by J. M. Sidorova

When I was a kid, any wizard could put a spell on me. I mean, there was always an occasion. We were either too noisy, or there was too many of us, and so there was always an old bitchy wizard who did not appreciate it when kids screamed, or a middle-aged impatient wizard who hired us to clip his hedge and wanted it done just right, or just a teenage curious wizard who sneaked in a little practice and–boink!–I was mushy in the knees, or my voice was gone, or my clippers seemed to lead me along the hedge in the most neat, level line.

Why not, right? They always wear off, the spells. And between you and me–they are not too bad. They are just like the first rush of smokescreen, when one inhaled and is ready to kick back and trip off. There is that same wave of chill. Like one got frizz in his body and it’s bubbling up into the air. Like one’s weightless.

That’s what one realizes when one grows up and starts–you know–using, and all that. Which brings me to my point: by the time one is my age, one knows a spell when it’s coming. And so when one knows it’s coming and then nothing happens–one’s like, “What’s up with that?”

She was a young girl, that wizard. Walked in, hands in pant pockets, shoulders up, head down. She did not see me. It was late, and the street was empty, and I was hanging out there like I always do, this being my trade post. Yeah, dealing–you can’t be serious into smokescreen and not be selling it in your spare time. What I’m saying is: it was my street, and I ain’t seen her here ever, what business did she have here anyway at that hour, smokescreen is not for wizards, I’m told it won’t work on them, so she could not be buying, and if not, stay out of my street, girl, go to your Towers of power or whatnot, did your boyfriend dump you and you are looking for some kind of experience? I’ll show you one! Ever seen a tommie’s ass?

So there I was, detaching my back from the wall, and I just knew she was already on red alert, and my only thinking went: will I be able to moon that girl before she’ll make me march away in a straight line reciting, I am a Good Boy? We were, like, in this race, I–reaching for my belt, and she–doing whatever they do with their palms before they extend them out towards us, and then–then we go all bubbly.

Except, like I say, this time nothing happened. So weird: I felt conflicted like some kind of a free will action was going on, Should I bow and retreat, or should I unbuckle that belt? Then I figured: that spell of hers was malfunctioning! It was trying to set in but something was not working. That was so WHOA! that I kinda forgot about my ass for a minute. I was just standing there, enjoying that freedom of choice inside me and watching her stare at her palm, and then try again, and again. Then I remembered to get to that buckle of mine and went on to release it. And she–she took off running. I swear! Running for her life like she wasn’t a wizard. And I–remained where I was. Freaked out, kind of.

Because this was totally unheard of–for a straight spell, cast from thirty feet, not to work!

I know I need to explain, so let me do it.

Our island wasn’t always the way it is now. And I don’t just mean social changes. I mean the whole mother-fathering genesis, as it is taught in school. This genesis says at the beginning the island was empty and void. Then wizards came from the faraway lands, over the seas, in big freaking ships with big freaking sails. As the ships ran aground, the sails turned into birds and spread into the skies, and the ships’ bodies turned into beasts and scattered over the land. And masts became forests, and I’m sure, all sorts of junk that piles up through the journey became all sorts of junk necessary to keep an island going, but too tedious to be all recounted in a genesis. The bottom line is–out of the ships came the wizards, and the machines that were in the ships’ hulls became their first Towers of power.

Then, the genesis goes, they lived in their towers, and gazed upon the island where all their beasts and birds multiplied like bunny-rabbits and celebrated the glory of, you know, life. And after some hundreds of years of that they felt this itch. They wanted to make something more like themselves, or rather, as my Uncle Tep says, something in between them and bunny-rabbits. So they made us. Not all of us, of course. They made the first one and named him Au Tom Aton, and then they made him a wife named Womb Au. And those two finished the job. Womb Au and Au Tom produced seven boys and seven girls, and those labored on it too, and give it a bunch of years–and you have a people. Tommies, we call ourselves, after our ancestor, Au Tom.

Now that’s what we are taught in school, and if you ask me, it makes darn good sense. Though my little sister Phoebe once ran around claiming that genesis is crap. She used to be into books and stuff, and they had this study group in school, and their biology teacher planted some seeds, so to speak. That genius had picked up somewhere the Theory of the Evolutionary Origin of Tommies and passed it on to the young and receptive minds, our little Phoebe that is. So that she would get all excited, and bring home these brochures, and call our Ma a reactionary, and me a brainwash job.

Then this one night five years ago she and fellow study groupies sneaked onto the school’s roof to hang down this big old placard, Genes, not Genesis! and she slipped and fell all the way down, and hit her head real hard, and now she just lies quietly, for the most part, like that chunk of wood from a wizards’ ship before it went on to become a bunny-rabbit. I say for the most part, because if you pinch her, or rub, or poke her, she stirs up and now she can talk a few words with you, and recognize you, and make a smile, but only for thirty or so minutes, and then she’ll just fade and collapse again. Doctors say it’s a drive injury, that she has this damage to her brain in the place where it’s all about alertness and arousal, and that this place no longer tells the rest of her brain when it’s time to wake up, only when you really annoy it by overstimulating.

Call it whatever but it looks just like a wind-up doll, good enough for thirty minutes or less; too bad it becomes our Phoebe for those thirty minutes, or maybe just plays a record of Phoebe — doctors say impossible to tell, and I say it’s worse than have her die on the spot that night, and Ma says there is hope even when she doesn’t mean it, and generally it is very, very hard to live with, thank god for smokescreen.

Phoebe was the reason I studied massage therapy. Yeah, I am a goddamn masseur by training. I had this crazy idea that I could help Phoebe if I did this–you know–deep stimulation. I thought, if I rubbed her tendons, and kneaded her muscles, and pressed on her bones, and squeezed her lymph nodes just the right way, I’d excite the heck out of all these nerve endings, and make them wake her sleeping brain, saying, yo, stay on, keep your eyes open!

So when I’d graduated from Primary Ed, I went to this best skills-school, and they were very nice, and told me I was the best in class and shit like that. They taught me the fluff-you touch and the squash-you touch, pat-ressage and ralphing; even the fancy-shmancy Binding Web touch that is rumored to send some people into a state of great unrest.

Didn’t work on Phoebe. A thirty minute wind-up was all I was getting. A dumb pinch could get you that! Maybe it was not supposed to work anyway. Or maybe I just wasn’t good enough, and they in their fancy school just lied to my face or didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

Anyhow. After that Whoa event I just could not keep it to myself and told Uncle Tep about it. Uncle Tep is Ma’s brother. He is a big guy. So big that I look dainty next to him, so big that he thinks he is being a hearty chap when he is being an into-your-face bulldozer. He’s had a standing greeting for me for the past five years, “Yo, Rubus, are you gonna take me on someday or what?” I guess he does not like me much–I am flesh and blood of that “asshole husband” of Ma’s, quote-unquote. I guess I don’t like Uncle Tep that much either. I don’t like it that he likes Phoebe. He’d arouse her every time he visits–not like me, with all my goddamn technique, no, he just pinches and wiggles her thighs and tickles behind her knees; and then talks to her in this loud and cheery way, like she is an idiot. I find it false and weird, but Phoebe I suppose cannot tell, so she smiles at him, and nods nicely, and lisps words, which sometimes pass for answers to his stupid questions.

I really don’t like any of it. I prefer the biology teacher, the genius, he’s been coming–he feels guilty, I figure,–and whenever he visits, he just sits down next to Phoebe and reads to her out of his evolution brochures. I prefer that, but Ma, she acts like those brochures will send Phoebe farther astray, so Jack–the teacher–is unwelcome and Uncle Tep is welcome. Ma says that all Uncle Tep is trying to do is keep Phoebe going, and he is family, and he supports Ma with money, and what it really means is that I can shove my dislike of him you know where, especially since I don’t give Phoebe massage anymore, and don’t have a job, and have instead a–a drug habit.

Anyway, what I’m saying is: if I tell something about myself to Uncle Tep, it means I really cannot contain it and need an audience. Not Shirk, my supplier. And not Heege, my buddy. A male family member kind of audience.

So I tell Uncle Tep about that girl’s failed spell, and at first he does not believe me. Then he says, “Well, nephew, I can tell you this. Something is broken here, either you or her wizardry. If I were to guess, I’d say it’s that chick’s wizardry, ’cause from what you tell me, it seems she didn’t have her shit together that night. While you–you may have something or other broken in your head, but it ain’t your wizarding receptacle.”

Uncle Tep’s judgment makes it all seem trifling and tainted, and I don’t like it. But it gets me thinking in the opposite direction: what if it was me, and not broken, but fixed! Fixed so I could withstand any one of their spells, an invincible man! This gets my juices flowing. I go around for several days, flowing my juices and thinking: what if I evolved to be resistant, like Jack would say? But then this other part of me that is kind of a sourface, screeches, it’s the smokescreen, you dummy. The dope got you desensitized, precisely because your dope seems to do the same thing as spells, at least at get go. So you are not an Invincible Man, you are just a junkie. This thought is disappointing, but I face it bravely. What I gotta do is do a test, I say. Harass any and every wizard I see and see if their spells stick.

Well, these days this is easier said than done. And not just because of the social change, no, first of all because before I can go and implement my plan, H.I.S. knocks on our door and rounds me up.

Now that, you gotta understand, is no small matter. H.I.S., Home Island Security, is not your regular tommie police, where you grew up with half of the force, and the chief used to wrench your ear off when you were eight years old and into practical jokes. No, H.I.S. is a wizard agency, and people no longer joke about H.I.S., not even when cowering in their beds, under three blankets and a mound of pillows. Okay, I’ll explain now.

Remember I was talking about genesis? Well, that was not our whole story. What came after genesis, was history, another subject in school. History says wizards and tommies lived side by side for hundreds of years and made it all work nicely. Wizards oversaw and tommies manned the cogwheels. Tommies stuck to their townships on the coast, fished and harvested sea-weed and salt, self-governed on small matters and looked up to wizards for anything bigger than a dispute over a dinghy; some held farms farther inland, still others worked in wizard-run factories, making wizard-food and wizard-things–many things they themselves would never own or even see again, which was just as well because they knew no use for all those wizard-things. And wizards lived mostly inland in the mountains, in a few big cities built around Towers of power, and did whatever they did to make our island run smoothly.

Then came the War. One day a fleet of ships came over the seas, and though some overly religious tommies hailed it as the Second Coming and danced on the beach, it became very clear very soon that those were no genesis ships but warships–when they started shooting at that very beach and pulverized those dancing, overly religious tommies.

War is a terrible thing. But war is also a mighty catalyst of progress, you gotta admit. The invaders were wizards too, but strange and foreign. Their ships issued not beasts nor birds, but metal machines–crawling and flying machines that shot at you. Those first hours and days of the war were horrible–and awesome. Tommies learned a few things about their home-wizards, as our home-grown flying machines, previously unheard of, suddenly came out of the secret holes in the mountains and engaged the enemy.

Our folk stood with their jaws dropped and watched those birds of war swoop down on each other, engines wailing, watched them rip through each other with hailstorms of projectiles and fall out of the skies, burning hot and bright, and sometimes landing on those very folks who still stood there fixed by the sight of power, and valor, and death… Those were the days of heroes, of legends. Take The Last Stand of the Falcon, where this one home-wizard held against a whole enemy squadron, in a bright blue sky, a lone silver bird playing life-and-death with a pack of raven-black machines, and sending no fewer than five of them to hell before he was shot corkscrewing into a breathtaking height, blurring with the sun so that the flare of the explosion could not be seen, and later the witnesses all swore that no debris fell on the ground as if the Falcon and his aircraft went straight to heavens…

I don’t know if all of it was exactly as legends claim, but pretty darn close, I’m sure. Those were the days of forgotten rules, lifted barriers. Bread and water were shared on evacuation routes. Wounded wizards were found and cared for, their lips moistened reverently, their heads propped lovingly, their strange, different colors observed in awe–the red of their blood, the yellow of their urine–all exposed by the intimacy of death. Those were the days when we saw how badly outnumbered were our wizards, and how bravely they fought for our land. For us. And so those days were not over when we, tommies, flooded recruitment centers. We were going to fight against those foreign wizards, we were going to fly those planes and drive those tanks, and shoot those big guns, we just needed to learn how. And our home-wizards looked at us, fishermen and farmers, and maybe they smiled crookedly at our resolve, but then they saw how many of us there were, and said, ah, what the heck.

The war was won. And by the end of it, some tommies really could fly planes, though the good old grunt-rushing by infantry tommies played its part too. There is a war memorial on Mount Arlemaine, a cliff that overlooks our largest bay. Over it flies a red-and-blue flag; its colors clash along a jagged line that is like a wound. They are the colors of our blood–their red and our blue. Ten years ago, when my father was still around, he told me that when he was a kid they used to bus them to the memorial on V-day, and he used to get a rush staring at the flag, feeling all patriotic, and fantasizing how he would spill his blue blood for our island if the war came again. On the way back he’d stick his head out of the bus window, and watch the red-and-blue banners flapping all along streets, and in windows, and on houses.

They still hang red-and-blue banners on V-day. In the official places, like police quarters.

Anyhow, after the victory, you see, we had our own heroes and legends. We had tommies who rose through the ranks and led our army. We even got our own Falcon. Martin Box was his name, and he was one of the few tommies who actually flew the fighting planes, he was just that good. The legend says, he flew the critical mission where they blew up the invaders’ mother-ship, after which the enemy wizards capitulated. And another legend adds, he also flew the mission after that, when they sank the remnants of the withdrawing fleet so that no one of the enemy would live to tell the tale of our blessed island in his foreign lands and induce another invasion.

The point is, when the war was over and all these decorated tommie heroes, Martin Box in their lead, took a deep breath and looked around, they said, well, let’s lock hands now and rebuild our dear island, and how about that: we were equals in death, so why not have equal rights in life? And every tommie nodded and said, oh yeah; and our wizards said, sure, because how could you not agree with the decorated war heroes who’d just got the taste of taking on the wizard race and winning; who’d done both the glorious extermination of the enemy mother-ship and the less glorious butchery of the fleeing survivors!

For a while it was working out. There was a post-war growth delirium — grand projects were carried out, lots of jobs, and tommies responded by multiplying. Political initiatives, schools, handshakes, grand openings. New living in mixed wizard-tommie communities. Now we had our Early Warning System, sensors encircling the island, fifty miles into the sea, spying for ships and probes that did not belong there. Miles of sea bed were raised above water. And of course, H.I.S. was founded. To gather intelligence, to listen to the outer world with the aid of the advanced wizarding devices, and to discern the hostile intent the moment it materialized anywhere in the vast universe across the seas.

The War was about eighty years ago. No enemy came to us since. Our sensors and land barriers were being quietly eroded by sea tides. Our equality lasted for as long as there were jobs and paychecks at the end of the week. As the face of our society went from plump to gaunt, its teeth began to show. Then one day twenty years ago Martin Box, a geezer by then, flew off the handle. I figure he got tired of being a token war hero, sitting like a clay effigy of his former self at all those functions, watching the things he thought he’d fixed decades ago, kind of go unfixed on him. Or maybe he just grew senile and defaulted to his swashbuckling days. At any rate, he fired up his old bird, a museum piece by then, got it airborne and steered it right into one of the wizards’ Towers of power, like it was an enemy mother-ship. A big explosion, an act of terrorism.

After that, some screws got tightened, some liberties expired. Some mixed communities began to segregate back again, like a water and oil mix that separates out if allowed to sit for too long. Uncle Tep says, if we only could screw each other, it’d be a different story. Then, he says, we’d be a one big happy family by now. But short of that…

Always has this way of making everything look trifling and tainted, that Uncle Tep. Though it makes you think, if wizards could create us looking any way they wanted, why didn’t they make us compatible with them in the sex department? Phoebe used to say that this is one of the proofs that we were not created, that we evolved. I don’t know about that.

It was after Martin Box’s flip-out, that spells became common. Towers of power got equipped with some kind of invisible shields. And H.I.S. turned its over-trained and under-used ear away from the echoes of the faraway lands to the much more relevant chatter of the home folk.

And now I am sitting in the H.I.S. detention block, biting on my nails, and nearly shitting my pants thinking what the reason for my arrest could possibly be.

How could I forget. The failed spell. The wizard-bitch must have complained. No, you wouldn’t want a spell-resistant punk running around, would you. Over the next twelve hours, in a barren chamber with only a pair of chairs and a console, and a very cold cement floor, they force-fed me so much feel-bubbly-all-over that I can no longer believe I ever thought it was anything pleasant. And I’ve done everything these two wizards, the interrogators, spelled me to do. Everything. I didn’t want to, but they made me. And the more I didn’t want, the meaner they spelled. I wept yet I wrapped my pants around my ankles and hobbled around in a star-shaped pattern, spanking myself on the ass till it hurt, and after that, till it stopped hurting. I wailed yet I got down on my hands and knees like a dog, with my bare ass and all, and they laughed at me, and they were, like, What else can dogs do? And… oh hell. And that after I gave them all I got, not just the failed spell… I’ve expelled my whole life story, every last detail–until I heaved dry, with no more things to tell…

When they were done with me, they cut me loose in some unfamiliar borough in the middle of the night, and I trudged for hours to the only landmark I could recognize, and now I’m crouched at the base of the war memorial on the cliff side, hollowed out, shaking, disgusted with myself, and I weep so hard that I bleed out of my nose, and I drool and smear my useless blue blood on the grass around me.

I am not an invincible man.

Jack, the teacher, does not say much more than “Hey, Rubus,” but waves me to the table in his kitchen and puts a pouch of Island’s Best pork and beans next to my left hand and a mug of steaming coffee next to my right hand. I’m hungry but I’m no longer certain about anything, my throat is as distrustful of eating as it is of speaking. I approach coffee, kind of on guard. He says, “I’ve been to your house. Your mother told me.”

Then, “If you wanna camp here for a couple of days, it’s fine with me.”

Then, “But let me go tell your family you are all right.”

Then, “Are you?”

I say, “Jack, your evolution is bullshit.”

He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, but otherwise bounces it right back to me, “No it isn’t.”

“Why?”

“’Cause it makes sense.”

“Lot of bullshit makes sense.”

He goes off to the chest of drawers and in a while returns with a shoe box. “Remember the Big Dig?” he says. “The last one of the military projects, the unfinished one. Well, there is that hillside there, sliced open and abandoned. The cut looks like puff pastry, layers upon layers of sandstone and clay. I used to take the biology club to that hillside every spring. The rains would keep eroding it, and the strangest ever things would get exposed.” He opens the box. “Your sister found this one. Look. Nothing that lives on this island today looks like this.”

“So?”

“So our island was not empty and void when the wizards landed on it.”

It’s a slate of rock, about a foot long and half as wide. The creature is kind of half-embossed, half-impressed on its surface. Its long neck is flung back in agony, its jaws are parted, its hind legs and tail are curled, long fingers of its forelimbs are spread out, and all around them are imprints of feathers.

“It kept drizzling, so pretty soon we were completely covered in mud. Kids spread all over the hillside like beetles, digging. Your sister held this one up over her head, started running down the slope, fell on her bum, and sledded all the way. Kept laughing, kept shouting, ‘Look what I found!’ Then we all sat in the van, drinking hot cider, shivering, counting and sorting our treasure…”

“Screw you, Jack,” I say. “Screw you!” I am about to start crying again, and I hate him for that. I hate that he does not need smokescreen, that manuscripts and chunks of rock are dope enough for him. I even hate that he’s never ever laid a finger on Phoebe yet he is so struck with guilt and sadness nonetheless. “You fucking love her, Jack, so you gotta take her out of there, you gotta save her, because I can’t… I can’t!”

He looks at me, stunned, but at the same time–not. “But I’m not supposed to… I cannot, I could not do much, it’s not–”

“It’s been five years. She is no longer a minor. You can marry her, for fuck’s sake!”

“But I don’t even know if she loves me… Ever loved me… I couldn’t force her to… ”

“It does not matter! Who cares! We are just wind up puppets, slapped together in some stupid way by gods who didn’t give a rat’s ass whether we made sense or not, who only care that we don’t get uppity with them! Puppets, all of us! Some have a longer charge, and some are down to thirty minutes at a time. Some start ticking when they see tits and ass, and some when they see dope, and some when they see some out-of-favor theory. Tick-tack! It’s either you or Uncle Tep, and I’d rather choose you!”

My words only make me feel worse, so I get up and leave. I go lay low at Heege’s for a few days. Then I go to Shirk and he offers me some dope in exchange for a massage job on his ugly feet. I do it. Then I lock myself up in Shirk’s shed and try to use my hard-earned dope, but I can’t even open the capsule. The anticipation of that first rush–the bubbly feeling–makes me want to throw up. Brings memories of that chamber, in H.I.S.

In a week, and after several attempts to inhale I am back on my street, selling what I cannot use.

That’s when I see her again. The wizard-bitch, this time she comes looking for me. She stops ten paces before me, puts her hands in her pockets. “Rubus Flynn,” she says.

So she knows my name now. What if I hit her? Has she fixed her wizardry yet? “Au Flynn,” she adds. That’s a formal, respectful way to address a tommie. Is she making fun of me?

“I didn’t tell anyone about our run-in. Those… hacks that took you in–it was their local source. A tommie. Hear that? It wasn’t me, it was one of your own people.”

She has no right to bring any of it up, whatever she thinks she knows! “Go away,” I say.

She steps closer instead. She wears her hair very short, it makes her head look small and her neck–fragile. “Ask me how I know it. Go ahead! I know because my father works for the H.I.S., that’s how. I know that those hacks you ran into are now suspended. I know all sorts of things, if you JUST ASK me!” She finishes in a shout, stomps her foot.

“I said go away!” I give her a shove, heels of my palms push into her shoulders. What my hands make contact with, feels weird and breakable, feels angular and unattached to her skin. Feels like I should not be doing this. I stare at my palms as if I could read on them what they’ve just touched. All of it while she loses balance and flops down on the pavement. I come close and stoop over her, “Just give me another one of your spellbinds so we can be done here.”

“I won’t.”

“Will not or can not?”

“Watch,” she says. She puts her right palm in front of my face and just as I see something on it, a rainbow-colored flicker, she grabs at this something with her other hand and rips off a curling, whitish peel of skin. She crumples the peel with her both hands, then drops it on the pavement and smacks and smashes it with the heels of her boots. “Here,” she says, holding her both palms up, “Now I can’t do anything at all, even if I wanted to. I can’t harm you and I can’t call for help. Can’t protect you either. Satisfied?”

Protect me? I bend over, pick up her palm-skin. It is creased but not torn. A tough little thing. I see no more rainbows in it though, it is dirty-white, dead. “What is it?”

“It transmits… spells.” She pronounces the word as if she is not used to it, helping herself with a spiraling gesture. She finally gets off the pavement. “Can you come with me, please? I want to show you something.” She holds my stare for a while, then nods at the peel. “Keep it. Just don’t tell anyone what it is and that I gave it to you.”

It’s almost funny. Like I can hide anything from wizards! As for tommies… none of them will believe me. Heck, I too find it hard to believe: right now the thing looks most like a discarded Island’s Best wrapper.

“Let’s go. My car is just around the corner. Please.”

She starts to go up the street, half turned to me–please, follow–and I do.

It’s not a short ride. When we drive out of the Bay area and start climbing into the mountains, part of me gets kind of worried. But then I decide that if she pulls something on me, I won’t go without some serious damage. What have I got to lose? In the meantime I might as well get comfortable. I like riding in her warm car, like it how our headlights brush against the curving mountainside. I like not knowing what will come next, only knowing that it’ll keep coming. It’s kind of like a smokescreen trip. Rules suspended, bent. Too bad, I am not feeling that well now. Hell knows why.

Next comes a dirt road. It’s blocked, but she gets out of the car and swings the bar out of the way and later replaces it like it’s a random tree branch and not an official roadblock. We rock and roll over bumps and puddles for about thirty minutes, climbing some more through the forest, then pop out onto a bare mountainside and pull over. She gets out, I follow. A chilly mountain night, clear skies. We are very close to a precipice, and she walks right to it.

She braces herself with her arms, draws her shoulders up. She is cold, or nervous. “So this is the one place where you can get a bird’s eye view on a Tower of power,” she says, “Wanna take a look?”

I’ll be damned. Straight below us, maybe a hundred feet or so down, a pitch black tangle, faintly gleaming in the moonlight. The structure is so complicated, it seems alive. It’s like a giant snake nest, with several sentinels poised upright to watch over the valley while the rest are coiled together at the base. I can’t help but think how this could have crawled right out of the genesis ship–and then perched itself on the mountainside.

“It’s one of our oldest, if not the oldest,” she says. “Martin Box nearly destroyed it. You can’t see it now, but there is a big old dent on the rock face where his plane burrowed into it.” She sits down, cross legged. I stop craning my neck and take a step back from the edge. “No, keep watching,” she says. “The problem with those protective shields is calibration. You don’t want it to capture every speck, insect and bird, or you’ll have a dust ball spiked with roadkill form around the thing every twenty four hours or so. You want it to let the small stuff through and zap the big stuff, like a plane, for example. But then again you don’t want projectiles to go through it either. Like grenades.”

I marvel at the way she speaks about it. As if these watchful black snakes with their protective shield are her pets.

“So it just happens that a rock the size of a cantaloupe or bigger, at whatever velocity it reaches by the time it gets down there, trips the shield. But a rock any smaller than that–doesn’t.”

Before I grasp the meaning, she says, “Watch closely,” and hurls a piece of rock down at the snakes.

I hear the rock hitting something, bouncing off, hitting again. A distant rustle of a run-off stream of gravel, then silence.

“That was a small rock. Now watch again.”

It’s like a–green convulsion. The air over the towers puckers in one spot, like this air is not air, but glass, and it gives off this momentary spider web-like crack and then–it is all quiet again. I don’t know when I backed off the edge.

“That rock was the right size.” She still sits in place, cross legged. Unmoved, unfazed. So the wizard patrols are not about to descend on us, I guess.

“What’s your point?”

“Coming. Watch again.” This time she weighs up two rocks, each bigger than a cantaloupe. Bigger than the previous rock. I find myself wishing her to stop. But she won’t. Off they go, one after another, arching over and plunging down. And–nothing.

She gets up, brushes dirt off her hands. “That’s my point,” she says. “I’ve played here since I was a kid. There were times when I was angry, too. I had my reasons. I still have them. My point is, it was like skipping pebbles at the beach, only knowing that it was the big one that always bounced. Always. Up until about three months ago. My point is, Rubus Flynn, that day we ran into each other, my–spell–did not work because this thing–this thing down there that powers up all wizardry this side of the mountain, and its own shield, is running out of juice. Its charge is winding down. This shield is like a light bulb that sputters before it goes out. After the first rock it can’t recharge quickly enough before the second rock strikes. It flutters off and on. And so did my spell. Do you see what I’m saying? My point is, those two hot shots, they tried you for twelve hours nonstop and they made it work. But they had to throw all they’ve got at you to get to where they wanted. My point is, they are now being charged with protocol violations, negligence, lack of insight, insubordination, you name it, in other words, general jackassery. But not with assault. My point is, I know a lot about you, and I am so sorry that you had to go through what you did because of me and a sputtering light bulb.”

I can see she is upset and angry, but I am so out of time and out of breath to put it all into context! I am not feeling well, and I can no longer tell if it is from what she said, or I am just going down with something. A sputtering light bulb, a windup Tower? This tower, its invisible shield, and her peel-off palm skin that lies crumpled in my pocket–are all connected? The jackasses had to crank something up to make me take my pants down? So many blanks in all of this that my head begins to hurt. Blanks hurt it. Voids. The island was empty and void, spins a phrase in my head.

“Can your people recharge it? The tower.”

“No,” she says, walking back to the car. “It was a one-time deal.” She turns back to me and makes a clownish gesture, the kind a tommie would do to mock spellbinding. “The e-ner-gy crystals. Otherwise known as U238mod. We brought it with us when we came.” She opens the car door. “One last thing before we go. Remember what I told you? One of your own people. Are you ready? You were arrested on a tip from a certain Tepidarius Ketch, a long-time H.I.S. informer. The jackasses were his handlers. Just so you know. Come on, I’ll take you back to town.”

She gets in the car and pushes the passenger door open, but I cannot make a single step. Tepidarius Ketch. A.k.a. Uncle Tep. I really feel like shit now, and this sucker punch–this sucker punch…

I wake up in the hospital. My first sensation as I am surfacing up is unbound happiness. Then the sights and noises fill in, and the heavenly joy recedes. I am parked along the wall in a hallway, my cot has a built-in pole for IV, a frame for a privacy canopy, a sliding counter top for taking food and writing, even the lock box at my feet where my medical history is kept. Under my bed must be shelves stuffed with supplies, my clothes, and my chamber pot. I am a moveable unit, a package of a patient. I know these things because we’ve been through all of this with Phoebe.

I hurry to jerk my arms and legs, ’cause I’m suddenly afraid I’ve ended up like her. But I haven’t. My head feels like it’s packed full of cotton, and I am wasted, that’s all. While I process all this, a couple of other sick units near me call for the nurse, “Lucky has come to. Yo! He’s thrashing!”

So I already have some history here, and a nickname to go with it.

The nurse checks on me, then disappears. I twist my head around: invalids in their cots and their family members in foldable chairs next to them, their bags of belongings squeezed between their ankles. Your regular tommie hospital. Whatever the reason I’m here, I gotta start figuring a way out. I don’t feel lucky at all.

Then the nurse returns, and behind her, comes my wizard-bitch. My wizard-bitch, I call her, but that’s inertia talking. Truth is, when I see her striding in, hands in pockets, shoulders up, on guard, her usual–I suddenly feel that my nickname fits. I am lucky. I’m happy. She smiles, “Good morning.”

They let her wheel me away to the end of the hallway, to the window. A door to the stairs is there too, and doctors and nurses come and go, and eye us every time they pop out of the stairwell, but still it is better than to be lined up under the vigilant eye of those other sick units.

“You mind?” She climbs onto my cot, settles by my side. “How d’you feel?”

“OK. What’s your name?”

“Yeah, I guess I never told you. Name’s Isabel. Since you’re about to ask, this is how it went: you more or less collapsed there in the mountains, foaming at the mouth and all that good stuff. I took you to your closest ER but the first thing they do when they see you is go over your pockets and find this–whatever you call it–a cute name, too cute for what it does though–”

“Smokescreen.”

“There you go. You didn’t even know it’s addictive, did you?”

“I… did. More or less.”

“Less than more. Or you’d not be walking around after quitting cold turkey. You’d be checked in. Anyway, that’s where it got hairy. Apparently your medical facilities are not obligated to provide services to drug addicts when they present with drug-related emergencies. The only way you can use the system is if you voluntarily enroll into a detox. Prior to the episode. If you want to break out of the habit and anticipate a withdrawal sickness.”

I can’t say I did not know any of it. I did, kind of. Without the gruesome details. At some theoretical level. But I didn’t believe it would ever happen to me. And those times when I did believe it, I just got more bitter and thus more drawn to smokescreen. And of course, after H.I.S. I was just kind of running myself into the ground anyway… I say, “So how did I get admitted? Did you… use your wizardry on them?”

She snorts. “Wizardry. My palmer is dead, remember? This is the third place I drove you to. I coaxed the doctor to sign you up by a past date. So you are in detox now, whether you planned it or not, Au Flynn. A week of injections and dialysis, and you’ll come out clean from the other end of the tunnel. Don’t let me down, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks.” Her palmer. Is that her palm-skin she refers to? I don’t want to think about it. I am off the ground, for now, and I have my own personal goddess, Isabel, who has rewound my clock for me while I was conveniently out cold. Lucky me.

I find her hand, touch it. My heart rate goes up. “I know you want to go, but would you mind… staying a bit longer? I wasn’t always a screw-up. I can be entertaining.”

“Don’t worry about it. I am right there with you. Father thinks I’m a screw-up, mother thinks I’m a wild child, and our culture as a whole thinks me an enfant terrible, and that’s kind of fashionable right now, to be juvenile and talented.”

“And you are?”

“I am not what anyone thinks I am or should be, that’s all.”

She reminds me of someone. This serious manner of saying things, even the funkiest ones! But no, I don’t want to go there. I want to keep the surface of my mind serene, like our seas in the early morning. I just want to be talking. “Tell me… tell me where your people come from, I always wanted to know. Were you created too?”

She gives me an amused look. “No, we weren’t. Although for the most part of our history we sort of lapsed in and out of thinking that we were. Dressed it this way and that… You don’t have to envision that your prototype was slapped out of clay and animated by an infusion of divine breath, to think you were created. Heck, you could even fantasize that your god or gods died through the act of creation of you, and that you are now left to carry the torch, and to become god to something else…”

“Hey, you are gods to something else–to us.”

“Right. So now it’s our turn to pass the torch and die.”

“Yes. No! I didn’t mean to mean that!”

“It’s okay. It’s just a belief, among many others. There is always a crack in knowledge wide enough to wedge a belief in, as long as it makes one feel better. Do you feel better knowing exactly how, when, and by whom you were created?”

“I? We? I don’t know. Maybe… not. It’s like–compared with what?”

“Really? Ha! Well, now that’s interesting!”

“Maybe it’s just the certainty of it.”

“Yeah, no kidding! We’re just way too familiar with each other. Like an old marriage, no more romantic feelings!” She laughs.

“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean we know it for a definite fact of life. So it kind of does not get our attention any more than any other basic fact of life would. Like eating and –”

“But what about the meaning of life?”

“What about it? Meaning, did you make us for something special or just for shits and giggles?”

She looks at me and I look back. She crimps her lips into a grin. I have a feeling I offended her, don’t know why. The surface of my mind is no longer serene. There are ripples on it, because there is something sitting just under the surface. A clock, I keep thinking. “But you said–that you were not created. That you evolved all by yourselves.”

“Yeah,” she says hazily. “And you know what? Some people don’t get it, but I think it is better that way. For morale, you know? Some people will say that if you have no one who created you, you will become irresponsible and wayward. I think it’s the other way around. There is more responsibility in knowing that we are shaped by natural forces, and with no other evident purpose than to stick around, for shits and giggles, really. You know, if you look real close inside us, you’ll see we’re made like a — rat’s nest! I mean–you guys are made intelligently, but we–we are this hairball of plug-ins, and add-ons, and tuck-ins, and afterthoughts, and shortcuts, and shortcomings. But there is marvel and gratitude in knowing that despite all that crap and clutter we still function so awesomely well, and we still–still!–can contemplate the universe, and past and future, and good and evil. And there is more responsibility in knowing that no one else will hold our wisdom for us if we don’t. You know? So what the fuck’s wrong with us, ah? Why won’t we claim the responsibility?”

Whoa. Looks like I’ve opened some can of worms. I bet I look so dumbstruck right now… The irony though. Wizards are not created, and wish they were. And tommies are created and wish they weren’t. It reminds me of something, but I don’t want to go that way. I want to keep on gliding on the surface of my mind. Stop–and you’ll sink. “Hey,” I say, “that first time we met… if you thought I was up to something bad… I wasn’t. I just wanted to moon you. You know. Purely as an act of civil disobedience.”

She looks at me, not understanding. Then erupts in half-suppressed laughter. “Moon me! Why, it is a perfectly fine act of civil disobedience!”

I watch her until her laugh winds down. I like it–watching how she laughs. “You know what? Yesterday –right?–when I shoved you in the shoulders–which was not an act of civil disobedience, by the way, rather me being an ass,–right here,” I point at my shoulder, “I figure you have something very different.”

She is puzzled, but seems to recognize it. “Oh yeah… Clavicles?”

“Clavicles… right. May I?” I reach out and put my fingertips on her–clavicle. It is so marvelous how it arises from this bumpiness at the rounded tip of her shoulder, arches out and then connects back at the base of her neck, in a place that has this neat hollow just big enough to nestle my fingertip in… I say, “What’s this?”

“A manubrium,” she says. “Name of the bone.”

“Ma… Manubrium?” The word feels weird in my mouth, like it’s indecent wrapped in solemn. “Where else are you different?”

She snorts. “Well, there is a couple more, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be letting you touch those.” We stare at each other and I feel I’m hot and blushing. She laughs again and wafts a hand in front of her mouth as if to chase the words off. “Never mind. Sorry. Bad joke.”

“No, it’s okay.”

Nothing helps. The something just under the surface of my mind is on the move. If only I could squeeze my brain shut, like it was an eye!

She turns serious. “You got quite a touch in those fingers of yours. Why’d you quit doing something you’re so good at?”

I wish she didn’t say it… but it’s just as well. The surface of my mind is parting… and out presses a black, tangled, expanding, writhing –a clockwork Tower of power, and Phoebe is embedded in it like that fossil she had found, ticking, tacking, time is running out– it’s all coming back, flooding me, I got to go, now, I have to find a way out of here–

“What’s wrong?” Isabel asks, and I whisper, “Can you please go find a doctor for me,” and as soon as she takes off, I flop over the edge of my cot, snatch my clothes, wobble right through the door to the stairwell, and down, down, down I go.

The rest, you more or less know from the newspapers. I cannot–do not want to – add much. Those memories, they make me sick. Like hearing that sound when I entered my house–bleating, more than anything else, like a sheep trying to cry for help and not knowing how to. And realizing it was Phoebe.

They give me freaking shivers and palpitations, those memories.

People tell me I carried Phoebe out of the house and left her seated against the wall in the front yard, propped by pillows and with her feeding tube neatly coiled in her lap. They tell me that the man I killed, I left him in my sister’s bedroom, and that I barricaded the door to it. They don’t need to tell me who it was — that part I remember. A certain Tepidarius Ketch. People tell me that my mother was out shopping, that he sent her to the store and she went.

Some day, when I manage to start talking to her, I’ll ask her, why.

They tell me I had my nose squashed in, my mouth torn, and my left wrist broken when I made it back to the hospital. I remembered only that I had promised to come out clean at the other end of the detox tunnel, and that’s what I kept repeating when I came through the doors of the ER.

…It’s been some time now, and the sentence will most likely be issued next week, or the week after. Rumor has it they’ll go easy on me, because of the extenuating circumstances. They also let me stay out of the facility until the verdict because I’ve cooperated all the way.

Isabel has been visiting. She and Jack jabbered on about evolution; seems like these two are just the right kind of audience for each other. Most importantly, Isabel had said that she might have a way to help Phoebe, and though I thought it was all bullshit, she got me convinced: “she said she’d rig a palmer just like the one she had, only it would be affixed to Phoebe’s nape, and it would be like a continuous spell, sending wake-up calls to her brain during daytime.

So one day Isabel came over and did calibrations on Phoebe, and a week ago she brought in the palmer and slapped it on, and it works. Phoebe still sleeps very much like a log at night, and needs canes to walk, and you don’t always understand what she is saying, but all that’s gonna improve, especially with her clopping about and chattering away like a rattle all day–catching up on her life, you know.

And even if it doesn’t improve, it’s a zillion times better than what it used to be. Besides, Jack claims that he understands her perfectly, and she agrees with Jack on that one.

Isabel says that the weakening of the Towers of power is becoming something her people can no longer pretend not to notice. She says, now that they are talking about it, they say that it is something they knew would happen all along, but just did not think it would be so soon. “Our energy consumption has sky-rocketed over the past century,” she says. Wonder why, huh. Spells, maybe?

“So what’re you gonna do,” I ask, and she shrugs and says in that nonchalant manner of hers, “One way is to go to war overseas and win ourselves more energy crystals for the island. Not a very smart idea. Another way is to leave the island and try to return to the place we took off from eons ago, and fight or beg our way back in. And the third way is to go on living here, where our home is, just stop being wizards. To become more like you and learn to be true equals. The most difficult way, eh?”

It is a mixed bag of a feeling, I guess, to know that our Phoebe’s time is now linked to the time that’s left for wizardry on this island. When the age of magic is over and wizards become our equals, and H.I.S. can no longer do the kinds of things they had done to me, my little sister will turn into that chunk of wood again. What irony. Isabel says it may happen in a decade, maybe a bit later, if they conserve the energy. But Phoebe says she is happy and grateful nonetheless, and that she will put the time she has to the best ever use. “Don’t worry about me, big brother,” she told me yesterday, “I’ll be okay.” And then she gave me a beautiful smile, “In ten years, maybe I won’t even need the palmer. Maybe I’ll evolve.”

So I guess if she is fine with it, so will be I, and by the way, if she and Jack ever get to making a little evolutionist or two in the next ten years, that will be fine by me too. Right now, I am sitting at the edge of a mountain road, looking at the span of the valley beneath me: the greenery, the patches of farmed land, the clumps of houses here and there, the sparkling metropolis of the Bay area further in the distance, and beyond that–only the blue haze of the seas. It’s so beautiful you’d think nothing bad can happen to any of it. So beautiful, you’d think I’d recoil at the thought that in a few days I may be sent to the penitentiary, for–who knows, maybe one year, maybe five. But I’m okay with that.

I know you’d say yeah, right, but I really need to have some quiet thinking time, about what to do with my life next and stuff like that. Plus, Isabel said she wouldn’t mind me being locked up, because then she could visit me and have me give her free massage. Just like her, to say something like that. I’m looking forward to it.

I sit and throw rocks over the edge, small rocks mostly, and every once in a while, a big one. Nothing happens. The black Towers of power beneath me are not pushing back. There’s bound to be a backlash when tommies get the wind of what’s going on with wizards. Maybe it’ll all go to hell, and we’ll all die clenching at each others’ throats. But just maybe–we’ll manage to settle in peace. Maybe I’ll manage… I am remembering what Isabel was telling me in the hospital, about responsibility, and I think I see her point. And you know what? I think I might try to live as if we have evolved all by ourselves. Claim the responsibility. It’s about time, right?

____
Copyright 2012 J. M. Sidorova

J.M. Sidorova is a biomedical scientist and a writer of speculative fiction. As a scientist, she sometimes can’t help but think of living cells as stupendous machines, other times — as stupid rat’s nests. As a writer, she tries to make such suppositions into stories. J.M. is a Clarion West workshop graduate of 2009. Her short stories appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Abyss and Apex, Albedo 2.0, and other venues, and her debut novel, The Age of Ice, is forthcoming from Scribner. She lives in Seattle, WA, and occasionally blogs at http://jmsidorova.blogspot.com.