Night of the Wolf – Part 11

Gretel stared at the dark storm clouds gathering over the Metropolies district through the domed glass ceiling of Tesla’s lab. Under normal circumstances, she would have felt energized by this particular weather pattern. Instead, she felt drained, and for more reasons than one. Her journey home the previous night had taken several unexpected detours. First, she’d found herself in the throes of battle with a rather curious girl named Marceau, who claimed to be from another frequency. Second, she was questioned by a squad of Dispatchers upon attempting to access a secret security tunnel which would have gotten her back to the lab faster. And third, even after a series of frantic calls forced the squad off her trail to protect the wall, she discovered that the tunnel was sealed halfway down anyway. Upon arriving back to the lab, she found Tesla wide awake, and understandably quite furious. “We will discuss this in the morning,” he had said.

She had been sitting in his specialized electric chair for almost ten minutes now as the inventor paced about the room in a fit of anxiety. The silence was maddening. If he didn’t say something soon, she was about to send a bolt of lightning up through the ceiling to break the glass and shatter the tension by force. But as it was, she had exhausted the majority of her energy fighting off that stupid girl. She needed to recharge, and soon.

“Just what the hell were you thinking?!” the man blurted out. “You could have gotten yourself killed!”

“The phase unit works,” Gretel replied, clenching her teeth.

“That’s not the point! Do you have any idea what would have happened to you if it hadn’t? Or, god forbid, if it backfired?!”

“But it didn’t. Besides, you ought to thank me-”

“THANK you?!- ”

”We now know what the test runs couldn’t tell us!” the girl shouted. “It works.”

“Goddamn it!” the man wiped the sweat from his brow. “It is dangerous for you to be out there alone, do you understand?!”

“I thought we moved past this. You said you trusted me.”

“It isn’t you I don’t trust,” Tesla sighed.

“I can take care of myself without using my powers. I know to call the Dispatchers-”

“Come here, let me show you something,” Nikola cut her off, stepping over to his work desk to swipe an array of metal parts off a stack of papers. Gretel stood and joined him as he spread ten of the sheets out on the table and flicked on the lamp. It was a listing of time stamps arranged in rows of thirteen each, with matching dates and coordinates for every line. “Notice anything off about those numbers?”

“Looks like energy fluctuations in the power grid…not all of them were caused by our coils.”

“Exactly. Which means that somehow, somewhere, there is an anomaly the Dispatchers have been unable to catch.”

“And you think it will be drawn to my electrical energy, is that it?” She stared at him. The inventor sighed. “That’s all the more reason for me to be out there! I could help them destroy it.”

“It’s more likely you would get caught in the crossfire. It’s suicide, Gretel! I need you here.”

“We can’t just sit idly by anymore while these things wreak havoc on Viktorium. They’re getting stronger. You know that, right? Eventually, we’re going to have to ramp up weapons production.”

“It’s a fact I’ve hoped to avoid for some time. I refuse to be as reckless as Charles. Weapons production was his department of expertise, not mine. Although I suppose I’m not entirely averse to the idea of reconnaissance for now…I do have a few ideas as to where we might start. Not that I am by any means comfortable with you going out there.”

“And that would be?”

“Mayor La Cour, for one.” Tesla backed away from the table and began pacing again.

“That’s why wants his own phase unit…” Gretel thought aloud. “He doesn’t feel safe. Those timestamps correlate to his location as he moves. If you look at yesterday’s dates, he was strolling around Morcourt when the power flickered. My god, it all makes sense now! The increased security from last year, staggered public appearances, the main Dispatcher units drawn farther away from the Metropolies and as far down as the Barreau District…what frequency are the fluctuations?”

“705 Hertz.”

Gretel’s heart immediately sank. She had resigned last night not to speak a word to the old man about her chance encounter with that strange girl who called herself Marceau, and yet this was much too close for comfort. 705 Hertz was the same frequency she had zapped her young friend back to, and to know that girl was possibly the one causing these fluctuations gave Gretel an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Of course she would be the one going into the field, not Nikola.

Yet still, something rubbed her the wrong way about the possibility of hunting down Marceau. What would happen if they were to meet again? As it was, it didn’t seem as though the girl had hurt anyone. Harmless fluctuations were harmless fluctuations, and it wasn’t their job to keep track of the anomalies themselves. But Gretel understood the danger all the same; Constance Renou demanded monthly reports of any power flux that occurred on the Metropolies grid. If she were to discover that they were harboring knowledge of any not caused by Tesla’s experiments and did not inform her, they were screwed. The woman had already threatened them with eviction on several occasions, talking up her own scientists, whom she claimed were just as competent as Tesla himself. It didn’t help, either, that Renou owned the patents for every piece of Dispatcher technology. She could easily put an end to all their hard work in the blink of an eye.

Gretel felt torn between protecting a potential friend and protecting her mentor, whom she loved as a father figure. He had treated her better than her own parents ever had, and yet it seemed her own coming of age was driving a tangible rift between them. Tesla had grown naive and ever more reclusive since Charles’ exile, and so where danger lurked, she did her best to encourage him to step up. But the way she saw it, they did have two distinct advantages. For one, Marceau was not an anomaly, and therefore not an immediate threat. Off-chart fluctuations, though they certainly existed, were a rare occurrence at this juncture. And two, Constance Renou had no knowledge of the phase unit they had built for Mayor La Cour. There was still time to prepare for the worst possible scenario.

“So how do we proceed?” Gretel asked. “The unit it ready. I can tinker with it if need be, adjust the frequency to match.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Tesla shook his head. “We’re not going to give it to him. Not just yet, and certainly not with the welcome gala around the corner. This kind of technology is incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, especially with the possibility of the Outlanders having returned to the city. Do you understand why my concerns for you are twofold?”

“Noted,” the girl rolled her eyes. “But these problems are bigger than either of us. For better or worse, we’ve inherited them, just as the rest of this city has inherited the failures of Charles DuPont. Somebody’s got to keep watch over the innocent and hold those in power accountable. And who better than the two of us?”

“We’re not superheroes, my dear,” Tesla smirked.

“Well, you’re not. I’m not entirely sure I am either. Doesn’t mean we can’t help them whenever they do come along.”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

“I’m not sure,” Gretel shook her head. “Just a feeling, I suppose. I’ve got to collect my thoughts.” She got up from the chair and made her way across the lab back to the large steel door of her room.

“Don’t take too long,” Nikola called. “Storm will pass in about fifteen minutes. I’d like to charge the coils before then.”

“I know. I’m on it.”

Gretel twisted the wheel on the door to unlock it and stepped over the threshold, closing the hatch securely behind her. She turned on the light. The room was little more than a closet space with a bunk bed, a work table, and a few shelves for books, but she didn’t mind. She always did enjoy a bit more solitude than most. Moving for the bed, she knelt down and lifted up the end of her mattress to retrieve the burnt, shredded hunk of Dalishkova gauntlet that had adorned Marceau’s wrist the previous night.

For a while, she sat there with it on the floor, running her delicate fingers over the rough textures. Curious. There seemed to be a bit of power still emanating from it, though markedly faint. It was similar in nature to that which had come from the amulet she’d received from Ermina on the subway, though she did not sense this was an object intended for direct influence. It did, however, possess some type of electromagnetic charge. Gretel closed her eyes and allowed the power to surge through her in an attempt to amplify the resonant frequency. Much of the circuitry was fried, but she was able to charge it just enough. A loud metal clang startled her out of concentration, and the shock was so strong that it sent waves vibrating up her arms. She immediately dropped the device and looked down in awe.

She’d left a butter knife on her work table earlier that morning after eating a biscuit, and somehow it seemed to have flown several feet across the room and attached itself to the gauntlet. Gretel held the hunk of metal up to the light to get a closer look. She tried prying the knife off with all her might, yet it did not budge until she sent another surge of electricity through it to reverse the polarity. So that’s how you moved your sword so fast.

“Marceau, who are you?”

The lights flickered.

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House of Rats – Part 12

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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Nikola?”

“Hmm?”

“Look.”

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?”

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