“I’m assuming Tierron is dead?” Metzin asked.
“…who?” Zarah asked slowly. Her brain hadn’t quite caught up to the situation, and she hadn’t been lying, before – she was tired, both physically and mentally. Thinking felt like dragging herself through thick mud, and the pull of gravity seemed more irresistible than ever.
Metzin’s lips pursed. “Ah, yes. I guess there’s no real reason you’d have known his name. The man you were fighting earlier, with the goatee.”
Paose. She’s talking about Paose.
“Yes,” she confirmed, not seeing the point in lying. “I killed him.”
She’d been expecting some kind of reaction to that – they had been… allies? Partners? They had known each other and worked together, in some fashion.
Metzin, though, just nodded.
“Understandable,” she said. “It’s hardly a surprise that his poor decision-making would eventually catch up with him.”
Zarah narrowed her eyes. “You… are not angry.”
“Why would I be?” Metzin asked, raising an eyebrow in the closest thing to an emotion that Zarah had seen from her so far. “Did Tierron give you the impression that I would?”
“…no,” Zarah replied cautiously. “I am just… surprised.”
“Mm. Then, for your information, I didn’t have any particular fondness for him. He was an irritating psychopath, and a stupid one besides. Frankly, I was expecting him to get himself killed much sooner than this.”
“Then why are you work with him?”
“‘Did you work with him’,” Metzin corrected idly. “Because he was useful enough to counterbalance some of those factors, for a time.”
“Useful for what?”
Metzin stared at her for a moment, eyes calculating. “It’s interesting,” she said at last, “how little you know.”
“Not as an insult, I mean. Just that you’ve gotten very tangled up in my affairs recently, and yet when I finally meet you, it turns out to be mostly accidental.”
“…what is your point?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “No point, just… musing aloud. Revising some assumptions, I suppose. I’d been planning on having a very different conversation to this one.”
“You planned for this?”
Metzin’s eyes fixed Zarah in place.
“I plan for many things,” she said. No malice, no heat, just absolute surety that was somehow scarier by far. “As soon as I became aware that Tierron was planning this, it was fairly clear that our arrangement was over. He’d attracted far too much attention, not to mention all this pointless slaughter.”
The words should have been reassuring, but something about the emphasis she put on ‘pointless’ set Zarah on edge.
“What would you do, if he had won?” she asked.
“Killed him, obviously. Thank you for that, by the way, it was very well done. A bit sloppy in places, but that can be forgiven on account of inexperience.”
This entire conversation was baffling.
“You are welcome,” Zarah said slowly. “I think.”
“Walk with me,” she said, gesturing off to the side. “We should have a conversation.”
“And if I say no?”
For just a moment, the air between them was filled with a veritable constellation of red ghostlight, tiny pinpricks that started to connect and join together with startling speed. Then they disappeared again, and Zarah let out the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding.
“I would recommend against that,” Metzin said.
Zarah started walking.
Metzin fell into step with her, and within seconds, the umbrella she held expanded to cover Zarah as well, plates of red ghostlight sliding out of the air as others dissipated away, a surprisingly intricate set of supports forming to hold them up.
“I believe that it’s always worth doing things properly, if you’re going to do them at all,” Metzin began. The drum of the rain against the umbrella was strange, closer to the sound of a roof than fabric or tarpaulin. “For example, this construct. Hypothetically, I could have made a set of basic shapes that would have served the purpose fine, but become structurally unstable when not held in this specific situation. But I find that… distasteful. This umbrella, as I have made it, could continue to be functional and stable long after I am done with it.”
To demonstrate, she took a hold of the locking mechanism at the top of the pole and slid it down slightly, causing the hinges and poles to shift accordingly before she returned it to the locked position.
“It’s not as complicated, obviously, but that hammer is another example.” Metzin said it casually, almost dismissively, but Zarah’s hands clenched around the handle. “Based on Tierron’s description, you of all people should understand how well it has continued to function beyond its original purpose.”
“Which was killing people.”
“Which was being able to generate a larger amount of force than I could on my own as both a flat crushing impact and a sharp piercing one, actually. Plenty of the tests were on flat planes of ghostlight or other materials, but I don’t suppose you’d have seen those, so I can forgive the mistake.”
“Jona Mehrvitz,” Zarah said flatly. “Was he ‘other materials’?”
Metzin actually seemed to consider the question. “Technically, by the end, a good portion of him was ghostlight, yes.”
“You know that is not what I mean.”
“Do I?” she countered. “Say what you mean, then.”
Zarah ground her teeth. “Why did you kill him?”
“Your phrasing implies it was the intent. I’d have preferred not to – in fact, nothing would have made me happier.”
“And yet,” she acknowledged. “I don’t suppose you understood much of that cache that you dug up, did you?”
Somehow, Zarah wasn’t surprised she knew about that as well. “Not much. You are trying to recreate that arm, but… not much.”
Metzin made a pleased little hum.
“Good, good. Yes, that was the main purpose. I’ve made quite a few interesting discoveries as a side effect, but the goal has always been to recreate Subject One’s altered physiology in a live subject.”
“You wanted him to live so you would experiment on him more,” Zarah said flatly.
“Yes, exactly. 341 was the closest I’ve come yet, by a significant margin. I admit I may have been… overenthusiastic, when signs of progress began to show. Usually, I terminate attempts much sooner, but in this case, I didn’t want the loss of progress that would come from a new subject.”
Zarah stared out at the field, fingernails digging into her palms. Every word out of the woman’s mouth made her sick to her stomach, and it was all she could do not to scream, or attack her, or both.
“Subjects,” she said quietly. “Meaning people.”
“Well, yes. Was that not clear? My apologies, then.”
They seemed to be heading towards the edge of the school grounds, in a different direction to the one the students had gone in. That was some small comfort, at least, knowing they weren’t likely to run into them again.
“P- Tierron, he was finding you people.”
“Yes, precisely. Those who wouldn’t be missed, ideally, but I mostly left that part up to his discretion, which, in hindsight, was a mistake. It was my belief he had certain predilections outside of that, but at the start of our agreement, it was with the understanding that they would take the place of those. Sadly, it seems that they were in addition instead, and I take responsibility for the oversight.”
“So that only the right kind of people you are killing,” Zarah spat.
“Ah, I think you’ve maybe misinterpreted me there. By that, I don’t mean homeless people as a category – only those who were likely to perish anyway, as well as others whose deaths I judged would not incite much attention or care.” Her lips curled up in distaste. “Mr. Mehrvitz was one such example; far too fond of betting on dogfights, that man.”
“..why do you care?”
“I dislike unnecessary suffering,” she answered frankly. “I dislike unnecessary anything, really.”
“So the torturing to death was necessary?”
“It was not torture,” Metzin snapped. “The intent was not to cause or extend pain, and I administered as high a dose of painkillers as possible without disrupting the integrity of the experiments.”
“That is…” Zarah growled, waving her hands incoherently. “Animal talk. ‘As high as possible’ is not ‘enough’.”
“…I assume you mean ‘weasel words’?”
“That is what I said, stop deflecting. They were in pain.”
“Not in pain,” Metzin said curtly. “There was pain, but-”
“Stop!” Zarah yelled, coming to a stop. Metzin halted a few steps ahead of her, turning to face her with an inscrutable expression. “Just stop! You are correct this, ‘actually’ that, and act like you are okay because of it! You took people without them wanting, and did painful experiments on them, and it is not suddenly okay because you are not thinking of it as ‘torture’!”
She was outside the shelter of the umbrella again, and a few stands of wet hair had fallen in front of her face as the rain drummed against her skull.
Metzin stared at her for a few moments, completely silent, gears churning behind her eyes. Zarah tensed, bracing herself for the fight she’d just started.
“…you’re right,” Metzin said slowly.
Zarah blinked. She hadn’t been expecting that. “…what?”
“You’re right,” Metzin repeated. “You’re absolutely right. The semantics don’t change the actions and the results, and it was small-minded of me to act like they did. You have my apologies.”
“…that is not sounding like you regret it.”
“Oh, I regret many things. Tierron’s involvement, as I said already. Early methods that were unproductive and unnecessarily brutal. Too many others to count. But… yes. I still believe in what I’m doing, and I would do it again.”
She gestured, and Zarah cautiously followed as they started moving once more.
“Which is being… what, exactly?”
Metzin’s eyes sparked with real and genuine excitement, the most emotion Zarah had seen from her so far.
“Progress,” she said. “Not just the interminable crawl of incremental improvement, but a genuine, unalloyed breakthrough. Subject One contradicts everything we know about ghostlight. Circumventing post-generative inertia could revolutionise dozens of industries. And genuine functioning biological infusion? I can’t even begin to imagine the things the medical profession could do with that.”
“…am I supposed to be knowing any of that meanings.”
Metzin frowned, her stride thrown off. “Ah, yes. You’re a local, aren’t you. I won’t say the Chival’s little enclave hasn’t been useful for me, but it can be frustrating as well.”
Chival… didn’t Remy mention that name? She didn’t think she’d get a productive answer if she asked Metzin about it.
“Suffice to say,” Metzin continued, “that if I am successful, the world will be made drastically better in almost every way.”
“And if you are not, you will have killed many people for no reason.”
“Nothing is without risk,” she said, almost breezily, and Zarah saw red for a moment, before getting herself under control.
It didn’t slip Metzin’s gaze, though. “I take it you disagree?”
“…it is not maths,” Zarah hissed. “There is no… it is…” She growled, frustrated. “It has been,” she said slowly, “the longest day. I am tired, I am hating this language, and I am not arguing whether murder is bad with a psychopath.”
“Well, I can’t say I was particularly eager to be lectured on morality by a homeless teenager, so I suppose I see your point.” Metzin came to a stop, and Zarah belatedly realised that they’d arrived at the wall at the edge of the school grounds. “Still, we’ll hopefully have plenty of time to talk about it in the future.”
She raised one hand towards the wall, and Zarah felt a hint of that same pressure she’d experienced from Remy on the rooftop as Metzin began to glow with blacklight. Planes of red ghostlight began to materialise, sliding into place as if emerging from some unseen compartment, and quickly formed a staircase up and over the wall.
“…’in the future’?” Zarah asked warily.
“Mm.” Metzin turned back to her. “This is the situation. Usually, I’d take this attention as a sign to move on; leave the country and cover my tracks.”
‘Usually’. How many times has she done this?
“But,” she continued, “I believe we have a unique opportunity on our hands here.”
“We?” Zarah asked flatly.
“We. You see, as it currently stands, I can’t continue my experiments without new subjects. You-” and she gestured out, back towards the school, “-weren’t willing to allow the unfortunate results of that to continue. Which, again, I commend you for. But, in doing so, you’ve also removed my ability to continue working.” She extended the hand holding the umbrella, and a pole with a clasp on top rose up from the ground beside her, wrapping around the umbrella’s handle and holding it up. She brought both hands together, clasping them at her front. “I propose that the problems are each others’ solutions.”
“You…” Zarah understood what she was proposing. She didn’t want to, but she did. “You want me to kill people for you.”
“No,” Metzin snapped, annoyed. “Killing is the last thing I want you to do. I want you to find people for me. Alive. The killing was all Tierron, believe me – I have absolutely no interest in your dirtying your hands like that.”
“Because what?! I am not unguilty by handing them over to you! They still die!”
Metzin sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose with two fingers. “One, I’d say there’s a significant difference considering you’re not killing them, yes. And two, your whole issue with this was the moral scruple, so I’m giving you an opportunity to remove that from the equation.”
“I don’t care who it is,” Metzin explained slowly. “You obviously have enough base moral fibre that I can trust you won’t make inhumane decisions. But apart from that, I leave it to your discretion. Find people that you believe the world would be better without, and I won’t question your judgement. You’re obviously talented; industrious and discreet, based on the events of the last week, and if necessary I can provide funds and equipment to make your job easier.”
Something warm rose up unbidden in Zarah at the praise, followed immediately by a wave of bile and loathing, both regular and self-.
She stared at Metzin flatly.
“I’d offer you more time to consider it,” the woman offered, seemingly sincere, “but we’re unfortunately on something of a time limit here.”
“And the other?” Zarah asked slowly, even though she already knew the answer.
“‘Other’… oh, the alternative?” She shrugged one shoulder again, in that oddly-dismissive manner Zarah had already started to notice as a pattern. “I could make some euphemistic statement about tying up loose ends, but seeing as we’re both making an effort to speak more clearly… The alternative is that I kill you, yes.”
Hearing it said out loud made it real, and to Zarah it felt like the temperature around them had dropped slightly. Metzin was once again giving off an indefinable pressure, but only very slightly, and she had no trouble ignoring it as she adjusted her grip on the hammer.”
“You try to kill me,” she corrected.
“Mm,” Metzin acknowledged. “I suppose that’s a possibility, yes. What will it be then?”
Zarah took a second – not to consider, just to gather herself.
“I hate myself, that you would even think I could say yes.”
Metzin considered that, then nodded.
“Shame,” she said, then filled the air with crimson.
Zarah was already moving to the side, and so the whirring buzzsaws that materialised out of thin air only drew gashes from her side and leg instead of slicing her into pieces. She kicked off the ground and changed directions just in time to dodge another one, moving towards Metzin and batting more spinning blades aside, but the other woman was already rising off the ground on a pillar of red ghostlight.
Zarah launched herself after her, a spray of mud shooting outwards from the force of her leap. She soared upwards, overtaking Metzin just before the peak of her arc, and had just begun to fall when an I-beam materialised in the air, already shooting towards her.
She let out a vicious curse, and in a motion that she couldn’t have explained if she’d tried, twisted in the air as the beam shot by. In the instant they were aligned, she managed to get her feet on it and push off, granting her some additional momentum as the beam went spinning off-course.
She saw Metzin’s eyes widen fractionally, and an instant later, three more beams were shooting towards her. These ones, though, came slightly staggered and at different angles and alignments. Even if Zarah had been able to replicate the movement, their arrangement would’ve prevented it from working, and so she didn’t bother. Instead, she switched her grip on the hammer, and in the instant before the first beam impacted with her torso, threw it like a spear, head-first.
It had barely left her hand when she was flung backwards, the pain along her torso and stomach more bludgeoning than she’d grown used to. The one benefit of the beams being arranged as they were was that instead of spearing through her, it was the length of it that hit, deflecting her off to the side as she tumbled downwards.
The impact moments later was enough to knock her out completely. Only for a few seconds (and wasn’t it just spectacular that she was getting experienced at knowing how long she’d been unconscious) but it turned out to be a few seconds too long. She opened her eyes to a bright red light, and had just enough time to process that it was a giant block of ghostlight before it impacted.
She screamed, raw and anguished, as her torso and legs were crushed into the ground, the pain outpacing her capacity to suppress it. Worse, she could already feel the flesh starting to knit back together, but being unable to do so while the block was still there.
The pain faded quickly, at least, but the disconcerting sensations remained as the sound of footsteps drew closer. Zarah twisted her neck around to see Metzin trudging up, carrying her hammer. She appeared unharmed, but there was a deep tear in her shirt, presumably from Zarah’s spear-throw, and mud was splattered up to the knees of her pants.
Metzin stopped just to the side of her and hefted the hammer in both hands, saying nothing all the while. For one terrifying moment, Zarah had a vision of the hammer’s head hurtling down towards her skull, but then Metzin swung it sideways instead, straight into the side of the block.
With a sound like ringing steel, the hammer shattered into a thousand tiny fragments, raining down onto Zarah’s face like glass. With nothing holding it up anymore, the makeshift grip Zarah had fashioned came unravelled and fell limply to the ground next to her face.
“Hm,” Metzin said, more to herself than anything, “sloppy. Must’ve…” Her gaze flickered over to Zarah. “Ah, no, I see. Okay.”
For whatever reason, Zarah had been expecting… something. A speech, some taunts, another offer, maybe. She’d gotten too used to Paose and his bloviating, so it took her off guard when Metzin simply, silently, raised her hand.
The block disappeared, and for an instant, Zarah thought she’d been given an opportunity. And, maybe if she was fresh, it could’ve been one – she’d started stockpiling her own ghostlight as soon as she was conscious, and perhaps that would’ve been enough to throw Metzin off.
But she was tired, and sore, and slow, and so Metzin got her construct off first.
A cage of red light, completely solid, appeared around Zarah, a bare instant before she detonated her ghostlight. Desperately, she tried to hold it back, but it tore straight through her control, and then straight through her, as the walls of light contained and magnified the explosion.
Ears ringing and vision blurry, it took her a moment to register that the box had started to grow smaller, pressing her in. Not fast, but not slow either – just a steady encroachment, like a trash compactor. She tried to brace her legs against one side and her back against the other, but with so many injuries, she didn’t even have the strength to keep them from bowing as the walls closed in.
Through the translucent red, she could see Metzin’s face staring down at her, that same blank expression on her face. Zarah couldn’t, wouldn’t, let that be the last thing she saw in her life-
And, as if in answer to her prayers, something slammed into Metzin from the side, sending her flying out of Zarah’s field of view.
The box immediately stopped contracting, and Zarah released her pent-up breath. She hadn’t been able to see what had hit Metzin, but it had looked large. It almost looked like a tiger, or-
There was a knock on the box, and Zarah twisted her face around to see the smiling face of Remy Auclair.
-or a very large dog