Midnight Jolt Run

Caffeine tastes better when the city's asleep

Schematics – Part 2

Posted by Fiss on November 3, 2009


>part 1

** 5 Weeks Later **

The pulse lit up the old junk yard like a meteor flashing across the sky.  The four students looked to Thomas, who knelt next to the protective circle he had arranged from bits of scrap metal around the area.  “We’re good.”

“How can you be sure?” Josh asked with his arms crossed.

“The circuit is still intact,” Thomas said with a shrug, standing up from the circle.  He carefully broke the chain of metal with his foot, and a green spark fluttered to the ground as the protective shield was dropped.

A new power-play had erupted in the group of late.  Thomas was fast, efficient, and was learning every idea, every concept at rate even the young, brilliant minds around him couldn’t hope to match.  What Maria, Daniel and Eric had considered a Godsend, Josh considered competition.  His ego and ambition simply couldn’t handle the fact that Thomas was better at this than he was.  Not just better, but dramatically better.  Eric was good.  Daniel was good.  But neither had threatened Josh to the extent of Thomas’ raw talent had.

Thomas was humble about it, but after they had nearly blown up an old gas-station with a failed spell, he gave Josh the same ultimatum that he once gave his boss at the city:

“We’ll do it your way for one week.  Then, if you’re still convinced that my corrections aren’t right, you can kick me out of the group.  Otherwise, you shut up and let me do my job.”

Maria was still in the hospital from the last attempt.  Josh went to visit her the night before.  She screamed at him until he left in tears.  Clearly his idea of cultivating a romance had fallen through.

So, honouring their agreement, Josh let Thomas have all the time he needed to check the spells over.  He let Thomas, Eric and Daniel work mostly untethered.  He sat on the side-lines and exerted every bit of mental energy he had into trying to make Thomas screw up.  Make him prove he was capable of fucking up.

But Thomas was too good.  He had the habit of completing circuits.

After his shame at nearly blowing up Maria and her subsequent declaration that he should go fuck himself had eased off, he began volunteering to put his own neck on the line.  He would be the guinea pig, or the mage in the middle of the focal point, or the one to dispose of the bad-luck charms.  He desperately wanted something Thomas did to hurt him, so he could show Maria that it was a hazard of the trade.

Maria got better and rejoined the group.  The fact that she hobbled around with her leg in a cast, however, made sure to remind the group of Josh’s fuckups every day.  The stress in the group became tangible.  Eric and Daniel began missing more and more evening sessions, and even Thomas started working on his own side projects, or staying late at work when he could.  For a while, he was tempted just to rent a hotel for a week and work on some spells there and let the children run through their natural course of tension and unity.  It was times like this that he realized just how old he was, how young they were, and for once, he didn’t mind being the mature and respectable old man.

His boss had asked him to go on a lighter schedule for the next six months to counteract a budget cut in his department.  Truth be told, Thomas was just happy not to have been fired, but that left him with more time to run into the younger mages and witness their silent bickering.  He decided one morning that he would leave the little group.  It was his presence that made Josh uncomfortable, and thusly, everyone was uncomfortable.  Thomas left his home to grab some morning groceries, and when he came back he saw the ratty old Ford Tempo that Josh drove parked on the street.

With a sigh, Thomas entered the building, trudged up the two flights of stairs, and fumbled loudly for his keys.  Just as he had unlocked the door, though, Josh slammed open the door and stormed past him with a heavy shoulder to Thomas’ side.  He would have retaliated against the juvenile’s attack, but he spent all his anger and concentration getting his grocery bag back under control.  “Watch where you’re running, Josh!” he shouted down the hall at the boy.

“Fuck off!” Josh replied predictably, stomping and slamming his way out of the building.

Thomas sighed, walking into his apartment and kicking off his shoes before realizing he wasn’t alone.

Maria was there, looking nervous and extremely embarrassed.  Beside her was an old man.  Age wasn’t something that Thomas could regularly judge with any kind of accuracy, but the man looked at least ten thousand years old, like a mummy with a relatively good makeup artist and a crisp, white suit.

“Thomas Markham,” the old one said quietly.  While his voice was strong, it was almost unbelievably so, as if he was a puppet.  His voice came from deep within him, or perhaps hidden behind him was someone from the Jim Henson studio.  “It is good to finally meet you.”

Thomas looked to Maria.  “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

“H-m-Mister Markham, please, I’d like you to meet the Herald of the East,” Maria stammered over her own tongue.  “He is the archivist of our cabal.”

“Harold?” Thomas smiled brightly shifting the groceries to one arm so he could offer a shake.  “Nice to meet you.  The kids call me Tom, so it wouldn’t be proper unless you do the same.”

The ancient man blinked slowly, as if realizing the slip in names.  A slow, bright line of teeth appeared behind his thin, puckered mouth.  “Harold!” he laughed.  This time a bit of the man’s raspy under-tone shone through.  “Miss Watson!  You didn’t tell me that our young Savant here was also chock full of wit!  Well met, Tom!  Well met, though you can call me Hugh, not Harold.”

They shook hands (surprisingly firm and strong, Tom mused) as Maria looked on with wide eyes.  She quickly offered to help him with the groceries.  “The Herald has never offered his first name to anyone I’ve met!  That’s quite an honour!” she gushed as they put away the makings of lunch and supper.

“He seems like a nice old man,” Tom shrugged.  “Why was Josh in such a bad mood?”


“Young Josh,” Hugh said from the living room, “was directly responsible for me not knowing about you until last night.  I have informed him that I am not pleased at his lack of foresight, and that should he continue down this path of disappointment, I would revoke his privileges of practicing in my city.”

Tom brought out three mugs of water and sat down at the coffee table with his guests.

“Most people offer me coffee,” Hugh wondered out loud, but took a long, thankful sip without complaint.

“Too much coffee is bad for us old geezers,” Thomas said with a wink.  “Don’t want to teach these kids bad habits now, do we?”

Hugh laughed again, this time sounding much more refreshed.

“So, you’re the local code inspector, are you?” Tom asked.

The old man made a noncommittal nod.  “Think of me more of the man who keeps tabs on Lash in the city limits.  I know every mage in town, and I maintain the books on who is naughty and nice, so to speak.  You should be thankful Maria told me about you.  Had I noticed your practicing without permission, I would have dealt with you quite harshly.”

“Josh never brought you to Hu-” she cleared her throat.  “To the Herald for admission into the cabal.  I thought he had, so I never pressed the subject.”

“Do I owe you a registration fee?” Thomas asked. “I’m afraid my hours just got cut at work, so we may need to work out a payment plan.”

Hugh smiled kindly and shook his head.  “Not at all, Tom.  Magic is free, and by the sounds of it, I would be doing the world a terrible injustice if I stopped you.  You are a natural.  You understand it, and it seems to understand you.  Only a fool would think to control or undermine that.”

“Like Josh,” Maria muttered quietly to herself, but both older men heard it.

“Josh will be put on probation.  He knows the rules as well as anyone,” Hugh said, though his steely voice gave slightly to show he was not actually that angry.  “He will learn, grow, and become a better mage.  Give him time.”

They spoke for nearly two hours about everything.  Where Thomas had studied, how he first noticed the connections in the drawings, and what inspired him to use solder and silvered ink.  In turn, Hugh gave Tom the brief run-down of magic in the area.  There were two hundred and nine practicing mages in the city limits, and another twenty four nearby in the country.  Seven magic-related deaths had occurred in the last year, all of them had been dealt with by Hugh personally.  Twenty instances of Lash had been recorded, with two fatalities in the last ten months.  When Tom asked if Lash was common, Hugh only said:

“Not everyone is as careful as you or the wonderful miss Watson, here.”

Maria blushed terribly at the compliment and spent a great deal of time looking into her mug of water.

“The children have been working an old karmic converter for me,” Hugh went on to the heart of the matter.  “I hear you’ve helped greatly with that.”

“I’ve only tagged along,” Tom said with a smile.  “They’ve really helped me learn.”

“Any side-projects?”

Tom glanced to Maria.  He really didn’t want to tell any of the children he had started out on his own.  It was bad enough with their internal power-plays when he was their research mule, not a pioneer.  Still, the old man was probably the last person in the city he should be lying to about magic.

“I’m working on something, yes.”

Maria looked up at Tom with wide eyes.

“Care to elaborate?” Hugh asked, genuinely interested.

“Well,” he paused, thinking about it for a moment.  “I’ve always been a firm believer that cities could foster great things in people.  They bring people together and get them to work on similar problems, sharing similar ideas and resources.   But they also breed crime, and anger, and frustration.  It occurred to me, if we could modify karma, why not modify the levels of respect in the city.  Make it a better place.  A lot of people feel lonely in a city, and they sometimes feel helpless.  Why not try and change that around instead of having those same frustrated people lash out at each other?”

Hugh simply looked at Tom for a moment, mouth open in a thoughtful ‘huh’.

“That would take a massive amount of power,” Maria whispered to herself, mostly.  “All those people…all at once?  It would be tremendously taxing to-”

“I have direct access to ninety-eight percent of the city’s power grid, and with Maria’s help, I think I could actually siphon off the hatred and anger in the city to help power it.”

“And,” Hugh said, leaning forward.  “This is your side project?”

“Well, I’d only be trying to affect the block, first,” Tom shrugged.  “I wouldn’t want it to Lash any further than that without testing it.”

Hugh leaned back in his chair, eyes wide.  “Maria, would you leave us for a moment?”

Maria nodded quickly, only just realizing that the old man had used her first name.  She was red-faced with a mixture of embarrassment and pride as she closed the door behind herself.

Tom took the time to refill their waters.  Hugh took another long sip before putting it down gently on the coffee table.  “Is there something wrong?” Tom asked.

“Can you guess what the three most commonly attempted spells are, Thomas?” Hugh asked.

He shrugged.  “Mmm, well, one I’d say…maybe flight?  Yeah, flying around like Superman would be my guess.”

“The first,” Hugh said between a chuckle and a sigh, “is money.  Always money.  Some try to change things into gold.  Others try to duplicate a pile of hundred-dollar-bills.  The second is almost always for a girl.  Or a boy.  Or for sexual gratification in general.  If they can’t make the person love them, then they subject their will and take them by force.”

“That’s terrible,” Tom sighed.

“It’s reality,” Hugh said.  “Reality and Fantasy colliding.  Why do you think so many super heroes have unlimited bank accounts like Bat-Man, or lead playboy lifestyles like that Iron-Man guy.”

“Tony Stark.”

“Yeah, him,” Hugh shook his head.  “Give somebody a magic lamp and you’ll get one of those three wishes mentioned.”

“Wait,” Tom said.  “What was the third?”

“Thir-” Hugh laughed.  “Oh yes.  Well, you were right about the flight thing.  Flying itself is fairly harmless, but it creates a lot of Lash if you’re not careful who sees you.”

“So-” Tom shrugged.  “Why are you looking at me like I just asked for all three things?”

“Because you didn’t,” Hugh said.  “You just told me your job isn’t as profitable as you’d like it to be, and yet you haven’t once tried turning dirt into gold.”

Tom felt a blush of his own coming up on his cheeks.  “I don’t know anyone who would trade gold for cash, I’m not particularly fancying anyone at the moment, and I’m scared of heights.  It’s nothing, really.  I just want to learn how this all works.”

“It will work,” Hugh said quietly.  “If you are careful as Maria says you are.  If you are slow and meticulous and check every pattern, every line, and every curve over and over, it will work.  Magic is only limited by your will, and you, Mister Markham, have an incredible will to do what you intend to do.  You will do it, and you will do it right.”

Slowly, the old man got to his feet.  Thomas offered him a hand, but Hugh managed on his own.

“My only request,” Hugh said with a frown.  “Let me know if it gets to be too much.  If you need me to look things over once.  Or if anyone tells you it won’t work.”

Thomas wondered about that last part, but before he could ask, Hugh handed him a gold-coloured card with a number printed on it.

“Before you ask,” Hugh said, “the number is fake.  But if you call it and complete the matrix on the back as you dial, you’ll connect to my personal line.  Call any time, twenty four seven.  Even on Christmas Eve.  I don’t mind.”

Tomas promised he would and sent the old man out with another firm handshake.  As he walked down the hall, the old man began laughing.  “Harold!  Harold of the East!  I love it!”

Not a moment after he closed the door had there been another knock.   Maria stood looking around nervously as he opened it.  “He’s gone?”

“Of course he is,” Tom smiled, letting her rush past him.  “You were waiting for him to leave.”

She sat down on the couch and quickly gulped down the rest of her water.  “I-I’m sorry, it’s just he makes me nervous.”

“I couldn’t tell,” Tom said dryly, walking over to his kitchenette. “Want anything stronger than water?”

“You’re out of vodka,” Maria said sheepishly.  “I saw Josh grabbing the last of it a few nights ago.”

Tom just laughed and pulled down a bottle of balsamic vinegar.  “Oh, you mean the last of my distilled water?  I keep the booze hidden after I had a break in two years back where all the guy wanted was some beers.  We’re good buddies now.  I see him at the pub every month or so.  He keeps buying me drinks, thinking he owes me, even though all he took was a half-drunk can of Kokanee on the counter.”

Maria laughed as he walked over and poured ‘vinegar’ into her mug.  He did the same to his.  “So Josh was just sucking back water?”

“Yep,” Tom nodded, landing in his chair with a sigh.  “So, what was that all about?  Surely you and Josh didn’t come over here just to have water with me and another old man.”

She downed the liquor in one dizzying gulp before he could warn her.  After a wince, though, she didn’t look particularly sorry for the fire in her throat.  “He was here to kill you.”

Tom raised an eyebrow and took a self moderated sip of his drink.  “Go on?”

“Well, Josh had told the old man that you were some unregistered mage from down state.  That you had been helping them, but recently Josh found out that you weren’t doing so legally, so he made to turn you in.  Came up with all kinds of lies about Lash and whatnot.  I think he just wanted to freak you out, or get Hugh to stop you from practicing anymore, but Hugh said he was coming to kill you.  Thought you were from another guild making a move in the city.  Josh-” she swallowed back the lump in her throat.  “Well, at least he realized his mistake, and he got me to come with him so we could stop Hugh from killing you.  That’s when the truths came out.  I-I’m so furious at him!”

He sighed, taking a moment to sip his drink.  “It’s okay,” he shrugged.  “Sounds like he didn’t mean for Hugh to come swinging a hatchet.  And when he found out he talked to you about it.”

“I think we’re going to kick Josh out of the cabal,” she said firmly.  “I’ve asked the others to vote on it.  This is only going to get worse if we-”

“No,” Tom smiled.  “It’s okay.  I’ll leave.”

She looked mortified.  “But…Tom!”

“It’s not fair to you kids,” he said, placing the cup down on the table.  “I’ve spent my entire life doing work like this.  Sure, magic is different than electrical engineering, but the fact of the matter is that I can understand it because of twenty years more experience than Josh or you have.  If I keep helping you, you’ll miss out on the whole process of learning from your mistakes.”

Maria shook her head.  “We need you, Tom.”

“That’s just the thing.” he leaned back, looking up at the ceiling.  “You need space to grow.  Space to learn.  And you have to help Josh get his head on straight.  If you want, you can send me rough designs and I’ll check them for you, but if I’m just here all day like I have been you’ll never stop needing me to fix things.”

He didn’t want to tell her all the thoughts that had been going through his mind about how it was them that were holding him back.  As they endlessly rehashed the same patterns based off of old patterns by old mages rehashing the same patterns…well, it went on for who knew how long.  These kids could control fate.  They could control luck.  And what would they do with such incredible power?  Josh’s greedy smile filled Tom’s mind and he thought of three things:  Wealth.  Women.  Or Flight.   He needed to leave them for his own growth as much as theirs.

“Is it because we’re here all the time?” Maria asked.  “We can start hanging out at my place, or Josh”s dad…he has a ranch.”

Tom shook his head.

“Did you want us to pay for your rent?  You just said money was tight-”

“It’s not that tight, and it’s not that important,” Tom smiled easily.  “And you kids were tutoring me, so I should be the one paying you.  I apologize I couldn’t.”

“I’m not a child,” she said abruptly.

“I didn’t say you were-”

“You may as well be!” she shouted, slamming the mug down on the table.  “Is that why?  Because you can’t handle being around us little kids all day?  I’m twenty-two, for Christ’s sake!   You aren’t that old!”

Tom looked down into his mug.  “I like being this old.  I like you being twenty-two.  I like everyone the way they are, and it’s taken me years to get to this point in my life,” he looked up and sighed.  “Don’t you see?  I’m going to slow you down.  You’re going to slow me down.  I’m not talking about making spells or researching magic runes, I’m talking about life in general.  I need to do things my way.  You need to do things your way.”

“We’ve come so far with you,” she pleaded.  “How can you call that slowing down?”

“Have you been happy?” he asked with a shrug.

“Of course!” Maria smiled brightly.  “When the spell worked I was-”

“What about when you’re not making magic?” Tom shrugged.  “How do you sleep at night?  How are your mom and dad doing?  Do you have friends outside of the cabal?  Friends that don’t know about magic?  What did you do last weekend?”

“I-” she paused, trying to consider her answers.  “I am happy.”

“Ever since I joined you’ve gone from bright-eyes and loving every moment of your hobby to being hurt by it.  You barely even trust the people you started with.  Less than two months ago, would Josh have acted like that?”

“No, but-”

“Then it’s final,” Tom said, standing up, taking her mug as he went.  “You kids can come back here for the next week and take whatever notes and drawings you need that may not have been etched into your books, but after that I’m white-washing the whole thing and putting furniture back in.”

She looked as if he had just punched her in the stomach, and he regretted saying those words.  Still, it was healthy.  She needed to stop obsessing over magic.  They all did.

“Tell Josh no hard feelings, too,” Tom said as he began boiling some water for supper.  “I think he left some etchings in the corner.  Ask him to come by.  And you’re all welcome to visit, just when you do, you leave the magic at the door, okay?”

“What about your side-project?” she asked.  “Can I help with it?”

He shook his head.  “Maybe it’s best for now if I say no.”

Maria grabbed her things and walked over to him.  It took a lot of effort for him not to say anything when he realized she was crying.  “For someone trying to help people respect each other, you certainly are off to a shitty start with the people who care for you.”

Tom sighed as she slammed the door behind herself.  Tomorrow, just in case, he would get new locks installed.  They wouldn’t stop a mage, of course, but a locked door was a powerful symbol.

Two days later the group showed up.  Eric and Daniel begged and pleaded with Tom, but in the end, they just asked to be kept in the loop.  Maria said nothing, and looked off into space moodily as she collected the piles of notes they had left there.  Josh kept looking at Tom with confusion.  Confusion and gratitude.  Eventually, as they were getting ready to leave, he cornered Tom.


“What is it, Josh?” Tom asked with a sigh.

“You’re not mad at me?”

Tom shrugged.  “Just that you didn’t say anything earlier.”

Josh blinked.  “What do you-”

“Don’t fuck with me, boy,” Tom said lightly.  While there was a smile on his face, his voice was jagged.  “If you want to lead these fine people, that’s great.  If you want to create a perfect spell and become rich and famous and have all the girls fawning over you, then fine.  But you could have just come up to me like a man and talked and I would have listened.  Instead, you have your friends hating your guts right about now, the Wizard-Patrol pissed off at you, and you can barely tell that what I’m doing right now is for your benefit.”

Josh’s mouth was open, as if he was going to protest, but no words came out.

“Next time you think some asshole is trying to jockey in on your territory, you tell it to them straight.  Guys like me are too old to figure out all your hormones and social games-bullshit,” Tom hissed at him.  “You keep telling me to fuck off, but it’s you who needs to fuck off, kid.  You put yourself and your friends in danger because you were playing ‘who has the bigger dick’ with me.  Well, I’ve quit your little game, so if I hear of one more fuckup you make to try to prove your balls are bigger than mine, I will come to your house and remove them with a soldering iron.  Do you understand?”

To illustrate, he opened a drawer between them.  A pair of soldering irons and scraps of solder were inside.  Josh swallowed the fear in his mouth back with an audible gasp.

“Come back if you need any help not blowing yourself up,” Tom said darkly.  “Anything more and I’ll call the Herald of the East and explain to him exactly why you fed him lies.  I don’t think the old man will have any more time to play bigger dicks than I do.”

Josh said nothing, but looked terrified.

“Don’t give me that shit,” Tom raised his hand.  “Real men shake once a deal has been made.  Do we have a deal, Josh?”

Oddly enough, the act calmed down the boy considerably.  “You’re serious?”

“One hundred percent.  If you need help, don’t be scared to ask.  Only be scared if I find out you didn’t and you hurt anyone else.”

Josh nodded, then shook Tom’s hand.  It was nervous, but solid enough considering he had just been threatened with castration.

“You’re alright, Tom,” Josh said quietly, lowering his eyes.  “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.  Now get going.  Real men don’t let their friends haul all those boxes themselves.”

The next day, he painted over everything.

A week later, he moved out.

Posted under Short Stories
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