Personal Delivery
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

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Stars and Garters

Author's Notes for Part VIII: this story will turn disturbingly dark for a dozen or so paragraphs. Dunno why, it jus' kinda steered that way. Sorry. And: I'm assuming Logan's bones are coated in adamantium. Movie-version, I know. I've read somewhere -- and Jaya confirms it -- that according to the comic-canon, the adamantium was bonded into the bone tissue itself. As I find the first explanation more plausible, I used that one. Please feedback, any color, and feel free to lecture me. Actually, lecture me all you want, I'm a bit tired of research (strange, isn't it?) and could use some tutoring.

Disclaimer: see Parts I and V. Daubechies, Mallat and Meyer do really and truly exist and are the Founding Parents of Wavelet Analysis, and I hope they don't take it too bad if I sing their praise in a non-sci writing ... Heck, every Sci-Fi writer cites Einstein, so why not add some contemporary names to the general pool of information? Ah, Fourier was real and a genius, too, but he's long dead. I don't think he'll mind, his name has appeared in much worse and even less scientific context ::shudder::...

Rating: Occasional use of the f-word, and probably disturbing imagery about Logan's past. Does that merit for a PG-13 rating?


If I got my anatomy right, there are 19 bones in a human hand, 8 in the wrist, two in the forearm. Makes a total of twenty-nine bones covered in what I correctly assumed could be metal, sparing only the articulations. Of course, I could only assume it would cover both radius and cubit up to the elbow. The X-ray showed only the distal third of the forearm. And then there were three sharp-looking dense spikes that ran parallel to the forearm bones and up to the wrist, and didn't belong to the skeleton. Keeping a broken bone in place, maybe? Though, how could such enforced bones break?

Innocent me admired the minuscule windows of uncovered bone and finely rugged structure of the metal on the places of the muscle insertions, when I saw Hank's face. Oops. I wasn't supposed to see this. Of course, tired as he was, even he could make mistakes. I smiled and handed it back to him, making some stupid comment on what incredible variety of phenotypes a simple twist in the DNA could produce, and how much we could learn from Mother Nature. Or some stupid comment in that direction. Now I understand why Hank wouldn't let me just think that.

I couldn't believe his words. I'm afraid I even laughed.

"Impossible. No-one could survive something like that..."

I actually thought he was joking. Although Hank wouldn't strike me like the kind of guy who'd make up such jokes. And ... he looked so very grave.

"And he consented to that?" I whispered as his rather grim further explanation sunk into my tired brain.

The answer to that question sunk in really slow. Then I had to sit down.

"I forgot you had medical training," said Hank, and grabbed my shoulder to prevent me from keeling over. His voice sounded hoarse, and very far away.

Medical training. What did I need that for. I had a brain and a heart. And a bit too much of an imagination, for next thing I knew, blue fur filled my horizon, and a giant hand forced disgustingly sweet tea down my throat.

"Feeling better?"

I nodded. I wasn't, but at least the world had stopped spinning, and my heart was beating again.

Hank, bless him, wouldn't let go of my shoulder for the next half hour, heard me out, and didn't insist in giving me a sedative. I dreaded the nightmares I'd surely have, and I guess he understood, he must have had them himself. I think the Professor was somewhere lurking around at the edge of my consciousness, but he kept out of it. He let Hank handle the situation. You can't begin to understand how grateful I am for it.

I needed to think about it. It sounded so impossible ... and yet ... There are sick people in research. The kind of people who as kids ripped the wings off flies, or operated on stray cats, removing their kidneys or their liver and then kept them around to see them die, penning down every detail of their slow and painful decay.

The kind of people who, as they grow up, might go to Med- school, might stand at a patient's bed and coolly describe the long, deadly evolution of a sclerodermia, ignoring that scared woman's eyes grow wider and wider, while her sickly smooth, leather-skinned hand goes ice-cold in your hand.

The kind of people who would actually tell you that sometimes it's necessary to hurt people in order to make them well, or even to learn how to make them well, so you'd be wise to grow a thick fat healthy callus on that ridiculously sensitive soul of yours. The kind of people who do research in Medicine and Biology with that very convincing altruistic argumentation about helping humanity, and don't have the slightest clue of what the essence of humanity is all about.

Who, knowing when and how to apply the word 'sentient,' simply forget that others might have feelings, as they have no feelings themselves. Who might even be proud of that absence. Who end up trespassing all the limits of ethics and compassion, and never even notice it.

Those of us who bounce against those limits every other day, who strengthen them and shift them and evaluate them every other day of our life, should fear those kind of people more than anyone else. They might end up as our doctors, our hospital directors, and the directors of our research institutes. Members of the committees that decide which scientific projects get financial support. Politicians who run our universities and our health system. Scientific advisors of our governments.

I had thought I'd be able to avoid them, going into signal processing, choosing very carefully where to apply for my PhD. Choosing a humble, but dignified future rather than a possibly bright and famous one, choosing to put ethics over career. I had thought I could enclose myself into a bubble those people would be unable or unwilling to penetrate. How very stupid I am, sometimes. How very naive. They caught up with me, so easily, through an X-ray of one of their victims.

So my mother's inheritance kicked in, as always when I confront something I'm emotionally unable to handle, and my brain started working full speed. Processing information on an intellectual level. Thinking the emotions down. And the more I thought about it, the more sickening details I discovered. And the sicker it all got, the more I had to think, because the only alternative was to feel and I couldn't open the door to my emotions at that point.

Not with Hank there. Not with one, no, two telepaths in the vicinity. I thought and thought and voiced my thoughts. And Hank stayed. He actually stayed. And held my shoulder, and he didn't even know me, nor owe me anything. I was nothing to him, he knew me about 40 hours, I didn't even know if he fucking liked me, and he had far more reason to be upset about this kind of stuff being done than me, and yet he stayed and helped me through. Talk about contrast.

What did I think? How about this: Twenty-nine bones, in one hand and forearm alone. How many in the entire body? Even if they spared the inner bones of the skull ... or had they sliced his brain, open, too?

"It must have taken them years to develop that ... the procedure." That skill. This wasn't a skill. Coating a living, sentient being's bones with metal is an aberration. And yet ... the tendon insertions, the preservation of the bone's innervation and irrigation, the sparing of the articulations ... and how would they have achieved such a perfect molding? They must have opened ... his limbs, his chest, his head, stripped the living bone clean, measured it down to the last crack, the last furrow, the last creak, for no imaging method has that kind of resolution. They must have let him heal, and rest, while the metal coating was manufactured somewhere, then dragged him to surgery again, tried it on, checking where it didn't fit ... sending the coating back to the workshop or maybe fixing it right on spot, with this man on the table, waiting, bleeding on the table for hours, his flesh trying to close, to heal, yet pulled apart and injured again and again to keep the surgical field clear ... God. Two, three, four major surgical procedures for every single bone. They must have had years of experience on this kind of procedures to pull it through on all his bones in a ... reasonable time.

I voiced that thought. Hank looked grim.

And then the pain. "They must have handled the pain with..." I couldn't come up with anything strong enough to handle that kind of pain. Short of morphine. Which would have gotten him addicted in a very short time. Bone itself is insensitive, but the periostium, the connective tissue covering it, is sensitive like the roots of the nails. Just stand yourself up to your knees in icy water and wait 'till the cold seeps through to your shinbones. Can a healing factor help you out of a morphine addiction?

I voiced that thought. Hank just clenched his jaw.

"They must have developed the procedure on animals..." Doing this to an animal, over and over again, was pretty much as sick as doing it to a human. But there had to be a considerable shortage of mammals with that specific kind of mutation that would allow them to recover from such a surgery in a few day's time.

I voiced that thought. Hank was staring at the walls, or through the walls, and his hand squeezed my shoulder, just a bit. Stop it, I thought it meant. I couldn't.

Unless there were others, other humans, same mutation, earlier ... stages of ... the development of the ... procedure ... People with some of their bones covered in metal ... a tougher, a less perfect coating...

I voiced that thought. At that point, Hank sat down. He shook his head. There weren't any, or maybe they hadn't been found. Maybe they hadn't been allowed to survive.

Or maybe this man had been his own guinea pig.

And they must have tried over and over again to get it right, to get it perfect. Over and over again, for months, maybe for years. The X-ray showed perfection. It wasn't just the shape of the coating, the way it smoothly adjusted to the bone's contours. It was the fucking functionality. The exact thickness, the exact weight, the careful preservation of the complex dynamics of the locomotor system... the way it looked almost natural, almost like it had grown on the bone by itself. Whoever had done this, had had high standards. Very sick, very high standards. And a hell of an experience in biomechanics and engineering.

I voiced that thought. He managed a smile that belied the sadness in his eyes.

"I never considered that kind of detail. You might be right."

Of course he wouldn't. Considering those fucking details was almost as sick as coming up with the idea in the first place. I had to stop thinking.

And then, finally, that stupid question, that childish, whining, idiotic, inevitable question just popped out of me.

"Who would do something like that?"

Which actually meant: how is it possible that anyone walking and breathing under the bright blue sky could do such a monstrous thing. Please tell me it was someone sick. A bunch of schizos, some multiple personalities, some seriously clinically disturbed mental patients that somehow escaped from their high-security ward. Hank didn't answer. I hadn't really expected him to. Or maybe I had. Hoped to be told they had been caught and put to a horrible death. And I'm against death penalty, mind you.

I had to stop thinking. I had to think about something else.

"Where's that data you promised?"

Hank looked at me, unbelievingly.

"Please," I pleaded. "Let's get something done." I need to work. Make me think, hard, force me to wring out my brain to try to catch up with your most casual comment, so I won't keep thinking on how or why they did it. Just say something brilliant and let me ponder it for the next five days. You can do it, Dr. McCoy. Just open your mouth and say anything. Recite Shakespeare for all I care.

And to show I really meant it, I hit the eject button of the disk drive.

So for the next hour or so we just worked. Electromyogram, acquired during repetitive flexion of the forearm. Simple enough. What made it interesting was that there were fifteen electrodes, mapping the space along the biceps. We filtered, plotted histograms and correlations, ran 2-d Fourier and wavelet analysis, calculated the embedding dimension in phase space. Ran routine after routine and printed graph after graph. Until I found myself sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a table in the EPh-lab, surrounded by colorful printouts, stirring a (very watered) tea with a chewed-on pencil, squinting over a broad, white-clad shoulder and past a shock of blue hair at the screen, and blinking away the tears from my burning eyes, and actually hooked enough by the data to be desperately wiggling my toes instead of taking a trip to the nearest bathroom. And frantically rubbing my belly as if there was a flea's birthday celebration going on in my navel.

I had seen that time-frequency pattern before.

I love wavelet analysis, folks. Screw windowed Fourier. Wavelet's the gig. Vivat Daubechies & Mallat & Morlet. And I'm a fast learner, provided I encounter a helluva teacher, like the one that had been sitting quite motionless for the past few minutes, an unwrapped Twinkie slowly melting in his hand.

"Ahm ... Hank? Frequency modulation," I said.

"Hum," made Hank, and it sounded like a faraway thunder. Or more like...

I leaned forward until I almost dropped off the table, and cast a sideward glance at his face. No, his eyes were open. Very bloodshot, very deep into their sockets, and extremely alert.

"Twelfth octave," he mumbled, stuffed the entire Twinkie into his mouth, pushed up his spectacles and started hitting the keys. So he had spotted it, too. Even before me. Why should I be surprised?

And twelfth octave, at two thousand samples a second, would mean ... I fished the pencil out of my tea and reached out for some paper.

"Point one twenty-five Hertz, seven point five a minute," murmured Hank to himself, while calling up yet another routine. Geez, how could this guy still be computing this fast in his head?

"You were right," he added, "Morlet brings it out."

And behold, there it was, a crystal-clear frequency modulation in phase with the motion. And I had seen such a pattern before.

"Injury," I breathed.

He looked at me and blinked. He hadn't?

Why should he? He was a biochemist, a microbiologist, a genetist, even a physician and a friggin' genius, but not a full-time electrophysiologist, and not an omniscient god. And I had seen that pattern only once, in one rather puny little paper of one of our local medical journals back home, so unimportant it wasn't even listed in the Medline. The author had reported a very similar-looking frequency modulation in an athlete who had a hardly detectable bone splinter in his leg, piercing into his muscle every time he exercised. The injury was so small it hardly hurt the guy, but it showed in the electromyogram, provided you crunched it with wavelet analysis. Neither I, nor anyone in my former lab had taken that result too seriously, as the author had badly blundered in the Method section. But maybe...

Hank listened attentively, then his eyebrows danced skywards again and he actually beamed.

"It makes sense," he smiled.

"It does?" I grinned, proudly, and then I hopped off the table and sprinted to the bathroom as nature imposed itself.

By the time I was back, Hank had repeated the same analysis in another set of data and was processing the third. He looked wide awake again.

The alteration appeared in all the data sets, with variable amplitude. Depending on the exercise. But time-independent. Which was quite weird in a 1-hour acquisition, unless ... the test person kept repairing the injury during the exercise.

The X-ray. Of course.

A tiny little flaw in the perfect design, you fucking sadists?

Continued in Chapter Nine.