'I'm not going to get the job done any faster if you sit here watching me.'
Even without looking up from her work, Touko could feel the weight of Shiki's glare. It wasn't quite at her usual strength -- the fight against the old Fujou Building's ghostly shadows, and the resulting blood loss, had left Shiki without much to draw on in the way of physical reserves -- but it certainly had enough power behind it to elevate it well beyond typical teenage sullenness. She had wandered over to peer more closely at one of the half-finished dolls propped against the wall, and Touko figured that it was high time for her to either go home or stay the night.
'Figured you might need to test it,' Shiki said, though the words came out more like a grumble. 'Make me try it on. Do stuff with it. Something.'
'I will, eventually.' With a quick click of laptop keys, Touko opened a new window on her electrical calibration program. With her other hand, she reseated the main pin holding back one of the flaps of 'skin' on Shiki's replacement arm, before the material could slip loose and interfere with her work. 'But you might as well go home for now. I should be done with this by tomorrow night.'
Shiki let out a thin hiss. 'Tomorrow night?'
This time, Touko did look up. 'The longer you keep talking to me,' she said placidly, with just a hint of an obnoxious smile around her eyes, 'the longer it'll take me to finish. So unless you want to empty the coffee pot and make us a fresh batch, I won't ask you to wait around.'
The deliberately calm tone had the desired effect, because Shiki turned on her heel with a disgruntled snort. Her empty kimono sleeve fluttered briefly before she caught it with her remaining hand, and pulled it closer to her body.
'Call me when it's done.' Her boots clomped on the workroom floor as she crossed the room, and she wasn't particularly quiet about opening and shutting the door as she left.
Touko snorted as well, partly amused and partly exasperated. 'You're welcome,' she said to the empty air.
With Shiki gone, the rest of the room seemed to narrow and shrink to the long illuminated table where Touko had spread out her work. Shiki's late-night expedition to the Fujou Building had raised more questions than it had solved about the string of suicides at the site, but whatever force she'd tangled with there had won their first encounter. Only Shiki would have had the nerve to cut off her own left hand -- ruining Touko's fine craftsmanship in the process -- to avoid joining the ranks of the girls who'd already fallen to their deaths. Admittedly, there was something to admire in Shiki's direct approach to the threat, for all that it meant redoing many hours of time and effort spent on a delicate piece of puppetry. All the same, Touko could see that she'd underestimated the amount of strain that Shiki might put on an artificial arm, so regardless of what had happened to it, it was time for an upgrade. Version 1.1, or maybe even Version 2.0 if she really threw herself into the work and decided to rebuild the whole thing from scratch. But she didn't have much time.
Her computer thrummed softly, waiting for her to resume her tests. Touko rolled her shoulders back, cracked four out of the five main knuckles on her right hand, and picked up a thin metal probe.
'All right, you,' she declared, twirling the probe through her fingers. 'Let's see what we can do.'
Hands, Touko decided, about two hours into her work, are an absolute pain in the ass.
The observation wasn't exactly something she could complain about to most people. Perhaps only an orthpaedic surgeon, or a physical therapist, or one of those old bone-setters who still plied their ancient trade to tight-lipped grannies...but even then, they wouldn't truly understand her frustrations. The complicated jumble of tiny bones, tendons, and muscles that made up the wrist and lower fingers required both precision and patience to recreate and assemble, even with an earlier model to serve as a guide. Fit them together even a fraction too tightly, and you'd have a nearly frozen claw, one that looked presentable from the outside but would be no more useful than a carved piece of wood. Try to compensate by loosening things up, and you'd easily end up with a weak, floppy mess of bone and flesh that couldn't even be called a hand at all.
The muscles in her back were starting to ache from bending over, so she straightened up and twisted her neck from side to side, feeling her vertebrae crackle and pop back into place.
Spines. Now that was a much easier job, from her perspective. A little tricky to make sure that all of the bits fit together in the proper alignment, yes, but no more so than designing a suitable support structure for a bridge or a skyscraper. Almost as much architecture as anatomy, even before you added the spinal cord and the nexus of nervous system branches into it. And faces were even more straightforward. There was something oddly fun about crafting the ligaments and muscles that would be attached to the jawline and cheekbones, knowing that those ligaments and muscles would help shape any number of facial expressions once the skin was stretched over them. Creating a nose was like a little work of fine sculpture. Even eyebrows had a certain charm, for all that they required a steady hand to set so many tiny hairs in place.
But no, Shiki had to require a replacement for one of the most aggravating, finicky parts of the human body. And Touko had to finish it in less time than she would ever normally assign to a job of this technical difficulty.
She bent over her work again, eyes darting back and forth between the finger joints she was carefully manipulating and the readout on her computer screen. The level of dexterity was nearly acceptable, but something still felt off about it. 'Reinforce that connection,' she murmured to herself. 'Tensile strength still within acceptable limits....'
Depending on the materials available, there were no end of possible modifications and adjustments that could be used to create replacement body parts that would exceed all basic parameters of normal human function. Hands that could crumple steel like tissue paper, legs with enough spring and resilience to run for days without fatigue, hearts and lungs and eyes and ears and fingertips and vocal cords that would be able to operate on levels no human being could hope to match. Even with Shiki's existing peculiarities -- not merely her eyes, but also her reflexes and fighting skills honed by the Ryougi family's ancient training regimens -- there was still plenty of room for improvement. And Shiki would doubtless find a way to take advantage of any improvement that Touko might think to provide for her. The real challenge, then, was to add all of those improvements and at the same time still make the hand look and feel like the real thing.
After another five minutes (that felt more like fifteen) of fine calibration, Touko had to sit up straight again and wipe her hands clean in order to massage a crick in her neck. Spasm of the levator scapulae, to be precise. Then again, a more precise definition didn't make it any less painful.
'You're getting old, Aozaki,' she sighed, and winced as she kneaded the tense muscle with the ball of her thumb. 'Can't do these long stretches like you used to.'
She had to get up and walk around. It was time for a break anyway.
There was a fresh pack of cigarettes in her desk drawer, but Touko didn't feel like going back to her office. Kokutou would still be there, sprawled on her worn-out couch, locked in the coma-like sleep that had fallen upon him after his own ill-judged trip to the Fujou Building. He was safe enough for now, but only the slight rise and fall of his chest, the thin flutter of pulse beneath the skin of his neck, seemed to separate him from the half-finished constructions that hung on the walls of her workroom.
Unless a body has a soul to move it, it's nothing but a container. That was how she had explained things to Shiki. The body lying on the sofa out there was Kokutou, and yet it wasn't.
Touko stood and pushed her chair in. Her laptop could stay running, and Shiki's arm wouldn't be hurt by being left alone for a few minutes. She could even do without the smoke for now -- there was something she had to check on, or she'd never be able to summon enough concentration to keep working tonight.
As she moved out from underneath the bright overhead lights, she had to blink repeatedly as her vision adjusted to the dimness of the rest of the room. Without her glasses, the glare was easier to bear, but she still needed to press a hand briefly to her eyes to suppress the faint ache that threatened to build into something more painful.
It was hard to believe that there was once a time when she could have stayed at her workbench for hours on end. Fuelled by a diet of coffee and cigarettes, mainly, but in those days she hadn't wanted to set aside her projects for more than the time it would take to cram a sandwich into her mouth or pour a cup of cheap noodles down her throat. Even at its most tedious, it had been good, productive, solid work, cutting up cadavers to study their crude parts or tinkering with the minute details of an animatronic puppet's fine motor control, all the while revelling in the slow and steady burn of magic that was better than any caffeine or nicotine rush. Some of her old associates had turned up their noses at the smells of formaldehyde and scorched plastics that clung to her clothes, but their dismissals were easy to ignore. Their magic had seemed like a bunch of silly games, as far as she was concerned. Why waste all of one's time fiddling about with incantations and incense like a mangy old monk? The human body had secrets enough for several lifetimes of study, and once upon a time Touko had been devoted to delving into all of them, seeking the true origins of life in the living, rather than the dead.
That had all changed, a few years back. Before Kokutou had found Garan-no-dou, intruding on her well-warded sanctuary as blithely as if he had been meant to find it all along. Before Shiki had woken to a new, hollow world where she could see the fault lines in all creation. Before either of them had come into her life, Aozaki Touko's faith in her own research had been all but destroyed -- and at her own hand, no less.
A few steps brought her to the far wall of the workroom, to a door that appeared to be blocked by two cartons of empty binders and a box full of tangled wires. It looked like a forgotten side exit, the sort built to comply with the fire codes but never actually convenient enough to use. Touko had made it look even more inconvenient with the (apparently) haphazard pile of junk in front of it, and neither Shiki nor Kokutou had so much as looked at it. But the path to the door was actually fully clear, if you knew how to step over and around the barriers, and Touko had no difficulty crossing to the door and resting her fingertips on the handle.
Kokutou had occasionally reproached her (in his typically mild way) for leaving so many of her puppets around the workroom in various stages of completion. If he had been a bit better versed in magecraft, he would have suspected that there was a reason for her untidiness. Just as fighter planes and battleships deploy clouds of metallic chaff to confuse enemy radar, Touko used her collection of puppets, her empty vessels, to shield one particular project that had special meaning for her.
She knew exactly what was behind the door. Yet for a brief moment -- half a heartbeat -- she hesitated before opening it.
The motion sensor just inside the door flickered on, casting a wan glow on Touko's face as she looked into the small room on the other side. The room, scarcely larger than a walk-in closet, was empty except for a single high-backed chair...and the puppet that occupied it.
A container. That was how it was easiest to think of it, because otherwise even Aozaki Touko would feel a frisson of discomfort at the life-sized duplicate of herself sitting in the chair.
Aozaki, what do you seek?
The idea of making a puppet version of herself had started out as a personal, private joke: the puppetmaker's equivalent of the old saying Could God create a rock so heavy that even he couldn't lift it? Could she create a puppet so similar to herself that it would match her down to the last detail? The more she had thought about it at the time, the more possibilities seemed to open before her. Any half-decent puppetmaker could throw together a creation that would surpass its creator in some way, whether in a golem's brute strength or a Galatea's physical beauty or a chess-playing computer's artificial intelligence. But by working within one's own limitations and imperfections -- by deliberately creating an exact duplicate of herself, nothing more and nothing less than a second Aozaki Touko -- she would prove that the true skill of the mage's craft lay within recreating humans as they truly were, rather than as they aspired to be.
Aozaki, where do you seek it?
At first, it had been fun in ways that she never would have dreamed possible. She'd taken no small amount of glee (an unholy glee, some of her instructors might have said) in trying to come as close as possible to recreating her own shape and form, inside and out. She'd spent an entire month photographing and videotaping herself from every conceivable angle, mapping her whole exterior like a building surveyor. She'd subjected herself to any number of invasive medical procedures, not least of which had involved faking a head injury in order to obtain an MRI and a complete skull series of x-rays for her personal use. Even when she'd nearly burned the epidermis off her own hands, trying to replicate the loops and whorls of her fingerprints and palm lines with special wax castings, the pain that lingered in her nerve endings for weeks was a potent reminder that no sacrifice was too great for such a masterwork of art, the pinnacle of her magecraft. After all, even if something irreparable were to happen to her physical body, her soul would always have a container waiting for it, and not even death would be able to crush her ambitions.
If she had put a little more thought into it at the time, beyond the purely technical details, she might have considered a little more carefully why so many creators sought to build something greater or lesser than themselves.
Aozaki, what do you wish for?
Even now, looking at her puppet, she felt the same sinking sense of disorientation that she had felt at the moment of its completion. The puppet -- dressed in her habitual black trousers and white button-down shirt, with painted fingernails and red hair tied back -- sat with its arms hanging limp at its sides and its head lolling slightly to one side, as if she ( it ) had nodded off while reading or watching television. For just a second, she couldn't be sure whether she was really standing in the doorway or if she was sitting down in the chair. It wasn't just a puppet, a container, a hollow shrine -- it was herself, her exact self, so similar that it would have been impossible to tell the two of them apart. She was the one standing in the doorway. She was the one sitting in the chair. She was awake and not awake, alive and not alive, like that imaginary cat trapped in its cyanide-laden box.
And what was the point of it all? If she dropped dead of a heart attack right that second, would the puppet in the chair stand up, walk back over to her workbench, and finish the work she'd started -- as if nothing had happened? If she stood side by side with her puppet and asked Shiki to turn her Mystic Eyes on both of them, would the same network of fatal fault lines criss-cross them both?
(Once upon a time, she would have craved with every fibre of her being to know what Shiki would have seen. Now, the thought only made her feel hollow inside. Empty.)
Touko stepped back, swaying a little with the dizzying feeling of someone retreating from the edge of a precipice, and let the door swing shut. The motion sensor's light would remain on for a few more minutes before the puppet was once again alone in the dark.
'Well,' she exhaled, as if blowing out a lungful of smoke. Her lips curled in the beginnings of a twisted grin. 'Never let it be said that the Deterrent Force lacks a sense of irony.'
Still grinning to herself, she picked her way over and around the piles of junk and headed back to her workbench. Shiki's arm was just as she had left it, ready for her to resume her work.
In the end, perhaps it was better this way. There was something to be said for having a perfect excuse to avoid the perpetual bullshit of the Mages' Association and the dirty old men who ran it, with all of their hand-wringing over bloodlines and factions. Kokutou, Shiki, and Azaka gave her enough trouble to deal with to keep her from getting bored, and she had any number of commissions and side projects that were hers for the taking. She could pick and choose what she wanted to do with her time and her talents. She didn't need to prove her powers to anyone anymore; she'd proved them to herself all too well for that. And if one day her luck ran out, and she opened her eyes and found herself sitting in the chair in that little room....
She trusted herself enough to know that it ( she ) would pick up right where she'd left off, and do whatever needed to be done. No matter how many containers she might make, she had only the one soul.
In the meantime, Ryougi Shiki needed her expertise. And it was good to remind herself, every so often, of exactly how much of an expert she was.