Chapter nine: Introductions
The boy, no, Inquiry is asleep.
I’m sitting by myself on a dark velvet sofa that has clearly seen better days.
He’s given me a book filled with symbols and formulae that clash heavily with my knowledge of science and technology. Reading it feels like taking a rock and crashing it down a perfectly tranquil pool for the sole reason of watching the ripples.
I don’t understand.
But I made my bed, in the metaphorical sense. Now I just have to figure out the fastest way to either make this brave new world reality or disprove the possibility so thoroughly he’ll give up.
And thus I read and wait for this legendary master to come back from her engagement so we can get properly acquainted.
The sound of keys rattling makes me sit up thinking ‘speak of the devil’.
I’m not sure what I expected her to be. A mystical woman with flaming hair dressed in a cloak with glowing runes, a mad scientist type; permanently clad in a lab coat and goggles trying to suppress maniacal laughter.
But the person pulling the curtain aside and stumbling in is surprising in the way she underwhelms. Her dress is slender with puffed-up sleeves not unlike current fashion norms yet constructed of plain grey cotton that matches unruly grey wisps of hair coming off her now-messy coiffure, though I imagine it looked quite dashing as she walked out the door this morning.
I stand to announce my presence.
Her shoulders jump at the sound suspicious eyes immediately locked in my direction. Her hand shot somewhere to her side though I cannot quite see for the way she is turned.
I put a hand on my chest and humbly bow my head “My name is Stegarius, it’s a pleasure to-”
She sighs, arms relaxed, eyes softened as she undoubtedly recognised the name. She then waves away my introduction as she grunts “tomorrow” in an exhausted voice before walking into the bed-chamber.
I must admit I am surprised.
Nevertheless, I sit down again.
And continue reading.
The next day Inquiry rises early and starts scuttling about the little corner decked out as a kitchen. pulling out plates and knives to set the breakfast table.
“I can help.” I tell him, putting the book aside “What do you need?”
“I need you to sit down and keep on reading, I’ll handle this.”
I don’t understand “But I can help?”
He smiles as he shakes his head at me “Mercury tasked me with this job, I don’t want her to see me relying on you.”
I consider this for a while, then decide he’s a grown man capable of his own stupid decisions and sit back down with the book.
“So…this ether business, what is it?” I ask partly to keep the conversation going, partly cause this book confuses me.
“Doesn’t the book explain that in chapter one?”
I quote; “’ The magnificent power balancing life and death capable of transforming the future.’ Wasn’t particularly clear in my opinion.”
The boy grins as he drags a tray of mismatched cups to the table “Fair enough, ether is…Its easiest explanation is ‘life force’ it’s what makes us all move, people, animals, dolls.
It’s found in living things but it cannot be harvested without killing the host which is why there’s so much controversy around it.
But there are ways to source it ethically of course.” He adds after I fold my arms demonstrably.
“But it can do so much more than just give life to lifeless things it can keep people alive who would otherwise expire. It can transform matter, create new species and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, more and more is discovered about ether every month so that when all the alchemists in the city come together to share their knowledge.”
“Or at least share the scraps they no longer need for their current projects.” The woman enters the room and sits down at the table. “Three plates? I thought the doll didn’t eat?”
“He doesn’t…it just looks a bit weird if his spot is empty. Stegarius do you want to join us for breakfast.”
“Of course.” I put away the book and make my way over to the breakfast table. Stand in front of the woman and offer my hand “Nice to meet you, my name is Stegarius.”
“I know, you said last night.” The woman answers nonchalantly but shakes my hand all the same.
Then she lets go. “And… you are…?” I try to ask as politely as possible.
“Stegarius this is Mercury.”
“Mercury? Like the element?”
The woman sighs as if she’s had to explain a hundred times before “My given name is a secret, keeps trouble of your back. Mercury is my alchemist name, picking an element is traditional. The boy will pick one too when he earns his stripes.”
I spot inquiry smiling like a fool at that remark. I don’t understand, I thought he liked his name.
“Now sit down, the food is getting cold,” Mercury tells me and I swiftly head over to my seat. Suddenly curious as to what the cast iron pot contains.
Inquiry lifts the lid to reveal a pot full of oatmeal, heavily watered down judging from the consistency.
The food of construction and factory workers.
The alchemist hands off her plate and Inquiry fills it with the soupy mixture, then fills a plate for himself and sits down.
“To good health.” He says, the woman repeats him halfheartedly and they start to eat.
They eat quickly and in silence while I just sort of sit there. I wonder why the boy wanted me here if he’s not going to converse, maybe he didn’t want me to be excluded?
Or maybe the conversation is what he hoped for?
“I have a question.”
“Hmhm.” The woman hums at me.
“What is it you do as an alchemist.”
She raises an eyebrow and looks at Inquiry “You gave him the book right?”
“Right.” She huffs “Look, I’m not a modder, I’m not stupid. I mind my own business testing with ether and now I’m trying to help the kid with his crazy goal because I’m nice like that.”
“Inquiry just told me you can’t source it without killing the host so, where do you get it from?”
“Got an acquaintance, an alchemist who works at the slaughterhouse. Currently, it’s the only way to get the stuff without putting a target on your back but supply is low and demand is high so there’s a rat race going on trying to synthesise it.”
“You use animal ether?”
“There’s no such thing as ‘animal ether’ there’s no difference between the ether in humans or animals or plants for that matter.”
“Plants have ether too?”
“In small amounts, amounts too small to actually use unless you want to go chopping down scarecrows. But doing so is not gonna be worth it.” She drops her spoon into the empty plate and says “Now if that’s all I’m heading into the lab” She looks at inquiry “I’ll see you in a bit.”
The boy nods then clears the table, I get up and return to my book. Chapter 8 advanced formulae.
I make it about three lines in before getting bored and watching the boy wash the dishes in a wooden tub and immediately dirty them again by placing them on a damp cloth on the table.
“You sure you don’t want help, I can dry if you like.”
“It’ll dry by itself.”
He places the sponge on a small shelf above the tap, then picks up the tub and walks out, presumably to the canal outside to empty it out.
When he returns he tosses the tub into a cupboard and sits down next to me putting his feet up and asking “So, what do you think?”
“You shouldn’t put your feet on the table. It’s unhygienic.”
“Mercury does it.”
“You’re not Mercury.”
“All right, all right. As long as it makes you happy… You don’t like her do you?”
I look up surprised at his directness, then I sigh “I haven’t decided yet, but I’m wary of her, and so should you.”
“She’s all right once you get to know her, she’s direct but she never means to be cruel.”
“I think she’s using you to advance her own research.”
“I mean I’m using her to learn alchemy, I think it’s only fair she gets something out of it.”
I stay silent for a bit considering that “I didn’t think of it that way.”
“It’s certainly cheaper than college fees let me tell you that.” He says with a chuckle then sees I’m not laughing along, He puts a hand on my shoulder “It’s going to be okay, I’ll learn what there is to learn and then I’ll pick a name and leave the nest. It’s the alchemists’ way.”
“I’ll have to believe you on that.”
He punches my arm playfully “Come on, did I ever lie to you?”
I shake my head.
“Good. Now come on, I’ll show you the lab.”
The laboratory can only be described as chaotic. The place is tiled from the ceiling to the floor with iron trolleys pushed every which way containing glassware and cardboard boxes in varying states of decay.
The electric light feels cold against the bright tiles and the whole place feels uncomfortable to be in, unnatural and futuristic but in an unnerving way.
In the middle of it all stands a shiny metal operating table, currently occupied by rows and rows of flower pots containing a menagerie of saplings.
Mercury seems to be tending to them, injecting a strange blue-glowing liquid into the fragile stems. Her hands are covered in thick cotton gloves, eyes protected with safety goggles.
“What’s she doing?” I ask but the moment the woman hears my voice she stops and looks up snapping “What the hell is the doll doing in the lab?”
“I…didn’t know the lab was off-limits. I just wanted to show him what we’re working on.” Inquiry replies sheepishly and the woman rolls her eyes.
“You, come here.” She says pointing in my direction.
I oblige with a mix of curiosity and wariness.
She puts an arm around my shoulder and points to the plants “This series of experiments has the potential to change the world, agreed.”
“I guess so.”
“So the last thing I need is other alchemists finding out what goes on here and beating us to the punch.” Her arms tighten around my neck, I get the creeping suspicion she’s trying to threaten me.
It doesn’t inconvenience me so I let her. But I do wonder “I thought you shared your knowledge?”
She huffs “Only after getting all the credit and praise. Don’t want to get stabbed in the back. That’s why you won’t talk to anyone about the things you see here.” She looks me in the eyes face serious “This isn’t up to your judgement, you don’t get to sift and filter what you think is benign, you say nothing. If someone asks you what you’re up to you what do you tell them?” she says stabbing a gloved finger against my chest.
“Exactly.” She lets go of me I wonder what I’m supposed to do now. I look at the boy.
“Can I explain then?” Inquiry asks, Mercury shrugs “Fine.”
“The notes talk of imbuing the wood with ether but it doesn’t explain how. Either there’s an earlier set of notes we don’t have, or your father starting writing down his process a while after he figured it out and simply forgot to mention it. Like glossing over small details in a recipe cause it’s assumed the reader will know what you mean.”
“Of course we have no idea what he meant. We’ve already tried to expose blocks of wood to ether under a glass dome but it didn’t absorb enough of the stuff.”
“So now we try to inject the ether into growing trees in the hopes we can create high ether density wood. And hope it doesn’t all leak out again when we chop it down.”
“What trees did you pick?”
“Just the standard, oak, beech, birch, cherry, mahogany and chestnut.”
“I don’t know anyone who’s made of mahogany. The others are fine I guess.”
Mercury turns to me hand underneath her chin “What woods are most common in dolls?”
“Elm, chestnut, cherry, walnut is sort of common.”
“All right then. I guess we gotta add an elm and a walnut to the mix.”
“Why no mahogany? it should have been around in your father’s days.” Inquiry asks as he makes notes in his little book.
“I grew up in the forest, I think maybe imported woods just weren’t that interesting to him. Why buy something that grows right outside your door.”
“That or it just doesn’t work. I’m not doing to waste resources keeping it alive if we have a better shot with the others.” And with that, she pulls the sapling from the flower pot and tosses it onto one of the trolleys. “Inquiry, I want you to go to the forest and fetch me an elm and a walnut sapling. Oh, and toss out the mahogany sapling while you’re at it.”
Inquiry nods, pulls a bucket from the bottom shelf of the trolley next to him and tosses the sapling inside.
“Can I come along?” I ask looking at the bucket.
Inquiry shrugs, Mercury says “Sure.”
I follow him out into the streets again.
The moment we’re standing next to the canal Inquiry tries to empty the bucket.
“Wait!” I shout snatching the bucket from his hands.
He shushes me before whispering “What the hell was that?”
“Come on, we’re going to the forest anyway. We might as well plant this.” I then resolutely walk to the ladder.
“I guess? Just don’t tell Mercury, she’ll call you softhearted.”
“She can call me whatever she likes, I’m not going to kill something just cause it doesn’t benefit me.”
I can hear him chuckle behind me. “Good point.”
Sounds like the old Inquiry is still in there.
As the weeks and months pass I find a new normal for myself.
Inquiry and I spend our time taking care of the plants. Making sure to sneak the rejects back into the forest in the hope they can keep growing there.
I can live like this, I mean I’d love for Inquiry to get into a real science instead, spending his time more wisely.
But I can’t exactly deny the thought for more dolls intrigues me.
And so I allow time to tell and simply help where I can.
Things seem to be pretty stable.
Until one day we get a sudden visitor.
We’re in the lab tending to the plants when I hear footsteps in the parlour.
“Someone’s here,” I say aloud.
Mercury pulls up an eyebrow, puts down her tools, and walks out into the parlour.
I look at Inquiry, he shrugs.
I pull the curtain away and find a bear of a man sitting on the couch. His shoulders are the size of melons and he wears dark round glasses hiding his eyes.
“The hell are you doing here?” Mercury asks, arms crossed.
“I need a place to crash for a bit.”
“Who’s after you?”
“Look I totally got framed, all I did was give this rich girl a tail, next day police are knocking down my door!”
Mercury pinches the bridge of her nose as she growls “And how many times did I tell you not to mod non-initiates?”
“She was offering a lot of money, how could I possibly say no!?”
“And now you’re a workshop short, how does that balance out for you?”
“Still pretty good actually.”
“You’re a modder?” Inquiry asks amazedly.
I just look at the man with suspicion.
The man looks at me. “Mercury, you didn’t tell me your Ion is a doll!?”
The woman sighs “My Ion is behind the doll.”
Inquiry passes me on the way in “Hi, I’m the Ion.”
“Pleased, I’m Tungsten and yes it’s a fascination of mine.”
“A foolish fascination if you ask me.”
I’m surprised to hear Mercury and I agree on something for a change.
“Isn’t modding illegal?” Inquiry asks.
“Yes,” I say, my voice distrustful.
The man shrugs “If it weren’t I wasn’t here now.”
“Look as you can see I got enough people in this place already, go look elsewhere.”
“Look I’ll stay in as much as possible, won’t make a peep and I’ll leave as soon as I find a new place.”
She grunts “Did you at least bring your ether with you?”
“Of course, I’m not stupid.” He says handing her a leather satchel.
She opens it up blue light spilling over her face “You keep saying that yet I’m not convinced.” She looks inside “You can sleep on the couch until you find a new place, make sure it’s fast.”
“Of course.” He puts his feet up.
Mercury squints at him and snarls “If you mod in my place I’ll kill you.”
Mercury signals us to follow her back into the lab.
“Can I come with you?”
“You just stay out of my business and focus on getting a new place.”
“Secretive as always got it.” Tungsten shouts after us.
I turn and shrug at him, not quite sure what to say, but since he’s smiling it looks like he doesn’t mind that much.
Alchemists are weird.
That evening Tungsten produces a bottle of wine from his bag “To catch up with old friends and make a couple of new ones.”
“I’ll get the cups.” Inquiry says as he hurries to the cupboard.
“You caught a lively one Mercury.” The man snickers watching him go.
“At least this one isn’t mod-curious.”
“Hey modding isn’t bad.”
I cross my arms “It’s illegal for a reason.”
“Look, up in Thungo soldiers are losing their limbs on the battlefield. Limbs I could easily sew back if given the chance! Imagine a modder surgeon, we could swap out failing organs, we could unlock immortality! We have the skills to change the world and all they see are psycho killers hiding out in pawnshops!”
“Of course that’s what they see they’re shortsighted idiots. That’s why you shouldn’t bother with modding, it’ll never be accepted. You’re wasting your time.”
Inquiry puts down the box of cups then sits down again “I think they just don’t want people modding cause they’re afraid it’ll result in more murders.”
“Does a hunter have to burn his rifle cause it can be used to kill people? Does the cook have to discard her knives? No! It’s all nonsense.” Tungsten uncorks the bottle and starts filling up four cups.
“Just study ether like the rest of us, you idiot. You’re gonna get yourself caught.”
“I know how to take care of myself.” He says handing the cups around.
“Sorry I don’t drink,” I tell him as he tries to hand a cup to me.
“He’s a doll, what did you expect?” Mercury sneers.
He huffs “It’s not like I’ve had dolls over for drinks before.”
The longer I watch these people go back and forth the more I wonder why they put up with one another.
“So what have you been up to, aside from doing your damnedest to get caught?”
“Oh right! Check this out.” He takes off his glasses and looks at Mercury and Inquiry who gasps, hand in front of his mouth.
“What is it?” I ask as the man is faced away from me.
He looks at me, his pupils are tall and thin and it looks like a shimmering membrane is pulled over the entire eyeball.
“Cat eyes?” I ask.
“Close but not really, cat eyes are too small, they don’t fit. These are my birth eyes but I did use cat eyes as an inspiration. I’m very proud of them, I can see clearly at only 10% light.”
“How the hell did you perform surgery on your own eyes?” Mercury scoffs.
The man lets out a booming laugh “Very carefully.”
“You’re crazy and crazy will catch up with you” The woman tosses back the last of her wine before setting it down and saying “I’m off to bed. Also if you as much as try modding in this place I’ll kick you out so hard the cops will be fishing you out the channel come dawn got it?”
“Yeah yeah, good night Mercury.”
She huffs but doesn’t reply as she walks off.
The door closes behind us and Tungsten turns to Inquiry with renewed vigour. “So tell me, why did you go ion?”
Inquiry looks at me for support but it’s not like I know what to say, I shrug.
“I’d rather not tell.”
“I bet you don’t wanna talk bout how you got your own doll butler either?”
“He’s not my butler, Stegarius is my friend.”
“That’s nice. Having friends is nice.”
“So, how did you and Mercury become friends?” I ask.
“I mean…we are not friends as such.” He says refilling his cup with wine. “She’s my old mentor, we hate each other’s guts but somehow she puts up with me whenever I’m in trouble.” He then tosses her cup back in one swig “When the bobbies came I didn’t know where else to go and I knew she wouldn’t say no.”
“That’s an…interesting arrangement.”
“It keeps me alive I’m not gonna complain. Just lemme know if I can help, that woman isn’t exactly the most nurturing teacher.”
“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.” Inquiry says with a smile.
I wonder what would be worse, getting taught by the angry Mercury, or the mod-happy Tungsten.
My train of thought is broken by the man slamming his cup on the table. “For now I should sleep though, all that running and panic, I’m a mess.”
“Good idea.” Inquiry gets up, I follow suit.
The boy then looks troubled “Oh uhm…normally Stegarius stays in this room while I sleep.”
I shrug “don’t worry, I’ll stay in the lab.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Not at all, good night Inquiry.” I turn to the man on the couch “Tungsten.”
But he has already passed out.
I watch the boy go to his room, then head off to the lab.
I watch the saplings, read the labels on the bottles…then come across the notes my father wrote, kept safe inside a drawer.
Notes are sticking out from all the pages.
Curious I lean against the tiled wall and open up the book.