In the center of the city just outside the Metropoliès, there stood a lab with a glass ceiling bathed in darkness. And in the center of that lab sat a pale, shirtless thin man of forty-three years with smoke emanating from his skin. He took a deep breath and repositioned himself upright in the chair, allowing his heart to slow before exhaling calmly in the cold silence. He opened his eyes.
The familiar form of his young German assistant scattered the shadows around them as she stepped out from behind the control panel of his electric coil. Gretel was not the prettiest girl, though she was certainly not the ugliest, either. Her braided blonde hair sat rigid like a doll’s on her head, ending into two unremarkable pigtails draped over her shoulders. Her dress was hideously plain in appearance, her gaze intense.
But underneath it all, she possessed a certain power never seen before by the likes of any man on Earth. This power—the manipulation and production of electricity—had frightened her entire village so much to the point she was ridiculed by fellow classmates and neighbors, and later shunned by her own family. And that was precisely what had drawn the aging inventor named Nikola Tesla to the girl known as Gretel. Where the townsfolk had seen a witch, he envisioned a prodigy. Something akin to a daughter to whom he could pass on his legacy, for the inventor had no children of his own.
Still, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of fear in her presence. It was one of the few instances in his life that he felt such profound humility and reverence for another living creature; if she truly wished, she could destroy the entire city with a mere flick of the wrist. But Tesla knew for a fact that Gretel did not want these things. The only reason she had harmed people in her village was because they’d frightened her.
It was for this reason that the inventor did his best to keep her safely tucked away in his lab, though he knew it was far from a permanent solution. On several nights over the past month, he had awoken to discover she had ventured out on her own. He expected it would happen at some point—Gretel was a growing girl of sixteen, after all. But he feared what the Cavaricians might do if they discovered her power.
“Why did you stop?” the man asked, grabbing the towel he’d draped over the back of his chair to dry himself off.
“Coils were overloading again. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
Nikola sighed. “When will you learn to trust me?”
“All due respect,” the girl answered, “but unlike you, I can feel when there’s a problem.”
“I think I know my own coils just fine.”
“And I can feel the voltage surging through my own bones just fine. We have worked together on these things. Why can’t you trust me as well?”
“My dearest Gretel,” the inventor stood, sliding an arm into his shirt and buttoning it back up, “you know that I do. I notice you’ve been going out lately, and I don’t try to stop you. But this is still my lab. I’ll have the final say in my own experiments.”
“You have all the answers at your disposal, yet you refuse my knowledge,” she said, sparking a bolt of electricity that bounced between her fingertips. “Why?”
“Because that would be far too easy,” he smiled, grasping her shoulders and planting a kiss on her forehead. She was right, of course. But what was a mere mortal in the face of a goddess? Gretel knew such things instinctively, whereas Tesla was determined to learn through experiences encompassing trial and error. Aside from that, his mind experiments had become his most trusted method. What worked for them both were two different things. But he didn’t dare call himself the ‘Master of Lightning’ anymore.
“Now there was one other test I wanted to run,” he snapped his fingers in thought. A loud banging noise came from the thick steel door on the balcony above. They both turned their heads. “Ah, great,” Nikola sighed. “The woman of the hour herself. It’s open!” he shouted.
The wheel in the center of the steel door squeaked over to the left and slowly creaked open. One silky white leg stepped through, then another. Tesla could hear a series of audible grunts and curses echoing in the silence of the lab as the heavy door continued to drift outward at a staggering crawl. The hem of an emerald green dress also appeared out of the void beyond.
“Can I help you?”
“No, not at all, thank you much!” the woman snapped as she struggled the rest of the way inside. Only one person in all of Viktorium spoke with such a grating tone that made him want to stab out his eardrums whenever he heard it. “I see you’ve improved your coils,” she huffed, grabbing hold of the railing. “Spectacular piece of machinery. Edison would be proud.”
“What can I do for you, Constance?”
“You can build a proper door, for starters.” She flipped her golden hair aside with a gloved hand and readjusted the small black hat on her head. Her pale blue eyes gleamed bright, even in the dim lighting of the lab as she descended the grated stairs. “I was just wondering if you’ll be attending the mayor’s welcome gala this year, or if you have more pressing matters to attend to.”
“Regrettably, I don’t believe I can make it this time,” Nikola sighed, turning back to his work table to calibrate a phase unit prototype he had been working on for the mayor. It was a commissioned project he wasn’t particularly ecstatic to build. The unit was to be a measure of protection, and so came with a lethal setting—the only one of its kind, and the only one he vowed to ever build. Being responsible for a death in Viktorium was not something he wanted on his conscience, but he understood the mayor’s fear of another coup, and that was the only reason he had agreed to it.
“Everybody who’s anybody will be there,” Renou continued, testing his patience.
“And since when have I cared about who anybody is?”
“That’s what I don’t understand about you. You’re one of the most eligible bachelors in all of Viktorium, yet here you are holed up in your lab, which I pay for by the way, tinkering away with all of your silly inventions-”
“Are you here for a reason, Miss Renou?”
“I’m sure that little slave girl of yours doesn’t appreciate being treated like your lowly servant either,” she ignored him.
“Careful,” Gretel snapped, firing up a blue bolt in her hand.
“Oh come off it, dearie,” the woman smirked. “Your theatrics don’t frighten me. You ought to be in a school, you know.” She leaned against the work table, tossing her hat down. “With other children your age? Not cooped up in some dark corner like a lab rat with a man old enough to be your grandfather.”
“Harsh,” Tesla raised an eyebrow, tightening a gear. “I am sixty-three by Earth standards, but I hardly look it thanks to my electro treatments. Forty-three is my age in Viktorium. Or doesn’t she recognize that?” he asked Gretel. The girl shrugged. “You want to go to school?”
“There, you see?” the inventor grinned. “She doesn’t want to go to school. It’s settled.”
“And what might she hope to learn from a man like you?” Constance challenged. “That obsession is the road to genius? Ha! I already wasted my years with a man who once thought as much, and I can assure you that will not end well.”
“Perhaps not, but without electricity, this city would not function. Neither would the whole of Viktorium, or the world beyond it. Neither would your trains, for that matter.”
“Oh I’m sorry, is that a threat, dearie? Remember who pays your rent!”
“Again, I could cut you off just as easy. And again, are you even here for a valid reason?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” the woman huffed, stepping back from the table to wander about the lab. “Your Machine Men. They’ve been causing problems for me.”
“Really? What sort of problems?” Tesla had set the phase unit under a magnifying glass to rearrange the wiring. The output wasn’t yet functioning at the level outlined in the mayor’s letter.
“We’re building a southeast extension on the rail to cut around other throughways. Part of the line extends into your junkyard.”
“I’m curious as to why you have to cut into my junkyard in the first place,” the man sighed. “I thought we established these boundaries long ago.”
“And they still remain. The line itself will not drift into your yard, but it still travels above it. That means steel girders must be placed on the ground level to support a bridge. Your Machine Men have already put four of my best workers in the hospital, nine others have been taken. God only knows what they’ve done with them!”
“My Machine Men have a will of their own, but they defend my junkyard from scrappers regardless,” Nikola said, tightening the last screw and strapping the phase unit on his wrist. “Of course…you could always have asked me to instruct my Machine Men to do the building for you, rather than going behind my back, thus ensuring the untimely disposal of your workers. They can get pretty grisly,” he cringed.
“Ugh!” Constance fumed, snatching her hat off the table. “I am finished with you! You both can expect a visit from my personal Dispatchers. I think you might find they like to get a tad grisly as well,” she smirked. “Cheerio, darling.” She shook Tesla’s hand mockingly. “It’s been quite a pleasure.”
“Indeed it has,” the man smiled and activated the phase unit.
“What the hell is this?! What have you-”
A flash of blue electric light sparked up, and Constance Renou exploded into a hot heap of translucent white goop. Globs of sticky, burning organic matter clung like egg whites all over the inventor, the remains of what had been her hand still stuck to his arm in the form of a melting gelatinous substance. The woman’s face continued to dissolve away in the multicolored puddle of soup, eyes coagulating with her nose and lips in a waning expression of bubbling terror.
“Ah, yuck!” Tesla exclaimed, shaking the goop off his arm. He frantically tore out of his shirt to wipe down the rest of himself. “That one went really bad!”
“Sorry,” Gretel sunk her head.
“Not your fault,” the man grumbled, tiptoeing over the steaming puddle. “The organic matter ratio must be off, so when the highest charge of electric particles hit, it just…does whatever the hell that just did! The mayor wants a phase unit that will dispatch living tissue, but without Charles’ original plans, there’s just too much guesswork involved. Of course, why make it easy for us when you can complicate the shit out of everything!” The man threw up his arms in frustration. “This hardly teaches us anything about how it would react to a real person. And now this damn thing needs to be cleaned,” he sighed, unstrapping the phase unit and tossing it on the table. “Yet again.”
The puddle of white goop on the floor was beginning to coagulate further, bubbling up just enough for a slight form to emerge. Tesla’s mouth dropped open. A dome shape was rematerializing out of the hot liquid, soon taking the form of a human skull. As the eye sockets drained, its bright blue eyeballs reemerged. The inventor immediately scrambled back to grab a revolver from his work table and pulled back the hammer to take aim. But he and Gretel stood frozen in curiosity for several moments exchanging glances, too intrigued to look away or attempt to destroy it. Neither of them had seen anything like this in the previous tests.
Once the skull had formed, further layers continued to carve themselves out atop the framework. Muscles, cartilage, ears, a nose, a mouth, hair. But it was not the Constance Renou either of them had programmed. This was more of a botched mess devoid of any element of perfection—maybe what Constance would look like if she had been born with massive facial deformities. Still, that face looked up at them, eyes wide with terror. Then it began to shriek the most horrible sound.
“Fuck!” Tesla wasted no time firing two shots into the head, but it was no use; the bullets just absorbed into the gel. He reached for the phase unit to try dispatching it again. No luck. Gretel tried as well with her own powers. After that failed, the inventor finally fired up his blowtorch and blasted it further until it melted into a hot, sticky, tar-like mess. They finished off with fire extinguishers. No movement persisted from the remains.
“Sorry,” Gretel said again.
“About what she was saying,” the man slumped back against the wall, wiping his face with a handkerchief. “You really think you’re my slave?”
“No. I programmed her a couple months ago before I started sneaking out. Old feelings die hard, I suppose.”
“All’s well that ends well,” he smiled. “But you’d better stick around now, my dear,” Tesla huffed. “We’re back to square one.”
“You think the unit will be ready for La Cour’s gala?”
“I sent the blueprints to the Dispatchers earlier so they’ll deliver them to him personally. Hoping the excitement will hold him over in the meantime while we figure out this mess. Let’s get back to work, shall we?”