I don’t like lying, and I hate lying to Ling. She’s done a lot for me, not even taking into account the recent adventures with the toy box. But orders were orders. She couldn’t know the details.
In truth, I did know exactly what was going on with the toy box. I knew who was involved with the project, where it was located, what security was like. I even knew what everyone was getting paid.
Soaring Eagle had made me project manager as reward for my efforts. It tied everything up in a neat little bow, reducing the number of people who knew details about the project. I probably wasn’t the best choice, since nearly everyone one involved was older and more experienced than me, but I felt I was handling myself pretty well.
“Strigi,” I called, as I put my coat on the rack. We had to wear concealing clothing while outside, due to all the hostility towards aves. It worked out pretty well, since it was getting colder, but inside it was far too hot. “Did Anseri finish up that wing design?”
“Not quite, Director,” the wide-eyed woman admitted. She wasn’t a full anthro; just a few minor buffs like improved eyes. She also had a few tawny feathers poking out of her hair, which might or might not be a cosmo. “He’s worried about bone density.”
I nodded. “Tell him to do the best he can, but to remember that the first few are unlikely to work anyway. Doing a few real real tests will help more than fine-tuning the theory.”
She nodded and went off to find him and tell him in person. We weren’t using any form of electronic communication in the lab, not even radios. Sure, we were digitally cut off from the outside world, but just because it was impossible for MC to hack in didn’t mean she wouldn’t find a way. Best for there to be nothing for her to hack into.
We did have laptops, of course, but they had no internet whatsoever, not even to each other. If we needed to transfer data, it was done using one-shot burn drives. All the precautions were slowing things down, but no one was complaining after the debacle last Friday, when Delia’s warhawks got captured. Of course, it had only been a day since the project started, so the complaining would probably come later.
“Corvi!” someone called. I turned to see Gavii, a small-faced man with talons, striding forward with an angry look on his face.
I hated dealing with the cruel little man, and it seemed the feeling was mutual, but I masked my discomfort.
“What do you need, doctor?” I said as calmly as I could. For crying out loud, I wasn’t ten feet from the door. Couldn’t this wait? “Weren’t you working with Anseri on the wings?”
“Yes, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” He looked very perturbed, which was rare. Oh, he’s annoyed all the time, but he looked seriously off balance. “I’ve been reassigned.”
I blinked. “What? To what? By who?”
He handed me a pad. “To researching if functional-limb generation is possible. By Sele herself.”
I tapped through the pad quickly and cursed under my breath. He was right. It was a direct order from Soaring Eagle, requesting he be reassigned to work on appeasing some of our benefactors—specifically, by trying to get the multi-arm buffs the arachs had been always been hoping for.
What I couldn’t understand was why she would pass me over like this. She trusted me, I knew—
Then I reached the bottom.
I glared at Gavii. “This is addressed to me. Where’d you get this?”
He at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. “I…got it from the courier. I told him I’d give it to you, and I did. I just didn’t mention I’d read it first.”
“Of course,” I deadpanned. “I’m sure that’s exactly what she intended when she labeled it for my eyes only.”
He waved his talons dismissively. “That’s not the point, Corvi. I joined this project to advance our interests, not Greyanna’s.”
I walked deeper into the facility. It was a small place, built from about a dozen shipping containers stacked together with the walls knocked down. Plywood, covered in cloth for aesthetic purposes, acted as walls we could rearrange easily.
From the outside, it just looked like a normal stack of cargo waiting to be loaded somewhere. It got a bit claustrophobic at times, but the interior had been painted a calm gray, and the lights were gently illuminating, so it wasn’t too bad.
“The ability to grow entirely new limbs is hardly something that only the arachs will find beneficial,” I pointed out. “We’ll finally be able to regenerate limbs, rather than just repair crippled ones. Think about what that would mean.”
“It means that we’re behind the curve,” he insisted. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation is number one on Clarke’s to-do list. Even if we only count the time he’s had the toy box, he’s still months ahead of us. I hear he’s almost got the heart working.”
“Consider that incentive to work faster,” I said, settling into my chair with a sigh of contentment. My desk was in the farthest corner of the small complex, probably to force me to greet as many people as possible as I walked by.
“That’s ridiculous,” he spat. “I’m not going to be able to outstrip the greatest scientific mind in the city simply by working faster. I demand—”
“Frank,” I interrupted, warningly. “Soaring Eagle has made up her mind, and I’m not going to challenge her. Just tell me what you’re starting with.”
Luckily, he could take a hint. He shut his mouth, nodded, and pulled out his personal pad, which he began to read off of.
“Macro-scale MBG has been done before, but it’s ridiculously difficult. Seven years ago, Doctor Mary Christina Asimov tried to grow a new set of limbs on a subject wholesale. The arms barely grew at all, quickly died, and had to be amputated. Similar trials had identical results.
“Four years ago, after the hags invented hydra, the experiment was attempted again. It had much more success, but the resulting limbs were still all but crippled, and the subjects required constant injections of hydra to even maintain that level of use. Hydra is a little addictive as well, and with the amount these people were using, many of them became dependent. The project was scrapped.
“Two years ago, Doctor Alison Blake came at it from another angle. Following the successful creation of tails—”
“Wait,” I interrupted, curious. “I thought tails were only about three months old.”
The man huffed, impatient. “No, they’ve only been sold for about three months. They’re too weak, so nobody could think of any use for them. After a couple trials two years ago proved it was possible, the idea was put on the back burner, until Lily got one. She convinced Clarke it would sell among demons, and it did.”
“Huh.” That was news to me.
“Anyway,” Gavii continued, annoyed, “Blake decided to try and create the limb first, and then attach it to the subject. That came out even worse. There’s a reason making complicated structures is still nearly impossible; the toy maker is much better at shaping flesh that already exists.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Hold up. I understand that necrosis sets in quickly if the structure isn’t attached to a human host. But explain to me why it can’t just be attached to life support—artificially flooded with nutrients, an electric charge simulating a nervous system—and so on.”
The ave sniffed. “Because, then you can’t use the toy maker to improve it. Blake tried to get around that by making a very simple structure with the toy maker—basically just a crude lump of flesh and bone—and then editing it indirectly, using seeds, while it was still on life support. That proved impossible without creating an entire artificial body. For the seeds to work, it needs pretty much everything a human being has. Digestive system, nervous system, and so on. Building such a machine was beyond her expertise, and the project was scrapped.”
I nodded. I knew most of that, actually. I hadn’t gone to college, but I had been studying the toy maker my entire life. I knew most of the details. The ‘seeds’ were the most common way the toy maker was used. A sample of cells was taken from the host, which was then modified into something similar to a retrovirus. Once implanted back into the subject, it would change their body over time. You couldn’t use the technique to grow entirely new parts, but simple things like skin color and muscle mass were easy.
However, now that the fey had managed to successfully miniaturize the technology into the toy box, we might be able to combine the best of both worlds. That was how most anthros had been created; by just sticking us in the toy box and modifying us directly, like molding a lump of clay.
“Right, so with the toy box we should be able to do m-scale MBG quickly enough so that necrosis doesn’t set in.”
“But we’ve hit a block,” he admitted. “At least, on the wings, and I doubt the arms will fare any better. We haven’t done anything beyond theories, but we think—”
“The problem is that each person is different,” I finished. “So each arm or wing has to be individually tailored. But at the same time, the design has to be perfect, or it will just wither and die.”
He looked a little put out. “Yes. Basically. I believe Anseri thought that if we could build the wing directly on the subject, while they’re in the toy box, we might have more luck. Let the design grow more organically, like with the horns or beaks.”
“Horns aren’t functional,” I pointed out. “No moving parts, not even any different materials. Just lumps of bone. A flaw in a horn is character. A flaw in an arm is much worse.”
“I know it’s not the best idea,” Gavii admitted. “Which is why I’m against it. I still think that if the wings—or, in this case, arms—are mostly perfect, we can use the toy box to synch them up to the subject’s system, just like normal. Then, if there are any problems, we can edit them later.”
Seeds were more reliable, but very slow. Frank Gavii was being a bit of an opportunist. Rather than just coming in once, his plan would require subjects to receive multiple treatments, which would mean more money. That being said, it did have merit. Sort of like buying a standard baseball bat and later applying tape or whatever to make it more comfortable.
“Is there a working arm design on file?”
He looked surprised. “Uh—what?” He shook his head to clear it. “Yes, yes there is. I don’t have it right now, I’d have to send a runner to download it from outside.”
I steepled my talons, thoughtful. “Once you get that design, make two arms, a left and a right. One at a time—there can’t be any mistakes. Then, you’ll attach them to an arach. Can you do that?”
“I…I…” I don’t think he could have been more surprised if I had pulled a gun. “I think so. But this is so sudden.” He became more confident as his verbal momentum improved. “I’ll need to see the subject, and…it will require some surgery, more than just what the toy box can provide. Attaching two entirely new limbs isn’t easy.”
“I’ll ask the Minervas to send their girl over,” I promised. Yeah, the Lolths were the ones who had made the most recent request, but no way in the empty sky was I going to try and deal with those misandrist bitches. “I’m going to be honest, Gavii. I think the organic growth idea is a better one. But let’s see how your cut-and-paste one pans out.”
He swallowed, and nodded. “I’ll need access to the toy box, of course.”
I frowned as best as I could with my beak. I had just gotten comfortable. But I sighed and stood. “Fine, c’mon.”
The toy box was in the exact center of the complex, located in a small maze of plywood walls. It was guarded by both remaining senior warhawks; they were the only ones who hadn’t gone with Delia. They glared at Gavii, but I waved them off, and they let us through.
One of the first things we had done once Lizzy’s driver let us off and we got the device in Soaring Eagle’s hands was to clean the damn thing. Pigeon’s blood had been mopped off, and the amorphous metal surface polished until it shone like a mirror again.
It sat in the middle of that little ten by five room, the light shining down on it like a priceless piece of art on display. Or a coffin at a funeral.
Gavii walked up slowly, mesmerized, and brushed his talons against it. “Beautiful.”
I didn’t say anything, but that kind of behavior made me uncomfortable. It seemed like everyone treated it like a holy relic, sacred beyond all imagining. Considering its source, and the amount of blood spilled to retrieve it, I really wasn’t comfortable with the comparisons.
I was beginning to think Soaring Eagle had put me in charge merely because I wasn’t seduced by the possibilities it offered. It was mostly just a box to me.
Gavii licked his lips and looked at me, blind lust for experimentation in his eyes. “When…when can I start?”
“As soon as possible,” I promised. “The second you have something ready. Anseri and his team will have priority, but you’ll get your fair share.”
He nodded, still transfixed.
I left quickly, trying to pretend I was just going to send out that runner for the designs he needed.
But deep down I knew I wanted to get as far away from the toy box as I could.
Behind the Scenes (81)
I tried to avoid technobabble and use simple terms explaining “this is what it does,” but I’m not sure how successful I was.