They watch me as I lean in, studying the corpse, grateful for the cold air which has kept it fresh. It’s a mess. This thing has been more than gutted, the entirety of its torso ripped open like a box, everything in there rooted around and mislaid and – “What is this, exactly?”
“It is supposedly human.”
At that, I scoff. “No, it isn’t.”
“I did say supposedly, doctor,” says Notte, and I feel like… there’s humor there, but I can’t get distracted about where it’s aimed.
“This isn’t human at all.” I point, annoyed that anyone would suppose this thing to be human. “Just look at those ventricles! Look at them!”
They both just look at me instead.
I huff. “This is no more human than the shoes I’m wearing,” I say, starting to reach, and then stop. “Ah – could I trouble you, perhaps, for some gloves, or tools, or…”
He holds up both. He must have fetched them when he went to get the light.
“Thank you.” Gloves donned, instruments in hand, I get to work.
This thing is a mutant, and it is deranged. Six ventricles, none of them sized correctly, which leads to a heart far too big for this space. The lungs seem to have merged into one enormously bizarre organ, and the bronchial tube is far too big to be practical. The cardial notch is fucked, and….
“Two livers? What on earth would anyone need that for?” I say.
“Perhaps filtration of an excess of impurities,” Notte murmurs.
“That’s a lovely idea, but it wouldn’t work with… dear gods, it has two digestive tracks?”
This thing is bloated. Just the problems of circulation alone would make it unworkable. The genitalia has been entirely removed – either for practicality, or because whoever did this is cruel. Surgical scars indicate that was not its birth condition.
Impossible as it is to imagine this thing surviving a birth, or any time thereafter.
I continue studying. The face and throat look human enough, though the esophagus splits almost immediately, and I cannot determine if there is any point to that, or any mechanism for shuttling food down one path or another.
The musculature makes no sense for the bone structure – which, it seems, is human enough – and a little digging reveals so many places where the flexing of those muscles have broken the bones. I cannot imagine this misery this thing lived in.
The intestines are riddled with tumors. I don’t even have to cut into them to see that.
“Dear gods, this thing must have suffered,” I say.
“I am sure it did,” says Notte. “Unfortunately, as it came here with aggressive intent, it did not live long enough to share information.”
“And we know whose fault that is,” says Ravena.
I’m too busy to ask. “There’s no bladder. How does – oh, dear. Elimination moved entirely through the rectum….”
“What are your thoughts?” says Notte casually, calmly.
“This poor monstrosity cannot have been alive for long. Its very build breaks its own bones. It could not possibly have managed nutrition, nor the blood flow to process it. And of course, there is cancer everywhere. In short: I have no idea how it was alive long enough to reach this size, or what the absolute hell it is.”
Ravena makes a disbelieving noise.
I turn to her. “What?”
“It’s clearly your work.”
I blink at her. I look at it. Back at her. “In what possible universe could this be my work?
“It does not come from doctor Iskinder’s territory,” says Notte. “I sent Liza and Roderick to investigate.”
Her eyebrows rise. “Liza vouched for it?” She gestures to me, not the body.
I am not an it, but I suspect now might not be the time to mention.
“This creature came armed with so many magical items,” says Notte, “that it bypassed a number of our wards. It did not, of course, reach the house; but the fact that it even got past the front gate is distressing. It bore with it, among other things, a bomb.”
It’s my turn to stare now. “Can bombs kill you people?”
Notte doesn’t react to my phrasing, which is soothing. “No – which makes its inclusion a bit odd, don’t you think?”
“You’re not going to tell him where it was going?” Ravena says sweetly, and then she grips my shoulder. She turns me – inexorable, though hardly a strong pull, because whatever she’s doing makes me want to face her, want to look her way, and I do, already adoring though I did not wish to be.
I sink to my knees. Slow, worshipful. Obedient.
“He was heading toward your bedroom window, doctor,” she says.
“How… how could that be?” I manage, somehow, though it barely sounds like my voice.
“I was going to share that a little more gently,” Notte chides.
“Oh, but look how pretty this is,” Ravena purrs, thrums, spills right into my veins.
And for one moment, one absolute hell moment, Notte agrees.
Something awful passes over his face, just for a moment – something that might eat me if it could, that wants to, echoing hers.
But then it’s gone, replaced by disapproval so quickly I almost think I imagined it. “Ravena,” he says, tone flat. “Release him. Now.”
I fall forward onto my hands, gasping. Was I not breathing that whole time? What just happened?
“On behalf of my wayward child, I apologize,” says Notte, helping me up, guiding me to a chair that I swear wasn’t there thirty seconds ago.
I sit and say nothing. Breathing. Thinking.
“What concerns me,” he says, “is how the location of your bedroom was determined.”
“I… I suppose I could have been seen from the window,” I suggest to the floor.
“No,” says Notte. “The windows are warded. From the outside, one cannot see those who stand within.”
“I am so hated that someone would send a bomb? Risking your ire?”
“Now, he’s getting it,” murmurs Ravena, and I feel those words in my teeth.
“There are only a few options here, Doctor,” he says. “One is that you gave your location away.”
“I wouldn’t even know how to do that,” I say.
He nods. “The other is someone we thought we could trust turned you in.”
I frown. Finally look up, meet his eyes – and it is hard, oh, it is, because his eyes burrow into me and I want to lie at his feet and lick him.
Focus, Sol. “I don’t think anyone I’ve seen among your family would betray you.”
“That is correct,” says Notte.
“But doesn’t that leave… what, Bran?”
“Ha!” says Ravena.
Notte utterly ignores that. “I suspect someone devised a finding or tracking spell that goes beyond our current understanding.”
And it hits me. “What about tech?”
They just look at me. I look at Notte because it’s easier. “Some crazy technology, preserved from before the Flare. That would do the trick, wouldn’t it? Undetectable, maybe?”
“Only if the magic in question was designed to affect it,” Notte says slowly, clearly thinking over all possibilities. “This is not impossible. I confess it had not occurred to me.”
“What a good boy you are,” soothes Ravena, and I want to turn toward her again, want to bask in that praise –
Notte sighs. “Must you?”
I mean, I still feel her. I feel him, too, feel most of them when they’re near, if I’m honest. But it isn’t enough to drown.
“Thank you for stopping that,” I murmur to our shoes.
There is an odd, awkward pause.
“Aren’t you angry?” she snaps.
I dare to look at her.
That perfection is not natural. I don’t care what Terrance said about DNA potential being reached, or whatever. She would have unnerved me as a human, too, I am sure.
But I owe her an answer. “Why would I be angry?”
“You’ve been violated, little doctor,” she challenges.
How on earth do I navigate this? “Are you being true to your nature, or reaching outside yourself for my benefit?”
She blinks at me. Puzzlement is lovely on her face.
Since she doesn’t answer, I go on. “You’re monsters to me. You’re not monsters to yourself. You’re doing what you do – culturally, and by genetic compulsion. Nature and nurture. I would prefer to be left unviolated, of course, but I understand that I am prey.” I swallow, reach to adjust my glasses. “I only wonder why everyone bother getting my opinion at all.”
Her look has twisted a bit, and I can’t quite read it. She looks at Notte, still wearing it.
“I told you,” he says.
She says a word I’ve never heard before. It carries some rumbling vowel in the back of her throat unfamiliar to my ear, but he nods.
“Hm,” she says, eyeing me.
Some mad courage seizes me. “Have I helped you here, now?”
That look again – humor, I think, but it doesn’t feel mocking, doesn’t feel sharp. “Yes,” says Notte. “Would you wish for recompense?”
My face burns. I must be terribly obvious. “Yes.”
“Name it. I guarantee nothing, but I still… wish to hear.”
I’ll bet you do. “I want to see my son. And… my friend. Tom.”
Have I blown my shot? Should I have held on to this request longer?
(I know I couldn’t. I’m already at the end of myself.)
His exhale… it’s a sigh, sure, but… Why is it weary? Why is it heavy? I don’t understand. “This is what you wish?” he says.
I raise my chin. “I asked for it, didn’t it?”
“I do not wish to see you hurt, even now,” he whispers.
I blink at him.
“I will consider it.” He looks back at the corpse. “Is there anything more we can learn from this?”
“Not unless you have necromancy, or something.” I pause. “Uh. Do you?”
“Once,” says Ravena. “Before the hands of Death were closed.”
Dear gods, that sounds terrible. “You mean you did? What happened? Are the hands of Death literal? Why would Death have hands? Isn’t that an action, rather than an indivi -”
“Sorry,” I say, and look down.
“You have been most helpful, Doctor. Come.” And Notte steers me away from her and up the stairs.
She watches us go. I know because I feel her gaze, tickling over my skin like fingers.