Chapter 4
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"Othar, I beseech you, save me from the Elseling!"

Blake stood and stared at the retreating merchant as the man fled, screeching hysterically about "Elselings" and "evil" and whatnot. It had been about half a day since he'd escaped the city of Eflok, after which he'd run through the night, his newly-acquired spear tucked under his right arm along with his severed left arm. It felt weird to be carrying his own limb around like it was some object that you brought with you everywhere, like one would a cell phone, but a lot of his life was weird these days.

Blake had been running through the wilderness, avoiding roads and other signs of civilization as much as possible, when he'd encountered a small road and run across the peddler. The merchant was the first person he'd seen since his escape, and Blake briefly entertained thoughts of a dialog before deciding it was better to just keep running. But before he could put his plan into action, the man had taken one look at him and turned tail, leaving his goods behind.

This was both good and bad news for Blake. In the short term, it was great news. He wasted no time in ransacking the cart until he found a stash of cured meat. The meat was overly salty and tough as rubber, lacking in flavor and a chore to chew, but in the mind of somebody who'd gone without food for two and a half days, it was still the greatest thing he'd ever eaten. Further plundering of the merchant's wares yielded several other items, including a spade, some candles, and what he believed to be a flint fire-starting kit, all of which, along with his severed arm, he shoved into a large sack that he slung over his shoulder.

As he resumed his journey, Blake considered the bad news: the disquieting long term ramifications of the merchant's reaction. There was no way that the man had been in Eflok the day before. It was logistically impossible. So how had he recognized Blake on sight? He had a sinking feeling that the answer had something to do with Yarec's comment about how the entire country would witness his death.

His prevailing theory was that Otharia had some way of broadcasting events to other parts of the country, like people did with sporting events back on Earth, and he guessed it had something to do with the strange woman he'd seen. The way that Pope-y man had appeared above her suggested that she had been projecting a signal of some kind. It was highly likely she had also transmitted something back as well. That meant that people across the country had witnessed his escape. They all knew what he looked like. Any chance of hiding amongst the people seemed gone now.

That left two options: run or fight. Fighting would be suicide. The idea of taking on an entire country was simply ludicrous, physical buff or no. The metal-softening power would help keep him stab-free, but Blake refused to lie to himself about his chances. He had fought against a just single Apostle and had escaped only due to his opponent's overconfidence. That wouldn't happen a second time. How many Apostles were there? Twenty? A hundred? All it would probably take to ensure his death or capture was for two of them to team up.

And all that was true before he'd lost his arm. The stump that remained still hurt. A lot. Blake didn't know what to do about it. The bleeding had stopped, and the whole severed cross-section had mostly scabbed over by then. Unfortunately, that was about all it had done. No miraculous regeneration, no wondrous reattaching, nothing. Blake hadn't really expected anything like that, but he'd secretly wished for it regardless.

After over thirty years of having two arms, his brain needed more than just a few days to completely adjust to this new reality. He would forget at random times, reaching out to try to grab something or scratch an itch or run his fingers through his hair, and then would come the realization, and he would tune in to the pain again. The emotional damage affected him the most, far more than some transient discomfort. He didn't feel whole anymore, and he didn't know what to do about it. It slowed him down in his normal life. How was he supposed to fight in this condition?

Yes, running was the only rational option. He needed to make his way out of Otharia and hope that other countries were less horrible. But how to get there? Escaping a nation while avoiding capture while an entire populace hunted you was hard enough when you knew where you needed to go. Blake didn't. Nor did he know where his current location, or that of cities, mountains, rivers, or anything else that would prove useful in his flight. He knew he had run in the general direction of "away from Eflok", but couldn't get more specific than that. If he wanted to find his way out of Otharia without setbacks, he'd have to be lucky. Really, really lucky.

But luck could come later. For now, Blake just continued to run, deeper and deeper into the wilderness, hoping to outrun his troubles for another day. Then he would sleep, and then run some more, until he was truly free.

*     *     *

Several hours later, the sun retreating from the sky, Blake sat in a cave that he'd discovered while following a small stream, just thinking and waiting to sleep. He pulled out the pack of dried, salted meat and chewed on it absentmindedly. It still tasted fairly awful, but he remained grateful that he didn't have to try his hand at hunting. That would surely end in disaster.

Blake's mood was rather foul this late in the day. While fleeing, he'd had time to really think about his predicament, and he couldn't help but laugh at the folly of his former self. To think he'd actually felt good about where he was and what he was up against. The very idea was absurd.

He was a wanted fugitive who had no idea where he was or what to do about it. His left arm's remnant still hurt. And that buzzing! It was getting to him more than usual. There were times when he would just block out the constant bother, usually by distracting himself until it just became white noise that his mind would filter out, but the rest of the time it continued to torment him from the periphery of his mind. Over the course of his time in Otharia, the sensation's urgency grew and shrank almost at random for seemingly no reason, but it never seemed to get too loud or too quiet. This time, however, was different. It was probably twice as bothersome as normal, and he didn't know why. He chose to ignore it like always. There were more important things to think about.

As he sat by the cave entrance, he kept thinking back to Yarec and the feats the man had been able to do with nothing but a rock. Firstly, he seemed to be able to control properties of stone to some degree. The Apostle's obsidian blade would never normally withstand the abuse it received during their battle, given obsidian's fragile nature. He must have been fortifying it with his magic. Blake could do that as well.

Secondly, he seemed to be able to make stone grow and shrink. That implied a total slap to the face of the Law of Conservation of Matter. Could Blake do that too? The idea of breaking the very laws of physics appealed to him. He sat on the cave floor and stared at his spear, willing the head to grow larger. Nothing happened. Half an hour later, still nothing had happened. To make sure that his abilities weren't triggered only during stressful situations, he willed the weapon to become soft and then gave the head a flick with his finger. It deformed as he expected it to, barely putting up any resistance whatsoever.

Wait...

"Shit!" Blake muttered as he realized that he had just ruined his only weapon. In hindsight, he obviously should have been experimenting with the spade instead, but he had been so eager to mess around that it had simply slipped his mind. With a sigh, he tried reforming it with his hands, but no matter what, he couldn't get close to the balanced, symmetrical blade that it had once been. He went to face-palm with his other hand but... right, that again.

Instead, Blake just sat and stared at the malformed spearhead, mourning its former glory. He released his mental hold on it and the metal hardened once more. It was only bent about thirty degrees and part of the blade still seemed fully intact... maybe it would still be a somewhat serviceable stabbing implement. Hah! Who was he kidding? It was basically worthless now. He gazed at it again, comparing in his mind the mangled present version with its proper past. The smooth metal, the symmetry, the sharpness, the subtle ivy carvings on the blade that wound around the entire head... The weapon had been a work of art, and damned cool looking to boot. But now, now it was nothing more than... an exact copy of its former self. What?

Blake stared at the spear in absolute bewilderment, trying to make sure what he saw wasn't just a trick of the sunset's dim crimson light. The spear seemed back to its original self, as if he had never ruined it at all. Had Blake done that? How?

Blake decided to learn from his mistakes and put the spear down, replacing it instead with the small spade in his sack. He stared at the trowel and imagined it exactly as it was, but with a larger scoop. Nothing. He tried again except imagining it smaller instead. Still nothing. With another mental image, the spade's scoop split straight down the middle lengthwise and the two blade halves curled up like fern leaves. No breaking the laws of physics too severely, it seemed. Just bending them really, really hard. No breaking the laws of physics too severely, it seemed; he was limited to merely bending them until they were unrecognizable.

Blake couldn't stop messing with the small tool, making the blade form all sorts of shapes, each time getting more and more complex and detailed. He found it to be just the coolest thing imaginable. He made little dancers twirl around. He watched tiny armies slaughter each other with swords and arrows. The metal flowed according to his will, as if it were an extension of his very being. He merely thought, and it would obey.

Hours of fun and experimentation by candlelight later, the rules of his powers were becoming clearer. First, he did not have to be touching the metal to control it, but it helped. So did proximity. Metal he touched flowed like water, while something thirty feet away moved like molasses. As far as he could tell, his effective limit seemed to be about forty or forty-five feet.

Second, he didn't have to see the metal to alter it, but that too helped tremendously. Metal that he couldn't see would reshape just as fast as metal that he could as long as they were the same distance away, but the form would be off, with small details missing and slightly off proportions. That made perfect sense to Blake – if his ability needed a mental image to function perfectly, it would naturally be harder to use if he couldn't observe it in the process. Perhaps that could be improved with training? He'd have to find out later.

Third, the liquefied metal behaved his commands only as far as this world's physics allowed. No matter how hard Blake tried, he couldn't get metal to levitate. He could, however, will bits of metal to jump off and separate from the larger "host" piece and fly into the air. His current record was about three feet into the air.

Fourth, when the metal acted like liquid, it really acted like liquid, including the downsides. Specifically, he couldn't just will metal to extend outward in a blade and stab something. The metal would make contact with the target and deform, as if he were trying to stab something with silly putty. He tried making a blade and then releasing his hold on it so that it hardened again, then extended the shaft to force the blade into the target, but he just couldn't create enough force and the shaft would deform as soon as it hit resistance.

Fifth, as far as he could tell, this power took as little out of him as lifting a finger. After using his newfound ability nonstop from sundown to late night, he didn't feel the slightest bit worse for wear. A little tired, maybe, but that was more because of his lack of sleep than anything else.

Getting caught up in a project and working late into the night was nothing unusual to a programmer and engineer like Blake, but as the years wore on, Blake eventually learned when to slow his roll and get much-needed rest. Had he been ten years younger and more foolish, there was little doubt he would see the sun rise before he even considered stopping. Such was the folly of youth. The older, wiser Blake of today knew the metal would still be there in the morning.

Blake carefully shuffled deeper into the cave using nothing but a lit candle and touch until he found a nice, dark area he could sleep on comfortably. He extinguished the candle and laid down, his body ready for a nice long break, but his mind refused to cooperate. His thoughts still hummed with excitement over his new potential.

As he laid there atop the cool, damp rock, waiting for his brain to join the rest of him in slumber, he noticed something strange. There should have been no visible light this far in, and yet he swore he could see a subtle glow coming from deeper into the cavern. It was just dim enough that he couldn't be sure if it was real or just his imagination. He rolled over to check the other direction and saw only darkness. Turning back again... Yes, something beckoned. How odd...

Putting his sleep plans on hold, Blake slowly and carefully crawled towards the light, bumping various body parts on loose rocks and protrusions as he went. About twenty feet deeper he found the light source, obscured from his original location by a small boulder and half-buried in the floor: a crystal three inches long and an inch in diameter. It glowed with a soft green light in a way that reminded him of the larger glowing crystals in the chamber where he had first arrived. Were these crystals naturally occurring? Looking further into the cave, Blake could make out several other luminescent green crystals dotting the cave's surfaces.

The buzzing in his skull strengthened as he approached the area. Were these crystals the cause? Perhaps that explained the strange behavior of his newest sense. Perhaps the changes to its intensity were directly related to his proximity to these crystals? It seemed likely. If true, that meant that similar crystals were all over the country, as the vibrations in his mind continued unceasingly since his arrival.

Looking for more concrete confirmation, Blake got down onto his hands and knees and grabbed the crystal. Suddenly and without warning the buzzing in his head changed to a blaring static so loud that it nearly blew away his capacity for rational thought. He jerked back, cracking his head against an unfortunately-positioned stalactite. Swearing like a sailor, Blake held his head and rocked back and forth. What the hell was that? It was like a flashbang for his new sense, overloading it with a sudden burst of impossibly intense stimulation.

While waiting for the buzz to return and the pain from his bruised head to fade, Blake crawled his way back towards the cave entrance and grabbed the trowel before returning to the crystal. Slowly and carefully, he chipped and dug around the crystal until he could pull it from the rock using his hand wrapped in his shirt. The buzzing continued to blare away in his mind, but the overpowering static did not appear. It seemed that physical contact was required.

Using the glow to see, he navigated his way back to the entrance and then just stood there, unsure of what to do. He had a glowing crystal that blared at him when he touched it. Was there more to it? What connection did these rocks have with his mental buzzing? Why did touching them cause static? Unfortunately, he would need to touch the crystal again if he wanted the chance to find some answers.

Reluctantly, Blake steeled his mind and grabbed the crystal barehanded a second time. Static assaulted his brain once again, but he was ready for it this time. He tried his best to glean something from his sensations, but all he could garner was more noise. After several seconds, he hissed and dropped the crystal involuntarily. Perhaps because he had been prepared for the static, or perhaps because he was just getting accustomed to it, the buzzing returned immediately this time. That was why he noticed the difference.

Clink. Tink! Clink. As the crystal bounced thrice on the hard stone floor, and the second impact had been different. The tone of the buzzing had changed, becoming almost musical for the tiniest fraction of a second.

Picking up the crystal with his shirt once more, he held it down close to the ground and used its glow to inspect the area. It wasn't too easy to tell in the darkness, but Blake thought he could see a small stripe of a slightly different mineral. The edge of some vein of another material, barely exposed to the outside air perhaps? He rubbed his finger along the vein. It was smoother than the surrounding rock, and felt metallic. Yes, it was probably some sort of metal. He touched the crystal to the ground and heard nothing but the usual buzzing. Then he touched it to the vein and immediately the buzzing changed. In fact, to call it buzzing was to do it a disservice. It was more like the crystal pleasantly hummed a lovely melodic note inside his mind, its tone clean and pure. Blake smiled and relaxed. For the first time since his arrival, all his worries and fears seemed to wash away, his tortured psyche soothed by the stone's calming voice. He set the crystal down and unwound on the ground beside it. It felt nice, like a hot bath after a long day or a warm mug of hot chocolate. For just a few minutes, Blake forgot about Otharia, the Church, his lost limb, and everything else that pulled at him from the back of his mind and just let the stress fall away.

Before long, however, his inner scientist demanded more. He still didn't get anything but a pleasant sense of peace from this new sensation. Might there be more? One more thing to try remained, if he had the guts.

Removing the shirt that covered the stone, Blake took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and pressed his one remaining hand on top of the happy melodic crystal... and his world exploded. A mighty chord struck his being, an endless chorus of angels singing the song of the gods in thousand-part harmony. Tears lined his face as he wept openly at the naked beauty coursing through his soul. His spirit awash with rapturous joy, Blake couldn't move. He could only think and feel, and it felt wondrous. For the first time in his life, Blake felt more than just good or great. He felt complete.

It was as if he had become one with the metal itself. He could feel each individual atom of the mysterious metal thrum in time with the chord, every last molecule vibrating through his being. He was the metal, the metal was he. Pockets of the mineral were buried in the ground all around him, his new oneness with the material flooding him with information on each particle from yards around in all directions. With a thought, he bade the metal to begin to flow upwards, pushing through the earth that stood between them. It seemed like it was taking an interminable amount of time for the metal to arrive, the various deposits flowing so slowly that they made molasses seem fast.

Thump.

A small impact in Blake's chest startled him. Where had that come from? He waited for several minutes, but it did not occur again. His mind returned its focus to the metal underground, each mass still moving unbearably slowly.

Thump.

There it was again, a concussion that sent a small pulse from his chest out to the rest of his body. He returned to shepherding his metal from below, counting the time until the impact returned.

Thump.

It was his heartbeat, Blake realized. More than five minutes between beats. Combined with the ultra-slow metal, he could only conclude that his brain was currently humming so quickly that time seemed to slow down, as if his mind had entered some sort of hyper mode. Hmmmmm, "Hyper Mode"... he liked the sound of that. If each heartbeat took over five minutes to arrive while in Hyper Mode, then that meant that his mind was currently working over six hundred times faster than normal! So much time to think, plan, design! So much time... to enjoy this amazing feeling flowing through his veins. Blake closed his eyes, his eyelids taking minutes to fully close, and just soaked in the incredible pleasure as he waited for his metal to surface. It could take its damned time as far as he cared at the moment.

Several real-time minutes later, or over two days later in his head, the energy contained within the crystal had fully depleted and taken his high with it. He laid down on his back and panted, his brain trying to adjust as time regained its usual quickness. It had been an unbelievable ride of non-stop pleasure, but all good things had to come to an end eventually.

...

...

...

He needed more. Right now.

Blake clambered as quickly as he could back into the cave, using the buzz as his guide. He ignored the bumps and bruises he acquired on his way through the dark labyrinth; they were merely the price to be paid to experience that euphoria again. Soon he arrived at the second crystal, this one sticking out of the wall. He had forgotten the spade in his rush, so instead he simply wrapped his hand with his shirt and ripped the piece from the wall with his brute strength. Success!

Back up at the entrance, Blake removed the old and busted crystal, noting in the back of his head that the static did not show up with his touch, and replaced it with the new hotness. Ecstasy flowed through him once more, but something was wrong! The intensity was merely a third of the initial crystal!

He focused his new sense as best he could on the crystal, trying to discern what was different, and he noticed something he hadn't seen before. He could sense that the crystal contained some sort of energy within it, almost like trillions of microscopic lights, and those lights flowed steadily from the stone into the metal sphere it connected to. That sphere seemed to be mostly full of energy already and he watched it slowly absorb more from the crystal as time went on.

Blake summoned another lump of the metal from another nearby underground deposit and removed the second crystal from its slot, noting that its glow had diminished substantially, and plugged it into the newly-unearthed metal. Joy shot through his veins once again, this time nearly as strongly as the initial experience. Time slowed to a crawl, and he could see the energy moving out of the crystal at a much faster pace than before, rushing to fill the energy-less void.

Hours more passed as Blake tested ideas while tripping on crystals, his own internal time stretching on for weeks and weeks. He ascertained that only this one type of metal reacted with the glowing crystals, as his iron spear and trowel did nothing with them. He learned that the energy acted like a gas, filling the metal evenly and expanding when more uncharged metal was merged with the initial bit. He found that even an incredibly-full piece of metal would not relinquish a single ounce of juice into an empty crystal. Perhaps most importantly, he discovered that the crystals somehow recharged over time, slowly drawing in energy from... somewhere. The original piece, once completely drained, was now nearly back to its original levels and not even half a day had passed.

He also discovered that it was somehow already sunrise. After being in his own dark little world for so long, he'd almost forgotten about that whole "sun" thing. It had been a long time since he'd last unwittingly worked on something through the night. Still, he told himself, what self-respecting engineer wouldn't? Either way, now that he was mentally back in reality, he figured it wouldn't hurt to have a quick break.

Blake paused his study to relax and have a small meal. As he sat under the calm morning sky, chewing on some more smoked meat, he got his first real look at the chunks of metal that had occupied his entire night. Surprisingly, they were the same metal as the doodads in the arrival bunker and his execution shackles.

The memory of his arrival triggered an idea inside Blake's head. Those strange devices, which he now regretted inspecting for only several moments before moving on, had all incorporated some sort of crystalline grooves in their strange designs. Could he reproduce those? What would they do?

He couldn't hold back his interest any longer, so he pulled off a handful of metal from the nearest lump on the ground and continued eating. Blake stared at the metal and tried to will it to crystallize somehow. He continued to do so for several hours, struggling to make any significant. Crystallizing the mineral turned out to be incredibly difficult. He needed to envision the molecular structure of the atoms and rearrange them into a specific pattern, which was difficult for numerous reasons. First, the pattern required total stability or the atoms would revert to their base organization. Having no experience in molecular construction, Blake had to use trial and error until he found a pattern that qualified, and brute force methods like that always took time. Second, reconfiguring the metal at the atomic level required immense concentration and imagination to produce even a minuscule amount of change. He needed frequent breaks to recuperate, but he pressed on regardless. Curiosity would allow nothing else.

As the sun neared its pinnacle, an idea came to him. Blake remembered growing sugar crystals in a jar once as a child. The crystal grew all on its own, as if the molecules attaching themselves to the crystal would naturally arrange themselves into the proper configuration. Why couldn't that work here? Blake created a tiny crystalline seed in the metal in hand and then liquefied the atoms next to the seed. When he re-solidified the liquefied metal, the atoms reformed in the same pattern as the seed! A line began to trace a pattern onto the outside of the crystal, guided by his commands.

That hurdle finally overcome, Blake could get down to the real point of the exercise: finding out why the ancient devices had these lines in the first place. Grabbing yet another metal chunk the size of a bowling ball, he created a line that meandered around some of the outside and even dipped inside the mass. Then he stuck a charged crystal into it, making sure that some part of it touched the crystallized metal, and observed.

Strangely, the multitude of tiny lights that would normally diffuse into the metal instead rushed down the path like water through a crazy straw, only spreading into the rest of the metal once they reached the end of the line. How peculiar. It was as if the energy preferred to travel along these paths — which Blake decided to call "channels" — that presented less resistance, only moving into the less suitable normal metal when no better option was present, like...

Like electricity.

Blake removed the crystal and wiped away the channel, shivering with anticipation. This time, he created a simple channel that started on the outside, curved into the metal, and circled back around to the outside, stopping a few inches from the starting point. Quivering with anticipation, he shoved the crystal back into place and sat back to watch the magic.

Energy flowed from the crystal, through the loop, and back into the crystal! A series of unbidden giggles escaped Blake's mouth as joyous disbelief cascaded over him. A circuit! He'd created an "electrical" circuit! Incredible! The myriad possibilities threatened to overwhelm him. He needed to know more. His inner scientist demanded it. Sleep? Food? They were mere trivialities compared to this ocean of discovery beckoning him forward. Blake dived in head first and went exploring.

*      *      *

The moons shined brightly the following night. Blake reclined beside the cave entrance, staring up at the celestial globes while lost in thought. There were lots of new ideas to ponder and important decisions to make, and most of them related to the metal he'd spent the last day and a half tinkering with.

Wonder-material. Miracle-metal. Uber-mineral. Super-stuff. Whatever he called it, it was an unbelievable substance that seemed to have endless potential. Lightweight, strong, and durable, Blake considered it a better titanium. But there was so much more that he'd discovered beneath the surface. Crazy, impossible, incredible things.

The first breakthrough came when he found that the metal featured magnetic-like properties. If he looped a channel around the inside of a pipe and inserted a separate metal rod inside the pipe, running energy through the channel would cause the rod to levitate into the center of the pipe and begin to spin rapidly. Blake rejoiced. He'd discovered a way to create a rotational energy generator that could recharge automatically! Free energy! What's more, if he altered the path of the channel and the energy flow, he could achieve lateral movement instead. The thought of his own handheld railgun excited him. He'd probably be able to take out any Apostle with ease with one of those.

The second breakthrough, however, was what kept him up. Blake had been wondering about the energy flow and why it seemed to have only one direction. Looking back at his original "circuit", the energy flowed only into one of the two connections between the crystal and the channel. A quick one-eighty-degree rotation of the crystal showed him that crystals did not have "positive" and "negative" ends, as the energy continued to flow the same direction as before. That left only the channel itself as the determining factor. Perhaps the crystalline structure functioned in some way as a one-way street of sorts, only allowing the transfer in a single direction?

Blake thought back to the seminal Kurt Vonnegut work Cat's Cradle and the concept of ice-nine. What if there were other stable configurations besides the one he always used? Several real-time hours later, or several months internally in Hyper Mode, he'd found four other patterns that were stable enough to propagate like the original pattern. Formation One seemed unusual and he'd have to investigate it in more detail later. Formations Three and Four remained unexamined. That was because Formation Two changed everything.

Energy flowing through the second new pattern behaved very similarly to energy flowing through standard channels – mono-directional flow, same speed, same bandwidth. However, if he attached the end of a normal channel to the end of a Formation Two channel, the energy refused to transfer from one to the other. It didn't make much sense to him, so he spent time messing around with different configurations, trying to stitch the two together into a working whole. Nothing seemed to work, until, almost on a lark, he tried wrapping a tiny separate Formation One channel around the connection and energizing it. Suddenly, the energy in the original channel jumped to the Formation Two side, and continued flowing as if it were one contiguous whole! Removing power from the second channel, the flow from the first one stopped again.

Blake couldn't believe it. He'd accidentally created a transistor! The importance of this could not be overstated. He had stumbled across the building-block of the computer, and now whole new worlds of possibilities presented themselves. Given enough time and practice, he could create machines of potentially incredible complexity, machines that could change the world, and they wouldn't even require an external power source! Take that, fossil fuels!

He could build cars, airplanes, and who knew what else. He could create robotic armies! He could create machines to build the robotic armies for him! He could... He could make himself a new arm.

With great fervor, Blake dedicated himself to tackling his new goal. He threw himself back into Hyper Mode for what felt like days, planning, designing, and thinking through schematics for what he'd decided to call "Lefty Mk One", and then popped back out to normal time to construct the device. The prosthetic consisted of two sections, the arm and the harness. The harness consisted of a series of metal straps and chains that wrapped around his shoulder and neck to provide support and stability to the arm. It connected to the end of the metal appendage, which itself was made up of an elbow joint, a forearm, and a simple wrist and hand. Each section had its own small crystal inside for power. The fingers themselves were crude, unable to do more than curl inward using all the joints at once. Still, a hand was a hand.

Blake put on the harness and strapped it to the contraption, then held his breath as he flexed the end of his severed limb, applying pressure to a metal band wound around that area. The metal hand slowly clasped together with a series of clicks. Blake let out a whoop and did a series of victory laps around the cave. He'd done it! Bending over, he reached out with his new arm and tried to pick up the remnants of his burnt-up candle, only to watch as the hand slowly crushed the candle into an unrecognizable blob of wax. Whoops.

Blake studied the wax-covered fingers of his new arm in a new light. Was he really satisfied with something as crude as this? No, he decided. He could do better. Once again, he entered Hyper Mode and began to work on Lefty Mk Two.

Over the course of half a day, or nearly a year in Hyper Mode, Blake Myers iterated on his new arm, each new revision upgrading its capabilities and complexity. He would work on the design for an hour or more, then pop out of Hyper Mode for a minute to reconfigure his arm to the new version and run some tests, then reenter his altered state of mind to begin the next round of improvements. By the end of the day, Blake completed Lefty Mk Nine and finally felt like he had accomplished all that he could with his current knowledge and experience.

The newest model bore little resemblance to his original endeavor. Each part could move as realistically as an arm made of flesh and bone, every joint now fully independent and capable of incredible precision and delicateness while still containing incredible gripping power if needed. Elaborate latices of microscopic crystal channels ran through the interior of the metal, guiding energy around the arm and utilizing an incredibly complex series of transistors to control the energy distribution across each tiny joint motor.

All of this allowed Blake to implement his brilliant new control system. He'd found the original interface lacking, as all he could really do was tell the device to grab and let go, so most of the time spent improving the arm had gone into designing and testing better interfaces. He'd tried more complicated designs with multiple bands around his real arm, but found that they just couldn't provide enough control. He tested multiple other physical interfaces, but each had their own issues and none could provide the level of precise control that he desired. He even went so far as to consider a design that would connect the metal arm to his body through a series of long, thin wires that he'd have to stab directly into his wound, before deciding that the entire idea was stupid and would probably only give him some sort of metal poisoning.

Finally, he came upon his greatest idea. Instead of using his physical body to control the arm, why not use his powers instead? Buried deep in the center of the contraption was a tiny sphere of liquefied metal encased in a small chamber covered in thousands of incredibly tiny pressure plates. Using his abilities, Blake would manipulate the shape of the liquid metal to apply minute pressure to various plates, triggering the behavior that he desired. After just an hour of practice, he had his new fingers dancing to his tune.

Blake watched the metallic fingers writhing at his beck and call and fought back tears, feeling one step closer to being whole again. He glanced over at his sack of stuff, where he could see the fingertips of his original limb sticking out of the opening. He didn't need that arm anymore. What kind of person would carry around their old severed arm everywhere they went? A weirdo, that's what. Taking his trowel and sack outside, Blake dug a small grave for his old appendage and buried it. It had served him well, and he would always remember it. The act finished, he gave a metal middle finger to the world that had mistreated him so and walked into the cave to get some much-needed sleep. There were some incredibly important decisions that to make, ones that shouldn't be made by somebody who was nearing his forty-eighth straight hour of wakefulness. He was out like a light before he even finished laying down.

4