Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
~ Lines from The Tiger (William Blake)
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day
In a vision, or in none
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep
While I weep – while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
~ Lines from A Dream Within a Dream (Edgar Allan Poe)
He had fallen asleep in the Water Room, lulled by the sight of the wind on the lake and the sound of the fountain that ran in intricate patterns down the interior wall. Between the fountain and the windows, a stout low divan sprawled, taking up most of the room. Otto was stretched out in the center of it, unconcerned about wrinkling his suit pants and white linen shirt.
The gentlest touch on his shoulder woke him. Balfour stood there, nervous, but dutiful.
The tentacles helped him sit up. “Is Ms. Dryden here?” he asked, hands moving to make the question understood. The man nodded. “I assume Mr. Rucker has gone to meet her?” Another nod.
Otto stood and looked out the window over the expanse of Lake Michigan. He preferred the west side windows that showed the city but the water was soothing. Rosie would have loved this room.
Why had he never thought to do this before? Bypass the need for investors, especially spoiled and vengeful young men without wit enough to understand what his work could mean? He used his intellect for the good of mankind, yes – but a byproduct of that effort was wealth.
Yet Rosie never cared for that. She loved our life and home as it was.
As he left the room and entered the front foyer where the elevator doors waited, he heard Tchaikovsky playing softly in the dining room – and into this serene beauty, the elevator deposited a creature of leather, piercings, and body art.
The girl hung back until Rucker stepped out and ushered her into the foyer with him. She wore pink-tinted plastic sunglasses, and continually cracked her gum. Her gloves were on, as was the scarf, but the jacket had been traded for a black leather duster which was buttoned over her heavy boots.
She stared at him, and then at their surroundings, in shock. “Saw this building on the Science Channel. They didn’t say anything about this.”
“Welcome.” Otto smiled. “Balfour will have lunch for us in half an hour. Would you like a drink?”
“I’m underage, you know. You’d be breaking the law.” Her lips stretched in a smirk.
“I’ve broken a lot worse.” He led her to the western city side and watched as she gaped at the view. “Whiskey? Wine?”
“Screwdriver, neat.” She kept back from the window, and turned in time to see him signing her request to his servant. “He’s deaf?”
“Yes, and mute.”
“So no one can hear me scream later, once the stiff leaves?”
Otto glanced at Rucker and said, “He doesn’t trust you.” The lawyer and president didn’t comment. He stood under the arch and glowered at the girl. Otto added with a raised eyebrow, “He is also a busy man.”
Rucker turned his glare on Otto before he left, sweeping past Balfour as he brought their drinks, and went back to work. In moments, they were alone.
The girl watched him with a wary steely gaze, sipping her drink with the same practiced ease with which she’d used the slang terms to order it.
She pulled the scarf from her neck and draped it over the plush dark leather couch against the wall. Silver lines that might be mistaken for a thin lace necklace wove in patterns around the skin of her neck. The rectangular patch of metal on her forehead appeared to be some sort of micro machinery and must have been harder to pass off as jewelry – or anything else.
Keeping a tight hold on the other voices in his head, he took his whiskey to the stool and sat down.
His guest unbuttoned her coat and slipped it off, dropping it over the scarf before perching on the edge of the couch.
“Hell of a bachelor pad, Doc.”
Otto ignored the comment. “I’d very much like to know why you chose to masquerade as my wife last night.”
“I thought you wanted to talk hardware.”
“Next order of business. Answer me.”
“I told you. I was trying to help.”
Toying with her glass, she rolled it between her gloved hands. The gloves stopped at her wrists and the silver and gray metal showed in thick cords up her arms. Patterns of a black metal disappeared into the sleeves of her t-shirt. The pants were skin-tight leather, laced up the outside. Through the laces, more metal was visible.
“I don’t recall asking for your help.”
“Still needed it, though. You’re a mess, Doc.”
“You should know this now – if you are caught in my mind again, I will do my best to kill you in a way that allows me to study your enhancements undamaged.”
“Guess I’ll have to avoid getting caught, then.” She took a drink and then stared openly at the tentacles. Three of them were watching her as the other remained firmly placed on the floor behind him. “I don’t think they like me.”
“They are telling me to kill you,” he said with a calm and casual tone. “They don’t share my curiosity about your condition.”
The tentacles were about five inches thick and appeared to be six feet long at the moment, though Rooke had seen them telescoping past twenty feet the night before. They were black with a line of yellow along the ridged edges. The design was obviously utilitarian, meant for some specific function – but the sentience gave them a sinister look. The same could be said of their master. Or were they the masters?
“There’s a mutant, looks like she fell off your family tree, except all of her arms are human. She took pity on me – or maybe I was just an interesting experiment. Either way, she offered to fix me. I’d been paralyzed since I was eleven and ready to try anything.” She looked away from him. “Spiral kept her word. She made me walk again and a lot more besides but I can’t tell you how she did it, what she used, anything. It works – that’s all I know.”
“Can you contact this person?”
“Sometimes she can hear you if you say her name – but she’s never answered me. I’m finished product, old news. Plus, she isn’t exactly a local girl.” She sighed at his questioning look. “Spiral’s a dimension-hopper and this one isn’t her home territory.”
“I see – an uncommon problem. You have limited knowledge of your condition, then … little idea of what you’re capable of?”
“I know a lot about it, from experience. It repairs itself and makes me pretty hard to damage for long. It gives me abilities to sense motion around me, too.”
“Was that function in peak condition last night?” His smile wasn’t nice.
“I sensed you coming fine. Just didn’t move quick enough. How fast are those things, anyway?”
“Ninety feet per second.” Her host rose. “Lunch is ready.”
Rooke watched him move, fascinated. The tentacles lifted around him as he went down the hall. He seemed solid enough. Why did they often help him walk?
In the formal dining room, Rooke was caught between ecstasy over the food and a self-conscious fear that she was committing massive improprieties with her lack of table manners. She wasn’t sure how many of the forks she was expected to use, so she worked through them all.
He studied her throughout the meal but she knew it was the cybernetics that held his attention. It made her feel like a talking doll. Once, she tried to slip a telepathic probe into his thoughts but it struck a barrier and shattered. His expression never changed. Had he noticed?
After lunch, she was shown what he called the Water Room. Stunned, she couldn’t comment.
“We would like the opportunity to study this alloy. Painlessly, of course. You’d be welcome to stay here.”
“Long enough for you to figure out whether or not it’s worth it to peel me? What do I get out of this?”
“You might learn much more about the nature and abilities of your enhancements, as well as the ramifications of the symbiotic bonding.”
Rooke blinked at him. “Speak English.”
“I can tell you what it may be doing to you and what it’s capable of doing for you.”
She didn’t know about that. Odds were, he’d take the first opportunity to strap her to a chair and yank it all out for some creepy experiment of his own.
Looking out over the lake and around the room, a slow smile spread on her lips.
Can I do better than this? Still, the risk has to have more compensations than just a five-star vacation with Dr. Frankenstein. “Would you answer my questions? About you?”
“Depending on the questions.”
Rooke watched him closely. “I shouldn’t trust you farther than I could throw you – and that’s farther than you might think, Doc.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
She let her eyes travel down his body and back up to his handsome cold face. It could be fun. “Hell with it. Count me in.”
“If you require anything, write it down for Balfour. You may sleep here.”
“Where’s your room?”
“On a lower level and far less appealing. Now if you’re satisfied that I don’t plan to murder you outright, I will show you the lab and get started on some preliminary tests.”
~ ~ ~
The lab was distinctly over her head. She recognized the computer but the rest of the equipment was unknown. The confusing tangle of hardware sprawled through most of the sub-basement level, with the exception of a small bedroom she had noticed to the right of the elevator and an impressive wine cellar to the left.
Rooke was sitting in a chair next to a mind-boggling machine, with electrodes taped to her temples and over her heart. Her coat, scarf and gloves had been left upstairs. Ock was fiddling with dials and supposedly reading the data that had flooded the display screen.
“What do I call you?” she asked.
“Dr. Octavius will suffice.”
“Too long. I’d forget my question half-way through. I’ll just call you ‘Doc’.” She smirked at his frown. “So, Doc – am I human?”
“This metal has infiltrated your brain. Somehow, it entered without causing massive trauma and stimulated your spinal cord and cerebellum, bypassing damage to both rather than fixing it, and allowing them not only to operate but to function more efficiently. I assume it is behaving in a similar manner in limbs and digits, allowing you full restoration of movement. I am not a medical doctor or a neurologist, but the theory is certainly born out by your abilities.” He picked up her hand, inspected the black stone in the palm, and then turned it over, releasing it. “Move your fingers?” She did. “Can you perform delicate finger movements without difficulty?”
Rooke grinned. “Yep. Some of ‘em to grand effect.”
He ignored her attempt at ribald humor. “Then the basal ganglia must be affected as well.”
“I’m inclined to borrow the local hospital’s MRI. Unfortunately, I can’t borrow a neurologist. Perhaps I should hire one.” His fingers touched her left temple. “Did you experience any deterioration in homo-superior ability after the procedure?”
“Doc, I’m getting tired of saying ‘huh’. What the hell are you asking me?”
“Your mutant talents – did they weaken afterward?”
“I don’t know. My telepathy is weaker than the dream-spinning but I didn’t use it as much once I could walk around, anyway.”
“From what I know of such abilities, I believe this fascinating metal is probably suppressing them considerably.”
“Not a problem. It’s enough to get by and I’m happier walking.”
He picked up her hands again and turned them palm up. “What caused the scarring?”
Rooke stared at the criss-crossing ugly stitches of scar tissue across her wrists. “Some days I’m less happy.”
~ ~ ~
She sat watching the moonlit waters of the lake. Since most of what he’d said all day hadn’t made sense to her, she had occupied herself with studying him and his metal assistants. Watching them operate machines around them and hand him tools had fascinated her.
Their hostility had slacked off, too. Had he told them to leave her be? She could feel their thoughts now and then, if he was busy with other things. The closest guess she had on their new attitude was curiosity.
Ock stood by the glass but his eyes were on her. “I need a sample to test its mineral components.”
Rooke ignored the question and asked her own. “Could those things have killed Spider-Man?”
“I never got the chance to find out.”
“Can they be cut?”
“The tentacles, spine, and harness are titanium coated with Adamantium. I haven’t attempted to put them to such a test but in theory, nothing can cut Adamantium. They are impervious to heat and magnetism. Submersion in water isn’t good for them, though they have proved able to survive in it, long enough – as well as enduring electrical shock.”
The girl’s image invaded his dreams but he didn’t know if it was a natural dream or her first defiance of his threat. She made no attempt to masquerade as his wife and the flow of the images followed the day’s events without much embellishment.
Otto woke in the morning feeling a vague longing. He knew the dream of Rosalie wasn’t real but it had felt real enough. He lay in bed and called to mind a hundred memories of their fifteen year marriage. Her laughter, the way the sun could turn her brunette hair chestnut, and the melting expression of love that would come over her when he regaled others with the tale of how they’d met. His mind slowly filled with her voice reading Horace, Elliot, or Thoreau, trying to explain the intricacies of each.
A stanza from Charlotte Brontë’s poem about the death of her sister slid into his thoughts. ‘There’s little joy in life for me, and little terror in the grave; I’ve lived the parting hour to see of one I would have died to save.’
In the past two years, he had come to understand that poem very well – but the minds that drove him on hadn’t allowed him to die. Not in the river, when he’d destroyed his reactor, and not in the weeks that followed when he had sought death more than once, unable to imagine how to live without his wife.
Yet when he’d touched Rosie in the dream – believing she had come to absolve him, to give him solace – he had felt truly alive again. If only he could still believe it had been real.
~ ~ ~
Rooke stood by his chair as he dealt with his board members that morning. He wondered how much of the meeting she understood. It didn’t matter, of course – she already knew the only secret he cared to keep.
Mr. Fung had the floor. “Cyberkinetic Neurotech has requested our help in modifying the silicon chip for their neural interface system. Did you want to take that on, sir?”
“This is the interface allowing quadriplegics to use computers via brain power, correct?”
“Yes, Mr. Ollre.”
Otto turned to Rooke. “A worthy cause?”
“Sure,” she answered, sounding mystified.
“Proceed,” he said to the microphone in front of the monitor. “Get Harris on it initially and I will look it over myself later in the week.”
“Yes, sir.” He sorted through his notes.
“In addition, Mr. Fung, ask our friends at Cyberkinetic if they can recommend a competent neurologist for our in-house medical staff. Khan Ng should know them all by now and I trust his judgment. Thinking of that, requisition an MRI for our doctors.”
Several faces looked curious but no one questioned him.
“I’ll get right on it, Mr. Ollre.” He pulled another sheet from his notes. “There’s only one more piece of new business. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital needs assistance in designing a smaller imaging unit for their fMRI, and they wanted to ask you about a higher magnetic field strength – for the 3 Tesla scanner.”
“Certainly. That I will see to personally. Please convey the message to Dr. Krone that he should give me a month and then contact me for a progress update. It should be well in hand by then. If that is all, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll leave you to it.”
“Thank you, sir,” Fung answered.
Rucker had been silent through most of the meeting. No doubt he’d have to reassure the man more than once that his guest wasn’t a threat to the company.
“What’s an fMRI?” Rooke asked as he was turning off the monitor.
“Functional magnetic resonance imaging.”
“Which, translated, means…”
Otto smiled. “Dr. Krone is using magnetic fields to take high resolution images of areas of the brain, to aid in a genius surgical removal of previously inoperable tumors. The images map nerve fibers and allow him to determine if an operation is safe to attempt when a high risk of permanent paralysis is present. His blend of radiological technology and surgical techniques will potentially be able to save thousands of lives.”
“So you’re helping for the heck of it? What, no all-consuming plot to take over the world keeping you busy?”
“Power is useful only as it serves one’s needs. In this place, I have enough of it to suit mine. More would threaten my anonymity, which would undoubtedly threaten my life. As for helping people like Mr. Ng and Dr. Krone, they can afford the services of this company and the work they do is worthwhile.”
She frowned. “I never had Alpha class talent but if I did, I’d at least want to own Australia or something.”
Otto faced her with his hands on his knees. “You seem possessed of a native intelligence. Perhaps you can understand that all I’ve ever wanted was to improve the lot of the world, not own it.”
“Sure, I get that – but my fifth grade education got severed by one of the brand name baddies on a ‘my way or the highway’ kick. Telepathy and snitched knowledge enable me to pretend I know anything. Ever since I got my body back, I’ve figured the world owes me some payback. It can divvy up in power and cash.”
“I told another young person once that intelligence was a gift, to be used for the good of mankind. Your abilities could be useful in that respect as well.”
“Spare me, Doctor Octopus. Have you looked at your rap sheet lately? Don’t try to play good guy with me. Not after you batted me across an alley just for trying to use my gift to help somebody.”
“Touché. Though I fail to see how you were helping me.”
“I’m no therapist, okay? That quack Xavier said I could help people if I cared to learn how. He talked a lot like you, come to think of it. I expected different from a guy who repeatedly trashed New York trying to swat a bug. Thing is, you’re stuck on that woman’s death. You can’t get past it and it’s eating you up inside. All I wanted to do was let you hear that it was okay, you were forgiven.”
Otto stiffened. “That woman’s name is Rosalie Octavius, whom I have loved longer than you’ve been alive.” He rose and stalked out of the room, tentacles coiled and threatening, reflecting his emotions. “Speak of her with respect or not at all.”
He left her sitting there and went down to the lab. Staring at his unfinished work, his tattered dream, he felt his anger boil away, transforming into a darker and more dangerous mood.
No. / There is / too much / left to do.
“When it’s finished – what then?” His head sank into his hands. “Can we finally be at peace then?”
We do not wish to end. / There is peace, a solace. / Upstairs. / Yes.
Otto opened his eyes and stared around at them. “That child could be our answer to the fuel source. It is the only reason for her presence here – and I think I liked it better when you wanted her dead.”
She can be / what you / want. / She can be Her.
“No.” He shook his head. “You can’t understand – and why the sudden change?”
You changed / and we are affected. / Distraction halts the work. / We find a solution.
~ ~ ~
The young woman paced in the lab, watched by one of his metallic arms. Two other arms were helping him set up the ball mill with an Adamantium ball, while he got the Spectrace QuanX ready for a fluorescence scan. The fourth was lending the rest balance, braced firmly on the floor behind his chair.
His guest had waited a long time to come down and seemed more subdued since his outburst. Silence stretched past his last question but as it had been phrased in simple English, he refused to repeat it.
“What did you mean by metal poisoning?”
“Lead and Adamantium, among others, can poison the body.”
“So are your arms poisoning you?”
“No. The portion of the apparatus that has entered my body is nanotech wiring, in the form of needles. It isn’t a danger. Once I’ve determined what your metal consists of, we should know if it could be harmful to you.”
“Not much I can do about it if it is. I’d rather let it kill me slow than go back to vegetating in a hospital bed. Four years of that was enough.”
“How were you injured?”
“Part of a building fell on me and my parents, on a trip to Manhattan. I caught a metal pole with my neck, courtesy of Magneto.”
“It killed your parents?” he asked, as he typed information into the scanner’s computer.
“No. They were fine. They died in Seattle a year ago.”
Otto turned to her. “The sample needn’t be sizable. I intend to crush it to powder, if at all possible. The scanner will do the rest.”
“You got something tough enough to cut it? It fixes itself pretty quick. I don’t fancy having a Philips screwdriver sticking out of my arm.”
One of his tentacles moved in front of her and popped its foot-long Adamantium spike blade. “We have something, yes.”
He held her offered left arm still and let the metal tentacle maneuver its blade in fast triangular cuts. Another tentacle’s fine pincers plucked the sample away before the cybernetics could repair the damage.
She didn’t watch the procedure, her eyes were on his face. Otto didn’t meet her gaze. He studied the movement of the metal, similar to the flow of water, as it brought the cut edges together again to reform the smooth and thick gray band that twined up her inner forearm. When he made her move the limb, it seemed to have suffered no loss of articulation.
“The cutting causes no pain?”
“Nope. Handy for you, huh?” She sat on one of the other stools near him and sighed. “I don’t really feel pain. Sometimes I almost do, but then the metal fixes it. I haven’t seen my own blood in years – just that black stuff.”
“Are you certain that isn’t blood?”
She frowned. “Thanks, Doc. I wasn’t worried enough about being a creature from the Black Lagoon.”
Otto ignored her as he turned to place the small wedge of gray metal into the ball mill. He was surprised that it could be crushed to the preferred size of <25 microns relatively easily. He loaded the powdered sample into the Spectrace QuanX’s ten position sample tray and started the scanning sequence.
“So what’s this Spock thingy doing?”
“It’s a chemical analyzer, running a qualitative analysis to identify any of the Periodic Table of Elements in the sample.”
Rooke sighed and used her boot toe to spin around slowly on her stool. She was happy he was talking to her again but as long as he was speaking Geek, she might as well be alone in the lab.
She stopped spinning when she caught a glimpse of the back plate the tentacles were attached to, through the hemmed slice up the center of his black sweater.
“Are there little motors in these things?”
“If you mean servos, no.”
“So how do you move them?”
“With my mind, through their connection to my nervous system.”
“They talk to you, too – that’s why it felt like you were using telepathy but it’s really just a weird kind of talking to yourself.”
When she reached out to touch the plate, he straightened and started to turn. Two of the tentacles swiveled around to watch her warily.
“I won’t do anything,” she protested. “I just let you cut off a bit of me, it’s only fair.”
“Convince them first or they will defend themselves,” he muttered as he watched the computer monitor. “They rarely bother to check with me before doing so.”
“Well?” she asked, holding up her hand to them as if they were shy dogs. “I won’t hurt you.” Smiling, she tried another approach. Hey. Can you hear me?
We hear / you / yes / intentions?
“Wow.” Rooke glanced at Ock, but he wasn’t paying attention to her. I’m just curious about you … and him. Do you understand?
Sweet. So – what’s the skinny? I mean, can you tell me secrets about the Doc? Nothing that might tick him off, just anything.
No. / If you speak to one / you speak to all. / We all hear.
Oh. Oh, crap. She looked up at Ock and saw him watching her, his face unreadable. “Sorry.” She shrugged. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.”
“If you are through playing around, we have your results, such as they are.”
“Cool. Shoot.” She moved her stool to a spot where she could see the monitor. One of the tentacles was close, and she touched it carefully with her palm. It didn’t react, so she allowed her fingers to curl around it. It was cold but it felt very much alive, like a ridged snake.
“It is a composite of different elemental compounds, including lanthanides, an actinide, and two components unknown to the Periodic Table. Congratulations, Miss Dryden – you are a conundrum to modern science.”
“I guess I should write this down. Got a crayon?”
His smile surprised her. It could have represented actual humor, instead of the evil smirk he usually sported. “Would you like that in English?”
“If it’s not a strain to think down to my level.”
“Not at all.” The smile flashed again. “Lanthanides are rare earth elements, found only in very small amounts. One of them, tritium, I am rather familiar with – and you possess the only remaining quantity of it on the planet. The other is samarium, in a compound with cobalt. Actinides are elements found in nuclear reactions. Yours is uranium. The others … must be ingredients available only to your mutant designer. I assume they are the factors that prevent the other elements from reacting in a negative manner.”
“Well, we know I won’t blow up if I’m bounced on my ass. You already ran that test.” She removed her hand from the tentacle as it moved behind him.
“You seem hale but the uranium could be causing all manner of health issues. It is radioactive, and especially harmful to the kidneys. Some of its sibling actinides derive from it, if it is fissioned, and they are all toxic as well. We should refrain from bombarding you with slow neutrons, in any event. The samarium-cobalt alloy, SmCo 5, is an extremely magnetic metal, possibly the cause of the fluid nature of the composite when combined with one of the unknown elements. Cobalt compounds can be toxic in large quantities, as well.”
“So what now?”
“We should get you up to the medical floor for proper testing, to determine if anything is being damaged. Balfour would have to escort you, of course. Most of my company is unaware of my identity.”
“Am I worth splitting stem to stern for my elements?” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
The doctor’s expression was thoughtful. “I can’t know that yet, without more tests. The tritium alone would make my reactor work but I haven’t yet discovered how to contain the fusion reaction indefinitely. I don’t think it would be simple to separate one element out of the whole, of course, and the others might help or hinder. The uranium would be as much a concern as the anomalies.”
“You’re serious.” Rooke stood up and took a step backward.
“I am not what I once was, any more than you are. It is pointless to pretend that our basic natures are not self-serving, even predatory. I will not waste my time acting contrary to my nature. If you remain here and prove useful to my efforts, I will take from you what is necessary to achieve those efforts.”
“You’d have a fight on your hands.”
“I would expect nothing less.”
“Maybe I’d be willing to help, in exchange for what I want.”
“What is that?”
“Information about me – more of it. I want the ability to take revenge on the man who ruined me. The last thing I’ll keep to myself for now. In return, if I can help with your project, I will.
“Helping me might not be survivable.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not having that much fun as a freak of nature anyway – but don’t be so sure you could kill me. I’ve tried a few times and nothing’s worked yet.”
~ ~ ~
Rooke thought about Ock’s speech all afternoon. She had returned to the penthouse when he started working on other things, and as gilded cages went, she had to admit it was almost worth dying to hang out here.
Like a prize calf, fed the best grains, housed like a pet – until the slaughter.
Finished with the initial exploration, including his fancy dressing room, she was disappointed to find nothing resembling a personal possession in the entire place beyond clothes. It was like a hotel suite and the doctor hadn’t bothered with luggage or mementos. There wasn’t even a picture of his wife anywhere.
Bothering the servant for anything seemed silly, so she never tried to communicate with him. She did watch him here and there, and noticed that he went down in the elevator quite often during the day. During one of those absences, she included what had to be his private rooms on her self-conducted tour. It was the only area that looked like anyone human or sane lived there.
Ock didn’t show until dinner was ready and they ate in silence. After the meal, Balfour brought him a whiskey and a cigar. She surprised them both by using sign language to ask him for another vodka and orange juice, no ice.
“You didn’t know that last night,” Ock said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Filched it out of your head this morning.”
“I see. My warning wasn’t strident enough?”
“Get as inventive as you like, Doc, it won’t ever be ‘strident enough’. I’m a brain thief – it’s how I survive. Don’t get your tighty-whities in a bunch, though – most of your brain is pretty unintelligible.”
Rooke watched, fascinated, as the metal arms helped him light the cigar. His mouth was a distraction, too. The lips weren’t thin or pale like so many medical doctors she’d seen. Everything about him was robust and larger than life, unconsciously lush and sensuous. The memory of that mouth, the kiss, put her in a slow burn. When he blew the pincer-held match out, she was too wrapped in lustful thoughts to notice that her drink had arrived.
“Can I ask you something about your wife?”
His expression was wary. “You may ask.” The dark eyes gave the real answer plainly – if she wasn’t careful on that subject, she’d regret it.
“Did she ever tell you that no matter how hard-boiled geek you get, you move like liquid sex?” His startled look made her smile. “I’ve known a lot of doctors. Most of them had stethoscopes, not – whatever that shit is downstairs – but still, as lab coat types go, you’re tight.”
“Now it’s my turn to ask for a translation but I won’t. Tell me, did your parents love each other?”
The question caught her off-guard. “Not sure, actually. They didn’t go around mooning over each other and they fought a lot, mostly over me. So maybe that’s a no?”
“Rosalie loved poetry, which was as confusing to me as the intricacy of my work was to her. Since her death, I’ve tried to understand more of it. One that captures our relationship was written by Poe, called Annabel Lee.” He picked up his glass and the cigar and rose from the table. “If you are curious, read it.” He left the room with his disdain trailing after him.
Poe was crackers too, she thought at him, a good match for you. She knew he heard it but he didn’t respond. Sighing, she downed her drink, hoping getting drunk would drown her other thoughts.
Rooke stretched out on the huge divan in the Water Room. The lights were off and she watched the dark and turbulent waters of the lake as she tried to drag the poem up out of his equally hazardous mind. When she found the words, they were wreathed with grief by his shifting memories. Unaware of how deeply she had gone to find it, she realized with a shock that touching his pain hurt her. Caught up in the tidal pull of it, she couldn’t immediately find her way out.
It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me
I was a child and she was a child
In this kingdom by the sea
But we loved with a love that was more than love
I and my Annabel Lee
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me
And this was the reason that, long ago
In this kingdom by the sea
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea
The image that rose in his mind brought with it a horrid pain – it was a tombstone, wet with falling rain. The name on it was fluid, as if the rain attempted to reform the letters. Just before she started to seriously fight to get free of it, he became aware of her and violently ejected her back into her own mind.
Rooke lay still and for a few moments she was afraid to breathe. She knew he was just across the floor in the other room and she could feel his anger.
Yet something else vied with him, defied him. She realized it was the collective mind of the tentacles, keeping him from entering the room and tossing her through the thick glass and down to the cold waters far below.
She lay awake listening for his heavy movements until dawn lit the room.
Otto sent the aggravating child downstairs with Balfour to the medical floor directly after breakfast. The quiet in the penthouse and the lab was a welcome respite, and the battery of testing would likely take most of the day.
He spent the day in the lab, running the powdered sample through other machines, trying every test he could with the equipment he had.
Tests support / the theory. / Attempt? / Small-scale preliminary trial?
“Without a full understanding of these anomalies?”
We see how they interact. / They allow fusion with tritium and anomalies / could contain reactor themselves. / Small amount of tritium to produce test we can control.
“We still don’t know if initiating fusion without a prior separation of the actinide element would produce an explosive result.”
Sample cleaves to itself / naturally in metallic state. / Actinide increase / energy surplus exponentially?
Anomalies defined / properties studied / ensures theory through test. / Subject not unstable – composite metal stable.
“Again, in theory. Yet if the fusion reaction cannot be stabilized, the presence of the uranium would increase the destructive potential as well. We’d melt Chicago into the lake.”
~ ~ ~
“I get to name some elements? Sweet. Can I name them anything? Like, Fred and Ralph?”
Otto sighed and sipped his wine. “Traditionally, yes. Though if you could muster some measure of maturity in the choice, I’m sure the scientific community would be grateful.”
“Yeah, right. I saw your Periodic Table thing yesterday. Some of those names were downright goofy. I mean – californium?”
“Take time to decide if you wish. The medical results were favorable?”
She stabbed the last of her desert and studied it on the end of the fork. “Yeah, I guess. They said the full report would be brought to you tomorrow.” After consuming the sweet, she grinned at him. “You have this entire place just eaten up with curiosity. I thought some of the helpers were going to bust. One of them finally asked me what you look like but the head doctor dude hushed him up quick. You must pay those guys enough not to poke around upstairs or down.”
He smiled, swirling the golden liquid gently in the glass. “When you first arrived and went through the process of having your voice recorded for the building’s security – also the retinal scan – that data was entered into the computer that runs my private elevator. If it had not been, you could not access the lab and penthouse levels.”
“If someone sneaks on, does the floor fall out and drop them into a tiger trap or something?”
“What about someone authorized allowing someone else in there?”
“Not advisable. If anyone unauthorized enters the private elevator, with or without authorized personnel, a nerve gas is released in the car.”
“Ouch.” She picked up her wine and tossed it back. “You should seriously consider Bond villainy. Got all the trappings – including the sexy young female assistant for Bond to seduce to gain your secrets.”
He ignored the gibe. “Do you like the wine?”
“Sure.” She held her glass out to Balfour for a refill. “A damn sight better than the swill I usually get. Is it pricey?”
“What – am I gulping somebody’s rent money?”
“This particular bottle is a 1799 Chateau d’Yquem. I believe Rucker picked it up for $56,237.”
She paled. “Somebody’s annual pension, for a couple years…”
“He seems to believe that if he inundates me with luxuries, I will become too addicted to give them up.”
“It’ll work on me.”
Otto studied her, a slight smile on his lips as she began sipping carefully at her second glass of wine. She was a pretty young woman for all of her indelicate habits and her courage in the face of adversity was admirable.
“Tomorrow, in the interest of giving you more information about your condition, I should like to read the medical report and study a few of the specific aspects of the cybernetics. I suspect they are a type of nanotechnology in principle, although far advanced beyond what is possible in science today.”
“It doesn’t have to wait until tomorrow. I’d let you study my specifics now.” Her smile faded as he frowned. “Or do you insist on wearing the lab coat for that?”
“Does this coarse flirtation succeed with many widowers you’ve met?”
“Have you ever considered that your affections have value and should not be given away carelessly?”
“No.” She straightened in her chair. “I didn’t have a very proper upbringing, Doc – or any, much past the broken neck. The trauma triggered my mutant powers early, since if you’re going to be one, it usually hits you at puberty. I spent puberty paralyzed in a hospital bed, but that was after my mutant-hating parents abandoned me and moved to Seattle. Do you know why they moved me here from the Bronx? So the neighbors wouldn’t find out I was a mutie. I spied on other minds to have something – anything – to live for, to experience. Not many of those minds were proper young ladies I could learn to emulate.” She looked down into the golden wine. “I used to spin elaborate dreams, for myself and others, and I’d try to get lost in them – but they aren’t real … and if you try to make them real, it can hurt you.”
Impressed with her honesty, he nodded. “So when this Spiral offered to help you, consequences weren’t considered?”
“Not for a minute. It was torture, too – but I thought, when I could walk again, that it was worth it. After that, I threw myself into any and every experience I could, just in case it didn’t last or something went wrong.”
“Is it worth it?”
“I’m not so sure now.” When she looked up at him there were tears in her eyes. She wiped them away angrily. “I don’t think I’m human anymore. I’m not even sure I’m alive.”
“You possess a heartbeat, you breathe, you must eat – these are all good indications of life.”
“I don’t bruise. The metal heals any other damage. When I cut myself, I don’t die – and what’s up with the black shit? If that’s blood, I think humanity’s out the window. I have lights on my chest and up my spine, and sometimes I’m so afraid of myself…”
Otto had reached across the table to offer her his hand before he knew it. She slipped her fingers into his immediately. Their tips were metal, with highly sophisticated sensors instead of fingerprints. To comfort her, he ran his thumb over the flesh of her knuckles.
“I understand.” The two tentacles not helping to support their weight had risen to watch her.
“I really am sorry about what I did – the dream of your wife – if it hurt you. It’s just – since I can’t help me, it feels good to help someone else. Also, it sort of balances out all the petty crime guilt.”
“If I practiced what I preach, I should allow it … but I’m afraid I’ve become very private and rather paranoid. The grief, the absence of her – chokes me, even now.”
“Would you tell me about her?”
He winced and withdrew his hand. “I wouldn’t know how. My memories are dimming and I fear my association with these,” he lifted his hands to touch the raised metal arms, “drives me ever further from the man she knew and loved. Already, so much is lost.”
“Doc – Dr. Octavius … if you’d let me, I could help you. One of the things I learned before I gave up on letting Xavier be my Yoda was to blend telepathy and dream-spinning. He said I could use it to help people who suffer from things like trauma, brain damage, and Alzheimer’s. Your memories aren’t lost, they’re just tucked away – like photos that hurt too much to look at for a while. Sometimes they get tangled up in traumatic memories and Xavier told me that if the brain buries the bad, it can take some of the good with it. I learned how to separate them.”
“I assume there are risks, beyond your habit of tampering and thieving?”
“To be honest, I was taught that it’s better to let the bad slowly resurface with the good, so your brain can ‘process it’? I had to argue with him on that, personally. If I could wipe all the muck out of my head and just keep the good – I mean, who wouldn’t? What sucks is, I can’t really fix me, it barely works at all. Way easier to help someone else.”
“That is a universal truth.”
“Your brain, with them, is no cake walk … but I know I can find the good memories and pull them out of hiding and leave the bad stuff where it is. Anything too tangled up, I’d just leave alone. That should reduce most of the risks.” She stopped her head-long rush of explanation and looked at him with a wistful expression. “If you could trust me a little – I could give her back to you.”
Otto watched her in silence, taking in what she had said. The fragments of memory he still possessed were tainted by the failure, the ghastly miscalculation. The cleanest of them was in the moments before it started.
Mere moments, one smile … and then the shattered glass. “It feels like sand through my fingers,” he whispered.
His awareness of physical pain came over him slowly and when one of the tentacles moved to the floor, he drew in a sharp breath.
Otto heard the elevator doors open. Rucker was punctual as always.
“It is time for my injection. The accident that remade me was not without consequences.” He rose with the help of the tentacles and looked down at the young woman. “Morphine, twice a day – thus far, it’s the only thing Rucker’s managed to get me addicted to, I’m afraid.”
She rose with him. “Can I do anything to help?”
“No, stay here, please. I will return … and I shall consider your offer.”
He turned his head. “Yes?”
“Thank you for letting me in here – I won’t abuse your trust.”
He nodded briefly and left her.
Author’s Note: The Charlotte Brontë poetry Otto is thinking about in this chapter is from her poem On the Death of Anne Brontë. Yoda is from Star Wars, of course. The chapter title “Through a Glass Darkly” is a Biblical phrase from 1 Corinthians 13:12 as well as a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough. A bit of poetry trivia: General George S. Patton wrote a completely different poem by the same title and both are cool, but I think Clough’s would be more Otto’s speed, something he might seek to read to reconnect with his lost Rosalie.
“Dr. Krone” is a real man (I’ve rearranged the spelling of his name, and edited the name of his hospital). His procedure to use radiology and surgery to remove formerly inoperable brain tumors is not fiction, nor does he need Doc Ock’s help with the equipment – but I wanted to give his discoveries a little free exposure in this tale. The same applies to the folks I am calling “Cyberkinetic Neurotech” (edited name), although the character of Mr. Ng is fictitious. Their developments allowing quadriplegics to use computers via a silicon chip implanted in the brain are not fiction. The FDA has approved further testing on this and the company is calling it “BrainGate”. Pretty fascinating stuff. – AnonGrimm (@MET_Fic)