Waiting. Yet again. Shep cursed the fates that had caused his precious hand to break, forced him to meet with that short drunkard, forced him to wait outside in the drizzle waiting for the engineer, who was already ten minutes late.
It wasn’t even as if the mission had been that hard. Sneak into a minor general’s bedchamber; slip a little extra something into his brandy, the one he always kept by the bed; sneak back out again. Hardly the stuff of legend, but one had to pay the bills. It had been so simple as well. A whore paid to keep the guard busy, but not too busy; a small poisoner’s kit stashed in a bush on the other side of the wall into General Fong’s residence; a quick climb up the drainpipe up to the balcony and in through the window, which was never closed. It had to be while the general was sleeping because he brought the brandy to bed with him and the first thing he did each morning, the drunkard, was have a glass of hair of the dog.
If only the whore hadn’t gotten ideas above her station. She’d done her job, alright; then one of her whore friends had walked past and the spare had been snagged by the general’s personal assistant. Apparently the old man had chosen that night of all nights to exercise the one muscle he never seemed to use.
Shep hadn’t know any of this, of course; like a fool he had climbed up and, hanging from the balcony by his one silver hand, he’d heard the sounds of their frenzied coupling. Down below, he’d seen the distracted guard get back to his duty; apparently the first whore wasn’t anything like as good as her partner.
Then the balcony door had crashed open, crushing his hand against the stone balcony and causing the fingers to open reflexively. Only his training prevented him from screaming, but even he couldn’t suppress a grunt as his flailing hand caught on to the balcony on the first floor. He hung, tendons screaming, from his inferior flesh hand, then dropped into the bushes below.
Shep remembered how he had looked up from the bushes to where he could see the general bending the whore over the balcony edge, and cursed. Damn passion. Damn love and closeness. What good were they? Normally they got you killed. That time, they’d kept someone alive.
He examined the hand. Each one had a large chunk of amber, about the size of half an eyeball, embedded in it. Small wires and metal contacts connected it to the hand and then the hand to the body. The process for connecting the hand was excruciating but had its benefits; when it worked properly Shep could use it for anything he had used his old hand for, and more.
The index finger contained a thin but long dagger on a spring; the middle finger, poison. The fourth finger was a combination glass cutter and knife, while the little finger and thumb were both designed to be incredibly strong, perfect for crushing bones or hanging from precarious positions. The palm concealed more items; a pull-out garrotte, a service hatch for the amber and, most amusingly, knife sharpener. He could literally sharpen his weapons by running them through his palm, one of the most threatening things that a potential mark could watch.
The sound of a key turning in the lock made him turn around, hand in the small of his back ready to grab the knife hidden there, but when the door opened it was Mardz. The little man looked the worse for wear.
“Ah; y’here, an’ early too!”
“You’re late, you insufferable little man,” Shep said, stepping quickly into the workshop as Mardz stood aside.
The inside of the warehouse was immaculate and, for a moment, Shep wondered if Mardz had simply stolen it from a more-organised engineer. Every tool shone; every surface was meticulously clean and there was already a large blueprint up on the wall of his hand.
Shep walked over to it and looked it over. He nodded appreciatively. None of it reached his face, but he was impressed. “How did you get this schematic?” he asked.
“Y’ain’t the first one I’ve done,” Mardz said as he came over and began to wash his hands at the stone sink in the corner. “I’ve worked a bit wi’ the Hands before, though never with what we’re about to do. The basic design’s the same for each of ye and I got the rest of what I needed last night.” He grinned over his shoulder. “Can’t help but look, y’know.”
There was a large chair in the middle of the room, tilted back slightly, with an armrest raised up near a large magnifying glass. “I sit there, I presume?” Shep said. Mardz nodded and Shep moved to the chair.
Several tools were laid out on a small table next to the chair; pliers, screwdrivers, small cutters, nothing that he hadn’t seen before. One small metal dish held the finger, though, and he picked it up with interest. It was hard, not particularly heavy with that curious warmth that imbued amber seemed to have. It had a carved nail on it and the joints had been scored into it. The whole effect was startlingly real in shape, if not in colour or texture.
“Arm,” Mardz said as he sat on a stool next to the chair. He pulled the magnifying glass down and, as soon as Shep had dragged his gauntlet up onto the armrest, Mardz was poking and prodding. He picked up two tools and, one in each hand, began to make adjustments.
Completely unable to feel anything except the tugging at his wrist, Shep looked down curiously. The amber was obvious in the centre of the back of his hand, cracked and dull; Mardz was loosening the trappings around it to get it out, but to do that he was having to amputate all the fingers.
“Service hatch is buggered, I’m afraid,” Mardz muttered. “Havin’ to go in the old fashioned way.”
“Watch the fourth one,” Shep said.
It was slightly mesmeric to watch him work. In short order he had stripped down four of the fingers and was working on the index finger.
“I need a finger from you, Shep,” the dwarf said, finally looking up. “Otherwise, when I release this one the blade will unsettle the spring and the whole thing will ping off. No telling where the spring will go, let alone the extremely sharp blade I’m sure you have in there.”
Shep turned on his chair and applied his finger. Soon enough, the hand was more or less a stub as Mardz unfastened the final plates.
“Turn your hand over and knock it on the chair a few times, will you?” Mardz said, getting up and moving to the workbench. “Got to get that amber out and it’s stuck in there good. You really did a number on it.”
Shep lifted his hand up and nearly hit himself in the face with the stump. It was so much lighter than it was normally and Shep, used to the weight by now, found that it just felt odd. He turned it over and banged the amber out onto the floor where it shattered into three pieces.
Mardz came back, kicking the pieces of amber out of the way. They skittered off under the worktop and were lost. “Right then. Which finger are we having this as?”
“I have to lose a weapon?”
“Aye. I mean, I guess you could have six fingers, but you wouldn’t be able to control one of them.” Mardz tapped the amber finger on the table. “It’s the opposite principle to when people get limbs cut off, but they still itch. You’ve never had six fingers, I take it?”
“No,” Shep said. “The middle finger, I suppose; can you switch the middle and ring fingers, but put the amber on the middle one?”
“Aye, we could do that,” Mardz replied, and set to work. As he began to reattach the mechanical fingers, he hummed a little tune that set Shep’s teeth on edge. The assassin grimaced but said nothing.
“I could do somethin’ with the gap where the amber was before,” Mardz said suddenly. “Poison reservoir or something. Or anything like that; lamp oil, handkerchief dispenser, bell so that people knows yer coming…” He grinned.
“A poison reservoir…” Shep mused. “Could you arrange it so that it ejects from the index finger? That way the blade would be poisoned and, with the blade sheathed, I could dispense the poison directly out of my finger. That has… possibilities.”
Mardz nodded and set to work. Within a couple of hours, Shep had what looked like a small glass bulb where the amber had previously nestled.
“I don’t carry poison,” Mardz said, putting his tools down. “You’ll be able to source that yerself, I’m sure.” He picked up the amber finger and turned it around in his hands. “Last thing, then,” he said quietly.
The hand nearly looked complete; just the middle finger was missing now. Several connectors were ready to be closed on the finger when it was seated in its socket, but otherwise there was very little to show for it.
Shep nodded. Gently, Mardz inserted the amber finger into the socket and locked it in place. One at a time, he took a pair of pliers to the connectors and closed them down so that they both held the amber in place and allowed energy to flow from it.
The feeling was exactly as it had been the first time for Shep. Every connector that closed enhanced feeling and feedback, but if losing control of the hand had felt like numbness, this was the pins and needles that followed. By the time the final piece of metal was clamped down on the amber, Shep was struggling not to scream out loud. Mardz finished and stepped back hurriedly.
“Damn it, damn it to the hells and back!” Shep shouted, leaping up. He clutched his hand to himself, squeezed it between his legs, shook it; nothing assuaged the tingling.
Even in the midst of his agony he was startled by the look of the thing, and as the intense pain receded he began to be aware of the effect the amber was having. Where he could control the other fingers at a thought - and quickly did so to prove it, causing the blade to shoot out, poison vial to open, the garrotte to pop out and be wound speedily back in again - the amber finger lay there like… a normal finger. He touched something with it. The feedback was intense, almost identical to his normal hand. Experimentally, he blew on the finger and was surprised to feel the breeze. He licked it, and was amazed to feel the wetness, the sensation. It was slightly muted, to be fair, but it was more than he had ever received from his gauntlet before.
He looked over at Mardz. “Everything seems… normal.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it, how realistic the feeling is,” the engineer replied. “I couldn’t quite believe it myself. Can you imagine how this will change things in the future? No longer will people have to suffer losing limbs through accidents or amputations. And the power in that amber should supply your hand for the remainder of your natural life.”
“I think it’s best for both of us that I am never mentioned in any of your writings,” Shep said, allowing a note of warning to enter his voice. “The secrecy of my identity is something of a priority to me, naturally.”
“Of course,” Mardz said, starting to tidy his tools. “In fact, you’re all done now; if you wish, you can just leave the money on the desk on your way out.”
Keeping his eyes firmly down, Mardz heard a whisper of cloth and the tiniest clink of metal and, by the time he looked up, his customer was gone. The bag of coin lay on the desk.