The field of chimera study had advanced quite a lot in the last ten years. A decade ago, it would be considered impressive simply to create a chimera that was viable, a perfect blend of two or more organisms. The development of a chimera that could speak and understand human words was hailed as a marvel; less publicly lauded was the discovery that to make a talking chimera required that one of the organisms be a human being. Even less discussed was the discovery that all such chimeras experienced such suffering and despair that they invariably killed themselves, and less yet the discovery that only hybrids made with young children survived.
Ten years, Ed reflected bitterly, and things just didn't change. Hoping for better results, people made the same mistakes again and again—so many children, lost to some desperate alchemist's twisted rationalization that scientific progress was somehow more valuable than their lives. The same sick sad story, played out over and over again; promising bright young lives ending in premature suffering and death, sacrificed on the altar of scientific research.
Ed knew better than to waste his time or his spirit working up fury against these alchemists. He was no better, now was he?
"Ah, yes, you must be the Fullmetal Alchemist," greeted the officer in charge, snapping him a salute. Edward returned it halfheartedly, his mind already moving down the familiar tracks, losing itself in the technical details and the little rituals of this process which he had already done—how many times by now? Too many. Too bloody many.
"Major... Barton, was it? Yes, I came on the first train as soon as I received the notice. What can you tell me about this facility?"
It was small talk; he already knew the details. Always the same. Some State Alchemist, desperate or crazy or just too cold for human feeling any more, had set up an unofficial chimera blending facility in the basement of a local, abandoned church. He'd been taking children off the streets to use in his experiments; in a city this size, there were far too many refugee children and war orphans for such activities to be noticed.
That was, until the alchemist had made a mistake, or gotten careless, and the child he pulled off the corner and brought back to the lab was not an abandoned orphan, but the prized young son of a well-respected merchant couple in the town. Their desperate search for their son had led the investigation right to this facility, and Ed was glad of that in the abstract, but a cold part of him really, truly wished that their son had been one of the chimera who died on creation, or who were killed in indiscriminate horror when the investigation team had broken in the basement. Because now he had parents in the antechamber grieving and crying and so damn hopeful that he could feel their presence burning in his mind even from here. He wanted them gone; taken back home or to the station or at least they could stay out of his bloody way, because the last thing he needed was to deal with this.
"This way, Sir," the officer told him courteously, and he snapped out of his thoughts long enough to give a curt nod, like he'd really been paying attention. He played back the man's last few words in his mind as he followed him inside, just to make sure he hadn't missed anything... but he couldn't concentrate on plans, not just yet. The impending conversation preyed on his mind. Damn, how was he going to handle this?
He hadn't yet found a satisfactory answer when the heavy locks clicked, and the officer pulled open the steel door with a wrench and stood aside, waiting for him to go in. He repressed his sigh so that nobody could see, and stepped through the door.
Clearly the military had already swept this place clean; it had the look and layout of a drying lab, but it was bare of everything except a table covered with documents, and a few chairs piled into the corner. A few black-uniformed soldiers stood scattered around, but Ed's attention was drawn immediately to the civilians in the room.
The man kept his hand on the shoulder of the woman sitting in the chair; obviously his wife. Where he was tall and solid, she was thin and ruffled; wavy black hair and a pleated blue dress that neatly matched her husband's finely-tailored suit coat. One slender, white-knuckled hand clenched and unclenched around a matching handkerchief, far too soggy and ragged now to be fine.
"Who are you?" the man demanded abruptly, his voice hoarse and gravely, worn down to the very nub of civility.
"My name is Edward Elric." Stepping forward, Ed pulled his watch out of his pocket and opened his palm towards them; so much easier just to show the proof than argue with them. "Major Barton informed you that I was coming, did he not?"
"You're the Fullmetal Alchemist?" the woman interrupted with amazement, her head coming up to reveal tearful, gray-blue eyes. "How is that possible? You're so young!"
Ed ignored that with the weary ease of long practice. "My condolences on this terrible tragedy, Mrs... Conner. I'm terribly sorry about your son." And why did he have to apologize for that madman's actions? What reflected on one alchemist, reflected on them all; and the sin committed by any man in the army weighed on every last soldier in a blue uniform. "I have a few questions I need to ask you. I'll try to be brief."
The woman started to rise; Ed waved her back, and she sank mutely back into her seat. One of the black-clad soldiers jumped to fetch a chair for him; before Ed had finished pulling out his notes, it was already settled. With slight misgivings, he sank down into the chair facing the couple, ignoring the way the man towered over him.
"I need you to describe your son for me," he began, flipping with ease to the next blank page. "Please be as specific about the details as possible. For the separation process, it's very important that this information be accurate."
The alchemist's research notes, or what was left of them, had been sent ahead, and had met Ed at the station. Descriptions of the animals used in the chimeras, of the alchemical processes, the timings and components used, the degree of the angles, even an estimate of the mass lost to steam evaporation. The animals themselves were fully accounted for, down to every last hair and tooth. The only hole in the data was the unpredictable human element, the data on the human material used in the composition.
"Describe..." the man said hesitantly. "Well, he... he's eight years old—eight years and two months, actually. His birthday was August 8 1911, his blood type was..." He looked down at his wife for confirmation. "Type A?"
"Type A," she nodded. "At his last doctor's visit, he was eighty-three pounds... I don't believe he could have added more than a few inches since then." Ed's pen scratched the paper, and her hand went up to clutch at her husband's, on her shoulder. "He's a healthy boy, very active... he likes to play baseball—"
"Mrs. Conner—" Ed put his hand up to his head, as a sharp pain flared to life between his eyes. "I don't need that kind of trivial information. Stick to the facts, please."
He was met with a stony silence, and sighed as he put his pen back to the paper. "You were saying... his height was?"
Some of the details he needed, of course, they wouldn't have; no non-alchemist would know. And most of the details they had, he didn't want. He filled in his last blank and closed the notebook, standing up. "Thank you," he said.
"Mr. Elric," the man began, hesitantly, but hope was quickly overtaking wariness in his face. "He... will... will our son be all right?"
All right. How to answer that? "Mr. Conner." Ed closed his eyes, too weary to look at their faces. "Mrs. Conner. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to consider your son dead as of this moment."
The lady went white. "But... I thought you said... there's a process? To separate them, to fix..."
"There is a process, but it is not... reliable," he explained, reluctantly. "I'll do everything I can, but the likelihood of a successful recombination is... not high. It's better not to get your hopes up," he added. Uselessly. There was probably nothing he could say to keep them from falsely raising their hopes.
He wished Al were there; he was always so much better at dealing with people, and maybe he could stand to be kind, inspire more confidence. But Al was away, busy with college and his life; they kept correspondence, and exchanged notes, but that was the most that Al could do to help him with this.
They didn't say anything. She clenched her husband's hand, tight enough that no blood flowed. Before the painful silence could stretch on too long, he slid the notebook under his arm, nodding to the officers standing nearby, listening in. "All right, Major Barton," he said, keeping his voice cool and steady. "Show me to the lab."
"But, sir," the man protested, even as Ed stepped away; he turned his appeal to the officer instead, pitching his voice low as though that could keep Ed from hearing it. "Isn't—isn't there someone else who could help? Someone with more experience?"
"The Fullmetal Alchemist has more experience with chimera recombination than any other employee of the State," he heard Major Barton tell the man, a note of institutional pride in his voice, and he didn't bother to turn around. "He's worked on more than a dozen individual chimera cases. There is no one more experienced, Mr. Conner."
"And—how many of them were successful?" the man faltered. Ed strode out of the room before Major Barton could come up with some way to answer this in a way that made his precious military look good. Zero, he thought bitterly. Exactly fucking zero.
It seemed to be some kind of reptile combination; bent-back limbs and a medium-long tail, with skin and hair coloring subsumed into myriad tiny scales. It wasn't bad, as they went; at least it was calm, which implied that the transmutation was successful enough that the creature wasn't in excessive pain. Or perhaps it was just comatose.
Either way, his observations didn't seem to differ substantially from the ones in the file, so he didn't need to rework any of his calculations substantially. Ed stood up and pushed the chair to the farthest corner of the room, and chased the last of the soldiers out. It would have been nice to have a trained observer in with him, at the very least to tell him when and where the process would inevitably go wrong, but none of these men had anything like the training. The building of the array, and its activation, would all be up to Edward.
The trickiest part of this reaction was in keeping cellular integrity intact for the human cells, while still altering the form and substance of the matter around them. The fragile network of systems that supported human life were too complicated, too delicate, and too unique to handle individually; Ed had given up on that after the first three tries.
The alternative was to pour enough energy into the transmutation reaction to keep every cell alive for the duration of the process. The cost in energy input was tremendous, and the timing was absolutely crucial. Delay too long, and the energy-guzzling reaction would start to drain away the power going to other tasks, and the reaction would collapse. Move too quickly, and the transmutation would tangle and fuse, with disastrous results. Ed had experienced both, in his practice, and was still working on finding the proper pace.
He began to set up his array, carefully and methodically, losing himself in the soft scritch-scritch of chalk over stone. The first circle, the innermost circle, for the nutritive. The second, for the sensory. Sensation led to appetite, and appetite led to greed. Greed in a hundred different forms, for food, knowledge, money, power, but it all came down toappetite in the end. Next came locomotion, the seat of action, which became the means of fulfilling the appetite. Every action led to pain, every attempt to heal it only engendered disaster. Sometimes Edward wondered why creatures had to get up and walk in the first place.
The last circle, encompassing all the others, for the reasoning human mind. The outermost, and most complicated; without it, the rest was almost straightforward, like a beginner's exercise in circle drafting and focus setting. Animals were so simple. It was human beings that made everything so damn complicated.
He checked on his chimera, still settled in the center of the center circle. Its breathing was slow and shallow, awkward limbs curled back on itself in some parody of a resting pose. Its eyes were open, showing neither iris nor pupil, but a thin membrane was halfway retracted across it. Ed judged that the chimera was probably asleep, or whatever passed for it. Good, less trouble for him. Reptile chimeras seemed to be easier to work with than some of the other kinds. At least it wasn't awake and banging around, having to be sedated (drugs messing up the biochemistry, throwing off his calculations) or caged (too much extra mass, difficult to work around.)
Enough procrastinating. Ed blew out a sigh, futilely tried to wipe off some of the chalk dust on his pants, and went to get his notes. Time for the angles and runes, adjusted to the (hopefully correct) proportions for this particular chimera. The constant variation meant it was impossible for him to memorize a single set for each individual array, so it was back to the old-fashioned method of craning his neck to look in the book while he chalked them in.
Again, he wished that he had Al here, to read out his figures or draw them in where directed, but pushed the thought aside. Even if Al weren't busy with his own life, there was no way Ed would willingly subject him to the ordeal of a failed transmutation attempt again. Or again and again...
There were any number of theories as to why transmutations like this always went wrong; why animal chimeras could be separated again but human ones could not. Most Alchemists seemed to agree that the difference was the result of some unique property of human beings; many posited this as proof of the existence of a divine soul. The debate could fill up libraries. Ed couldn't care less, except for how it affected his work. He was more interested in practicalities.
His current theory worked on the assumption that the transmutation was possible so long as the human body remained intact, that was, alive, on the cellular level. Once the cells were disrupted, human life ceased—and after that point, could not be restored, not without passing through the Gate and paying its price. But so long as cellular integrity could be retained throughout the transmutation process, the only thing affected would be gross matter. And gross matter could be manipulated at will.
That was the theory, anyway. He had yet to produce a single success. With each successive try he fine-tuned the process, adjusted the reaction, corrected his mistakes... and tried not to think about the fact that he was looting knowledge from the bodies of dead children.
Once the array was drawn, he stepped back and looked it over, then closed his eyes and pictured it again. When you reached a certain point in alchemy, there were no more books to guide you, and even your own calculations would only get you so far; the rest had to be done by guess and gut feeling. It looked good, nothing felt out of place... but then, that had been the case the last three times, as well.
He opened his briefcase, and pulled out the packets of precious metals that he'd requisitioned for this task. The transmutation circle was absolutely supposed to be clear of anything besides that you'd planned to transmute; the dangers of having some alien substance intrude were constantly stressed at the first level of alchemy.
But Ed had discovered—incidentally, really, in his furious drive for more power—that certain amounts of certain elemental metals, at the proper points in the array, could amplify the power of a reaction and conserve energy that would otherwise be wasted. The academic community was currently raving over these findings, he knew, and alchemists all over the countries were experimenting with the properties.
Ed didn't particularly care. For what he wanted to do, he needed more power than any normal reaction could manage, and he needed it to stay active in the transmutation, not bleed off uselessly as light and arcing electricity. He needed power, and where most Alchemists would search for an auxiliary power source to boost their own, Ed knew far too well where that path eventually led. Much better to make the best use out of what you had, than to carelessly waste human lives in search of more.
Done. Everything was done, no more delays. It was at this point that Ed always wished there were another half-dozen steps of preparation, distillations or derivations that he could work with until he finally felt ready to tackle the array itself. He never felt ready, not when the moment came.
The chimera stirred a bit, rustled and flicked one membrane-webbed limb, then settled. Ed blew out his breath, and walked to the edge of the circle. He dropped to his knees, rocking back to settle his weight on his heels, a position made comfortable by years of practice. Second nature since childhood, really. It centered him a little, at least.
Everything from here out was mental. Too bad there were no arrays you could draw on the inside of your own head; you had to trust to the fragile human mind to guide the process. There had been a time when he thought the equipment inside his head to be infallible, that he could defeat any problem as long as he could get it inside his own head and wrestle with it. It had been a hard shock to realize that some things couldn't be beaten just by thinking them through, and that sometimes it wasn't the data that wrong, sometimes it wasn't the theory that was wrong, it was him.
A deep breath, and Ed clapped his hands together; just for the mental bracing it gave him, not because it was necessary for the array. He put his hands down solidly on the edge of the outermost circle, and felt the array glow to life under his touch.
It moved slowly; he moved it slowly, at a pace that seemed to crawl in comparison to his normal style of instant effects, but one more appropriate to a complex, multi-stage operation such as this one. The array began to awaken, each successive circle lighting up as the charge touched it, until a thick golden light filled the room, pouring from every line. The lines of the array shaped it and focused it, turning the energy in towards its center, the platform with the perfect chimera.
More energy. He could feel it draining out of him, leaving his fingertips to pour into the array. The light grew as the reaction intensified, and the familiar crackling filled the room. Little arcs began to shoot off from the boundaries of the circle, but were caught and deflected by the metal deposits, all energy inward focused to a single point like a parabola mirror. The golden light gathered the chimera in a net, seeping into its artificial body, interspersing itself in every cell. The light was growing too intense to look at, and Ed's eyes watered furiously until he finally gave up and closed them tight. There was nothing useful to see, anyway.
The array picked up its pace, as it moved on to the second phase; directed by the shape of the array, it was moving almost on its own now, barely directed and controlled by his mind at all. He struggled for focus, for control over the forces growing wildly strong in the center array, bending them to his own will and not their caprice. Understanding, deconstructing. Understand the chimera, how it was put together, the parts that went into forming each limb and cell. Understand, how two marvelous living creatures could be put together to form this perfect piece of trash, and in knowing the pathways in, try to find the way out.
Deconstructing. Carefully now, keep the energy level up, keep the cells alive; somehow, try to preserve that fragile spark of life while you work. He was doing a thousand little operations at once, picking apart the blending of the chimera and pulling the creatures apart, and this was always the stage he went wrong. It was too complex for a human mind to direct, and the array was doing most of the work now.
A ripping noise from the center of the array, like tearing rotten cloth, and something soft and liquid hit him in the face, spattering over his closed eyes. He flinched anyway, squeezing his eyes harder shut, and felt trails of moisture running down his cheeks. Focus. Focus on the array, on directing it to the end, because you can't spare the energy to pray, and you don't believe in God anyway.
More energy. His good arm was trembling now, from the strain, but he kept steadily on, feeding energy into its ravenous maw. The light intensity was nigh on blinding, and the crackling had risen to a shriek. If the reaction went awry now, he suspected the resulting rebound would resemble a small bomb. To him, anyway. Just hope that the chimera is no longer human enough to summon the Gate on its death.
It was done.
The noise subsided into a low crackling, a faint rumbling, and then died. The light went out all at once, like a candle, and he blinked his eyes open. Sparks still danced before his eyes, although he couldn't tell for certain whether it was afterimages or the last sparks of energy, clinging to matter before dying away.
Ed was shaking all over now, and he took a careful breath as he sat back on his heels, lifting his hands from the edge of the array. He wiped one gloved hand over his face, and it came away red-purple-stained.
Time to see what he'd done this time.
With difficulty, Ed managed to force himself to his shaking feet. Smoke—or steam—hazed the room, and he waved it aside as he stepped forward. There was nothing on earth he wanted so little as to look, but not to look on the results of his work would be the worse kind of cowardice, far worse than never starting at all.
The blood—and thicker, more clotted material—lay in a neat, dark spiral pattern leading in towards the array. Clenching his teeth, preparing to swallow back bile, Ed stepped forward again and looked at the center.
There, lying on the little platform at the center of the spiral, was a boy, curled into a posture of innocent sleep. Ed's breath left him, explosively. He nearly slipped in a puddle of blood in his haste to get to the center, and his gloves left a red smudge on pale shoulders as he rolled the boy onto his back, eyes darting hurriedly up and down his body as he looked for the bad news.
Keep looking, he looked fine, he looked fine, whole and healthy. He breathed, and a steady pulse flickered under his skin—was that paler than it should be, or just the terrible light in here? He had his mother's dark hair, slightly curly, with long eyelashes that fluttered against his cheek, as though he were dreaming.
Ed choked back on rising elation. Not yet. Just because the body's sound, doesn't mean the mind is. He clenched his hand in a fist for a moment, trying to still the shaking, then took hold of the boy's shoulder and shook it once, twice. "Hey," he whispered, voice raspy. "Wake up, boy."
A mumble, and a shift, and then the boy's eyes opened—halfway at first, revealing dark eyes clouded with uncertainty, then all the way, confusion growing as he became more aware of his surroundings. Ed surreptitiously tried to keep his blood-stained hands out of sight, and tried for what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Hey there," he said, feeling inane—okay, so he'd never planned this far ahead. Well, it couldn't be too hard. Basic cognitive tests. "What's your name, boy?"
The boy shifted, glancing around, and then back at Ed. He didn't answer for a long moment, and Ed's hopes plummeted, but then—"Kurt," he offered, in a tiny voice.
Was that correct? Damn, Ed couldn't remember. He'd just have to assume it was, and anyway, it meant that he'd understood the question, and yes, comprehension and response, this was a good sign! His smile grew a little warmer, he hoped. "You like baseball, Kurt?"
Confusion, but then, a tiny nod. Better and better. "What's the last thing you remember?" he continued, keeping his voice gentle and low.
The boy swallowed, face clouding as he concentrated. "I was..." he said, and trailed off. "There was a man... he... where are my mama and papa?" he whimpered, diverting away from the question. "Who are you?"
Memory functioning, recognition of surroundings, request for the familiar, display of complex emotions. That was better than Ed had dared let himself hope, and the exultation came rushing back, making him dizzy. "They're not far away," he reassured the kid, giving him an awkward pat on the shoulder with his left hand. "You've been... sick, but you're going to be all right now. You wait here, and I'll go get them, okay?"
At times like this, he missed his old red coat; the jacket he shrugged off now to lend the boy (and why had this problem never occurred to him? Not thinking things through, clearly) wasn't really warm enough for the chilly basement. Well, it only had to suffice for a moment.
He picked his way through the splatter of blood on the floor, and a part of his mind picked apart the reason for it. Every aspect of his Array had been aimed at preserving the human element, and he had barely given a thought to the animal. When the two were separated, the human matter had been reconstructed and the animal matter... rejected, it seemed. Well, it was a theoretical flaw, but practically—he didn't think anyone would really be grieving for the lizard. In the future he could, he could...
It began to dawn on him that he'd done it, he'd really succeeded, and he hardly even felt the concrete under his feet as he half-walked, half-floated out into the corridor.
He almost ran into one of the black-clad soldiers, hovering outside of the doorway; it surprised him, since he wouldn't have thought anyone would willingly hang around this close to a reaction that might rebound at any moment. Ah, the bliss of ignorance. "Sir?" the man said, rather plaintively; he glanced quickly at Ed's blood-spattered clothes, and grew pale.
Ed just gave the man a vague nod and pushed past him, heading for the outer chamber. It didn't occur to him until after he'd reached the end of the hall that he ought to clean up the blood first, and then it was too late. Everyone looked up when he entered the room, soldiers and civilians alike; the woman uttered a little cry when she saw him, and clutched at the arm of her chair.
"Sir!" Major Barton hurried over to him. "What happened? Can you give me your report?"
Ah, yes, the start in an endless round of reports. Not just yet. He waved the major away (the joys of seniority, that he could do that) and headed right for the parents.
They held up bravely, the father drawing himself up with a straight spine and a stiff face. "What..." he started, then lost it. "Is my son..."
Ed smiled at them, reassuringly, and suddenly found he couldn't stop. "Mr. Conner, Mrs. Conner," he said, "please go and see your son. He's asking for you."
There was a moment of shocked silence, and then the room burst into tumult. Mrs. Conner leapt up from her seat and rushed for the back room, her husband following closely in her wake; the officer in charge seemed torn between preserving good security, and obeying Ed's implicit orders to let them pass. Ed didn't particularly care. He just walked on past, shaking his head briefly when one of the men asked if he wanted an escort, and headed for the door. He needed a bit of air.
More gray corridors, steel doors, and he was outside, in the ugly little alley that had concealed the lab's entrance. The sky overhead was still overcast, and the inner-city air didn't smell particularly fresh, but it was all sunshine and roses to Ed.
As soon as he stopped moving, it hit him again, the relief and triumph bubbling up in his chest and over until he bounced on his feet, giving a victory-punch to the air and letting vent to an exulted whoop that echoed off the nearby alleyways in an extremelyunprofessional manner. "I did it! Yeah! I did it!"
He couldn't stop smiling, grinning from ear to ear, and then he was laughing with relief, jumping around in the dingy alleyway like a ten-year-old, feeling the bleak hopelessness that had crusted his heart beginning to crack and give way. It was possible, it was possible, and he'd finally managed to prove it, to accomplish what everyone said was hopeless. To save someone whom all the greatest minds of this century insisted couldn't be saved. To reverse the damage done, and take a small step at least towards atonement.
He laughed and laughed, until he felt a couple of tears spilling over from his eyes, and decided he'd better calm himself down before someone got the wrong idea. He heaved a breath, setting his back against the brick wall and sliding down it until he was sitting.
He could already draft in his head the triumphant letter to Al: "Dear Al. Went shopping yesterday. Bought a new notebook and two dozen eggs, oh yeah, and I deconstructed a perfect chimera at 2'oclock." Al would hear about this, he had to hear about this, because if there was anyone in the world who could understand how he'd done it, why he'd done it, it would be his brother.
"Nina," he sighed aloud, the last of his giddy hysteria draining away, leaving him with an odd combination of satisfied relief and wistful melancholy. "I did it. I couldn't save you, but I can save others like you."
Okay, so it wasn't perfect yet. A thirteen-to-one track record still wasn't the best in the world to boast about. He needed to analyze this process in excruciating detail, search for the elements that had rendered this transmutation successful when all the others had failed. He'd have to keep observing the boy, if not in person then in reports, to make sure that his recovery was as complete as could be. He had to prepare for the likelihood that there would be future failures, all the more painful for the knowledge that'd he'd done it right this once.
But he was on his way now, his feet set firmly on the road. No more stumbling blindly around in the dark, chasing a phantom that all sources insisted couldn't exist. He was done with that, and well done. He might not have all the pieces yet, but he had the most important one; hope again.