Monday, June 1, 2015

Pandora's Playground 2

Like the rest of the building interior, the elevators had been completely redone. The warm old character had been replaced with sterile stainless steel. The walls were decorated with a frosted design mimicking New York's old skyline, a 360 degree panoramic view as seen from this location, complete with the Twin Towers. There were no controls inside the elevator, save for the small touch screen which only had a card reader and a button to return to the lobby. Big band jazz played over the speaker inside, but there was hardly enough time for a whole song before the elevator stopped.

"Ace's office, sixty first floor," announced a delightful female voice.

The hallway fell silent as soon as the doors closed behind Deathgrind. He walked to the south wall and its dismal view of what remained in the city, made all the more poignant by the image inside the elevator. In fact, he might not have noticed the holes in the skyline were it not for that recent reminder. Held captive by the city, he could not turn away from it, even as the sound of footsteps approached. Every other step was punctuated by the striking of metal on tile. Step, crack-step, step, crack-step. They stopped about ten feet away. A man's coarse, calm voice called out, "It took you long enough to show up. I was beginning to think you hadn't got my message."

"Of all the things your message was, Mr. Kaison," there was a smile in his tone as he finished, "subtle was not one of them."

With a single step backwards, Deathgrind pivoted to view his host. Not quite six foot tall, Kaison filled out his suit like any man with an army of personal trainers and nutritionists should. The three piece, double breasted and pinstripe grey suit fit too well to not have been tailor made. His left hand rested on a sleek black cane, a large square cut garnet set in its white gold cap. Smiling, he boasted teeth even whiter than his shirt; his dimples had a fiendish look beside the sharp jawline and prominent cheek bones. A full head of black hair was beginning to grey just above his ears. He advanced again, both steps smooth and even despite the considerable weight on the cane. With his right hand outstretched, he offered, "Dechs Kaison. Call me Dechs. Good to finally meet you, Mr. Deathgrind."

"Likewise, although, just Deathgrind, please. Mr. Deathgrind is my father." He chuckled as he grabbed Dechs' hand to receive a handshake that was solid and well practiced. There was strength in it, but that was understated, reserved. It carried neither threat nor challenge. It was a promise. "You know, I had heard your security team was good, but a class one barrier? Where did you find her?"

"See, I knew you weren't a strength type. Usually only aptitudes can sense when Coop' sets up." Dechs grinned with half his face, the dimple on that side still prominent. "Rumors confirmed, then?"

"I would need at least a few days to prepare were I to break in, so..." Deathgrind paused for effect, "Yes. Your first layer of security is adequate."

"Perceptive, confidant, witty. I like you already." Dechs nodded and the grin never so much as twitched. "So, what do you want?"

"You called this meeting," Deathgrind replied with no small amount of confusion, "That should be my question to you."

"Well, of course. Eventually, at least," Dechs admitted. He turned and walked to look out the window, leaning on its sill with his right arm, "but first, you had two months to decide whether to show. Means you took your time and looked into me. And you're here. Means you found something worthwhile. So, one more time, what do I have that's got you interested?"

"No." Metal clattered as Deathgrind crossed his arms and shook his head slowly. "You only want to see how much I learned about you."

A bright, toothy smile broke out of the grin, but otherwise, Dechs replied with still reticence. His dark brown eyes swept over the city. The angles of his stance allowed the fraction of a fresh scar to push out of his high collar.

"Always the tests with you." A jovial tone carried through the voice distortion. "Very well. Your wealth is obvious. You have the best medical facilities on the planet and a monopoly on mutant research. Far too many laws have gone your way in the past ten years for you to not have your hands in them. The value of a favor owed by Dechs Kaison is beyond measure, but I did not need two months to learn that, nor is it the reason I am here.

"I studied you at the casino. Poker is more than a hobby to you, so how you play reveals your character. You play the long game. No strategy or style is foreign to you and you will pivot between them even in the middle of a hand. I have seen you make deliberate mistakes to throw someone off. I have not seen you place worse than third in a tournament. Your opponents never see you coming and you always know what to expect from them. I suspect that you achieve some gains even in your losses. Off the tables, you are quite loyal to particulars among the staff. I do not know how you chose them, but you continue to go to the same waiters, dealers, valets and bartenders. I am here because I am confident that you are the sort of man with whom I am willing to work."

"Well, now that's an interesting approach." Dechs pursed his lips with an approving nod, then twisted his shoulders square to Deathgrind, "I'd have spotted you in that get up and you wouldn't trust someone else to take notes for you, but I doubt that I could go back over the casino's footage and ever find your face in the crowd. You're too careful for that. No. You'd have hacked their cameras and even if I could trace that hack backwards..."

"It would be a dead end," Deathgrind confirmed. "You know, if this is to be a game of who has done the better homework, you need to do more than tell a man in a mask that he is protective of his identity."

"How's this for homework?" Dechs leaned his full weight onto the windowsill and flung his cane at Deathgrind. The cane sailed with a spiral on a dangerous arc, forcing a reaction. Deathgrind intercepted the projectile, clamping down on it just behind the head. The metal shaft shattered; the now detached white gold bounced off the center of Deathgrind's chest. "That's your alloy, as close as I can replicate it from the sample I got my hands on. The weight's right and I'm pretty sure the composition is close, but mine's brittle as hell. If it went like the last batch, a few days from now it would begin to flake apart all on its own."

Spreading his fingers, Deathgrind studied the shards in his palm. "I do remember this stage. It took me four months and no less than two strokes of luck to perfect it from there. You will not succeed on your own, but I am afraid-"

"Didn't imagine you'd part with those secrets," Dechs dismissed, "but I'm not done. I've followed your short career. Impressive to say the least, especially as a loner. A real one man army. You are your own R and D, too smart for the rumors of you being a strength type to be true. Aptitude type would make sense if your suit was mechanized, but I can see that's not the case. You're not perfect; I've seen you wounded with what should have kept you in bed for a month only to see you out and about a few days later. Telltale regenerative, if you couldn't do everything else. You're not one of Pandora's mutants. They follow rules."

"You seem to only know what I am not." Deathgrind hesitated before continuing, with some emphasis. "You must know more, else I would not be here. So. What do I have that has you interested?"

"Ha. Nice turnaround." Dechs chuckled while he limped a few steps closer to Deathgrind, leaning into the windowsill as he moved. "I know that Pandora's Flare changed everything. Things that shouldn't be possible, are. Of course, everyone sees the mutants; how could they not? People throwing fire balls or reading minds are hard to ignore. But they're not all that's changed. No one's picked out a pattern, but there have been a lot of little things that just work, now. Like that new battery. Like your alloy."

Dechs dug into the right side of his jacket, plucking a small envelope from within. Holding it toward his guest, he explained, "I've got theories, dreams really, that might just be possible the way things are now. I've been trying, but I need something more. I need to try something... different. And you, in a whole world of different, are even more different. Whatever is making things possible, you're in tune with it. I don't want your alloy, Deathgrind. I want you to develop mine."

Deathgrind had opened the envelope immediately, unfolding and perusing the pages it held. They were photocopies of handwritten notes, their letterheads censored. The notes covered molecular formulae, alloy composition and forging methods, as well as the details from two trials. There came a faint sound from Deathgrind that might have been his jaw hitting the bottom of his helmet. He flipped through the pages another time, then back to one of the middle pages in particular. Several silent moments passed.

"If this is... I cannot believe..." Deathgrind struggled to begin a few sentences before coherence, "These notes are very old. You are confident in the source?"

Dechs gave him a single grave nod.

"I do not suppose you have the material from these trials?"

Defeated, Dechs hung and shook his head.

"Unfortunate," Deagthgrind scoffed. "Metal that reshapes itself after damage. Regrowing! Dechs, if this truly is possible, you would not have to pay me to develop such a metal."

"I will anyway. Don't want you having to pull side jobs to cover meals." Dechs smiled up to his eyes, then offered, "In fact, I want to bring you in as a partner on this endeavor. My facilities, materials, records, all yours. You'll need proper access to Manhattan. I can arrange that and take care of your bounty. Come and go as you please, no time cards. If you have other research you want to do, you'll be welcome to conduct it here with my full support. Keep it on your own private drive, encrypted to your specification. I'll only be privy to what you let me see.""

"This all sounds too good to be true," suspicion was not filtered by the voice changer, "Why hand me the keys to the castle?"

"Because I don't want to compete for you. Maybe I'm the first, but I know I won't be the last person to approach you. None of them can come close to what I'm offering you." His tone fell a shade darker, "You're starting to get noticed, Deathgrind, and it won't all be people looking to make friends. I know that doesn't scare you, but it'll hassle you at the very least. Association with me insulates you from that."

Suspicion not eliminated, Deathgrind tested the limits of the offer, "Strings?"

"None, save that research on the regenerative alloy doesn't leave this building until it's finished," Dechs assured him.

Deathgrind grunted affirmative. The deal was irresistible and Dechs had left himself little room to take advantage of it. Then again, Dechs was not the sort of man to make harmful intentions obvious. As long as he stuck to the letter of his agreement, however, Deathgrind was in a no risk, high reward situation. Even if the alloy proved futile, the fringe benefits were too good to pass up. The mouse must have thought as much of the cheese.

"Look, I've spent years trying to develop this metal," Dechs interrupted the thought process, "You don't need to give me an answer today."

"I will anyway," and with a firm nod, "I accept."

"Excellent. Here." Smiling, Dechs fished something else out of his jacket, a small card, and flicked it in a gentle arc. "Your credentials. Can show this to island security teams, too."

Deathgrind recognized the complex red pattern from the back of the business card he had earlier, although this one was larger. Snatching it out of the air, he could tell it was a hard plastic, the size of a credit card, except thicker and heavier. He turned it over to see the face of the card imprinted with a chip, but otherwise, it was the standard image of a playing card. Already striding toward the elevator, he tucked the card into his armor and stated, "I have business to close. I expect to start within a week."

The nearest elevator opened before Deathgrind could press the call button. With only one foot inside, he called back, "I must ask, why the Jack of Hearts?"

"Only one with an axe."

The doors closed on Deathgrind laughing.

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