Chapter 7

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Evie followed the earl out of the library and down a long, utilitarian stairwell into the sub-basement below the servants' quarters. Westmorland inserted a key from a chain he wore around his neck into the padlocked door at the bottom of the stairs and pushed it open. They stepped through, and the door slammed shut behind them, leaving them in total darkness.

"Just a moment," the earl murmured, and Evie heard a metallic screech followed by the quiet hiss of gas.  Brilliant white limelight poured down from the ceiling, momentarily blinding. Evie blinked as her vision adjusted. And shut her eyes and opened them again. "What is this place?" she whispered.

The earl stood with his back to her. "Welcome to my laboratory, Mrs. Remmington."

The massive industrial space bore little resemblance to her own beloved laboratory. The concrete floors, steel-framed walls and exposed piping were familiar sights, and Evie recognized some of the instruments and machinery. But everything else seemed to defy logic—or else, the technology was so advanced it was beyond her comprehension. Much of it was the stuff of nightmares. Glass water tanks held strange experiments – a flowering vine with steel blooms, a clockwork heart hooked up to a mass of wires and tubes, and – Evie swallowed – what appeared to be a real human hand grafted onto synthetic skin. Exotic plants and insects were preserved in formaldehyde vitrines, neatly stacked and labeled. Elsewhere, a zigzagging arc of light, like that of a lightning bolt, danced between two metal rods. Beside that was a prototype of the infamous exosuit, sleek liquid armor that shaped itself to the user's body . In another area partially concealed by a curtain divide, burets rhythmically dripped phosphorescent fluids of varying colors into round-bottom flasks.

A shiver of trepidation ran through her. She knew Westmorland was a genius, but now she wondered if his genius ran to madness.

She glanced again at the hand floating in the water tank. Its fingers twitched, and she shuddered. Whose hand was it? Was it possible it was Baron de Clifford's? Part of her wondered if somewhere in the laboratory she'd find some insane experiment using Bernard's severed genitalia. A hysterical laugh burbled up in her chest and exploded out of her. If the earl murdered her now, at least it would be in the name of science.

Westmorland shifted a quarter turn toward her so only the unmarred side of his face showed. "Laughter is not the reaction I expected," he said dryly.

"Forgive me," she wheezed between gasps. "It's just...this place. Tell me, my lord, do you plan to kill me?"

He started. "What? No. I assure you, every organism in here was legally obtained. I don't experiment on unwilling humans."

"But you do willing ones?"

He turned a quarter turn more to give her a withering look. "I'm sure you've seen my work, Mrs. Remmington. I'm in the business of bioengineering. I have a waitlist of customers a mile long begging to be 'experimented on.' My inventions are meant to improve the human body, not warp it. I've never intentionally harmed anyone. Not during an augmentation, anyway."

"But you have unintentionally. How comforting."

He let out an exasperated huff. "Does a surgeon save every patient? Nanobiology is a fickle science, much like traditional medicine. There are risks when you try to cheat mortality. People have died on my operating table, but not without knowing what they might forfeit beforehand, and never because of my negligence. I do have some ethics, you know."  

She sniffed, somewhat mollified. "Why did you bring me down here?"

"Because if I'm going to help you, you're going to need an explanation. And if you're the scientist you say you are, you'll settle for nothing less than concrete proof."

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