Viktor's third arm emitted a thin ray of light that welded metal into his left arm with steady precision. The smell of burning flesh no longer bothered him, nor did the sight of his left wrist splayed open, veins and sinewy muscle fused with mechanical augments. He did not wince. Instead, he felt a sense of achievement gazing at the seamless blend of synthetic and organic materials.
The sound of children shouting gave Viktor pause. Rarely did anyone venture down the fog-bound confines of Emberflit Alley. He had chosen this location for that very reason - he preferred not to be interrupted.
Keeping his left arm immobile, Viktor adjusted a silver dial on his iridoscope. The device contained a series of mirrored lenses that angled light to allow him full view of the street outside his laboratory.
Several children were violently shoving a malnourished boy toward Viktor's wrought iron gates.
"I doubt Naph will last a minute in there," said a girl with imitation gemstones embedded above her eyes.
"I bet he comes back with a brass head," said a boy with a shock of red hair. "Maybe then his brain won't be dull as the Gray."
"You better return with something we can sell, or we'll be the ones to give you a new head," said the largest one, grabbing the small boy by the neck and forcing him forward. The other children backed away, watching.
The young boy trembled as he approached the towering gate, which screeched as he pushed it open. He passed the front door encrusted with interlocking gears and shimmied through an open window. An alarm blared as he fell to the floor.
Viktor sighed and pressed a switch that quieted the ringing.
The skinny boy stared at his new environment. Glass jars, containing organic and metal organs floating in green fluid, lined the walls. A leather gurney stained with blood, upon which lay a mechanized drill, sat in the center of the chamber. Dozens of automatons stood motionless against every wall. To Viktor, his laboratory was a sanctuary for his most creative and vital experiments, but he could imagine it might seem frightening to a child.
The boy's eyes widened in shock when he saw Viktor at his workbench, arm splayed open on the table. He ducked behind a nearby crate.
"You will not learn anything from that box, child," said Viktor. "But on top of it, you will find a bone chisel. Hand it to me, please."
A trembling hand reached to the top of the crate and grasped the handle of the rusted metal tool. The chisel slid across the floor to Viktor, who picked it up.
"Thank you," said Viktor, who wiped off the instrument and continued work on his arm.
Viktor heard the boy's rapid breathing.
"I am replacing the twisting flexor tendons - ahem, the broken mechanism in my wrist," Viktor said, reaching into his arm to adjust a bolt. "Would you like to watch?"
The boy peeked his head around the crate.
"Doesn't it hurt?" said the boy.
"No," said Viktor. "When one eliminates the anticipation and fear of pain, it becomes entirely bearable."
"It also helps that my arm is almost completely mechanized. See for yourself."
The boy stepped away from the crate and sat across from Viktor without a word, eyes fixed on his arm.
Viktor resumed welding a new boltdrive onto the tendons beneath his skin. When he had finished, he sealed the flaps of dermis onto his arm. He drew the beam of light across the seam, cauterizing his flesh and fusing the incision.
"Why did you do that?" the boy asked. "Didn't your arm work fine as it was?"
"Do you know what humanity's greatest weakness is?"
"No..." said the boy.
"Humans consistently ignore the endless infinity of possibilities in favor of maintaining the status quo."
The boy gave him a blank stare.
"People fear change," Viktor said. "They settle with fine when they could have exceptional."
Viktor walked to his stovetop. He mixed a blend of dark powder and Dunpor cream into a saucepan, heating the liquid with his laser.
"Would you like a glass of sweetmilk?" said Viktor. "A weakness of mine, but I have always enjoyed the anise flavor."
"Um... you're not going to saw off my head and replace it with a metal one?"
"Ah. Is that what they think of me now?" Viktor asked.
"Pretty much," said the boy. "I heard one kid had theirs replaced just because they had a cough."
"Did you get this information directly?" said Viktor.
"No, it was my neighbor Bherma's cousin. Or uncle. Or something like that."
"Ah. Well in that case."
"Would replacing someone's head even get rid of a cough?" asked the boy.
"Now you are asking the right questions," said Viktor. "No, I imagine it would not be much of an upgrade. Coughing stems from the lungs, you see. And to your earlier point, I am not going to saw your head off and replace it with a metal one. Unless, of course, you want that."
"No thanks," said the boy.
Viktor poured the thick liquid into two mugs and passed one to the boy, who stared longingly at the hot drink.
"It is not drugged," said Viktor and took a sip from his own mug. The boy gulped down the sweetmilk.
"Are the others still watching outside?" said the boy through stained teeth.
Viktor glanced through his iridoscope. The three children were still waiting by the front entrance.
"Indeed they are. Do you wish to give them a scare?" Viktor said.
The boy's eyes lit up, and he nodded.
Viktor handed him a sonophone and said, "Scream as loud as you can into this."
The boy gave an exaggerated, blood-curdling shriek into the sonophone. It echoed along Emberflit Alley, and the other children jumped in terror, quickly scattering to hide. The boy looked at Viktor and grinned.
"I find that fear is more often than not a limiting emotion," said Viktor. "Tell me something that scares you, for example."
"The Chem-Barons are feared because they project an air of dominance and often the threat of violence. If no one feared them, people would stand up to them. And then where would their power go?"
"Away. Exactly. Think of how many Chem-Barons exist compared to how many people live in Zaun. Fear is used by the powerful few to control the weak because they understand how fear works. If someone can manipulate your emotions, they can control you."
"I guess that makes sense. But I'm still afraid of them," said the boy.
"Of course you are. Patterns of fear are carved deep into your very flesh. Steel, however, has no such weakness."
Viktor retrieved a vial containing miniscule silver beads floating in milky fluid.
"That is where I may be able to assist," he said. "I have developed an augmentation that eliminates fear altogether. I could let you try it out for a short time."
"The implant will dissolve in twenty minutes."
"You're sure it's not permanent?"
"It can be, but not this one. You might find that without fear, your friends out there lose their grip. Bullies feed on fear, you see. And without it, they will starve."
The boy nursed his drink, considering the offer. After a moment he nodded to Viktor, who inserted a thin needle into the vial and injected one of the silver beads into the skin behind his ear.
The boy shuddered for a moment. Then he smiled.
"Do you feel your weakness falling away?" Viktor asked.
"Oh yes," said the boy.
Viktor walked him to the door and twisted a dial to unlock it before waving him out.
"Remember, you can always return if you wish a more permanent solution."
A wave of fog created a ghostly silhouette around the boy as he emerged from the laboratory. Viktor returned to his workbench to watch the experiment through his iridoscope.
Emberflit Alley was empty, but as soon as the boy walked out his companions emerged.
"Where's our souvenir?" asked the red-haired boy.
"Doesn't seem like little Naph has held up his end of the deal," said the girl.
"Guess we have to punish him," added the large boy. "We did promise him a new head today, after all."
"Don't you touch me," said Naph. He raised himself to his tallest height.
The bully reached for Naph's neck, but Naph turned and punched him square in the face.
Blood streamed from the bully's nose.
"Grab him!" the bully screamed.
But his companions were no longer interested in grabbing him.
Naph stepped toward the bullies. They stepped back.
"Get away from me," he said.
The bullies eyed each other, then turned and ran.
Viktor closed his iridoscope and returned to his work. He stretched the fingers of his newly repaired arm and tapped them on his desk in satisfaction.