The Greater Good
Joshua Olsen’s Cantrips & Catastrophies
A Magic: the Gathering Fan Fiction short story
Lumengrid, Quicksilver Sea, New Phyrexia
Tarrin was straining against his bonds when he heard the sound. As soon as he had awoken, strapped to an operating slab deep in some biomechanical hell, he had been feverishly working to free his arms. At first he had tried to tug the clamps free, but they were made from some type of organic cable that gave in against his pulls, and then elastically snapped back. Giving up on that, Tarrin had tried to use the metallic growths sprouting from his left shoulder blade to cut through the cords, but he could hardly reach them to get a good cut, and it was tiring work. He had just cracked the metal outer casing of the bonds on his right hand, revealing weaker sinew beneath and causing bubbling black ichor to slowly leak out when he heard someone, or more likely something approaching. The irregular clanking of the figure was closing in; the isolation of the surgery/slaughterhouse Tarrin found himself meant that the figure could only be coming this way to see him.
Tarrin fought down rising fear: he had no illusions about what was going to happen to him now. Back in the refugee camps, he’d heard the tales from traumatized Neurok spies: how captured Mirrins were taken to Phyrexian laboratories like the one he was in and subjected to tortuous experiments so vile and debased as to be practically indescribable. Dissections conducted while the subject was still alive, forced organ removal and graftings, biological weapons testing: these were just some of the options facing Tarrin, and at the end of it all, Phyresis, turning him into one of them. Tarrin thrashed wildly on the slab, pulled at the damaged clamp with all his strength, but it didn’t work, he needed to damage the clamp more, needed more time. Time he didn’t have.
As the door to the surgery slid open he abruptly laid corpse-still, trying to avoid attracting the attention of whatever Phyrexian had entered. He heard as two figures entered the lab, the insidious scuttle of something multi-legged, presumably an insectoid menial drone of some kind, and the heavy irregular steps of something humanoid, no doubt its master. For all their vat-grown horrors and shock troops, the leaders of Phyrexia were always humanoid, if only in the vaguest, barest sense of the word.
Unable to see what was going on because the slab was facing away from the entrance; Tarrin could only listen as the drone chittered in its obscene indecipherable dialect, while its master rummaged around placing metallic instruments on a tray. A moment later, and the master was moving towards Tarrin. This was it then: he was going to be experimented on. Blind terror rose in Tarrin’s chest, but he forcibly quelled it. He didn’t know if Sadra and Varil had escaped the Phyrexian’s raid, but he had to cling to that hope. He wouldn’t beg, wouldn’t give the Phyrexians the pleasure of breaking him. Wherever they were, he could do that much for them. Breathing deeply to try and master his emotions, Tarrin braced himself for the disturbing sight that would be his captor.
A hand gripped the operating slab, shifting it down from its angled position to an almost horizontal one, and as the slab descended, Tarrin caught an eyeful of the Phyrexian Surgeon. He gasped. “Bladewardens preserve us all…..” He’d been prepared for something disturbing, something out of a child’s nightmare, but not for this. Tarrin’s brain tried to supply further words, to perhaps beg for mercy, or even just scream, but the surgeon’s appearance had shocked him beyond words.
The figure that loomed over him possessed an aesthetic common to all Phyrexians: a form that was partly organic and partly mechanical combined seamlessly in some places and crudely in others. While some Phyrexians were unrecognisable from their original forms, others were simply modified versions of what they had been pre-phyresis, and this creature clearly took after the latter. It was no Leonin or Loxodon though, nor an elf, goblin or ogre, or any species Tarrin had ever seen or heard of, but some kind of bird-hybrid.
The surgeon had the body shape of a man, with the head, hands and feet of a great bird, a hawk perhaps. Two currently folded-in wings sprouted from its back, and feathers coated about half its body, wherever metal didn’t intrude. Steam hissed from various hidden parts of the bird-thing, and Tarrin could pick out the slow sound of pistons moving back and forth somewhere around the chest, as well as crackling electricity. One hand had been completely replaced with an abnormally long-fingered metallic graft, each of the 8 multi-jointed fingers tipped with an assortment of sharp instruments not out of place in a torturer’s rack. Countless plates of polished chrome glinted brightly from where they have been grafted, bolted, and fused onto the Phyrexian’s flesh, and blood mixed with black oozed with treacle-like slowness from around them to slowly spatter the floor. The beak appeared to be the best crafted of these plates, the top half of the beak was a solid and finely fitted piece of what looked to be pure silver. It looked a bit out of place, as though put in by a different artificer to the rest of the Surgeon’s “improvements”. The surgeon turned to look at Tarrin in better detail, revealing that one of the creature’s original eyes had been removed, replaced with an implant. The forbidding neon-red light stared back at him from the cavity. Unblinking. Alien. Merciless.
A moment later it appeared to have seen enough, and it turned away from Tarrin. As it set its tray of surgical instruments down and sorted them, Tarrin saw that the eye wasn’t the only area that had been extensively worked on around the head, the back of the cranium had been encased by machinery, no doubt to allow for greater processing power, or, as Tarrin realised with horror, to allow easy access to the surgeon’s brain. Similarly, though partially concealed beneath liquid-spattered surgical garments, the surgeon’s shoulders and upper back around the spine were a lot bulkier than its natural form would suggest it should be, with steel cables entwined through the natural sinew of the wing’s pinions.
This observation of his captor’s anatomy, though distressing in its own way, was a welcome relief from Tarrin’s dire situation. But when the surgeon turned back to face him, now clutching a huge medical syringe, his temporary stunned calm shattered. Breathing kicked into overdrive, Tarrin felt all the fight-or-flight terror of a cornered animal, but without either of the options. The surgeon barked something harshly to the drone, an order perhaps, and then moved towards Tarrin with the syringe, test squirting a few spurts of some rust-coloured viscous liquid.
Tarrin’s resolve collapsed in a moment. “GET BACK! DON’T YOU COME ANY CLOSER MONSTER!!” he bellowed, half in fear, half in anger.
At the word “monster”, the Surgeon, who had the syringe mere centimetres from Tarrin’s neck, stopped abruptly. It looked Tarrin in the eye, as though looking for meaning there. For a long moment Tarrin looked into his captor’s mismatched eyes, before turning away, unable to bear seeing his own fearful reflection in the Surgeon’s half crimson, half hazel gaze. Out of the corner of his eyes, Tarrin could sense the Surgeon cock its head to one side in an owl-like manner, as though puzzled by what it had heard. A second later it abruptly stepped aside, out of Tarrin’s field of vision altogether. He heard the insectoid drone give a confused chittering as the surgeon approached it. Then there was an almighty flash of blue, like a solar flare off the blue sun. It filled the room for a moment, then faded away without explanation. A few seconds later, the Bird-Surgeon was back, uncomfortably filling Tarrin’s field of vision. Its beak opened, as it grasped the syringe once more. To Tarrin’s astonishment, it spoke in perfectly pronounced Aurian, though it had a mechanical inflection to its words.
“I am no monster. I may have been….. marked by Phyrexia, Auriok, but it is NOT my master.”
Tarrin goggled. “You…… you can talk!?”
The Surgeon snorted, causing a burst of steam to emerge from somewhere on its body, ruffling his surgical attire.
“We have precious little time, let’s not waste what we have with obvious questions. My name is Quennus.”
A thousand questions seemed to clamour for first place in Tarrin’s mind, jostling for prime position.
“I’m Tarrin, of the Glint Hawk tribe. Look, if you’re not with the Phyrexian’s, what are you doing here? And why are you able to stand here and talk to me? You…. you were about to cut me open, like one of them! How could you?”
Quennus leaned in. “As I said, there is little time, so you need to listen closely and be prepared to understand a great deal of information swiftly. I am assisting the Mirran resistance, particularly the Neurok agents Vy Covalt and Kara Vrist.”
Hope flared in Tarrin’s chest, maybe there was a way out of this after all! “You’re with the resistance! That’s great news! Are you here to free me? Have you seen my wife and son? Are they safe? Are they…..” But a moment later Tarrin realised that something was wrong with the situation. He jerked his head over his shoulder repeatedly, trying to convey a message without words. Upon seeing Quennus’ look of confusion he sharply whispered.
“You’re blowing your cover, the drone! The thing that came in with you! It’s heard everything we’ve said! You’ve got to cut me free, we have to get out of here right now, before it raises the alarm!”
Understanding filled Quennus’ organic eye, and then he slowly shook his head, one measured movement, left, and then right.
“Do not worry. My transcriber-drone has unexpectedly suffered a most unfortunate malfunction, and has been totally and utterly focused on looking at a blank space of wall since we started talking. It is not of concern to us.”
“Did…..you did something to it?”
“That is correct.”
Tarrin smiled. Everything was going to be okay now, he knew it. “So, you’re in the resistance? I have so much I wish to know! Are you here to get me free? How did you infiltrate into this place? And, forgive me, but I have to ask, what ARE you? You don’t look Mirran, I mean I know you’ve been…. worked on, but I can’t even figure out what you are.”
Quennus looked at himself for a moment, an expression something like regret writ over his features. Was it regret? Or maybe just concentration. It was hard to identify subtle emotions off him, his face and body had been so disfigured by the Phyrexian “augmentations”. Then the moment was gone, and his face was once more impassive.
“Listen closely Tarrin. I am not ‘with’ the resistance as such; I am simply sympathetic to their cause. My presence, and my work here, is more anti-Phyrexian than pro-Mirran. But yes, I help them out when it is feasible to do so. The reason you do not recognise my species’ genus, is because I am not native to your world. To put it in simple terms, I have come to Mirrodin from another plane of existence.”
What does one say to a statement like that? Where do you even begin… thought Tarrin, his disbelief stretched so far it was about to snap. “If that’s true, then how are you….”
“I am a mage of rare, extraordinary power. I have the skill to be able to travel between worlds. It is known as Planeswalking.
“That’s….. incredible. Amazing.”
“That is the standard reaction.”
Suddenly Tarrin recalled the blue flash he had witnessed earlier. “And you used this magic of yours to hoodwink the drone before?”
Quennus nodded. “Very astute. It will not realise what has happened, and later, I will submit it to my superiors as having malfunctioned, losing all my information. It will probably be broken down into its constituent parts and used for other purposes. Now, you mentioned before your wife and child. Were they with you when you were captured?”
“Yes, well not quite. I told them to run when the raiders came, I have no idea if they managed to get away. But we were in the same camp at the time. Sadra and Varil, have you seen them? Please, tell me they’re not here. Tell me they’re not….”
He couldn’t finish the sentence.
Quennus nodded, seemed to understand. “One moment.” He took a step back from the operating slab, deftly tapping his metallic temple with a hand. His artificial eye whirred clicked and sparked for a few seconds, rotating madly this way and that, zooming in and out. Eventually it came to a stop, the chrome iris retracting to reveal more of the crimson light. Suddenly light shot out of the eye, forming a projection a few centimetres from Quennus. The projection shifted, it seemed to be some kind of moving pictures. Tarrin squinted, tried to make them out, but they were back to front and the wrong way up from where he was, the images flashing by at lightning speed: corridors and hallways, shapeless things that filled the projection and disappeared, racks of strange and disturbing devices, and last, a row of what looked like faces with collars around their necks….
Quennus tapped his temple again, and the projection vanished, his artificial eye returning to its prior state. He looked Tarrin straight on. “I think I have seen them. Your son, he has your eyes?”
“Yes! Yes! That’s Varil! Can you save him? Is he okay?”
Quennus raised a hand abruptly.
“Hush, calm yourself.” He walked over to his tray of implements, facing away from Tarrin. He spoke without looking back, his tone less mechanical, but more serious than anything he’d said so far.
“Tarrin, would you do anything to save your family?”
“Of course, of course, but what are you talking…..”
“Yes, of course. Please, please. Save them.”
“Very well. Then you’ll need to take this.”
To Be Continued…