Chapter eight: The pitch
“What were you thinking running away like that mister!? Do you have any idea how worried I was!? Has it become your goal to pester me!?” my heart is rattling away, feeling like it might just blow up in my face.
But the kid ignores my rage as he jumps off the stool widely grinning and hugs me “I missed you too.”
Behind the kid I see Prishtoli making ‘awww’ gestures which doesn’t help at all but my heart thaws as the burden of worrying falls from my shoulders. “Just where have you been?” I ask softly as he gently pulls away from me.
He looks like hell, unkempt hair, little poofs of hair wriggling their way out of his chin trying to pass for a beard. His clothes are dirty too.
He grabs my arm “I’ll show you, come with me.” And after having only been in for a moment, I already get dragged out of Bar-B again by this stupid little kid-
All right not exactly a little kid anymore, I do a little calculation in my head he’s eighteen already.
But he’s still stupid!
And with the initial shock wore off, I’m overjoyed to see him.
He leads me straight for the slums and I distinctly recall looking here as well. Pulling back tents made from ship’s sails and fishing nets and looking under crumbling bridges “Young master where are we going?”
“Call me Inquiry, you’re no longer my tutor Stegarius, you’re my friend.”
His mother’s words ring in my ears as he says that ‘You will address him as young master, master Winton or sir Winton if he’s been naughty. You will never address him by his first name do you understand mister Stegarius?’
Even after all these years, I recall the rules perfectly…
“It’s a habit I will have to kick, but I’ll try my best Inquiry. Now please tell me; why did you leave university? I thought you liked mechanics?”
He laughs in response “The university is a joke, they couldn’t teach me anything I didn’t know already. It’s a complete and utter waste of time.”
I’m dumbstruck, the most prestigious university in the country; a waste of time!? “But you were there for over two years, I don’t understand.”
He shushes me as we pass a shop with crossbones painted over the door. I try to look into the shop window but they boarded up the whole thing.
I look at the boy, the way he ducks low making sure he’s out of sight.
I follow his example.
Then as he pulls up again and turns the corner he says “That’s a good question! You see the university has these huge archives in their library on basically everything. So I started looking up dolls in the registry and you’re not gonna believe this! I found your fathers notes, the ones no one could decode.”
I’m confused “How is that possible, I thought Fayatspaad had those?”
He stops for a second and points to a narrow small cast iron ladder bolted against the side of the bridge.
Despite all my looking, I don’t recall this being here at all.
He climbs down, I follow him dutifully.
Besides the water is a small ledge of brick presumably used for raking the seaweed out the channels back before the automata took over the job.
As we shimmy down the ledge he continues.
“Funny story, they started working at the university the same year I entered. Oh, and they say hi.” The river smells foul in this part of town and the small strip of bricks keeping us from dropping into the sewage was slick and slimy. “Long story short they have been trying to decode the notes for a while now and they were hopping from university to university looking for someone who could manage it. I was happy to find a doll, they were happy with a helping hand and that’s how I spent my time there.”
“Fayatspaad wanted to decode the notes?” Was that why they were so keen on keeping them back at the division? It makes sense in hindsight but I never even considered it. “Why?”
“They didn’t specify but the important bit is where I did it.”
“You did wha-!?” I exclaim but the boy shushes me straight away.
“Shhhh, we gotta keep a low profile.”
I look up at the people back on street level, a young girl staring straight at us before being pulled along by their parent.
I get an uneasy feeling like we’re doing something we’re not supposed to do. “Just where are we going?”
He waves the worry away “I’ll explain everything when we’re back inside.”
“But why the low profile, what’s with all this secrecy?”
“Just keep walking.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“Nope Stegarius, I’m not in trouble.”
“Just trust me.”
I want to, I really do but something about this rubs me the wrong way. Everything is too sudden, too different.
I cross my arms and keep walking, eyes trailing upwards to the street every so often. What’s out there that we need to be afraid of? Why must I be silent?
After a good five minute walk, we arrive at an unassuming wooden door. Aged in a way it’s almost the exact same colour as the bricks that surround it.
The boy pulls a key from his shirt, hung around his neck by a thin rope. He unlocks the door, swings it open and a nauseating stench comes wafting out way from beyond “After you.” He says.
The tunnel beyond the door is dark and musty.
My heart skips a beat, grabbing his hand as he steps in.
The smell of death surrounds this place.
He looks back at me, surprised, then smiles kindly “There’s no need to be afraid. He pulls a lever by the door and there’s a chain reaction of lights flickering into existence. The electric bulbs hum menacingly.
The door shuts behind me.
I want to leave. “Where are we?”
He tries to pull me along but I stay in place until he explains, he sighs “Soooo…as I read the documents I came to realise it’s blauwgloed that keeps the doll’s heart beating…”
I search my memory and come up empty “What’s that?”
“Well…it translates to ‘blue glow’….”
“It’s ether!” in a voice that’s trying to contain itself and failing “It’s what they called ether in the olden days. Stegarius your father wasn’t a mechanic or an inventor, he was an alchemist!”
No…no this is too much! “I-”
There’s a glee in his voice that strikes me as…off “It makes so much sense when you think about it! It’s the study of life and death, it feels almost like the past is pulling a joke on us, how could we not see it?”
I’m nailed to the floor, this child, the one human I thought I knew through and through is saying such distressing things, and smiling while doing so.
I let go of his hand “No, alchemy is twisted and wrong, it’s what modders use to make their monstrosities.” The idea that my father and those freaks have even the faintest of similarities leaves me with loathing “It wasn’t even practised back then.”
He grabs my hand back and holds it tightly as if he’s afraid I’d escape “Your father was one of the first, and it didn’t have the stigma back then. No one could even have imagined the chimaeric abominations the modders would create or the way they could alter the fabric of humanity itself. But that’s not on the alchemy, that’s on the people who use it, and reading those notes made me realize that alchemy can be used for good.” His eyes stand pleading.
I’m confused “Young m-”
“Inquiry, please, you know for someone who comes from a culture where name changes are common this is far too difficult for you.”
“I’m sorry” It’s because calling you Inquiry makes me uncomfortable.
He sighs “It’s okay. Anyway once I found that out I realized how I was in the wrong place and so I took the notes and hightailed out of there.”
“You stole the notes!? Inquiry didn’t I teach you any values over all these years?”
He shrugs “I was only protecting his legacy, if the people found out about his ‘twisted and wrong’ alchemy his reputation would be destroyed forever. Besides, I needed them.” He puts his head on my shoulder, it makes me notice how big he’s become. “I understand now Stegarius, all the answers you could not give me, they’re in here. I can make new dolls with this!”
“New dolls?” My brain rejects the idea “What are you talking about?”
“A new generation, new siblings to keep you company.” He puts an arm around my shoulder trying to assure me but all it makes me feel is trapped.
This is madness.
What happened to my little boy? My young master?
I feel him pushing me in the back, urging me to walk.
I look back to the door “Inquiry, I like to go back to Bar-B.”
He sounds offended as he asks “Why?”
“I don’t like this place.”
“But I told you alchemy isn’t bad! Not fundamentally.” He shouts but I can hear there’s no anger there… he’s disappointed. “If you just come and see, it’ll all make sense I promise.”
Inside I feel that if I take this step forward I know I can never go back.
It’s like standing at the edge of a cliff, peering over the edge, about to fall in.
Afraid of the consequences while being fully aware I could never say no. “Fine.”
He embraces me, says “thank you” then drags me along past eight bulbs, and past the shaggy orange curtain that kept me away from the nest within.
The den beyond is a mess. An assortment of laboratory equipment interspersed with dishes and stray detritus.
“Sit wherever you like.” Inquiry says as he darts from one part of the room to the other picking up debris. I look at the melange of different chairs and pick out the one that looks least likely to crumble under my weight. I watch the boy as he zips around the room. “You should have cleaned up before you came to get me,” I tell him in an attempt to establish normalcy.
“I didn’t expect you to come looking for me this soon, but I came as soon as the news got down the grapevine.” He opens an oaken chest and hurriedly drops in a pile of dishes. I’m surprised to hear nothing break. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“Well, you did. I worried sick for you.”
“I’m sorry.” He chuckles sheepishly at me “But you see, I’m quite safe, the door can only be opened by members of the society and the people down here are nice.” He shows off his key again.
“The idea of an alchemist den being ‘quite safe’ is somehow difficult to parse.”
“Look I know the newspapers paint us in a bad light-”
“I’m an Ion now, just a student, but they gave me the key.” He said collecting vials and putting them away.
I grunt miserably, I spent years teaching the kid proper sciences and he goes off with alchemy of all things “I recall you mentioning making new dolls.”
“Yes, I was about to get to that.”
He closes the vial box and sits down next to me “I always assumed that dolls would live forever. I think everyone kind of did, even the dolls. But now I’m not sure anymore. The notes talk of things I don’t understand, things not even my teacher can explain but what I do understand is that dolls have a lifespan, a long one, but it will end. It could be in a decade, it could be in a millennium but there will come a day when dolls will start dying, and no one will understand why and there will be panic and fear. The dolls will die out, go extinct unless I do something about it now! Don’t you see it? It’s destiny, even my name is inquiry! This is what I’m meant to do, make a new generation, preserve the species, maybe even make you and your siblings immortal for real.”
I listen to his tale but his words don’t make sense. Maybe leaving him alone was a mistake. Solitude is not good for his mind. “With all due respect, I don’t think you are well.”
He grunts, frustration palpable “Stegarius I’m serious. I’ve never felt so right about anything before. I want to do this, I need to do this!”
“But what about the automatons? Your family? Inquiry please your parents want you back, they are worried about you.”
His face flares up at the mention. He gets up and starts pacing around the room as he rages “My parents don’t give a piss about me!”
“Language,” I tell him but he doesn’t seem to notice.
“All they care about are their precious factories and the newest line of autos. They don’t want me I’ve never been good enough. I need to stop asking questions, I need to keep my mouth shut so the adults can talk. I need to be representative of the family. I need to be more business-oriented, I need to network, network!? I’m not even allowed to talk! And when they’re not busy sending their spite my way they’re fighting one another over every little thing. It’s exhausting just to be around them, never mind trying to get them to see things my way!” He crashes down on a chair, breathing hard and holding his head in his hands.
I’ve never seen him like this, I didn’t even know about any of this. Was I that unobservant? Was he that good at hiding? How could I not know?
“I’m a means to an end to them. They want me to take over the factory and be like them but I hate automata. I hate them! They are cold and dumb and soulless and I hate them! I love dolls, I love you, you raised me and cared for me and my parents just cast you aside like you didn’t matter, How can I love them still!?”
I don’t know what to say or do I’m just dumbstruck, staring at this young man I thought I knew but suddenly there are all these new facets I can’t explain.
The alchemy, the fascination with dolls, the hatred for his family.
I feel responsible, I should have given this boy a better childhood “I’m sorry.” I tell him
He starts to sniffle and rub his eyes and I walk over to him put a hand on his shoulder to comfort him.
Tears streak his face and before me, I see the same brilliant little kid who’s scared of the cook and doesn’t quite know what do to with himself.
And I can’t blame him, for decades I’ve been accepting every job I can find, hoping to find a place to belong.
This kid is eighteen.
And so the hand on his shoulder makes place for a hug and I realize that I found the place I belong, I found it many years ago, and yes I missed him far more than I’m willing to admit to myself and yes, I love him like he’s my own son and no I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do right now.
So we just stay there until he’s done crying and as we’re sat down on a couch that has clearly seen better days I wonder what I’m supposed to do with all these feelings running around in my chest.
“I want to hire you.” He says.
“Yes, you see, you’re the whole reason I wanted to do this in the first place. You’re incredible, you’re all incredible, so the idea of you all going extinct, even if it’s a long way off. It just fills me with dread.” He blows his nose and a tiny smile appears on his face “A world without dolls just sounds boring and bleak to me. But if I can make new dolls, continue the lineage or even better find a way to charge your heart up again when it’s almost depleted, extend your lives make you functionally immortal.”
I never questioned my lifespan, none of us have, no one has died of old age yet so we assumed it just couldn’t happen, but if what he’s saying is true… “But how can I help? I don’t know anything about alchemy.”
“That doesn’t matter, I need you to be my adviser. You know what it’s like to be a doll and your input is invaluable to me. I want to make dolls but I want to do so respectfully.”
“Are you sure alchemy is the road you want to take? It’s dangerous pseudoscience at best”
He chuckles “it’s not that bad…I mean, without it you wouldn’t even be here.”
I shrug, that still sounds weird to me. “You said you were a student.”
“Well yes, can’t learn alchemy from books since they’re banned.”
“Where is your teacher?”
“The alchemists meet up every six months to talk about their projects and share knowledge, she won’t be back before dark.”
“Does she know about your wanting to recruit me?”
“Does she agree?”
“I think she regards you more like a pet than a person, so she said it’s fine as long as I ‘take care of you and you don’t mess up the research’”
“She sounds delightful.”
“She’s someone to get used to for sure…but she isn’t that bad once you get to know her.”
“I sure hope so.”
“Sooooo…will you help me out, please?”
“I will, but under one condition.”
His face lights up “Name it.”
“I won’t be hired anymore, I will help you because I care about you, not because I want your money.”
“Are you sure? Don’t you need money?”
“Dolls need very little, and I’d feel bad taking money from you.”
“Thank you.” He hugs me and I think I’m happy.
After he releases me he starts jumping around the room showing me books and little vials of blue, glowing goop rambling on about concepts I’ve never even heard of much less considered.
It all sounds like nonsense to me. But maybe that’s the point, and maybe after we fail for a couple of weeks he’ll give up on this madness. Or maybe we’ll succeed, who knows what the future will bring. I just want to be there in case things go wrong, and help where I can.
It’s the proper thing to do.