FictionMagic

Story Time: Indistinguishable From Magic


My wealthy (and a bit dotty) aunt had left me, her favorite niece, a battered wooden box containing exactly one twig. Almost everything else had been donated to various charities, and I was the only blood relative who actually got anything, so it was difficult to be bitter.

And, to be fair, “twig” was a less-than-gracious description. The sum total of my inheritance was as follows:

  • one ancient wooden box that had, by the looks of it, been repaired and re-varnished at least a dozen times
  • one tapered wooden stick, roughly nine inches long, with a silver knob on the thick end
  • three stone pellets, about half an inch long and a quarter inch in diameter
  • one neatly-folded piece of tissue-thin, rose-scented paper, with the words “Use it well” written in precise cursive hand

Use it well. How do you use a stick well?

I sighed, boxed up the various bits and pieces, and went to put it in the trunk I’d reserved for the various artifacts Aunt Celia had sent me from her travels. I tucked the box into the jumble of boxes, bags and books already in there. Before closing the lid, though, I fished out the photo album lying on top. I sat down on my bed and flipped through it.

The photos were all either taken of or taken by Aunt Celia. Some were very old, dating back to when she was in her teens. A lot of them had been transferred from one album to another, as they either filled up or wore out. The current one was nearly full. I felt a twinge of sadness, realizing it wasn’t going to get any fuller.

I was staring at a page about halfway through the album – not really looking at the pictures, just staring into space – when one of the pictures caught my eye. Aunt Celia was standing in front of a theater, below a marquee for “Fahrenheit 451”. She was all dressed up: evening gown, pearls, hair done up.

She always wore her hair up. Always. She could be wearing coveralls and boots, and still her hair would be up, twisted into an elaborate bun… That’s when I saw it: the glint of silver in her hair.

I started flipping backwards through the album… 60s… 50s… 40s… She’d started wearing her hair like that in 1946, around the time she turned 20. And in every single photo – at least the ones where the angle was right – there it was: a bright silver knob, sticking out of the top right side of her hairdo. I flipped forward, right to the end. The same silver knob in every picture.

How had I never noticed that before? Granted, I had only known her for the past couple decades of that but you’d think that’d be something you’d notice, right? I mean, sure, I knew she always wore her hair up and there was always something shiny in it. It just never occurred to me that it was the same shiny something. She’d worn the same hair stick for seventy years. And now that hair stick was in my trunk.

What did it mean? Clearly it was important to her, and giving it to me must have been significant. But, “use it well”? I barely had long enough hair to make a decent ponytail, let alone an elaborate updo. I put the photo album away and pulled out the box again, laying out its contents on the kitchen table, under better lighting.

I examined the stick more closely, looking for inscriptions, anything that might indicate why Aunt Celia thought it so special. The stick had three indentations, equally-spaced around the shaft, near the fat end. Each indentation was inlaid with a stone oval, the same speckled stone as the pellets. No. Not quite.

I fiddled with the silver knob until it came loose. Note to self: Push in and turn to unlock. I tilted the stick, and out slid a cylindrical pellet, identical to the three in the box. The end was hollow, and the indentations had oval windows opening into the cavity. Curiouser and curiouser. I tried putting the other pellets in place and each fit perfectly. Interchangeable decorations? But they were all the same. Why have four identical decorative inlays? I put the original back in place and locked the silver cap over the stick’s end.

I picked up the stick, holding it by the fat end. My thumb, index and middle finger slipped easily into the indentations, touching the cool stone. The sliver knob rested comfortably in my palm.

“Oh, I know! It’s a magic wand!” I said, laughing.

I waved it around. “Bippity, boppity…”

BOOM

When the spots in front of my eyes cleared and my ears stopped ringing, I examined the gaping hole in my kitchen wall. “There goes my security deposit.”

I carefully, ever so gently, laid the wand back in its box and closed the lid. I sat at the kitchen table for some time, alternately staring at the box and the hole in the wall. At least I didn’t hit any pipes or wiring.

I needed help. I pulled out my phone and texted the first person who came to mind.

Got a serious problem. Need your help.

What’s up?

Aunt Celia left me her magic wand.

Bullshit.

I took a picture of the hole in my wall and sent it.

Bring it here. And bring wine.

Be right there.

I headed over to Meg’s house with the box and three bottles of Cabernet. She met me at the front door.

“Let’s see it,” she said, practically yanking the box from my hands. I followed her into the kitchen. She has a much nicer kitchen than mine. She has a much nicer everything than me. Meg’s a freelance tech consultant and makes a killing at it.

She set the box down on the kitchen table and started examining it while I uncorked a bottle and poured us a couple of glasses.

Meg looked up at me, peering over her glasses. “This thing’s ancient. You should have it appraised on Antiques Roadshow or something. Why bring it to me?”

“Meg, it blew a hole in my wall. It’s definitely dangerous, probably magic.” I shrugged. “You’re the first person I thought of. The stuff you make, it’s the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen.”

It’s true. I’ve seen her make everything from battling robots to a tiny radio-controlled butterfly. And that’s just the stuff she does for fun.

Meg laughed. “Clarke’s third law.”

I stared at her. “Huh?”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” she explained. She opened the box. “This doesn’t look very high tech, though. I need to take a closer look at this stuff.”

She carried the box into her office/lab and set it down on a work table. I followed with the wine glasses. Priorities. “Don’t you want to see how it works?” I asked.

“Not yet. For one thing, I saw what it did to your wall. Don’t want that happening in there,” she said, nodding toward the kitchen. “Re-tiling that would be a serious pain.”

She picked up my aunt’s note, examining it closely. “Besides, I don’t like to play with a new toy until I’ve read the instructions first.”

“It’s three words,” I said, sipping my wine. “Not exactly heavy reading.”

“Yeah, that’s what’s visible,” Meg said, pulling out a heat gun and directing it at the paper.

“What,” I laughed, “You think she wrote a secret message in invisible ink?”

Meg nodded. “I’ve met Aunt Celia. Clever old bird. One of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”

“Really? I always thought she was a bit loopy.”

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive.” She put the heat gun away and retrieved a black light. “There we go!”

Written around the edge of the paper, in neat, glowing cursive, were the words, “Look in the bottom of the box.”

“Well, shit,” I said. “I never would’ve thought of that.”

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks.” Meg carefully removed the remaining contents of the box and started poking around inside. “Oh, here we go. False bottom.”

“Oh come on,” I scoffed. “This is starting to feel like one of those National Treasure movies. What’s next, a map leading to the Hidden Pyramids of Antarctica?”

“See for yourself,” Meg said, pulling out two documents. One was old and brown, covered in runic script, and sealed in plastic. The other just looked like a sheet of regular printer paper. Meg unfolded the latter. “I’m guessing this is a translation of that.”

“OK, yeah, just shows how to hold it – you already figured that out the hard way – and then goes on to say you can manipulate objects by carefully applying pressure to the indentations. Oh! And there’s a sort of force-feedback element to it. You can detect objects at a distance through your fingertips.”

“Huh, cool. I hadn’t noticed that,” I said. We’d both finished our wine, so I headed back into the kitchen for the bottle.

“That’s because you were too busy blowing up your apartment,” Meg called from the other room.

“Yeah, laugh it up,” I said. “I’d like to see you do better.”

“So would I,” she mumbled. She put everything back in the box and headed down the hall. “Let’s go to the workshop,” she called back to me. “Bring the bottle. Actually, bring all three. This might take a while.”

“Wait, I thought that was your workshop,” I said, indicating the room we’d just been in.

“You think I build those big honkin’ sumo-bots in there?” Meg said, opening a door and flicking on a light switch. “Nope. This is where all the magic happens.”

We headed down a staircase into a huge room. And I mean huge. It was easily as big as the house itself. It looked like a techie’s wonderland. Dozens of workbenches, a milling machine, laser cutter, at least two 3D printers, on and on.

Near the center was a wet bar, complete with bar stools and a mini fridge. I unloaded my armload of wine bottles on it, and poured us a couple more glasses.

Meg set the box down on a relatively clean workbench, and pulled out the wand. “OK, let’s see what this baby can do.” She carried it over to…

“Meg,” I said warily, “Why do you have a cinder-block wall in your lab?”

The thing was about six feet wide, stacked two deep, and stretched most of the way to the ceiling. It was covered in scorch marks and pitted with precise round holes of various diameters.

Meg grinned at me. “Not all the things I build are safe, you know. Or strictly legal, for that matter. That’s why…”

“…they pay you the big bucks,” I finished.

She stood facing the wall, about ten feet back. I took up a position behind and to the left of her, well out of the line of fire.

Meg aimed at the center of the wall and squeezed. A blue glowing circle flashed briefly on the surface of the wall, making a low whump sound.

“Interesting,” she said. “Let’s give it a bit more juice.” She took aim again.

I picked myself up off the floor and, when my eyesight and hearing had sufficiently recovered, I said, “Right, I should’ve mentioned that. There’s a bit of flash and boom with that thing.”

“I’ll say!” Meg was examining the damage to the wall. It didn’t have an actual hole in it, but several blocks had been pushed back, causing the center to bow inward. The blocks closest to the center were badly damaged but more or less intact.

She turned her attention to the wand. “What I want to know is, where did all that energy come from?”

“Magic!” I laughed. Hey, I’d already had a couple glasses of wine and been knocked to the floor twice today. I was in a pretty silly mood.

Meg wasn’t. “Yeah, magic…” she muttered. She retrieved a small meter and waved it over the damaged wall. “Not radioactive, at least.”

“You have a Geiger counter?” I asked.

“Of course. Like I said, not everything I build is safe,” she explained. She held up the meter. “It also detects neutron flux but that would’ve…”

Meg took the meter and the wand over to the wet bar, poured a glass of water, set it down, and put the meter beside it. She aimed the wand at the glass and gently squeezed it. The water bubbled as if carbonated and glowed blue briefly.

“Huh,” Meg said. “No gamma radiation but a whole bunch of neutrons.”

“Care to translate that into regular-person language?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s like there’s a nuclear reaction – could be fission or fusion – but no ionizing radiation. Let me try something…” She went and grabbed another meter.

“Another fancy detector gadget?” I asked. Trying to keep up with Meg’s thought processes was like watching a swarm of bees. There was definitely a purpose to it but there was also a lot of chaotic buzzing.

“Thermometer,” she said, sticking the probe in the water. “23 degrees.” She caught my reaction. “Celsius,” she added.

She pointed the wand at the glass again and applied pressure to the indentations. “Trying just a little bit of constant pressure this time.”

The water fizzed again and glowed steadily.

“30 degrees… 40… 50… 60… 70… 80… 90…”

The water started to steam, then boil. Meg put down the wand, turned to me and started grinning. “No gamma, lots of neutrons and a hell of a temperature increase. You know what this means?”

“Does it involve thirty-five foot long Twinkies?” I asked.

Meg laughed. “No. Well, kinda, in the sense of there being a hell of a lot of energy bottled up in this. I just boiled a glass of water using no external energy source and minimal effort on my part.” She waved the wand at me (yeah, I ducked). “You get enough of these things, you could run a steam turbine.”

“Well, we’ve got one,” I pointed out. “Oh, and three spare stones.”

“Right,” she said. “Let’s look at those…” She went back over to the workbench, picked up one of the stones and gave it the three-fingered pinch.

She dropped it immediately. “Ow! Fuck! Ow!” She ran to the bar and stuck her hand under the faucet.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Yeah, just a little scorched,” she said. “Well, three things learned from that. One: Never do that. Two: The stones are the key component. Three: The rest of the wand isn’t just decoration. Let’s have a look inside.” She picked up the wand and twisted the knob.

“Push down and turn counterclockwise,” I said helpfully.

“Got it.” She examined the silver end-piece. “Huh. The inside of this thing is a polished parabolic mirror. I bet that’s not a coincidence. I mean, who’d polish the inside of an end-cap if it wasn’t necessary? OK, so, process of elimination…”

Meg tried the pinch maneuver again, this time holding the silver knob behind it. One of the wine bottles slid a few inches. She was getting good at controlling it, I noted with only a tiny bit of envy.

“Nice!” she said. “So, stone slug plus parabolic reflector equals magic wand. The wood’s just there to hold it all together.” She reassembled the wand, this time with the other stone in it. It appeared to work the same as before. “So, why four slugs and only one wand?”

“Maybe there used to be more wands,” I suggested.

Meg nodded. “We could easily build three more out of stuff I’ve got around here…” She stared off into space for a moment. “Or maybe something a bit more interesting.”

She grabbed a notepad and started to sketch something that looked like a satellite dish with a six-pointed star in the center. “We take one of the slugs, put it in a girdle of linear actuators and back it with a reflector. I’m guessing polished aluminum will do.”

I kinda understood where she was going with this. “So, the linear actuators play stand-in for fingertips. Can they detect force-feedback?”

“What? Oh! We haven’t even tried that, have we?” She handed me the wand. “Here. I’ve been hogging it, haven’t I? Give it a try.”

I held the wand, being careful not to squeeze, and waved it around. “So, what am I supposed to… Oh!” I could feel something in my fingertips. I closed my eyes and concentrated. “It’s weird. It’s like I’m running my fingers over whatever the wand is pointed at. It’s kinda… um… blurry, but I can make out some shapes.”

“Yeah, the instructions say that it takes years of practice to perfect the technique,” Meg said. “But maybe, if I wrapped a piezoelectric sensor array around the slug, I could make some sort of imaging rig.”

I rubbed my eyes. “That sounds all very techie and fascinating but I’m beat, and I’ve had three… four glasses of wine. Can I crash here? Not really in any shape to drive.”

“Sure,” she said, barely looking up from her notepad. “You know where the guestroom is. Make yourself at home. I’m… I’m going to stay up a bit longer.”

I smiled. “I figured you might.” She was in the zone. I’d just be getting underfoot.

I woke up the next morning, rumpled and a bit disoriented. I cleaned myself up a bit, made coffee, and went in search of Meg. She was still in the workshop, hunched over a bench, soldering something.

“Did you sleep at all?” I asked, handing her a cup.

She looked up, startled at the interruption. “What? Oh, thanks,” she said, taking the coffee from me. “Yeah, I napped for a bit at one point. Got caught up in this thing.” She waved her hand at the room in general.

The place was transformed. All of the half-finished projects on the various workbenches had disappeared, replaced by four satellite-dish-shaped devices like her original sketch. There were dozens of additional sketches on sheets of paper scattered about. For someone who built a lot of high-tech devices, Meg still seemed to prefer paper-and-pencil for design work. Everybody has their quirks, I guess.

“You’ve been busy,” I said, making the understatement of the year. “Care to tell me what these things do?”

Despite having almost no sleep, Meg was full of manic energy. She bounded back and forth among the four devices. “Each of these are essentially the same sort of setup, but optimized for different purposes. And each one is a thousand times more powerful than the wand is.”

She gestured to one. “This one can, given a sample of a material, scan its surroundings and locate more of the same. Basically, anything that’s not what it’s looking for is transparent, making it really easy to find what you’re looking for. That could be used for anything from medical scanning to locating mineral deposits.”

Over to the next. “This one can cut through anything, at any distance. The current rig is accurate to within a millimeter but I could easily upgrade that to sub-micron, with the right parts. Handy for precision manufacturing or, coupled with the other one, mining the resources you’ve located. Hell, you might even be able to do surgery on someone without opening them up.”

“These,” she said, gesturing to the last two, “are capable of levitating and moving large objects.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.

“Watch…” she said, and typed a few commands on a keyboard. One of the dishes spun around to point at the cinder-block wall. It slowly lifted, rotated upside down, and settled back on the floor. In the process, the blocks were rearranged so that they no longer bowed in.

“Holy shit!” I said. “That was awesome! Wait… why do you have two of those? And what about that free energy thing? Did you make a prototype of that?”

Meg looked askance. “Yeah, I can make one of those fairly easily, but right now, we need these four and we’ve only got four slugs.”

I could tell something was up. “OK, what’s going on? Is this a good news/bad news thing?”

She shrugged. “Yeah, that’s probably the best way to tell it. The good news is, I was able to calibrate the scanner to find the exact material used in the slugs themselves. That will allow us to make more slugs to be used in all sorts of devices. I’ve got enough ideas for about fifty basic patents. I’m putting you down as co-inventor on all these, by the way. Only fair. Also, since we’re currently the only ones who know the ‘secret ingredient’, we can corner the market.”

I grinned. “So, we can make a whole bunch of devices, sell them, plus sell the slugs to anyone who wants to make their own stuff. And, we collect royalties from them anyway. We’ll be rich!”

Meg nodded. “Yeah. Filthy rich.”

She didn’t look all that happy. “So, what’s the bad news?”

She walked over to a PC, one of many scattered around the workshop, and pulled up Maps. “The bad news is, the exact type of stone we need is rare, really rare. I scanned the entire planet and was able to find only one source.”

“You scanned the entire world?” I asked. “How powerful is that thing?”

“Pretty damned powerful,” she said. “I spent a lot of time last night getting that kind of range out of it.”

“So, the bad news is the one source is buried deep beneath the ground somewhere or something?”

“No,” Meg sighed. “That would’ve been reasonably easy to work with. This is much worse. The one source of this stuff is here.” She pointed to the screen.

“What, all of it?” I asked.

“No, just this one here,” she said, pointing to the screen. “It’s the only one that’s an exact match. Go figure. The wand slugs were probably made from broken-off pieces.”

“Oh, just one,” I said. “That’s not so bad then.” I looked her in the eyes. “We can’t.”

“We have to.”

“Someone will notice. What am I saying? Everyone will notice!”

“We can replace it with an exact replica, made from similar stone. I’ve already had one carved out.” Meg patted the Number Two device, the cutting machine.

That’s when it dawned on me. “The two levitation machines. You need them to make the swap. We’ll never get away with it. We’ll get caught.”

Meg waved her hands at the room in general. “How? We’ll be operating the whole thing from here, thousands of miles away. Even if someone does see a couple of rocks move, there’d be no way to tie it back to us. Oh, sure, the original will be here so we can carve it up, but I’ve already dug a pit in the back yard. It’ll be buried before anyone knows it’s gone.”

Still being negative, I asked, “And how exactly do you plan to get it here?”

She brought up a map. “I’m going to fly it in, low enough to avoid air traffic, high enough to avoid ships. Over land, it’ll take rural roads, just below the tree line. And boom, it plops down here. Good thing I’ve got a big lot and lots of trees.”

I leaned against the bar and put my face in my hands. “You’ve got this all figured out, haven’t you?”

Hey, that’s why they…” she began.

Yeah, I know.” I sat and considered my options for a while. I turned back to Meg.

How many slugs can we make from that?” I asked.

With no waste, about six million. Probably closer to five.” She smiled, knowing I was coming around on this.

We’d have the market cornered. Exclusive rights,” I said.

“Yes.”

“We’d be rich.”

“Filthy rich.”

“I could quit my job.”

“Yes,” Meg said. “Well, you’d have a new one: CEO of Bluestone Energetics LLC.”

“Not in love with the company name, but…”

“Yes?” Meg said, leaning forward.

“Fuck it. Let’s give it a shot,” I said. “It’ll be the biggest heist in history. How could we not do it? When do we start?”

“Tonight,” she said. “Everything’s set up and ready to go.”

“Jeez, you really were busy last night!” I said. “So, what do we need to do?”

“Pretty much just sit back and watch the show,” Meg said. “I’ve got the whole thing pre-programmed.”

“And what time does the show start?”

“About five,” Meg said. “I figure we’ll be done by about three A.M.”

“OK, I’ll head home, get cleaned up, and change,” I said, heading toward the stairs. I paused. “We’re going to need more wine.”

“And pizza,” Meg added. “I’ll order that if you’ll pick up the wine.”

Now, before you go judging me, keep this in mind: We changed the world. Sure, we got enormously rich off this, but look at all the good we did. Cheap, clean energy. Medicine was transformed overnight; almost no one dies of disease anymore. The ability to manipulate weather patterns eliminated drought.

And, yes, flying cars. Goddamn flying cars. The first few million slugs went into important stuff but, once Meg learned how to synthesize them, they started showing up in consumer products.

We nearly got caught. There were hundreds of UFO reports that night. The tabloids reported a several witnesses seeing flying rocks, but most were drunk or stoned at the time. Saturday night, after all.

Yes, what we did was technically wrong, and definitely illegal. But, in the end, the world is much better off than it was. And that’s what’s important, right?

And the visitors to Stonehenge? I doubt any of them can tell which one of those rocks is fake.

(©2016 Story reprinted from Dandelion Seeds)

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Steve DeGroof

Steve is an expat Canadian who now lives in North Carolina. He has worked, at one time or other, as: a TV repairman, a security guard at a children's hospital, and a janitor in a strip club. His current day job is as a computer programmer for a bank, which doesn't involve nearly as much being electrocuted and cleaning up vomit. He has a patent for a "Folding Stereoscopic Computer Display", which sounds a lot more impressive than it really is. He has created various "artworks", including: a baby woolly mammoth with a jetpack (which doesn't actually fly), a Giger counter (not a typo), a clockwork orange (a bowler-hat-wearing, wind-up piece of fruit that plays "Singing in the Rain"), a clock in the shape of Rick Astley that chimes "Never Gonna Give You Up" on the hour (for which he is sincerely sorry). His first book, "Dandelion Seeds", was written largely by accident (it's... complicated).

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