Chapter thirteen: Tick tock
In the months that follow we manage to build a full-scale doll to test on.
It’s not the prettiest, the face is blank and smooth like a posing dummy and the hands are just two blocks with a hinge in between. But if this doll is going to be anything like me and my siblings we can switch out the parts that look strange afterwards.
The issue now is how to build a heart.
We were stuck so long on just the wood that the notion of building a heart from scratch seems nigh impossible.
And we’re all gripping in the dark.
“What else do you know about the heart?” Inquiry asks for the tenth time.
“Nothing, I told you everything I know, it’s our motor, our heart and brain at the same time where our soul lives if we have one everything else is just wood.”
“But what does it look like, what’s it made of?”
I shrug “I don’t know.”
“Well then open up and give us a look, that wouldn’t kill you right?” Mercury asks.
“It’s kind of taboo-” Inquiry starts
“Not just taboo doing so would desecrate everything I stand for, everything I am.”
“That’s all well and good but I thought you wanted to create new dolls just as much as we do.”
“Yes but not like this.”
Inquiry puts a hand on Mercury’s shoulder, I assume in case she lashes out “We’ll find another way, when I came to you with the idea I said I wanted to do this respectfully, we can’t break that trust out of convenience now.”
Mercury crosses her arms “Easier said than done.”
“Get to it then.” I retort.
She huffs and strides back to the lab “Stubborn doll.”
I’m sitting alone in Bar-B, the music box plays a ditty but I don’t register it much.
My head is whirring with no idea what to do.
“Stegarius? What are you doing here during the day?” Prishtoli asks as she sits down next to me.
I look up, shrug then continue staring into the distance.
“You seem down, is anything wrong?” Prishtoli asks as she puts her hand on mine.
I don’t really know what to tell her. I grunt noncommittally in response.
She looks at me through shuttered eyelids, then says “I see…Wanna take a walk?”
I try to get my thoughts in order as we’re heading down the street, beside me, Prishtoli is ever patient. I wonder how she manages it.
I guess the only way to say it is just…say it“I don’t think we can do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“The dolls, the experiment, another generation of dolls we just…can’t. There are too many unknowns, too many variables and everything we try fails horribly. I just don’t think we’ll ever get it right.”
“Well, you’ve always known it was a difficult task to do.”
“It’s not just difficult, I feel like we’re ant trying to figure out how to fly to the moon it’s just not happening!”
She hums understandingly, then grabs my hand “You know I always want to support you right?”
“Good, then you know this question doesn’t come from a bad place. Do you think this pursuit is worth the agony you’re placing yourself into?”
I stop walking and consider the question.
Prishtoli looks back at me, hand still comfortably nestled in mine.
“I don’t think so. I mean I understand the boy’s motives, I understand they come from a good place. I just don’t think we could achieve this dream of his inside a single lifetime.
“Then maybe it’s time to tell him so.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“I’m afraid it’ll hurt him. If I lose faith in him, I’m a bad parent right?”
“Well…I have no means of judging the situation aside from your stories, but it sounds like you’re wrapped up in a wild goose chase with no ending in sight and it’s taking a toll on all of you.”
“Yes but if I tell him to stop-”
“He’ll stop, and then he can start building a normal life again. One where he doesn’t carry the existence of all of doll-kind on his shoulders. Don’t you think that would be better?”
I shrug, she’s right of course but… “What if he spends the rest of his life wondering whether he could have done it?”
She twirls a lock of hair around her finger as she thinks “I don’t think I have an answer for that right now.”
“But you still think it’s best to get him out of it?”
“You want my honesty right?”
“I think it’s best to get you out of it, but I doubt you will without the boy.”
“Of course I won’t, but that doesn’t mean I could subject him to that uncertainty just cause I’m not enjoying myself.”
She pulls up an eyebrow “’ Not enjoying yourself? You’re full-on desperate.” Her tone is direct, strict.
I don’t like it.
“You can’t expect me to abandon him.”
“I’m not! Aren’t you listening to me!? I’m telling you to pull him out of that crazy world before he drags the both of you down a hole you can’t dig out of anymore.”
I can feel my heart racing.
She’s right of course but…
“I need time to think.” My voice is soft, defeated.
“Well you know where to find me should you need me.” She probably didn’t mean to sound that harsh, but as she walks off I can’t help but feel we’re in a fight now.
We haven’t fought for over a century.
I walk back to the den alone, thinking.
Dreading the conversation I should be having.
I don’t want to.
I knock on the door and wait patiently for someone to come to the door.
So I’m surprised to find it open almost instantaneously.
Inquiry is on the other side, he steps out, then grabs my arm “Stegarius, excellent timing, we’re going out.”
“And exactly where are we going?”
I spot Mercury exiting behind us “We’re paying Tungsten a visit.”
I expected alchemy dens to be in back alleys, under bridges and abandoned warehouses.
I didn’t expect a den inside a small hill in the woods.
The leaf-covered hatch gives enough camouflage for those not expecting to find it.
Mercury stomps on the hatch seven times then waits.
A good three minutes later a strange rattling emanates from within. Then the hatch opens, showing the alchemist’s cheerful face.
“Come in, come in, I made tea.”
I don’t know what I was expecting from an underground den.
But this wasn’t it.
There are corridors upon corridors forking and reaching seemingly into infinity.
“This place is amazing” Inquiry whispers, mouth agape.
“I don’t think I need to specify but just in case, stay close to me, don’t go running off on your own, if you get lost chances are even I won’t manage to find you.”
“Makes sense seeing as there’s no way you made this place yourself.” Mercury mumbles, arms crossed as she follows the group.
“Nothing wrong with a good secondhand den.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Tungsten rolls his eyes, then leads us into a cosy looking alcove “Just stay here, I’ll go get the tea.”
Inquiry pulls a small leather stool off the wall and sits down, Mercury leans against the wall instead, arms still crossed.
Torn between the two options I sit down near the wall and wait for Tungsten to come back.
I look at Inquiry, he looks more cheerful now than he did when I left.
Maybe the change of scenery did him good?
Maybe he had a minor breakthrough while I was gone?
No, I’m sure he’d tell me that on the way.
Whatever the case, I’m glad to see energy in him.
“Now I don’t have sugar so it’s milk or nothing.”
Mercury huffs “I’ll have the tea thanks.”
I look at the tray set on the table, counting the four cups.
Some people never learn.
“Inquiry what about you?”
“Just tea thank you.”
“And you- oh never mind.”
I nod as a way of acknowledgement, then try my best to fade into the background as small talk commences.
How are you settling in? What about the airflow in this place? You still owe me money.
All that stuff.
I can’t help but keep thinking about Prishtoli.
Is it really okay for me to pull the project apart just because it’s hard?
Well, it’s more than just hard…it’s nigh impossible.
But what about our research? What if that’s the key to solving the mystery one, two generations from now.
What if we can still save doll kind with time…it’s just that Inquiry won’t be there to see it.
Would that be worth it?
“So how is your little project going, the thing with the sticks?”
My ears are piqued by that.
And to my surprise Inquiry’s manages to answer the question before Mercury has the chance to shush him.
“We’re stuck. Just completely and utterly stuck.”
Inquiry rolls his eyes at this, but Tungsten looks intrigued “Anything I can do to help?”
“Do you have any way of looking through solid wood?” Inquiry asks, his eyes glancing at me for just the shortest moment.
I cross my arms, not quite happy with where this is going.
Tungsten raises an eyebrow “Unless you can point to an animal with that ability so I can study it, I’m afraid not.”
“Oh well, It was worth a shot.”
That glance he sent me.
Is he blaming me for us not progressing?
No, no I taught him about doll traditions, he would never ask me to break them for convenience…
And maybe that’s the problem?
He’d never ask, but he wants to, he wants to progress, he wants to see. Know what he’s supposed to make but I won’t let him.
That glance, was it resentment?
It’s not Mercury or the lack of data that’s the problem.
“You two go on ahead, Tungsten and I need to sort out the old rent stuff still,” Mercury tells us as we get up to leave.
“You want to do that now?”
“I warned you, I’m not letting go of a debt.”
“All right, all right, it’s been nice seeing you two, be sure to visit again.”
The boy waves happily before ascending the ladder back to the woods above. “Bye Tungsten.”
We walk back, the two of us.
And a melancholy falls over us.
The boy looks up “Yeah?”
“Do you hate me?”
“I know this process would go a lot faster if I just let you two look inside my chest.”
There’s a painful silence, his gaze droops to the floor.
My heart sinks.
After what seems like an eternity he opens his mouth as states “I can’t hate you for having morals.” He tries to sound cheerful.
He doesn’t sound cheerful.
We head home together in silence.
That night I take Inquiry’s key and walk out into the night.
I would ask his permission but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to go through with it, so it’s best not to start expectations I might not be able to meet.
It’s been a while since I was out in the dark all on my own.
There was a time that the streets were my home. I’d just pick a direction and keep on walking, all night, all day.
But Prishtoli beat that habit out of me really fast by constantly fussing over my safety.
I never really got that, being a doll I never felt threatened by anything.
Until now that is.
The electric bulbs lining the streets nowadays feel extra cold tonight.
But neither nerves nor doubt manages to keep me from walking into the Belle Epoch hotel and requesting a room with a mirror.
“Absolutely sir, please come this way.” The kind lady behind the front desk doesn’t comment on the fact it’s 3 am so I don’t comment on the fact she’s wearing slippers under her uniform.
With a gentle smile, she pulls a key off the board and then leads me up four flights of stairs.
She opens the door and hands it to me “Have a pleasant stay, sir.”
The door closes, I am alone.
I guess now is the time.
I locate the mirror standing proud on the vanity table, then pull it down and balance it on the chair while I sit on the bed.
I look at myself, my chest, my face.
Then start pulling back the layers, coat, jacket, vest, shirt until there’s nothing left but the smooth cherry surface streaked with pinks and yellows.
The door is nigh invisible if you don’t know where to look. There’s no handle, no button.
There are two ways to open me up, destroy me with an axe, or open me up from the inside.
Gladly I won’t have to go for the first option.
But it still feels unsettling and wrong.
It feels perverse in a way.
But I came this far already.
I drag a pencil and sketchpad from my bag, lay them down beside me.
Then there is a soft click.
And I get to work.
It took longer than expected.
A lot longer.
A doll’s heart truly is an intricate machine, and I could only look at it from one angle.
I hope it’s enough.
The bag is slung around my shoulder as I hurry down the ladder.
It’s almost noon already. There’s no way they didn’t notice me being gone.
I just hope they didn’t worry too much.
As I walk through the musty hallway I hear the sounds of an argument up ahead in the sitting room.
“Look I’m not saying we should but I’m saying it would make things a whole lot easier on us.”
“The guy raised me you heartless bitch! How do you expect me to even ask!?”
I stop just short of the curtain, not the most polite thing to do, but I can’t help but wonder what this is about.
“First off, watch your tongue lest you wanna wake up without it one day, second off I’m not saying it has to be him, there are other dolls out there, we can snatch one of those.”
Oh, I see.
“No you can’t, we’d notice.” I push the curtain away and step into the room.
Inquiry’s eyes grow big “Stegarius where the hell were you!?”
“Language,” I tell him, then look at Mercury.
The woman just looks back up at me “You’d notice?”
“There’s not many of us, and we keep close contact. Not a single doll stands alone for you to snatch. Even attempting such a thing would cost you dearly.”
“Really?” She sounds like she’s up for a challenge but I have something better.
“Besides” I walk to Inquiry and hand him the bag “I suggest using your wit before considering violence.”
Inquiry opens the bag puzzles at the contents, then flicks open the sketchpad and gasps.
“Did you draw this?”
“So this is…you know.”
“It’s my heart.”
Mercury gets up the moment I utter the word ‘heart’ “Show me.” She says.
I go to stand in between Inquiry and Mercury “You don’t need to harm any of my siblings.”
“I was being hypothetical.”
“And I want you to stay that way”
She shrugs “Sure.”
I step aside, she looks at the drawings “I didn’t know you could draw.”
“It’s not that difficult.”
“This is amazing!” Inquiry concludes. “Stegarius thank you so much.”
“Do you think you can build it from this?” I ask Inquiry.
She sighs “Aren’t you the mechanics man?”
“I can try, but Inquiry surpassed my mechanical knowledge.”
“You can work on it together. I’m heading out to get more ether.” She pulls her cloak off the coat rack by the door and heads out.
Inquiry looks at me, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. “Let’s go make a heart.”
“So…How hypothetical was she?” I ask.
We’re still in the parlour looking at the drawings and making a list of all the parts that we see.
“I don’t know, I don’t really want to know, all I know is she went too far…I’m sorry.”
I shake my head “You’re not the one who should apologise.” I look at the curtain leading out of this place wondering how long it would take to get more ether. “What even happened?”
“Well you were gone and Mercury claimed you’d ran for it, sold the key, sold us out. I told her that’s not true but I couldn’t tell her where you went so she took that as evidence… And then she said if she knew this beforehand she would have just opened you up and reverse engineered whatever was inside and that’s when we started fighting.”
“She really said she would have pulled me apart?”
“I don’t think she meant it…but those were her words.”
“I see, Thank you for standing up to me.”
“Of course! I won’t let her lay a finger on you.” He puts down the sketchpad and hugs me, he’s become bigger since last time, stronger too.
He grows up far too fast for my liking.
“Don’t worry kid, even if she tried there’s no way she could overpower me,” I tell him holding him tight.
“Did I ever lie to you?”
“Now how many worm gears did you note down?”
“There’s no way the gear only has ten teeth, the maths don’t work out at all.”
“Look I drew it the way I saw it, ten teeth, no less no more.”
“But then the gear behind it is doing two hundred rounds per minute! That’s way too fast.”
“Then maybe that gear is the problem, not this one. I mean you estimated that one.”
“Yes based on all these other gears you saw so either my maths is wonky or you misdrew something.”
“Give me your calculations.”
“You seriously think it was me?”
“I don’t know but your work is easier to check.”
“Fine” he grumbles and hands over the notes. “But if this all checks out will you please just admit made a mistake.”
“We’ll see about that when we get to it.”
He huffs, I’m not too cheerful myself either.
I thought I’d be thrilled to be doing a shared project but the work is just too frustrating. This whole thing is a mystery but not the fun kind where all the clues are there and you just need to combine them in the correct way.
It’s the kind where the amount of variables you have to consider is so great every failed experiment is a testament to its unsolvability.
The triumphs we’ve had until now feel like luck, like flukes that just happened to go our way.
But this is taunting me.
Not just the task in general. This isn’t like that ether stuff I could just ignore cause I don’t understand it this is putting my skills into question. Not just as an engineer but as a teacher, and looking over Inquiry’s work I want to both find a mistake so we know what is wrong and wish for flawless maths to prop up my teaching skills.
Or does that just mean my skills aren’t high enough to find it?
“I need a break,” I tell him.
“So how’s it going?” Mercury asks.
“You know my patience is running thin right?”
“Patience is the greatest virtue in science.”
“Guess why I went into alchemy instead.” She sasses back.
“Look we can’t work faster than we can.”
“I mean you totally can you just don’t want to do what it takes.”
“You’re not killing Stegarius!” Inquiry shrieks as he tosses his notebook to the table.
“Doesn’t have to be him per se. You got some doll you don’t like? An evil doll that no one would mind getting into an accident.”
“There are no evil dolls. Same way there are no evil humans.”
The woman snorts “I beg to differ on that count. The world is crawling with them.”
“And you’re about this close to turning into one. I can’t believe you would even consider this!” The boy rubs his temples wearily. Swiping the notebook off the table and getting up from the sofa.
“What’s the life of one doll against countless dolls to replace him. I thought here we were trying to prevent the extinction of the doll race. If you wanna bake a cake you gotta crack a few eggs.”
“There are better ways Mercury.”
And that was apparently the wrong thing to say.
“No! There aren’t! We tried all we could, and I’m sick and tired of just sitting here and watch you dick around until the end of time. I. Need. Results!” Mercury walks up to Inquiry and I put my hands on his shoulders, gently dragging him away from her and behind me.
Away from her.
She stops, grunts and says “I wanna talk to the doll alone, Ion we need more ether, go buy some.”
“Are you kidding!? I’m not leaving him here with you.”
“Ion you will follow your orders or-”
“Or what!? You’ll kick me out? Don’t worry I’m already gone.” The boy pulls on my sleeve “Come on Stegarius we’re done here.”
Mercury signs rubbing the bridge of her nose and says “Very well, have it your way. Tungsten, you get the kid, I’ll grab the doll.”
I turn to the boy just in time to see a pair of claws wrap around the boy’s neck.
His eyes are wide with panic and he tries to pull at the hold., but it turns out those giant arms aren’t just for show.
“Inquiry!” I shout but behind me, I hear Mercury yelling, I look back, watch her charge me with an axe.
I catch it mid-air. Then pull it from her hands and slam the woman aside with force, she crashes against the wall coughing.
Then I turn to Tungsten, axe still in my hand.
I take a step forward.
“Nope! Nuh-uh, I am out of here” Tungsten cries out as he pushes the boy towards me and legs it.
I catch Inquiry asking “are you okay?” but he just coughs, turns and tries to go after him yelling “Come back, you coward!”
I grab him by the scruff of his neck “Leave it, he’s not worth it.”
“Violence begets violence, the only way to stop that is not to fight.”
“Says the guy who just chucked a woman against the wall.”
“Right…speaking off.” I drop the axe on the floor with a loud clang, turn to Mercury who’s busy crawling back upright again.
I look her straight into the eyes and tell her “You crossed a line.”
She scoffs in response “There are no lines in alchemy, just results.”
“If that’s really true alchemy truly is a rotten science, and you are just as short-sighted as those pompous bastards you keep trying to impress.”
She spits at me. Square in the face, I pretend not to care as the boy drag me out.
We leave the place in silence. I wonder if I should say something? But what am I supposed to say?
I’m proud you left?
Sorry, your dream crashed and burned?
It’s for the best?
It’s only when we’re all the way back on the streets when Inquiry opens his mouth. “Where do we go now?”
“Don’t worry I know a place.”