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.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

 

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?”

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Esprit de Corpse – 5.6

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

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

Esprit de Corpse – 5.5

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

I watched Helen and Gordon chatter, joining in now and again with a comment.  The topic was our etiquette and presentation class.  It still put me off, having known Helen for a few months, how she could switch from eerie deadpan to animated and normal, demonstrating the very subjects that Gordon was bringing up.  The two of us gave her tips, and she demonstrated each of them with an uncanny accuracy, shaping and refining her body language, tone, and overall presentation.

They were as different as night and day, at the fundamental level, human and inhuman, but they had still found a connection.

I realized we had a fourth member present.  The new kid.  Quiet.

“Have you had the class yet?” I asked him, to make conversation.

He shook his head, then raised a hand to push the glasses up his nose.

“They make us do it, so we can fit into more situations, and so we don’t embarrass Mr. Hayle, I think,” I said.

“Seems like Helen and Gordon took it to heart,” the boy said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “They know their stuff.”

“You don’t?  I’m still trying to figure everyone out.  I think I understand them, Gordon more than Helen, but she’s-“

“An experiment,” I finished.

He nodded, looking guilty for even saying it.

“To answer your question, I think they’re trying to decide if I should keep going or if I’m a lost cause.”

“Oh,” he said.

I cracked a smile.  “I’m more interested in the professors than anything.  They find really interesting people, four so far, and I’ve made it a challenge for myself to see how fast I can get under their skin.”

“I’m starting to get the picture,” he said.

I smiled wider.

“I still feel so lost,” he said.  “And I’m not catching up.  I sleep sixteen hours a day, I have more appointments than anyone, I have less time in class, less time with the rest of you, it’s not helping.  They say it’s going to get better, but…”

He trailed off.

“Whatever happens, we’ll help,” I said.  “We’ll understand.  Honest.”

He probably wasn’t aware how much doubt came across on his face.

There was something he wasn’t telling me.

“I’ll start,” I said, smiling.  “I’ve completely forgotten your name.”

“I’ve told you four times.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “What is it, again?”

“Jamie.”

“Jamie,” I said.  I closed my eyes and tried to commit it to memory.  “They tell me this will get better too, as they fix the dosages.  And it is.  But right now it sucks.  I know what it’s like to feel like you’re falling behind.”

“Speaking of,” he said, “I think I’m dozing off.  I can barely keep my eyes awake.  Those two talking is putting me under.”

“Then sleep,” I said.  “I don’t mind.”

“I’m afraid to sleep, sometimes,” he said, his voice soft, still watching them.  The sudden onset of fatigue was obvious.

“Why?”

“Sometimes, I fall asleep, and when I wake up, they’ve got me hooked up, and there’s nothing I can do before they throw the switch.”

I remembered the chair, the cloth-covered tanks.  I’d snooped.  I’d met Ashton and Evette, in a way.  I’d seen the aftermath, the labs where their remains were interred.  Evette dead before she even awoke, Ashton an effective abortion, left in a tank that now smelled of formaldehyde.  On bad days I’d slept on the floor in their rooms, or stayed up all night with them, talking to them, knowing they couldn’t ever respond.

That thought on my mind, I spoke without thinking, “Whatever happens, as long as I can help it, and I can help a lot of things, I will not let them do that again.  At the very least, I’ll wake you up before they take you.”

He smiled for the first time.  A real smile, anyway.  “You sound so serious.”

I reached out and took his hand, squeezing it hard enough that it made my own hand hurt.  When that wasn’t enough, I grabbed it with my other hand, squeezing his between the two of mine.  “I am.  I’m promising.”

“I owe you for one good nap, then,” he told me.

“You don’t owe me anything.  That’s not how we do this.”

“I stand corrected.”

“And that’s a promise that applies to every nap, every time you sleep.”

He frowned a little, eyes opening more as he studied me.

“We’re going to go live somewhere else starting this summer.  Until then, I know how to get out of my room.  I know where your room is.”

“It’s not that important.  You’ll get in trouble.”

“It is important,” I said.  “I’ve promised, and I can’t break my first ever promise to you.  Not when we’re all going to be together for the rest of our lives.”

He nodded slowly.  I thought for a second that he was nodding off.

“Who were you, before?” he asked me.

“Before all this?  Don’t remember.”

“I can’t imagine that.  Isn’t it scary, not knowing?”

“I found my file, I read it.  I know they didn’t expect me to look for it, so I don’t think it was a trick,” I said.  “I wasn’t anybody special.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

I shot him a look.  “That line is so lame.  Oh, I don’t even have words-“

“Stop.”

“So lame!”

He gave me a light push.

“Unforgivably lame!”

He pushed me harder.  I nearly fell from the edge of the table I was sitting on.

I settled down, still laughing, dragging my fingers down one side of my face.  Gordon and Helen were staring now, but I hadn’t distracted them sufficiently to break the stride of their conversation.

“What can I do for you?” he asked me.

“Never say-“

“Forget what I said!  Really.  What can I do?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“It’s okay if you can’t do what you said.  I’ll understand-“

“-I’ll do it.  I promised.”

“Then I want to know what I can do to help you.  I’m going to find a way to help you, Sylvester.”

I shrugged, shaking my head.

“Nothing bothers you?  Nowhere you need help?  When I first met Gordon, he said you have a hard time after your appointments?”

“Oh, did he?  Yeah, I guess.”

“Why?”

“It hurts,” I said.  “It hurts so much it makes me feel like there’s nothing else.  After, I feel like less of a person.  More like I’m a piece of metal, thrust into the fire, over and over.”

“And they’re hammering you into shape?”

“No,” I confessed.  “Mostly, I get to hold the hammer.  There’s that, at least.”

He was nodding off, now.  Slumping forward.

I could see the ridged scar running up from the collar of his shirt to the nape of his neck.  His head had been shaved for the last surgery.  It was still so short that I could see his scalp.

“Wish I could help, somehow,” he murmured.  I gave his shoulder a push, and he roused enough to shift position, leaning back against the wall, the ends of each leg dangling off the edge of the table.

“Nothing you can do to help,” I said.  I didn’t speak my thoughts aloud.  Except maybe talk.  Beats talking to Ashton or Evette, at least.

He was already out.  He’d fought it and lost.

Now it was more like talking to Ashton.  I murmured to myself, “It’s up to me.  I’ve got to get used to it somehow, make friends with the pain.”

I nearly fell as the other two urged me through the door.  Jamie let go of me to close the door, very softly, and Helen wasn’t strong enough to hold me up.  She did what she could to ease my collapse to the floor.

Pain.  I’d thought I’d achieved a serious tolerance to it over the years, but the very real imagery suggested a lapse.  I’d nearly passed out, drifting into memories.

Was this what it meant to see my life flashing before my eyes?  It was as good a starting point as anything else.  I didn’t have many memories of things that came before.  Some games with Helen and Gordon, some antics after I broke out of my room, time with Evette and Ashton.  Less meaningful things.

“You with us, Sy?” Jamie asked.

“Yup,” I said, putting all my effort into sounding casual as I let my head sink back to the floor.  I was in a kitchen, I realized.  Checkered drapes at the window.

The small pinpoint of pain had spread and expanded until it felt like my stomach was three times the size, filled with agony.  It wasn’t swollen, though.  It was a regular, too-skinny tummy with a hole in it and a lot of blood leaking around it, into my shirt and the top of my pants.  I had blood that had dripped around the side of my body and into my butt crack.

This kind of agony was something I was used to, though it limited how I could move and pull my thoughts together.  Blood in my butt crack somehow drove the point home better than my life flashing before my eyes.  It was a signal that things were horribly, horribly wrong.

People should never ever have blood in their buttcrack.

“They’re close,” Helen said.

“I know,” Jamie replied.  He stared down at me.  “I’m going to find a way to help you, Sy.”

I nodded.  I winced as I inhaled and swallowed at the same time and that somehow made the wrong thing move, touching on the area where I’d been shot.  “We should go.”

“We should,” Jamie said, “But we need to stop the bleeding, at the very least.”

“Need Lillian, but she’s too far away,” I said.  I blinked with more force than was needed, because I didn’t want to have my eyes close and stay closed.

A very deep, male voice cut in, “Who’s Lillian, and what the hell are you doing?”

I saw Jamie go limp, his head bowing.  Defeat.

Helen, of course, was Helen.  I looked over in the direction she was staring, and I saw a man in the doorway of the kitchen, a wife and child behind him, staring.

I looked back to Helen, and tears were falling down her cheeks.  Crying on command.

I met Jamie’s eyes, then spoke, “The Academy’s attacking.”

I watched the expression on the man and woman’s faces.  The wide eyes of the child, who was young enough to be of indeterminate gender.  The man was young.  He’d probably had the child in or just after his teens.  He was like an older Gordon, if Gordon had a weak chin.  His expression changed as he wrestled with fear and trying to summon his courage.

He only needed a push.

“Help me,” I said.  My ability to almost take the pain in stride made it more difficult to find the piteous tone I needed.

He rushed to my side, twisted around, and told his wife, “The kit!  It’s under the sink!”

The woman took the little kid with her as she left.  Hopefully to get the ‘kit’.

“They attacked in the street,” Jamie said.  “You heard the gunshots?”

The man nodded.  “We were looking out the window at the other side of the house.”

I spoke, wincing as I did, “They looked like the resistance members.  Black coats, black shirts, those rifles-“

“Exorcists,” Jamie said.

“I saw one standing there.  His face changed, eyes and nose and mouth and ears going all wonky,” I said.  “Then he saw that I’d seen him, he shouted something, a signal, and then he shot me, before he started shooting at the crowd.”

Tension lines stood out in the man’s face and neck.  He didn’t move his eyes from the bloody hands that were pressing down on my wound.  It damn well hurt, but I could push through the pain, I could find the presence of mind to lie.

Might as well foster paranoia and propaganda while I’m lying here bleeding.

“They looked normal?”

“Yes,” Helen said, still crying.  “It scared me.”

The man didn’t budge.  I could imagine he was processing, trying to grasp the situation, and what the course of action should be.

His wife came down, with a large kit and no child trailing behind.

“I don’t know what to do,” the man said.

“I do,” Jamie said.

He did?

I watched as Jamie opened the kit.  I could see the label on the lid.  It was the sign of some Academy or another, ironically enough.  A full kit for medics.  Many had been sold to the public after the last war.  By the time another war rolled around -this one, as it happened- there would be better kits, with better tools and components.

He moved with a quiet assuredness as he picked through the various things.  I watched him, periodically blinking with more force than was necessary, breathing shallow breaths to keep my stomach from hurting.  He gathered special pliers and a long syringe with two handles, powders, and metal clamps.

He met my eyes, and there was an awful lot communicated in that look.

Among them was an unspoken agreement.

Had I let slip that he was trying to figure out Latin, after our little trip down to the Dungeons with Sub Rosa, Jamie would have gotten in serious trouble.

This was something else entirely.

“Never done this before,” he murmured.

“You said-” the man of the house started.

“My dad is a doctor,” Jamie lied.  Then he told the truth, saying, “I’ve watched and learned.”

“If you’re not sure-“

“I’m sure,” Jamie lied, again.  He lied for a third time as he said, “I was talked through procedures worse than this.”

You’ve seen, you remember, you piece it together, I thought.

“The powder smells different,” Jamie said.

“Could be old,” the man said.

Jamie made a face, then tossed the powder.  He rifled through the kit until he found a liquid, instead.  He set a match on my chest.

“Uh,” I said.

“Sorry,” he said.  “Going to have to do it like it’s done on the battlefield.”

“You’ve never seen a battlefield, you butt!”

“I’ve heard,” he said.  He didn’t respond to the insult.  I realized how scared he was.

The problem with this piecemeal knowledge.  He knew the moves he needed to make, but he didn’t have a foundation.  One day, all going according to plan, he could have that foundation.  He couldn’t trust a medicine that smelled different.  But that he could even figure out the right tools, that he was this far along, and he’d kept it a secret?

The Academy couldn’t know.  We were forbidden.

The man moved his hands.  Jamie took the scalpel to my injury, opening it up enough for the pliers to go in.

He looked so terrified I couldn’t bear to look at him.  My head dropped to the floor, and I reached out to pat his knee, grunting and gasping now and then as the pliers moved.  A small sound escaped my throat as I held my breath.

“Isn’t there something you can give him?” the man asked.

“No,” I said, a moment before Jamie said, “No.”

“But-“

“There!” I jumped in, and the volume and suddenness with which I’d spoken made the pain explode through my abdomen.  I groaned, long and loud, clenching my fist and squeezing Jamie’s knee hard, making little sounds with every pant.

“Easy,” Helen said.  She gave my forehead a pat, and pushed hair out of my eyes.  It was sweaty, and stayed out of the way.

“Talk to me,” Jamie said.  “I’m not good enough to find it on my own.”

The man spoke up, “You can’t possibly-“

“Close,” I said.  “No, other direction.”

“I feel it.”

He found it, he got a grip on it, locked the pliers’ grip, and he pulled the modified pliers free, a bullet the size of a grape held in the prongs.

I wasn’t privy to the particulars of the clean up job, but he dumped the contents of the bottle in, daubed it around with a swab to get the parts the match couldn’t reach, then seared the bleedy bits with the match.

“Now I’m hungry,” I murmured, as I smelled the seared flesh.

“But we just ate,” Helen said.  “We had treats!”

“I was joking.”

She gave me a disapproving look.  The tears had dried up, and she was smiling a little.  All an act, of course.

He glued me together and closed me up, using the clamps to hold things in place until the glue could set.

“I’m not sure how much blood you’ve already lost,” Jamie said.  “There’s no aqua nucifera, and I wouldn’t trust it if there was.”

I nodded.

“Don’t move too quickly,” he said.  “You’re going to be weak.”

“Like that’s anything new,’ I said.

He put the tools aside, leaving a bit of a mess.  The man looked a little concerned, as if things didn’t add up, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Helen gave me a hand in getting to my feet.  The man and Jamie moved to the kitchen sink to wash their hands.

I still had blood in my butt crack.  I probably looked like a wreck.

“There haven’t been more gunshots,” the man observed.

“There was one with a knife,” I said.  “One with claws, and one with some weapon on a chain.”

“A censer,” Jamie said, looking over at me.

I gestured for him to ease up a bit.  I saw him nod.

Riding a high.  He did what he wasn’t supposed to do, he even succeeded and saved me, hopefully.  Whatever special kind of person Jamie might’ve been, he was still a person.  He got a rush of adrenaline from a success like that.

It didn’t show that much, though.  Jamie was quiet and reserved at the best of times.  He cleaned himself up, leaving his sleeves still rolled up, and grabbed his bag.

“I should go,” the man said.  He turned to his wife.  “If we’re under attack, I need to do something.”

“But-”

“They attacked a child,” he said.  “If we’d been out instead of here with Edmund-”

She nodded, spooked.

I let the drama play out while I gently prodded my stomach.  I pulled clothing back into place, wincing at the pain, took a cloth from beside the sink and began to wipe at my shirt where it was all bloody.  Jamie handed me my jacket, then helped me pull it on.

I was well and truly ready to take something for the pain now, now that Jamie didn’t need help to find his way to the bullet.

The man went to a cabinet, and came back with a gun.  He took a moment to put it together, checking for various components, most definitely not a person with more than a few hours of practice, and then gave his wife a kiss.

“Be healthy,” he told me, “Thank you for the warning about the attacks.  Will you look after my wife?”

“Of course,” Jamie said.

“Good man,” the soldier said.

“Sir!” I cut in, before he could head out, gun in hand.  He paused, and I told him, “Warn others.”

He nodded, then headed out the door.

I pointed, and the others nodded.  As the wife stepped over to the door to lock it, peering out the window to watch her husband, we headed out the front door.

There was nowhere to go but forward and out.  The residential road had people gathered in clusters, talking, and we used them for cover, watching.

“Stop,” Helen said, but it was less the order and more than fact that she grabbed us and hauled us back that stopped us.  Breaking our forward momentum.  I jerked, and my stomach clenched inadvertently.  I bit back a gasp of pain.

The crack marked a bullet striking something hard.  I didn’t see where.

“Go!”  I called out, “Go, go!”

We hurried as much as we were able, with me hurting and sucking at everything.  An alley offered cover from the gunshots.

They had a gunman that could see well enough through the rain to target us.  He was sharp enough to notice us just moments after we’d emerged from the house.

“Jamie,” I said.  “Where is he?”

“Don’t know.”

“You know where he was?  First shot?  The one that hit me?”

“Some idea.”

“And the shot just now?”

“Less that I know where he was, more… I can eliminate possibilities.”

“Eliminate,” I said.  We hurried down the alleyway.  There were people there, more clusters.  I studied each group, watching for potential trouble.

The others had to have heard about the gunshot.  They’d look after Lillian, if Lillian was even in danger.  She was well camouflaged.  Short of them killing every child in the town of Whitney… which wasn’t impossible…

“Fuck,” I said.

“Are you okay?” Jamie asked.

“Not that,” I said.  I knew my voice sounded more tense than it usually did.  “We’re stuck.”

“We’ve been stuck before.”

“We need to get out, rendezvous with the others.  We can’t do that without stepping into an open area.  If we stay put, the other two might track us down.”

The rain was coming down harder now.  I wasn’t quite able to hope that it was making life harder on our enemies.

“If we think about the things that make them stand out,” I murmured, “Nose, eyes, the guy with the scarf might just be fingers, touch, and the guy Jamie shot is probably ears.”

“Was,” Helen said.  “Past tense.”

“I’m not willing to bet anything,” I said.  “There might be a fifth, taste, and I’m going to assume the one Jamie shot is alive until we see him dismantled on some Academy autopsy table.”

“Five,” Jamie said.

“There are more than five senses,” Helen said.  “Balance, sense of one’s own physical state…”

“It’s possible,” I said.  “But these buttheads aren’t even supposed to have three pieces of work this good, let alone four or five.  Experienced soldiers, each with custom modifications?”

“Academy work,” Jamie said.

“Traitors,’ Helen said.

I nodded slowly.  “That changes things.  I don’t feel so good about Helen going after one.”

“I can do it,” Helen said.

“Probably.  And you’re going to have to,” I said.  “But I don’t feel good about it.”

She nodded.  She was holding herself in a way that I was pretty sure was Helen for ‘anticipation’.  Her expression was still normal, smiling, but her body was ready for the attack.

“Let’s head in Lillian’s general direction,” I said.  “In case the others can’t cover her.  And because it’s the direction they’re liable to be going in.  We assess the situation, then we go in.  If we spot one, we bait.”

The two nodded.

We moved.

Through winding alleys, awareness of our surroundings pitched to a painful degree.  I wasn’t at my best, and I was focusing my thoughts and my own un-altered senses on every gap, readying myself for an attack at any moment, knowing it was futile even if I was fast enough to react.

We paused at a pile of debris, while Jamie turned his attention to figuring out a plan that worked, then went down a side-alley.  The street was packed with soldiers.  Another side alley was mostly empty, wagons that were usually there now cleared away.  No cover to hide behind.

As we returned to the four-way intersection, the woman appeared.

Helen indicated, and the three of us crawled into a space beneath a house, belly deep in mud.  I used one hand to hold Jamie’s raincoat down over the injury so it wouldn’t get too dirty.

We were as good as caught.  She had the ability to smell.

I signaled.  We collectively abandoned our attempt at staying silent, and crawled for the other side of the space.  The floor above us scraped our shoulderblades as the ground rose to meet it.  Jamie squirmed out of his backpack.

“Children,” the woman spoke, from just in front of us.

She’d circled around.  She could do it again, as fast as we could crawl.

“You killed Phlegm,” she called out to us.  “My brother.”

Jamie reacted to the name.  He’d connected two dots.

He didn’t seem to have a ready answer.

“I have his belt,” the woman said.

The cans of gas.

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Esprit de Corpse – 5.4

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

“Two big issues,” I said.

“More than two,” Helen observed.

“Two big ones,” I reaffirmed.  “We need to get out of this with our skin intact, and we need to help the others.  Only reason they haven’t come after us is they probably aren’t sure they can find the others once we’re dead.”

“They could torture us,” Jamie said, under his breath.

“Sure,” I said.  “Yeah, that’s probably in the cards, if they don’t get the results they want by waiting.”

“Great,” Jamie said.

“They’re not going to come after us here,” I said, “If they’re patient enough to let things get this far, they’re patient enough to let us have a bite to eat.  We bide our time, we make them wait, we see if they make a mistake.”

“We’re giving them time to get in position,” Jamie said.

“Sure,” I said.  “That’s fine.”

“Fine?”

I gave him my best winning smile.  “It’s fine.  Really.  They’re not going to close in on the others that fast.  We wait.”

“Alright,” he said.  “I’m going to assume you have a plan.”

“I-”

“-And,” he said, cutting me off, “Don’t correct me.  Let me have this.”

I smiled, shutting my mouth.

We reached the building, and we were mute as we waited in a long line.  We ended up settling in at the corner, where the path to a restroom and a length of counter at one end of the kitchen gave us some more privacy than we might otherwise have, putting us another pace or two from the nearest tables.  I took a seat by the window, so I had a glimpse of the street outside.  Jamie did the same, sitting across from me, while Helen took the aisle seat, next to Jamie.

Jamie and I looked out on the rain-stricken city, and the two of us saw the world in very different ways.  It was handy, when we were on the lookout together.

I liked that, really.  With our group being as diverse as it was, there were people who were more different from certain others.  Gordon and I were one example.  Could we work well together?  Sure.  But even while I’d trust Gordon to hold my still-beating heart in his hand and treat it with the care it deserved, I knew that we were very different in how we saw the world and how we approached a situation.  We were polar opposites in terms of our abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

Put Mary and Gordon on the same task, and they matched each other’s stride well.  Gordon and Helen, same thing.

Jamie and I should have been opposites.  We should have run counter to one another.  I was the chaos that stood in contrast to his order, the haste to his slow and steady pace.  He was gentler than I was.  We worked together better than any of the other opposing elements among the Lambs.

That seemed important to me.  As if somehow it would hold things together in a pinch.

The waitress came by, we made our order, and promptly delivered it.

I left Jamie to continue studying the outside, and turned my attention to the interior.

The tea house was a sad little affair.  It was the sort of location where the youth might congregate in better times, boys and girls could meet for first dates, children could gather and cluster into booths, and the elderly might sit for hours at a time, enjoying the good weather if there was any to be had.  A glass display window protected and showed off an assortment of sandwiches and baked goods, and kettles were perpetually boiling behind the counter.

But there were no youths besides us, there were no elderly.  Whitney was a small town with a large town population in it, now, and that population consisted of soldiers and rebels, with a lot of angry people.  The staff of the tea house was having trouble keeping up, and the food behind the display window was dwindling, with new food being placed within on a regular basis, only to be dismantled by the next collection of guests.  It was less of an elegant, artistic construction than a wall being torn down a hair faster than it could be rebuilt.  If the staff worked hard enough, they would manage to keep going until the day was done, then collapse from exhaustion before doing what they could to get ready for the next day.  If they failed, then they would have to deal with wave after wave of disgruntled customers, men with a lot of repressed fear and anger due to the ongoing war.

The constant rain meant mud was constantly being tracked in,  and the floor was only partially swept before something demanded the attention of the staff.  The result was that dirt and debris collected in corners and at the edges of the floor, where the mops and brooms couldn’t quite reach.  The staff wasn’t used to this kind of environment, and it was clearly getting to them.  They were used to a relaxed atmosphere, one where they could chat with their more innocent customers, not a crowd of unsmiling men who gathered at the door, shuffling their feet and murmuring among each other until a table vacated or the line reached the counter.

“Miss,” Helen said.  “Miss?”

Helen succeeded in getting the attention of the waitress.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Helen said.

“It’s alright,” the woman said, offering Helen a tired smile that suggested it wasn’t.

Helen’s demeanor was bright as she talked, pointing at her cake with her spoon.  “I just wanted to say this is really very good.  Would you pass my compliments on to whoever made it?”

The woman seemed to shed five years of age as she relaxed muscles in her face, neck, and shoulders.  I really wondered if she might cry.  She nodded, a little too quickly, and then said, “I will.”

“Thank you!” Helen said, almost sing-song, to the waitresses’ back.

I broke my cookie in half before washing it down with a bit of tea.  “I don’t know how I get the reputation as the most evil member of the bunch.”

“Hm?” Jamie asked.

“Just saying,” I said.

“What Helen said was nice,” Jamie said, jabbing me in the arm with his spoon.

I shook my head, very slowly.  “Nope.”

“Nope?”

“I’m a student of the way humans work, and , and I think what Helen just did was worse than anything I’ve done in the last while.”

Helen hummed happily, rocking left and right a bit as her legs kicked idly under the table.  Jamie gave me a look.

“Could be what they need to keep going,” Jamie murmured.

“But it’s not.  They’re finding their own ways to keep going.  When you lift someone up, you have to let go of them.  They might not have the strength to land on their feet when they get dropped,” I said.  “I don’t think these people have that strength.”

“That’s a very dark view,” Jamie said.

“It would have been better to leave them alone than to remind them of what they don’t have,” I said.

“That’s an even darker view,” Jamie said.  “I don’t want to live in a world where everyone acts that way.”

That stung, more than I cared to admit.  “Not everyone, not always.”

“But sometimes?  Sometimes can’t say something nice and be kind?”

“I don’t see why this is a point of contention,” I said.

“What’s your perfect world, Simon?” Jamie asked, using the fake name he’d stuck me with.  I wondered if he’d chosen it for a reason.  Harkening back to the old days.  “If the big problems were fixed and everything was working the way it should?”

“That has nothing to do with it,” I said.

“But?  What’s your perfect world?”

I sighed.  “A world where everyone is surrounded by people who are striving to be their best, because we only grow as people when we’re around people who are equal to or better than us in intelligence, skill, and industry.  It’s in stupidity and stagnation that we fail as a species.”

“But ethically?  Morally?” he prodded.

“I just gave my answer.  In a perfect world, we’re all different, ethically and morally.  We argue, we challenge each other, and everyone is working to make their ideas better and more… more.”

“A lot of hostility, arguments, competition.”

“Nothing good awaiting us as a species if we lose that,” I said.  I broke off a small bit of my oversized cookie and popped it into my mouth.  I chewed and swallowed.  “Stagnation.”

“I can’t help but notice you haven’t mentioned anything about the positive human relationships,” Jamie said.  “Only the confrontational ones.”

“Humans are a social species.  Push us, pressure us, challenge us, and the weak elements will break apart, the stronger elements will band together,” I said.

“Wallace’s law, applied to a group,” Jamie said.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said.  “I’m not proposing something where we’re all supposed to act like animals, or that we should model ourselves after them.  I’m saying humans are humans, and being human means struggling.  In the course of those struggles, we form the strongest bonds.  Could be us and a life and death struggle with a pair of people who want to stalk and kill us, or two people working in a tea shop in a town that’s gotten embroiled in a civil war.”

“Seems like your worldview is a little bit, uh,” Jamie said, “Conveniently you?”

“Of course it is,” I said.  “I’m eleven.  Ish.”

Jamie rolled his eyes.

“What’s your worldview?” I asked.  “Don’t let my answer bias you.”

“I wouldn’t,” he said, staring out the window.  “But world peace would be nice.”

“World peace would destroy humanity,” I said.  “Do I need to get into how?  Because-”

“You don’t need to get into how,” Jamie said.  “I get it.  I really do.  I agree with you on a lot of things, believe it or not.  That we need the challenge, that we have to surround ourselves with people that as as bright and talented as we are, if not better.  I like the differences in people, ethically or otherwise- I wouldn’t be able to stand you if I didn’t.”

I kicked him lightly in the shin under the table.  He kicked me, harder.  I pinned his foot down with mine, and he relented rather than fighting to get it free, content with a one-for-one.

He spoke, adding, “But if it came down to it, I’d rather have peace than war.  Both would do us a lot of harm, but I’d rather the sleepy, apathetic sort of ruin to the violent sort.  Especially if it means we can be gentle and kind and not worry about the damage you somehow do by acting nice.”

I sighed.

“I know,” Jamie said.  “We’re different people like that.”

“You’re a boring person.  The most boring.”

He stuck his tongue out at me.

“Stick out your tongue all you want, you’re still boring.”

He ignored me,  turning to Helen.  “What about you, Helen?  Worldview?”

“I was hoping that being nice would get me another bit of dessert,” she said, looking in the general direction of the wait-staff.

“If you timed it differently, you might have,” I said.  “But there isn’t much behind the display.  Stuff is in the oven.  They’re short, so it’s hard to justify.  By the time the stuff comes out of the oven, they’ll be too busy, the comment will be mostly forgotten.”

“Dang it,” Helen said.

“Have to say, that’s not a worldview,” Jamie muttered.

“It is so,” Helen said, sounding offended.  “Ethics, morals?  Everyone acts in certain ways because it gets us things.  Some things are more basic than others.  People want to eat, they want shelter, they want to be around other people…”

Jamie and I nodded.  Helen was the most alien of us, and it was interesting to hear where she came from.

“We act a certain way because it gets us those things.  If we can’t act nice then nobody wants to give us those basics, like food.”

“You keep coming back to that,” Jamie murmured.  “Food.”

Jamie and Helen were at odds, in a way, now that I thought about it.

“We build up this image and it’s all based around getting what we want.  Everyone does it, they play along, and in a roundabout, complicated way, selfishness breeds connectedness,” she said.

I nodded.  Jamie leaned over.  “And your perfect world?”

“Mmm,” Helen smiled.  “Perfect is complicated.  Hard to explain.”

“Give it a shot,” I prodded her.

“It’s… beautiful is the best word to describe it,” she said.

Jamie and I nodded.

“Everything that isn’t necessary to getting what we want is gone,” she said, eyes closing, as if she was vividly imagining.  “There’s an abundance of it all, thanks to science.  Food is everywhere and it overflows and there’s nothing to worry about because we have and we want and we take.  We’re, and by we I mean people, we’re everywhere and we spill over into one another and we’re all knit together, physically and mentally.  It’s an exquisite landscape of things that don’t ever run out to see and touches and tastes and smells and mating and eating and mindless fighting and eating-mating and fighting-eating and fighting-”

“Okay,” I said, interrupting.  I paused, then when I couldn’t think of what to say. “Okay.”

Helen reached down to her plate, used a fingertip to wipe up a bit of frosting, and popped it into her mouth, sucking it off.

“Okay,” I said, still at a bit of a loss for words.

“That’s a mental image that’s going to be with me forever,” Jamie said, dropping his head down until his face was in his hands.

“I don’t see where ethics come into that world,” I said, more to see Jamie’s reaction than out of curiosity.

“No,” Jamie said.  “Don’t-”

“The closer you get to perfection, the further you get from ethics,” Helen said, as if it was common sense.

“Can we drop this?” Jamie asked.

“Sounds like something Ibott would say,” I commented.

“Um,” Jamie cut in, before Helen could answer, putting a hand over her mouth.  “Can we drop the topic?  Please?  I’m sorry I brought it up.  Let’s talk about the threats on our lives?  The others?”

I nodded.  “We can do that.  Mustn’t break our Jamie, right Hel?”

She nodded, and Jamie dropped his hand.  Helen smiled, leaned over, and gave Jamie a kiss on the cheek.  Jamie didn’t react, except to glare at me, as if I was somehow to blame.

“Alright,” I said, leaning back.  “Changing the subject for Jamie’s sake.”

“Won’t help.  I can’t forget it, as long as I live.”

With emphasis on the I, not live, the thought struck me.

Damn it, was my next thought.  Now I’m in a bad mood.

“Two of them.  They clearly operate as a unit.  One to flush us out, another to keep us moving.  I’m betting the one in the kitchen left and circled around so she could track us.  It’s a very Dog-and-Catcher vibe.”

“Hard to do in the rain,” Jamie said.  “She was sniffing.  The rain would make tracking us by smell harder.”

“But not impossible, depending,” I said.  “I’m going to assume it at least means she can’t track our trail all the way back to the others, because they wouldn’t be leaving us alive if she could.”

“Makes sense,” Jamie said.

“We’re not well equipped to fight, and I don’t like the knives the man had,” I said.  “If we get in a bad situation, we run, we try to bait them into a situation where we can turn the tables, or we run.”

“You said that twice,” Helen pointed out.

“I meant it twice.  Very important,” I said.  “If they know who we are, they know who Helen is.  The woman didn’t have a gun, and the man seems to prefer knives.  That suggests they prefer close quarters.”

“They had a very feral vibe,” Jamie said.  “He had a heavy forehead, brutish, she had the mouth, the sniffing, and the hair…”

“Yes.  Good, I like that line of thinking,” I said.

“If I can get my hands on one of them, I can probably win,” Helen said.  “I’d prefer no knives, because some people are double-jointed, but I can probably win.”

“Then we have a strategy,” I said.  “We’re going to leave, and we cut through the spaces between buildings.  I’ve done it a bit, I know the best shortcuts, we break away from them, bait them in, trap them if we can, sic Helen on them.”

“Woof,” Helen said.

“Trouble is if they move as a pair, or one comes to relieve the other.  You’ll have to work fast, Hel.”

She pouted a little.

“We need to find a means of communicating with the others.  Objects can hold trace smells, allowing the sniffing woman to find us.  That means our best bet is to use people.”

“People?” Helen asked.

“Messengers.  Ones that won’t have to go to them, specifically, and who can’t be effective witnesses.”

“That’s vague,” Jamie said.

“That’s my job.  But I need elbow room to do it.  That means putting a bit of space between us and them before I act.”

“Which is also good for our lifespans,” Jamie murmured.

I nodded.  “As for you, Jamie…”

“What can I do?”

“Information.  Anything you can figure out.  If we’re going to actively turn this around, instead of just dodging them, then we need to figure them out.  We should figure out the people with the scars and boils on their bodies, and we need to know who Cynthia is.  You’re our best bet at figuring this out, connecting the dots.”

Jamie leaned forward, arms folded on the table, and scooted his chair up.  “On that subject, you’ve reminded me, I think they’ve got a trump card.”

“In what sense?”

“My focus up until now has been on the strategy, the war overall, troops, who they’re sending, and where.  Ames was a good source of information, but they started giving different people different details,” Jamie said.  “Trying to catch us out by narrowing down the field.  I caught on to it when details didn’t add up.  They’re not scared enough, Sy.  Westmore is a half day away, fully occupied by the Academy, and the people in charge here aren’t spooked about it.  If you want to count stuff we should figure out and figure out soon, I’d put that on the list.”

“Is it possible the scarred people are the trump card?”

“Don’t know,” Jamie said.  “It didn’t look like it mattered, with Mary and Gordon placing the bugs, we were going to resolve the situation before anything happened.  Now that we’re in a tighter spot…”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked out the window.

“Are we going, then?” Helen asked, weirdly insistent.

“It doesn’t look like they’re showing up.  I was hoping they’d turn up and try to pressure us, force a move.  Yeah, we’re going.”

“What would the plan be, if it came to that?” Jamie asked.

“Helen asks the waitress for help, we appeal to genuine human nature, duck out through the back,” I said.  “With this many people in here, we could lose them, because they can’t track us effectively with this crowd.  Buy ourselves a small head start.  If we could find the other one while we did it and keep an eye on them, we could see how they communicated.  Their dynamic, and so on.”

Jamie nodded.

Helen was already standing, and she reached for my plate, stacking it with hers and Jamie’s before gathering the silverware.  She gathered the teacups as well.

While Jamie got his backpack and slung it over one shoulder, she took the plates to the counter, placing them in the bucket that was over the sink.  She seemed too enthusiastic, bouncing in place, which was cause for me to watch her, even as Jamie and I headed for the door.

I saw her lean forward, talking to the server at the ovens.  The woman smiled, grabbed a cookie, and put it into a bag, before handing it to Helen.

She’d waited until the ovens were done before asking if we were going.

I looked at Jamie and rolled my eyes.  We’d slowed as we approached the cluster of men at the door.  Most had rifles, some had Exorcists, many had pistols as secondary weapons, or belts with canisters dangling from them.  Countermeasures against stitched and other experiments, I imagined.

I would have liked to grab the canisters, in hopes of getting something incendiary or something that might irritate the sniffing woman’s nose, but I wasn’t sure what the labels were supposed to mean, and I wasn’t sure how to unhook them.  Uncertainty was the spice of life, so to say, but people didn’t tend to use phrasings like that when referring to that which prolonged life expectancy.

Helen caught up at a skip and a run, throwing her arms out to catch us around the shoulders.  I was smaller, and I took the brunt of it.

My eye fell on one man in front of me.  Boots were common, but boots with a sidearm clipped to the one side-

I let myself fall onto my hands and knees, driving one shoulder into the man’s calf.

“Sorry!” I said.  “Sorry, sorry, sorry!”

I gave him my best ‘scared to death’ look, as he winced, backing away.  I clambered to my feet, accepting Helen’s assistance.

As we exited the tea shop, I raised my umbrella.

There was a figure on the roof of a tool shop, hood up, face barely visible.  By his frame, he was the man with the scarf.  I pretended I didn’t see him and gestured to the others, indicating a hard right turn.

Make it as hard for them to follow as we can.

I walked between Helen and Jamie, my eyes peeled.  When I was sure we weren’t being observed, I pulled the pistol from under my shirt and handed it to Jamie, slipping it into a large raincoat pocket.  He didn’t react, but he had to have felt the weight.

Better that he had a weapon than me, if it came down to it.  It wasn’t that I was a bad shot, but my tendency to overthink and self-sabotage in the process carried over to guns too.  I could hit eleven out of twelve bottles from the big tree behind the Orphanage, using one of Gordon’s practice guns, but Jamie had a better record than I did when it came to actually shooting anyone.  Reaction times could be better, but there were worse things.

Helen had a slim chance if it came down to a hand to hand fight.  Jamie could use a gun.

It meant I didn’t have to worry so much about them.

“One on the right is pursuing,” Jamie said.

“Noted,” I responded.  “How far away is she?”

“He,” Jamie said.  “The man from the upper floor in the banquet hall?”

He.

“There was one on the roof, opposite the front door of the tea house,” I said.  “Male.  We’re up against three.”

“Unless someone felt like spending some time on the roof,” Helen said, brightly.

“She brings up a good point.  It seems obvious,” Jamie said.  “Was he deliberately showing himself?”

Was he?

I frowned.  It could have been part of their plan.  Hang out in a spot where he wouldn’t be seen unless we were actively looking for people in unusual places.  If we changed course…

Damn it.  I’d expected two.  But they were herding us.  Closing the net.

“We can’t let them herd us,” I murmured.  “If we react to them, then we’re tipping them off.”

“If we don’t react to them, then we’re playing into their hands,” Jamie said.

“Yeah, well, they’re probably specialists when it comes to this,” I said.  “We need to change things up, adapt our plan.”

“How?” Jamie asked.

That’s a good question.

Give ourselves a headstart, pass a message to the others without getting caught, escape, reunite with the others.  In an ideal world, we’d be able to gather information on this new enemy, and still put Mary and Gordon’s plan into action.  Shipman’s weapon.  Disable Whitney and whatever trump card they had.

I felt Jamie’s hand on my arm tighten.  I wasn’t as fast to see what he saw, but it was a question of my being an inch or two shorter than him.

A man on the far side of the street, approaching.

He held his head at a strange angle, like his neck was broken, and a earlobes on already large ear dangled, a weight pinned to the bottom.  He had unkempt black hair, an unkempt beard, and strangely spaced out features on his face, as if someone had grabbed the back of his head and pulled, everything back out of the way, eyes to either side, mouth down, nose flattened and broadened.  He wore a soldier’s uniform, and he was weighed down with canisters.  A length of chain was wound his right wrist and hand, and something that looked like a lantern dangled from the end of that chain, nearly touching the ground by his right foot, with spikes radiating from it.

Plumes of something were puffing out from the end, as it swung in time with each step of his left foot.

My arm at my side, I reached over, tapping the gun in Jamie’s pocket.

The three of us walked, eyes forward, pretending not to have noticed.

As carts and carriages passed up and down the street, a group of people blocked our view of the man for a few long seconds.

When they moved out of the way, he was gone.  I felt Jamie’s grip tighten, but he wasn’t indicating anything in particular.

Just worry.

Helen reached for her bag and broke the cookie in half.  She broke one half into two quarters, and held them out for Jamie and I.

Jamie took his bit of cookie, letting go of my arm.

I saw the man walking in the midst of a group of woodcutters, his hair and beard almost camouflaged among theirs, only his features standing out, and only barely then.  Helen pushed the cookie at my mouth.  I opened up and accepted it.  The damn cookie was good, but I’d have to talk to her about things, after.

“Good cookie,” Helen said, as the man came to be about five paces away.  Four.  Three.  “I really like-”

She didn’t stop talking so much as segue.  Switching modes, fast enough it caught me off guard, let alone our assailant.  She ducked low, lunging at the man in the same instant he shoved the two men in front of him out of the way.  He had the smoking lantern thing in one hand, clutched with spikes radiating out between fingertips, and was already swinging for Helen’s face- except she wasn’t there anymore.

Jamie didn’t miss a beat.  He fired.

It was loud.  People screamed, and they scattered.  The lumberjacks around us backed away, ducking.

They realized we knew.  They communicate without words, just as well as we do.

Helen grabbed his arm, keeping it back and out of the way as he dropped to one knee.  Jamie fired again, placing each shot into the center of the man’s body mass, carefully enough to avoid hitting Helen and I.

Jamie was slow, he lagged behind the rest of the world as he processed and studied everything.  But with forewarning- well, he was keeping up.

A canister hanging off the man’s body took a bullet from Jamie’s gun and went spinning off.  Thick black-grey smoke expanded out in the middle of the street.

I turned my attention to the others.  Figuring out where the knife man and the one on the rooftop might have gone.  I spotted the knife man with the scarf, approaching at a run.

“Go,” I said.  “Nearest alley, go, go!”

Achieved what we needed to achieve, I thought.  Slowing them down, passing on word to the others.  When they heard that children had been involved in a gunfight, they’d know something was wrong.

It wasn’t elegant, but it was us.

Damn all the other parts of the plan.  It was worth nothing at all if the Lambs didn’t make it out okay.

The moment that thought was through my head, something struck me in the side, with surprising force.  It felt big, like I’d been kicked by an oversized horse.  My hand slipped from Jamie’s arm, and I felt Helen grab me, failing to stop me from falling belly first to the street.

“Sy!” Jamie called out.  “No, no!”

The two of them grabbed me, trying to help me stand.  I didn’t grasp why it was so hard, until I felt the pain in my side.  A burning point of light, deep inside, a small pain.

Helen made a noise, and shoved Jamie to the ground before ducking low.  Something struck the wall with a surprising crack.

I stared at the smoke in the middle of the street, at the pouring rain that had to have obscured the view.  So far away I hadn’t even heard the shot.

The man on the roof.  He shot me.

“Sy,” Jamie said.

Ow.  Oh man, it was really starting to hurt.

I found my feet with their help, I stumbled, and nearly fell again.  The two of them had me, almost dragging me.

Two of our slowest runners, and me with a bullet in my midsection.  The knife wielder was close.  We had the alley, and we hopefully had cover.

But we were surrounded, with one of them missing, no doubt waiting in the wings.  They had no reason not to call the local soldiers in and draw the net closed.

“If you don’t move faster, gunshot or no, I’m never speaking to you again,” Jamie said.

I couldn’t have Jamie refusing to speak to me.

No way, no how.

I did my best.

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Esprit de Corpse – 5.3

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We weren’t walking through a kitchen, wearing clothing that resembled that of the staff, not anymore.  The pair of us stood out like sore thumbs, our hair a little damp from being under our hoods in the humid outdoors.  We wore dirty boots, not shiny black shoes.  Jamie carried a backpack.

We attracted attention, tramping through people twice our size, who were all wearing their finest.  Women had their hair done up, nice dresses on, and the men wore suits with long jackets.  There were very few children in attendance, making us stand out all the more.

I peered through the crowd, noting the location of everyone important.  The kitchen door was in the southeast corner, the stage with the singer to the southwest, and a hundred and fifty feet of banquet hall stretched the distance to the north end, where the front door was.  Covered tables dotted the space off to the sides, standing on carpet, while the center remained clear, hardwood, ostensibly for dancing during different events.

The ceiling arched above, and a kind of extended balcony ran down either side, with fancy iron-wrought railings, with a number of figures gathered and looking down on the affair from above.  Some stood and talked on the stairs that led up from either side of the front door.

The rebellion here had brought in a lot of ex-Academy types, and those individuals had each attracted crowds, many staying toward the edges of the hall.  The middle had more clusters, but it also had more elbow room and empty space.

No matter how we moved through the empty spaces, we would either stand out like sore thumbs, walking in a straight line, or we would look evasive, zig-zagging to break line of sight.

The tables offered a little bit of cover, blocking others’ view of us, and the densely packed people would be something of a benefit in the same way.  That said, there was a bit of a caveat to that.  There was nothing stopping someone from grabbing one of us.

I was counting on a given person leaving us alone because others had left us alone.  The mentality of the herd of sheep.  It made the initial batch of people more important, as we approached.

That in mind, I led the way toward people who looked more actively engaged on conversation.

So much planning for the simple act of walking into a crowd.

Then again, there was the corollary that we were walking into a crowd of people that would imprison us if they knew we were working for the Crown, and probably shoot us on the spot if they knew what we really were.

It was sobering.

Jamie and I passed just behind a cluster of the group of chattering ladies, into the thick of the crowd.  I brought my chin down, ducking down as if begging excuse, and walked at a consistent speed.

The pair of us passed behind the core members of the gaggle of chattering women without drawing notice.

I was put in mind of one of the covers of Jamie’s books.  The heroine of the haunted forest, every tree hostile but dormant.  This was that forest.  The ‘trees’ dwarfed us, they outnumbered us to an extent that I couldn’t guess at, and if they turned on us, I couldn’t even guess at what they’d do to us.

Countless sets of eyes watched us, judging, prying, thinking about doing something.  But it took a special kind of courage to break away from the herd and do something like that.  I was watching people, studying them, trying to figure out who might have that courage.  It wasn’t always obvious.  A well dressed man in unique colors, my instinct was that he could be left alone.  He tried too hard to impress, by body language alone.

An older man, one that looked too frail to kill a fly if he swatted it, I knew he was dangerous by the wide berth others gave him, and the way they reacted when he moved his hands, gesturing.  I’d known professors who moved like he did, swatting students that weren’t attentive enough, not caring what others thought about them.

Once I was pretty sure the coast was clear, I allowed myself a glance back toward the kitchen.  The sniffing woman hadn’t followed us past the kitchen door.  I noted that the hostess of the party, Cynthia, stood near the stage, the center of attention for her own small cluster.  Jamie, just behind me, looked deeply concerned, one of his hands gripping mine, the other holding the strap of his bag.

I saw his eyes flick in one direction.  Casually, head turning back to face forward, I looked out of the corner of my eye.

The extended balcony on the far left of the room had groups of people talking, just like everywhere else in the banquet hall, but a lone figure stood alone.  Bald, he had a scarf covering the lower half of his face, a heavy cast to his forehead, almost neanderthal, and the hands that gripped the railing had long fingers.  Knives glinted on the strap that ran diagonally across his chest.

He was watching us, his head moving to follow as we made forward progress.

I thought I’d lose track of him as I moved too far head to track him in my peripheral vision, but he turned, and he started walking in the same direction we were, along the length of the balcony, making progress toward the front door.

Two of them.

Good eye, Jamie.

I had to wonder where the woman from the kitchen was.  She wasn’t following us, which was curious.  It raised questions.  Why not stir up the crowd, call something out and have people mob us or grab us?

The first possibility was that her hands were tied.  Maybe she couldn’t speak.  Maybe she could, but wasn’t willing to cause trouble with this event being more important than it looked.

The second possibility was that she hadn’t come after us because she didn’t need to come after us.  We were already caught.

Three quarters of the way.  The last quarter of the hallway stretched before us.

The man with the scarf started moving faster, one long finger tracing the top of the railing.  He was a little more eager than the woman had been, and the speed he was moving suggested he’d make it down the stairs and beat us to the front door.

I looked, and I didn’t see windows.  There were side doors, likely leading to the theaters, but they weren’t accessible side doors.  The crowds of people around the various scientists and experimenters made it look pretty dire.

I picked up the pace a little, my hand tugging on Jamie’s.

All at once, the man that was above us stopped, turning, gripping the railing with long fingers.  I allowed myself to look, momentarily making eye contact.

A moment later, Jamie’s hand hauled back on mine.  My stride was broken, and eyes that had been glancing our way now stared.

Jamie had been grabbed.

I supposed it had always been a ‘when’ we got grabbed, not ‘if’.

He looked shocked, and he didn’t know what to do.  The man that had him was a military sort, with massive mutton chops, badges on his lapel and an odd amount of jewelry on the hand he’d used to grab Jamie.  A very ostentatious wedding band, and a ring that probably signified something military-related.  Membership of an important group.

“What are you doing in here?” he asked, his voice deep.  More heads turned.

The attention we were getting was so oppressive I almost couldn’t breathe.  Jamie looked stricken.

Cynthia was looking, but I wasn’t sure she could see us, specifically.  The man at the railing remained where he was, watching, fingers rising and falling like a line of something or others was squirming between them and the railing.

He’d probably seen the man turn and come after us.

I couldn’t let the fear show in my face.  Fear would doom us.

I smiled, knowing that my fake smile was being studied by merchants and politicians, people who had made livings off of using or identifying fakery.

“Love,” I said, not looking at the jewelry on his fingers, while remaining acutely aware of it.

The man harumphed.  “Love?”

“Brotherly love.  This guy and me, we’re the fastest friends you ever saw, sir.  There’s a girl he likes, I told him, no matter what, he needed to tell her.”

“T-told you, Simon, y-you really didn’t have to do that,” Jamie said, voice shaking a bit.  He was drawing on his nervousness, using it.

Simon.  It was my first fake name.  Nostalgic.

Even my nickname, Sy, it was taken more from Simon than Sylvester.

I told myself it was a good omen, and didn’t allow myself to consider that it might be the last fake name I ever used.

“We never thought we’d see her again.  Then we saw her coming here, he’s dressed nice, we thought- well, I thought and I told him, he’s gotta say.  Before he loses the chance.”

The man didn’t show any sign of relenting.  His face was like stone.  Stone with massive muttonchops, but stone all the same.

I was still counting on the sheep mentality.  That if we stopped this man, convinced him, the rest would let us be.  Even managing that would be hard.  It depended on Cynthia not coming to see what the commotion was about, and the man at the railing above us staying where he was.

A lot of dependings, there.

Foremost among them was Muttonchops here.

The rings.  The way he so proudly displayed the badges.  I was counting on him being a romantic at heart.

“Girl, hm?” he asked.  He sounded skeptical.

“She was over there,” I said, pointing into the crowd.

Like magic, the observers parted, stepping away from the path of my fingertip.  The only ones who didn’t were Mr. Ames and our dear Helen.

Ames looked like he was going to suffer heart failure.  He had already been sweating bullets, and now a full third of the room was now focusing its attention on him and Helen.  He couldn’t have looked more stricken if someone shoved an icicle up his rear end.

I shifted my grip on Jamie, circling around him, so I stood between him and Muttonchops.  One hand on each of Jamie’s shoulders, I pushed.

The muttonchops, the flash, the display.  Not just a romantic.  Muttonchops believed in the show.

This was for his sake, something gaudy, obvious, impossible to ignore.

I believed, wholeheartedly, that he couldn’t maintain his hold on Jamie without becoming the bad guy, without standing in the way of a boy and his love.  Jamie wasn’t even to blame.  It was my fault, I was the one who had dragged him along.

The hand dropped away.  I pushed Jamie along, and he made a faint show of resisting.

We drew closer to the front door.  Fifteen percent of the way left.  Ten.  Five.

We reached Helen and Ames.  The last few paces to the door were an impossible journey, now.

I crossed my left set of fingers, tapping them on Jamie’s shoulder, to get Helen’s attention, then shifted my grip.

It was a gesture that meant risk.

Shifting my grip to the left, to indicate the general direction of the man with the scarf.  He’d moved when I wasn’t looking, and stood on the stairs.

Damn it.

I couldn’t even see Cynthia, but the singer at the far corner of the banquet hall was watching us even as she sang.  If Cynthia made it this far, we were doomed.

Too many factors to consider.  Everything in my perception condensed to this particular moment and scene.  I was hyperaware, my every sense pitched to an almost painful degree.  We were walking a tightrope.

“I don’t know what to say,” Jamie said, to Helen.

Helen’s hand moved to her hair.  A gesture was hidden in the action.  A question mark without a question to precede it.  She was as lost as Jamie.  Her voice and attitude didn’t betray it, either way.

“I’ve seen you around,” she said, smiling in a way that probably every man here was familiar with, thinking back on their first loves.  “You’re usually writing something in a big book, aren’t you?”

Jamie nodded, swallowing hard.

I’m so sorry, I thought.  Very sorry, Jamie, putting you on the spot.

It was Ames that spoke, and I felt a moment’s terror as the heavyset man opened his big fat cannot-act-worth-a-damn mouth.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

The terror wasn’t substantiated.  It came from a very real, very spooked place.  He was as terrified as any of us.  It was real.

His inability to act was a saving grace, almost.  The people that knew him would know he was speaking from a genuine place.

“I-I really like your daughter, sir,” Jamie said.  “You-”

No,” Ames boomed.  “You’re making a spectacle of her, and you’re making a spectacle of me.  I will not stand for this.”

I stared, watching in fascination.  Was this man actually saving us?

He looked genuinely angry.  Just like his fear, it came from a real place.  We’d brought the shit to his doorstep, we’d brought it to people’s attention, and he wasn’t happy about any of it.

“I’m sorry,” Jamie said, sounding terrified.  “I’ll leave right away.  I’m sorry, sir.”

“You most certainly will,” Ames said.  He paused, dramatic.  Then, in a less ominous tone, he said, “If you wish to see the girl, you can call on her at her home.  We live next to the city hall.”

Playing to the crowd.  He was willing to be the bad guy that Muttonchops hadn’t, but not entirely.  He had probably won some people over with that little display.

Jamie nodded, a little too quickly.  This time, it was Jamie who tugged me in the direction of the front door.  I was more than happy to oblige, very aware of the man with the scarf and the knives who was now walking at a casual pace down the stairs.

We were two steps from the exit when a hand slapped the heavy wood.  I didn’t recognize the man, but he wore one of the unconventional uniforms, with a mustache so thin it looked like it was drawn on with a scratch of a quill.  The slap on the wood made a dull booming noise, and it drew more attention.  I noted that several of the special guests looked annoyed at the focus that was being drawn away from them.

“We’re leaving,” I said.  “We don’t want any trouble.”

“I’d like to stop you right there,” the man said, his voice soft.  “I’m sorry, but I know I wasn’t the only one here that was instructed to assume that anything a young child says is an outright lie, until proven otherwise.”

Oh no.

No, no, no.

It went a step beyond paranoia and general knowledge of us.

The damn woman had known we were here.  She had warned people.

I looked, and I saw people in the crowd looking a little abashed that they hadn’t been the ones to say the very same thing.  Others that had been given the same instruction.

I also saw Cynthia approaching, weaving her way through the crowd, gently excusing herself to get past others.  She was roughly the same distance from the door that we’d been when Jamie had been grabbed.  Thirty or forty feet from the door, albeit with a dense thicket of people between here and there.

The man with the scarf hadn’t budged.

Why.  He and the woman in the kitchen-

No, there were more important things to focus on.  I couldn’t fuck up here like I did in so many of the actual fights.

“Lying about what?” I asked.

“The story.  Your reason for being here,” the man with the thin mustache said.  “To get here in the first place, you had to come from one of the theaters, or you came from the kitchen.  Is it unfair of us to worry that the Academy might be low enough to use young children to deliver poison to an entire banquet?”

Oh.  Well, had to give the man points for imagination.

Even I was at a loss for words there.

I pulled my hand away from Jamie, the hand between me and the exterior wall gesturing before clenching into a fist.

The only person who could see it and translate the gesture’s meaning was Helen.

Help.

I couldn’t know how she managed it without opening her mouth, but our dear, glorious Helen directed Ames our way.

“You’re accusing this girl of poisoning food?” Ames asked, voice rising.

“That is not what I’m saying,” the man at the door said.

“You’re accusing me of being a traitor?” Ames asked, even louder.

I am so very glad nobody said yes to that question, I thought.

“No,” the man said, patiently.  “I’m saying we don’t know for sure where these boys are from, or if the story about the romance-”

“It’s true!” I said, cutting him off.  Ames was acting the outraged parent, but he apparently didn’t know how important it was to keep our opponent from getting his balance, or keeping the man from getting a full sentence out.  Playing dirty was absolutely vital here.  “He likes her, he does!”

“You’re raising nonsense about poison here, laying accusations, scaring good people,” Ames said, getting more into it.  I worried he didn’t know where he was going, or that he’d run out of steam and abruptly stop, leaving us flailing.

“I’m following orders!” the man said.

Cynthia was getting closer.  If she verified those orders-

“He’s got a picture,” I said.  Without waiting for Jamie to do it, I pulled the rain-flap of his backpack away, reached inside, and hauled out the book.  He took it from me the moment I had it, and turned pages.  “Why would he have a picture if he’s lying?”

Jamie held the book up, a half-done sketch of Helen displayed.

It was a little dark and scratchy, heavy on the ink.  Not quite the picture a boy in love might draw, by my estimation, but it was a picture of Helen, and it was pretty damn accurate.

There were murmurs from the crowd that could see the book.

“That’s enough,” Ames said.  He approached us, “It’s clear you like her.”

“Yes sir,” Jamie said.

Cynthia was close enough to be in earshot, now.  She was looking at the man with the scarf and the knives, but he wasn’t moving.

That somehow spooked me more than if he’d suddenly lunged for us.

Ames put a hand on Jamie’s shoulder.  “Come.  Let’s talk, away from all this.  I don’t like the spectacle.  You can come to our place, for tea and cake, if the girl agrees.”

“I’d like that,” Helen said, just behind me.

His other hand touched the door handle, a few feet below where the man with the thin mustache had slammed his own hand against the wood.

The man wasn’t budging, even with Ames up close and personal, the book as proof.

Damnation, someone actually competent, who listened to orders.

Ames hauled the door open, ignoring the hand.  His strength contested the man’s, and Ames won.

The man looked over in Cynthia’s direction, and I did too.

She’d stopped moving.  She watched.

Ames passed through the door with Jamie.  Helen caught up, and joined me in leaving.

I felt ill at ease, well aware that I didn’t have the full picture.

The front of the theater was covered.  The rain poured beyond, flowing between the stones of the slightly domed street and into the gutters.

The door closed behind us.  We headed in the direction of the small adjunct building.  Two black men on either side of the double doors opened the way.  We stepped into the coat room, Ames and Helen found coats and pulled them on.  Jamie found a smaller cloak and donned it.  I searched and didn’t find anything small enough for me.

The sniffing woman had my coat.

Jamie found an umbrella and handed it to me.

“What was that?” Ames murmured, once we were out and walking in the rain, out of earshot.

“You know that whole blackmail thing we had going on?” I asked, twisting around to check behind us.

“I believe I know what you’re talking about,” Ames said, with a heavy lathering of sarcasm and a little bit of loathing.

“You’re done,” I said.  “It’s over.  All that you have left to do is keep quiet, and nobody finds out about the… less decorous parts of your military background.”

A lifetime ago, he’d gone to a black market doctor and found a way to avoid attending a major battle in service to the Academy, a wounded leg and a bad infection.  He’d survived when many of his colleagues hadn’t, had then been able to boast a rare level of experience, when so many who had fought in the battles he had had died.  Now he was here, and he’d sided with the rebellion.

In trying to meet and buy off some of the ex-students of the Academy, we’d found out about that bit of leverage, and played it out into our whole scheme here.  One of the higher-ups in the local rebellion became our pawn, a means of Jamie getting access to important paperwork and a hiding spot, while Helen could be the daughter returned home after a long time away.

“You’ve ruined me,” he said.  “People will put the pieces together.”

“People would have found out eventually,” I said.  “The doctor who injured your leg knew exactly what he was doing when he named you.  The moment he was caught, or the moment he was brought into the rebellion, he was ready to name you for his personal gain.”

He shook his head, but he didn’t have anything to say.

“If we’re done, does that mean there’s no tea?” Helen asked.  With a slightly different inflection, she added, “And no cake?”

“No tea, no cake,” I said.  “Mr. Ames-”

“General Ames,” Ames corrected.

I’d goaded him about the fact that his title wasn’t truly earned, but I had to admit he’d done a lot to help us just now.

“General Ames,” I amended my statement.  “Our business relationship with you is done.”

“I’m done with her, then?” he asked, indicating Helen.

“Was I so bad?” she asked.

“You disturb me,” he said, with a measure of disgust.

Helen pouted.

“Go home, figure out what to do next,” I told Ames.  “I advise leaving.  Just to be safe.  Put some distance between yourself and the rest of this.  Maybe play up how embarrassed you were with your treatment in there.”

He shook his head, jowls wobbling.

All at once, he turned, breaking away from us, as if he couldn’t bear to be in our company any longer.

Jamie, Helen and I walked through the rain.  We passed several people.  The rain was thick enough it was hard to identify details.  I might have imagined vaguely monstrous details about anyone we passed, except many of them were monsters, or stitched, or something-or-others.

Was the sniffing woman out here?  Or did the rain keep her from tracking us like she had with the coats and following us into the kitchen?

“Well, I didn’t expect any of that,” Helen said.  “I thought I’d be busy for a little while yet.”

“We’re going to be busy,” I said, “Just doing something different than we were.”

I continued to examine each of the people out on the street.  Were any watching us?

“Getting cake can be on the list,” Jamie said, “I’m sure Sy didn’t mean to tease.”

Helen reached out to give Jamie a pat on the cheek.

“I always mean to tease,” I said.  “Except then.  No, I didn’t mean to there.”

“You’re the best boys,” Helen said.  “What about the other boy?  And our girls?”

“That,” I said, “remains a very good question.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Cynthia back there, she wanted us.  She was coming after us, she had the ability to give the order, and I think she probably would have been listened to.  Now, there’s a dim possibility that she changed her mind, bought the story…”

“But you don’t think so,” Jamie said.  “She changed her mind for another reason.”

“The man with the scarf on the stairs, he gave her some signal, or he communicated something, and she deferred to him.  I’m guessing they don’t believe three birds in the hand are worth however many are in the bush.”

“They’re using us,” Jamie said.

“We’re being watched, right this second,” I murmured.  “Guarantee it.  They want us to lead them to the others before they make a move.  Let’s get Helen her cake-”

“Yay.”

“-and figure out our next move.  Because we’re stuck.  We can’t communicate with or meet up with the others without putting them and ourselves in danger.  We have a tail to shake, and the moment Mr. Scarf finishes discussing a strategy with Mrs. Cynthia, we’re going to have an entire city’s worth of hostile forces collapsing in on us.”

“And Mary, Lillian, and Gordon might too, except they won’t have any warning at all,” Jamie said.

“Let’s do what we can about that,” I said.

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

 

Esprit de Corpse – 5.2

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Even on the best of days, Jamie was something of an odd bird.  The glasses, the book he carted around with him, and the longer, dirty-blond hair, currently tied back into a sailor’s ponytail, they added up to a strange picture.  He had a way of looking uncomfortable in any clothes he wore, as if they were someone else’s and he was just borrowing them.  He tended to be quieter than the others, with Helen excepted in most situations.  He was probably the worst of us when it came to a fight, myself excepted, and the slowest of us to react when it came to a non-fight crisis.

With all those things put together, he should have and could have been a shadow of a person, the low man on the totem pole, the gawky, awkward one, the bookworm.  But he walked and spoke with confidence.  His book was inside a waterproof backpack, slung over one shoulder, and he spoke without looking at me, eyes roving over the surroundings.

I’d spent five hours in this town for every hour Jamie had, but he was the one who knew his way around.  He led the way to the theater, and we took the main roads.

“Can’t wait until it gets warmer,” I commented.

“It won’t,” Jamie said.

“You know that for sure?”

“Pretty sure.  I read the farmer’s almanac.”

“Of course you did.”

He pointed at the mountains that overlooked the town, one mountain on each side, with more beyond.  The town had been planted in the valley between the two.  “Cold air sweeps down the sides of the mountains.  Constant wind, which is probably why we’re getting the constant rain from the direction of Westmore.”

“Where the Academy is making its usual rainclouds.”

Jamie nodded.

“Well, bully for us, then,” I said.

“Bully for us,” Jamie said, smiling a little.  The smile faded, “Until they figure out we’re getting rained on and lace the clouds with something.”

I startled a little at that.  “You’re joking.”

Jamie smiled again.  “Yeah.  If they could have, they would have.  The rain is too diluted, this far away, and after what Fray did, everyone is being careful about the water supply.”

I hit him in the arm.  “Jerk.”

“Are your punches getting weaker?” he teased me.

I hit him in the arm again, this time with more force.

“Guess not,” he said.

Whitney was an important location on a few fronts.  The location was the first one, and one so obvious that it was known to anyone who had looked at a map of the area.  It sat in a mountain pass, and it remained the closest location to Westmore that the Academy didn’t have control over.  Even for the Academy, it wasn’t cost effective to push through an area with limited mobility, ground too hard to dig trenches in.

The Academy had been divided on how important the little town of Whitney was.  Hayle had been among the contingent that had believed Whitney held value, and had volunteered us.

The actual information gathering had proven dull, for some more than others, but it had been enjoyable if only for the fact that we were in constant danger, every action potentially outing us and setting the entire town against us.

It marked, perhaps, the first job where we’d been let off our leashes and told to do as we saw fit.  Gordon had asked for Shipman, and he’d gotten her.  Mary, Gordon, and Shipman had discussed the need for a discreet weapon they might be able to use to cripple the town of Whitney, and regular shipments had been arranged for just that.

It was a shocking amount of leeway, but the fact that the Academy was barely paying attention to us was tempered by the fact that, well, they were were barely paying attention to us.  If things turned sour, we were more or less on our own.

I noted the presence of more of the scarred, pocked men.  A group of five.  They all wore the informal military clothing we were seeing everywhere, and they all carried exorcists.

“Them,” I said, alerting Jamie before the men could disappear.

“The men with the boils?”

“What do you know?” I asked.

Jamie shook his head.  “I was going to ask you.  I saw one with worms under his skin.  I could see them moving by the way the bumps and ridges appeared and disappeared.  One of those we just saw had them.”

“I asked Lillian the other day, she promised she’d tell me if something came up,” I said.  “She didn’t bring it up this time, and I forgot to ask.  Mary, Gordon, and Shipman don’t seem to know either.”

“I’m as in the dark as you are,” Jamie said.

“Being in the dark sucks,” I replied.  I lowered my voice, “Especially when we’re pulling something, and an unknown factor could throw everything out of sync.”

Jamie nodded, but he didn’t have anything to offer me.  We were at a disadvantage in that sense, and until we found out what we needed to find out, that would remain the case.

The pair of us reached the market, and I saw that Gordon was sitting on the end of the wagon, sitting far enough back that only his knees and calves were getting wet.  The man who was working with Mary and Shipman was doing the heavy lifting, when it was really supposed to be Gordon’s job.

I caught his eye, waving briefly.  He raised a hand in a halfhearted wave.

It was out of character for him, and it had nothing to do with the small rift that had formed after our last encounter with Fray.  He’d been okay since, not quite acting normal, but at least he’d been putting on a brave face.

He said something to Shipman, noticed I was still looking, and craned his head to look at Jamie and I.

I offered him a one shoulder shrug, hand raised.

He waved his hand a little, fingers horizontal to the ground.

It was a gesture that meant fine, neutral, or no problem.  The sort of gesture reserved for when there was a sudden noise and we realized it was just a rat or something.

Frankly, his body language couldn’t have been less convincing.

“Come on,” Jamie murmured.

There were only so many gestures we could make before people started wondering.  I gave them a wave goodbye, and we left them behind.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“Which?”

“Gordon being down and out?”

“Wasn’t his usual.”

“No idea, then?”

Jamie shook his head.  Little droplets of water flew off the bill of his hood.

“That reminds me.  I’ve been meaning to ask, you do a lot of book reading, but how’s your reading of people going?”

“People?”

“You remember just about everything.  If I say something, can’t you compare it to everything I’ve said before and figure out what tone I’m using and why?”

“You’re assuming I know why you were using the tone back then.”

“Context?  You could figure it out.”

“I could.  I can.  I’m doing that anyway, all the time,” Jamie said.  “Sometimes I get there.  There’s a lot of things to look through and figure out before I can say for sure, and by the time that happens, things are usually done with or they’re moving forward, and then I’m left playing catch-up, and there’s no time to bring it up.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Maybe after I get better at all of this,” he said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Don’t ever feel weird if you want to say something after the conversation’s moved on, okay?  At least with me?  I like figuring people out.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Good,” I said.

“Great,” he said.

“Fantastic,” I added.

“Ace,” he said, smiling a little.

“Bully.”

“Um, marvelous.”

“Superb,” I said, not missing a beat.  I was already queuing up some more words.

He paused, clearly trying to think of one.

I poked him in the side, interrupting his line of thinking.  When he didn’t react, I poked him harder.

“If I don’t get a chance to think, then I’m obviously going to lose,” he said.

“If you do get a chance to think, then I’m going to lose,” I retorted.  “God, we’re like, the worst two people to play word games with.”

“Mrs. Earles met someone,” Jamie said, all of a sudden.  “First person in a while, since her husband.”

I blinked.  The woman who ran Lambsbridge.  A mother figure, but not a mother.

“She changed the words she uses, how she dresses, and I think she’s worried, she wants a relationship and she doesn’t want it tied in with us.”

“She’s acted relieved when we go,” I said.

Jamie nodded, showing more animation than his usual.  “So I’m not overthinking it.”

“I didn’t quite mean bringing stuff up from that far back,” I said.  “It’s been half a year since we spent two straight nights in the orphanage.  Not that I’m complaining about you sharing and exploring.”

“I just brought it up because the little things added up, and I started wondering if she was a double agent, but the pieces didn’t fit, but I wasn’t sure they didn’t fit?” he made it a question.

“No,” I agreed.  “The pieces don’t fit.”

Jamie nodded.  He didn’t seem relieved, which was odd.  I found myself debating whether he was being very analytical, asking about things he already had the answer to, or if he was more anxious than he was letting on.

“Are you asking just to confirm, or was that bugging you?” I asked.  Might as well.

“Confirming,” Jamie said.

I threw my arm around him.  He reached an arm around me and mussed up my hair, pulling me off balance.

“You smell like Lillian,” he said.

“Do I?”

“Just a bit.”

“You and that nose of yours,” I said.

“You could learn to use yours, too.  Most underutilized sense.  All it takes is a little attention.”

“Sure, Jamie,” I said.

“I’ll teach you, if you teach me about people?”

I smiled.

“I notice you dodged the question.”

“Yep.”

“You’re a brat,” he said.  “And this is the theater, coming up.  The person running the event is the same person that said ‘no children’.  This isn’t as simple as walking in.”

“Is the event catered?”

“Of course.”

“Then we go in through the back door and the kitchen,” I said.  “Let’s bank on her not having told the kitchen staff what she told the others.”

“Uhh,” Jamie said, suddenly sounding like he had doubts.

“Play along,” I said.  “All you have to do is act like you belong.”

“I’m regretting coming along.  I have trouble looking like I belong when I’m being Jamie.”

“Nah,” I said, as we circled around toward the back of the building.  “You fit in with the rest of us.”

“I wonder,” he said.

“Do you?  What do you wonder?”

“What happens later, where we fit in, how we adapt, the calls we end up making…”

“Vague.”

“It’s a vague sort of wondering,” he said.

“Are you thinking you wanted to go with Fray?”

“No,” he said, without a moment’s pause.  “No.”

I nodded.  He wasn’t volunteering, and I didn’t pry, just like he hadn’t pried when he’d realized I’d been evasive about the topic of Lillian.  The reason we could even talk to each other like this was that we had a good sense of each other.  We didn’t have to be on guard, we could experiment and share.

I liked that.

I saw a man standing outside the back door, a little wrinkled, long hair slicked back with damp, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, a cigarette in hand.  White shirt, black pants.  He looked like staff.

“What color shirt do you have on?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“Under your jacket.”

“White.”

“With buttons?”

“Yeah.”

“Follow my lead.  Eyes forward, chin up.  You’re proud to be doing this job.”

Jamie nodded.

We approached the man at the back door, and I pulled off my raincoat as soon as I was under the eaves and out of the rain.  I draped it over a box to one side.  The apple had been devoured and abandoned, the messages left in the inside breast pocket.  I withdrew them and held them so Shipman’s note was the one on top.  A little less rumpled – it conveyed a better image.

Jamie was already removing his raincoat, the backpack sitting on the crate by mine.

“Is the door locked?” I asked.

“Who’s asking?”

“We’re supposed to drop off a message and a package,” I said, holding up the papers.  I pulled them away from his reaching fingers as he moved to investigate my claim.  “We were told to use the back door, because we’d get seen if we went through the front?”

The man frowned.  He gave us a once-over.  Two boys in white button-up shirts and black pants, albeit with boots on.  I’d been wearing the outfit because I’d been acting out my role as a messenger and young mail deliverer, Jamie had been wearing it because it was his style.

We didn’t look like urchins, and that was the important part.  We were boys with a job to be done.

“Door’s unlocked,” he said, before reaching over and opening it partway.  He didn’t seem willing to expend enough effort to move from where he stood, so it was only opened a half-foot.  I grabbed it and hauled it open.

We entered into a kitchen, the air thick with the smell of smoke and cheeses.  Several stoves were going, and it looked like virtually all of the food was being made available in quantities no larger than my fist.  Some of it looked expensive – including things that looked like seahorses crossed with snails, all soft pronged bits and questionably defined shapes, all tinged in brilliant sunset reds, where they weren’t white and vaguely translucent.

Because frog legs, snails and fish eggs got to be too mundane, they had to invent obscure new things to eat.

I chose a route through the kitchen that would keep us out of the way of the more important members of the kitchen – the guy that seemed to be quietly giving instructions to everyone present, the chefs, and a man handing bottles to a well-dressed young lady, possibly a sommelier.

The chef’s assistants and the waiters who were venturing into the kitchen didn’t say a word, though the young, black men and women gave us curious looks.  When people lacked agency or authority, it could be hard for them to call out others on the same.  They were cogs in a very organic machine, they had a role, and right now that role was taking up all their focus.  Stopping and drawing attention to themselves wasn’t in the cards.

I liked places like this.  Places where humans had a system and became eminently predictable.  The box didn’t need to be disturbed.

I pointed at a little window which allowed the kitchen a partial view of the room beyond.  It was well above our heads, running over a countertop.  I stepped up onto a stool, then took a seat on the counter, the window to my right.

That seemed to get attention.  I watched people glancing at me as they went about their business, all rush, hustle and bustle.  Jamie climbed up to sit beside me, and I scooted over to give him a better view.

Through the window, we could see the luncheon, though it looked more like a party.  There were tables for sitting down at, but there was a band and a singer, and most people were mingling.

Something felt off.  I glanced over the room to try and figure out what it might be.

“You,” a chef spoke to us.  He had a towel around his shoulders, and was dabbing at his forehead with one corner.  “What are you doing?”

“We were told to come in here and wait,” I said.  I tapped Jamie’s bag.  “Parcel for delivery, has to pass from our hands to theirs.  If we’re in your way, please let us know so we can move.”

The man that had been barking orders was talking to someone, but he was glancing up at us and the chef we were talking to.

“Why does it have to be here?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’m just doing what I was told, sir.”

He seemed to consider.  He didn’t have much excuse to kick us out.

There’s always a hierarchy.  It’s a very simple game when you get down to it.  Chefs were a trickier bunch than some, I knew.  Even Mrs. Earles wasn’t to be messed with when she was cooking.  Chefs were artists in temperament and they worked long enough hours that they lacked any patience.  If something was going to go wrong, it could very well be this.

“Don’t get underfoot,” he conceded.

“I wouldn’t dare,” I said.  “This is your kitchen.”

He made a face.  Subtly, he indicated the man that was giving orders.  “His kitchen.”

“Then why were you the one who came to talk to us?” I asked.

“He’s busy.”

“Or,” I said, “you’re the one that really runs things here.  I know how this sort of thing works, sir.  He does too.  Without you and the other chefs, there would be nothing.  Without him, there’d be another manager.”

“You think so, huh?” the chef asked.

I nodded somberly.

“Don’t cause trouble,” he said, before getting back to work.  As the manager looked over in our direction, the chef waved dismissively, a gesture not unlike Gordon’s.

Not a problem.  Ignore, I thought, filling in the blanks.

Jamie and I turned to watch through the window.  The glass was thick and it wasn’t smooth, which made for a warped picture.  I found a position where I could see through without too much difficulty.  Jamie set his chin on my shoulder, his eyes on another such patch.

“Not like you,” Jamie said.

“Not like me?”

“To be nice.  Fluff up someone’s ego.  I know you could have done that differently.  You have done things differently.  I remember.”  His chin drove into my shoulder a little each time he opened his mouth to make a sound.

“You remember me talking about the bug box?”

“Sure,” he said, his chin jabbing my shoulder again.  I moved it to force him to reposition.

“This is a bug box.  Except there’s no shaking needed.  They’re already at each other’s throats.  I guarantee you there’s more drama in here than in any classroom at Dame Cicely’s.  People are easiest to manipulate when it’s ‘us versus them’, and in here, it’s him versus the manager.  Which is, hm, the second most important reason I did that.”

“Second?”

“Second.”

“Am I supposed to guess the first?”

“No.  I’m waiting for the dramatic moment when I get to show the first.  We are in a theater, after all.  Drama is important.”

Jamie nodded, his chin rubbing my shoulder.  I moved it again.

“Something’s really interesting about this scene,” I said.  “On a few levels.  Awful lot of rich-looking people, for one.”

“Whitney used to be a place where the wealthy had their second or third vacation homes.  Not for summertime, but for winters.  When they needed to get away from the city, they’d come here, do some hunting or ice fishing.  Or hole up in a cabin with a fire, enjoy a little distance from the rest of the world.”

“Escaping the mess and smells of the city, only to kill something and experience the smell of blood, guts, and their own sweat,” I said.  “That sounds self-defeating.”

“It’s easy to be self-defeating when you have that kind of wealth and power,” Jamie said.  “Some of the houses have permanent residents now, but some are still vacation homes.  Either way, it’s a place a lot of people know how to get to.”

I nodded.

Men in suits and women in dresses, with waiters in simple white shirts and black slacks moving between them, holding trays.  The singer on the stage was a black woman with a blue silk wrap around her head and a sleek silk full-length dress.

She was good, from what I could make out of her singing.  It came in fits and starts, as staff entered and left through the door.

“I spy a Helen,” Jamie murmured.  “And our General Ames.”

I looked, and Jamie pointed a finger, helping me to look in the right direction.  Helen was playing her part, the dutiful daughter.  Ames looked uncomfortable.  A man caught between a rock and a hard place.

It was good to know he was still behaving.  A large part of what we’d been working on to this point was ensuring our grip on him wasn’t going to falter.

“Good for her,” I said.  “Out of all of us, she’s probably eating the best.”

“And she doesn’t even enjoy food in the same way we do,” Jamie commented.  “There’s something really sad about that.”

“Mm,” I agreed.

We watched for another few moments.  Approaching footsteps made me turn my head.

The chef I’d talked to earlier was approaching yet again.  Wordless, he set down a plate, stacked with appetizers and tiny cakes.

“Wow!  Thank you, sir!” I said, trying to sound surprised.

He didn’t respond, only turning to leave.

I picked up one of the seahorse-slug things and viciously bit its head off.  It tasted like undercooked bacon, but a longer-lasting aftertaste that made the initial texture worth it.

“You’re allowed to gloat,” Jamie whispered to me.  “This was the first priority, wasn’t it?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I whispered back, smiling.

“Brat,” he said.  Then, distracted, he turned to the window, “Oh!  I recognize that face.”

“Which?”

Jamie indicated a man.  Even though most of the guests had removed their long coats, this one wore his.  He had long hair and glasses, but the hair was black, and the man was old enough to have white-and-black stubble on his cheeks.  He walked with his hands clasped in front of him, milling aimlessly until a woman in a deep blue dress approached, catching him in conversation.

“Cynthia,” Jamie said.

“The man’s name is Cynthia?”

“The woman in the dress is Cynthia.  She’s taking charge of the rebellion here, and she’s the one throwing this little lunch party,” Jamie said.

“Who’s the man?”

“Louis Peralta.  Ex-New Spaniard, removed from Radham Academy three years ago, he studied the science of pain.  How we experience it, how to remove it, how to inflict it.”

“Sounds like a lovely chap,” I commented.

“The loveliest.  When he walks down the road, children and small woodland creatures flock around him.”

“Anyone else?” I asked.  “I can’t help but notice that there’s a distinct lack of stitched here.”

“That’s true.  Most are probably off fighting.”

“Or there’s a certain kind of status to being able to hire actual people, instead of using dead ones,” I said.  “Or they’re playing up to a certain audience.  If you’re demonizing the Academy, using the Academy’s tools in the background looks bad.”

“True,” Jamie said.

“Question is,” I said.  “There are monsters in the audience.  Past Helen, the two tall women at the far end there, on either side of the man?”

“Oh.  He’s Mr. Pock.  Think Ibbott, but he likes to make sets, he’s only about half as arrogant, and only a third as good.”

I nodded.

“There’s Edwin Grahl.  He was innovating new ways of doing stitched when something political behind the scenes at one of the Academies got him upset.  He left in a huff, found a patron, and continued his work.  The Academy put out a warrant for unlicensed use of the Academy’s knowledge.  He went into hiding.”

“There are a lot of these guys,” I said.

Now that Jamie was pointing them out, I was getting a better sense of things.   It wasn’t always easy to identify the Academy educated.  Sometimes it was, sometimes they had the wild hair or the coats or tools on hand, but more than half of them blended in with the crowd.

“John Durant.  He got removed from the Academy when he helped make a superweapon, but failed to leash it right.  People got killed.  There are very few people I can think of who are as volatile as he is.  Angry, works on projects bigger than he can handle.  He could be as dangerous to their side as he might be to ours.”

“A lot of people that left the Academy, one way or another,” I said.  “Not all Academy trained, but close enough to have something to offer.”

“That’s essentially it,” Jamie murmured.  “She’s gathering her forces.”

The way Cynthia was doing it was interesting, too.  I saw how she took the arm of Dr. Peralta and led the man to a group of the high-society types.

What was the plan there?  Building connections?  Convincing the people with the money and the resources that this was a battle that could be won?

“There,” Jamie said.  “Man with the red tie?”

I looked and saw a man, blond haired, with a jaw prominent enough that it looked like it had been surgically modified.

“Nobility,” Jamie said.

Here?” I asked.  A two-legged cat might have had as much sense to walk into a wolf’s den.

“He’s illegitimate.  Of everyone here that might hate the Crown and the people that fall under its umbrella, he probably hates the Crown the most.”

“Tall order,” I said.  I grabbed a tiny cake.

“Tall order,” Jamie agreed.  He grabbed a little bacon-and-pastry affair, then offered it to me.  On a whim, we touched cake to pastry as if we were toasting a drink.

He popped his treat into his mouth.  I started, then stopped.

Someone had come in the back door.  A woman, with thick black hair falling across her eyes, parted so that only her nose and a wide mouth were visible.  She wore a military uniform, just as the scarred people and the countless soldiers in Whitney did.

A woman in uniform wasn’t the most unusual thing in the world.  But a woman that entered a room and sniffed, rather than looking around?

Entering through the back door?

With our raincoats clenched in one hand?

Her head turned in our direction.

“Go,” I said, hopping down from the counter, hauling Jamie down with me.  He only just managed to collect his backpack before I hauled him along.

There weren’t many escape routes.  There was a door to one side, which might have led to the kitchen manager’s office, but I wasn’t willing to gamble that the manager’s office would have a door or a window to the outside.

The woman moved toward us, with long, brisk strides, and one hundred percent conviction.  When a waiter got in her way, she grabbed him with two hands and shoved him forcefully into the nearest counter.  She barely slowed an iota in the process.

There were two surefire exits from the room.  There was one that she’d just used to enter the kitchen, and there was one that led from the kitchen to the floor of the theater.

Weighing our options, this one strange individual against a room filled with people who had been warned about our existence, I chose the room.

With Jamie lagging behind me, I pushed past the free-swinging set of door to enter the party.

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

Enemy (Arc 4)

Previous                                                                                                                       Next

The old man stared out the window as he talked.  The rain was coming down hard.  Cups clinked softly as tea was poured, while the rain beat a drum on the roof.  The entire building creaked with the way the wind blew the branches that extended from the outside.

“We need soldiers,” he said.

“We have soldiers,” Cynthia replied.  She was dressed in the latest fashion, with a shorter dress and a long jacket that hugged her body, corset-like bindings closing it at the front.  “We have three men for every one the Academy is prepared to field.”

Avis shook her head, “They have experiments, and regiments of stitched prepared for war.  Even with the sabotage, one stitched is worth ten soldiers.”

“I’d argue that,” Louis said.  He was seeing to the tea.  He looked like a proper hunter, with a plaid print to his jacket, the red and the black matching to his maroon slacks and fine leather boots.  He was an odd pair, put next to Percy.  Louis’ build was barrel-chested and muscular, he was clean-shaven, and his ginger hair was wavy, though cut in a flattering way.  Percy was narrow, pale in complexion, with his straight black hair slicked back from a widow’s peak, his beard combed and mustache waxed, an early gray at the temples and corners of the mouth.

The old man favored a more moderate approach.  Louis attracted attention because he was a manly sort, Percy because he was a scholar, likely the sort of teacher many schoolgirls had been enamored with, before the touch of grey reached his hair.  The old man walked a middle ground, where he could go unnoticed in virtually any place in Radham.

“I’m sorry, Louis, but I agree with Avis,” Percy said, picking up one cup of tea and walking over to hand it to Avis.

One or two members of the group snuck looks at the old man.  He could see out of the corner of his eye.

“Avis is right,” the old man said.

Tea in hand, smiling, Avis took a seat in the corner, dropping down with enough force that the birdcage next to her rocked, the occupants protesting shrilly.  She put out one hand out to steady the cage, then set her tea down, one ankle folding over the other.  Her dress was ten years out of fashion, following the lines of her body down to the ankle, a vest keeping the ruffles contained to the collar and the sleeves, but her hair and horn-rimmed glasses were in vogue.

“You’ll have to say why,” Cynthia suggested.

“Avis can explain,” the old man said.  He was more than capable, but he needed to curry favor where he could, and this would be one of the last times he interacted directly with the woman.  Avis was too important.  She was only one step away from being in complete control of all communications within Radham Academy, and she was charged with many of the more covert ones, the ones that necessitated flying messengers.

Avis liked to take her time before making a statement, which was a predilection that matched her other job well.   Everyone in the room waited, some patiently, some impatiently, for the woman to speak.

The old man quietly thanked Percy as tea appeared on the small table by the window.

“Have you ever seen a real fight, Cynthia?” Avis asked, sounding more than a little arrogant.

“I’ve been in more real fights than I could count.  It is, in fact, a large part of what Louis and I do here.”

“I’ll rephrase.  Have you seen a battlefield?  War?”

Cynthia shook her head.

“I have,” Louis said.

“With humans?” Avis pressed.

“I was one of those humans.  You know this.”

“From my experience on battlefields, I know that when you send men into a fight, they’re scared.  If you tell them they have to shoot or be shot, many will not shoot.  Humans naturally trend toward wanting to survive and being part of a group.”

“And war doesn’t support either of the two?” Cynthia asked.

“War most definitely supports both,” Avis said.  “However, it should be stressed that fighting in a war doesn’t.  The difference feeds the endless restlessness between the nobility and the people.”

“How very clever,” Cynthia said, in a droll tone.

“In an actual war, you’ll see two or more groups of people trying to poke their head up out of cover, work up the courage to aim their weapon and then pull the trigger to kill the other person.  You have to twist their arms to make them go over the breach, you play on ideology, or you convince them, and I do very much mean convince them, that they have no other choice.  A stitched has no such reservations.  A stitched doesn’t tend to stop and turn tail when his friend next to him gets gunned down.”

“That’s not necessarily a good thing,” Louis said.  “It’s easy to lose an entire regiment to the same machine gun, if the man giving orders isn’t prepared.  There are tradeoffs.  The Academy needs infrastructure.  While the war is ongoing, they won’t have it.”

Avis sipped at her tea, then said, “We agree there.  The logistics of it all… so long as we have the roads blockaded and bombed, they can’t move from A to B.  Without the trains and wagons coming in from the farms on the outskirts, they can’t eat or feed their experiments.”

“But,” Cynthia said, “you said we need soldiers, Godwin?  You’re not confident?”

It was a question she asked while already knowing the answer.  She was very much in his camp, and she was informed.  He had talked to her about this before.

Godwin took the question as his excuse to turn and face the occupants of the room.  “No, I’m not confident.  Things are still preliminary, the people are on our side, but we’re not moving forward, and the Academy is figuring out solutions.  It’s what they do.  The Academy retook Westmoreland.”

“The mountains of Columbia are the Academy’s primary mining operation in the west,” Cynthia said, for the benefit of the others present.  “Westmoreland, Columbia is the second highest producer of weapons for the Crown States.  For as long as they have it operational, they’re going to be armed.”

Godwin nodded.  “It’s a coup for them.  They’re going to start retaking ground.  On the large scale, with Westmoreland, and on the small scale, here.  They’re nosing around, looking for us, specifically, and they’re getting close.  There were advantages to being in Radham, our close contact with Avis foremost among them-”

“Thank you,” Avis said, preening.

“-But the risks are too great.  We were able to lead things in the abstract, now we need to be more direct.  We’ll need to split up.  Each of us in a different city.  To be effective whilst we’re doing that, we’ll need soldiers.”

“And the regular rank and file won’t do?” Louis asked.

“Those are men.  I believe we need more capable individuals.  As of right now, odd as it may sound, Academy dropouts and individuals like Mr. Percy here are in higher demand than the best the Academy has to offer.  The Academy’s people currently have no other choice but to work for the Academy, but the people who have the knowledge and lack the loyalty… they can be swayed to either side, and they’re favoring ours.”

He had the rapt attention of everyone present.  Louis seemed most comfortable hearing all of this, and was busy pouring himself another cup of tea.

“I’ll reach out, speak to some people, and I’ll have the money.  What I need you to do right now is find the people with the necessary skills.  The Academy has been quietly removing quite a number of them.  Mr. Percy was one close call in that respect.  We’ll find them and make them offers they can’t refuse.  If the money doesn’t sway, quietly let them know we have the knowledge, and if you feel they’re worth the risk, we’ll go a step further and actually tell them who we are, inviting them to the inner circle.”

The others nodded.

“I’ll miss this,” Cynthia said.  “Losing the more intimate setting, having a voice without shouting.”

“I can’t imagine you shouting,” Percy said.

Cynthia smiled at that.

“For the time being, focus on staying safe, make sure you aren’t being followed, particularly by Dogs.”

“Or little children,” Percy said, frowning.

“Especially little children,” Godwin agreed.  “Louis.  A man named Reverend Mauer is managing one of the larger and more successful revolutionary groups.  I think you and he would complement each other nicely.  Would you reach out?”

“I can.”

“And Cynthia, we’ve already discussed it-”

“Already doing what I can.  They’re slippery, and they don’t want to be found.”

Godwin nodded.  “Percy?  Keep doing what you’re doing.”

“I’d like to think I’m making soldiers rather than recruiting them,” Percy said.

“You are, indeed,” Godwin said.  He took a sip of his tea.  “The most dangerous time and place for you is when you’re on your way from Radham to your new accommodations.”

“Which are where?” Avis asked.

“I’ll let you know in private,” Godwin said.  He frowned.  “From here on out, we’re operating in cells.  I trust each of you.  Do as you deem appropriate.  You’ll each be in touch with one other cell.  If you find you can’t reach them, then and only then should you reach out to me or Avis.  Make preparations.  We’ll meet in the morning, I’ll let you know particulars, and you’ll each leave.”

“So soon,” Cynthia said.

“Right now, we’re safe, we’re free, we have control of the roads and the railroad.  In two days, that might change,” Godwin said.

Cynthia frowned, but she didn’t argue.

The others were already standing, and the ones who weren’t wearing jackets pulled some on, with many getting umbrellas.  Cynthia lagged behind the rest.

“Thank you, by the by, for the tea, Louis,” Godwin said.  “I enjoyed that one.”

“You’re very welcome,” Louis said.  “I left you a small box of the teabags.”

“Good lad,” Godwin said.

Percy and Louis left together, with Avis a few paces behind.

The door clicked shut.

Cynthia took a moment to pick up the scattered saucers and teacups, holding two in each hand on her way to the little sink.

“Something on your mind?” Godwin asked.

“Percy.”

“Ah.”

“We told him that all of his creations were destroyed by the Lambs.  If he discovers that they recruited one of them…”

“He’s very passionate, whatever he expresses on the surface.”

“He is.”

“What a very inconvenient man.”

“A very good way of putting it,” she said.

“I’d hoped to discard him, but he has a damnable way of making himself essential.”

“I’ll watch him,” she said.  “I just wondered if you had any thoughts.”

He went through the little building and extinguished lights, then pulled on his raincloak.  He joined her in exiting the building.

They were joined by the pair of experiments that had been standing in the hallway.  Cynthia’s.  The things were tall, narrower around than even the lithe Cynthia, and draped in rain cloaks that dragged on the ground.  Each had large eyes and bat’s ears placed on otherwise underformed and unadorned faces.  Chinless, noseless, the mouths frozen in a perpetual expression of a child that had just put a ball through a stained glass window.  Neither blinked as rainwater ran down from their too-short foreheads and over the balls of the eyes, or even bounced off the orbs themselves.

Radham glowed, even at night.  Temporary lamps with flickering bioluminescent lights within were placed at regular intervals between the regular lights, giving the patroling squadrons of stitched soldiers a better view of the surroundings.  It was only approaching sundown, but the rain came down hard, and the gloom gave the impression of a later hour than it really was.  Bridging the gap between winter and spring, it was an especially cold rain, cutting right through the raincloak, flesh and muscle to dig into the bone.

The eyes of a dozen stitched soldiers watched as the two of them walked down the length of the street, unblinking.  The heads of the stitched moved slowly to track them, each of them moving in unison.

The riots had been quelled, but the fact that Radham needed to keep a boot on the throat of this downed enemy was a win.  It bred resentment, and it limited how freely Radham could move.

Cynthia spoke up, when they were out of earshot of the stitched.  “I was thinking.  Lambert Academy, in Greysolon?”

Godwin casually looked around to make sure they were alone.  It was probably safer than being indoors, he had to admit.  The bat-eared experiments were on the alert, and the rain made for a lot of cover.

“A win for us, as much as Westmoreland was a win for them.”

“A win might be understating it.  Lambert academy burned, the people that weren’t burned alive were rounded up, made to kneel, and put to the knife.  It was symbolic, something the other revolutions could aspire toward.”

Godwin grimaced.  “Bullets would have been kinder.”

“Bullets are precious to some.”

“What got you thinking about Lambert?”

“Most burned or faced the knife, but not all.  There have been rumors about a set of Lambert’s experiments roaming around.  I asked Avis, and she doesn’t think they’ve been in touch with any of the other Academies.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking they might not be particularly attached to the other Academies.  They’re almost human, they’re functional, they can work and earn food and shelter, but I can’t imagine it’s easy for them.  It’s not what they’re meant to do.”

“What are they?”

“Lambert’s clean-up.  Lambert doesn’t have enough work, so it sends them out here and there.  They’re more about the kill than the capture.  Four individuals.”

“What’s the difficulty?”

“If I’m wrong and I reach out, they’ll come after me.”

“You’ve dealt with worse, Cynthia.”

There was a pause.

“No?” he asked.

“If they came after me, I’m not certain I could survive it.”

“Then play it safe.”

“You’re sure?”

“You don’t sound convinced they could be swayed.”

She shook her head, shifting her umbrella to her other hand, “I’m not.”

There was another group of stitched at the end of the block.  They were accompanied by a creature that stood twice as tall as a man.  Even from the other side of the street, Godwin could smell it.  A chemical smell.

“Curfew,” one stitched called out, sounding more like he was imitating the way it sounded than actually uttering the word.

Cynthia offered a little bow and flourish in response.

“Curfew!” the stitched hollered the word, emphasizing the wrong syllable, raising his voice to be heard as they continued walking, the stitched falling behind them now.  “Soon!  Bell tolls!”

Too dumb to realize she had been acknowledging it.

He felt uncomfortable and unhappy, the words ringing in his ears.

“I long for simpler times,” he said, abstractly.

“You’re not quite that old,” Cynthia said, patting his arm.  “There were stitched when you were born.”

“Not so many.  I’ve watched it all unfold.  The rate of growth has been startling.  I worry sometimes that you and the others don’t understand just what you’re facing.  The cost, if we don’t get ahead of this.”

“We value your pessimism,” she said.

He smiled.  “It’s saved us once or twice.”

“We all have reasons for doing this,” she said.  “Greater ones and personal ones.”

“You have your personal reasons,” he said.

“I do?” she made it a question.  Not because she wasn’t sure, but because she was wondering why he’d brought it up.

“Will that be a problem, if your search proves successful?  Will you be able to understand someone with greater ones?”

“The woman that provoked the war?  We’ll have to see,” Cynthia said.

“I worry,” he said.  “If this was her first move, what is the next one?”

“And will we be caught up in it?  I’ll look for her, Godwin.”

He smiled.

They’d reached his building, which was large but a touch ramshackle, in a less than stellar neighborhood.  The important thing was that it was unassuming.  Cynthia waited and watched, her pets standing there, heads slowly turning left and right, ears up and out, listening to every raindrop.

He opened the door, and stepped inside.  Experiments stood on either side of the doorway.  Cynthia’s, again.  Sentries, knights clad in armor that grew like a bug’s exoskeleton.

He didn’t like it, but some things were necessary.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said.

Cynthia smiled and waved, leaving, her pets following behind.

To all appearances, a coquette.  Louis was a soldier’s son, the man had moved on to active military service, lying about his age to get in sooner.  Cynthia was different, almost the opposite.  She had had no family, no guidance, and she had raised herself on ugly streets overseas, where gutters had literally run red with blood, and where experiments had been piled so carelessly on trash heaps beneath the Academies that they overflowed into the city, some still alive, others dangerous despite being dead.

All she had needed was a little refining.

He walked through the house, casually moving past the myriad traps that he and Cynthia had placed.  He was here so rarely, the minor inconvenience hardly mattered.  More sentries were stationed throughout the house, many shuffling faintly as they sensed the activity and exited their hibernation states.

He walked into the washroom and stared at himself in the mirror.

Cynthia knew him better than anyone else, she knew how he thought.  The inverse was also true – he knew Cynthia better than anyone else.  Yet he hadn’t spoken up and said the truth.

The war would get far worse before it got better.  The Academy was retaking control, but the rebellions were still underway, and the Academy’s efforts weren’t quelling so much as they were holding things at bay.

Sooner or later, things would reach a tipping point.  To retake control, the Academy would need to do something significant.  Institutions of this scale had only so many ways they could achieve that kind of control.

Fear was one, and he didn’t want to think about what the Academy might do to generate such a widespread fear.

The only way forward would be to beat them to the punch.

To do something horrific.

For that, he needed the woman who had started the war.  He needed those talents, and he needed to be absolutely sure that she wasn’t already doing the exact same thing.  Because if his group and her group both acted at the same time…

He couldn’t let that happen.

He bent down to wash his face, scrubbing, feeling old for the first time in a long time.

When he stood straight, he had company.

The man’s skin had been flayed away and reattached, overlapping strips, like the weave of a basket, head to toe, leaving every feature masked, but for a space for a toothless, tongueless mouth and two milky white eyes.  The flesh around the edges of each strip of skin was scarred and flaky.

A mummy, wrapped in his own flesh, almost a straightjacket, but not quite.  Two oversized hands were already reaching out.

Hangman.

They found me.

Godwin reached for his razor.  He was jerked back before he had it, his finger running along the length of the handle.

Long fingers of two hands wrapped around his neck, one after the other.  As the fingers fell neatly into place, interlacing, his neck was elongated, vertebrae popping.  His fingers scrabbled for purchase on the sink, his legs kicked, but it was to no avail.

Another pop, a flash of pain filling his lower body, and then it all fell to pieces.  The nervous impulses ran away from him, signaling motions he wasn’t making, pain and sensations he shouldn’t be feeling, all with a pressure that suggested his entire body had been crushed beneath a one-ton stone.

In the mirror, his arms and legs dropped, limp.  He huffed out a breath and didn’t take another one.

The Hangman had dislocated his neck.  He was lowered almost dismissively to the ground, as if forgotten, as the Hangman dropped one hand to its side and then let go, letting him fall to the floor, his head cracking against the tile.

He had a view, albeit one that had darkness swiftly flowing in from the edges, of the Hangman leaving much the way it had come in.  It touched the door and hauled itself up to the top of the doorframe, as if it weighed no more than an equivalent amount of loose paper.  It reached the ceiling, fingers bracing it against the walls on either side of the hallway, and then it was gone, whispering against the ceiling, past the sentries and defenses.

Godwin’s last thoughts were of Cynthia, his last sentiment a quiet horror at the idea that Cynthia might well think along the same lines he had… without the consideration to what disasters Genevieve Fray might have planned.

The hall had an upper stage that overlooked the lower floor, and Cynthia stood astride it, arms on the railing, watching.  Her pets flanked her.

From the bottom to the top, she thought.  She was with the upper class.  The true upper class, she might say.  These weren’t nobles, but businessmen, clergy, and pillars of the community.  They were people with money who had earned that money, by and large.  Those who had been born to money were already beholden to the Academy, hooks long set in.

Men and women in fine dress.

Potential allies.

If they were going to retake Westmore, these were allies they would need.  It meant the difference between the Academy having a gun for every soldier or having to do without.

One of her pets reacted, bat-ears twitching as it made a small sound.  She wheeled around.

Nervous, since Godwin’s death.

Four individuals.  Three men and a woman, standing in the shadows.

She almost regretted hiring them.  The mercenaries.  They’d turned out to be on her side, but they were… unpleasant, both in methodology and in personality.

“I thought I was alone up here,” she said.

The one in the lead shook his head.  He had bug eyes and a custom gun slung over one shoulder.

Choleric, she reminded herself.

“What is it?”

“General Ames just arrived,” Melancholy said.  Long hair covered her eyes, and she had a too-wide mouth.  Of the four, Melancholy was the only one that Cynthia wasn’t sure about.  The woman’s favored murder weapon wasn’t on display.  No knife, no gun, no vials.

Cynthia turned to look.

Ames was a big man, in many senses.  Proud, boisterous, fat, ruddy-cheeked, with blond hair.  He was perspiring.  More than normal.  He was with his wife and child.

“What about him?”

“The girl,” Melancholy said.

It took a moment before Cynthia could see through the crowd.  A young lady, beautiful, wearing an evening dress in miniature.  A little blonde that promised to be a great beauty at some point in the future.

When Melancholy spoke again, it was in Cynthia’s ear.  Cynthia hadn’t heard the woman approach.  “She doesn’t smell like she’s his.”

Cynthia looked, frowning.  The girl looked like any young lady should, bouncing with excitement at the fancy dress party.  She was saying something, and her father was having trouble keeping up.

“What is she?”

“Not human,” Melancholy said.  “She smells like blood.”

Cynthia nodded slowly.

“She smells like other children,” Melancholy said.

Cynthia’s eyes scanned the crowd.  She didn’t see any others.

“You know what to do,” she said.

“Mm,” Melancholy said.

Cynthia smiled.  She knew as she turned around that the four wouldn’t be there.  In four paces, she crossed the room to pick up her gun, slipping it through a hidden pocket of her dress.

She wasn’t excited, she wasn’t proud or arrogant.  She knew exactly what she was up against.

She’d come here to fight.

This, surrounded with people she couldn’t trust, was her medium.

Every time she’d faced this kind of situation in the past, everyone else had ended up bleeding or dead.

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

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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!”

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