Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 3: Alex Melnyk

Monitoring: Alex Melnyk
Huliaipole, Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine.

8:30 a.m. Eastern European Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014
5:30 Coordinated Universal Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014

Meanwhile—

Alex talks to his family mostly by email nowadays. By his request he was moved away a few months ago, as soon as it became apparent how useful he could be. It didn’t take a genius to realize that, the closer he was to his family, the more likely that someone else could connect all the dots and trace the line from his employers to himself to his loved ones. There’s a lot that he will do for the sake of ideology, but needlessly endangering bystanders isn’t one of them.

His living situation leaves a few things to desired. This house is in the worse part of town, a place where questions won’t be raised if people come in and out at odd hours. There are long stretches where he has nothing to do but study for the online classes that he’s taking and surf the Web, which is more boring than it sounds when it’s been a week since you were allowed to go outside. Alex isn’t complaining, exactly, since he’s seen evidence of what happens to people who let down their guard, but it would be nice if the situation could be otherwise. Bohdan, one of his bodyguards, says it’s a lot like being in the military: long stretches of boredom punctuated by periods of adrenaline.

Bam, bam, bam goes the door, and Alex’s other bodyguard races to confirm that it’s Nazar knocking, while Bohdan twitches and puts both hands on his gun. There’s shouting at the door, rushed and incoherent to Alex’s ears. Bohdan hears it too but he continues to keep on watch even as Alex makes some last-minute adjustments. It could still be an assassination attempt. Wouldn’t be hard at all to place a fake call for medical attention, if Nazar had decided to sell them out.

The others get there about a minute later. There are four of them: Nazar and Igor, whose profuse cursing is increasing Alex’s vocabulary by the second, and someone he doesn’t recognize, plus Ivan, whose clothes are stained with blood, and Fedir, Alex’s other bodyguard, who had met them at the door.

“What were you doing?” he asks, but Nazar gives a short shake of the head and warns him off from making any inquiries. Fair enough. Alex doesn’t always get to know what they’re doing, which he guesses isn’t unreasonable. More surprising is that he is told any of it. “Make sure that he’s strapped down,” Alex orders, and then, when he tests the restraints, “Tighter. He can still move.”

“Just do it already!” shouts the one that he doesn’t recognize, but Nazar shoves him out of the way and follows Alex’s instructions.

“Get the blood out of the fridge. We’ll need to fill him up when I’m done.” Alex doesn’t close his eyes, take an extra breath, or do anything else that might waste time. Even as he’s talking, he applies his hands to Ivan’s chest. His power manifests itself, flows out of his body and into Ivan’s, and the other man begins to spasm. His fingers convulse back and forth and someone has to untangle them before one gets dislocated. The rest of his body seems to quiver beneath Alex’s touch. Ivan’s mouth is locked shut so that he can’t choke on his tongue, but a long hideous shriek still forces its way from behind his clenched teeth. Alex heard, once, that goats scream like people. He’s never cared to watch the videos, but he imagines that this is how it would sound, only an imitation of humanity.

The pain that Ivan is experiencing now is beyond accurate description. Alex’s patients never fully recall his procedures, and he’s not sure whether it’s because the torture is blocked out of their memories or if they aren’t even fully conscious at this point. Is it possible to be hurt so badly that the body is forced into paroxysms by sheer reflex? Whatever the answer, the few tatters that Ivan does remember will continue to resurface in his dreams in the nights to come. He’s only been at this for a few months, but it would still be a better sign if any of his first patients had begun to forget the trauma. Anesthesia could possibly alleviate the problem, but administering it is…complicated. He might kill someone.

As Alex works, so do the others. By now, most of the operation is rote to him, or at least he’s able to block out the parts that aren’t Ivan, shaking and shouting in front of him. Someone is handing him equipment when necessary. Someone is preparing the blood. Someone is supplying the few scant facts that Alex has been allowed to know, and which he must know, such as the number of bullets that he needs to remove.

Leonardo da Vinci said that a vase of unbaked clay, when broken, could be remolded, but not one that had been baked. Under Alex’s hands, though, all baked clay becomes fresh again. Beneath his touch of his own flesh, all other flesh becomes wet and ready to be molded, and no one can die while he is shaping them. After his power has ceased to flow, then the natural processes of the body resume and death is possible again, which is why it is necessary to make sure that everything has been put back together before he is done, but for now, his fingers graze over the wounds and leave whole flesh in their wake.

There are limits to his powers. Alex can only twist and fashion. He is not an alchemist, so when he needs more of a certain tissue he must call for spare organs to render down or, if there are none that would be suitable, make do with the material at hand and settle for thinner walls or fewer fibers. Bone, too, is beyond his influence, but that does mean that the fragments are easy enough for him to retrieve. His fingers trail through Ivan’s torn body as though it is water and collect bone and bullets with ease. Someone will have to deal with the fractures later.

Nazar touches his shoulder. “Don’t finish yet,” he says. “Ivan needs a new face.”

Alex pauses for a split second, hands still on Ivan’s body, and then he resumes his work. If he asked, he wouldn’t be told what’s going on, why Ivan needs to disappear or for how long, or who is looking for him. All that’s there for Alex to do is the task at hand. Acne scars are erased, but shallow wrinkles are carved in their place. Fat is moved around, a little bit added around the cheeks but most of it, around Ivan’s belly, simply pulled out and dropped on the floor in wet white handfuls. Alex can’t do anything about the underlying facial structure, but the shifted fat should be enough. With a final brush, he sweeps away Ivan’s beard.

“It’s done,” he mutters.

“He won’t be happy about losing the hair,” Igor observes.

“But he’ll be alive.” Nazar nods to himself, then pats Alex on the back. “Thank you. How are we doing?” he asks Ivan, but the other man is in no condition to respond. Now that the pain is over, he seems barely aware. Perhaps, having been brought down from the heights of agony, all other sensation pales in comparison. Whatever. The others always snap out of it.

There is little to admire about the Ukrainian mafia, but it is still there. Alex may find their line of work to be distasteful, but by their very existence they delegitimize the State and its powers. He is under no delusions about their true nature—they are feudal lords and heartless bosses just as bad as the bastards in Kiev, or worse. And yet, their interests are in alignment for now.

The thing is, Alex can’t effect any measurable, lasting change on his own. The Free Territory had been a noble dream, but it had died ignobly just three years after its birth. In order to do better, Alex will not only need to re-establish a territory where human freedom can be assured but, afterwards, secure the survival of that territory. Regardless of the complexities behind their role in Crimea’s secession from Ukraine—Alex isn’t sure whether it was a net positive, in the end—the fact remains that they have already helped to carve away a region from the government, and they could potentially do so again. All that Alex needs is a way to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

For now, Alex will bide his time. Later? There are other people out there who are like him. With friends like these he should be able to find them, and maybe then he can make some better allies.

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