“That’s not a happy face, huh?”
Margot glanced up, expression neutral. “What- ah. Sarcasm, I see. Because I never have a happy face.”
Fiona dropped herself into the chair next to Margot, grinning easily. “Well, look at you! You really can teach an old dog new tricks!”
“Hm. Maybe they’ll be able to teach you not to call me old, then.”
“You are old.”
“I’m older, not old. And, as I constantly remind you, only by two years.”
“Older is older!”
“And wiser, to follow the sayings.”
“Well, can’t argue with that.” Fiona settled back in her chair, draping one arm loosely over the back. “What’cha working on?”
Margot set down her pen, closing the notebook she’d been writing in. “Nothing that would be of interest to you, unfortunately.”
“Aww, that’s not fair! You know I make an effort.”
“You do, and I appreciate it.” Margot patted her knee twice. “If that’s the case, then you might be interested in the fact that I am currently working on the relative extraction, saturation and regeneration rates of regional soil samples to see how different mineral contents can affect the formation of ephemeral phenomenon.”
Fiona nodded slowly. “I see.”
“Really? Repeat it back to me.”
“You’re currently working on the relative extraction, saturation and… regeneration rates of… soil samples, to see how different…” She trailed off.
Margot patted her knee again. “You know, that was actually better than you’ve done in the past.”
“Hey,” Fiona grinned, “go me. I’ll be doing a thesis in no time.”
Margot didn’t smile, but Fiona had known her long enough to read the amusement in her eyes. “Let’s leave that hypothesis untested for now.”
“Fine by me.” Fiona stood, and Margot gave her a once-over. “Like what you see?” Fiona drawled, faux-seductively.
“Are you going somewhere?” Margot asked, completely blowing past the innuendo. “You aren’t normally dressed before lunch.”
“First of all, ouch. Second of all… I kinda thought we could go out, go to the park, get some food, but if you’re busy…”
Margot glanced back at her work, considering. She was busy; ‘in the zone’, as Fiona would sometimes call it. Her instinct was to agree, and make plans some other time, but their last argument had been about how Fiona felt like she was always the second priority to her work. Margot knew she tended to be oblivious, but even she could recognise something that obvious.
“I think it might be a good time to take a break, actually,” she said, standing up as well. “Where were you thinking for lunch?”
Fiona grinned hesitantly. “…you sure? You’re not gonna… fall behind, or something?”
“Oh, I will,” Margot assured her, beginning to tidy away her work and so missing the way the other woman’s face briefly soured. “But I can make it up later. And, as you pointed out, it’s a beautiful day. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”
Fiona shook her head amusedly. “Ms. Metzin, you never fail to surprise me.”
Margot raised an eyebrow. “Ms. Metzin now, is it?”
“What?” Fiona teased. “Would you prefer Y-”
Margot stopped her with a finger to the lips. “You are the only person who thinks that is cute.”
“Oh, that can’t be true! It’s such a cute name!”
Margot frowned. “Only old women and politicians are called Yanis. Do I look like either of those to you?”
Fiona smirked, and went to answer, but a deep, heavy cough interrupted her. She turned her head to the side, covering her mouth with her elbow as the fit slowly petered off.
“Are you okay?” Margot asked.
“Ah, fine,” Fiona replied, voice hoarse. “No need to stress.”
Margot glanced down at the sleeve she’d coughed into, and found it speckled with blood. “Fiona…”
“Seriously, don’t worry about it. We both know I’ve got another couple of months yet.”
Margot frowned. “Yes, of course… it’s only that I thought…” She glanced around, and for the first time, noticed the surroundings. “We weren’t living here when I was doing my thesis, I’m sure of it. And the blood didn’t come until later. When we’d moved to the Rheinwald.” Margot glanced at the clock, and found it indecipherable. “I’m dreaming, I think.”
Fiona grimaced. “Ah. You sure?”
“Yes.” She opened her notebooks and showed them to the other woman. “I can’t read any of this.”
“Hey, I can never read any of it anyway.”
“…goodbye, Fiona,” she sighed, and woke up.
Yanis Margot Metzin came to, and found herself face-down on her desk in the dark.
With a low groan, she sat upright, rubbing at the eye that had been squished against the desk and was now all gummy. The disorientation wasn’t as bad as it usually was – if she realised she was dreaming before it ended, it usually helped her reassert her sense of reality.
The deep sense of loss and longing, on the other hand, was just as bad. Worse, perhaps, because she was more likely to forget a dream that ended without her becoming lucid. Dreams like the one she’d just had… tended to stick around.
She growled in frustration, shaking her head as she sat upright, as if the physical motion could jar out all the miserable emotion.
A glance at the window told her it was night – not particularly a problem, as she’d been nocturnal more often than not in the almost-decade since leaving Gaithe. Her sleep schedule was still a little disturbed, though – moving her various resources out of Kaila had involved interacting with a number of other people during daylight hours, necessitating that she adjust accordingly.
It had taken the better part of the two months that had passed since the incident at the school, but she considered it the better part of valour. The unfortunate necessity of maintaining a functioning and unsuspicious ‘normal’ life meant that she had to do things like hand in a resignation notice to her work, end her lease, pay her bills in full. The job at Aruspex had been nothing more than a means to an end – they regularly managed the finances of companies who imported and exported certain materials she required – but there was no sense in burning a bridge unless it was necessary. It rankled, giving up that avenue, but she could no longer afford to be publicly accessible, at least until her current pursuers were dealt with.
She stood, slow and sore, and trudged over to turn the lights on. Falling asleep on her work had been a life-long occurrence for her, but she couldn’t bounce back from it the way she used to – her neck and lower back both felt stiff and painful when she moved, and the fluorescent lights stabbed into her eyes when they turned on.
Fiona had always made fun of her for that, the way she refused to use blacklight to smooth away her aches and pains, but Yanis had never changed her stance. The spectrochroma was a tool, to be used only when necessary. It was the same reason she chose to age – mortality was too precious a thing to waste.
The new workspace was smaller than her one in Kaila had been, and less spacious – some of her notes and records had to remain in their boxes, piled up against the walls. A workbench was built into the back wall, spanning the entire width of the room and continuing around the northmost corner to create an ‘L’ shape. She’d only finished getting all of the equipment installed, organised and functioning the day before, and had just begun transferring the pen-and-paper work she’d been doing in the interim when she’d drifted off.
Now that she thought of it, that factor probably explained the dream’s specific contents to a degree. She’d always had a preference for physical materials, not just because of the added security; pencil and paper simply made it easier to organise her work in a way that reflected how it appeared in her brain. Fiona had-
Yanis smacked herself in the side of the head, hard. Enough! Wallowing in her own misery achieved nothing, especially when she had already lost valuable time and progress.
As if to remind her, a low snuffling noise came from the next room over, plaintive and confused.
“It’s okay, Bernard,” she called out, voice hoarse with sleep. “I’m coming.”
In his pen, Bernard was standing upright, head darting around in foggy confusion.
He was an old stag, wiry and gristly and unfit for eating. From all accounts, he had a good life, which was now nearing its end, and so they had been quite happy to sell him off to Yanis with an assurance that he would not suffer unduly.
“Shh,” Yanis said softly, stroking a hand over his head in gentle, repetitive motions. “It’s okay, Bernard. It’s alright.”
Slowly, the pig relaxed, settling back down. She’d always been better with animals than people, and hadn’t quite managed to harden her heart to them the same way she had humans. Bernard had eaten a luxurious meal, painkillers and anaesthetic discretely mixed, and now he drifted off for what would likely be the last time.
Yanis sat with him, petting the pig and murmuring gentle nonsense as his breathing slowed and his small eyes drifted shut. After a few minutes, she shook him gently, and found him unresponsive.
“Goodbye, Bernard,” Yanis said quietly. “I wish you could know that you’re helping to make the world a better place.”
It had been a while, since she’d worked with animals instead of humans. Once she’d moved to human trials, there had been little point in backtracking. Now, though, that people knew her name and her face, a greater degree of caution was required, and her previous methods could be used to track her.
Besides that, the encounter with the girl and her allies in Kaila had sparked something in her brain, a slightly different branch of experimentation, and she was not going to use untested theory in a human trial.
She took a breath, focused, and drew on the blacklight.
The familiar feeling washed over her, aches and pains being wiped away as she reached down to draw essence out of the ground below her. Dangerously seductive as always, the lack of pain. When she judged she’d accumulated a sufficient amount, she placed a hand gently on Bernard’s leg and closed her eyes.
It was odd, how easily something that had taken her years to figure out now came naturally, without conscious thought. The trick, she’d learned, was to do with visualisation more than anything else. It was a fact that had frustrated her to no end in early stages of her work – she was not a particularly visual person, after all, and preferred clean, discrete data. But that was always the way, with the spectrochroma, and she’d long since made her peace with acquiring new skills.
Instead of externalising the essence into ghostlight, as she would otherwise, she carefully extruded it through her hand. The skin-to-skin contact was essential – any sort of gap would cause the essence to materialise to some degree, in the same way certain materials would instantly oxidise when exposed to the atmosphere. Moving directly from living flesh to living flesh kept the essence in its etherial form, which was necessary for the next phase to have any chance of success.
As Yanis slowly, carefully saturated the limb, Bernard occasionally twitched or snorted slightly. Whenever it happened, she gently petted his head, like before, lulling him back into unconsciousness. Yanis was given to understand that the process was quite painful, but unlike certain types of pain, such as damage to a shade, anaesthetics had proven to dull the sensation effectively.
Achieving optimal saturation took about ten minutes of continuous work, and Yanis was sweating by the end of it from the mental strain. Carefully, she placed her left hand on the leg, and once she felt confident in a complete seal, removed the right hand. Once again, visualisation was important. The next step required a great deal of mental automation on her part, like driving a car or playing a musical instrument, and so in this case, separating the different parts of the procedure by body part enabled her to more easily switch her approach.
The particular visual Yanis had settled one, one that elided the bevy of complicated and precise work she had learned to do subconsciously, was not unlike fish scales – a tiny, shimmering web of overlapping, miniscule shards. That was the reason the essence had to stay in its etherial form – it allowed a degree of flexibility in the physical construction that actualised ghostlight, or even physically-manifested essence, simply couldn’t. In essence, she needed to create a colloid, not unlike ferrofluid, using the unformed essence as the suspending medium for the tiny flakes of half-formed ghostlight – with the additional caveat of being dispersed through the flesh and muscle of the limb, rather than occupying a physical space.
Needless to say, it was fiendishly complex. To an outside observer, it would have seemed like Yanis sat in the small pen for almost two hours, completely motionless, sweat dripped down her brow. Only careful observation would have revealed the shifting inconsistencies in the corona of blacklight around her, and the faintest of red glows leaking out from underneath the palm of her hand.
Completion, when it came, was not a single moment but rather a slow winding-down – the variation in her corona becoming less intense, the glow fading, the strain in her face lessening – until, finally, she took a deep breath and relaxed as it winked out entirely.
Bernard moaned and shifted slightly, obviously sensing that something had changed even through the sedation. That was a good sign – in past iterations, she’d taken excruciating effort to make sure that the dermal armour had connections to the nerves, in order to provide sense feedback. This time, though, she’d made no such effort, so to see some response anyway was promising.
Of course, it would require further testing.
She stood, brushing off her thighs, and pulled a small recording device out of one pocket, turning it on and placing it on a nearby table.
“Iteration 342,” she said out loud. “Subject: standard male boar of Amethin stock, sedated. Standard subdermal mesh, no nervous system interlinkage.”
She held a hand out to the side, and began to glow with blacklight once more. There was nothing unique or complicated about her work this time. For the briefest of instants, faint red lines traced an outline in the air, then snapped into existence. The spaces between the lines filled with red ghostlight, and a large sledgehammer, identical to the one the girl had appropriated, fell into her waiting hand.
“Ideal responses are haptic feedback and force distribution,” she said, taking the hammer in both hands. She brought the head up close to her own, and rested it against her forehead for a moment, eyes closed.
“I will not allow this to be in vain,” she swore quietly.
Then, she opened her eyes.
“Testing begins,” Yanis Metzin said, and the hammer swung down.