Kimberly remembers his mentor and the beginnings of the Crimson Alchemist.
She wasn't a State Alchemist. I'm not sure exactly WHAT she was or where her funds came from. I'm pretty sure that some of them were from private companies and some from government grants. She wasn't married, had no children, not even any pets. She had a reputation for being antisocial, arrogant, hermitish, hardly leaving her house or the lab beneath it. But she was the best chemist of her day that I could reach with the money I had.
When I showed up on her doorstep, she told me flatly, "I don't teach. Go away" and shut the door in my face.
Prepared for this, I dropped my bedroll on her porch, next to an old, cobwebbed milk jug, and made myself at home.
She didn't come out of the house for another three days. It was getting on toward winter and got pretty cold at night. I'm not sure whether she even knew that I was there. As she locked the door on her way out on the third day, she told me, "Go away, kid. I don't teach. If you're not gone by the time I get back, I'll have you arrested for trespassing."
I just looked at her over the top of my battered copy of "The Magnetic Elements" and didn't move.
She was as good as her word. She brought back a policeman with her and actually had him arrest me for trespassing on her porch. The cop was young and looked embarrassed by the whole thing, but dutifully took me down to the station. Back then, trespassing on private property was a flat fine. I paid it (no small thing, with my dwindling resources), was released, and was back on her porch by nightfall.
It snowed that night, the wind howling along the porch boards. I huddled tucked against the house's outer wall and had my first second thoughts. I decided that if I got frostbite, I'd leave, but not before.
It snowed all the next day, and my teeth chattered as the temperature dropped another ten degrees that night.
She came out sometime hours after dark. Light spilled out on the snow from the open door, and she stood in it, scowling at me. Wrapped up in hat and scarf, I just stared back.
"Get in here," she snapped. "Stupid boy. Dragging books through the cold and snow...."
I have to wonder what would have happened had she not invited me in just then, because I'm pretty sure I would have been frostbitten come morning. Not that I counted myself lucky that night. She kept me up for another three hours, drilling me on alchemy and every type of chemistry I'd ever heard of and several I hadn't. I was exhausted, hungry, and probably running a bit of a fever, and I can't to this day remember half of what she asked or what I answered. I had studied everything I could get my hands on, but it didn't hold a candle to what she knew, and though it pissed me off, it also just made me that more determined.
Finally, she sat back in her chair, pushed a dirty saucer in front of me. "Show me."
I reached out, picked up the saucer, examining the bottom and tinging it lightly with a finger. Porcelain. Homogenous. Not that hard to work with, really, but like I said, I was exhausted and on the edge of not thinking straight. That was likely the point.
The kitchen table was wood, scarred and stained. I went to grab the salt shaker and paused, going for the sugar bowl instead. It'd be more useful in the reaction. I dusted the top of the table with sugar, enough that I could draw an array in it, carefully, making sure I got everything right on the first try. Broken dishes were easy to find, and I'd played with something like this before, but this required some improvisation.
It was a test, really, on several levels. What would I do with the materials she'd given me? How much could I do? How much was I willing to try? Would I go for something flashy, or something precise? At that time, morphological alchemy was the norm. Shape-changing was easier, less taxing, requiring less specialized knowledge of materials, because you weren't changing the chemical composition, only the shape. It wasn't her specialty or mine. It was boring.
I took a deep breath, clapped, and set my fingers on the edges of the array. Light flared, making the saucer within glow for a full thirty seconds before fading away.
The saucer still stood in the center of a blackened ring of sugar, now no longer red, but a dirty gray.
Across the table, she snorted. I just looked up at her, and held her eyes as I flicked the edge of the saucer with a fingertip. Dust puffed up in a tiny cloud. "Silicon and oxygen into quartz," I croaked, "iron from the paint for color. Dust is aluminum, extra silicates, various salts, and carbon liberated from the sugar."
She picked up the saucer, blowing on it to clear away the dust, and held it up to the light. It flashed a deep, even purple. Probably the world's only amethyst cup saucer.
Her expression lightened. Just a bit. She set the saucer back on the table. "It's not gold, but close enough to get both of us in trouble. Change it back." She looked at me, breathing hard and no doubt pale from the exertion. "Tomorrow." She stood, eyes narrowed. "We'll try this. Two weeks. If at the end I throw you out, you stay out, and if you sleep on my porch again I'll leave you out there to freeze this time, is that clear?"
"Good." She nodded to the table. "Wipe up that mess and then come upstairs. In the second library on the right there should be a couch you can sleep on, if you can find it."
I paid for that little stunt by barely being able to get OFF that couch for a week. The fever set in that night, and in the morning I awoke when a stack of books thudded onto the table next to my head. "Read whatever ones you haven't already and then come find me. Especially the one on symbolic selection. Your tertiary symbol placement was sloppy." I squinted blearily at the titles. I'd never heard of any of them.
"Bathroom's down the hall on the right. Laundry goes in the basket and the housekeeper will take care of it. Her name is Susan, and right now she's got more seniority in this house than you, so be civil to her. She also prepares meals and leaves them in the kitchen. Don't forget to eat." I nodded, wondering if I'd remember all this in five minutes. Light from the window glinted off her glasses, and her mouth quirked. "And take care of that fever." A large bottle of aspirin thumped on top of the books, and she was gone.
I rubbed my eyes, dry-swallowed three aspirin and pulled the first book off the pile.
So it started. I read voraciously. I'd never had access to so many alchemical texts. Her entire second floor was a huge library, every wall covered with shelves and books: alchemic theory as well as the cold sciences: mathematics, physics, organic and inorganic chemistry, the fledgling fields of biochemistry, thermodynamics.... The woman had a collection that the State Alchemists' library in Central would have killed for, and she made it clear that she expected me to read all of it. I didn't complain.
She was a terrible teacher, impatient and demanding. She would answer questions, but often would merely point me to more books if she thought it would take too much time to explain. She would drill me on what I'd learned, then demand I synthesize that week's set of books with last week's and the week before's. She had no patience if I couldn't see the connections. It was a frustrating teaching philosophy, and I could see why she didn't take students. Certainly no other students I'd met would have been able to keep up with her pace. I spent many nights poring through books, doggedly following a chain of thought from book to book, trying to see some connection she thought was plain as day.
At the same time, though, she was not inflexible. She didn't demand that I accept her point of view on anything, though she would demand that I come up with a good logical alternative. All-night arguments were not uncommon, the slateboard in her office becoming a battleground between her chickenscratch and mine.
She also gave me room to expand my horizons in whatever direction I wanted. She was an inorganic materials specialist, so that was what she taught me. For two years, I lived and breathed minerals, elements, ores, compounds, acids and bases. But when she said that it was time to specialize and write my thesis, she didn't even blink when I talked about biochemistry, about pathways of reactions falling like dominoes, of checks and balances, reaction states, physiological conditions, biothermics.... "Organics aren't my specialty," was all she said.
Her mouth quirked. "You could always leave."
It was an old joke between us, by then, how she'd always try to get me to leave. My smile was as wry as hers. "No."
I'm not sure why I refused to change mentors. Familiarity, perhaps. As much as I bitched about her, as much as she drove me, we got along in a strange sort of way.
More time passed. I marked time by subject: organic chemistry, physiology, nutrition, respiration, biophysics, cell biology, anatomy.... I felt like I was chasing something, some key, some Philosopher's Stone. The flow of biochemical pathways was fascinating, the flow of energy from compound to compound, tucked into covalent bonds and unstable conformations, tiny explosions of power in the cell, over and over....
That was where I got the idea, of course. It came to me one winter's afternoon. In the bathtub, of all places. There's some irony in the Crimson Alchemist's favorite trick being born while he was neck-deep in water, being refined while he dripped water over an explosives treatise and a textbook on organic tissue composition. I dug through a knee-high stack of papers. There. "Synthesis And Characterization Of A Novel, Explosive Nitrated Glycerol Compound". Edgard Hilmer, Organic Chemistry Department, Central University.
I scratched down ideas feverishly, chemical compounds and thermodynamic equations crawling across the page, then finally went to see her.
I laid the pages in front of her, silently. She read them, and I could see her checking my work. My hands were trembling, and I fisted them at my sides.
She sat back, eyes closed for a moment, then looked at me. "You think you're the first person to notice? It's been tried. There's never enough energy to do anything but kill the subject."
I laid down the Hilmer paper. "They tried it with black powder and picric acid. This new compound's five or six times more powerful than picric acid. Highly unstable, but that won't matter. It's based off glycerol, which is a main component of every fat and oil in the human body. The payload would be...worthwhile."
She took off her glasses, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Why?"
I stared. "What?"
"Why?" She waved a hand. "It's gruesome work. Why not something else?" Her voice wasn't condemning, just dry, curious.
I walked to the window, looked out. "To break down the most complicated system we know of? To change it into something...." Beautiful, glorious, to take someone's very cells and TWIST.... "I need funds to go visit with this Hilmer. I can learn the synthesis over the spring and have it refined and ready for alchemical trials by summer."
"The military'll snap you up. Or take the research from you."
"I don't care."
She sighed. "Zolf."
I looked at her. She hardly ever used my first name.
"Do you remember what you told me when you first came here? About why you wanted to study alchemy? You said that you wanted the power to mold the world with your own hands, right in front of you. This--" she tapped the page "will do that. But this path that may not lead you where you want to go. You'll want the alchemy, the process, the power. They'll just use you to kill."
I held her eyes. "I don't care."
She sighed. "I know...the military'll love you." She threw up her hands. "Fine. Idiot boy."
A week later, I was on a train for Central. Six months after that, I submitted my thesis for alchemical certification. I stole a look at the letter of nomination she wrote and was a little surprised and dare I say touched by the blunt but strongly worded recommendation. A month after that, I left her house for the last time. She shook my hand as I left, told me not to blow myself up, and I never saw her again.
I wonder if she was surprised when I got splashed all over the newspapers as a war criminal.