“Down here,” called Mike, turning from the bookshelf. He went up the stairs and met Jack at the top. “How did–”
Jack held out his hand, something in his fist. Mike put out his hand, palm up, and Jack dropped the bracelet into his hand. “I’m contaminated.”
Mike took one end of the bracelet and whipped it out. It changed into the long cursed black chain. “It doesn’t work for you?”
Jack handed over a folder. “Here’s Vulkan’s report.”
Mike reeled the chain in and walked over to the desk. He opened the folder: “Magic can be explained in quantum phenomena by strongly interacting systems, but this is a challenge in modern physical science. Approaches ranging from topological projection to quantum photography are currently being explored across many experimental platforms. Although photon interactions are typically negligible in conventional optical media, strong interactions–” Mike paged through the twenty-page report. He looked up. “What the hell does this all say?”
Jack sighed. “Basically, I have a disease at the atomic level. My, um, protons are all mutated.”
“That happened when you got shot?”
“Not immediately. Vulkan said it probably took a few hours. He said that the magic is going somewhere.” Jack motioned to the report. “He has a picture of the proton’s surface in that report.”
Mike turned pages and found a full-page black and white grainy picture. It looked like the surface of the moon, but there was a pattern to the etchings on the picture. “It looks familiar.”
Jack shrugged. Mike looked up at him. He closed the folder and said, “Jack, I’m sorry.”
He shrugged again. “It’s all right. I just can’t be around magic items.”
“Or magic creatures?” Mike said.
“Vulkan doesn’t know about that.”
“Just to be sure, I would suggest that you and I limit our contact, if that’s all right.”
Jack nodded. “I understand.”
“Are you going to be all right?”
“Scott said he was setting up a fund for me.”
“I know. I didn’t think this would happen.”
“In a way, I’m glad it did.” Jack looked down. “That chain, it was cursed. Who knows if it was ripping my soul out bit by bit every time I used it, right?” He pointed to the chain. “Put it away somewhere. Make sure someone doesn’t use it.”
“I’ll lock it up.”
“Do you need some time off?”
“No, I’d like to get back to work tomorrow.”
“Okay. Thank you. Really.”
Jack gave him a wan smile. “At least I’m not dead.”
Jack held his sore arm. Vulkan was not the best phlebotomist, having jammed the syringe into his vein like a vulture ripping out his inner elbow. He took five tubes, a few swabs from inside his mouth. And now he was on the other side of the lab looking through a microscope.
“Are you anemic?” asked Vulkan as he still looked through the microscope.
“Nobody told me I was.”
“You have a preponderance of white blood cells. More than normal.”
“Is that bad?’
“It can be.” He stepped away from the microscope. “I didn’t see see any nanites, but I want to look somewhere else.”
Jack didn’t do a good job at hiding his horror. “Are you gonna stick me again?”
The young man glanced at the tubes of blood, then back at Jack. “That should be unnecessary.” He gathered the tubes and beckoned. “Come with me.”
Still holding the gauze on his arm, he followed Vulkan to a different section of the lab. He put some of the blood through different microscopes, on a slide in a chamber, and in all different sections of the lab. He would say, “Mmm hmm,” but say nothing coherent.
Jack got impatient. “Look, what exactly are you doing?”
“Right now?” he said, as he put another drop of blood on a slide and put it in a large box, which he started walking to a section of the lab. At He placed the box down and positioned what looked like a large spear against a tiny hole in the box. “I’m going to look at your blood subatomically. Of course, we don’t have the technology to actually see your blood’s atoms, but we can see its reaction to light.” Vulkan walked up a set of stairs, with Jack following. “Good news is that your blood is not radioactive, so what we see will not exactly be spectacular.”
Vulkan turned on a few cameras, and they showed pictures of his blood cells. Another picture was gray, round with pockmarks. It pulsed–pockmarks disappeared, then reappeared. Vulkan stared at that picture. He turned on the machine, and the pockmarks changed for an instant.
Vulkan gasped, and said, “Did you see that?”
“The proton. It changed.” He pressed some buttons on the console, and Vulkan replayed the moment. “Look. Its protons. See what it looks like on the outside? A pattern. Now when I struck the light, it changed to this–” he pointed to the screen. “It’s not a pattern at rest. It shouldn’t change so dramatically.”
He went into a whole series of physics explanations, until Jack stopped him. “But what does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
He printed out the grainy picture of the proton and handed it to Jack. “I know one thing. This pattern isn’t found in nature.”
Jack thought this was the most stupid idea, ever. But Mike said it would work.
Jack wore a belt that had magical symbols on it, and didn’t do anything but improve his strength. He walked around Ren Cen, hanging out in different places, watching. Waiting for that robot to appear.
Fold was nearby. Alex was right behind him. Kelvin was somewhere, too; so was Teddy. Jack felt like a big spotlight was on him, a big neon arrow pointing down at him saying, “Magic here!” Then, the notification came through from PRIMUS. He was going to be working with someone soon on one of the many police alerts. He waited where he was, near Caprice. He thought he could see Alex across the way, but so many people wore black these days that he wasn’t sure if it was him.
The robot from the pictures came swooping into view. It hovered near him for a moment, just out of arm’s reach. The robot said, it’s voice perfectly pitched to be human, “Do you use magic?”
“No,” Jack lied.
Then a gun split from the robot’s shoulder. “You’re lying. Your magic must be eliminated.”
Jack bolted, jumping behind the hedges near Caprice, while the gun went off. He hit his shoulder hard on the concrete. He scrambled to get to his knees, and looked down at his leg.
A circle of blood widened at his calf. “Shit,” he said. Although the chain-magic could heal him, the shot still stung.
Fold ran to the hedges. “Jack!”
“I got shot,” he said. He tried to climb back over the hedges but his leg wouldn’t cooperate. He had to pick up his leg and swing it over the hedge, then follow with his body. Kelvin and Teddy helped him over.
“Shit,” Jack said again. “I’m not healing.”
“Let’s get you to Scott,” said Fold. “He can heal you.”
Jack nodded, as they set up a teleporter to bring him to the base.
Scott didn’t understand. He poured enough magic to heal him of everything including ancient scars, but the wound would not stop seeping blood. Jack ended up having to go to the hospital. When they did x-rays, they found no bullet in the wound, so they sewed Jack up and gave him crutches.
Jack went home and examined his bracelet that was the magical chain he normally used. Whenever he took off the bracelet, it would turn into the long chain, and he had a special basket for it at the foot of his bed. He took off the bracelet and dropped it into the basket.
No shimmer. No lengthening. No stretching into a long, silver chain. He put on the belt that Mike had given him, and lifted the mattress. It took some effort, unlike this morning, when lifting the mattress was like picking up a piece of paper.
He would have to tell Mike. Tomorrow.
Reynard Johanssen got off the elevator and entered the chill of the underground cave. He had already passed the guard-runes and video surveillance and found himself facing a long hall with laser lights cris-crossing the floor and walls. He took a breath. He put a hand on a pad, and looked into a green light. This was the moment of truth. This was when the Brotherhood would see him for what he had become.
He waited to go blind.
He heard a hum, and a click, and the laser lights had disappeared from the hallway. A door was open at the other end.
He walked slowly, letting the cameras catch him and assess him. No tech at all. All meat. Organic. At any moment the lasers could go on and he would be sliced into ribbons. But he made it across the hall and into the door.
The door slid shut behind him and another door parted before him. A man stood in the center of a large metal room, surrounded by monitors. “Reynard,” said the man, crossing his arms. His voice was deep and resonant, and his body was too perfectly sculpted to be human.
“Hello, Stephan.” Reynard walked down the three steps into the pit of the circle.
“What happened to you?”
“It’s a long story,” said Reynard. “A stupid story. I let my emotions get away from me.”
Stephan tsked. Reynard could hear the whirr of machinery as the man moved to sit down on a luxurious leather couch. “Vodka?”
Stephan poured a shot for Reynard, and both men toasted, before knocking back the glass. Stephan refilled Reynard’s shot. “What brings you here?”
Reynard took out his phone, and showed him a picture. “Is this yours?”
Stephan examined the picture of the robot in motion. “No. Should it be?” He scrolled through the pictures and stopped at one. “Ah.”
“Ah, yes, you see your signature?”
He nodded. “I swear to you, it’s not mine.”
“Who else would have your signature?”
“No one else. Not even my apprentices know my signature.” He handed the phone back. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s hunting down magic users. Specifically, the person involved with why I’m 100% organic. And others that he is involved with.”
Stephan rubbed his chin. “How interesting. How did you get involved with an organic magic user?”
Reynard drank the vodka. “A few more of these, and I might tell you.” He said, as Stephan filled it again, “Suffice it to say that if he dies, I die. If there’s even a burnt hair on his head, I die.”
“You surrendered your tech?” Stephan’s eyes narrowed.
“Surrender isn’t exactly the word.”
“You surrendered yourself to someone other than the Brotherhood.”
“It was my life! I was dying.”
“You are not to give up any secrets to –”
“I know the oath. I didn’t betray the oath.”
“Then you had better tell me what happened before I set the runes loose on you.”
Reynard sighed. “I went after his husband. And his wards. He made me sick and ill so that even the tech couldn’t compensate. And then he healed me when I promised not to harm him or his wards or his husband. When he healed me, I could no longer accept any tech. My body refuses it.”
Stephan said, “You must return to the Brotherhood. We can heal you.”
“I had no contact with any of the Brotherhood. It took me over two years for me to find you.”
“You must return to us,” Stephan repeated.
“I’m telling you, I can’t accept the tech.”
“You don’t understand.”
Stephan rose. “Either you remain here voluntarily, or as a prisoner and oathbreaker.”
Reynard rose also. He knew he couldn’t defeat Stephan in a fight, not without augmentation. Reynard said, “I will remain voluntarily.”
Andy stammered. He felt his face instantly get hot. “School?” he said.
Kelvin put a hand on Andy’s shoulder. “He didn’t go to school.”
Andy wanted to crawl under the table. Kelvin had just made it a hundred times worse. They were all going to be staring at him.
“For anything?” asked Juliet. “Did you even graduate high school?”
“Juliet,” said her father from the head of the table.
“I can’t play accompaniment with an amateur.”
Andy said, “No, it’s all right. I…excuse me.” Andy got up, placing his napkin from his lap onto the plate and left hte kitchen. He didn’t go to the music room, but went out the front door.
He sat on the stairs. He knew it was going to happen. Now they all thought he was an idiot. They were now telling Kelvin that he wasn’t worth it. He was stupid. Why go out with an idiot?
The door opened. Someone placed a jacket over his shoulders. “It’s kind of cold out here, don’t you think?” said Mattie.
“Th…thanks.” Andy gathered the jacket together. “You must think I’m stupid.”
“No, my sister’s the one who’s stupid.” Mattie sat down next to him. “Kelvin’s ripping her a new one right now.” He smiled. “Never thought he’d have it in him.”
The door opened again, and Layla came out. She climbed over her father and stood in front of Andy. “Andy? Andy, does this mean you won’t play music for me to dance to?”
“If…If you want me to. But I’ll bet Juliet will be better.”
“Juliet’s a show off.”
“Layla,” said Mattie. “Don’t go repeating what Nancy says when she’s not here.”
“I don’t want better. Her music is all fancy.”
“Well, what song do you want me to play?”
“’Let It Go’ from Frozen.”
Andy smiled. “I can play that.”
Layla’s sad face instantly broke out into a wide, bright smile. She hugged Andy. “Will you do it now?”
“We can practice.”
“I’ll go get my guitar.”
He got up, went inside, and heard slamming dishes. Kelvin came out of the kitchen, heading his way. “Andy?”
“I’m getting my guitar. Me and Layla are going to practice outside.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Kelvin’s dad. “Practice in here. It’s cold out there.”
Andy peered around Kelvin. “Where’s your sister?”
“Can you tell Layla to come back inside? I’ll get the guitar.”
He went downstairs to the cellar and got the guitar, meeting them in the room with the grand piano. Mattie and Kelvin moved the couch against the wall, giving Layla plenty of room to “practice.” She did some bends and stretches, while Andy tuned the guitar.
He started in with the opening chords of the song. Layla asked, “Can you sing?”
“I can’t go as high as she can,” he said, “but I can try.” He stood still. “Ready whenever you are.”
Layla took a standing position, hands above her head. “Now.”
He again played the opening chords, and Layla danced. She didn’t quite dance in rhythm with the music, and he couldn’t hold a pirouette, but she threw herself into the dance. Andy let himself flow into the song, noting that the family had stopped to gather around, watching both her and him. Even Juliet had come downstairs, and stood with her boyfriend, watching him, waiting for him to screw up.
He wasn’t going to give her the chance to notice.
The song ended, and when Layla bowed, everyone clapped, including Juliet and her boyfriend. Andy smiled and bowed.
“Encore!” yelled Kelvin’s father.
Layla looked at Andy. “Um…”
Andy smiled. “I play, you dance as best you can, okay?”
So he played his old standby, “Stairway to Heaven.” She danced slow at first, and when he started picking up tempo, she danced a little more quickly, again out of sync. The family didn’t notice her, but were watching Andy. Layla didn’t finish the dance, stopping in the middle of the chorus, exhausted.
When he finished, they applauded, looking at Andy. Layla even clapped.
Andy smiled, looking at Kelvin, who was grinning.
“Nicely done,” said Juliet. “Would you care to accompany me?”
“I don’t know any classical music,” Andy said, his face reddening.
“Can you play ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’?”
“You play the electric guitar parts, and I’ll play the acoustic guitar?”
She nodded. She looked at Brian. Brian said, “I’ll sing, though I can’t approach the gravelly voice of Mr. Plant.”
Juliet sat down at the piano. At her count, he started the song. Her father started requesting protest songs. Andy and Juliet played Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones…for over an hour, they played, and when finished, Juliet had to quit first. Andy outlasted them, playing a few other songs.
“Anyone for pumpkin pie?” asked Kelvin’s mother.
“And hot cocoa?” asked Andy.
“For you,” she said, “I’ll give you the recipe.”