"Would you like a blindfold, Mr. Tucker?"
The six rifle barrels were endless spirals stinking of gun grease, and each soldier loaded a cartridge with sweaty hands and terrible, meaty clicks—and a man, they said, was not supposed to be afraid, but well, his wife had been right, he wasn't much of a man. His own palms were slick wet, the ropes round his wrists damp and slippery, but holding. If they hadn't bound him to the post, he'd bolt like a rabbit, or slide to his knees and plead for his life. Not much of a man.
His mouth was too dry to speak. He looked up at Basque Gran for a moment, standing monolithic by his side, eyebrows lowered, mustache thunderous, reeking faintly of hemoglobin. He nodded, throat closed tight against the final meal churning in his gut, begging with his eyes.
Gran tied it into place with his own callused hands, because this was a private execution—one general, six soldiers, one sickened, sweating, cowering animal. Thick fabric dug into the rainbow bruises Edward had left him, rubbed and stung at bloody scabs. The world fell away, and he almost whined in relief. The world was gone, and he was in darkness where he belonged.
"Do you have any last words, Mr. Tucker?"
He shook his head. If he opened his mouth, he might scream instead. What was the last thing he'd said? He couldn't remember. He didn't even know his own last words.
Gran stepped away, heavy bootprints on the bare earth. Soldiers moved, point blank. He could have diagrammed the hormones churning through his blood, identified the adrenal glands, the cortex, the medulla, where they sat above the kidneys, explained the workings of the receptors and why the arterioles in his legs were dilating—he knew it all, but it had never done him any good. Rifle bullets, he knew, were drilling vortexes of burning air and iron, instantaneous carnage. They can send rending shocks through human flesh like ripples round a stone in a pond, churn blood with air, rip muscles from bones, shatter bones to a jagged mess. They can liquify, leave sagging cavities, holes like dinner plates. There would, he knew, be six; soldiers did not miss at such ranges; he'd be all but torn to pieces; knowledge and death were the rampaging, diabolical beasts of the world.
"Ready!" Gran bellowed, and hammers cocked in answer, but he wasn't ready, not by far. All his life too afraid to die—runaway carriage when he was seven, empty cupboards and no money for food, the prison van rumbling beneath his feet—never ready for death, though it would have been better, better to die than what he'd done living. I wish you'd never been born, his mother would say, and you're not even my son. Time cracked and suspended; his life slid round him like water, distorting; cities passed between his eyes, alleyways and poorhouses, libraries and whorehouses, broken promises, another road out and between, empty-handed and hungry and begging for rides in haywagons.
"Aim!" The brisk, efficient countdown to wiping out his life, smudging it away like a fly on the wall, not because he'd done wrong, but because he was inconvenient. Cool weight of silver in his palm; rifles brought to bear; his wife smiling above him; sights down barrels; Nina. He panicked; memory shattered. He didn't know, not even the alchemists knew, what would happen once the bullets tore him to pieces. Last seconds of life and he still didn't know, sunk so deep in fear; perhaps he would see her beyond—if there was a beyond, and he doubted, questioned and doubted—perhaps she would be human, but if he did, if she was, what justice would let him join her in heaven?
He was seeing circles. Nothing but circles. He didn't know whether he screamed or not. At least it would end.
Six deafening whipcord thundercracks.
His knees gave out. He sobbed. His shoulders wrenched hard. The shock, the adrenaline—it must have wiped out the pain. Soldiers on the battlefield can got shot and not even notice, he knew. There was a part of his mind that merely read out facts, a treatise on bodies droning constant under everything he thought or felt. Somehow, it was still running. An eternity in darkness, and he hadn't died.
He didn't understand.
Hands hauled him to his feet; he might have been babbling; he was clutched shaking against somebody's body, military braid against his thin prison shirt; he was tugged away from the pole, though his hands were still bound; he didn't understand; somebody asked where they were taking him; somebody rumbled a military designation; he didn't understand.
They pulled the blindfold off. The electric lights in the empty prison yard stabbed into his naked eyes. The same yard, the same soldiers, Gran. Was the afterlife the same as the world he'd left? Too cruel. He wanted to snatch the blindfold back from them, claw his eyes out, fall into the abyss. There was no mercy.
Gran loomed over him where he sagged between two soldiers. "Can he walk?" he asked, booming voice distant as through the sea; they were dolphins, they were whales, falling back to the beginnings of life.
"No reason he can't, sir." A hand cracked against his cheek and he realized, yes, he felt pain, and then just air and prison rags, bare skin whole beneath, no shattered bones, no liquid flesh.
He wasn't dead. But he still didn't understand.
The soldiers let him go. He wobbled on legs he barely knew he had.
"A mock execution is considered a form of torture, Mr. Tucker," said Gran, again with the hand on his shoulder, steering him out of the yard—and walking slowly, almost as if understanding that his knees were rubber, that his mind was raw and spinning, almost as if pitying him. "But the Fifth Lab." Gates opened, gates closed, shrieks and clangs of metal bars, military boots thumping on bare earth. The world was blurry. Blurry and wet. Nobody have given him back his glasses.
"The Fifth Lab," Gran finished after another gate closed, locked, bolt driven home with a dull, final clack, "is hell itself."
In the long aching silence after the light died, steam hissed slowly from the smoldering curves of the array and the pain faded just enough for him to breathe, stop the endless scream, think, yes, I am myself, I am alive—for before, when the transmutation had twisted under his hands, everything had left him.
The world crept upon him anew; he cried like a child on the floor.
Blood smeared his bare chest. He had no legs. He had no hands. His back was flayed raw. For a long moment, he was sure he was going to die there, dehydrate, starve, a limbless slab of meat holding, beyond reason, a human soul.
Nina had felt this. Nina had felt this pain. He understood now.
But the nerves down his legs—the nerves that were screaming for the flesh they'd once controlled, shrieking and begging and whimpering to have it back—were still there, living and warm, embodied in something that wasn't their own. Drowning in pain, head spinning, he leapt blind to the conclusion that he'd been partially absorbed into another living system. There was no good evidence yet, declared the scientist in his mind, absurdly implacable.
He laughed. All the pain and fear, he laughed, weakly, at himself, because there was nothing else to do. He couldn't move. Nobody would come and make it all right. He was in hell; because he'd never been brave enough to dash his brains out on the cellar wall, there was nothing to do.
Then he understood; it stabbed through him; he panicked. Had the systems been integrated properly—circulation, digestion? Did he even have voluntary control of whatever mess of creatures he'd sewn himself up with? Had the genes been transmuted properly, or would he melt to pieces, grow apart in some unknown direction, succumb to cellular panic?
Slowly—time meant nothing anymore—as the bio-alchemical stink of ozone and innards faded, the new proprioception filtered into his consciousness. Great bulk of belly and hindquarters—he'd been working with mostly bear, some ox, a bit of dog, deer. Joints swinging in different directions, because, of course, now his ankles were his feet, his feet his toes, pads leathery against the cold and bloody floor. Chest that drew huge echoing breaths, great heart pumping slow, huge shaggy corded forelegs built to bash and wrestle—the only arms he had now, the only arms he'd ever have again. He could hear the air from distant fans, the water dripping a room away; long furry ears twitched. What was left of his old familiar body, he began to realize, nothing but a naked scab on the great beast's back. He twitched crumpled on the floor as the knowledge of new limbs imposed themselves upon a brain never meant to control them.
And Nina, Nina had felt this too. Because of him.
Eventually the muscles began to answer. He raised a foreleg, stared at the paw, the heavy claws, the tufts of fur between the pads—brown, he thought, he was brown now. He had to bow his head to see it; his throat arched, drew tight. Movement was slow, awkward, despairing.
He tried to stand.
Muscles cramped and shrieked and rioted, bucking under command of alien nerves; the bear's stomach gave a huge churning roll; pain sparked through what was left of his shoulders as half-dissolved bones and tendons grated in their agonizing stretch around the huge bulk of the beast; the unimaginable sensation of lashing his tail for balance imposed itself; the world trembled, shifted, upside-down, nothing going in the direction he expected, and he swayed on four legs, wishing so very hard that it was a dream.
There he was, reflected in a half-empty tank, motions answering motions, wavering gently in the blue water.
He closed his eyes and screamed denial. At least, at least, he could scream.
But, with the obscene implacability of reality, it wasn't a dream. It never ended. He could never float out of this monstrous form he'd fallen into by some uncontrollable reversal of power, could never be free, and time still moved, merciless uncaring. In this body he had to strain his human neck to relieve the beast's, the beast's to relieve the human's, and there was not a moment's mercy in the torturous arch of his arms. To use his paws he had to balance on his hind legs, hips and thighs never built for a biped aching and cramping as he wavered about; to use his paws he had to rebuild his fine motor control from the ground up, over months, and even then there were still the claws. His glasses were fused to his face, absorbed into the folds of fur at his temples; food fell up his nose as he ate; breath came short through his crimped throat; he pissed with a leg up in a corner like a dog; he couldn't even reach his bare chest to scratch because of how his shoulders were jointed; he had no genitalia; he was always in pain. It was the cruelest, most endless prison the fates could have imagined, all for him, the man who'd transmuted his daughter.
The Philosopher's Stone, he discovered, was made of living human bodies.
He had estimated that there were a hundred and twenty five billion miles of DNA in the average human body. From the code in that DNA comes thirty thousand miles of nerves, sixty thousand miles of blood vessels, an ear that can convert sound waves to electric signals with ninety nine percent efficiency, a heart that can beat two and a half billion times, never a stumble, in a lifetime. Twenty thousand touch sensors in a single inch of skin, a nose that can detect substances as sparse as one part in thirty billion, eye muscles that can move in tolerances of hundredths of inches. Every minute all the body's blood is pumped through the lungs; every second two million red cells die and are replaced. One hundred billion neurons, transmitting signals at two hundred miles an hour, forming a network so complex that it can seat the transcendent mess of consciousness. The human body, molecule upon whirling molecule, cell upon splitting cell, tissue upon curling tissue: the great construction, the seat of the soul, the conduit for all alchemy.
A single bacterium, if allowed to multiply unchecked, could create a colony that would exceed the mass of the entire Earth in less than a week. A single bacterium, he'd written in a paper long ago, burning with the knowledge of it—a single bacterium has the potential to overcome all of creation in six days. Such is the power of life.
Of course, he thought, staring at Marco's notes or touching the great red vats that hummed with the light of souls. Of course the Philosopher's Stone was made of life, of living human bodies. If that much perfection could be collapsed into a man's pocket, nothing in the world could stop him.
Gran looked in on him once as he spastically turned a forepaw, frowned thunderously, and left, and then nobody came for weeks.
Solitary confinement, he imagined him saying, is considered a form of torture, Mr. Tucker. But the Fifth Lab, the Fifth Lab...
Loneliness became tangible, solid as the walls.
There was a sort of serenity to it, at the best of times. Hollow empty air, equipment unused because he didn't have the dexterity, notes untaken because he couldn't even write. Sometimes, shuffling back and forth, he found bliss. Nobody to see him, nobody to laugh as shaking fumbles with new limbs sent him tumbling to the bare stone floor. Nobody he had to talk to, nobody to tell him what to do. Nobody to hurt him, no fists, no blades. Nobody.
Water dripped in corners.
No dust fell in the bowels of the lab, but soon he realized that little bits of dark brown fur were wafting about on hidden currents, clinging to walls and corrupting unsealed samples. Shedding like Alexander, he thought bitterly. Shedding like a dog.
Huge animal stomach cramped with hunger, and he remembered his wife whimpering starving, and ate to spite her, stocks of army rations they'd left, the feed for his menagerie, anything he could find.
Water dripped, pa-plink, pa-plink, two-point-five second interval. The old torture.
He screamed. Screamed until his throat went raw for unnamed gods to lift him up and let him go—from the lab, from this lumbering prison of a body. He sobbed. He begged. Nobody heard.
His situation was easily outlined, intellectually. Only certain places he could go, only certain things he had, a list so short he could run it round easy in his head, but nothing to do except haul his huge stinking wreck of a body round the rooms he'd been locked into. Life was simple. Hell was simple. He thought he might be hallucinating from time to time, because there were things he could not explain, but he wasn't sure. He talked to himself, whispering Nina, Nina, Nina, voice broken by the agonizing strain of his throat, because if only she could be here, he could be happy.
If Gran had come back to tear him to pieces and leave him bloody over the floor of the lab, he would have welcomed him, begged even for the touch of knives.
Instead, after a thousand years alone, a slender, pretty, professional young woman opened the locked door, military stance, not a hair ruffled, so out of place he thought she wasn't real. Until she spoke, and he yelped with surprise, echoes coursing down empty steel walls.
"Shou Tucker?" she asked, soft and clipped and excruciatingly polite. "Allow me to introduce myself: Juliet Douglas, the Fuhrer's secretary. I'm here to reassign you."
A delicate pause. He fumbled for words, shaking head to toe with hope. There was piss drying in the corner; how could he speak to her?
"Have you ever heard of a homunculus?" she asked blandly, and he blinked, and a whole new vista of hope tore itself open in his mind.
"You know, you were on our short list for making the Stone."
The voice was low, throaty, drowned in smoke and alcohol. The woman posing theatrical in the doorway was slender and bony, lace top leaving the crackle of her sternum bare, skirt falling to narrow knees, lit cigarette dangling between two fingers with perfect red claws of nails.
He should be shocked, but shock did not exist in the Lab. No questions, no cries of denial, when one lives in hell. But the sight of her froze him in place, locked up his jaw with confusion and guilt.
Johanna was dead.
Johanna was standing near the door, sucking in long on one of those foul clove cigarettes she'd always smoked when she was particularly unhappy.
Johanna was dead. She'd begged for it. Dead and talking nonsense she had never known.
"We had high hopes," she went on, strolling carelessly into his workroom like she always had, oblivious to his bewilderment. "Well, some of us still do, but just look at you. Pathetic. If you haven't seen the truth after turning yourself into a fucking bear, you probably never will." She circled him, heels clacking on the plated floor, and laughed. "Bet you don't even have your dick anymore. Not that it ever did you much good."
He opened his mouth, closed it, fumbled. "But you're—"
"Dead?" She snorted merrily. "You'll put it together someday in that peahead of yours, we can hope. You know, Shou, honey," she whispered, voice dropping seductively, leaning in close, pinching his nose with the hand that held the cigarette, forcing him to suck up some of the smoke in desperation, then he had to cough, painful bucking against the flesh that held his head. "I always wanted to die. You just made it easy for me. Don't suppose I have to tell you now what it felt like, how much it hurt. Hear you got your certification because of it." Slap across the face, jarring his glasses, tearing at the tissue that held them in place. "Don't you dare fucking thank me you bastard."
She snarled, stepped back, took a drag, calmed. Johanna had always moved, always spoke, with a theatrical assurance, with pauses and beats and prewritten lines; he'd always been helpless in the face of it. Especially when she was angry. But she'd never stopped acting, not for him, not between the sheets, never. Even when she was a curled ball of tiger-striped fur shaking with hunger. Never.
"You know what they always said?" she declared to some unseen audience. "Marry an alchemist, he'll make you rich. Now ain't that a joke?"
He lifted a paw as if to reach out for her, faltered at the sight of his own claws.
She turned her back on him, slid another cig from the pack in her bra, lit it off the sputtering first, ground the butt under sharp heel. A few deep breaths, silence but the slight splash of muscles twitching in deep tanks, the slight hitch of his breath as he tried not to cry, because crying upside-down tended to hurt.
"So is that our daughter?" she asked at last, waving her cigarette at the twisted form hanging in the water, deer and dog smashed into some semblance of human form. "I hear you fused her with the dog. Letting me die in pain wasn't enough for you? You needed to torture her, too, to get your kicks?" Beat, drag, quiet pause for his choking breath. "I did love her, you know. You give birth to something, you love it, one way or another. I would have taken care of her all my life." A honed, deliberate shrug. "I always thought men can't love children the way women do—they just knock us up, they don't have to deal with the rest. You proved that, honey. You proved that good. Did she beg to die, too, when you transmuted her?"
Beat, drag, turn back imperiously to face him again. "Don't just stand there staring at me, Shou, you pathetic twit, I know you're bad with people but I'm your fucking wife, this is taking it too far. Say something."
"Johanna," he whispered, words at last. "You never loved me."
Puzzled stare so fake it sparkled, snort of laughter, cigarette tossed into the corner. "Of course I didn't screw you, you fuckwit! I was a whore who married you because you were the only man limp-dicked enough for her to feel safe with! Not that you ever looked up from your books enough to notice now, did you? And now you finally realize what you did to my baby girl—god, this is pathetic. And I don't notice me around here anywhere. What kind of a man tries to resurrect his little daughter instead of the woman he was supposed to want?"
Beat; silence. She looked again at the tank, spinning hair, cloven hooves, gossamer shadows in the water.
"Sick fuck, Shou. You were always one sick fuck."
Toss of her head, spin on her heel, and she was gone, footsteps echoing down empty halls.
He sunk to the floor, shaking. He was hallucinating. He was going mad. And the cigarette still smoldered in the corner.
Gran had always wanted him to wear the watch.
He'd crushed it to bits and flung it at him the first night in the lab, cogs and springs and silver shards of the sea lion clattering on the floor round his knees, because didn't need it anymore, because he'd moved a step beyond State Alchemist—sold not just soul but freedom to the military, and this time there was nothing in return.
When he'd worn it, it was heavy in his pocket, heavy as Johanna's limp body as he laid her out naked in the array, heavy as the chimera in the cage in the sun, hauled up before generals for the sake of an exam.
Wear the watch, Mr. Tucker, and do your work.
He'd always feared that Gran had somehow known about Johanna—but, of course, Gran never cared, never brought it up, never turned him in, just pressed ruthlessly for him to do it again, because the military, he'd intone, was, above all, practical, and practicality was the only justification or excuse they needed. If it was practical to murder one's wife, if it was practical to eye one's daughter and consider how her smaller body would alter an array—the only excuse they needed.
Gran never cared what he did. He only cared when he let it leak. For that was impractical.
We'll stock your menagerie, Mr. Tucker. You just have to do the work.
Not easy work when every dog dragged cowering by reminded him of Alexander, when every rabbit screamed like a demon during transmutation. He hesitated; he pored over notes; he stared into space. Results, said Gran ominously, were not forthcoming. There would be consequences. But during those first few weeks in the lab, he hadn't yet realized, not to his core, what was meant by hell. He stopped working, sickened in turmoil. There were, of course, consequences.
Gran liked to cultivate a posse of greenhorns from the enlisted ranks, tall and brash and brutal in their clean black uniforms, fresh out of boot camp with that deadened look in their eyes which meant that they'd been particularly savaged. A self-perpetuating monstrosity, the military. Gran never bothered to learn their names, but liked them because they'd do anything he said. Anything. If he told them to strip a lone scientist in a cold lab naked just to humiliate him, they'd do it. If he told them to beat him, cut him, fire bullets past his ears, they'd do it. If he told them to piss on him, they'd do it.
If he told them to like it, they'd like it. If he told them to laugh, they'd laugh.
Do the work, or you'll regret it. Get up, Tucker; you're not hurt that bad. Get back to work; perhaps the circles need to be drawn in blood instead; it's too late to get squeamish about your job; the only thing you should be afraid of is me.
It seemed strange, in a man of such ballistic leanings, that Gran liked knives. But he never smiled, never enjoyed himself, never changed, not even at the loudest screams. Not even a spark of comprehensible schadenfreude in iron eyes. Just a man using a tool, for that was the military, turning men into tools. When a tool is ineffective, sharpen it. When a dog misbehaves, beat it. We are the living weapons of Amestris; we are not human, we are not alive. Military applications of bio-alchemy, Mr. Tucker. And. Soon.
They never gave him back his clothes. He shivered, bled, itched madly where other men's piss had dripped down his back. He clung to the lab bench with a cut up his thigh, shaking, until arrays swam before his eyes.
Torture left him lightheaded and shaking, impaled in a gray mist of gut reactions and emergency hormones, not quite feeling the floor where he was crumpled against it, dizzy and floating and barely hearing his voice when he begged. The pain made blackness tingle at the corners of his vision, made him scream until his throat was raw, made him heave and retch, because he'd never imagined just how bad it could be. Blood and vomit would dry stinking between the doorway and his notes as he curled abject and sobbing in the corner.
But, compared to alchemy, torture was almost easy.
At least, at least, that stopped after the accident. When he looked at him inverted out of crusted eyes, even Gran abandoned him in disgust. No human would look him in the eyes now except the perfect ones, cool lavender gazes alone deigning to see him. He had been given to crueler masters now.
Living tissue, said all the bio-alchemy texts he'd snuck out of the library or begged off of scholars during his childhood, has a will of its own, but he neither understood nor believed that for years. Not until he worked up the courage to steal his mother's pot of begonias, place it in a simple but swirling bilateral circle—something easy, relatively, to begin with, the book suggested: turn the flowers another color—and fold his hands down to the thick-scrubbed chalk. Then he saw; then he understood. No book could have prepared him for ripping open the doors of life, the sense of serpents hissing at the edge of his consciousness as he feverishly tried to work through the mental gymnastics of the transmutation. No book could have prepared him for the light that hid deep within cells, sheeting, blinding, ecstatic, colors searing impossible bright across his mind's eye.
DNA, he had read, emits photons; DNA can, as far as the alchemists knew, receive them, too, with endless, repetitive passages of spare code that turn the book of life into a resonating crystal. He hadn't believed at first. He'd thought it absurd. But his first direct genetic transmutation, when he'd tried to streamline the code and discard all the junk as he altered it, melted the rat to pieces in its cage. After that, he'd respected the genome; after that, he'd had to believe.
He saw the light, though some would say he did not see it well.
Biophotons, by reasonable extrapolation, could also be received with a quartz crystal, nature's perfect electromagnetic resonator. And if one stained such a crystal red with the blood of millions—the ideal form of the Stone, he scratched with his claws on one wall so nobody would ever forget, was a crystal. Then it could draw not only on the lives contained within but all the great circle of the biosphere, catch and focus all that light of nuclei and souls; only by connecting everything could one achieve the impossible.
A better man would have been sick at the thought. But here, now, all he cared for was Nina. Nina and her DNA, the ancient authority of life, the letters unique to her body. If he had but one cell...
He begged Sloth to see if the lock of her baby hair Johanna had kept was still in the house. Sloth told him the military had annexed all of his possessions related to alchemy and auctioned all of those not; then with a lazy smile, she told him he didn't need it anyway.
He sketched arrays and did not understand. Transmuted and saw the light, but quavered at the thought of recreating her code, splitting and isolating the human genome from a dozen or more animals and some hapless prisoner, trying to pin down proteins for shining blue eyes, the smell of her hair, an angel.
He would have to ask, he thought, in sleepless lunacy. He would have to ask the light itself; it was the only authority. But how could it answer? How could it remember her?
He was mortal; he was hopeless. But DNA was the neverending eversplitting serpent, divine androgyne, the hidden soul of wisdom, one and many, many and one, swimming through and shining forth the light that shone between every living cell round the surface of the globe. And to be a bio-alchemist was to commune with that ring of endless light, human will flashing down the chattering network of cells, until it answered, bent, changed itself to accommodate and create some new form. It was dazzling, seething, lit minds on fire; only five percent of the human brain capacity, he knew, is used in all our lives, and surely the rest of it lights up when I transmute. I don't need what you need, Johanna—drink, drugs—I have alchemy. The greatest high in the world, and he was, shameless, addicted.
She in the door had a seal the color of dried blood between the cool, pale curves of her breasts, and the hand resting on her thigh had an underbelly like a lizard, and there was a fay look to the fine lines of her features when she smiled as he startled at her presence.
"I hear Sloth has already contacted you," she said, voice soft and sleek and promising. "Usually I'm the advance guard, but for those with connections to the military, well." She smiled, stepped into the lab. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Lust, a colleague of Sloth." She touched a hand to her chest, inhuman long nails brushing over the ouroborus. "I've been told you were promised our mystery."
"Yes...yes..." He'd been dozing on all fours at the lab bench; he thought he might be dreaming. When I die, his father would say, there'll be a beautiful woman at the gateway to eternity, and she stepped up to him now, smiling calmly with purple cat eyes.
"An alchemist such as yourself," she said calmly, "must understand that the deep mysteries cannot be directly taught. I assume you're familiar with the Socratic Method? My colleagues and I shall be using a variant. We will present you with pieces of information, clues, as it were. The truth, my friend, awaits."
She touched his cheek with two cool fingertips—the first human hand he'd felt in more than a year that was not cruel. "You have been asked to create the Stone. In return, you will learn how to create a homunculus for the sake of your dear daughter. I doubt it will surprise you that the two are connected. Perhaps you should consider the fact that my kind have been named for sins?"
He started to speak; those fingers touched his mouth instead.
"I don't want to hear you talking, Mr. Tucker. You consider what I say. That's all. You do, of course, desire knowledge?"
Rhetorical question, his mind declared. Her nails were like scalpels again his skin, only the lightness of her touch saving his lips from being sliced to ribbons.
"You've been asking for her DNA, haven't you?"
Rhetorical question. Her hand shifted; her nails extended, silent, effortless, thin green velvety blades caressing the painful, vulnerable arch of his throat. Along his sides where skin had knit to hide, hair tickled, standing on end.
"You don't need it. Her body will answer to your will, if you are strong enough. Your memory. And," she added, with a tinge of amusement, "you're effectively androgynous, as are we homunculi, in our natural state. That brings you one step closer to the truth. Think on it well."
She kissed him lightly on the forehead, like a mother with a little child and a knife across its throat, turned with soft click of heels a little lower than Johanna's, and left.
The truth, in a dazed and smoldering haze, awaits.
Military applications of bio-alchemy.
He used to have dreams, the nights after Gran would come, of soaring over some great battlefield on unknown wings, eyes pinned wide in the wind, under the light of a sun red as the Stone. Infantry mowed down by chimeras, rank upon rank torn to the ground with claws dancing upon their chests. Walking trees reaching down to pluck men from the trenches with branches dripping acid. Arrayed bullets piercing skin with the flash of a reaction; flesh distorted, boiled, melted, sprouting buds; instant disruption, instant cancer; transmuting enemy soldiers into chimeras controlled by an allied alchemist; screaming face bubbling and splitting. Four men fused together, a human spider with rolling gait; uniforms marching without occupants, with veins pulsing through the cloth and fangs at the collar and cuffs. Bio-alchemy in war meant tidal wave of destruction and corrupted flesh—seething, churning, plowing, and he and Gran would ride it, one triumphant, one sick. And reaching now a town; and Gran lowers his arm, bellows, gives the signal; and children scatter in vain from arrays like leaves as his alchemy crackles, splits the chromosomes of innocence—
War is hell, Johanna murmured, meditative, at the newspaper. The Fifth Lab is hell, Gran rumbled, ominous, at its gates. And what kind of chimera could rise from the screaming hybrid of two infernos?
He would wake, bruised and bleeding in the dark, grope for his glasses with a little pleading whimper. He was not a violent man. Never had been. Even being bullied as a child, even beaten half to death by a child, he'd never struck back—the thought was abhorrent. He didn't like war, he didn't get angry and hurt people, he wasn't mean, his teachers said he was a quiet boy. The one thing at least his family had liked about him. Could he at least take refuge in that from a mind haunted by indigo and blood, broken chromosomes and shuffling farewells, or was that a false and foolish security that hid things far worse than violence?
There had been no parents at the wedding. Nobody but an acquaintance of his of the time and one of Johanna's girlfriends from work, for witnesses. Nobody had said he could kiss the bride; she just turned to him, snorted, because, well, Shou, we're safe now.
Neither of them had been in touch with their parents. Neither of them was likely to be missed.
All his memories of his mother were subzero, crusted with ice. She was tall, chilly pale, with long, soft dark hair. His sister's hair was the same, not scruffy dull red; his sister was part of the family, cared for. Older boys sang songs about his mother in alleyways, boxed his ears, told him to grow up into a sailor. She would, when angry, snap, bastard. You're not my son.
It took him pathetically long to piece it all together. And even when he did, he'd never told Johanna. Whoreson, whoreson, the children would chant, you're mother's a whore, you'll fuck like a whore, you'll marry a whore, and your girl if she's yours, she'll be a whore!
Some days he'd wanted to tear her to pieces, this father's wife who was not his mother, though he was not a violent man—she had brought it out in him, she alone. Wanted to see her blood that wasn't his. Wanted to hold a knife to her icicle throat and make his father tell him why he'd taken his son from a whore. That wanting, the way it made him shake, frightened him more than anything in the world; he'd retreat to his books, fall back on his alchemy, because that, at least, was safe.
But it seemed strange to him, even years later with nothing but unwanted stray thoughts of family amongst the agonies of the lab, that his mother possessed an assured strength that he'd never had; and he would wonder, then, whether she'd laugh to see him now. It was not her blood in his shattered veins. She would have no reason to pity him.
And it terrified him, that quiet, heartless, heatless strength, the way she would smile, a little curve of the lips that meant nothing. Cold and empty, the smile that meant he was worthless, not her blood, not her worry, nothing but an inconvenient animal. Nobody else could smile like that; nobody else could reduce him to nothing with a look.
Nobody until Sloth smiled, small and serene, and enveloped his head in chemical brine until his vision went black and an iron vise closed round his lungs.
The Stone, soon, she whispered, and left, and for the first times in years he felt the utter, crushing fear of a little child faced with his family.
The last time he'd walked in the light had been with Nina, under the wide windows of his house, soft sweet grass strange and green and hazy in the late afternoon, before night fell and he'd begun drawing the circles. From cellar to prison, from prison to the Lab, he had not seen the sun. He might distantly lament its loss, but at least, alone in the dark, he could be comfortable.
Right, son, so you turned eighteen two days ago and you're still down here...what in hell did you do to that poor creature? Is that its brains? Disgusting, Shou, no wonder my wife's been complaining about the stink all day. And the noise—how long did it take you to put it out of its misery anyway?
He'd spent most of his childhood in the basement, chasing spiders, then alchemy. A room of his own, undisturbed time, books, supplies, necessities—all he'd ever wanted. He'd never sought light, never sought the touch of another, even though they were the only things that might give him comfort, keep him sane.
I have been a good father to you, Shou. I didn't have to keep you, but I did. Thought you might do the family some good, especially when we realized you were an alchemist. I've fed you, clothed you, bought all your books, goddamn if they didn't overcharge me for those glasses—I didn't even beat you, not once, tried to raise you like a civilized man. I welcomed you into this family, but all you've ever done is skulked about ungratefully in my cellar. Haven't even bothered to learn something useful, like fixing things—hell, if this town had a real alchemist, we could've kept that bridge from washing out and killing Mrs. Robin and her children, but you think you're too good to bother with that, don't you?
Because even working desperate for a living, even with his daily bread depending upon them, other people seemed to be on the other side of thick glass, moving pictures he couldn't understand that spouted words he couldn't bring himself to care for. Head in the clouds, they'd say. Genius, but pretty useless, they'd say. Trouble relating to others, they'd say.
No, I know you don't like me coming down here, but I got a note today from Mr. Alberts, down at the bakery, whom you might remember is your employer? Yes. I'm glad you managed that much. Didn't seem to stop you from coming in late if you came in at all, unwashed, too distracted to do your work well because you'd stayed up all night reading this nonsense of yours...
We're going to have to let you go, they'd say. No really. Go away. Bugger the fuck off, creep. Another town, another failed attempt at life, another month starving. You know, you're probably the best bio-alchemist I've met, they'd say, there's got to be work in there somewhere if you stick with it. Yet the world had decided he belonged living in other people's basements, going through other people's trash.
God, I swear I should've just kicked that whore in the belly first thing when she told me! My son—been feeding myself bullshit all these years. No son of mine would be like you.
He'd sworn, he'd promised himself, that with the military it would be different. He'd tried, just once in his life, to keep a promise, at any cost, like good people did.
Get out, Shou. I want you out of this house right now, and take all this obscene shit of yours with you. I'm fed up with this. Put your life together or die trying, I don't care, just don't do it here, and god help me, if I ever see you around here again I'll have you arrested for breaking and entering.
And he'd kept his word. He had stuck with it. He had finally pulled through, proved himself, just this once, just to Basque Gran, but there could be no pride; it was bitter, bitter as gall.
There's no need to say goodbye to my wife and daughter. Just go.
Always alone. Even with Johanna, always alone. And too stupid, too goddamn short-sighted stupid, to see what was under his nose until it was too late—because sometimes, just for seconds, when Nina smiled, he hadn't been.
The tiger, long stunned by tranquilizers, lay like a great furry carpet in the broad circle, and sprawled across it, naked skin ghostly in the dim light, Johanna wallowed in vodka dreams, array lines stained in red ink down her face and throat and chest—the first time he'd touched her in weeks, because she'd barely even let him kiss her since Nina was conceived.
He stood back outside the circle, a man walking off a cliff, unable to stop himself. Her breath had been stinking, her soft skin puckered and goosebumped in the chill, unheated factory air. She did not love him. She had never loved him. The body he'd carried to the array, the body that had born his child, had been spread in alleyways for strangers. Such a delusion, life.
Fate and the world had been mocking him forever, beckoning him up to their great roulette wheel, spinning him head over heels, spitting him back out destitute and begging. But now, just once, he thought he might be betting right. After all, nothing short of this had ever worked. He had to know whether this would. No excuse. Spinning the wheel.
The array stretched out across the stained floor, whirling.
When he touched the circle and the power flared, the tiger growled, muddy and distant, and Johanna's body arched once as if in pleasure, hips straining, shivering in the chill air as alchemy took her, and for once, for the first and last moment, he knew his wife, knew the flow of her blood and the sparking of her brain, the hollows between her ribs, the blackened heave of her lungs, the mysteries of her. For a moment, he touched her; for a moment, he held her life in the palm of his hand.
To successfully transmute a chimera, one has to begin with the gross physical aspects: integrate two bodies—or three, or four—system by system, eliminating redundancy, ensuring that everything is in working order. At first, when he was fifteen, the idea had seemed simple; but then he'd sat down to calculate the ratios of lungs to heart to blood volume to bone marrow to diameters of arteries to pulse, and then to try to thread an aorta through a foreign sternum, all while ensuring that the pacemaker was properly connected to the nerves, and that was but a bare beginning of the work on a single system. For the actual transmutation, of course, most of it was woven subtly into the lines of the array, with specialized symbols that even other alchemists barely understood, but it still had to be guided by the human will. And even now, the diagrams, the fine-tuning of the array, took him weeks for a single transmutation. It took, they said, a genius touch.
But that was the easy part.
One hundred and twenty five billion miles of DNA—and that was just the human body. To make a chimera that could live for more than a few seconds, one had to convince every inch of those billions of miles to recode.
If DNA didn't have that strange, shining, ancient awareness, it would have been impossible.
Johanna's body, the whore's forbidden temple, was passing, vanishing, alchemical decomposition shining like wildfire down the ink lines on her sternum, long narrow curve of her belly flying to pieces in the air. The tiger's spine crackled, snapped, whipped about, brushed against hers and nerves reached out in a desperate tangle, clawing their way into each other. Veins merged, bloodstreams crossed; lungs dissolved and reformed and throttled their voices as they woke, began to roar and scream, bodies entwining in some ancient, obscene tableau, great cat fangs melting and pouring down her face. The array was managing it, managing it well, all those complex swirls of energy; with concentration, it was almost simple. But that was the easy part.
The wheel, the circle, was spinning so wild as to drive him mad.
Within bodies, beyond bodies, defining bodies, there was a sea of seething light, DNA like mythical serpents whipping his consciousness about, and seconds stretched to a minute, then two, as his wife's new body labored and strained and genes rioted in misplaced cells—but there, yes, two cells imploded together, molecules moving in answer to the desperate cries of flesh that didn't match, base pairs whirling, messages flashing back and forth in laser-sharp flickers, and his mind was straining to its limits, he feared he might pass out—but there, yes, was the new genome, a zygote as precious as when sperm meets egg, and it was shining out its code for the rest, and his hands fell shaking from the circle and he huddled over on the floor, cold sweat, triumphant.
Flesh has a mind and a resistance of its own—yet a willingness, too, if guided properly. He'd been afraid that a human body, the vessel for a soul, would offer far more trouble than any animal's. But it hadn't, not really. Perhaps, he thought, staring at his wife with only vague recognition of what he had done, there wasn't any difference after all. Just animals.
The light faded.
He'd run his hands through her hair, thick dye-blonde waves between his fingers, one last time before starting the transmutation. There was no logical reason to care for her. Just animals. Still, he'd stroked her hair, her forehead with its faint clammy stain of sweat, smelled the tobacco tang that seemed permanently buried in her follicles; she'd been familiar, even if not good.
The cold skin between her breasts rippled like a tiger's stripes, bands of subtly discolored cells light and dark and deep in the dermis, until, passing down over the seam, it thickened, goosebumped, until fur sprouted dark and incongruous like wires through wax, growing longer, lusher, fields of gold and black that rippled like grass in the wind as she panted from pain and confusion, as bits of words fell incoherent from a layrnx distorted, the voice that could buy him his title, he was sure.
She was beautiful. She was so beautiful.
The equations never balanced. Not quite. No matter what he tried, there was never perfection, that complete clarity so promised by generations of philosophers. Equivalent exchange, he began to realize, was a great and terrible lie. The homunculi were unreasonable, their mysteries were unreasonable, so was he, the lab, the world. But if it was all so unfair, why couldn't he get something out of nothing, why did he keep losing?
I am going mad, he scrawled awkwardly in the headers of notes. The world is mad, I am mad, there will never be an answer.
He thought he'd snapped entirely when he saw the old woman, because she couldn't be here, not with her little pink shawl, house slippers on plated floors; she belonged tending a flowerbed in late sun, brewing tea in some placid house he had never known.
But could one, he wondered abstractly as she paced the length of the room, the bead on her hairnet glinting in red light, hallucinate scent? Heavy rotting perfume clung to her, billowed out from her frail body—necrosis, same as blackening flesh of baby arms in his tanks of failures. He had catalogued ten kinds of rot by smell alone, such were his sins. Yet she walked, lived.
And then she clapped thin vein-covered hands, transmuted a rat into a flight of butterflies without an array, without a blink, without a hint of awkwardness in the flowing of the flesh, and introduced herself as the one the homunculi call their master.
Butterflies whirled up to the ceiling, black and white and red and gold, fluttered between steel struts as if chased by a child.
It all lay in the Stone, he knew. Countless thousand human lives, just like his, a weight to topple any scale that tried to balance it. But he did not know how to transmute it. And he denied that, hid it. Sloth would drown him, Lust would slice him to bits if they knew; he would've outlived his usefulness. And here, here their mistress, and her name was Dante, and she looked over all his attempts, considered his notes and the arrays in progress, nodded politely like a woman asking, one lump or two? Her presence blazed alien and unfamiliar in the gloom, clashing—yet she, she controlled Lust and Sloth, and that was incongruous too. "Is it working?" she asked gently. "Have you made progress as of late?"
So tired, so ashamed, he shook his head. "No...no. You've read my notes, you can see..." An outline of a face soaked in a shallow dish, but it had stopped congealing from the ox's head he'd tried to graft it from; he lifted it, it slipped between his claws, because he'd been meaning to destroy it anyway, and somehow in her presence it was easier, because somehow in her presence, against the odds, he was calm. "It never quite holds together, I don't know why..."
"Ah, but alchemy is at its heart an unreasonable art. You must have realized that by now, young man." She patted him on one furry arm, as comfortable as if he were human. "Abandon the logic of it. Look beyond that. Look deeper. In the heart of both alchemy and madness, there is the truth."
Reason searched for equal signs, balanced trades, but never really found them. Reason was helpless against unbridled life. Reason was the great lie of the ages. He would fail; he would fail; and he would fail. His daughter's face was melting in his hands, doll eyes collapsing, ox brains soaking deep between the pads. The truth was beyond him; the homunculi were monsters; he would fail.
Butterflies faltered and fell to pieces, wings rotted to bits falling like confetti across the lab, empty shells of bodies fading to death in a litter of weird and twisted carrion. The world teetered with his desperation; the balance shifted; with a mere look from Dante's deep-wrinkled dark eyes, a life could change, a life could turn, a man could go mad.
"Will I find Nina?" he asked her, because she controlled all the world. "Will I please?"
"Perhaps," she answered, grandmotherly. "But do not search by the light of reason."
Reason had told him to place his daughter living in the circle.
Reason did not hold all the answers.
Only in madness was there sanity.