Mrs. Robinson looked at the picture that Persephone King was drawing. “You have four men in your picture.”
Seph–as all the kids called her because Persephone was too difficult for the elementary school kids to pronounce–looked up at Mrs. Robinson. “I have three daddies and Uncle Mike.”
She’d met two of the daddies on Parent-Teacher Night, a big blond named Knight and a very charming white-haired man named Malcolm. One of the daddies in the picture had red hair. Ah, Mrs. Robinson thought, that’s where she got her beautiful long red locks from.
As a teacher in an exclusive private school, Mrs. Catrina Robinson was surprised to see a same-sex couple on Parent-Teacher Night, but seeing three daddies shocked her a little. She knew some of the teachers didn’t like Knight, especially now that he arrived at school on a roaring motorcycle with a sidecar to pick up the kids. The boys were jealous of Roland; the girls thought Seph and Caroline were weird. Caroline was in Mrs. Stevens’ class next door, and carried herself like a princess. Seph was much more humble and quiet, easy to get along with and charming like her father. Her other father.
As Catrina sat in the teachers’ lounge, wondering how a third red-haired man got involved in Seph’s conception while Catrina’s Lean Cuisine cooked in the microwave, Ginny from the main office came in. “Hey, hun,” Ginny said. “I wanted to tell you about the fight in the yard.”
“Yeah. One of the girls pushed Seph.”
“Is she okay?”
“She seems to be. Didn’t cry.”
“I’ll check on her when I go back.”
Catrina did, and Seph said she was okay.
Eventually the girls were lined up to go to the gym. Catrina sometimes helped out with the gym teacher. As she watched the girls file out of the locker room, she noticed that a few were missing. She opened the door to see three girls pounding up the stairs, giggling and laughing.
Seph wasn’t in the group of girls. Catrina went downstairs to the locker room. As she opened the lower door to the locker room, she heard sobbing. She followed the sound of the sobbing, and saw little Seph, sitting on the floor against the wall, her face buried in her drawn-up knees. Surrounding her was clumps of red hair on the floor.
“Oh, no,” said Catrina, and ran over to the little girl. “Seph, Seph, honey.”
Persephone looked up. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying, and she had a cut on her forehead. It looked like someone took a razor or a pair of scissors–or both–to her hair willy-nilly, with parts of her hair missing, cut short to her scalp, and other parts left long. It was a wreck, a mess, and it pissed Catrina off. “Honey, who did this?”
“Daddy’s gonna be so mad!” she said. “I didn’t do anything!”
“I know, honey,” and she pulled Seph into her arms. “C’mon, let’s go to the nurse and call your dad.”
Knight arrived. Catrina gathered whatever locks were on the floor and put them in a plastic bag, not knowing if he’d want them. Knight stood and listened to Catrina’s statement. She could tell, just by his standing there, rigid and tense, that he was ready to kill someone.
“We’ll find out who did this,” said the principal, “And we’ll punish the ones who did it appropriately.”
Knight said nothing as he put a hand on Seph’s shoulder and guided her out the door. Catrina bit her lip in concern, but the principal turned to her. “Any idea who did this?”
“No,” said Catrina, but she did. One, if not all, of those three girls who had run up the locker room stairs, laughing.
During the rest of the day, Catrina stared at the three girls in turn, giving them the threatening eye. I know you did it. She waited for one of the girls to break down. That afternoon had come and gone, and they hadn’t. Instead, they avoided her when they left the school. Knight returned when school was over and picked up Roland and Caroline, still without saying another word.
The next day, Persephone came in, her hair in a short, spiked cut. She was smiling when she arrived in class, and took her seat. Catrina began class, and when she finally had a free moment, said to Seph, “Honey, can you step outside with me?”
The kids in the class knew that meant something was wrong, and they all watched as Seph got up and stepped out into the hall with the teacher. “Are you okay?”
“Sure,” she said.
“Do you want to tell me who cut your hair?”
She shrugged. “Uncle Mike says that the Fates will take care of things.” Then she went back into the room.
Catrina stood straight, and, shaking her head, went inside.
All three of the girls who had done this to her had shoulder-length hair gathered up in pony tails for gym class. Gym was going to be after lunch. The three girls sat together at a lunch table. Catrina happened to be in the lunch room as a monitor for this period, and she watched Caroline and Seph thread their way through tables to sit with each other and a small group of girls.
Seph threw out her tray after lunch, and Catrina was half-watching her. Then Seph walked over to the three girls who Catrina knew cut her hair. Seph grabbed two pony tails and pulled.
Then threw their hair onto their trays.
Before the other girl could react, Seph grabbed her pony tail and tugged. Her hair came out of her head, like it was a toupe, and Seph threw the hair onto the tray. Blood welled up on each of their heads and then the girls screamed.
Seph walked away, her head held high.
“Fates indeed,” muttered Catrina, as chaos reigned.
(Thanks Scott, for the idea.)
Jack felt exposed. He knew the guys were ready or at least they would be. He hoped.
The book was in a backpack slung over his shoulder. It wasn’t magic on its own, but it held magic symbols. He didn’t know if his new curse would take away the magic. He had gone into the garden, and flowers wilted at his touch. He never went in again.
He had his earbuds with the phone on. “This doesn’t feel good, Mike,” he muttered, hoping Mike was listening.
“They’re in place.”
Jack looked up to see a man with a cane walking toward him. “Here he comes.”
The man was bald, with glowing green eyes. He wore a crimson shirt, black pants, and wingtip shoes. He was a lot smaller than Jack, maybe Scott’s size, with a bit of a paunch, but broad-shouldered. He leaned on his cane, while two men in black walked behind him. As soon as he came to the top of the bridge where Jack stood, the men stayed at the bottom, looking warily from side to side.
“Mr. Cincinnati,” said the man, using the code name Jack had given out online.
“Doctor,” said Jack, using Thornblood’s code name.
“You have the parcel?”
“You have the money?”
The man flipped the cane around and pointed its handle at the wooden bridge at their feet. He made an X with some dark fluid that came out of the cane, and he tapped the middle of the X. A pair of briefcases appeared.
“Open them,” said Jack.
The man raised an eyebrow. “You don’t believe that the money is in there?”
“I don’t want to get bitten by some demon that you might have in there.”
The man chuckled. “This is obviously not your first rodeo.” As he bent to open the briefcase, they all heard a series of gunshots from an automatic weapon.
Jack, knowing how to react, dove off the bridge, into the shallow lake. One of the two men at the bottom ledge of the bridge ran up to the old man, who had stood like a deer in headlights at the opening salvo. The man tackled the old man to the ground.
Jack had gotten the book wet, but that was the least of his problems. He saw the robot at a distance, a green man with guns coming out of its shoulder. It was firing at them, not caring if anything or anyone else was firing back. It also didn’t notice the team teleport and appear at the tree in the middle of the park. Teddy already had the weapon in hand, and as soon as the teleport cleared, he started running to the robot, Alex and Andy close behind.
The robot, focused on Thornblood, advanced. Jack struggled to stand, but he had landed badly and twisted his knee. He half-crawled backwards to the shore of the lake, the side away from the advancing team.
Another half of the team appeared at the bottom of the bridge, where the guards had been. Both were now at the top of the bridge, trying to lift the old man who was screaming that he wanted the book. “Leave me here! Get the book!”
Priorities, Jack thought, as he saw Diode in his blue costume come out of the teleport, looking confused. Ollie followed, and tagged Diode. “Those guys, up there!”
Jack heard the gunshots stop. He looked over to see that Alex and Andy stood behind the robot, while Teddy had done what he was required to do—stab the robot. He chose to stab between the neck and shoulder, but the neutronium sword was still stuck in the robot’s neck.
The robot turned to Teddy, and guns appeared out of its wrists. It immediately started shooting with those guns, probably guns without magic depowering bullets, but real, armor-piercing, people-killing bullets. Alex went down. Andy dove at the robot, out of the way of the wrist-weapons firing, and began to saturate it with his ability.
The sword fell out of the robot’s neck, and Andy put his hands in the area. The robot swung around, trying to get at Andy, but he held on like a man on a bucking bronco, hands deep inside the neck of the robot, getting his hands covered with a sticky, black fluid not unlike blood.
The robot reached behind and grabbed at Andy’s hair. Andy still held on, howling. Then the earth rumbled and a huge spike of earth and water came out of the lake, going through the bridge, making one of the men tumble off it into the water near Jack. Jack reached over, grabbing the guy by the nape of his suit collar, and punched the guy out.
“Oh, my God, he’s been shot.” Jack saw Diode bend down to Thornblood, but then get pushed away by him. Thornblood stood up, one hand at his side and his other hand waving his cane around. He was yelling some gibberish that Jack assumed was some sort of spell.
“Somebody stop him!” Jack yelled. Diode touched Thornblood, who then immediately stopped his shouting. He shook, the other man who had jumped on top of him also shook, and then Thornblood collapsed to the bridge’s floor.
Meanwhile the robot had been ridden out, with Andy and now Alex—who seemed to be leaning heavily on one leg—pouring their toxins into the robot. Jack couldn’t see exactly what they were doing, covered with toxins now, and they didn’t look like they were going to stop. Alex was pissed, Jack could see it in the white man’s face.
“You okay, Jack?” asked Ollie, coming over to him.
“Twisted my knee. I’ll be all right.”
“We can teleport you out.”
“I want to see that fucking bot die.”
Ollie looked over. “It looks like there’s nothing left there but a puddle of goo.”
“I’m gonna see for myse
“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.”