350 5th Ave, New York, NY 10118. As far as we could tell, that was the address the string of numbers and letters on the metal bit corresponded to. I fingered the tiny rectangle nervously, checking and rechecking the combination. We’d run the sequence through a few dozen different phone books and even one of our code guys, and this was the only address that these numbers corresponded to. But…
I turned my gaze skywards, and felt my stomach drop to the floor at the staggering height of the as-of-yet unfinished Empire State Building. Was this really it?
I checked the numbers again, like I had been for the last ten minutes. It was that address and the number 102, along with a stylized locker number. I’d like to point out for clarity that at this point in time, there wasn’t even a 102nd floor built yet.
This is insane, I thought to myself. This is definitely insane. They want me to climb that?!
Above me, workers toiled on into the night, risking life and limb a thousand feet above ground to rush the building towards completion before its eighteen month deadline expired. I distinctly remember thinking just then that given the choice between being Paulie Pescatorre’s punching bag and working up there for a living, I’d much rather throw myself in front of the train tracks than choose either.
As if to illustrate my point, a hoisted I-beam snapped the steel cable holding it a hundred stories above me and broke free into the sweet embrace of gravity, plummeting towards terra firma in the mother of all piledrivers. At the same time, valet parking pulled in from the street and settled into a spot on the curb in front of me, directly beneath the falling half-ton bar of steel. I decided that now might be a good time to take a few steps back.
The hunk of metal impaled the car with just about as much effect as you’d think an eight-foot steel bar falling at terminal velocity would have, smashing through the roof like a lightning bolt from the Big Z himself. The driver’s side of the car was totally destroyed, the backseat now too small for anyone to sit in and the actual driver’s seat being completely obliterated by falling steel. Not to mention the invisible damage done to the engine block. Calling it an undriveable wreck would be a kindness.
Before you ask, as luck would have it, the valet managed to park and get out of the car just in time, lucky for him. Well, I say lucky, but honestly, I did not envy that man for having to explain to the angry banker this car belonged to just what happened to his precious little baby. Shit was not pretty once that steel beam was done with it.
Stuck about halfway into the I-beam was a bowie knife, about thirteen inches from end to end. Probably monomolecular up to the base, just like mine. Tied around the grip was a small key, and there was a piece of paper pinned to the beam by the blade.
I grimaced. A message left for me, no doubt. Which meant the key would be for the locker listed on the bit. Was this seriously their idea of sending a message? A horse’s head in my bed would have been more subtle.
I snatched the key and the note and tried to do my best to go unnoticed after that incredibly inconspicuous greeting.
The locker rooms weren’t that hard to find. Workers were coming and going constantly, so it was just a matter of following the overalls and the floppy hats and doing my best to look like I belonged there. Eventually the new shift made it to the locker room, and trust me. You’ll know you’re there when the smell of sweat and metal shavings hits you like you owe it money.
I didn’t react to it quick enough and got a big whiff of that nasty air before I held my breath. I tried not to vomit. There’s just this thing with me and the shit that comes off and out of people’s bodies, okay? Blood, sweat, piss, mucus, the works. I hate it. I doubt I’d even have sex if it wasn’t, y’know… sex. Doesn’t help that most people don’t bother cleaning themselves up enough to keep other people from being exposed to their nasty secretions, but on a fundamental level, I just can’t stand shaking hands with someone whose palm is all slick with sweat, or worse, spit. Nasty fucking habit, that, and you always find kids and Irishmen doing it, too. All the time. I’m pretty sure I’ve decked more than one guy for offering me a loaded handshake like that.
I tried to find the locker left for me as quickly as possible, and I donned the uniform in record time. Had to get out of there. Didn’t care I was gonna climb my way to certain death, I just had to get out of there before someone touched me with their shit-covered mitts.
I rushed out the locker room door and into the service elevator. I’m sure the guys behind me weren’t happy that I shut the door before any of them could get on, but they could take that up with Marq or his dad if they felt so inclined. If they knew who I worked for, they’d be kissing my fucking ass, so why should I feel bad?
I watched the numbers climb steadily higher as the elevator ascended. Who was gonna be on the other side of those doors once I stepped out into the construction zone? On account of the circumstantial evidence surrounding our little meeting, I’d just assumed it was the homunculus who’d put this together, but standing there just then, I wondered more and more if it wasn’t a trap. Had I just done something incredibly fucking stupid?
Doors opened to reveal a twisting cage of disorienting metal, concrete, and steel cable stretching into the infinite night sky above me, and I revised my opinion a second time. I had definitely just done something incredibly fucking stupid.
I looked around for my contact, wishfully thinking that they might be here on nice, stable stone and concrete, but no matter where I looked on the 98th floor, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Which could only meant what I feared from the beginning, that being that the meeting place specified in the bit was indeed the very top of this spiraling metal death-nest.
I turned my gaze forty feet upwards. First the I-beam and now this? Was this homunculi supposed to be a stage performer’s assistant or were they just deaf and dumb?
There was no use bitching any longer, though. I could only proceed by climbing. Problem was, the more I looked around, the fewer safe handholds I found. Every three in ten was too small to hold on to, every four in ten was dangling precariously over a fatal drop, every two in ten was rusted or otherwise coated in some hazardous (and knowing the workers, unsanitary) substance, and only every one in ten was actually useable. How the hell was I supposed to climb this ladder from hell?
I heard a cranking noise somewhere to my right, and I saw workers seated on top of a metal I-beam being hoisted into the air along with it as it was hurried along to be welded into place. Oh. Well that was convenient and not at all pants-shittingly terrifying.
I joined the crew of the next I-beam on queue, and held on to the cable supporting it with a cast-iron grip. Two hypothetical floors up, everyone else started filing off without me. I guess there wasn’t anyone working on the 102nd tonight.
“Hey buddy, you gonna move it or lose it?” the guy operating the hoisting mechanism shouted at me. Shit. Couldn’t get off here. Not if I could still bum a free ride up to the top. I needed an excuse. Time to employ some strategically-placed selective disinformation. Or, as they call it in Spain, bullshit.
“They brought me in for overtime,” I said, lying through my teeth. “I’m supposed to do inspections and touch-up work on the welds for one-oh-two.”
The operator frowned. “You got anything to confirm that? No one told me anyone was gonna be working the one-oh-two tonight, and I’m not taking another pay deduction for letting some clown wander ‘round where he shouldn’t be.”
“Come on guy, do we really have to do this right now? The company can’t possibly be paying you enough to care that much.”
He half-laughed, half-sighed. “You drive a hard bargain, sir. You’re right, they certainly don’t. Okay, just this once, pally. Just this once. Don’t tell anyone though, or-”
“Yeah yeah, it’ll come out of your pay. Relax, my lips are wax. I’ll take the fall for you if anything happens.”
I felt the beam shake a bit as I kept climbing higher, causing me to tighten my grip on the cable even further. Finally I arrived on the 102nd floor, out of sight and out of mind of anyone beneath me. Knowing the busy environment around here, even the hoist operator would forget about me once I stepped off onto the empty 102nd, which meant I was free to conduct my little meeting without fear of interruption.
It wasn’t hard to spot her once I’d finally reached the right floor. She was hardly trying to hide. With snow-white hair, black-lace elbow gloves and a bright red dress that clung to her curves quite nicely, she would’ve stood out in a crowd, much less an empty construction site. She had only gone unnoticed because no one in their right mind wanted to bother with the 102nd if they weren’t getting paid for it. As a general rule, people never look up unless someone tells ‘em to.
I walked off the beam and stepped out onto the skeletally thin metal frame of the 102nd floor, parallel to the homunculus’ gaze. She was leaning against a vertical-facing beam on the other side of the floor, fifty meters between us. The hoisted beam that brought me here descended, cutting me off from any kind of escape. Now it was just me and her. I had to trust in her good will that coming here wasn’t a mistake.
Acknowledging my presence, she snubbed out her cigarette and started walking towards me. She hiked up her dress and reached for something near her upper thigh… oh shit.
She sprinted at me with a trench knife in each hand, crossing the distance in a fraction of a second, faster than I ever thought possible for someone with her build. I had to take care to mind my surroundings if I was going to maneuver my way through a fight here, but the extra tenth of a second I spent minding my step cost me, and she got me in an arm lock, twisting me around to face the thousand-foot precipice with a knife at my throat.
“You are Alfonso Anastasio, correct?”
“I’ve been told that,” I said, trying very hard not to shift my weight too much in any forward- facing direction. “And you are?”
“The name given to me at birth is Phillippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.”
“Too long. How about I just call you ‘Theo’?”
“Beg your pardon?”
I sighed. “Your name is too hard to say on account of how long it is, maam. May I please call you ‘Theo’?”
“I don’t see what difference this makes,” she responded flatly. Tightening the grip of her knife hand (the one around my throat anyway, since she technically had two knife hands instead of one), she hastened her hold on me, like a constrictor. Breathing was becoming a bit uncomfortable. “Were you followed?”
“I dunno, were you?”
“… I’ll ask again. Confirm or deny: were you followed?”
“I’ve been tailing people for ten years, dollface. I’m pretty sure I’d know if I was. Better question is, why would I tell you when you might kill me if I say there’s no cavalry coming?”
She frowned. Evidently she didn’t find that amusing, because she drew me in tighter into a bone-crushing bear hug that I was afraid might actually crush my bones if she wasn’t careful. I was still fragile after earlier today.
“I feel obliged to inform you that you’re not very good at being coy. Confirm or deny: were you followed?”
There was a thing I noticed about myself just then. I was dangling over the edge of a building with a knife at my throat, unsure if my captor was friend or foe, or if they’d let me fall for talking back too much. And yet despite the threat of mortal peril and the dozens of other more important things I should have been concerned with just then, all I could think about was how soft she felt when she pressed up against me, and how great it would be if I could get to see just how soft she was in other places.
Nice, brain. Way to have your priorities in order.
I choked out an answer. “I wasn’t followed. Scout’s honor.”
There was a moment of silence between us.
“… Very well. That colloquialism is lost on me, but all the evidence I have suggests you speak the truth. In as far as you are aware of it, anyway.” Just as abruptly as she’d grabbed me, she let go of me, and I nearly fell on my own before I steadied myself. “Let’s discuss our terms and conditions.”
I took a deep breath, gasping for air as the homunculus started pacing up and down the steel beam. Lucky me, she wasn’t going to kill me. That still didn’t make me any less miffed about all this.
“Discuss?! How about you tell me what the hell all that was about? I don’t know if anyone told you this, but getting people to do what you want them to typically doesn’t involve almost throwing them off of fucking buildings!”
She frowned. “I wasn’t aware you frowned upon this method. Isn’t this how your family typically negotiates with people?”
“Uhhhh…” Crap, she had me there. “Well, ya see, that’s a bit different…”
“How so? Both methods involve displays of force and the implicit threat of physical violence or bodily harm.”
“Yeah, but we only do that when people don’t play along. It’s not like it’s the first thing we do. We avoid it if we have to, it’s not good for business!”
“Hmmm…” she considered this. “I see now.”
“Right? They’re two completely different-”
“You just don’t like it when someone does it to you, is that not it?”
“… Can we just get to the part where you tell me what you want?”
“I thought that would be obvious,” she said, maintaining a perfect monotone. “However, if you wish me to say it for the sake of formality, I shall. I desire freedom from Mickey Donahue. Also his imminent destruction, if possible. As the two of these things go hand in hand, I doubt it will be too difficult.”
“Those are your only demands?”
“Shit, then why’d you have to try and give me a Colombian necktie? We all want that!”
“I needed to make sure you weren’t followed.”
“Yeah, ain’t that convenient. How do you know you weren’t, sister?”
She stopped her pacing. “Why would I be?”
“No offense, but a woman looking like you do kinda stands out. I mean don’t get me wrong, if you got it, flaunt it, but wearing that kinda outfit at a construction site might not be the best way to keep a low profile for a girl like you.”
“This dress was a gift from my creator, Erik.” She pulled at the shoulder straps of her dress, making a face that almost made her look like she was pouting.
I snorted. “Yeah, imagine that.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just that I know I’d be making you play dress-up too if I was Erik,” I joked, trying to keep the mood light. “Where is he now, huh? He the one who lent you out to Mickey?”
“‘Lent’ is hardly the word I would use to describe the circumstances under which I came into Mickey Donahue’s possession.”
“Then what word would you use?”
She went quiet, her eyes shifting away from me as she looked down at her feet.
“I’m sorry, that was inappropriate.”
“It is fine. You have not been mindful of my feelings so far, I should not expect you to start now.” Somehow, that pissed me off. “Besides, if you are to have a full grasp on the situation, you should know what has happened to me since I first met Mickey Donahue. I suspect it is the only way for you to understand what has driven me to take such drastic actions.”
She leaned in closely, this time much more intimately, and whispered into my ear every horrible thing Mickey Donahue had done to her since he murdered her creator and stole her from him. I’m not going to share the details of it with you. Or any of it, for that matter. You’ll all be better off for it. Just trust me when I say there’s shit you’re better off not knowing.
I grit my teeth and beared it. Every last grisly detail. I consider myself a manly man, but I’m not ashamed to say I was barely holding back tears by the time she was finished. Tears, and a copious amount of vomit. I wanted to scream.
She pulled away, her story finished. “Hopefully now you understand. I no longer wish to be Mickey’s toy. I say without exaggeration that I would rather die than continue hurting myself and others as his weapon.”
I took a deep breath, centering myself. Bury it. Bury it deep. I couldn’t afford to dwell on the shit she’d been through up until now, not while there was still something to be done about it. Maybe later, when this was all over, I could find a nice, dimly lit room all to myself and sob for hours while I worked through how to cope with the knowledge I’d just gained, but now I needed to help her.
I exhaled. “Alright, how do we help you get away from Mickey?”
Just like that, we were both business again. She looked me in the eye, knowing I understood and wouldn’t shy away from anything she asked me to do. I nodded.
“It won’t be easy.” It never is, is it? I thought to myself. “The terms of my contract forbid me from taking direct action against Mickey or allowing him to come to harm, and if he gives me any orders, I must obey them.”
“I start sweating, my head begins to pound, I experience a number of disorienting symptoms and I start to get physically ill if I ignore his orders for too long. Eventually it becomes impossible for me to think of anything else, and I begin to feel an intense sense of dread. I believe you would call this a ‘panic attack’.”
“Yikes.” I never knew the restrictions placed on familiars were so severe. “Anything else?”
“Fragarach, you mean.”
She seemed surprised that I knew. I couldn’t blame her. It was only by pure luck I’d even managed to put two and two together on some random piece of information I’d heard secondhand in a conversation more than eleven years ago.
“You know then? You’re quite perceptive.”
“Again, I’ve been told.”
“Then you’re familiar with what it does?”
“Just the legend. The Answerer, the Retaliator. A sword that attacks the enemies of its owner by itself. Sounds a bit silly to me, so you wanna humor me and tell me what it really does?”
“… I do not know much. The nature of mythic weaponry makes it hard for me to tell you anything about how it works, but as far as I can tell, it uses a form of sympathetic magic that no longer exists in today’s day and age to redouble any damage dealt to the wielder and return it to his enemy ten times stronger. I don’t know what the original capacity of the weapon’s abilities were, but I suspect it was capable of returning damage a few orders of magnitude higher than the initial blow, not just ten.”
She nodded. “Only a small fraction of the weapon was used in my creation. A sliver, barely a few grams. My creator Erik smelted it and it injected it directly into my blood stream. My nature is partially vampiric, so it will never filter out of my blood, and cannot be removed. It’s a powerful conceptual weapon that bypasses the need to strike altogether, and can kill even gods, which is why you need to make sure I never get the chance to use it.”
I sighed. “Jesus… where the hell did your creator even get something like that? Aren’t mythic weapons supposed to be, y’know, mythic? As in not lying around for some random schmuck to use in his freaky science experiments?”
“I think you underestimate the scale of time these weapons exist on. Some of these famous weapons are preserved in museums or held by the government, yes, but many others are simply lost to time, reappearing now and again throughout history. Others are picked up by enterprising looters, often from the corpses of their wielders, and sold with no idea of their true value. Fragarach alone has changed hands many times, been broken into many pieces and disseminated thoroughly. Erik’s family just happened to be descended from one such pieceholder.”
“Lucky him,” I remarked sarcastically. “So you can’t disobey Mickey’s orders or hurt him in any way, and if we try to attack him, he’ll sic your superweapon on us?”
“That is the sum of the current situation, yes. If you want to make Mickey vulnerable, you have to separate me from him before you launch any kind of attack, which won’t be easy. I am by his side most hours of the day, and he rarely lets me out of his sight. I only escaped to talk to you tonight because I convinced him to consume greater quantities of alcohol and hard drugs than he normally would. It took a while to get him inebriated enough that he wouldn’t notice, but I managed to sneak a sleeping pill in his drink and get him to pass out.”
“So first step of the rescue operation is getting you out without Mickey noticing.”
“Correct. You’ll need a way to contain me. As I said, I cannot help but follow Mickey’s orders. Once he’s in danger, I’ll panic and become unpredictable, possibly violent. I’ll suffer through it in the meantime, but you’ll have to transport me in some sort of armored vehicle and move me to a secure location from which I cannot escape. I’m faster and stronger than I look, so this will not be very easy. You will only have a chance of succeeding if I am successfully contained and en route to my holding cell before Mickey catches on. Once you have me secured, Mickey will have no way of using me to defend himself. He is ignorant of the full ramifications of our contract, and he can only force me to follow his orders, nothing more.”
“Are you trying to tell me there’s more he could make you do if he knew how?”
“No, I’m trying to tell you that we’re lucky. If he knew what I was capable of, there’d be no chance of success whatsoever.”
“Comforting. Anyway, I think we can get the equipment you’ll need. An armored supply truck and one of Paulie’s reinforced panic rooms oughta do the trick. He’s got doors on those things like bank vaults.”
“An atelier,” she demanded. “It is the safest.”
“… okay then.”
She nodded. “This will do. We can discuss the specifics of the plan once you have relayed this information to your superiors.”
I nodded. “One more question.”
“How do you expect me to get down from here?”