Souma Isa stared at the remains of the specimen with extreme discontent and a pinch of disgust; and, of course, it was not the sight of bloodied flesh itself that had rendered him disgusted. He had no aversion to any form that organic material could take, or he could not possibly be an effective researcher. Rather, it was the situation as a whole that brought him a feeling of displeasure. The heart he was working on had the most fascinating abnormal changes, ones that Isa thought could be caused not by any mutation process, but by a previously uncharacterized virus. He was about to start the procedures necessary for its successful identification and, if possible, isolation; its properties could have proved to be the most pertinent to his main research, the one that was forbidden to conduct outside of designated working hours due to one fatuous thing or another, like data reporting or occupational safety requirements. Oh, that specimen could be very useful, indeed…
If it didn’t currently lie at his feet on the unsterile floor. For no other reason but his own ungainliness.
The only one thing that Isa could do to it at present was to put it into an incinerator.
What a waste of valuable material!
The most unfortunate incident, and Isa had no one to blame for it but himself.
He bent over to collect the vestiges of his failed experiment — the heart and the container, in which it previously resided, before it was swept off the table by the primaries on his right armwing. He would dispose of the organic matter later and leave the container to service personnel for cleaning and disinfecting. He would also have paperwork to fill out and give some explanation to the loss of the specimen, and it was a very tedious and unwelcome task, resulting in more losses – wasted time, wasted energy – and further reluctance of the superiors to allocate funds to the LiSciRe Division.
After tidying up the unpleasant reminder of his inadequacy, Isa took off the gloves, a digit after a digit. As he noted distractedly, his claws demanded clipping; it had to be done every three days to prevent rips in latex. His were due for it for a couple of days already; it was becoming dangerous. Or he assumed that it was a couple of days. Without Doctor Kawara telling him when morning was, he often found himself prone to be lost in time, immersing himself in the work for hours and hours. It was a good thing that Doctor Kawara… or Ryuuji, as he was so insistent to be called… it was a good thing that he was not there. That he was not a witness of Isa’s incompetency. He was doing his job somewhere, some place far, far away from there, and it was definitely a good thing that he was not there. It was, indeed.
It was not the first time Isa himself was an impediment to their work. While other researchers fastened the metacarpal part of their armwings to the ulnar part with elastic straps, so their remiges wouldn’t obstruct them in their work, it was not possible for Isa. Motor skills and sensory processing in the right side of his body weren’t fully restored even after months of intensive therapy, and when he tried to use straps on his right armwing, it hindered his ability to use it to the point of utter failure. Tied up, his armwing went completely numb in a matter of minutes, and no possible ways of binding Isa was capable of inventing could help resolve the issue. Trained ambidexterity and acquired habit to use his left armwing could not replace being a fully functional two-armwinged birdperson in a laboratory environment, so, after multiple failed attempts to get adjusted to binding, Isa decided to let it be. He used his own muscles to keep remiges out of his way, and it was certainly not a perfect solution – after an hour of work or so he usually got cramps, and the operability of his armwing degraded severely. However, it usually still allowed for all the necessary manipulations, so he couldn’t complain.
Unless in the cases like the present one, when his impediment turned out to be detrimental, being the reason he had to discard the results of his two-or-so-day work.
It would be so much easier, if pointless metacarpal just didn’t exist or if it morphed into additional digits; the birdkind lost their ability to fly anyway, having acquired an orthograde body and a brain capable of true sentience in its stead. Having birdlike wings as a substitute for manipulator extremities would be extremely inconvenient to any sentient being, as the very notion of sentience is inconceivable without means and tools to alter the world in extremely precise ways. A pure thought that does not externate itself onto its environment could exist; however, what would be the quality of that thought, if it were impossible to collect knowledge and to verify it? Experience requires experiments, and the more complex is the experience you desire, the more elaborate the experiments should be. Simple observations could be enough for an unthinking animal, but not for a being in possession of a sapient mind. To gain the knowledge of the Universe, one should seek for it actively, rearranging the reality in controlled ways to obtain the information one needs, not just information of any kind. Not being able to control and influence what you observe, not being able to choose what you observe – observe and then process… not being able to do that – it would be frustrating in the extreme.
Even slight impediments to the ability to control his body and, by extension, his environment were frustrating.
They reeked of incompetence.
And Isa could not allow himself to be incompetent.
He just couldn’t.
Not with Doctor Kawara… Ryuuji… relying on him.
Someone far more brilliant than Isa could have ever hoped to be was able to afford being sloppy or messy, or not a little disorganized; they would make up for it with their sheer brilliance and scientific intuition. Isa knew he did not have plenty of it; neither was he able to compensate for it with extreme productivity and multitasking. He always wondered, how Doctor Kawara managed to juggle his numerous projects, and appointments, and favours he agreed for so willingly and unconditionally. Just observing him fulfilling several undertakings simultaneously and still finding time to leave an encouraging note and candies to snack on was the experience that was equally draining and inspiring. No birdperson could possibly be capable of returning after a week’s business trip in the morning, reporting to their superiors with a spectacular hour-long presentation before the afternoon, spending several hours with the head of another department on a research that is not even their specialty and poses nothing but a personal appeal, then proceeding with tending to their laundry and long-winded recountal of their adventures during the trip (which, somehow, included snorkeling and futile attempts to establish communication with sea cucumbers, even though the meeting was taking place in Finland), and even then, spending hours on their designated research, working in the environment where one single mistake could mean the death of you, literally.
And then – still, then – pulling an all-nighter with their colleague for the sole purpose of discovering if it is possible to eewoowoo Ambystoma mexicanum too.
Doctor Kawara was downright terrifying at times, with his seemingly infinite ability to be everywhere, to do everything, and – even more incredibly – to associate with everyone. Except, evidently, for sea cucumbers.
No such person could possibly exist, but he did.
Sometimes, Isa did not even feel as if being in the shadow of him.
He felt as if he was chasing it, chasing with all his skill and all his effort, and still staying stuck in one place, too slow and too unqualified to ever even reach it.
There had to be something to do about it. There had to be something, still.
And the solution, come to think of it, was simple.
If something stands in the way of getting work done, something should be gotten rid of.
It was not an extremely rare occasion, for a birdperson to lose the metacarpal part of their armwing for one reason or another. The metacarpal bones were thin and frail, especially after the changes that avian bodies underwent after being exposed to the mutafacient virus, and did not serve any real purpose anymore. They got fractured quite often, and the process of bone tissue regeneration was usually full of complications, making the perfect bone modelling to be highly unlikely. However, oddly enough, an injured birdperson usually preferred to keep that part of their armwing, no matter how unusable or even disfigured it had become – something, that Isa had never been able to understand.
Quite possibly, it had something to do with the fact that more than a half of amputees were low-grade menial workers and criminals who got their metacarpal part lost in a grisly or violent (and grisly) accident, or it was ablated (or how it was called, “clipped”) intentionally as a proof of commitment to a certain lifestyle. Quite a vexatious cultural superstition; it was the most unreasonable to dispraise someone for the body alteration resulting in increased capability. If the whole manus part of the armwing were removed, it would disable a birdperson gravely, indeed; however, with all three digits intact, what could possibly be so foul about it?
There were a lot of things Isa did not understand about the society. Some rules, especially the “unwritten” ones, seemed to be entirely unsubstantiated and unreasonable. Or, possibly, they had been reasonable years ago, for the undeveloped and underdeveloped societies of the past; however, it did not necessarily mean that they were pertinent to the current state of affairs. Some of them were adopted directly from the humankind, without even a feeble attempt to verify them and ascertain their viability for different species and different circumstances. It was such a mindless way of living, and so full of needless burdens; and the ones who suffered from it most certainly brought that upon themselves. They pursued worldly, vain things with their eyes shut, refusing to admit that the objects of their desire lacked true substance, and then they got buried underneath, as shallow and empty as they had ever been, because their treasures failed to provide content for them.
Much like his parents did.
It was only fair, to despise them and to abhor their values. If they knew what he was about to do to himself, they would despise him too.
In was an unwelcome thought, not for the reason that the scorn of long-deceased birdpeople was uncomfortable to think about, but for the one that any family-related thought was a thought wasted, regardless of circumstances. So Isa banished it and focused on the situation at his digits.
He raised his right armwing and looked at his radiocarpal joint, as if seeing it for the first time. It was the first time indeed, to look at it with the eyes of a surgeon, not of a person in possession of the body it was attached to.
There was the joint itself, a bulge under the skin, unseen under the covert feathers. Several small bones, more than birds have – their carpal and metacarpal bones were fused together into the carpometacarpus. A funny thing, mutation. Any common birdperson would consider themselves someone from an evolved species; but the changes in their physiology had nothing to do with natural selection. And speaking about being "evolved"... Actually, in terms of skeletal structure it was quite the opposite. Bones were changing back, reverting the modification they had undergone in the process of adapting to flight, and the modern birdkind had more in common with ancient reptiles than with birds themselves. It also bore a resemblance to humans, but the similarity was superficial; the body parts serving the same function as human ones were, in fact, quite dissimilar anatomically. In some cases, the differences worked against birdpeople, and currently Isa was looking right at one of those cases. Human hand was extremely effective at holding and manipulating small objects; birdpeople's digits – not so much. They had one additional phalanx, but it wasn't very useful; it turn, they lacked palm, and it was a grave detriment to their functionality. Another piece of evidence towards the birdkind's close-mindedness. They could optimize the shape of the objects in their day-to-day use to correspond with the particularities of their morphology and to meet their specific needs; however, they preferred to steal the concepts of those objects along with their outward geometry from humans, paying no regard to its practicability and ergonomic adequacy. Even money, something that was meant to be handled many times a day, were the same as human coins and bills had been, just alternatively decorated. Without a palm to hold them, coins were lost; and paper bills were torn by claws so easily. It would be much more rational to avoid using such a flimsy material and to shape coins as rings, not as small roundlets. But no one thought about it. No one was interested in knowing how to do things better, how to make them work.
Probably, Isa shouldn't be interested in it too?
There was nothing he was able to do about how the society worked, or anything within the said society. To change something, one has to go out and talk to people, and to be persuasive about it. Charismatic and sociable and assertive and knowing whom to smile and whom to make a compliment and whom to pay a visit. Everything that Isa wasn't.
And, most certainly, you had to be an aesthetically pleasing person with both armwings whole and intact.
Someone Isa wasn't going to be for much longer.
Good riddance. He could never be any person other than himself, anyway.
The windowless rooms of the laboratory are his domain, and in that domain, he had to be as capable as he could possibly be.
So, yes. Good riddance.
Both Isa's arms were bandaged and at different stages of healing, when his mentor returned. He was so loud in his greetings directed at someone in the corridor, that Isa had plenty of time to get a grip on himself and to stop his hands from shaking. He didn't know what was the emotion that had caused it; something was kerning in him and propagating through his body like malignancy, but intangible and even harder to grasp. It wasn't fear and it wasn't excitement, per se, just an epinephrine or norepinephrine reaction, purely physiological. It was nothing, truly. The next several minutes were nothing to be feared of or to be excited for. He just had to face it and to move on, because it wasn't a big deal, really, and he would genuinely appreciate if Doctor Kawara expressed the same sentiment. Or would he? Indeed, he would.
Doctor Kawara... Ryuuji entered, wound up and winded, with his gate as brisk as ever and his whole demeanor the same as always. A bit dusty after the trip, and his plumage a shade lighter. Eradiating the sense of his own presence.
Isa had to quench the unwarranted impulse to hide those bandaged hands behind his back.
Standing like that before his colleague and mentor did wonders to his ability to realize why other birdpeople were so eager to consider their remiges as something that was immediately associated with one's dignity.
But he wasn't the same as other birdpeople.
His pride might be of the same nature, but it lay in the different sphere.
So he willed himself to keep his hands where they had been – the bandages and the glaring absence of several bones, and the stubs, mostly hidden in coverts, in the place where the primary and the secondary feathers were supposed to be; and everything else, reshaped.
Ryuuji froze with his beak open.
Come to think of it, his usual "good morning" greeting had to be extremely inappropriate to the situation, or so Ryuuji was bound to think.
Thuswise, it was Isa who said those words to him, on that occasion.
His husky "good morning", a bit rusty from under-utilization, rendered Ryuuji effervescent from speechless in a snap of a digit. Isa blinked, and there Ryuuji was, in front of him, too close for comfort, his feathers tousled and his eyes fevered, his posture agitated. He did an abrupt motion with his armwings, the one that looked as if he wanted to grasp Isa's bandaged hands but then thought better of it and stopped himself from reaching out. That was fortunate, because grabbing them would probably be quite painful, at least for the left hand.
"What... What is it? Was... Was there an accident? A fight? Are you hurt? Ah, silly me, of course you're hurt. What has happened?"
Despite being showered with torrent of frantic questions, as startling as it was, Isa was determined to answer in a calm and succinct manner. Like any mature and competent professional was meant to.
"There were no such occurrences, and I am not hurt. Tell me about your business trip. I want to hear everything," he responded, very informatively.
"My trip?" Ryuuji cried out. "Never mind the trip! What about you?"
Internally, Isa sighed. Indeed. He should tell and be done with it. Why telling the truth was so difficult in this case anyway? He had never had any issues with speaking his mind before. The truth was straight and simple, and everything was the way it was; and no one who holds knowledge in high regard should shun away from it. He had chosen to make a sacrifice in the name of revealing the secrets of the world around; to obscure things he had done for it was counterintuitive and highly unreasonable.
"I did it myself. I surgically removed the metacarpal part and remiges. They were interfering with the work."
He said it, and it was easy. Just ignore the flashes of memory, uninvited and unwelcome. Planning the surgery, scheduling it: two procedures, three days apart, simple. Choosing the armwing that was going to be removed first: simple calculations and estimates. What armwing was the most likely to regain its functionality in the shortest time? Questions, then answers. Administration of local anaesthesia. The first incision. The sense of extreme discomfort. The second time, even more tedious. Oscillating bone saw, scratching the bone – from the inside. To tie a ligature with a three-day-ago wounded hand, how... challenging.
What an odd feeling, when red surrounded by monochrome turns searing white than gray than black.
He should have written down everything. If it were not for the lack of spare extremities.
Ryuuji, finally, closed his beak and fell silent. He studied Isa intently for a moment or two, his feathers still in complete disarray, but the look in his eyes not so fretted anymore and full of unusual gravitas. Then he stretched his armwing out once more and took Isa's right hand by the wrist, carefully. Isa resigned himself to inevitable examination and stood still, patiently waiting through turning and flexing and pulling and prodding and partial unwrapping.
In the end, after releasing his grip, Ryuuji said, "You should've waited for me."
Isa felt something twisting in him, something writhing and tying itself into knots. It was quite peculiar, given that not even one of his internal organs was capable of doing so. There also was the familiar urge to run his beak over the rumpled covert feathers and the scales on his digits, and over the disturbed bandages too. But Isa suppressed that urge, the inappropriate impulse to indulge such a childish habit. He was no child, as he hadn't been for quite a long time already. For much longer than he was working in the LiSciRe Division under Ryuuji's supervision, for sure.
"So you could talk me out of it? This is my decision, and it has nothing to do with you."
The answer wasn't the one he could predict and prepare himself for.
"Of course I wouldn't be talking you out of it!" Ryuuji flung his armwings up emphatically. "That was an admirable decision to make. I wish the others were that dedicated. It's just that it would be much more expedient to let me perform the amputations. It could be done in one go, and it wouldn't be so messy. Look, here: to be on the safe side, you had to leave a longer stump, so as not to damage the muscles and tendons around your alula. A longer stump means that you won't be able to use it as an additional digit. Also, the incisions weren't precise, and the sutures you applied were all over the place, so there will be lots of scar tissue. Therefore, the mobility of your joints is impaired, and that's bad; don't you agree with me? If it was me who performed the surgery, the result would be so much better, and, even more importantly, you wouldn't have to go through it yourself, alone. It made so much sense to ask me for it, so why didn't you?"
The writhing knot in Isa's insides uncoiled and tightened again, flooded with a fresh wave of something that felt uncomfortably close to embarrassment. In retrospect, Ryuuji was right. Absolutely, completely right in his admonitions. What had possessed him, to overlook the possibility of seeking assistance? To do something so ill-judged? The thought of placing himself in somebody else's digits didn't even cross his mind.
"You were away, and I couldn't wait for your return. Your business trips are long," he said, and his point sounded weak even to him.
"So you'd rather risk your health and your future performance than wait several days and let me do the job," Ryuuji sighed. "That's just ridiculous. And nonsensical. You should rely on others more, Isa. Don't forget, I'm always here to help you, trips or no trips. May be not always, but still. It's not like I'm going to vanish into thin air one day. It would be quite unscientific."
However, no matter how encouraging and cheery Ryuuji's words were, they did nothing to loosen the knot.
Isa felt ashamed for doing something so irrational, for being lectured like a schoolbird by the last person he wanted to let consider him as a child.
Yes, he did. He, most decidedly, did.
He felt ashamed for doing it, right. But he didn't regret it.
For the simple reason that he couldn't even imagine himself going by the Ryuuji's advice.
"I hope, next time you decide to do something drastic, you'll go right to me. You don't have to face it alone," Ryuuji added and laid his digits on Isa's shoulder, partly wrapping him in the feathers of his armwing.
He was warm and close, and unbearable for it.
Isa nodded silently, hoping that it looked convincing enough to drop the subject.
It, probably, did, because Ryuuji drew back and put some distance between them – something, that, at the moment, Isa was very grateful for.
It looked like the right place to end the conversation and lay its topic to rest, so he resorted to something that he had almost never done before.
He was about to suggest visiting the mess hall and getting dinner.
Ryuuji was, probably, very hungry after the trip.
But Isa never got a chance to open his beak and actually articulate it.
Because Ryuuji said, less to him and more to himself, contemplatively,
"Although, for future occasions, it will be even more expedient to enhance birdpeople genetically, so they'd have human arms and hands instead of armwings since birth. How do you think... Is it possible?"
And, unlike some other Ryuuji's ideas, the ones that Isa was quite determined not to think about at the moment, the one in question sounded possible, indeed.