Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Pandora's Playground 9

An enormous plume of steam billowed out as Deathgrind plunged the three foot length of glowing metal into a barrel of water. The equipment Dechs provided was phenomenal; to be ready for heat treatment after only three days was testament to that. The folding alone would have taken a week by hand, but Deathgrind had done at least four folds in a morning with the power hammer crushing the task. Now cool and well hardened, he pulled the slender piece out and laid it across the anvil for inspection. Straight and flawless, as expected. In fact, this may be his finest work yet.

Now came the most delicate part of the process and the second secret to Deathgrind's alloy. Getting the composition right was no easy task, but if the metal was not tempered precisely so, the product would fail. Thrusting it back into the forge and moving it around, he gave the metal a gradual and even heat along its entirety. This particular alloy required a high temperature that would reduce the toughness in any other material. Anything less and the internal stresses would tear it apart over time. As soon as the metal turned the right color, he removed it for one final inspection.

Gripping the tang, Deathgrind looked down the tapered length of metal. The blade already felt like a feather in his hands; sharpening the double edge would only make it lighter. He walked it over to a workbench, setting it next to a white gold ring that was wired to a tiny circuit board and battery. The ring slid over the tang and rested near the base of the blade. Some filing would need to be done there for a proper fit. The circuitry, however, fit within the limits of the tang on this first pass.

Deathgrind slid the naked blade over to the grinder at the edge of the bench. It started up with a growl that turned to an ear splitting whine in no time. He took hairs off the tang before going to work on the main bevel of the blade. He had not been working long when the strobe of an orange light told him that he had a visitor. With the flick of a switch, the grinder wound down to the quiet spin of lingering inertia. Deathgrind pushed his blade to the back of the bench, burying it in other desk debris.

Neoprene creaking all the way, Deathgrind marched past all of his new equipment for which he was quite grateful. The foundry and forge were easier to work with for their size than anything he had worked with before, to say nothing for their superb quality. A bucket of tongs and hammers lay next to his new favorite tool, the power hammer. The anvil remained near pristine now that the arduous hammering had been eliminated, leaving it for the finer shaping swings which he now found to be therapeutic. Just before reaching the door, he passed the rack where his beautiful suit of armor hanged, recently repaired to unblemished condition.

Turning on the door monitor, Deathgrind saw the familiar suit and cane of his generous provider waiting to be let in. Eager to oblige, he deactivated the electronic lock, twisted the mechanical latch, and pulled the door open. With an arm motion toward the computer desk away from the heavy equipment, he welcomed, "Good to see you, Dechs."

"Four days in a row," Dechs remarked, his back to Deathgrind while he walked, steps punctuated by the cane, "Didn't really take you for the Monday-Friday, twelve hour day kind of guy. Making good progress?"

While his visitor sat down and leaned his cane into the desk, Deathgrind closed and locked the door. Turning to approach the desk as well, he answered, satisfaction persisting through the voice scrambler, "On a personal project, yes."

From the toes up, Dechs surveyed the full to bursting skintight outfit. After a glance over at the hanging armor, he joked, "You know, I think that armor actually makes you look less intimidating."

Both chuckled, but Dechs did not give Deathgrind a chance to reply. Tossing a tablet onto the desk, Dechs announced, "If we're going to talk about your mender, we gotta talk genetics first."

Deathgrind studied the image on the screen, an illustration of forty six lines organized in pairs, most of which were a faded blue color throughout. He recognized the lines as the twenty three human chromosome pairs. Six of the chromosomes across four pairs had small sections highlighted a dull orange; one long section in one pair was colored a vibrant green. Making some assumptions, he asked, "These must be the genes responsible for her condition?"

"Not quite. What you're looking at are the chromosomes of a healthy class four mender." Dechs leaned over the desk and pointed to one of the orange spots, "This is one of the Pandora Markers. They're dominant, so even the loners count. Every mutant has at least one; they're extremely common, but I've yet to see a normal human with any. The first is the enabler, the rest function like inhibitors. One marker makes you a mutant. Each additional marker restricts your class."

Moving his finger to the green length, Dechs continued, "This is the mender string. This is what makes John Doe here a mender. Every mender has this exact string in this exact location. Other mutant types have their own strings that show up in their own places."

Nodding along with the explanation, Deathgrind asked, "Does the string do anything independent of the markers?"

"In theory, no." Dechs stressed his first two words, then elaborated, "It's complicated. I've never seen a string show up without the markers naturally."

Reading between the lines, Deathgrind prodded, "And through genetic modification?"

"Not relevant. Pandora gene mods have only resulted in dismal failures." Dechs paused to change the screen with a swipe of his finger. The new image was identical to the last, save that the orange spots had disappeared. He continued, "This is your mender. She doesn't have the markers, but the string is there and she has the abilities. I've never seen that. This could be huge."

"I am glad there is opportunity here," Deathgrind spoke with a careful, even pace, "but the priority is still her well-being."

"Of course, it is," Dechs did not miss a beat with that confirmation, "I need her alive and well as much as you, but I want you to understand the significance of this."

"I do not." He puzzled aloud, "She has no enabling gene?"

"She has no inhibitors, either." The light twinkled in Dechs' eyes. "Maybe I've been wrong this whole time and every marker is an inhibitor. She could have no limits. Just imagine what she might be able to do. Imagine the same condition in another type. There could be a class zero and you'd have found the very first one!"

Dechs hesitated for a moment, letting imagination run wild before he stated, "I knew I was right to bring you into the fold. All the weirdest stuff happens around you."

"Do you have a probable cause of her illness?"

"Not really," Dechs twisted his face, "George did an exhaustive study and she doesn't have any known genetic defects, but we didn't expect to see any because she's got a disease we've never seen before. We really need to get her in here to say any more."

"Give it another week without incident from our friends." Deathgrind declined, "She has been stable since she ceased mending."

"I don't think you should wait any longer," Dechs argued, appealing to safety, "You know that something's wrong. Even if the symptoms subside while she's not mending, doesn't mean she's getting better."

With no interest in an argument, Deathgrind changed the subject, "What about my genetics?"

Dechs swiped the screen one more time with an exasperated sigh. Now every chromosome was blue. Defeated, he slumped back into the chair, "Nothing. Not one god damn thing stands out."

"So, no explanation for my abilities, either," Deathgrind spoke with distorted disappointment.

"I didn't say that," Dechs rebutted, "I have a theory. Now, George knows the uh, standard genetics a lot better than I do, so I need more time to confirm anything..."

"Fair enough. I can wait. You are welcome to involve George." Intent to keep the discussion from stagnating, Deathgrind asked, "What can I do to protect myself from psychics?"

"Just let the rumor we started do it's work." Dechs dismissed, "Psychics are rare and bloody expensive. No one's going to risk that again."

"I want to be prepared," Deathgrind crossed his arms, "How do you do it?"

"Practice." The reply was curt.

"Is that all?"

"Yeah," Dechs shrugged, "Psychics don't really read or control minds. They merely connect to them. After that, it's a two way street, except they've been driving it from birth. Just remember that it's your mind he's playing in. Willpower wins out."

Deathgrind rapped his fingers against his arm while the conversation with the interrogated psychic echoed in his mind. Dechs was still hiding something. The smallest hint of accusation survived the voice distortion when he asked, "You know of no other way?"

Dechs stood up, took his cane, and turned his back to Deathgrind. "You've swept this room for bugs and cameras, right?"

Deathgrind stammered a simple acknowledgement. Where was this going?

"I hope you're satisfied, because there aren't any. You have to let me into this part of my building." There was no anger in Dechs' tone. Far from it, his voice was deadpan and unreadable. "Do you have a single reason to fear for your identity here?"

After brief consideration, he grumbled through his speakers, "I do not."

"And yet you still wear a mask and speak through that ridiculously complicated algorithm." The lifeless voice maintained, "I get that. There are some cards you have to keep to yourself."

Having made his point, Dechs snapped his cane into the ground as he spun on his heels. Like the previous tangent had not happened at all, he continued in jovial tone, "There's some technique to it that I can teach you, but it really does come down to practice. Let me get a psychic or two in here so we can work on it. That work for you?"

With a nod, Deathgrind gave tacit agreement. He understood the message and all of its unsaid layers. It left him feeling comfortable, free and supported, yet somehow threatened. There were things Dechs was not willing to share; there were boundaries he respected.

"Excellent!" Dechs exclaimed with another about face, "I'll let you know when I have something. In the meantime, keep up the good work."

Unsure how to respond, or whether a response would be heard, Deathgrind sat still, watching his partner leave. The sound of the electronic lock as it engaged itself urged Deathgrind up from his chair to secure the mechanical latch. The blade was back in his hand before he had realized he was sitting at his bench again. In less than a minute, the grinder became a soothing sort of white noise, despite its volume.

Conversations replayed again and again in his mind while he ran the blade up and down the grinder. Dechs had not admitted that he had a way to negate psychics, but his verbal gymnastics had confirmed it. Deathgrind had given away that he knew something more was at play; maybe that was his mistake, but even so, why not come clean at that point? Dechs could have given any excuse for not sharing without the labyrinthine response. Perhaps Dechs had a way to sever the connection that a psychic makes. Wally had said his mind "disappeared." It must mean that what he used was no technique, but rather some tool that rendered him immune. Deathgrind wondered what kind of tool it could be and how it would work.

Deathgrind turned the blade over to work on its other side as the questions continued to flow. He thought through the first encounter with the psychic in Dechs' office. The tool must not be able to target the psychic, because Deathgrind remembered being helpless while Dechs was unaffected. Dechs could not have expected an attack in his own office, so the tool must be something kept with him at all times. It would have to be contained within something inconspicuous. The watch is likely too small to contain it, which leaves the cane and flask as the most probable suspects. What luck that Deathgrind was already working on something that could narrow that further.

Shutting off the grinder left an absence of sound that was almost as painful as having let it run for at least an hour. Ringing continued in his ears while another troubling thought popped to the forefront. Here in the heart of his lifelong search for a regenerative metal, Dechs seemed most interested in a sick mender. He was the unsettling kind of eager. It brought into question the reason given for why Deathgrind was brought in to the Corporation. Any lesser man would shiver with worry.

Deathgrind shoved the inner turmoil aside as he assembled the pieces of the eventual sword. The white gold ring slid further down the tang now, to the exact spot for which it was designed. He clipped the circuit board and battery to opposite sides of the tang. From the top shelf, he grabbed a short, hollow cylinder and slid it over the tang. The charcoal black, abraded grip interlocked with the ring. The hilt was completed by inserting a white gold head adorned by a large, square cut garnet. It would be perfect replica once the shaft sheath was completed.

Taking the sword in his right hand and standing up, Deathgrind practiced with the slender rapier. With casual grace, he whipped it through the air and thrust into the heart of an invisible opponent. It felt good, enough so that he considered making one for himself. Maybe he could craft a similar weapon to conceal in the shaft of his own axe. It was a gorgeous and elegant weapon, although far from menacing. It was a style he could pull off, but not the one he preferred.

Deathgrind shrugged off the contemplation as he sat down to sharpen the rapier with a whetstone. As diligent and careful as an artisan, he worked the edge until it matched that of a razor. It was a tedious process; conversations from before passed again through his mind. Suspicions mounted as he recalled George and Dechs disagreeing, then Dechs' occasional refusals to elaborate. When he was finished with the whetstone, he put the sword on his bench and glanced at the bottles of epoxy intended to fill the hilt. This would be his last chance to alter the circuitry.

Deathgrind dismantled the hilt in seconds and had a plan to fit it with an audio bug within the same minute. Staring at the circuit board in his hands, he felt a storm brew in his stomach. Should he even consider biting the hand that feeds? This path was, without mistake, one of treachery. There would be no room for error. A tone rang in his ear, derailing the train of thought.

"We got a problem." Cooper spoke with urgency. "Someone found your storehouse."

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