I told her.  “About the plan.”

She shrugged.  “Nothing we could do.”

“I filled the others in, but you were driving the coach and I wasn’t up to climbing out to join you,” I said.  “Four or five assassins came after us.  We got one.  There are still three or four to take into account.”

She nodded.

“Enhanced smell, enhanced eyesight, enhanced touch, I’m not sure how that works, and enhanced hearing.  There might be taste, or another sense.”

“Seeing those teeth,” Jamie murmured, his eyes closed, “Might be wrapping up smell and taste into one sense.”

Mary smiled.  “I want to meet them.”

“You don’t,” Jamie said.

“I definitely do.”

“You might get a chance.  It depends on whether Gordon sells us up the river and agrees to something like that stupid quarantine measure that came up just now.”

“He didn’t really expect the Spec dog to take him up on that,” Mary said.

“I know,” I said, “But if that man was a little smarter and if he realized what Gordon was doing, then he might just agree, to put Gordon in a tight spot.”

“Mm,” Mary said.  She began to wring out her hair.  Some of the water ran down her arms, and droplets landed on her stomach and on spots which were still dry.  The droplets sank into the thin cloth and spread out in widening circles.  “But he was right.  I think he had the right sense of things.”

I sighed.  “Yeah.  Probably.”

Mary turned, abrupt.  “Lillian.  Do you have a comb?”

“With my belongings, in the back compartment.”

“Nothing in that massive bag of yours?”

Lillian shook her head.

“Jamie?” Mary asked.

“I use my fingers, most of the time.”

“You’re such a boy.”

Jamie didn’t react, motionless.  I suspected any movement hurt, with his condition.

“Try Helen,” I said, leaning forward to look past Jamie, one hand on my side.  Helen was draped over the bench, her head resting at an awkward angle at Jamie’s thigh.  Her blonde hair was still gritty past a certain length, from crawling in the mud.

“She’s sleeping,” Lillian observed.

“It’s okay,” Mary said.  Someone else might have thought she meant the comb wasn’t important, but Mary had come to be a part of the team, she’d shared more rooms with Helen than any of us.

“She’s fine,” I clarified.  I moved over, half-draping myself over Jamie to touch Helen.  I poked her in the forehead, hard.

No moan, no restless shift.  Her eyes flicked open, already focused on me.

“Comb,” I said.

She rolled a bit to one side, reaching into a pocket, then raised a hand, holding a very elegant looking comb.  She handed it to Lillian as Lillian reached forward, then dropped her arm, eyes flicking shut.

Asleep again, just like that.

Lillian scooted over, and Mary half-turned so her back was to Lillian.  A very automatic process, without any offers or asking.  As if it was just assumed that Lillian would do Mary’s hair.

A month or two back, I’d been at a store and I’d picked up a little rose-colored book, no thicker than my finger, titled ‘stories for girls’.  I’d paged through it out of sheer curiosity.  Not because I had any interest in girls in any special way, but because I’d been wanting some insight into how girls thought and how they were different.

I’d been disappointed somehow, and my inability to put my finger on why had annoyed me more than anything.  It wasn’t even a big or important sort of disappointment.

The fact that I’d remembered that moment while watching Lillian taking care of Mary in the here and now made me feel like I was a little closer to figuring it out, except I hadn’t and it just made the annoyance well up all over again.

I could recall Jamie and Helen nettling me about girls and things, and I could imagine how they’d very wrongly interpret my line of thinking and felt even more annoyed.

I shifted position and punched Jamie in the arm.

“Ow!  Damn it, Sy!  What was that even for?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

He grumbled, but he didn’t have much fight in him.

Mary and Lillian were watching me out of the corners of their eye.

“Sorry,” I finally said.

“Y’should be,” he mumbled.

There wasn’t much conversation.  Jamie and Helen weren’t up to much except resting.  Mary had her eyes closed, head rocking in time with the strokes of the comb, head periodically jerking when Lillian found a snarl, though she didn’t seem to mind.

I watched them, Lillian asked about the pain, I answered.  Mary made some general comments about the runs she’d done to deposit the boxes of spiders, and that sort of died off as she dropped into an almost meditative state, her hair being brushed.

“Oy!” Gordon’s voice was faint, and muffled by the walls of the coach.

“And he’s back,” Jamie observed.

We collectively roused, Helen sitting up, Lillian and Mary shifting position.  I opened the door to step outside, flipping my hood up.

“We’re in,” Gordon called out, still too far away to be heard with a normal volume.  He closed the rest of the distance, then reached up to hand the Spec-three a note.

The others finished climbing out as the man read it over.

“Gordon,” Shipman whispered, tugging on Gordon’s sleeve.

“Shh,” the Spec-three made the shushing sound.

“Do you see?” she asked.

“See what?” Gordon asked.

“Shh,” the Spec-3 shushed them again.

“Oh!” Gordon said, louder.  “Oh.

I had to step around to Gordon’s side to see.  As I did, the man on the bench of the coach looked up, staring down at us.  He’d refreshed his cigarette since I’d last had a look at him.

He followed our line of sight, down to his pants leg, which was torn, with a trace amount of blood collecting at the base of his boot.  His leg jerked, and in that motion, he realized what had really happened.

The flesh of his legs had been joined, a ragged strip cut away, attached to the other leg.

“What?  What’s the- what!?” he jerked more frantically, cigarette falling to the base of the bench.

“Don’t tear it,” Shipman said, “Don’t- careful!”

As the man struggled, one of the spiders from Whitney moved off to one side, away from the flailing legs.  Once two legs, they were now functionally one.  The Spec-3 saw the thing and twisted, pulling out his gun.

“Dont!” Gordon said, “You’ll spook the horses!”

Even the raising of his voice and the frantic movements of the man on the bench were making them agitated.

Shipman circled around the horses, while Mary climbed up beside the man.  Before Mary could deal with the spider, he brought both feet up, then slammed them down, partially crushing the thing.

Shipman didn’t seem to mind.  She reached out and grabbed it, fingers between individual legs, and flicked it in Gordon’s general direction with a movement of the wrist.  She put her hands on the man’s shoulders, and Mary put a hand on one knee, and he stopped struggling.

“It’s okay.  One of the spiders must have gotten onto the coach,” she said.

“What the fuck?  What the fuck?  I didn’t even feel-”

“Specialized anaesthetic and very standard coagulants,” she said.  “It dulls your sense of touch, makes you feel like the limb is asleep, it cuts out partial sections with the incisors and stitches them to adjoining parts with its own silk and its forelimbs.  Even if it had a few days with you, it probably wouldn’t kill you.  It’s just for the psychological effect.”

“The fuck!?”

I think he’s psychologically affected, I thought to myself.  I bit my tongue rather than offering the comment out loud.

“You’ll be fine,” she said.  “It’s a very easy fix.  They just need to cut the spider’s sutures and put the skin back where it belongs.  There won’t even be scars.”

“The fuck,” the man said, staring down at his bound ankles.  Just his ankles, it seemed, now that I was looking closer.

“Do you think we can get the coach around the sandbag emplacement?” Gordon asked.  “I was eyeballing it, but…”

“We can scooch by,” Mary said.  “We’ll have to, since our guest here isn’t mobile.”

Gordon nodded.  “You want to, or should I?”

Mary smiled, putting a hand to one horse’s neck.  It flinched, then relaxed as she gave it a few rubs.  “I can.”

The rest of us climbed back in, or partially climbed in.  I stayed at the outside, one hand on a bar just beside the door, my foot on the step below.

I saw through the window as sourpuss Shipman showed more energy and excitement in two seconds than I’d seen out of her in the entire time I’d known her, bouncing in the spot and putting an arm around Gordon.

It works, she was saying, going by the movements of her lips.

My hood flew back as the coach lurched forward, and I didn’t fix it.  Things rocked left and right as the coach scraped the cliff wall to the right and the sandbags to the left.  The stitched that hadn’t accompanied the Spec-three were still standing watch, and their heads turned, dull eyes watching us.

Not nearly so well made as Fray’s Wendy had been.  They were intended to do only one thing – follow orders.  The man who was supposed to give the orders wasn’t with them.  I hoped that Westmore wasn’t attacked in the time it took a replacement to walk down and join them.

Westmore was a city that had been built in wartime.  Obvious enough.  Walls, gate, defensive emplacements, and buildings that had been made solid, helped by an excess of material from nearby mines in the mountains and hills.  Every building had a gutter around it, redirecting the water.  Here and there, collections of debris and leaves blocked the way, or enough water had backed up to lift a collection free, and a grouping of brown-black detritus was scurrying along at the base of a building like some decaying, leafy version of a rodent.

It was a contrast to Whitney.  Where Whitney had been a sprawl, too many people crammed into one space, Westmore was organized.  Even at rest, people were in squads.  Working, they were in formation.  Everyone matched, with only slight variations in facial features, stature, and hair color.

The stitched were corralled, in strict rows and columns, their belongings at their feet, guns at their sides, butts on the ground, hands on the barrels.

In stitched alone, Westmore had twice as many soldiers as its little sister at the base of the mountains had in regular rank and file.  It easily matched Whitney’s number in human troops, and Whitney’s soldiers weren’t, for the most part, even experienced in fighting, as this group looked to be.  The ensuing conflict would be the enemy’s first.

Every set of eyes, the stitched included, watched us as we rolled down the main street, past neat stacks and wagon-loads of supplies.

On the other side of our vehicle, Gordon was doing the same thing I was.  He gave Mary a verbal direction, guiding her to our destination.

We passed a barn, and I saw inside.  There was something unnatural within, four eyes reflecting light, a deep scar running down its face, horns bigger than I was scraping the floor of the stable.  A war-beast.  Some Academy student’s final project for their fourth year of study, probably.  His reputation would hinge on how well it did.

There were others.  Like everything else, the creatures were neatly organized, kept in their own discrete places.  Weapons from some of the Academy’s brightest.

“What are you thinking?” Mary asked me.  She sat above me, looking down over her shoulder at me.

I could see the Brigadier waiting for us at the end of the street, standing under a set of eaves.  An older man, with a beard and no mustache, wearing a uniform without a hood, a stylized helmet on his head.

Unlike my feeling from earlier, I could put my finger on this one.  Something about the man, and all the little details put together.  That prey instinct that had come up in my first interactions with Mary, an awareness that came from countless clues the subconscious registered that the consciousness didn’t.

“Why does it feel like, if things go on as planned, we’re going to lose this battle?”

“Excuse me?” the Spec-three who was on the bench asked, indignant.

“I don’t know,” Mary answered my question.  “But it does feel that way, doesn’t it?”

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Esprit de Corpse – 5.6

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The only sound was the rain coming down, and the periodic sucking noise of mud as Helen, Jamie or I shifted position.

“You have the canisters Mr. Phlegm had on his belt,” Jamie said.

“Not my preferred weapon,” the woman said.  “But it’s somehow poetic that Phlegm might get a last laugh.  Not that he is the laughing type.  Was.”

She made a noise like she was spitting.

Also poetic, all things considered.

I swallowed, then spoke.  My side was still hurting like nothing else, even after being patched up, and my voice faltered at the start, the strength to get the air past my lips not there when I reached for it.  “What’s your name?”

“Not telling,” she said.  “Goodbye.”

“Wait!” I said, raising my voice.  My stomach rewarded me by cramping up in new sorts of pain, clutching like a fist around all the hurt.

She didn’t use the canister.

To my left, Helen crawled forward, not with her arms and legs, but fingers and feet, pushing and pulling herself by painstaking half-inches, periodically reaching up to grab onto the roof and use that to slide herself forward.  The lack of speed was balanced by the fact that she was nearly silent.  I was right next to her and even I couldn’t hear her raincoat scrape against small stones and mud.

She’d been wearing a nice dress for the event.  Now it was ruined.  What a shame.

“We used to be on the same side, didn’t we?” I asked.

“I’m not the laughing type either, little boy, especially not with Phlegm dead,” the woman said.  “You’re wasting my time if you’re making jokes.”

“You were Academy,” I said, not because I knew, but because I had no choice but to follow the same track.  I couldn’t change the subject without her deciding I was stalling and deciding to off us.  Or whatever that canister did.

“Yes.  But that’s different from what you said before,” she said.

I noticed how she was walking.  She was lingering more at the places where posts held the house up off the ground, which kept her out of sight and protected her ankles from any further gunshots.

Not stupid.

“We’re related,” I said.  “We’re family.  We’re experiments, we’re conn-”

She cut me off.  “We’re alone, little boy.  Everyone is.  The act of being born is a separation, so is dying.  For experiments more than anything else.  At least they get to have doctors use sterile scissors to snip their connection to their mother, after they’re squeezed out into the world, covered in blood and landing in shit.  Us, we’re made, or we’re born like they are and then we’re reborn on a table or in a vat.”

“That’s an experience we share, it’s-”

“It creates a gulf between us.  You can pretend to have some greater connection to the world, but that’s a child’s fantasy.  We’re as different from them as a cat is from a dog, at least.  Compare a cat to a dog and a dog to a lizard and you’re not going to find a connection between the cat and the lizard.  They’re a social species, but we’re all species of one, or of two, or of four.”

Helen, our lizard, crawled forward.  She was crawling across from me, now, her body in front of my face.

“A year and nine days ago, our species of four added one more to our ranks.  In the next couple of years, we’re going to have a sixth.”

“Twelve days,” Jamie murmured.  “A year and twelve days.”

“Shut up,” I whispered.  Louder, I said,  “Listen, I think we’re similar in how we approach the world.  The differences, the focus on the team, even if my idea of what the ‘team’ is happens to be different-”

“One of my colleagues, you’ve crossed paths with him, he keeps a tiny black notebook filled with tickmarks, you know.  He counts the number of times people try the ‘we’re the same’ line on him.  A different line or phrase or word for every page.”

Drat.

“I’m betting he has whole pages dedicated to ‘please!’ or ‘god, no!’,” I remarked.

She was silent.

“Was I on target?” I tried.  Her being silent and taking time before she offed us was fantastic, but talking and hurrying things along was better than three seconds of silence followed by her deciding to kill us.

“No,” she said.  “Not quite.  You made me think of Phlegm.”

Double damn and dang-blast it.  The thought crossed my mind, but I held the emotion at bay.  My focus was on her and on our conversation.

“Alone,” she said.

“If you’re alone, it’s by your own choice, your own way of looking at things.”

“I’m more alone than I was since you killed my partner,” she said.  There was a pause.  “I’m done entertaining you.”

Helen was a few feet away.  She wasn’t picking up speed, even with that announcement.  Still the slithering crawl through the mud.  She had to be getting it in her mouth, her nose, even with her lips closed, but she was calm, glacially slow, and eerily focused.

We had one option.  It was one I hated to use.

“You can’t afford to take the time to do that,” I said.

I heard something snap or crack from the woman’s direction.  My hopes that she’d been attacked were dashed when she shifted her footing.  She was getting something from the belt.

“In less than an hour, you’re going to need all of the cans you can get,” I told her.  “All of the bullets too.”

I’m sorry, Gordon, Mary, I thought.

“That so?”

“The reason we went to go pick up our girl here was because we’re done.  The traps are placed, boxes under half the houses in Whitney.  Soon, really soon, the things occupying the box are going to wake up.  The city falls, and if you’re here, if your buddies are here, then you get to watch them die, maybe, and then you die alone.”

“Assuming you’re telling the truth, what’s in the boxes?” she asked.

“I think they started with spiders,” I said.

Jamie added, “But, like you said, they’re as comparable to spiders as cats are to dogs.”

There was a pause.

“Look under the house on the other side of the alley,” I said.  “Chances are pretty good.”

Between the rain, the distance, and the lack of lighting, I couldn’t see under the house across the little alley.

The chances weren’t good at all.  My heart pounded.

Helen crept further.  She was about a foot from being able to lunge for the woman’s ankles.  A crocodile in the mud, with styled hair, at least to a point.  It was thick with muck after a certain length.

The angle of the woman’s legs changed.  She was looking.

“Hm,” she said.  Noncommittal.  Leaving me in the dark.

“Those cans, whatever they are, they’re bound to be helpful.  If you don’t want to grab your buddies and get out of dodge.”

“No, not at all,” she said.  “I’ve decided I can spare one of these.”

She shifted her stance, and I tensed.

Helen reached, lunging.

The woman was quick, and Helen was forced to change her target.  One of Helen’s hands reached out for the woman’s, a metal can already smoking in her pale grip.  When the can went airborne, the wrist Helen was reaching for now disappearing, Helen shifter her weight, reaching up and out with her other hand.

She slapped the can down, and Jamie lunged, bringing his backpack down on top of the thing.

The smoke was still rising.  The mud bubbled, and when the bubbles popped, a yellow-green smoke rose.

“Out,” I said, “Out!”

Right into her waiting clutches.

I wasn’t wholly right, but I wasn’t wrong either.

She was waiting, but she wasn’t clutching.  She’d covered a lot of ground without her feet being visible as I crawled.  Agile.  She’d walked or leaped off of the side of the building, or stepped on the tops of the posts.  Now she faced us, the belt held in both hands.  She was ready to step around the corner at a moment’s notice.  Still wary of the gun that had downed Phlegm.

She raised the belt to her mouth, and she bared her teeth.  Muscles stood out in strange places as she bit clean through the thick leather of the belt.  She brought her hands together, and flung one end of it at us.  Three or four canisters were hooked to it, and all were smoking.  She’d grabbed the keys with one hand and pulled them out as she threw with the other.

I didn’t want to know how good Phlegm had been with this crap, if his sister here was this quick on the draw.

The belt flew through the air, plumes following it, and it was Helen who stepped forward to catch it.

Our Helen tried to throw it back and failed.

It took a few seconds, as Helen tried to fling the belt and failed to remove it.  I could see it in how her hair moved, the sheen that appeared on her raincoat, scintillating points of light, rainbow hued, like some chemicals made in water, but the droplets were small and clustered together.  Whatever it was, it had made the belt and canisters sticky, and was doing the same thing to Helen’s skin, her hair, and her raincoat.

The woman with the belt stared at us, watching as Helen flailed, almost invisible in the midst of the multicolored smoke.  Each little canister was something different.

Helen made a frustrated sound, stumbling and falling to one knee in the mud.  The woman turned and left, disappearing around the corner.

Helen.

I took a step forward.  Jamie’s hand blocked me.

“We have to-” I started, my tone much more like a child’s than I normally liked.

“Tell me what to do,” he said.  He was already striding forward.  “You’re too slow like that.”

“Her coat,” I said.  “Pull it over her head.”

Jamie was muddy, and he’d given me his raincoat.  He was wearing the white shirt, but it was soaked through.  I could see the scars, and I could see his narrow chest expand as he drew in a breath, prior to entering the cloud.

“Use the coat to grab the belt,” I said.  I couldn’t see him anymore, and I couldn’t see her.

Jamie would use the coat, he would pull it away-

Then what?  It would be stuck to him, or stuck to Helen.

I turned, looking.  The street was empty, people had fled the initial gunshots.

“Then come to me!” I called, still searching.  “As fast as you can!”

The umbrella-

Jamie had left it behind, while crawling through the mud.

Something else.

A thin bit of wood framed the bottom of the nearest building, so it didn’t just end, but had some decorative flair, even if it was a strip of painted wood, an inch and a half across.

I braced myself, knowing how much this would suck.

Kicking the little strip of wood was painful enough that I nearly forgot what I was doing.  My focus was dashed, I very nearly threw up, and only managed to stop with the realization that throwing up would make my stomach hurt more.  It was a primal realization, one that reached all the way to my reptile brain, that little bundle of instincts and impulses.  Through that mechanism, I managed to keep myself from heaving my meager breakfast and bit of apple onto the muddy span between the two buildings.

I found myself staring at the wood, still affixed to the wall.  Maybe looser than it had been.

I thought of Ashton.  I thought of Evette.  My promise to Jamie, to guard him while he slept, which I’d kept up since I’d met him, and I thought of that horrible calm that had overcome me when I’d been in Sub Rosa’s clutches.

Calm, away from the noise, away from the expectations and the people and the demands.

It was, much as the sniffing woman had said, a very alone sort of calm.

I made myself kick again.

The agony in my middle was worse, but somehow I found it easier to deal with.

Pain punctuated my existence.  I threw myself into danger.  I got hurt for the others.  I had pain inflicted on my body and mind on a rote schedule, with checkmarks on paper and doctor’s signatures.

Pain was only pain.  Pain meant I was alive.

Another kick.  This time something came free.

Jamie was stumbling toward me.  Apparently blind, his skin raw and bleeding, clothes crumpled and stiff, he had the bundle of raincoat, which was still billowing with gas.

I grabbed the strip of wood and heaved.  I landed on my ass, but with a spear of wood in my hand.  Seeing Jamie suffering lit a fire in me, and I found it in me to swing the end of my spear at Jamie and catch the bundle of raincoat and canisters.

It didn’t take much doing to knock Jamie to the ground, pushing with the spear as I found my feet.  He almost willingly went, as if the strength was gone from him.

“Stand,” I said, still sounding far too young.  No confidence, no bravado.  “Jamie.”

He struggled, and I gave my all to simply pinning the bundle down, my face and head turned away so my hood might delay the moment when that growing cloud of smoke reached my face.

He found his feet, but couldn’t let go of the bundle.  He tugged, pulled, but didn’t have the strength or the range of movement to break the bond.

“Break free,” I said.  “I’ve got it pinned down, just- please, Jamie.”

Again, he tried.  Again, he failed.

It was Helen who came down the alleyway, stumbling at a running pace, more or less blind by definition herself.  She had her arms out to either side, bridging much of the alleyway.  She caught Jamie in the crook of one arm, embraced him, tackling him, and tore him away from the bundle.  The skin of his hands was left behind, I suspected.

The two of them landed dangerously close to the opening of the alley.  I thought of the gunman, perched on a building.

I heaved my bundle-on-a-stick, only to have my stomach nearly give out.  I switched my grip and swung instead of bringing it up.  It wasn’t too heavy, only unwieldy, and I managed to toss it out into the street, off to one side.

The gas continued to billow.  I could only hope it would break the man’s line of sight.

Jamie and Helen were mostly blind, though Jamie a little less than Helen, thanks to his glasses, and both of them were blistered and bleeding, though Helen had gotten the better end of the deal, despite far more exposure.  Her skin wasn’t really skin, I supposed.

I watched them, saw them lying there, then looked at the cloud of smoke.

My stomach was bleeding, I could feel it at my shirtfront.  I’d need more medical care.

Still, I went under the building.  I checked that the first canister wasn’t producing any more gas, then collected Jamie’s bag.

His book.  It was important.

As I crawled forward, pausing before I tried to find the strength to stand, I looked under the house opposite.

Mary’s box wasn’t there.  There was something that might have been a toolbox or a tackle box at the far corner.

It had been enough to convince her.  She was on her way to warn the others, to make alternate plans.

Gordon and Mary were going to be upset.

“Come on, you two,” I said.  My voice felt too light and feathery, mingled worry and relief.  “We can’t afford to laze around.”

Jamie pulled his lips open, and the skin bled where the lips had bonded together, the airborne resin or whatever had collected there, as well as on his eyes and in his hair.  “You’re a jackass.”

I’m a jackass with a gunshot wound.  I’m allowed to be flippant,” I said.  “But seriously, we can’t waste time.”

He nodded.  I handed him his bag, which he felt around until he had the shape of it.  After he clung it to his chest, I grabbed the straps and hauled.  I’d already re-opened my wound, I couldn’t make it worse, right?

Helen found her feet on her own, one hand on the side of the building.

With only the hope that the gas would block the gunman’s view of us, or that he was busy relocating to another perch, I led the others into the street.  Helen could hear the gunshots, the sound apparently traveling faster than the bullets did, but I wasn’t so lucky.

Haggard, hurting, and lost, we made our way to Lillian’s.

“She had an influence on you,” Jamie said.

I thought about joking, remarking on the sniffing woman.

But Jamie wasn’t talking about the sniffing woman.  Jamie was talking about the ploy I’d used to try and buy us time.

“Doesn’t everyone?” I asked.

He made a sound that might have been a laugh, but came out more as a heavier breath.  He coughed.

“You didn’t breathe that shit in, did you?”

“No,” he said.

“No,” Helen said.

“I know you didn’t,” I told her.  I saw her give me a smile, and it was odd to see her actually face the right direction as she did it.  Good ears.

“One day,” Helen said, “You’re going to make a girl very miserable.”

“Well we all knew that already,” I said.  “Not sure why you’re bringing that up now.”

“Not you-you,” she said.  “You two.”

I looked at Jamie, a part of me expecting to exchange a shared glance, except he was blind.  It sucked a little, driving the situation home.

“Don’t give a girl any hope if you can’t put her before Jamie,” Helen said.  “As you are right now, I don’t think you can.”

“You’re bleeding in fifty different ways, you’re blind, and you’re judging me?” I asked.

“Always,” Jamie said.  He laughed a little, then coughed again, harder.  “Always judging you.”

I didn’t like that cough.

Without Jamie’s eyes, I was left to do all of the looking out on my own, while making sure I was leading them properly, Jamie holding on to the raincoat at one elbow, and Helen holding on to my other forearm.  Another chance encounter with any of Phlegm’s buddies might not go so well.

“It’s a good thing I don’t like girls then,” I mused, trying to take my mind off of the open wound in my side, the danger, and the others.

“You do,” Jamie said.

“Yes,” Helen said.

“Right.  You know me better than I know myself?”

“We do.”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to leave you guys behind if you keep that up.  Besides, there aren’t any girls out there for me.  Gordon can do the thing with Shipman, but-”

“There’s Mary,” Jamie said, quiet.  “Lillian too.”

“Lillian isn’t one of us.  Well, she is, but she isn’t.  She-”

“She what?” Helen asked.

“Doesn’t seem fair, or real?  Real’s not the word, but expecting a girl to like me, when I’m not guaranteed to live that long.”

There was no response.  Jamie and Helen were silent.  The rain was washing away the thin trickles of blood where the skin had been eaten away or had blistered and the resin had pulled on the blisters to open them, and diluting the mud, so it slid off in handfuls.  Their clothing was being stained, where the mud hadn’t already caked it and turned it a dark brown-black.

I turned around, and moved my elbow accidentally, leading Helen to think I was turning.  She stumbled a bit.  I couldn’t see any buildings through the downpour, now, which I hoped was cause to believe that the gunman couldn’t see us, over the top of the cloud of smoke.

“You’re too nice a guy, Sy,” Jamie said, finally.

It was dark, wet, and cold, the rain was an outright storm, now, and the clusters of people were hard to make out.  Each one we approached had the potential to be a threat.  We were far enough away from where the gunshots had been that people weren’t actively hiding or fleeing, but close enough that they were concerned, huddling, trying to puzzle out the situation.

Heads turned.  People started to approach.

It was more harm than good, potentially.  If people crowded around us, the man with the scarf could slip in close, use one of those knives…

“Stay away,” I said, as they got closer.  “Don’t touch them.  Don’t touch me.”

Then I said the magic word.

“Disease.”

The word repeated itself through the crowd.

The way opened before us.

“We’ve been told where to go,” I said.  I kept talking only because we couldn’t afford questions.  “Rebellion members turned on each other, or they’re Academy plants, or there’s a parasite, I don’t know.  But Whitney is under attack.  Spread the word.”

Phobos and Deimos.  Fear and Panic.

Nebulous ideas, nothing certain.

But a point that was driven home with a few key words, and the imagery of small children, hurt, bleeding, and impossible to help.

Lillian wasn’t so impossibly far away, but we were moving so slowly.

As it turned out, we didn’t need to get that far.

Gordon, Mary, Lillian, and Shipman all appeared, a distance down the street.  They picked up speed, approaching.

The looks on their faces.  It was a fluttery, uncertain expression, much as my voice had been earlier.

“We’ve been discovered,” I said.  “They know, they sent assassins, three or four left.  We can’t stay.”

“We’re not done,” Shipman said.

“We’re done,” I said, my voice low.

“Are you okay?” Lillian asked, cutting in.

“Not very, gunshot,” I said.  “They’re bad too.  They need help.  Three gases, from one of the assassins.  Glue, don’t touch them, something flesh-eating, definitely don’t touch them, and a third.  Might be poison.  Jamie’s coughing.”

“Because blood keeps dripping down the back of my throat from my nose,” Jamie said.

“They need help,” Lillian agreed.

“Coach,” Gordon said.  “There was one-”

He stopped, craning his head.  “Come on!”

We moved as fast as we were able, but at least I was able to let the others look after Jamie and Helen, while I stumbled along on my lonesome.

Gordon was talking to a coach driver.  As we approached, the man opened the side door.

As a group, we climbed inside.

“Hospital it is,” the man said, before closing the door.  The latch clicked.

“How do we activate your project?” I asked.

“We’re not,” Shipman said.  “It’s too early.”

“You were supposed to be nearly done.”

“We are,” the sourpuss told me.  “But for this to work, we need to reach a certain critical point.  We gauged how fast their response time would be, their resources here, the scientists in the area.  If we start it too early, they’ll be able to counteract it before it becomes a real issue.  It’s too early.”

“The other side of it,” Gordon said, his voice level, “Is that we were supposed to signal the Academy, so they could time the activation with an attack.  Something clean and simple, while they can’t put up a fight.”

“Minimum deaths,” Shipman said.

Minimum deaths.  She cared about that sort of thing?

Surprising.  I hadn’t expected that to be one of her priorities.

“Mm,” Jamie murmured.  He pulled his lips apart slowly, but there was still tearing and bleeding.  Lillian was rummaging in her bag, trying to find things.

“What is it?” Mary asked.

“We’re approaching turn toward hospital.  Sy’s right.  We can’t stay.”

“Which way is the turn?” Mary asked, turning to try and look through the front window, which as barely the size of an envelope.

“He’ll turn right.  We want to leave.  Turn left.”

Mary nodded.  She stepped to the side of the coach, opened the door, and swung outside, still holding the handle.  The door slammed, Mary clinging to the outside.

Three seconds passed.  A larger body dropped off the opposite side of the coach.

“Ouch,” Lillian said.  “I hope-”

The carriage bumped as it rolled over the larger body.

“-he’s okay,” she said, in a smaller voice.

The coach abruptly picked up speed, the horses trotting briskly.  Mary turned us to the left.

“We can still sneak in, leave boxes,” Shipman said.  “Activate it after.  We don’t have to be in the city.  It would help, but we’ll make do.”

“They know,” I said.  “I know they know because I damn well told them.  There’s no other choice.  They’ll dismantle it.”

I saw her expression change.  Gordon reached over to put a hand on her knee.

Then he opened the same door Mary had.  He raised a thin whistle to his mouth, and he blew.

A long, high, sweet sound.

Ten, twenty, thirty seconds.

There was an art to it, almost.  Such a convenient activation method.

The whistle was picked up elsewhere, mostly behind us, now that we were on the outskirts, heading out.  Each box of creatures was capable of mimicking the tone, passing it on, so it swept over the city, a single, sharp tone.

I saw the first of the spiders, the size of my fist, but black and bulbous, the center body almost tumorous.  I knew it had to be light if Mary had carried whole boxes of them, or it had absorbed ambient moisture, perhaps.  It didn’t matter.

From under one house, one box, just looking at the nearest wall of the building, I could see dozens of the things.

As the rain poured down, the spiders rose up, searching for windows and doors to crawl through.

“You owe me, by the by,” I told Lillian.  “I got you out, in a roundabout way.”

“This doesn’t count,” she said.

“Does so,” I said.

“Does so,” Jamie added.

“I think I’m going to treat Helen first,” Lillian commented.  “Fine.  I owe you one.”

“Technically, the deal was-”

“I owe you one, Sy.”

I nodded, turning my attention to look out the window.

The little envelope-sized slot slid open.  I could hear Mary speak.

“Where to?”

Where to.

I glanced at Gordon.  Different as we were, even with the rift between us, the unanswered questions I had, and his anger over the way his project had ended, I knew we were on the same page.

“Westmore,” Gordon said.  “It’s time for them to attack.”

I nodded at that.

We wouldn’t be working behind the scenes, this time.  This was going to become something else entirely.  An environment the Lambs had never faced.

A battlefield.

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

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 – 4.11

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

The faculty of Dame Cicely’s Academy had a cushy setup.  The furniture looked like masterwork, the chairs were all padded and upholstered in Academy-created leathers, and the walls were alternately large windows with draping curtains in fine fabric and large ostentatious pictures with ostentatious frames.  Blue and silver were common themes to the room, and even the covers for the fireplace at the back and the lamps on the walls were stained glass.

There were ten members of the faculty in attendance, and several stitched servants, not unlike Wendy in quality and class.  Two young women were standing by, and one was the one who I’d given my badge to, with orders to collect the faculty.

All of us were present, with the exception of Helen, who was with Wendy still.  Mary stood on my right, Jamie on my left.  Lillian and Gordon had the lead, here.  Gordon was doing okay, but the rest of us were breathing hard; Mary was hurt, and the rest of us were tired from running around, trying to coordinate.

Fray was gone, and Mary hadn’t been up to a prolonged chase.

“Is this a joke?” the headmaster asked.  He was an older man, and he’d altered his hair so it grew in white, which was the fashion in places.  When seemingly perpetual youth became too ordinary among the elderly of the elite, a calculated sort of aging had taken over.  Unfortunately, the white of his hair had come in more like skunk stripes than salt and peppering.  His suit jacket fit too closely at the waist and his slacks were too narrow.  What drew the eye, however, was the androgynous face with the calculating stare, forever looking down on the people around him.

“The water supply was tainted,” Gordon said.  “And it was done from within Dame Cicely’s walls.  We just sent someone to go run tests on it.  The person who committed the act is going to inform the public and shift the blame.  You have a disaster on your hands, this is your advance warning.”

“You’re children,” the headmaster said, at the same time a bald faculty member in a heavy coat asked, “You’re sure?”

The headmaster shot the bald man a stern look.

“Yes, we are,” Gordon said, “And yes, we’re sure.”

I appreciated that he hadn’t felt the need to double check with me.  I wondered if he’d been as confident as he had because he really trusted me, or if he thought he couldn’t show doubt to our audience in this situation.

“You saw the badge,” I said, stepping around Lillian to make myself more visible.  Being in the middle of the second row made me easy to overlook.

“I saw a badge, but I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean,” the headmaster said.  He held up the badge.  “Radham Academy.  Your problems are becoming our problems?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Gordon said.  “Your entire student body may have been drugged.  We don’t know what with.”

“Suggesting it could be a hoax.”

“It could be a death sentence,” I said. “For all of your students, and for Dame Cicely’s as an institution.  If you misstep here, then there’s no recovering from it.  Your career is over.  There are too many powerful people with daughters and nieces here.”

“If I claim an emergency at the word of children and find out it’s a hoax, I lose all reputation.”

“You were alerted about Genevieve Fray,” Gordon said.  “The notice should have gone out to every police station and Academy.”

“Yes,” the headmaster said.

“Are you saying you weren’t aware that Genevieve Fray was tutoring your daughter?  Using her as an accomplice in her plan?”

“I wasn’t aware,” the headmaster lied, staring at us.

That shook my confidence more than anything.  The brazenness of the way he said it, almost sarcastically, mocking us.  Declaring to us that he, on the most basic level, didn’t care at all whether we took him at his word.  His gaze was cool and controlled as he met my eyes.  He had no shame, no guilt, and no doubts.

He knows full well what Fray was doing.

“This is a waste of time,” I said, to Gordon.  “We’re better off focusing elsewhere.”

“Where?” he asked, murmuring.

“Finding Fray?  Getting ahead of things on the ground level.  If we can figure out how she’s going to communicate to the citizens of Kensford, or if we assume she’s going to reach out to the other cities she’s been to-”

“Phone?” Gordon asked.  “A city as big as Radham has maybe twenty, a city this size can’t have more than five.”

“It’s a good starting point,” I said.

“What about birds?” Lillian asked.  “No matter how fast we travel, we can’t-”

“Children,” the headmaster said.

We fell silent, looking at the dandy of a man.  I eyed the badge he still held.

“You invited us here, you brought up a threat with no proof or details of what the threat specifically entails, it’s strange.”

“With all due respect,” Gordon said.  “The entire situation-”

“I’m due more respect than that,” the headmaster said, cutting Gordon off.  He strode forward, until he was close enough to Gordon that Gordon had to strain to look up.  “My students call me sir.”

“Sir-” Gordon said.  He was cut off before he got any further.

“I was talking, as a matter of fact,” the headmaster said.  “About the oddity of all of this.”

He’s stalling.  He knows Fray, he knows the plan.

Why?  What’s he doing?

“When I teach my students, I try to instill them with a certain mindset.  Wherever they go, whoever they deal with, they can benefit from what Dame Cicely’s Academy can teach them.  That, much as in the rule of the species, we are in constant competition-”

War?  Was he trying to defeat an opponent, or defend himself?

“-and we wage this competition on all levels.  For partners, for status, for reputation, for wealth-”

Commerce?  Was there a hidden profit in this?

“-and for more abstract things.”

Ideology?  Was he trying to prove something?

“Radham may be an Academy, it may serve the same Crown we do, but when the Crown’s book-keepers sit down and figure out who is contributing the most, well, let’s just say that Radham might well see something to gain in coming here to sabotage us on a small level.  Nothing too dramatic, because that could be considered treasonous, but an embarrassment?  Oh, imagine that.”

Politics.

It was politics.  I’d gotten through to Lady Claire by raising the topic, and Lady Claire was this man’s niece.  He was angling for something, with the idea of raising Kensford up and bringing others down.

The irony of his words.  He knew, and he was here, sabotaging us, by making us wait, keeping us from working against the problem.  He was the one aligning for political gain in the grand scheme of things.

He’d worked with Fray to do it.

I had a very clear mental image of this man, Fray, Warren, and Lady Claire all sitting at the table, having a conversation, about what the future held.

Was Lady Claire the pawn in it all?

“We should go,” Mary said.

“Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, I’ll try to explain at a level more appropriate to your age,” the headmaster said, without a trace of irony.  “I’m suggesting that you’re spreading lies to hurt this school.  It would be a very bad idea if we simply let you leave.  We’d be giving you free reign to continue spreading those lies.”

“What if we’re right?” Gordon asked.  “What happens then?”

The man smiled, and he lied again, “I don’t think you’re right.”

I stopped paying attention to the man, and started paying attention to the faculty around the room.  Seven women and three men, and their collective attention was fixed on the headmaster, not on the strangers in the room who were supposedly spreading propaganda.

He had them in the palm of his hand.  If he told them to lie, they would lie.  If he told them this conversation never happened, then it would be our say-so against his, and he had clout.

A curious feeling, realizing just how busy Genevieve Fray had been.  Had she known him from the outset?  Had that been how she’d got her foot in the door, found the person she would tutor, with room and board?  Fray had a powerful ally in the headmaster, and I had little doubt she’d established others at different points along the line.

“We’re going,” Gordon said.  He turned around, and started toward the door.

“You’re not going anywhere,” the headmaster said.  He snapped his fingers, and stitched manservants headed in our direction.  The headmaster added a quick order.  “Keep the door closed.”

“Yeah, we’re not going anywhere,” I said, not budging.

I saw Gordon hesitate, and in that moment, the stitched closed the distance and pushed the doors closed, before standing in the way.  Gordon backed away and shot me a dirty look.

“He still has my badge,” I said, simply, pointing at the headmaster.

“One of these days, I’m going to leave you behind,” Gordon said.  “Let you face the consequences your own damn self.”

“You know they can make another?” Jamie asked.

“They could, but that one is mine.  It belongs to me, not him,” I said.

“Of course it does,” Jamie said.

“We could have walked out,” Gordon muttered, as he turned to face the headmaster once again.

“No we couldn’t,” I murmured under my breath.  “They would have given chase, and you and I are the only ones who can run fast enough to get away.”

Gordon made an annoyed sound, but he didn’t actively disagree.

He was probably thinking we could have put up a fight, and that it would have been worth the risk, given what was at stake.

“We have a space downstairs where we can hold them,” the headmaster said, “at least until a guardian or a representative from Radham comes to claim them.  If we-”

“Can we drop the charade?” I asked, cutting him off.

It was rude, and it was intentionally rude.  We were dealing with a man who had power and was used to power, he commanded the respect of everyone in Kensford and the surrounding area, probably, and he considered himself invulnerable.  Cutting a man like him off would get attention, and if I was lucky, I might be able to provoke a reaction.

He didn’t flinch.  The man raised his eyebrows.  “Charade?”

“Guess not,” I said.  “Then you keep pretending, and I’m going to stand here and talk and look like a crazy person.  You’re going to let us go, you’re not going to kick up a fuss, and you’re going to let us run damage control.”

Gordon, Mary, Jamie, and Lillian half-turned, to watch me as I talked.  The headmaster had his allies, and he had more, but I had the Lambs.

“Is this where the threats to my life start?” he asked.

“I’m threatening your livelihood.  If you want to make this a contest between Radham and Dame Cicely’s Academy, then we’re content playing hardball.  Let me see if I’ve got this right.  Fray tells you that she’s got a plan.  She’s already laid the groundwork in other cities.  You facilitate her activities, you connect her to Claire, under the guise of Fray manipulating your niece, clearing your niece of blame, and Fray puts her plan into motion here.”

He had a good poker face.  It was somewhat infuriating.  I wanted to hurt him, if only to break the facade.  My frustration at having to let Fray go might have been coloring my perceptions.

“She told Lady Claire that she was going to help the Academy… and the only way that makes sense is if it’s the Academy’s plan.  The Academy’s formula or strategy or whatever else, and it’s not a thing that the common people are going to be happy with.  When the people rise up, Radham suffers, but your locals, they have money, or they have parents with money.  The problem gets fixed.  You come up looking like roses, and many of the other Academies struggle.  Your competitors struggle.”

He shifted position slightly, a faint rise of his chin, to look down on me more.

There were tells that were blatant, the folding of arms when a person felt attacked, and there were tells that stood out because a person who knew the art of body language and deception was trying so very hard to avoid giving a tell that they moved in the opposite direction.  This was the latter.

“Your mistake is thinking we’re going to blame Fray for this,” I said.  This time, I lied, and I was a far more committed liar than him.  “We’ve already put out word to various institutions to say that we don’t want anyone to raise an alert over Fray.  We’re keeping things on the down-low, because she almost certainly has some spies and moles in the Academy, tipping her off.  She’s a non-entity, and it’s easier to pretend she doesn’t exist than it is to spread word of her.  If this happens, Radham puts the blame squarely at your feet.”

“You’d let a fugitive get away with this hypothetical mass-poisoning, simply to make my life a little more inconvenient?” the headmaster asked.

“Damn straight,” I said.  Mary nodded, beside me.

Gordon nodded.  “She’s already slipped away, and this frankly fits her pattern.  I’d lay odds she wants you to take the hit.”

“I don’t believe you,” the man said.

Typical.  Person in power, so used to having his way, he can’t conceive of a world where things don’t go the way he wants them to.

I shook my head, “I don’t believe that a person can be in your position and not appreciate the human capacity for spite.  If we tell Radham that you did this at their expense, they’ll come after you.  You might be small with some real clout, but Radham is big.  They’ll destroy your reputation, and then they’ll come after your subordinates, and then they’ll come after your school, your legacy.”

“But if you want to try us,” Gordon said, folding his arms, “Arrest us.  Let’s wait this out.”

We stood there, waiting.

The man didn’t flinch, he didn’t show a sign of doubt.

I started to wonder if he’d physically altered his face or nerves to have better control over it all, to hide his tells and more precisely manage the face he presented to the world.

A full minute passed, and he didn’t give the order to arrest us.

I’d brought up his subordinates for a reason.  I knew he was aware of their gaze, their worries.  He had control over them, but he didn’t necessarily have their trust.  They would help him commit an atrocity, and cover up the fact that he’d worked with a terrorist to do it, but when push came to shove, they couldn’t trust him to genuinely care about them.

Or so I hoped.  More to the point, I hoped that he was insecure about whether they trusted him.

“Arresting you would be a hassle, honestly,” the man said.  “But I don’t want you here any longer.  I was kind enough to provide accommodations, with the idea that you would be passing through.  Please… pass through.

He gestured, and the stitched at the door moved away.

Gordon hauled the doors open.  I remained where I was.

“My badge,” I said.

“Sy,” Gordon said.  “I swear, if you don’t get moving, I’m going to run you up a flagpole and leave you hanging.”

“The badge, headmaster,” I said.  When he didn’t make a sign of moving, I added, “We’ve established that spite isn’t any small thing.  Don’t make unnecessary enemies.  You’re a very short distance from being on everyone’s bad side.  Fray’s scapegoat, the person who let down your Academy, the person who sold out his niece, and Radham’s whipping boy.”

“You have what you want, free reign to leave.  Are you throwing it away to offend my pride?”

“The badge,” I said, not budging.

He tossed the badge at me, so it would fall just short.  I stepped forward and caught it, all the same.  I liked the weight of it in my hand, and took a second to flip it closed and slip it into a pocket.

We turned and left, striding through the school.  Mary leaned heavily on my shoulder, which wasn’t welcome, though it was understandable.

“You have an idea of what Fray is doing?” Jamie asked.

“Some,” I said.

“Do share,” Gordon said.  He sounded a little miffed.

“Like I said, it’s something Kensford can bounce back from, because Kensford has money.  It’s something that’s going to enrage people, and it’s going to hit places that aren’t Kensford hard.  It’s going to hurt, given Fray’s feelings toward the Academy, and at the end of the day, it was something the Academy was planning to do anyway.”

“What is it?” Gordon asked.

“Control,” I said, simply.  “It’s what any power wants, in the end.  Control of everything.”

There was no need to elaborate.  We all knew about the Academy’s methods of control.

“Where?” Gordon asked.  “Where does she go to spread the word?”

“The dining hall,” Lillian said.  “Everyone’s eating dinner.  Everyone’s talking as a group.”

It hadn’t been my first instinct, with so many people around, but Fray was a bird of a feather here, a needle in a haystack.

If it was the dining hall, then it might well be too late.

Our brisk walk became a run.  Jamie gave directions.  When our battered Mary proved too slow, then he took over, willingly lagging behind, while Gordon, Lillian and I headed to the room.

The hubub of conversation had a tone.  Quiet, subdued, and concerned.  Even horrified.

The girls were gathered in groups, one or two to a table, huddled, talking, their focus on pieces of paper, one or two papers to a group.

This was the heart of the city.  All things flowed to and from it.  The substance that had been put into the water, the people, and now information.

That information was as damning as anything else.

Gordon approached a group, and he took one of the pieces of paper.  He read some of it as he approached us, handing it over to share.  It had been printed in large numbers by way of a printing press.  Something Fray had seen to in a previous city, no doubt.

Control.  An attack on two fronts, both things the Academy had planned over the long term, no doubt things that had been intended to be slipped past the public’s notice when the time was right, when distractions were imminent, or an excuse available.

The papers described the process by which men and women who imbibed the chemical would be rendered sterile.

Control over reproduction and population.

The process would be reversible, but those were keys that the Academy held, to be provided on a case-by-case basis.

The other form of attack was one we were too familiar with.  We’d been subjected to it, once upon a time.  For most of the population, the effect would be minor – Fray hadn’t had the time to give them too heavy a dose, but some of the fat chains that made up the cell walls would be composed of the modified kind, found in the water.  Left alone, they would collapse, and cells would die.  Sensitive tissues of the brain, lungs, stomach and mucous membranes would the first to go.  Symptoms would progress through pain, full-body bruising, system failure, internal bleeding, fatigue and weakness, and eventually lead to an unpleasant, undignified death.

The symptoms would be staved off by continuing to drink the water, but continuing to drink the water would perpetuate the problem.

“I don’t understand,” Mary said.  “The Academy can’t fix it?”

“They can,” I said.  “They won’t.”

“It’s too much.  People aren’t going to take it lying down,” Mary said.  “The Academy has a way to stop it, to cure the effects, don’t they?  They just say Fray did it, and they put out a fix, and-”

“They won’t,” I said, again.

“You can’t say that for sure,” Mary said.

My eyes roved over the crowd.  The horror, the anger.  I could already see distinctions forming.  Different groups with different reactions.  Some were shocked, as anyone might be, but they weren’t scared.  People with money, raised to believe that any problem could be fixed.  Especially those of the human body.

But there were others.  People who didn’t have as much money, those who weren’t sure they were in a position to buy a solution to the problem, buy the ability to have children and a way to move freely.  A way to move freely that likely involved bottles of purple pills.  These members of Dame Cicely’s student body were closer to the population on the ground, the farmers and craftsmen, the wagon-drivers and grocers.  They were angrier, more frightened, louder.

She told us, I thought.  Fray teased us with the pills.  All along, it was her plan.

There was an undercurrent of disbelief, as if this were a joke in particularly bad taste.

That would change.  This was a school of students.  Those students would do tests, and they would verify this for themselves.  The reaction after that would be terrible to behold.

Things would be bad here, but Radham…

Subjecting the regular population to the chemical leash, not just the experiments?  Denying a small city’s residents the ability to have children without the permission of the Academy and the Crown?

“Did she do this in Radham?” I asked.

“Probably,” Jamie said.  “She would have done it everywhere.”

“That means we have to go back,” Gordon said.  “Soon.  This is too big, and there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to get back if we wait.”

The train drivers drank the water too.

The ramifications were too broad.  I clenched my fist.  It was true.  At any point in time, Fray could have simply told us, and we would have had no choice but to go back.

When none of us spoke, Gordon added, gently, “There’s nothing more we can do here.”

“You’re right,” Jamie said.  “Let’s go.”

We left the dining hall much as we’d entered, at a brisk pace.

There were things to take care of.  We needed Helen, of course, and then there was Wendy.

We stepped outdoors.  A whole crowd of students was heading toward the school.

They’d heard.  They were coming to read those same papers.

We headed in a different direction, before they could trample us.  One out of every four faces was haunted, they’d heard, they knew how the Academy operated, and they grasped the ramifications.

It would sink in with the rest soon.  They would contact their parents, and the rich and powerful who had sent their daughters to Dame Cicely’s would take issue.  The headmaster would pacify and massage his way back into good graces with promises of fixes or temporary solutions.

It wouldn’t be pretty, but he’d come out looking good.

“What was the guy’s name?” I asked.  “The headmaster?”

We crossed a road, and our heads collectively turned to look further down the street, where a number of people who most definitely weren’t students were gathered outside a church.  The shouts were audible, the anger apparent.

“He told you his name,” Jamie said.  “Headmaster Edmund Foss.”

“Don’t remember that,” I admitted.

The shouts rose in volume.

I looked, studying the crowd, but I didn’t see Reverend Mauer.  Churches were bastions of community, and in the midst of this growing crisis, they were becoming rallying points.  Not an idea exclusive to Mauer.

“Christ,” Gordon said.  “This is only just starting?”

“There’s going to be war,” Mary said.

War.

She was right.  Mauer had tapped into the public’s fears and resentment, but this was something else altogether.  The man would be having a field day, wherever he was.

War, the people against the Academy, with everything that entailed.  The weapons, the monsters, the crude attempts at handling the finer, more delicate matters.

How odd, now that I thought about it.  With the chemicals in the water, adjusted to affect everyone, we would have free reign.  The leash had been given a considerable amount of slack, and it was thanks to Fray.

Gordon slowed.  I spotted the reason why.

Further down the street, the giant of a man with incredible blue eyes.  Warren.

He didn’t charge, and he didn’t attack.

He was so close.  Did he know where Helen and Wendy were?

How odd, that he looked so calm, standing in the snow, as the rest of the city grew so heated and noisome.

“You want your stitched friend,” Gordon said.

Warren nodded, the blue eyes bobbing in the dark.

“We can negotiate,” Gordon said, and his smile was a grim one.

Again, Warren nodded.

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Stitch in Time – 4.10

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Warren didn’t give chase.  Wendy and I made our way to the room with the coats.  The room’s resident and her monster were still unconscious, but the others were already outside, standing a few feet away from the open window, a vantage point where they could see within.  The snow was falling all around them, it was dark, and the little light around the place cast long shadows.

There wasn’t any commentary as I reached under the bed, grabbed my jacket, scarf, cap, and gloves, and pulled everything on.

I glanced at Wendy, who looked like a ghost in more ways than one.  Fine, pale hair, a haunted expression on her face.  She wore a calf-length dress that was crisp and tidy enough it was almost a uniform, complete with a smock, and her hair was tied back.  I could see subtle differences in the color and texture of it, suggesting that hair had been transplanted – a stitched’s hair didn’t tend to grow, or it fell out faster than it grew in, and it was telling that she’d been looked after in that regard.

“You need a coat,” I told her.

“I don’t,” she said.  “I’m always hot, I-”

“You need a coat,” I said.  “You’re always hot because it keeps you healthy.  If you’re out in the cold, your body will have to work harder to stay hot, and you might run out of energy too quickly.”

I walked past her, stepping past the monster on the floor to get to the wardrobe by the door.  I popped it open, then rifled through the hanging garments until I found something suitable, a long coat of black, lab-grown wool.  I handed it to Wendy, and watched as she put it on.  Her movements were stiff, and once or twice she paused, as if she had to remember or puzzle out the next sequence of movements to put her arms in the sleeves.  I stepped in to grab the jacket and help it over her shoulder.

“It’s big,” she said.  It was true.  Two of her could have fit in the jacket.

I grabbed a long scarf from the closet, then wound it around her waist, cinching the coat closer to her body.

“Come on,” I said.  I saw her look back, the doubt on her face, and grabbed her hand, pulling her along.  It was a strange inversion of adult and child, the child leading the adult by the hand, but in reality, she was the innocent.  She was the key to all of this, our last hope in figuring out how we were going to address the Fray situation.

“Through the window,” I said.

I gave her a hand in making her way down, and the others moved to the base of the window to help her down.  She was a little heavier than someone her size should have been, and her movements were stiff.  I’d interacted with stitched in general to know that sometimes patience was required.

She’s not so different from me.  We lose what we don’t hold on to.

Except it was poisons that had eroded my faculties, and it was death that had eroded hers.

I wondered if Fray had made the same connection.

“Here we go,” Helen said.  “That’s it.  Lower your left foot just a little bit.  That’s your right.  There.  Good job.”

Good work, Helen, I thought.  I’d brought her here, but I wasn’t necessarily the person to keep her, if that was even possible in the long run.  Wendy would feel more comfortable in Helen’s company than anything else.  Gordon was a possibility as well, and Lillian likely had as much passing experience with the stitched as any of us.

Once Wendy was down from the window, I climbed out onto the snow-dusted windowsill and pulled the window shut.  I dropped into the grass at the base of the window.

The evening was cooler, which contributed to the heavier snowfall, but it still wasn’t enough to cover the grass completely, nor to do more than layer the trees.  With the sky getting dark, the odd and unusual trees of Kensford took on a more haunting appearance, jagged black lightning bolts with highlights of white here and there.  The cottage-like dormitory houses were lighting up within, and they were small enough that each little window of orange flame or flickering voltaic power had silhouettes moving within.  Young women were moving down the main streets in groups, accompanied by their monsters, but the sounds of conversation and footfalls didn’t reach us.

“I have questions, but it’s hard to ask them, given present company,” Mary said.  She was scuffed up, but Lillian had applied bandages and applied a shot of something.

Wendy was looking around, oblivious.  She seemed anxious, but not out of any concern for her personal safety.  When Gordon took her hand, she wasn’t surprised or spooked.  She took his hand and held it firm, not even questioning it.

Some stitched were made for battle.  Wendy wasn’t one of those stitched.  Someone could likely have come after her with a weapon and she wouldn’t have defended herself.  On much the same level, an enemy might be able to give her a hug without her even thinking of resisting.  There were vital parts of her psychology that were missing.

But Gordon being the one holding her hand helped.  He had always had an affinity for other experiments.  There were maybe four people who could communicate with Dog, despite Dog’s general inability to vocalize; Catcher was one, two scientists who maintained and looked after Dog were another couple, and Gordon was a fourth.

There were even some Whelps that he could pet without getting his hand bitten off, and the Academy doctors who worked on the Whelps weren’t even capable of doing that.

Gordon saw me looking at him and asked, “We aren’t being followed?”

“No,” I said, simply.  No use agitating Wendy.

“We can’t go back to the dormitory house with our stuff.  If Fray has any brains at all, she’ll send Warren that way.”

“It’s possible,” I said, but I wasn’t convinced.

“It’s possible, but you don’t sound confident,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

“Why?”

“It’s what you’d do in her shoes, but that’s not who she is.  She’s indirect.  She just revealed the big plan to us, she did it for a reason.  We got close, and if Warren doesn’t stop us, she wants us distracted, dealing with it.  It was always part of her strategy.  If we cornered her, she would distract us.  She doesn’t do the ‘direct attack’ thing.”

“She sent… you know who after us,” Jamie remarked.  “Twice.”

“Who?” Wendy asked, looking concerned.

“It’s okay,” Helen said, giving Wendy’s hand a squeeze.  “Can you hold my hands between yours?  They’re toasty.”

“Oh, okay,” Wendy said.  She looked happy to do it, and Helen’s smile brought out a smile on her face.

“The first time was indirect,” I told Gordon.  “She was trying to divert us, and it worked.  We had to deal with the medicine angle, we were distracted, led to chase her, and it gave her an opportunity to have a discussion with one of us.  This time…”

“This time?” Gordon asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We caught her off guard.  This time, she didn’t expect us.”

“A cornered rat bites,” Mary commented, under her breath.

There were a few nods from the group at that.  Mary had been bitten as hard as any of us.

“I don’t like rats,” Wendy said.  “Not unless they’re the clean white ones in the labs.  Those can be cute.”

“Can’t they!?” Helen gushed.  “Did Miss Genevieve have any?”

“Any…?”

“Did she have white rats to help her in the lab?”

“Yes, she did.  I liked them.  There was one and it would crawl on my hand and I would pet it.  But I had to be gentle.”

“Of course,” Helen said.  “You’re so lucky, having hands as warm as yours.”

It was a silly, stupid compliment, but Wendy seemed to like it.

The rest of us were silent, watching and listening intently.

“She wasn’t mean to them, was she?” Helen asked.

Wendy shook her head.

“She didn’t give them medicine to make them sick or stick them with syringes?”

Wendy kept shaking her head.

“But she was paying a lot of attention to the rats?”

“No, not a lot.  But some.”

“Some?” Gordon asked.

“Some,” Wendy said, as if that was a complete idea.

“When you say some, do you mean it was once in a while, or were there other things she was more focused on?” Helen asked.

Wendy didn’t answer, raising her hand to her mouth, as if she were going to bite her nails, then pulled it away.  She looked between us, as if she was completely lost.

“You don’t understand, do you?” Gordon asked.

Wendy shook her head.

“It’s okay,” he said.  He reached out and put his hands around hers, which still held Helen’s.  “Do you remember what we were saying about the white rats?”

“We were talking about rats?” she asked.  I couldn’t tell if it was a question or if it was a statement she wasn’t entirely sure about.

She felt emotions, and the spectrum of emotions might well have been limited or more riddled with bumps and messiness, but that part of the brain was still intact.  She could think and reason and perform set tasks, but her faculties outside of the tasks she was meant to perform were hampered.  When it came to logic and interpretation, well, this very conversation had evidenced that a single stumble could take us back to square one.

No, I realized, looking at her.  A step back from square one.  She was anxious now, bothered.  She didn’t like being lost, and the combined efforts of Gordon and Helen weren’t enough to reassure her.

She was our sole source of information, but an interrogation couldn’t proceed like this.  We had to move slowly, carefully, and as gently as humanly possible, and we had to do it knowing that Fray was very possibly working on her next move.

“Let’s give her a few minutes,” Gordon said.

No!  I thought.

Then I reminded myself that his instincts were very often good ones, when it came to dealing with experiments.

“Okay,” I said.  “But let’s do something productive in the meantime.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking we need to slow our adversary down,” I said, keeping my voice quiet and calm for the benefit of our stitched guest, “She knows we have the means of figuring out what she’s doing.  She dropped hints.  She’s ready.  If there’s a catalyst she needs to enter into the dynamic, or if there’s a switch that has to be pulled, a person that needs to be contacted, we need to get in the way of that.”

Talking in abstract terms and long words wasn’t helping matters.  Wendy looked more confused and alarmed than before.

Bring things back, Sy.  Connect it to something she understands.

“Our goal,” I said, talking more slowly, not looking directly at Wendy, even as I recapped things for her benefit, “Is to keep people safe.  We want to find Genevieve, we want to find and help Warren.”

I put emphasis on that last part, so the others could know just why Wendy was here.

“That’s doable,” Gordon said.

I saw a smile find its way to Wendy’s face.

“First instinct, each of you,” Gordon said.  “How can we accomplish this?”

“I go hunt,” Mary said.  “I can stay out of Warren’s way.  Maybe catch Fray off guard.”

Gordon and I exchanged glances.  I could see the doubt and concern.

A lack of trust.  Mary was hurt, and she wasn’t immune to making mistakes.

I gave him a nod.  We needed to do this, if only because Mary’s pride couldn’t take anything else.

“Okay,” he said.  “If in doubt, favor scouting over trying something.”

She nodded.

“Helen?”

“I’ll stay with Wendy.  We can go to the campfire, where you met the girls,” Helen said.  “We took the time to recruit them, we should use them.”

“Good.  I’ll either come with you or meet up with you shortly, we’ll have a good chat with Wendy.  Jamie?”

“Infrastructure.  The school.  They have to have measures in place in case of trouble.  Even if they aren’t obvious.  We just need to ask the head of Dame Cicely’s, or someone else in a position to know.  I know most of the faculty’s names-”

“From the book in the room,” I said.

“Yes.  I might be a little out of date, but I can get something in motion.  Soldiers, security measures, quarantine…”

“Too dangerous,” Gordon said.  “You’d have to go through the school, and you could run into Warren.”

“I was thinking we could knock on doors for the larger homes near the Academy,” Jamie said.  “Where the staff probably live.”

Gordon looked where Jamie was pointing.  The houses in that general direction weren’t taller, but they sprawled more, many had multiple trees on the property, and if memory served, they’d had more extensive gardens.

“Makes sense,” he said.  “Lillian, go with him.  You can fill in the gaps, you have the knowledge to know what the quarantine measures might involve.”

Lillian nodded.

“I’ll rally some of the people who we recruited before,” Gordon said.  “We can maneuver to limit her range of movement, now that we know where she is.  If there’s anything in the building that she can’t leave behind, then she’ll have to hang back-”

“No,” I cut Gordon off.  “It doesn’t work like that.  She said she already put it into motion.  It’s not something like that, and it can’t be something she needs to pack up, because she’s been moving too fast and too far.  She met Lady Claire and she made a connection, and then she moved in.  That’s a lot harder to do if you’re bringing a small lab with you.”

“You’re assuming she’s telling the truth,” Gordon said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah, I am.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t think she thinks lying would serve any purpose,” I said, simply.

Gordon frowned.  “You’re romanticizing her.”

“I’m figuring her out,” I said, a little testily.  “Genevieve Fray is putting up a front, one that she buys into, at least a little.  That she’s doing the right thing, that she’s being fair, and being nice.  Anyone that gets in her way is the bad guy.  If and when she runs into trouble or if the plans fall through, or if push comes to shove, she gets to feel justified because she played fair, she was honest, and the bad guys were the ones who crossed the line.  That idea is worth more than whatever ground she might gain by outright lying.”

“Uh huh,” Gordon said.

“Which doesn’t reveal much of anything about the person behind that front, who might not be a good person at all, and who would feel no need to pretend,” I added, as an afterthought.  “But the Genevieve Fray I’ve talked to puts a lot of stock in being straightforward.”

“Uh huh,” he said, again.  “We need to talk, later.”

“Sure,” I said.

“For now, we go with your instincts.  We assume she isn’t lying.”

I nodded.

“Everyone knows where they’re going, then?” Gordon asked.  “We meet at the fire where the failed students hang out.  Mary, keep an eye on Jamie and Lillian.  I know it’ll be hard as you get further away, but do what you can to keep an eye on each other.”

Mary nodded.

It was good.  Telling Mary that in a way that let Lillian and Jamie know that the inverse was also true.  Keep an eye on Mary.

“Let’s move.  Close the net, let’s help Warren, best as we can,” Gordon said, echoing me, though the look in his eye was telling.

Fray is going to make a move, I thought.  I doubted we could stop it.  She was the iron fist in the velvet glove, gentleness and passivity on the surface, but force and determination lurking within.  The moment we had an edge, well, most fists came in pairs, and there was no velvet where Warren was concerned.

I looked at Wendy, and I could imagine Warren as the inverse of Fray.  He wasn’t lost or completely given over to his monstrous, brutish nature.  There was something gentle at the core.  Velvet was the wrong word for it, though.

We broke away from the other group, entering the edges of the woods that encircled the upper half of Kensford and Dame Cicely’s.

This was a route that Jamie would have been better equipped to navigate.  Without much light to go by and with very few landmarks, we were largely in the dark.

But the campfire was a place where the fire was almost perpetually burning.  These weren’t students who slept.  They were people without futures, or people who thought they lacked futures, and people like that didn’t sleep easy.  Even if death was metaphorical, a loss of all choice and greater hope, one didn’t want to squander their remaining days or months sleeping.

‘Ronnie’ was there, sitting by the fire, with a few monsters and two young women, less than had been here before.  Her surgically modified face stared down into the flames.

“You’re here,” Gordon observed.

“I’m managing things,” she said.  “Telling people where to go, covering important spots.”

“We need you to manage things in another direction.  We found her,” Gordon said.

Ronnie sat up, but the look of surprise on her face wasn’t a look of pleasant surprise.  She looked upset, offended.

“We’re not going to take this chance from you,” I said, quiet.

“You’re creepy little ones, eh?” Ronnie asked, in her odd accent, before settling back down.  “Stepping out of the shadows, talking about big things, like you know me somehow.”

You’re easy to readEveryone, deep down inside, they want something, they fear something, they feel hungers.  The amounts and the flavors of these things vary, but you wear it on your face.

“We don’t have time to dally,” Gordon said.  “How fast can you get the others to Dame Cicely’s?  She was in the basement labs, she’s leaving right this second.”

“She’s leaving.  Was she ever real?”

“Genevieve Fray was real,” I said.

“She was real,” Wendy echoed me.

Ronnie’s eyes narrowed.

“Do this, we put in a good word with people that count,” I said.  “Not for all of you, but for you, and the ones you care the most about.  I know you have some who are here just because, and you have some who are here, who truly belong, your allies.  Genuinely help us, succeed or fail, and I promise you you’ll get what you need.”

“Big promises,” she said.  She didn’t sound convinced.

“Your call,” Gordon said.

Ronnie frowned, then she looked at the girls sitting next to her, first one, then the other, talking under her breath.

They broke off into a run.  One hopped onto the back of the creature that had been slumbering behind her, hugging its back with her hood up and her head down by its shoulder as it darted off into the brush.  The other proceeded on foot, her pet lumbering behind her.

“Let’s go sit by the fire, honey,” Helen said.  “Warm you up.”

“I’m already warm.”

“We’ll make it easier to be warm,” Helen coaxed.

We gathered on the bench, while Ronnie remained where she was, watching intently.

I looked at the girl and raised a finger to my lips.  She didn’t give any indication that she’d seen.

“Genevieve was working on something, wasn’t she?” Gordon asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what she was working on?”

Wendy shook her head.

“What sort of things was she doing?” he asked.

“Things?”

“When she was in the lab.  Was there anything she focused on?  Things she paid more attention to?”

“I don’t- I don’t-”

“Okay,” Gordon hurried to say.  “Okay.  That’s fine.”

Too complicated.

She’d died.  Her old memories were gone, her faculties more limited.  Even if the brain was rescued promptly after death, death was death.  There was always some damage.

“Did she ever talk about viruses?” Helen asked.

Wendy shook her head.

“Bacteria?  Parasites?”

A pause, a frown, a few seconds thought.  Then, once again, a shake of the head.

I thought of something Fray had mentioned, then jumped in, “There are monsters in every town.  Did she talk about those?  About paying visits to anyone or anything in particular?”

The frown was deeper.  I saw the fidgeting.

I could have interrupted, before her thoughts worked themselves into a corner and something gave, but this one was important.  We had some basis in fact.  Much as I’d described to Gordon, Fray was obvious, she was direct.

“I want Warren,” Wendy said.

“I know,” Helen said, gentle.  She gave Wendy a pat on the shoulder.

“I want Warren,” Wendy said, monotone.

Repetition.  Regression.  I was getting anxious now, frustrated.  I understood, she wasn’t the first or the fifth or the fiftieth stitched I’d ever talked to, but we were facing a crunch, and now she was backsliding, falling back to safer mental processes and emotions.  We might not get anywhere at this rate.

“I know,” Helen murmured, again.  “I know, honey.”

“Look, Wendy, look at me.  Come on… there you go,” Gordon said.  He was pulling his jacket off, and then he rolled up his sleeve.  He extended his arm.  “I don’t know if you can see in the firelight, but-”

“Two colors,” Wendy said.  “My eyes aren’t very good, especially this eye, but you’re patchy.  Like me, a little.”

“I’m patchy, yeah,” Gordon said.  He offered a smile.  “You and I, we aren’t so different.  I’m kind of like a stitched.  Not really, but kind of.”

She nodded, paying rapt attention.  Her eyes didn’t leave his arm.  There were stretches that were slightly more tan than others.  Most of him, it wasn’t obvious, but on this part of the arm there was a length where a straight line marked the difference between two very different sorts of skin.  No scars, no stitches, just one kind of skin blending into the next.

“I really care about these guys.  Just like you care about Warren, okay?  I know exactly how you feel.  We’re similar like that, too.”

She nodded slowly.

“We had someone join our group, almost a year ago now.  Mary.  It was pretty obvious from the start that she fit in.  Not a perfect fit, but a good enough one.  She was different.  I don’t think you’re supposed to stay with us.  I don’t think you feel like you’re supposed to stay with us.”

Gordon made a point of looking over at me and Helen.  He was saying that to us as much as he was saying it to Wendy.

“I miss Warren,” Wendy said, again.

“Yeah,” Gordon said.  “You’re going to go back to him soon, alright?  We’re going to make that happen.  That’s where you belong.”

Wendy nodded, more vigorously this time.

“But we need to help him first,” Gordon said.  “We need your help to help him.”

Wendy nodded.

“What sort of things did Genevieve talk about, when she was working?”

“Chemicals,” Wendy said.  “I don’t remember the names.”

“Okay, what else?  What sort of things did she talk about when Lady Claire wasn’t around?”

“No,” Wendy said.

“Try again, Wendy.  What sort of things?”

“Lady Claire was always around.”

Gordon frowned.  “Okay.  Back to the beginning.  Things she talked about.  She talked about chemicals?”

“Yes.”

“What about ratios?”

“Sometimes?”

“Poisons?”

A head shake.  No.

No.  Lady Claire hadn’t been a true rebel.  She’d been surprised to find out what Fray was.

“Were they working on something to help people?” I asked.

The stitched girl snapped her head around to look at me, but didn’t give a response.

“A big project, something that would prove that Lady Claire deserved to continue being a student?”

“No?  Yes?  Sort of?”

“It’s okay,” Helen coaxed.  “Just say what you’re thinking.”

“I don’t- I’m not… not good at thinking.”

“Christ,” Ronnie said, under her breath, the accent slipping, “I haven’t seen many stitched like that one.”

I raised my finger to my mouth again, to remind the girl.

“She’s well made,” Helen said.

The frustration was getting to be too much.  I stood from my seat.  Fray knew we would zero in on what she was doing, the moment Warren conveyed that we’d gotten our hands on Wendy.  She’d put her plan into motion, to maximize the damage.

I paced a little.

Whatever it was, it was going to be disastrous.  Not a monster, not a plague, not a parasite…

“She said, she said that she was going to help the Academy,” Wendy said.

Helen, Gordon and I looked at Wendy.

Help?” Gordon asked.

“That’s… that’s what she said.  It was a big job, and Lady Claire was going to get credit.”

“But you don’t know what?” Gordon asked.

A noise in the bushes startled us.  A group of girls had arrived through the woods.  Some held lanterns.  The lights danced unpredictably, the shadows swaying this way and that.

A dark night.  The wind was picking up.

“Carriage just past the woods,” one girl said.  “What do you need?”

“Dame Cicely’s,” Ronnie said.  “Surround the school.  If there are any doors you can knock on or anyone you can pull from the lunch room, acquaintances, people you think might listen to you, do it.”

“Spread word,” I said.  “Let people know there’s someone dangerous inside, and tell them there’s reward money.”

“Big guy and a woman with crimson lipstick,” Gordon said.  “Search the woods beyond the school, and patrol the streets.  The big guy is hard to miss, and he’s lightly injured.”

“If you see a girl with ribbons in her hair, and it doesn’t look like she’s hiding, do what she says,” I added.

“Whatever they said,” Ronnie said.  “Go, and hurry.”

The girls turned and hurried back through the woods.

I hoped Jamie and Lillian were having more luck rallying help, or that Mary had an eye on Fray.

“You’re doing well,” Gordon reassured Wendy.  “You don’t know what it was that Genevieve and Lady Claire were going to do?  To help the Academy?”

Wendy shook her head.

It was so little.  Cryptic.

I thought of my earlier idea, of the monsters hidden within each small town in the periphery of the big ones.

Would she help the Academy by releasing one of the monsters?

Hard to justify, hard to explain.  Lady Claire wouldn’t buy into that so easily.

Something more benign, something that could fit into a lie.

“My head hurts,” Wendy said.  Her breath didn’t fog up in the cold, but there was a light haze rising from her body.

“Come here,” Helen said.  “Lie down.  Head down here, and get just a little way away from the fire.  I think you’re toasty enough.”

Wendy nodded, lying down with her head in Helen’s lap.

Was that all we were going to get out of her?  She still served as a hostage, in an abstract way.  It was amusing.  The Lambs, myself included, would put a human in the line of fire if we needed a hostage or if we needed to hurt someone to get a step closer in our goals.  It was somehow harder to do with someone or something like Wendy.

Not impossible.  Simply harder.

Better to use her as a negotiation chip, and a way to tether Fray.  Warren wouldn’t leave without Wendy, and Fray most likely wouldn’t leave without Warren.

“I don’t know,” I finally said.

“No,” Gordon agreed.

“No,” Helen said, softly, brushing at Wendy’s hair with her fingers.  Odd, that she was so gentle, but I had little doubt she’d be fastest to act if she needed to hurt Wendy to further our goals.

Well, going from gentle sweetness to murder at a moment’s notice was what she had been made for, in a way.

We sat in silence for a little while.

“We should go find the others,” Gordon said.  “Helen, you stay.  I doubt Fray is going to find you here, and we need to keep her stitched away from her.”

He was thinking along the same lines I was.

Helen nodded.

He and I stood, and we started on our way through the woods, back to the others.

“You wanted to talk about something,” I said.  “Me and Fray?”

“Are you thinking straight?” he asked.

“Do I ever?”

“You’re more capable of thinking straight than you let on, yeah,” he said.

We pushed our way through a thicket of branches between a set of trees.

“I want to beat her so badly,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “A part of me wonders, though.”

“Wonders?”

“If you’d let her go, so you could have the challenge.  If, should the situation come down to it, you’d just miss, or make a mistake.”

I nearly tripped over something hidden under leaves and snow.  I caught myself.

“No,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” I said.  “Maybe with Mauer, I might, but not Fray.”

“Why?  What’s the difference?”

“Why are you even asking?”

“Because I don’t get you, Sy,” he said, tense.  “I try, I can put my mind to it and I can see how you think, with the angles and weirdness, but seeing you in the midst of this, your thoughts are ranging too far afield, I can’t track them.  We were complaining about the way the team wasn’t holding together, but you’ve unhitched the horse from the wagon here.”

“The horse is still hitched to the wagon, Gordon,” I said.  “And I’m sort of pissed you’re implying different.”

“Nah,” he said.

“Nah?”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said.

“That doesn’t sound like you believe me.”

“Sy, relax.”

“The hell?  How am I supposed to relax when you’re questioning me and coming after me and suggesting I’d help her before I helped you guys?”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do.”

“You’re being a dick.

“I’m-” he started, then he stopped.  “Hold on.”

I bit my tongue.  We moved in near-silence for a minute, pushing through frosted vegetation in the dark, the occasional leaf or twig crunching underfoot.  We were close enough to see the lights.  The entire Academy was alight.

It wasn’t that late, all things told, but it was winter, we were a little ways up North, and the days were short.  People would be at dinner.

“Jamie and Mary didn’t get along, when I paired them up earlier, remember?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Helen and Lillian, they’re not much of a match either, you know?  Lillian’s a little scared to work on Helen, even, after Ibott blew up at her a few times.  But they don’t play off each other well, either.”

“They handled the Sub Rosa thing pretty well.”

“Pretty well,” Gordon admitted.  “But what I’m getting at, is you and I…  I like you, Sy, I admire you, but we’re pretty diametrically opposed in how we approach things.”

I nodded.  He could pick up something and be good at it from the outset.  I could focus on something and get very, very good at it, given time.  He was maturing fastest, he was most physically fit.  I was lagging behind to an alarming degree, and I couldn’t even fare that well against Jamie in a mock fight, anymore.  Jamie, of all people.

“That’s not a bad thing,” I said.  “Being different.”

“No.  No it isn’t.  We thrive in diversity.  I think that’s one of the Academy mottoes.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues.”

“Fair,” I said.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Sy,” he said.  “About Fray.  Because you seem to think you have a sense of her, and I’m not feeling it.  You’re making little mistakes, and that tells me you’re not as right as you think you are.”

I bristled at that.

“You can’t be a hundred percent right with her,” I said.  I thought for a second, trying to find the words with which to explain.  “She’s… she has no aggression, she doesn’t let aggression touch her.  If you hit her head on, she doesn’t fly back.  She just diffuses the impact, makes it wasted effort.  She shows something on the surface, but there’s a depth there she’s hiding.”

“You’ve got a look on your face,” Gordon said.  “Like you’re concentrating really hard.”

“I’m…” I said, but he wasn’t wrong.  I had all the thoughts and puzzle pieces in my head, the mystery that was Fray and what Fray was doing.  Wendy’s commentary was a big factor in making the connections.  Even behind the scenes, there hadn’t been an iron fist within the velvet glove.

I was feeling like I was on the cusp of something, just about ready to have the explanation fall off my tongue.

“She’s transparent,” I said.  “I keep coming back to water imagery.”

“Water.”

I nodded.

I thought of the sea monster within the river, that I had watched with Fray.  It had been sluggish, sick.

She had showed me, right from the outset.

The lab in the basement of Dame Cicely’s.  The water had been running beneath the school, fueling its projects.  She had access.

Water was the source of all life.

“She did something to the water supply,” I realized, aloud.  I pushed harder through the branches, now.

“What?  Hell, Sy, this school has the daughters of some of the Crown’s elite in attendance!”

“Something subtle, whatever it is, they’ve all already been dosed, damn it!” I said, almost running now, not caring about the branches that scraped me.  “And people are going to find out, because she’s going to inform them, and it’s going to be catastrophic!  We need to find the people in charge and we need to start running damage control right away!”

We reached the edge of the forest.  Wendy and Helen were safe in a hiding spot that Fray wasn’t likely to find.  Our eyes fell on a group of girls who were standing around the school, one of them was someone we’d seen at the fire.

“Tell the other girls.  They have to find the faculty, tell them to meet us out here, it’s an emergency,” I told them.  I passed the girl my badge.  “Show them this, they should understand.”

“You want to let the woman go?”

It was a good question.  We were playing directly into Fray’s hands, creating gaps in the perimeter.  Fray had known we would have to.

I couldn’t give the answer.  Doing it would prove Gordon right.  I looked to him to make the call, to decide.

Had I communicated well enough about Fray for him to understand this?

“If you have to,” he said.  “Prioritize warning people.”

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.”

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Stitch in Time – 4.7

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“Wish we were older,” I muttered, hands in my coat pockets, shoulders hunched forward, hood pulled down low.  “Kind of hard to disappear in the crowd when there’s like, fifty kids in a town of fifteen thousand.”

“Yup,” Gordon said.  He was perched on the window ledge, taking his tools out, two small, thin rods.  He put the two of them together into the lock at the outside of the window.  Wrought iron branches and glass.  A quick check on Gordon’s part had verified that the room was empty.

“I’ve counted at least sixty,” Jamie said.  “Sixty kids.  Your count is way off.”

“Oh lords, shut up, Jamie,” I said, groaning.

Jamie stuck out his tongue at me.  I reached out to grab it, only for it to disappear back into his mouth.  I settled for lightly swatting at his cheek instead.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Mary asked Gordon.

“Some rough types in Radham, professional thieves.”

“How hard is it?”

“I dunno,” Gordon said.  “I have a good sense of touch and fine dexterity, so I found it pretty easy.  Sy tried his hand at it too, but he doesn’t keep up the practice.”

Mary looked at me, looking vaguely offended at the idea.  I shrugged.

“How come?” she asked.

“I forget it.  I learn it, and it’s fast to pick up.  Then I don’t have an excuse to do it for a while, or something comes up, like an appointment, and I feel like I’m starting from scratch.”

“Sy can forget how to ride a bike,” Jamie said.

With that, I saw a bit of sympathy from Mary, rather than that vague accusation of before.

I shrugged, hands back in my pockets.

“And we’re in,” Gordon said, taking the attention off me.  He hopped down, and collected his stuff, before sliding the lockpicking kit between his pants and his underwear, hiding the clip behind his belt.

“I still have a few practice locks and some picks in my room back at Lambsbridge,” I said.  “Remind me, I’ll lend them to you,” I told Mary.

She gave me a winning smile at that.

Gordon finished setting up, looking up at the window, the windowsill a few feet up off the ground.

“I wish we were taller, now that I’m thinking about it,” I commented.  “Be nice to-”

Gordon then lunged up to the window ledge with no effort at all.  He caught it, then swung himself over in the next second.

“-Be able to get up there without a boost,” I finished.  He had needed help before, but I supposed one of his hands had been full with the lockpicks.

I moved beneath the window, knitting my fingers together to provide a step for the others.

“No,” Lillian said.  “We’ve gone over this.  If you’re down here while we go up, you’re going to look up our skirts.”

“Pshh,” I said.  “I’ll go up first, then.”

“And then you look down the front of my blouse when I’m climbing over,” Lillian said, accusatory.

Your blouse?  Nah.”

Ah, the look on her face told me I’d struck home.  Indignation, the opiate of bastardly sorts the world over.  That was what she got for being annoying.

“Besides, it’s winter, there aren’t any necklines,” I said, changing the topic before she found the words to yell at me.

Interesting that you’d take note of that so readily,” Jamie said, dry.

“It’s obvi-”

“Guys,” Gordon said, cutting me off.  He was looking down on us from up above, chest resting on the windowsill.  “Pay attention?  And maybe be a little quieter?”

“Boost?” I asked Jamie.

He gave me a hand.  I kipped up high enough that I could grab Gordon’s arm, and he hauled me up the rest of the way.

It made me think.  The difference in our sizes, the difference in our strength.  He was capable of hauling me up off the ground and leaving me dangling.  At thirteen, he looked closer to fifteen or sixteen.  He had a physique, rather than a child’s body that just happened to have fat on it, or minimal fat, as mine did.

While he caught Lillian’s bag and deposited it on the floor, I found myself measuring the difference in our heights.  He was almost ten inches taller than me, if I had to guess.  In the spring, it had been closer to three or four.

It wasn’t that he was growing that fast.  Well, he was growing with a surprising speed, but that wasn’t the whole of it.

My height hadn’t really changed, nor had my build.

I offered a hand in helping Lillian up, realized I was getting in the way more than I was helping, and backed off a little.

Together with her, I surveyed the surroundings.  We were in a dormitory bedroom, but it was nice.  The furniture looked like antiques, or something expensive that would be antique someday.  Four poster bed, a writing desk with leather-backed books on a shelf above it, a bookcase with more texts on it, and a wall-mounted blackboard with notations and formulas on one half, and a to-do list on the other.

Gordon helped Helen up.  She was more graceful than Lillian had been, planting a foot on the windowsill, holding onto Gordon’s hand, then stepping down and dropping to a crouch-come-curtsy on landing.  She gave me a winning smile as she straightened up.

“You’re ridiculous,” I said, my voice low.

“I’m in a good mood,” she said.  “Because we’re on the prowl.”

“You don’t have moods,” I said.

“I have biological imperatives, thank you very much,” she said, prim, hands clasped behind her back, “And one of those imperatives is to stalk and kill.  We’re stalking.  It’s nice.”

“I’m more inclined to blame the chocolate cake from earlier,” I told her.

“Hmph.  That’s one of my other biological imperatives.”

Lillian nodded as if this was the most sensible thing in the world.

“Are you actually developing a sense of humor?” I asked, a little stunned.

She winked at me, then spun around.  “Gordon, do you think we’ll be exiting this way?  Can I hide my coat?”

“Better to keep it,” he said.

“We’ll look more like we belong if we don’t have outdoor stuff on,” I said.

Gordon made a noncommittal grumbling noise.  He helped Jamie up, plucking the book from Jamie’s hands, handing it to me, then helping Jamie through.  I provided the book once Jamie’s boots were firmly on the hardwood floor.

Mary came up next.  No boost.  A short running start, from the sounds of it, stepping onto the wall, and grabbing Gordon’s hand.

As she hopped down, I found myself comparing our heights.

She was a few inches taller than me, but unlike Gordon, she hadn’t quite shaken off the gawkishness of being young.  She had little traces of femininity here and there, promises of what was to come, but she also had natural flourish and style, instilled in her by Mothmont and Percy both.  She was a lady, when she was of a mind to be.

Helen was the inverse, in some ways, a little shorter than Mary, but already taking shape as a young woman.  It was little surprise, but she was the fastest of the girls to develop hips and chest, and she was gradually altering her blonde ringlets to match, inching ever closer to a woman’s hairstyle over a young girl’s, a journey that would take just the right amount of time to complete.  Helen could be a lady, she could be a precocious child, and switched between the two at a whim.  As I knew her, though, there was a wildness to her, as if a genie had bottled up a predator in the guise of a child, and all of the growls and restless pacing was translated into sweet smiles and flourishes, and in stillness, waiting like the spider or the praying mantis, she conveyed nothing more or less than the young woman at ease.

Jamie, like me, still embraced the awkwardness of youth, in frame and face, but he had height.  He’d quietly embraced his own style, with the long blond hair and the glasses, the book forever in his arms, drawing up subtle walls between him and the world, while his eyes peered past, taking everything in.

And then Lillian.  Still young, shortest of the girls now, still awkward in youth and figure.  A step behind, in so many ways, but I respected how she’d come to find and earn her place among us.  She chose clothes carefully, and remained conscious and defensive of her girlishness in a way that Helen and Mary would never have to.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing, studying them, but it was some hybrid approach to measuring myself against them and defining the tools we had available to use against Fray.

This was dangerous territory.  All it took was one person to raise an alarm of sorts, asking questions about why such young children were in a school for young ladies already exiting or out of their adolescent years, and Fray might be able to react against us.

“Any thoughts on the coats?” I asked.

“Been thinking about it,” Gordon said.  “I say coats off.  If we’re traipsing around with this stuff on, they might be more likely to ask questions.  We need to look like we belong.”

“Even if we stick out like sore thumbs,” I said.

“Even if,” he said.

Mary nodded in agreement.  She was already removing her coat.  Lillian, Gordon, Helen and I were a step behind.

Halfway through pulling my stuff off, tightly folding the forest green scarf into a bundle I could put in a pocket, I saw that Jamie was standing by the bookcase, a book open in front of him.

“Jamie?” I asked.

“One second.”

I finished pulling all my stuff off, and handed it over to Gordon, who stuffed it under the bed.  I walked over to Jamie, and glanced over his elbow to see the book he was looking over.

Rows on rows of portraits, with names beneath.  He gave each page only a moment’s glance.

“Left arm,” I told him.

Without taking his eyes off the book, he held out his left arm.  I pulled his jacket free of the arm.

“Right arm.”

I pulled the coat free, then handed it to Gordon.  Like the rest, the coat disappeared beneath the bed.  Mary had already closed the window, and was busy with her sweater up around her ribs, tucking her shirt into her skirt in such a way that it wouldn’t hamper her access to the knife handles that only slightly stuck up from her beltline.

“Key things,” I said.  “Cover?  Anyone asks, we’re prospective students.”

“Girl’s only school,” Mary said.

“Jamie, Gordon and I will cross-dress,” I said.  I saw the annoyed looks, and I cracked a grin, “The school is going co-ed.”

“Nobody’s going to believe that,” Lillian said.  “The woman-only nature of the school is important.”

“Blame it on money and nobility,” I said.  “Some prat lord decided he wanted to go to the school with all the girls, set the wheels in motion.  Only the higher-ups and some important people know.  Anyone asks, we don’t say, but we imply we’re important enough to know.”

There were a few nods.

“Best to avoid being in a position where we have to justify anything,” Jamie said.

“Well yeah, obviously,” I agreed.

Gordon nodded.  “Okay.  That’s the story.  When you’re inventing yourselves, stick to points and names established during previous infiltration jobs.  If possible, let Jamie come up with the details.  He’s best at that.”

“Can do,” Jamie said.

I raised a finger,  “We need to find out what Fray is doing, disarm and disrupt her.  That means finding the lab, the room where she’s staying, or something.”

There were a few nods.

“Finally, Lady Claire.  We need to find her.  Through her, we have access to Fray, information, whatever else.  Depending on what’s going on, we might be able to get clues, or figure out a path of attack.”

“School hours are over,” Lillian said.  “It’s late afternoon, and if Dame Cicely’s is anything like Radham Academy, the girls are going to return to their rooms to change clothes for dinner sometime soon, if they aren’t already.  They’ll go to the dining hall to eat, if they don’t go into town, and then there’ll be a few hours of social activity and studying before people start settling in for the night.”

“Good,” Gordon said.  Lillian smiled at the praise.

“Fray is Lady Claire’s tutor,” I said.  “Claire is a poor student, and Fray is her savior.  That means Claire is devoted, indebted, probably disconnected from her peers.  I’m thinking they’re going to eat out, or eat in their rooms.  We find out where they’re working, try to mark her location, divide our attention between investigating whatever it is she’s doing and keeping track of her.  See if we can’t-”

The doorknob rattled, and I was immediately silent.  All six sets of eyes were now on the door.

A key scratched at the lock, then raked its way into the keyhole.

Just like that, Jamie, Helen, Lillian and I stepped back to the side of the bed, using it to conceal ourselves.  Gordon and Mary advanced, exchanging a brief set of hand signals.

Gordon pointed, formed a fist, jerking it toward his shoulder.  You.  Pull.  That second sign worked as ‘get’, ‘take’, or ‘hold’, depending.

Mary’s response was a ‘yes’.  Fist formed, pumped slightly in the air.

Gordon twisted, looking at Lillian.  A point, then another gesture, a hand waved over his face.

You.  Sleep.  The second sign could mean tired, drunk, it didn’t really matter.  Lillian made an alarmed sound, reaching for her bag, pulling it around in front of her so she could rummage within.  I had a glimpse of the contents, metal plates keeping things rigid and protecting bottles and syringes.

Gordon was already turning and grabbing the chair from beside the desk, approaching as the door swung open.

A young woman, eighteen or so, stepped into the room.  A little heavy, with a hairstyle that didn’t suit her round face, but not without her appeal.  A definite cute ‘girl next door’ type.

She looked at Gordon with shock, as Mary stepped in from the corner behind the door and gave her a hard shove.

The girl stumbled forward, and Gordon swung the top of the chair into her solar plexus.

Have they been practicing, or is this their natural dynamic? I wondered.

Lillian was still searching her bag as the woman crumpled to all fours on the floor, trying and failing to breathe.

Things weren’t so simple as all that.  The girls of Dame Cicely’s were never alone.  Each and every one had a pet, their status symbol, suggesting the kind of work they focused on, and the skills they were able to bring to bear.  The room’s occupant was no different.  It shouldered its way past the door that Mary had tried to close between it and its master.

It looked like a human with all the skin pulled off in a singular piece, bug-eyed without its eyelids, teeth too white against a backdrop of crimson.  The torso had been stretched, making it tall enough its head almost scraped the doorframe.  The arms had been removed and replaced with a row of insect limbs that extended from hip to shoulders, each of the limbs tipped with a wicked looking claw, thorn-like growths running down the length of each.

It noted its fallen mistress and made an alarmed noise.  The sound didn’t resemble anything human or insectile, guttural and wet, like someone in the end stages of pneumonia might make if they had to scream something to save their loved ones from an approaching killer.

It staggered forward, the slow, awkward gait of the body not matching the fluid, precise movement of the clawed arms, each arm drawing back, then stabbing.  Mary dropped low to the ground, started to retreat toward Gordon, but proved it to be a feint, dodging back behind the thing, shutting the door, sealing us in with it.

Gordon shoved the four legs of the chair at it, and two of the claws punched through the seat, no doubt at least an inch and a half of solid wood.  He wrenched his body, moving the chair to one side, and managed to block one more claw that had been trying to reach past the chair to stab at his side.

Lillian found what she was looking for, triumphantly holding up a bottle and needle.  She withdrew a dose, then rose, approaching from around the bed, hesitating a little at the sight of Gordon fighting the graft-monster.

“Here!” Mary called out.

“But-” Lillian started.  “Dose is for her.

“Here!” Mary said, more insistent.  Her first shouted statement had drawn a glance from the creature.  Not having success against Gordon, seeing Mary with nary a chair to protect herself, it started to reorient, moving its arms in preparation to stab.

I saw Lillian look, pausing, not sure what to do, eyes on the space over the experiment’s shoulder that she needed to lob the needle through, knowing an errant throw could hit a wall or the ceiling, or that a moving arm could swat the thing aside.

I snatched the needle from her hand, then moved forward, ducking low to cast it along the hardwood floor.

Gordon, in a last-ditch effort to save Mary from being impaled on a half-dozen points, twisted the chair.  One or two arms were still caught in it, or caught between rungs and the seat of the chair, and the creature reacted, turning its attention back toward him.

Mary had the needle, and brought it up into the creature’s abdomen, pressing the syringe.  One free hand, then the other, went up to catch at three of the thing’s ‘elbows’, holding them at bay, to reduce it’s range of movement.

It took only a few seconds for the dose to work.  It collapsed, landing across its creator’s body, helping to pin her down.

The girl on the floor coughed, as if the cough could bring air into her lungs.

She couldn’t quite look at Gordon, who practically straddled her, or at Mary, who was behind, so she looked at us, alarmed and confused.

I looked away, my attention on the bag, pulling a free syringe from the spot where Lillian had taken the first, then grabbing the tranquilizer.  I pushed both into Lillian’s hands, distracting her from the young lady we’d just assaulted.

“It’s okay,” Helen said.  With Lillian now measuring a dose, me busy with the bag and Lillian, urging our medic forward, Helen was the only one left with our captive’s attention.  “You’re in no danger.  We just need you to sleep for the rest of the night.  You’ll wake up on the floor, safe and sound.”

The young woman opened her mouth to talk, and only wound up coughing again.

“Do you have friends that would come looking for you?” Gordon asked.  “If you’re missing at dinner?  Or after?”

The girl frowned, then after a pause, she nodded.

“Don’t lie,” I said.

She looked up at me, concerned, heaving in wheezy breaths.  I’d only been guessing, but her reaction to me calling her on it was telling.

“That’s a no,” I told Gordon.

He nodded.  “We have an escape route if we need it.  Place to hide out.”

Mary partially opened the door.  “One-sixteen.”

“Remember that,” Gordon said, to the rest of us.

Lillian approached our captive with a needle in hand.  I saw the girl tense up.

“Typhomine,” Lillian said.  “Thirty three point four milligrams, for a person that weighs eleven stone.”

Our captive took that in, then relaxed.

“On your side,” Lillian said, bending down, pushing at the girl’s shoulder.

The girl obeyed, twisting her upper body until she was lying on her side.

When Lillian reached out with the needle, a hand went up.  Gordon grabbed it, holding it down, and Lillian stuck the young woman in the stomach.

In moments, she was asleep.

Lillian grabbed a pillow from the bed and put it under the woman’s head, then another, propped behind her back.

Gordon looked impatient by the time she was done.  Lillian gave him a nod, as if to confirm that she was done.

Think what you want, Gordon, that would have been far harder without Lillian, I thought.  I handed her her bag.

Mary peeked out into the hall, then gave us the go-ahead.

The hall was largely empty.

We moved as a group.  Helen, Gordon, Mary, and I were quick to slip into our roles.  We walked comfortably, casually.  Stealth was good, staying out of sight and being quiet, but the next best thing was to look like we belonged.  Moving with purpose, briskly enough that it looked like we knew what we were doing.  If we looked lost, then others would want to give us direction, or question what we were doing.

“Turn right,” Jamie said.

“How the heck do you know where we’re going?” Gordon asked.

“Photos in the yearbook, outline of the school, what we saw from outside.  It feels like common sense,” Jamie said, quiet.

“That’s kind of scary,” Lillian said.  “I know you could pull out anything you’d seen, but connecting the pieces, now?”

“You have your thing, you practice it.  I have my thing,” Jamie said.  “Not that I’m positive, mind you.”

“Better than nothing,” Gordon said.  Then, not for the first time, he said, “Wish I had that brain of yours.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said, quiet.  “Maybe.”

Mary couldn’t have made the connection.  Even Lillian probably wouldn’t have remembered, it was so long ago I wasn’t even sure Lillian had been with us.

No, the very first time they’d had the exchange had been one of our earliest meetings.  When the Lambs had just made the move from being three to being four, Jamie joining our ranks, we had been learning what each of us were capable of.

I wish I had your brain.

I wish I had your body.

If I remembered the interplay of dialogue between Jamie and Gordon, then Jamie had to, right?

Odd, that he hadn’t brought it up or used the line.  He was acting odd in a few ways, as a matter of fact.  Jamie looked tense, and a side effect of that tension was that he was too stiff, not quite the casual air we needed.

I knew that this particular situation made him the fish out of water.  Improvising wasn’t his strong suit, because improvising required fast reactions and adaptation.  But shouldn’t that have made him more willing to lean on us, stick to the tried and true, the interplay, the jokes, the reminder that we were a team?

I poked him in the side.  He flinched, doubling over a little, then shot me a look.

I rolled my shoulders, then stretched, fingers together, arms over my head with palms up.

“Uh huh,” Jamie said.  He seemed to force himself to relax.

It solved the immediate problem, but it didn’t solve the rest of it.  I wasn’t sure what was up with him.

Double doors at the opposite end of the hallway banged open, a small herd of young ladies in fashionable clothing coming through.  Their hair was nicely done up, and the clothes were nice, high quality, though not loud or attention-getting.  They were fitting the atmosphere of the school, unconsciously adapting.

“More girls visiting their rooms before dinner,” Lillian said.  “Before long we’re going to be surrounded.”

“Being surrounded is bad.  It’s less chance for us to see Fray before she sees us,” I said.

“Yeah,” Gordon agreed.  “Let’s get out of sight.”

“Through the doors, hard right, then stairs, down,” Jamie said.

There was a heavy set of double doors just like the one the collection of Dame Cicely’s students had come through.  Gordon and I each pushed one of the doors open.  We rounded the corner.  There were more rooms to either side, but the hallway was short, and at the end of it were two sets of stairs, one leading down, the other leading up.

“What’s downstairs?” I asked.

“Labs.  They’re almost always downstairs,” Jamie said.  “I don’t know what the layout is, but I doubt they’re going to be too busy if people are going from class to their rooms for dinner.”

“No guarantees,” I said.

If Fray saw us and bolted-

Footsteps on the stairs marked someone or multiple someones coming down the stairs.  We were too far away to make a run for downstairs, too far forward to try and slip through the doors.

Immediately, as we’d done with the young woman in her dorm room, we looked for our exits.

Six of us, and four of us had the wherewithal to check nearby dorm rooms, hoping some were unlocked.

No luck on all four counts.  Stupid school with its scheming, paranoid students.

The girls came down the stairs, and I found myself saying a mantra in my head, as if I could will it to be true.  Don’t be Fray.  Don’t be Fray.  Don’t be Fray.  Especially don’t be Fray’s killer monster man.

The young women were in the company of their pet monsters and stitched, chattering with one another.  None were Fray.  Nor the monster.

But there was one more experiment than there were human girls.

The stitched girl from Fray’s entourage carried a tray of kettle, plates of tidbits and cups.  She saw us and stopped so suddenly that it startled the girls in her company, porcelain rattling on the tray, tea slopping over the side, threatening to spill.

It was a still tableau.

“It’s you!” she said, staring at us.

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