Chapter 1 – The 2012 Olympics

On October 17, 2010, magic returned to the world. But the world didn’t notice until 2012. It was the climax of the XXX Olympiad in London. August 7th, at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, thousands crowded the stands for the 100-meter dash. Since this is one of the only events that people care about, with the winner crowded, ‘The World’s Fastest Man,’ millions watched on live television around the world. And it couldn’t have been a better day – clear skies, little wind, and the buzz of anticipation. Now, most people remember this day as the 100-meter finals, but really, it was just the 4th preliminary heat. Still, it was one hell of a field. There was the previous champ from Jamaica, the favorite from the US, and a bunch of other guys so ripped that everyone I know swears they were all juiced. But as they moved to the starting line, no one cared. We just wanted to see people race. And really, if they’re all doing it, who gives a damn? Certainly not the crowd, as they chanted and screamed. The calls got louder when the starter called out the start. “Gentlemen, on your mark.” Then the tone sounded, telling them to get ready. And bang, they were off. Unfortunately, the alarm immediately sounded. False start. It was some guy from Paraguay who ended up finishing last anyway. Thanks to him, everyone turned around and walked back to the blocks. Again, the runners took their mark. Crouched on all fours, they rose up as the tone sounded, ready to shoot out like a bolt. But, as before, the alarm sounded. This

confused the athletes since the gun hadn’t gone off. This also agitated the crowd, filling the air with boos. The runner meandered around for a moment, wondering why their race had stopped. That’s when someone noticed a ball on the track. An official ran out to move it away. Except it wasn’t a ball. It was a shotput.ball, I think it’s just called a shot. The runners looked down at the shot, then turned to glare at whoever just interfered with their race. That athlete was Kazimir Pavelec, an eastern-bloc holdover from the Czech Republic. He wasn’t hard to spot, especially while standing in the shotput circle. He should have looked embarrassed being that he was just practicing – the competition was after the 100-meter race. However, he gazed out at his shot with his mouth hanging wide open. This was because he was standing on the wrong side of the stadium. Now, the world record at the time was 75 feet 10 inches. Kazimir stood on the south side of the stadium. The runners stood on the north side, over 400 feet away. No one in the world should have been able to do that with a 16-pound lump of iron. But that didn’t change the fact that he somehow threw the shot across the stadium. Once people realized where the shot came from, they stared at him in awe. Being the Olympics, it didn’t take the reporters long to find a video of the throw and replay it on the jumbotron. Nothing seemed unusual. If anything, Kazimir was taking it easy. Yet the ball soared across the entire stadium, flying and bouncing like a baseball.

Official conferred for a few minutes. Then they led Kazimir to the back for a drug test. He came back clean, but this didn’t do much to erase suspicions. More doubt was raised when Kazimir could not repeat that throw. In fact, his best throws didn’t even earn him a top five finish in the event. If it wasn’t for the 400 foot super-throw, he would have just been a glorified tourist. Sportstalk treated this like big news for a few weeks, but eventually, people figured that he just had some crazy ex-East German sports scientist make him a crazy, undetectable steroid, and their attention turned to other things. Still, the mention of shotput in sports bars still gets someone talking about this magic throw. Now, years later, I know how he did it, even if he didn’t. See, he wasn’t throwing the shot harder. That’s why even with all his effort, he didn’t come close to matching that throw ever again. What he did was temporarily make the ball lighter. So, sure, he could sail that thing across the stadium without any trouble. The spell wore off by the time officials got to it, but if it were still active, they’d have found a big steel ball the weight of a baseball. And, you know, it’s not even that complicated of a spell, at least for me. But maybe I’m not a good yardstick for this. I think he can do that spell nowadays any time he wants, but so can a lot of people. Still, that day in August of 2012 was when the world had their first glimpse of magic. It wouldn’t be long before they had all they could handle.

Chapter 2 – Central Park

“You know, I've always been good with animals. A friend of mine had this Persian cat who loved me. She'd just walk over, purr, and sit on my feet until I’d finally pet her. Either that or she'd dive into my shoes. I never did figure out why she did that. But this is ridiculous.” I had this conversation with the driver of a horse-drawn buggy in Central Park. The day was June 27th, 2015. The sun was shining bright through a little bit of smog. I had a piece of New York pizza next to me that I was hoping to enjoy during a lunch break for some stupid medical convention. I’d be heading up to Boston the next day to see my brother. But neither me, nor the driver, were going any place soon. The 1000pound horse squashing my foot made sure of that. The driver tugged at the reins, trying to get his steed to stand. “Come on, girl,” he said while making a few clicking sounds. Nothing happened. This was not the romantic ride through the park that he advertised. The young couple sat in the back of of the buggy didn’t seem to mind though. They snapped shot after shot, saying things like, “That’s so cute.” A gathering crowd said a lot of the same things. Someone asked if I was a horse trainer, or maybe a whisperer. They all enjoyed the sight. Only two people felt otherwise – the driver tugging on the reins, and me with my rapidly numbing foot. “Ok, fine. What’s going on?” I said that as I slapped the horse on the shoulder. With a whimper, she lifted her front foot and offered it to me. “I can’t take a look with you squashing my foot.”

No problem, the horse rolled to the side and off my foot. No problem, except for the fact that the horse seemed to understand what I was saying. And as I looked completely confused, she stuck up her front foot. I figured the horse wanted me to look at her foot. That’s what all my patients do when they want me to look at their foot or something. My mind snapped back into “Dr. examination” mode, and I took a look at the foot and the leg. “What’s going on, Dr…. Shao?” I blinked, wondering why the driver knew my name. But then I remembered why I was in New York. The medical convention. The boring bunch of lectures that the board required me to attend. And, yes, the nametag around my neck that read, Dr. Steven Shao DC. “Hang on.” I felt up and down the tendons in the horse’s limb. Though I’d never worked on a horse before, everything is pretty much the same as in humans, except for the hoof. But the problem seemed to be in the tendons. “Has she been walking alright?” “Well, maybe she’s got a bit of a limp, but we’re not pulling a ton of weight. Plus we’re supposed to go slow.” I think I nodded instinctively as I massaged out some scar tissue between the tendons in the leg. The horse tightened up a bit over tender areas, but she held still. I heard someone in the back ask if this was safe, or what if the horse kicked or something. But she didn’t, not that it would have mattered anyway. Finishing my work, I let go of her leg. “Give that a try,” I said. The horse hopped up onto its feet, tapping its front limbs, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd. “How’s that feel?” The horse gave me a lick.

“Glad to hear it, now get back to work.” With a whinny, the horse trotted down the path, walking past the now sprawling crowd. They cheered. The driver yelled back at me, “Hey, she’s doing great. I owe you anything?” “Nah, I don’t even know if I’m supposed to treat anyone here in New York. And I’m not a vet, anyway.” I lost sight of the driver, but I sure he didn’t mind. But then I felt another weight on my foot – a golden retriever. And he looked at me with bid old puppy eyes. His owner asked, “His hip’s been bothering him for months now.” “Alright, let’s see what I can do.” Lunch would have to wait for another day. … So would the conference, which I never got back to. Luckily for me, they didn’t keep attendance that afternoon, so I didn’t have to do more continuing education that year, but I did miss a controversial speaker – well, controversial then. His name was Dr. John Maharin, and he faced a hostile crowd. “What exactly are you suggesting, Dr. Maharin?” “What I am saying is that the rules governing the human race have changed. And that we must adjust accordingly.” “Do you have the research to support your wild hypothesis?” “I submitted my research for peer review a month prior, but it has still not been reviewed. This too must change.” Eyes turned to a few older doctors. They stammered and gave the usual reply. “We have much to evaluate, and Dr. Maharin’s research will be looked at in time.”

“Perhaps, but by that date, the world will have seen enough for their own eyes. And we will be playing catch-up for years.” The doctors mulled over his advice, but nothing occurred that day, or any day for some time. When asked about it later, Dr. Maharin had this to say. “The medical establishment, as well as the government, owe a few debts, namely to the drug and construction companies. If it’s not in their financial interest to utilize changes, they’ll resist, as I’m sure you’ve seen over the last few months. But change can’t be stopped. That you can count on.”

Chapter 3 – Walking on fire Let me tell you about my friend, the Firewalker. When I met him in college, he was the man. He had the girl, he was the best baller we knew, he had a car. He was the best at video games, no one could take him on Madden. Hell, every guy I knew wanted to be just like him. Of course, we were also all idiots in college. He bounced around between majors for a while. Spending his days on the court, he ended up dancing on and off the academic probation and subject to dismissal lists – not the lists you want to be on. His girl left him, saying that she wanted to date around, to find someone know knew where the hell he was going. And when the rest of us graduated, Ryan Douglas, the Firewalker, stayed behind. Fortunately, he got his head together after that. One transfer, a few summers of school, and a stint in grad school later, he got himself a teaching credential. Three years later, he found himself back in LA with a job at a middle school. When I rented him the back house to my place, part of me wanted a return to the late nights of Nintendo thumb and Thai food delivery. But I found a new friend, at least for the start. He’d be working on lesson plans and grading papers all the time. And most of the time, he’d be at school, either doing some teacher stuff, or coaching basketball after school. I guess all his time on the court did some good after all. A new leaf had been turned. A couple years later, he was back to the old leaf. I think he got tired of all the political and bureaucratic junk that they made him jump through, so he spent his nights plopped in front of the TV. Maybe this was even worse than before. But then magic found him.

It was a Monday, June 29th, 2015, right when instances of magic were starting to crop up. He was waiting in line at the bank. In his hand was his paycheck for a week of summer school, and even though the money was nice, he’d have much rather had the time to do something else. Anything else. As the line plodded, his thoughts switched between quitting, or maybe going back to school, or… well, that was the problem. He never could find something that he really loved. Something that he felt was worth pursuing. That was why she… yeah… A loud voice snapped him out of his daydream. “Everyone, down on the ground!” Screams followed the voice. Diving bodies accompanied these screams. Statistics showed a massive increase in bank robberies from 2015 to 2018. Most economists blamed the economy, or rather its inability to keep up with the rapidly changing workforce. On paper, this was just one of the early crimes. But reality told a different tale. As two gunmen sped around the bank, Ryan felt something. That’s the best he could describe it. Something. But it was something he’d been looking for. “Get your ass on the ground!” As loud as the gunman shouted, the 9mm in his hand shouted a lot louder. Ryan didn’t move an inch. To this day, he’s not sure how he knew what to do. But he knew. FOOSH! A fireball shot from Ryan’s hand and melted the gun right out of the gunman’s grip. The backlash from the explosion sent the crook sliding across the room.

A blast like that drew the attention of the accomplice. But he too was met by a blast of fire. This one hit him right in the gut, and plastered him against the wall. The gun went sailing, and the robbery was over. But Ryan’s day wasn’t over yet. Outside, a car screeched out of the parking lot. A getaway driver sat behind the wheel, and after seeing what happened inside, he wanted to be anywhere but there. Ryan heard the screech too and shot out after him. The getaway car flew past traffic, tires squealing around corners. Somehow, Ryan stayed right on his tail. The getaway car sped up towards a hundred miles an hour. Ryan stuck right behind it. Seeing an opportunity, a bolt of fire shot out and melted the rear tires on the getaway car. It spun out, wrapping itself around a pole. The chase was over. I found out about this a few days later. I had just landed at LAX when I got a text from Ryan telling me to go to Legends, a local sports bar. This wasn’t unusual; we went there all the time. We even called the owner, “Uncle Earl.” But when I saw him ignoring the TVs and staring at the newspaper, I knew something wasn’t normal. “Hey, Steve, check this out.” Ryan was pointing at a picture of himself in the paper. The attached headline read, “Bank Robbers ambushed.” As I read the article, Ryan didn’t say much. I guess he thought the news spoke for itself.

Another paper landed nearby. “This is for you, Steve.” It was a New York Post from a few days back, and right there on page 17, in a tiny box, was a mini-headline, “A Real Dr. Doolittle.” “When’d you change your name?” The goof and newspaper came from Kevin Hernandez, another friend of ours from college. He read from the article, “Dr. Steven Chao treated various animals yesterday in Central Park. They didn’t even get your name right.” “Ryan stops a bank robbery and you want to talk to me about how I pet a few dogs.” “Hey, you haven’t been around for the past few days. I couldn’t get him to shut up.” Ryan just smiled. “No comment?” I asked. “No, I’ve got something else to talk about. I finally know what I want to do.” “No more basketball coach?” “Nah, that’s ok, but what I really want to do… what I really want to be, is a superhero.” I think I laughed my ass off. Once I calmed down, Ryan continued. “Look, you dumbass, I’ve been looking for something to be excited about for years. Coaching ball doesn’t suck, but I haven’t had a rush like I had, well, ever.” “So, an exciting day where you almost got killed is leading you into your new profession.”

“Die fast or die slow, you die either way. I might as well have some fun.” I thought he was nuts. I thought Kevin was nuts too for humoring him. Actually, Kevin asked me something to the side. “Did you get to see your brother?” “Yeah.” “And everything’s cool?” “Maybe.” He could tell that I didn’t really want to talk about this, so he went back to humoring Ryan. Of course, I found out later that Kevin wasn’t just humoring him. That was a few weeks later. It was in my backyard, and Ryan was making his big presentation. “Call me Firewalker.” “Dumbass.” “Shut up, this is cool.” “Look, dude, just because Jim Lee can make it look cool in a comic book, it doesn’t mean you can make it look cool in real life.” Kevin sat off to the side as I ripped on Ryan’s costume. There were flames covering a leather jacket, and other bits of red down his pants and boots. It looked like he’d cook in there, especially during a Los Angeles summer. “Hey, this works, doesn’t it, Kev?” Kevin didn’t say a word. He just stuck his hand out. Suddenly, it seemed like an imprint of his hand shot across my backyard and into an ice chest. It emerged a moment later with a beer. Then the can of Coors shot through the air and landed in Kevin’s hand. Me and Ryan just stared in silence.

Once Kevin finished the beer, he said, “I’ll ride with you, Firewalker. Call me Longarm.” While this was going on, I never stopped to ask why we seemed to getting powers. I guess I figured that people were getting magical skills every day, at least according to the news. Why shouldn’t the three of us be getting them too? My two aspiring superhero-buds didn’t stop to ask either. I saw them outside early one morning, all dressed up like the Superfriends, and driving off to fight crime and patrol the city. For some reason, I figured Batman would have driving something more impressive than a Jeep. That day, they drove around the city and made the six O’clock news. That day, I went to work. We both stopped the same amount of crime. See, that day, them superheroes found out something about Los Angeles – no matter how bad it seems in movies, there’s really not that much crime going on everyday. Well, at least crimes you care about. They’d ask, “Hello, good citizen, have you noticed any crime lately?” The response would be something like this. “What the hell are you wearing?” “Yeah, there’s that guy selling DVDs over there. You should bust him, this Batman he sold me doesn’t work.” “Get off my lawn you freak!” “You really should stop those taggers.” Finally, they found a crime. “Do you know where they are now?” “They always come in the middle of the night.”

Actually, they tagged in broad daylight. They were just better at sneaking around than my buds were at spotting them. By the end of the day, they were tired. But somehow, they found someone in need of help. This is the report I saw on the news. “With amount of stories we have about people with weird abilities, it’s not surprising that we finally see this.” What I saw were Ryan and Kevin walking around in their idiot-suits. “Yes, we now have superheroes patrolling our city. They even help those in need.” The picture changed to a shot of Ryan standing by a bbq. He lit a small fireball, tossed it into the charcoal, and poof, instant ignition. The cook standing nearby was pleased. Then the reported interviewed Ryan. “Excuse me, what should we call you?” “I’m the Firewalker, and this is Longarm. We’re here to protect the city.” “Well, I’m sure everyone here is thankful. Did you see a lot of crime today?” “Thankfully, no. It seems the city is actually a peaceful place. A good place to live and raise a family.” “Hmm, that seems to go against the reports of some of our competitor stations.” “Perhaps. Or perhaps being a superhero isn’t quite like the movies.” He was partially right. Being a superhero isn’t quite like the movies EVERYDAY. But there’s always those days. That’s what got him into the costume.

Chapter 4 – A Whole New World

By 2016, magic was everywhere. You could tell because the newscasts stopped covering it. The first people who could jump over buildings enjoyed their 15 seconds of youtube fame, but after the fifth time people saw someone dunk with their feet, they stopped watching. Just like the first man who figured out how to increase his strength. His name was Wallace Shaw, and he looked like the kid you picked on in high school. Yep, Wally was short, chunky, and always the last kid picked for dodgeball. He wasn’t really smart either. Kids used to joke that he’d lost the genetic lottery. I know this because he said it all during his news conference for being the NFL #1 draft pick. Now, he was still short and chunky. But his measurables were off the charts. He hit 150 reps on the bench press. No one else could even do 50. And when he stopped, he just said, “Come on, you get the idea.” He was only 5’8”, 230 pounds, tiny for an NFL lineman. But the films from college told a different story. He powered through double, triple teams. Sportswriters called him the end of smashmouth football. No matter how many blockers you put on him, he’d power through and stop you for a loss. 350 pound monsters would get tossed aside like nothing, or fly through the air like a sack of potatoes. That’s what the sportcaster said. I’ve never seen a sack of potatoes fly. So, with the #1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Wallace Shaw, from the Univerity of Southern California, defensive tackle.

People weren’t sure what’d happen in the NFL, but it didn’t take long for the questions to get answered. No one could move this kid. He’d throw off behemoths, and knock down runners with a simple slap. Or he’d throw an offensive lineman, and use him to trip up the runner. Not surprisingly, he got way cocky. I would too if I were getting paid to do something I could in my sleep. Of course, the solution was that he figured out how to magically increase his strength. Or rather, his body figured out. I’m not sure he could control it consciously. I guess it’s not surprising that someone used a strength spell to dominate the NFL and make millions. It wasn’t surprising either when other freaks of nature arrived. First was Dave “Bullet Train” Rayne, who ran the 40 in 2 seconds flat. Then there was the Ghostman, who could throw and illusion. Tacklers who find themselves flying through the air as he ran untouched down the line.. The league accepted these guys, even treated them like All-Pro heroes. But the last straw came from a quarterback. And it was during the super bowl. Jack Karrins wasn’t the prototypical quarterback. He didn’t have a laser arm or stand 6-6. But he was accurate. He went 4356 in a game once, with the only incomplete passes being downs where no one was open. SI called him everything right about the west-coast offense. Every pass would only go for 5 yards or so. But he’d never miss. So, his team would just walk down the field and right into the end zone. Of course, this was because he could control the flight of the ball. And of course, his undoing came during the 2018 super bowl. That week, the experts had their usual round table session.

“You got to like the Raiders in this one. Wally Shaw is the ultimate game changer.” “That may be true. But Karrins will operate solely out of the shotgun, neutralizing Shaw’s impact, and the Patriots will have it.” “Talk all you want about west-coast, shotgun, the spread, whatever you want. But football comes down to one very simple game. I put my big guys here, you put your big guys here. They’ll push. Whoever’s stronger wins, and history stands behind me. Jack Karrins can do whatever he wants, but it won’t matter one bit.” Jack Karrins didn’t like this one bit. That Sunday, Texas Stadium was filled to the brink with the most rabid group of NFL fans in the nation. Signs in the crowd encouraged Shaw to introduce Karrins to the Astroturf. They all wanted a hell of a show. Jack Karrins gave it to them. Initially, everyone was surprised. It seemed like the ball had a mind of it’s own. The kickoff took a weird carom and Oakland had to cover on the 1. Then Oakland passes would unexpectedly hit helmet and bounce into the air, just waiting for the Patriots to intercept. Karrins was the complete opposite of this. His three drives were textbook. 20-20, 160 yards, all through the air. And he made it look easy. For the first half, the crowd went nuts. They jeered Al Davis, ripped on the Raiders, and the announcers said it was an embarrassment. By the fourth quarter, no one was cheering anymore. Some were bored, some had left, but everyone knew something was up. Maybe the Raiders were on the take or something, but there was no way that one team could be that good while the other was so bad.

The key play happened in the third. Wallace Shaw went in at fullback, clearing out a path for his runner. Like every other time, he tossed Patriot after Patriot aside. It looked like a clear path for a touchdown. But then, the ball carrier dropped the ball. He wasn’t hit or tripped or anything. He just dropped it. The ball rolled free for a moment, but then everyone dove towards it. Shaw threw aside everyone, giving him a clear line for the pigskin. He bent down to pick it up, but it squirted to the side, just out of his reach. He dove for it, but again, it moved away. He didn’t get a third change. A mountain of players covered the ball, and the play was whistled dead. Now, everyone watching the game thought it, but only Shaw said it. He slammed his helmet of the turf and yelled, “This is fucked up! I don’t know who’s out there fucking with this game, but fuck this! All you at home should shut off your fucking screens because this game ain’t fucking fair!” The networks had a hard time censoring all that. Shaw stormed right off the field and down the tunnel. Rumor has it that he jumped into a limo, full pads and all, and went right back to his hotel. The NFL didn’t care about that. They were more concerned with the fact that viewers did the exact same thing. Ratings plummeted from 20 million down to under a million. Thank god for realtime neilsen ratings. Sportstalk couldn’t get enough of this for weeks. But they really focused on one thing. As the ball bounced around, everyone looked shocked. But there was one guy who’s job was to photograph Jack Karrins at all times. And during that time, he was laughing his ass off. This got the FBI involved. Anytime a fix is suspected, the black suit will be close behind. They sweated Karrins using some confidential methods, and he talked. He could

control the ball. One touch to enchant it, and then he could make the thing dance. Thing is, this wasn’t technically illegal. But not for long. A rules committee convened in days. Jack Karrins was banned for life. In court, lawyers said that you couldn’t just ban one player just because he was magical. No problem, they banned everyone with magical abilities. Lawyers shouted discrimination. And I knew what was coming next. I was at Uncle Earl’s sports bar with Ryan and Kevin when the announcement was made. On ESPN, the commissioners of the NFL, along with every other major sport, gave a unified announcement. All games were cancelled indefinitely. All leagues were defunct until further notice. The sports anchors looked shocked. Their jobs were over. Inside the sports bar, everyone booed. But after a few minutes, people’s attention turned towards those with magical gifts. Namely, me and my two buds. Threats and insults sailed at us from the whole room. One drunk picked up a pool cue, wanting to bash our heads off. But one angry look sent him cowering. They all knew what would happen if they tried anything. Poor Uncle Earl wanted anything but to have his bar burned to the ground. So, we got kicked out and banned. I thought it was a raw deal, but Ryan was the good guy and led us out of there. And so, by the end of 2018, professional sports in America were over, and there were a lot of pissed off people around. Their anger focused mostly on the magically gifted, and with us estimated at 25% of the population, it wasn’t hard for the masses to lash out.

Now people will say that this is just one example of how magic changed the world. But all that really happened was the introduction of a new technology. And like every time before, the world struggled to adjust.

Chapter 5 – Work

Every time I go to a mixer, when people meet for the first time, they usually ask each other, “So, what do you do?” At my last mixer, people asked, “So, what can you do?” Despite everything out there, people still think of magic like some kind of superpower. Oh, you can do magic? What’s your superpower? Flight? Strength? Can you leap tall buildings in a single bound? But magic is reality, not a comic books. You can cast any spell, provided you know how. Or, well, the term spell isn’t exactly right either. A better way of putting it is, if you can do it, you can do it. People will always have things they’re better at, but if someone can do a little magic, there’s a chance that they can be taught at least a little more. That’s what I tell people everyday. It hasn’t sunk in yet. As for me, I used to do sports medicine. Kinda. Say, you sprained your ankle. Yeah, you could eat Advil and ice it, and you’ll be better in weeks. Or, you could come see me and speed things along a lot faster, like weeks become days. I never had a cool buzzword to describe what I did. People think, Chiropractor, you crack my back. Or maybe physical therapy, you’ll show me some exercises. Not exactly and not exactly. Those were the good days. After my article, the one calling me Dr. Doolittle, people called me all the time to check out their pets. I’d tell them, hey, I’m not a vet. They didn’t care. They offered me cash, lots of it too. And after a few weeks and mounting bills, I said, fine, I’ll see what I can do.

The owner was a well-dressed lady. The patient was her slobbering German Shepherd. The problem was a limp. Somehow, the dog knew I could help, and laid his 100-pound gut on my foot. “Alright, what can I do for you.” The dog rolled over, showing me his hip. Now people ask me how I know how to treat animals, but the truth is, everything works about the same as it does in humans. What I do is get inflammation out of muscles and joints, and maybe break up some scarring. For a dog with a bum hip, that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Yeah, I know big dogs like that have history of hip dysplasia and other conditions like that, but I told the owner that it was something I couldn’t fix. “No problem, just do what you can,” was my reply. I did my thing, and the dog walked a little better. That made the dog happy. That made the owner crazy happy. “I’ll bring him every week,” she said as she cut me a check for two hundred dollars. “You know, you don’t really need to bring him that much. He really doesn’t need it.” “Yeah, but I would feel better if I brought him each week. I don’t want him to suffer.” Well, what could I do? Her dog seemed to like it, and I got 200 bucks a week. I remember another patient about this time. He got some shoulder tendonitis, which took a couple treatments to finish. We billed his insurance, but it got applied to his deductible. “So I owe you 150 dollars?” He didn’t sound happy. I don’t blame him.

“I’m sorry, but your insurance has a 1000 dollar deductible. So you’re responsible for the first 1000 dollars a year. We’ve adjusted you down to a lower rate, however you still owe us the balance on your account.” “What the hell? I have coverage for this on my policy.” “Yes, but that only covers certain in-network providers, which we are not. We told you that on the first day.” “Why aren’t you in network? Shouldn’t you join up with the system.” “I’m not sure what kind of care you’ll get in network, but they pay 28 a visit. For the amount of work we do, we cannot afford such a low payment. You recovered after that one treatment, right?” “Yeah, but. You should give me a discount.” “You’re already receiving a discount. Full price would be 200.” “That’s just too much. I’m not paying.” CLICK He hung up on us. We ended up having to use collections to get the money. And he wasn’t alone. Most people would just complain and argue, but pay eventually. The weird thing was that the pet owners wouldn’t bat an eyelash about paying us, but the people would fight us with everything they had. If they were in pain, maybe I could understand. But their treatment worked. They came in, they got well. “And that’s why I treat dogs,” I said to Ryan and Kevin. It was after a long day at work for me, and for them too. They were dressed in their superhero idiot disguises.and looked bored after another meaningless patrol. “But you could do so much more. A lot of people need your help.” Ryan still had his superhero vision.

“Yeah, but they don’t seem to want it. Why else are they paying me for their pets, but not themselves?” “You just need to get them to see the truth. You need to teach them.” “They can’t be taught if they don’t want to learn. You should know that. Why else are you running around in that getup instead of teaching your class.” “Ok, you’ve got a point, but we can’t stop trying.” “Really. How’s the superhero thing coming along?” “Hey, things take time.” “Really. So, the city’s starting to take to you guys?” “Alright, come on…” “So, you don’t have children laughing at you every time you zoom by? You don’t have grandma’s yelling at you to stay away from their kids? You don’t have the cops questioning you for stalking or accusing you of being…” Ryan took a breath and a long drink. “Yeah, so they think I’m a freak. Sometimes that’s what you put up with for doing the right thing.” “I put up with not getting paid for years. Now I’ve got it working the same way as a 7-11. You come in, get your thing, give me money, everyone’s happy. What’s wrong with that.” “It’s how they described rent back in Econ 1, at UCLA.” “Didn’t you sleep through that class?” “Not everyday day, dumbass. See, rent is what you pay for your property.” “And that’s why it’s better to own than plunk down two grand a month.”

“Maybe. If you own, you’re paying rent to yourself, because you could be renting out your place for that two grand. So, it’s reducing your income.” I blinked. I did that a lot whenever Ryan confused me. That happened a lot. “So, uh… how does this relate to me?” “Your life seems to make perfect sense. You make cash, no more fighting with the insurance companies, it’s really cool. Thing is, it could be so much more.” “What do you mean?” “You know exactly what I mean.” Unfortunately, I did. Damn. “Look, Ryan, running around town, dressed up like a superhero, calling yourself the Firewalker, giving sound bites to reporters – that might be a life you’re cool with, but I just want to make a living, chill in my house, and be cool. Can’t I just live my life? You know what happens every time, right? And it happens every time.” “That’s true.” “So, you understand.” Ryan thought for a second. The second turned into a few seconds. “No.” “What the hell?” “No, I don’t think YOU can. You might think that this life is exactly what you want, but I know you better than that. There’ll be a time, and there’ll be a place, and you’ll do the right thing. You always have.” Ryan got up and walked to the kitchen. I just knew he was smiling. I was fuming. Kevin snapped me out of it. “Hey, that thing your brother was helping you with?” “Yeah, what about it.”

“Is it alright?” “As good as it’ll get.” We just sat and watched the television for a while in silence. Not sure why, we used to watch the game, but those were all kaput. Maybe it was just a reflex. The next day, I thought about this while driving home. I remember this exactly. It was 5:30pm. I pulled my Accord up to the light on San Fernando, next to the Metrolink tracks. The setting sun lit the smog-laden air with and explosion of red and orange. A big-rig pulled up next to me. The container read, “Evergreen,” and I wondered how such a big polluter came up with the name, Evergreen. Then I thought about Ryan’s statement, that I’d do the right thing at the right time. As a train rumbled past next to me, I started to get mad. If he said that, then he thought I was doing the wrong thing. Apparently he didn’t care that the ‘wrong thing’ was providing him a house, satellite tv, wireless internet, and a fridge filled with food that he’d raid from time to time. Why the hell was he judging my life. And then I knew. I didn’t see it before, but off in the distance, a man was committing suicide. He went by Joe, though he had a much longer name. But he’d just lost his job, and from that his wife, his family, and now he decided, his life. And he decided that he wasn’t going out alone. He blamed magic users for his loss, which was probably fair, but his solution was to run through the fences and park his car on the tracks. With the amount of us in the world, he probably figured that some of us had to be on that train. He picked a place around a curve, so there’d be no time for the conductor to stop. He was going to die today. And he did.

His plan went better than he could have hoped. The southbound train turned the corner and met his Jeep head-on. 5000 pounds of heavy-duty Detroit steel melted away in an instant. He must have died just like that. But then the wreckage got under the wheels and the locomotive jumped the track. Unfortunately, a northbound train was coming up on the other track. They hit head-on. 5000 tons of steel doesn’t exactly just fall to pieces. The locomotives impaled themselves into each other, throwing showering steel and fuel onto the ground. Then the momentum of the cars tossed them off the tracks and bounced them about. One managed to dig itself into the dirt. Just as the cars came to a halt, the fuel ignited, surrounding the area in smoke and flames. Everything from that point seemed to travel through a surreal daze. Somehow, my car ended up on the sidewalk next to the road. Then I ran to the wreckage, tearing through two chain-link fences on the way. During this, I called 911 as well as Ryan. He says that my words were, “Get your ass down here if you want to be a hero.” And I guess he was right about me. When the time came, I did the right thing. The right thing’s never easy. It’s loud, confusing, demanding, and filled with panic. I found myself surrounded by that. On the outer parts, dazed riders ambled about in a zombieish daze. Some held their hands over oozing wounds, but they’d all get better. “Get the hell away from the trains!” I yelled. They hardly moved. I grabbed one nearby man, one who seemed uninjured. “Look at me, hey, look at me.”

He fought through his shocked stupor and looked right through me. I remembered later that my emergency procedures instructor told me that when people are in a shocked daze, giving them one simple instruction works better than explanations. At the moment, I think the training just kicked in. “Grab everyone and put them by the fence.” The man nodded. I wasn’t convinced. “Grab every motherfucker you see and push them by that fence!” Now the man grabbed people nearby and made a dash for the fence. I think someone told me that using profanity in situations like this helps get people’s attention. Maybe it was my crazy high school football coach. Or maybe I was in a daze too because the next thing I knew, I was sticking my head inside a crushed train car, screaming, “Hey, anyone inside?” “We need help, somebody, help!” It was the voice of 60 something woman behind me. A moment later, I stood next to her and her bleeding husband. “Can you help him? Please?” Her husband was about the same age, overweight, not looking in great health, and looking even worse with the bloodstain on his white hair. There was a lot of blood, but nothing life threatening. “He’ll be alright, but you guys have to get out of here.” You’d think the burning smoke everywhere would make them leave, but she wasn’t moving. “But there’s so much blood, and it’s still coming.” He started to stand, but she pushed him back down. “Stay down! I heard that you’re not supposed to move until you’re checked by a doctor!” That’s kind of true. You’re not supposed to move if the

area is SAFE. At the moment, the area was anything but safe, so they needed to get out. Plus I didn’t notice anything to indicate internal injury. Still, I had to placate this lady. “Hey, I’m a doctor. Let me bandage him up, and you can go.” She didn’t seem too happy about that, but she nodded. She seemed even less happy when I ripped her sweater and used it as a bandage. It got all red with blood in a second. She started screaming. The only way to get them out of there would be to stop the bleeding. At least this was something I could do. Unfortunately… “There, got it.” I placed a fresh bandage over his head. There was still a little oozing, but the bleeding was over. The lady jumped up and down, saying, “Thank you, doctor, thank you.” “Thank me later, now go towards that fence.” She lifted her husband and dragged him out of the mess. I turned toward a burning part of the mess, now with bloodstained and blackened fingertips. “We need help over here! You a doctor?” The moment I nodded, a conductor dragged me into a crushed car. Stepping over debris and broken panes of plexiglass, I saw an injured cop. He was a tough guy, fortysomething, probably the veteran of a hundred fights. Nothing probably scared him. He looked scared.. “How is it, doc?” “Could be worse, let me take a look.” I don’t know who would have wanted to look. The cop was impaled onto the floor with a metal pole going right through his thigh. Blood was gushing out onto the

floor. An onlooker looked over the cop, trying to keep him calm, but he knew that this was bad. “Can you fix it?” Blood gushing everywhere? Impaled by a spear or some crap like that? This was a hell of a lot crazier than some injured shar-pei. Plus, I was pretty sure my license didn’t cover this. However, the fact remained. I could. “Let me take a look. This might hurt.” The cop shut his eyes and nodded. Then I put my hand inside his leg and felt around. The metal pole had nicked his femoral artery. Without surgical repair, he would be dead in an hour. As I did this, the onlookers stared at me in silence. I don’t blame them. It’s not everyday that you see a doctor phase his hands out of the normal plane of reality and feel around inside some guy’s leg. Oh yeah, that’s what I can do. Well. I don’t like talking about it. “Give it to me straight, doc. Am I gone?” “I can fix this, but it’s not exactly legal.” “Well, we’ll be quiet, right?” The onlookers both nodded. Or so I think, I didn’t really care. My hands were back inside. First, I phased the pole out and removed it from his leg. I heard someone gasp as I tossed it behind me. Then I got to the hard work of sealing every artery. That took too long, I just fixed the big one and one of the little ones. It’s hard sealing an artery. It’s not like just casting some heal spell in a videogame. You need to find all the ripped shards, stick them next to each other, and alter their phases so hopefully they’ll stick to one another. Unfortunately, you don’t always know if it’ll stick. Or if it’ll leak.

And you have to do this all blind, unless someone helps you out with some fiber optic camera. It’s freaking hard, but I’m writing this in the hope that someone out there can do it too. Good luck. But back to the cop. I didn’t have time to really fix everything so I after I got the main pieces to hold, the gushing stopped, and I had to move on. “Get a stretcher and get him out of here. It’s not safe.” The onlookers nodded, with the conductor tugging on a stretcher from a crushed closet. He muttered something as he tried to get it out. “Let me do that.” I grabbed the stretcher and pulled it out through the door. Unfortunately, this resulted in everyone staring at me in silence and not moving a muscle. “Dammit,” I barked. “Get his ass out of here. And get a surgeon to check that leg. I think it’ll hold, but this ain’t the hospital.” This snapped them back into action. Finally. As I exited the car, a little help arrived. Sliding towards me at a hundred miles an hour was Ryan, doing his Firewalker bit. Longarm stood near the fence, organizing people into various groups. Approaching sirens meant the paramedics were on the way as well. But no time to rest. Now with blackened hands, I ran to a derailed car, lying in a crumpled heap by the side. Ryan beat me there and screamed in through any open gap, “Hey, anyone in there? Talk to me!” He must have heard something because he jumped on top of the car and cut through it with a bolt of fire. “Rip this thing off, Steve,” he yelled at me. Without a

though, I jumped up on top of the car and tore off a six-foot chunk of steel. Again, Ryan was proved right. He jumped through the hole and entered the car. “Hey, you need to get down here. It doesn’t look good in here. Damn. He was right. I got into sports medicine because I didn’t want to be knee deep in blood and guts and bugs everyday. Good thing this wasn’t everyday. I checked a few bodies near me. Nothing, no vitals, no response – these guys probably never knew what hit them. “Help.” The weak voice came from under some debris. Tossing aside some junk, I found a man with a crushed leg. There were probably more things crushed, but that was the most evident. And by the looks of him, he needed help, bigtime. “We need an exit.” Without a word, Ryan cut a hole through the roof, which was currently the side wall. I freed the man’s leg. It turned out that the engine or something like that fell through the floor and smashed on top of him. Then the buckling wall crushed some other parts of him. The good news was that he was one of the luckier ones. I looked over at Ryan, but he was gone. I was about to yell, but then he appeared. And he had two paramedics and a gurney with him. “Thanks, Firewalker.” He stood proudly for a second. Then he dashed to another corner of the car, checking over the bodies. The paramedics moved to the man with the crushed leg, checking his vitals and stabilizing him. I just stood there for a moment, watching the scene. These guys had something I didn’t. They just seemed to be tirelessly working and checking man after man. I guess Ryan really was a hero, just like those paramedics.

“Hey, Steve, we got a pulse.” The Firewalker stood next to a puddle of blood that used to be some guy. I wasn’t sure, but I felt his heart, and it was still beating. But it was getting weaker. “We need to get this guy to the hospital, ASAP.” “Use the gurney, this one’s stable.” The paramedics noticed my hands, but they were too busy to ask questions. When people are bleeding all around you, no one asks how you’re putting your hand inside a guy. I had to take it to the next level as we moved the bloodied man towards the ambulance. I could feel his heart giving out, and then… “Firewalker.” “Hey, thanks Steve.” “No, tell the medics to get the crash cart. This guy’s coding.” Steve zipped ahead and grabbed a paramedic. Kevin appeared next to me and pushed the gurney. I had both hands inside the guy. I manually pumped his heart and lungs, also trying to seal up any bleeders I found. “Get an IV ready.” “Got it!” An EMT inside the ambulance yelled back to me. Then, letting go of the man’s heart, I lifted the gurney with my other hand and put it inside the ambulance. “Go!” I yelled. Without a question, the ambulance zoomed off. I stood there in silence, watching it run off. And that’s when the exhaustion hit me. I just stood there like a statue, much like anyone else near me covered in blood. All around me, police and medics were arriving, filling the air with sirens and flashing lights. They zipped about, checking out the wounded and passing out bandages. Someone took a look at my hands,

but zoomed off when she realized that there wasn’t any more blood coming out. I barely noticed. Maybe once I saw that help had arrived, my body decided that it had been enough for one day and just shut off. I don’t even remember being interviewed by the newslady. Ryan put it on youtube and shows it all the time. The interview goes something like this. She’s looking like a movie star, with designer clothes, overdone hair, and a righteous attitude. I look like hell. The conversation went something like this. “I’m here with Dr. Steven Shao, one of the first responders to the crash today. Now, did you end up here at this disaster area.” I paused for a moment. Then, right before she could speak, I said, “I drive here everyday.” She nodded, showing a face of false concern. She noticeably turned her eyes away from my bloodied, blackened hands. Her next question, “How would you describe the scene earlier today?” “Horrible. Screams, bleeding, dying, confusion. Hell.” “It must have been terrible. What made you enter this situation?” Here was where I just closed my eyes for a moment. Then, as she got nervous, I said, “What else could I do.” Then I fell asleep. “One tired doctor after serving our community. A true hero amongst heroes.” In the background of this scene, Ryan was cutting through some metal so they could remove some of the victims who didn’t make it. It was the first time he got onto TV doing something heroic. Maybe that’s why he always shows this film. Or maybe it’s because it

shows another side of being a hero. Me, lying there, covered in blood, just falling asleep in front of everyone. That’s heroism. Or at least that’s what Ryan told me. I’m not sure. Maybe we’ve all got a little something in us that kicks in whenever something really bad happens. I don’t know how I ended up in the middle of that mess, I just did. I didn’t even care about the fact that I’d be spending all night in the reactor. Maybe in the heat of the moment, you just don’t care about the consequences. Logic doesn’t have enough time to act. Or maybe that’s the most logical time, and in normal instances, I just find a way to talk myself out of being the hero.

Chapter 6 – No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

A few days after the Metrolink incident, my phone was ringing off the hook. They probably googled me after seeing my name on TV or something. When did I become a reality TV star? Anyway, I could group the calls into three main categories. Group 1 – “We’re starting a school for the magically gifted and we’d like you to teach.” Apparently, getting onto the 6 O’clock news would mean huge business for an after-school tutoring center that also featured magic enlightenment. I don’t con people, even if they want to pay me well to be conned. That’s all these school were doing. Group 2 – “You are Jesus! You must heal me!” For the first day, I told them to make an appointment. That when I found out that filling your waiting room with pet parents and desperate nuts who think you’re the answer to all their problems is a bad idea. I should have given my secretary hazard pay. Now, I leave it up to her. I haven’t had anyone crazy in since that first day. Group 3 – “We are the future! You must join our cause! Together we can…” CLICK. Yeah, that’s when I usually hang up on them. Group 4 – “Magic is of the devil! You must renounce your ways and turn to the light! Repent and…” CLICK Oh man, I wish I could turn it off. Group 5 – The Maharin Group. Ok, it wasn’t really a group of calls, but rather an incessant stream of inquiry from the Maharin group. I don’t know if they had an internship program, but every hour, seemingly on the hour, a different teenaged voice would call and tell of a great offer. Obviously, there wouldn’t be any specifics, except of

course that it would be very financially beneficial. Part of me wanted to group these guys with the tutoring centers, but something about them stood out. Maybe I’m clairvoyant too. Group 6 – This was the group of people who’d call for an appointment, come in for a check, but have a little something different in mind. For example, I’d go in to check someone’s ankle. I’d ask how they hurt it, but they’d say something like, “Hey, I saw on the news that you helped out some people at that train accident. What was that like?” Now they think I didn’t see them hit the record button on their favorite electronic device, but none of them were James Bond. And I didn’t really feel like answering questions, so I’d say, “Let’s focus on your foot. What happened?” “Oh, I tweaked it playing basketball, but tell me, how has magic affected your practice? Have you discovered any mystical healing techniques?” I’d have kicked them out, but they’d always pay. None of them really got their interview, but at least I got paid. I wished they could at least just be honest. If they were, they’d get a swift ‘no comment’ but at least they’d still have my respect. In any case, I fixed their little injuries. It’s my job. Finally, after a week of telephone hell, I finally heard a familiar voice. “Hello, Steve? This is Rachel. Rachel Hoffman, from UCLA?” “Hey, Rachel. How’s life? You’re a prof now, right?” “Yeah, how’d you know?” “Facebook. What, you thought I was psychic?” “Hey, after seeing you on the news, you never know.” “Oh great. You saw me on the news.”

“Well, I saw all of you on the news. Kevin was standing around in the back. As well as… Ryan. How’s he doing, anyway?” “You two don’t keep in touch anymore, huh?” “Well, after, you know, right? It’s… yeah. But I’d like to see you guys sometime.” After all the calls, I felt suspicious. “What’s this about?” “Ok, I know you’re probably getting a billion requests, but if you guys can show me what you can do, that’d really help me a lot.” “You want me to show you magic.” Rachel’s voice softened. I knew she felt embarrassed to ask. “Yeah, if you could. I know it’s probably not what you want, but if you’re going to show someone, why not have it be an old friend?” Damn, she was right. “What do you need?” Her voice perked up in an instant. “Just come by sometime and I’ll show you everything in my lab. My research is fascinating. I’m sure you’ll be thinking about it for days.” I doubted that severely. But. “Alright, let me check with Ryan and Kev and we’ll be in touch.” “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll talk to you soon. And hey, it was nice to hear from you again.” “Yeah, nice to be in touch.” Normally, this is where a phone conversation ends, but she spoke up. “Remember when all of us would watch American Idol together in college?”

I didn’t want to admit it, but it was true. “Yeah. Those were good times.” “Yeah, they were.” She paused a moment, and then snapped back to reality. “Hey, I’ll be in touch. See you soon.” I decided that the following Monday would be a good day to visit. This was after dealing with three whack jobs on Friday. I told Ryan at the end of the day, while he was working his new job. Seems the window washers at my building had a problem. Seems also that it’s pretty easy to get a job washing windows when you can walk on walls. So, there he was, feet blazing with flames, sliding back and forth on the glass walls with a squeegee. I’m sure the old window washers were pissed that he got the job, but with Ryan walking on walls and juggling fireballs, they didn’t say a word. I got his attention while he stood outside my window on the 15th floor by knocking on the glass. I probably should have thought it was weird, but after what had happened, talking through the glass from inside your office to a friend standing on the other side of the glass seemed perfectly normal. “Hey, Steve, check this out. I can get paid while doing surveillance on the city.” I rolled my eyes. “Just don’t fall off, ok?” “No problem.” He started moving away, when I remembered. “Hey, dude, remember Rachel from college?” Ryan stopped in his tracks and sounded cold despite his burning feet. He said just one word, “Why?” “You know she’s back at school, right?” “Yeah. Why?”

“She wants us to swing by Monday.” “And why would I do that?” “Dude, it’s been a long time.” “Really? You talk to Kari lately?” Ouch. But I knew how to get to him. “She wants to see your powers?” Instantly, Ryan perked up, but he tried to hide it. Fortunately, he sucked at poker. “She wants to see me toss a fireball?” “Hell, run on the walls or whatever else you’d like. I’m sure she’d be way impressed.” “Really?” Now he couldn’t keep his excitement bottled up. “Let me check my schedule. Monday, right?” Thing is, his schedule was wide open. Kevin was just as eager to show off, so that Monday, the three of us walked through south campus, just like back in the good days. Now, the southern part of UCLA’s campus is built around a large quad, with all the science buildings forming the walls. This formed a function first sort of architecture, especially with the older buildings. Up in north campus, where the law, business, and English student hung out, there was a sculpture garden, and it just looked a lot prettier. Rachel, being a rookie science prof, got a small lab in an old building in the ugliest corner of south campus. But you can’t beat the memories inside an old building. Kevin reminisced. “Remember Chem 11B in CS50? Didn’t you sleep in there every day?” I laughed because he was right. “Yeah, that’s the last time I signed up for a 9am science lecture. Bad idea. There’s always more important things to do at night.”

“Like work on getting Nintendo thumb?” “Hey, I blame my parents. They never let me play growing up, so the second I have a taste of freedom, I couldn’t stop.” “A little freedom makes you go all apeshit and play till you get blisters on your fingers, saving sleep for class, and doing anything in school but study?” “Hey, I graduated. Everyone does something crazy in college – gaming, partying, growing pot in your closet with a blacklight. Maybe learning how to control everything is part of the process?” Kevin nodded in agreement and there was a moment of silence. It was then that I noticed that Ryan hadn’t said a word for some time. He just plodded in silence behind us, looking like his mind was anywhere but in this corridor in Young hall. This wasn’t like him at all, but I guess I couldn’t blame him. I just hoped he’d get better once they interacted a little. He’d always been the proponent of “sink or swim.” And the time to swim was now. I knocked on the door. “Come in,” was the reply from the familiar female voice. Ryan looked like he thought about bolting for a moment. But then he grabbed the doorknob and swung the door open. And just like that, they were fact to face again, oh ten years after that day. Things had changed, but he was still talented and as goodlooking as ever. And she was still the tall, stunning, half-Japanese girl who was kryptonite to the will of most men. Her smile was just friendly enough for guys to say hi, just exotic enough for guys to have no clue what to say next. The only difference now was what he called her. “Hello, Dr. Hoffman.”

Even though she knew he was coming, the nervousness still crept through her face. “Hi, Ryan, how are you?” They stood in place for a moment, neither really knowing what to say or do. I suppose when you see the guy you dated for three years before dropping the, “I’d like to see other people” bomb and dating a young professor, that’d be awkward. Or if you saw the girl who broke your heart, drove you into a depression, and made you fail a quarter’s worth of classes, that couldn’t be too comfortable either. Oh yeah, add in the fact that now each person either wanted to show off their powers or witness them? Yeah, welcome to the plane of awkwardness. Kevin was the good guy and broke the silence. He pushed past Ryan and gave Rachel a hug. “Hey, Hoffman! It’s good to see you again. Wow, professor, all bigtime with your own lab, get yourself hitched yet?” Rachel laughed. “Thank you, yeah, the lab’s nice, but no marriage or well, anything anywhere close to that yet.” “Really? You couldn’t keep the boys off you in college.” “Oh god, don’t talk to me about boys.” “You’re going girls now? Wow…” This was said by Ryan. Rachel turned to him and hit him in the arm, but he just smiled. “Uh, Dr. Hoffman?” It was then that we noticed another person in the room. He looked like us 10 years ago, just some undergrad looking for a research project. Rachel walked back to a table and sat opposite him. “Sorry, Jason, now let’s try again. What do you see?” Rachel held a card in front of him.

“Um.” The kid focused, but it really just looked like he was constipated. “Is it a dove?” Rachel shook her head and turned the card – a cloud. “Sorry, Jason, looks like the only way you’re getting into the study is as a tech. Jason hung his head and stood. He took a step towards the door. “Hey, Jason,” called out Kevin. “Want to help me out?” The kid’s eyes lit up. “Cool, why don’t you stand over there?” Kevin pointed to a reinforced curve of concrete. It looked like a blast furnace or some bomb testing facility. By the scratch marks on the stone, I was guessing the latter. “Why don’t you stand over there, Jason?” The kid stood in front of the wall. “Ok, Rachel, you wanted to see what I can do, right?” Rachel nodded. A split second later, something shot from Kevin’s hand and slammed the kid against the concrete. Though he was only 6 inches from the ground, he was freaking out. Then again, if a giant imprint of a hand had flown from some stranger, pinning me to the wall, I’d probably do the same. It probably didn’t help also that everyone else seemed more interested in Kevin. “Very nice, a projection spell. Sort of like Spiderman.” “I can retract it too, check this out.” Kevin held out his hand. He made a pulling motion, but nothing happened. “Hang on.” Still nothing.

Ryan smirked at Kevin. “Good job. Now I have to cut him down.” A torch emerged from Ryan’s hand as he walked towards the kid. Now Jason was really freaking out. I probably didn’t help when I said, “Bet you can’t cut him down from there.” A look back from Ryan said ‘you’re on.’ “Oh yeah, I mean cut him down without barbequing his butt.” I don’t think Ryan heard me. He focused on a fireball rising from his hand. Everyone else in the room did the same, none focusing harder than Jason. Then the fireball changed shape, resembling a hand. Suddenly, it shot out, burning through the trapping, slicing the kid off the wall like a cookie cutter. Rachel cheered. This made Ryan smile. I don’t remember much else since I was laughing my ass off. I think Jason bolted out the door because he was nowhere to be seen. Once order was restored, Rachel turned to me. “Your turn, Steve. I saw the news report but…” “Hey, check this out.” Ryan cut her off and rocketed toward a wall, feet ablaze. He slide up onto the wall and stopped, almost posing for his superhero photo op. Rachel chuckled. “That’s really something, but I was hoping to see…” “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Ryan then held his hands out to his side. Fireballs rose from his hands and levitated in place. “I call this the twin-dragons firestrike.” Before anyone could comment, the fireballs coalesced and formed two serpentine dragons. Their fiery forms shot towards the concrete wall, baring their teeth as if to bite immediately before striking the wall, coating it in a curtain of flames. They burned for a

moment, and when they subsided, the wall seemed a bit molten, maybe a little like lava. It was pretty cool. Though impressed, Rachel seemed a little annoyed. “That’s really something, but I need to see Steve…” “Wait, uh…” “Are you serious? This is real research here!” Rachel paced a bit and muttered, “You haven’t grown a bit.” I sighed. “That’s not true.” “No, he’s just being a dumbass.” “Yeah. Because he’s trying to protect me.” Rachel stopped in place, confusion starting to creep into her eyes. She turned to Ryan, who looked away and slid back to the ground. She turned to Kevin, who nodded. Finally, she returned to me. “Protect you? How?” “You’d better sit down.” I hated explaining this. It never made sense to anyone who didn’t see it, and if they saw it, it meant another annoying night. “Alright, you want to see something? Check this out.” I grabbed a desk with one hand, and tossed it into the air, bouncing it in my hand like a drumstick. Ryan looked like he was going to try to talk me out of it, but after a few tosses, he sat down. “Now, it looks like I’ve got super strength.” “What else would you call it?” asked Rachel. “I’m not sure, but my strength is staying the same. What I’m doing in adjusting the mass of the desk. That makes gravity affect it less, making it lighter, and making it

seem like I’ve got super strength. I can also affect its density.” With that, I set the desk on the floor and stuck my hand right through it. “Can you also affect your density? Like, can you walk through walls?” “Yes, but take a look.” I pulled my hand out of the desk. Black streaks ran down from my palm to the fingers. I put my hand through a few more times. Even though the desk stayed the same, more and more black streaks appeared on my hand. Normally, the sight of this scares people. I don’t blame them – it scared me too. I thought I had some weird disease or something, definitely something contagious. At the Metrolink crash, I think there was so much blood everywhere that no one really noticed. The one person who did thought I got into a gearbox or something. But Rachel seemed more amazed than anything. She ran up to my hand and felt it, taking a close look at the streaks. I guess that’s why she’s Dr. Hoffman. “That’s interesting. Use of magic creates black streaks on your hand. This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this.” “Yeah. That’s because it doesn’t.” “But I can see the streaks here.” “Magic doesn’t put the streaks there.” I stepped away from the confused Dr. Hoffman, pulling my hand away. I rolled up my sleeve and backed up against the concrete wall. Holding out my hand, I nodded to Ryan. “You know what to do.” Ryan wiped the jealous look off his face and focused. Then with a flick of his wrist, he shot out a fireball that engulfed my arm in flames. Instantly, my forearm became a blackened mass. “Oh my god!” Rachel shot out of her seat. “Dammit, I need to call 911.”

“No, you don’t.” “But your arm’s… charcoal… 3rd degree burns…” I moved my hand, flexing and wiggling my fingers. “No, take a closer look.” It took a few tries. She kept trying to turn away, not wanting to look, but eventually she realized that I wasn’t hurt, or burned or anything. Actually, it took Ryan’s help. He grabbed my hand and waved it in her face. “Take a look, if he was burned, he’d be dripping blood or fluids or something gross like that.” “Not helping.” “No, look, that black junk isn’t a result of magic use or an injury. That’s his skin.” Dr. Hoffman fought through her revulsion and took a look. Sure enough, that was just my skin. Not that a weird mosaic of black, purple, and magenta was any better, but at least it wasn’t dripping blood. I probably should have gotten mad at Ryan for calling my skin black junk, but well… “Yeah, Rachel.” I said. “My skins just that black junk you see. This normal looking skin is artificial.” She turned to a patch of normal looking skin. “No way. That’s way too good to be plastic or makeup. It looks alive.” “I didn’t say it wasn’t alive. I just said it was artificial.” Dr. Hoffman seemed unconvinced. “This is what my brother made in his lab at MIT. It’s an artificial living skin that connects with the lower layers of your natural skin. Or something like that, I never totally understand him.”

“But that’s impossible, and in a lot of ways. You can just put a patch over your skin and have it draw nutrients from your dermis. Plus what about bare areas? Skin is a complete covering, and the few orifices are specifically adapted. Any holes are quickly sealed and healed. In order to do what you’re saying, you would some way to create a complete cover of skin, or whatever you’d call it. I don’t know because it doesn’t exist. We can only do patches now, and that’s a really complicated surgery.” “But what if you had epidermal stem cells? What if you could implant cells one at a time? What if you could fire them through the epidermis, making only microscopic holes, and allowing them to form naturally, like they do in the womb?” “Well, IF we had the technology to make epidermal stem cells off a person’s DNA so his body would reject it, and IF we had some high-energy projection device that wouldn’t fry those cells as they enter, then MAYBE after a forever long time, you COULD do what you’re saying.” “It takes a little over eight hours.” “What?” “For a new set of skin. I have to lie in a machine for eight hours, it blasts me with a EM wave projecting the stem cells, an occasional spray to nourish, and everything is good as new.” “But that’s still impossible, it’d take an ungodly amount of energy.” “That’s why we call it the reactor,” chimed in Ryan. “Why reactor?” “Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered.” “It must be huge.”

“Fills up half my house.” “And it must have cost a fortune.” I should probably have thought of this more. But I said, “My brother’s always been able to get huge government research grants. Remember that lab I worked in over the summer?” “Yeah, you guys totally geeked out there. But this is still hard to believe. You’re telling me that your skin is now that blackened whatever, what looks like your skin comes from some giant machine, and … wait, how come your skin wasn’t burned by that fireball?” Ryan picked up a pen. “Check this out.” A burst of fire erupted in his hand, sending the pen flying right through my hand. It stuck in the ground. “Now look at his hand. Not a scratch. That’s because it automatically phases out if something’s going to hurt it.” I sighed. “You make my hand sound like some kind of robot. But yeah. Even if it didn’t phase out, this black stuff is pretty strong. I mean, I never sunburn, I don’t get blisters, hot water doesn’t scald. Unfortunately, the artificial stuff isn’t nearly so good. Every time I use magic, it has a chance of degenerating. Especially when I phase or alter something’s mass or density. The fake skin really doesn’t like that. Truth is, the fake stuff looks great, but it’s junk. The black stuff is really something.” “It just looks, well.” “Terrible, yeah. And that’s why I take a hop into the reactor. Just like I’ll be doing tonight.”

Suddenly, Rachel looked to the floor and hung her head. “You’re going to have to do that tonight because you showed me your abilities. I’m sorry for making you go through that.” “It’s fine. You didn’t know, and hey, we’re friends.” Changing the subject, I asked, “What have you found out so far? I mean, we can’t be the first people you’ve had in here.” This perked up Dr. Hoffman. “Well, the biggest thing is that these abilities aren’t singular. I mean, it’s not like superheroes having super strength or speed or whatever. You need to look at it like a spell you’re casting, and all you need to be able to do is cast the spell.” “I don’t get it. So, anyone can do anything anyone else can?” “Not exactly. I might not be able to throw a 90 mile per hour fastball, but I can toss a baseball around. It still takes special skill to do something real special.” But now I got interested. “Then spells can be learned.” “I think so. I haven’t found enough people with enough power to show anything really significant yet, well, except for you guys.” “Then… if there’s someone who can heal, I might be able to learn how to heal my skin.” “Yes, maybe, but…” I didn’t hear the rest. I just though about maybe being free of this curse called my skin. Just having a chance to look normal again would be enough. It’d be better if everything was normal, but hey, I’d take what I could get. I thought about this all the

way home. I also had plenty of time to think at home since the reactor made it impossible for me to get a good night’s sleep in there. Still, as I stepped into my house, I had hope. Hope was replaced with annoyance when I saw the reactor. Now, my house was never the biggest place – just a typical 3 bed, 2 bath home, though with a little backhouse where Ryan lived. But with the machine’s sprawl, I had about the same amount of living space as him. One bedroom was filled with the power source. My brother said it was safe, but I didn’t ask too many questions. Huge wires formed an obstacle course in the hallway. A computer mainframe or something clogged another bedroom. Tubes fed into a bathroom for a water supply, and then to a purifier, taking out another room. But the biggest contraption sat in my living room. It used to be a slick entertainment center, with a 53-inch flat screen, HD, 5.1 and leather couches. All that was gone. Instead, a giant, white UFO dominated the space. I had to phase that thing out just to get it into the house. And I call it a UFO because it practically anal-probes me. So, like many other nights, I stripped and stepped inside. For tonight, I tried to comfort myself with the dream that Dr. Hoffman would find a way to teach me how to fix my skin. It didn’t bring much comfort.

Chapter 7 – That’s Good Enough for Hollywood

There’s really no escape when you hate your own skin. You can cover it, you can hide it, but you can’t get away. You can’t get away from yourself. It all started that day back in 2011. It was February, but thanks to global warming and the Southern California sun, I decided to throw a barbeque. So, like many days before and many after, it was me, Ryan, Kevin, steaks, and a basketball game. UCLA was playing Arizona in Tucson, making this another one of those conference rivalry games that we just couldn’t miss. I had just run out of the house to check on the grill during a commercial break. I didn’t want to miss anything, so I peeked in through the window as I turned the steaks. But then I felt a steak drop. I looked down, and instead of resting on top of the grill, the steak sat underneath, burning on the steel plate over the gas grills. “What the hell!?!” I hated trashing a good steak, but I also had no clue how it ended up there. “What’s wrong, honey?” Those words carried a familiar tone of annoyance. They flowed from a tall, slender female stretched out for a tan on a lawn chair. She was Kari Hayashi, currently working on her tan, and currently my fiancée. And though her question seemed to show interest, her eyes were still locked on her fashion magazine of the day. A stack of yesterday’s sat next to her. “I just… I don’t know? Shit…” I tugged away at the steak, but the meat was stuck under the grill. I didn’t want to flip the whole thing over, but I didn’t know how it got under the steel to begin with. As I tugged away, I noticed Ryan and Kevin next to

me. Apparently, they noticed me gone. And I used to think they wouldn’t notice if they house fell down during a UCLA game. But they didn’t skip a chance to goof on me. “Dude, Steve, you’re supposed to be the iron chef. Can’t you flip a steak?” “Well, Kev, I can when it’s on the right side of the grill.” “What the hell?” Their eyes went wide open at the sight of the steak under the grill, much like mine. They tried lifting it out too, but as before, the steak was stuck. I tried again, as I explained what had happened. It wasn’t too easy. I was just on autopilot since I wanted to get back to the game. But then something happened. The steak was now on the right side of the grill. Ryan said that it looked like I lifted the steak without any trouble, like the grill wasn’t there. That was the first time someone saw me phase anything. And I didn’t see it. I just noticed a lot of confusion. “Yo, Steve, look at your grill. Hey!” After a few moments, they got my attention to the steak, now charred, now sitting on the grill. And for the second time today, everyone heard me say, “What the hell?” Kari jumped this time. Must have been kind of loud. Probably, I mean, it’s not everyday that you find out that you have magical powers. Ok, nowadays, it’s kind of everyday. They guys were just as excited. There was a lot of yelling, something about, “How’d you do that? Do it again? Hey, what else can you move? Try that thing, see if you can go through wood? Or concrete?” “Can you guys do me a favor and keep it down?” Even though Kari’s words sounded nice, she said it in that condescending third grade teacher tone that I hated.

Maybe I didn’t hate it then quite as consciously, but I know that made me want to try again. Unfortunately, trying harder doesn’t work for magic. “What are you doing, man? You look constipated.” “Shut up, I’m trying to concentrate. I can do this again.” After a minute, I said, “Really, I can do this. Then again, after ten minutes of trying, maybe I couldn’t. I heard the yells from my friends. “You can do it, maybe you need to relax. Or maybe you need to do some weird thing with your other hand? Like in the video games. No, just act natural. That’s how the shot put dude did it. They never figured that out. Well, that’s what I think.” “Dammit, I don’t know how I did it! Just shut up for a second.” Part of me hoped getting pissed would do it, but it doesn’t work like that. And now the yard was getting smoky from a few burning steaks. And that’s when I did it, sort of. Rather than phase a steak, I phased the tongs in my hand, and they passed right through the steak and the grill. Of course, in my current emotional state, I didn’t notice until I heard my friends. “Yeah! Woo hoo! You the man!” Hi fives and cheers filled the air. This was followed by another sigh from Kari. “I’m going back inside.” She grabbed her garbage magazines and marched back into the house. We had more important things to do. “Hey, try that thing! Try putting it through the chair! What happens if you let go?” By the end of the day, I knew how to phase something in my hand, something attached to a pair of tongs, and that unphasing inside a

rock would cause the rock to split in half. And more importantly, I knew how to control it. People always ask me how to cast a spell, like if it’s like a weird incantation or mind focus thing. Unfortunately, I have to tell them that it’s more like throwing a fireball or an uppercut in Street Fighter. It’s an unfamiliar action that your body has to perform, but once you learn it, then you can chuck it out there like it’s second nature. I’d say it was like riding a bike, but that’s all about muscle memory and proprioception. A hadoken is a combination of your mind choosing that it’s the right time to do the move, and your body knowing the technique. Also, you can sometimes get on off just by mashing the buttons. That sounds like magic to me. That usually isn’t a very satisfying response to people. Kevin and Ryan totally got me that night when I explained it this way. They spent the next week doing anything weird that they could, trying to get some magic effect to occur. I say trying because nothing good happened. I remember watching Ryan try any crazy shot he could on our basketball rim. Like as if he could tomahawk dunk if he tried a million times. He still can’t dunk. Kevin was a lot quieter about it, but I knew he wanted it bad. I wonder how it felt for them when they finally got their magical gifts? I know for me, I started using it like an idiot. I’d phase through cabinets just to get a coffee mug. I’d stick things through walls just because I was bored. I probably overdid it. Kari sure thought so. She kept whining, “Are you still screwing around with that?”

“Well, what would you do if you figured out how to do something that no one on earth could do?” “I don’t know, maybe figure out a way to make it profitable.” “Well, I could go on TV, but I haven’t gotten any calls back.” “Is that all you can think of? You need to be more practical. Like I’m taking these continuing education classes to put me into a higher pay scale.” “I do alright.” “You could do better. We could have…” Her voice trailed off. “What, the finer things in life? Something a little more baller?” “Well, you know what I mean.” Thing is, I did. This was our fight that would never end. I was cool with being a normal dude. She wanted more. I used to blame all those fashion and shopping magazines that she read, but really, it was just her. I thought the recession in 2009 would have knocked her out of this, but it only seemed to make it worse once she started getting some money again. Actually, we stopped fighting about that soon after. That’s because we found something new to replace this fight with something bigger and uglier. It started one night when she looked at my hand and saw something. “Go wash you hand.” “What do you mean? I just did.” “No, you didn’t. If you did, you wouldn’t have a big, black spot on your finger.”

She was right, there was a big, black spot on my finger. And since it was my new skin, it was soon joined by a big, black spot on my elbow, a big, black spot on my knee, and a black swooshy thing all across my back. “Oh my god!!!” That was what Kari said when she saw it. “What kind of crazy disease is that?! Get away from me!” She said some other things, but mostly just yelled and screamed before grabbing her purse and running out of the house. I felt hurt when she ran off, but I couldn’t blame her on this one. If I saw some crazy, contagious-looking skin condition on her, I can’t say I’d have acted any different. The worst thing was that I had no clue what this was. Neither did any dermatologist I knew. I never remember seeing this in any of my textbooks, nor could I find anything on it in a library. I spent so much time at the med school library that people mumbled about the weirdo in the hat and turtleneck who wore gloves inside. Ryan and Kev tried their best to help. Ryan especially didn’t seem the slightest bit fazed. I wonder if he thought this might give him superpowers? “Hey, Steve, have you asked Dave yet?” “He knows.” “Well?” “I don’t know.” “Look, I know what happened, but that guy is the smartest guy we both know. If there’s a way…” “Even if there is, I don’t want his help.” “That means there is a way.” I didn’t say anything, because there was.

Ryan looked me in the eyes. He seemed serious. He rarely seemed serious. “Look, man, Kari’s not here because she’s scared. She’s scared because of your skin. If you can fix it, even if that means dealing with Dave, you got to try. For Kari.” Damn. Two days later, I was in Boston, on the campus of MIT. Thanks to the New England winter, I didn’t stand out with my gloves, hat, and scarf. Then again, I don’t think anyone would have noticed. Students shuffled along the paths in a zombie trance, scarcely glancing at their co-eds or the architecture around them. I was personally always impressed by the mixture of Ivy League brick and modern sci-fi buildings – just like something out of Star Trek. I guess these students would be the Vulcans. Really though, given their insane workload and their legendary partying to unwind, their zombie-ish stagger was expected. I entered one of the sci-fi looking buildings and marched down a long hallway. Inside, it reminded me of South Campus back home, with white walls and photocopies of Dilbert and Foxtrot comics plastered everywhere. But these were the normal areas. I’d be going down to the dungeon. An elevator ride and a few electronic dings brought me to the sub-sub-basement of the facility. Down here, the walls were bare, reinforced concrete and the air hummed with the noise of gigawatts of energy. A crayola box of pipes ran over my head. Blue was probably water, red maybe hot water. What the heck was orange, purple, or striped? But way down here in the bowels of the campus, Dave felt completely at home. So much so that he was waiting in the hall for me.

“Hey, little bro. Welcome to the dungeon.” And there was Dave, standing just taller, a little skinnier, but looking an awful lot like me. A lot of people thought he was younger due to his college clothes and demeanor, but he was four years older than me. For a moment, I thought I was looking at myself without the black spots, but then I remembered. “You said you had something to show me.” “Ah, yes. Come on in.” Dave led me into his lab. With computers everywhere, crazy machines, and a whole bunch of things I didn’t recognize, this place was a geek’s Disneyland. Maybe that’s how Dave stayed so pasty white. “You’re quiet. Still mad about that NIH thing, eh?” “What do you have to show me?” “Don’t want to talk about it? Fair enough. Take a look at this.” Dave led me towards a giant UFO that I now call the reactor. That was the first time I saw it, and I really thought he’d made contact. “Now, listen up, Steve. You know about skin grafts and burn treatment? It’s a nasty surgery where they shave skin off one spot, chop it up with a spreader, and then crazy glue it to the injured spot.” “Yeah, I read about it in school. Nasty stuff. If you’re thinking of shaving off these black spots, I’m not sure it’s going to work.” “Ah, thanks for reminding me. Let’s take a look at those.” With a lightning quick hand, Dave whipped off my gloves and looked deep at the black junk. “Oh, nasty. I don’t even think shaving this off would work. It’s not in the epidermis, or even the skin. It’s that your skin isn’t really skin anymore.” “What? I look at it every day…”

“But have you looked at your fingers? No fingerprints. The tips are just grippy, like rubber or something. It doesn’t have the same tone or tension either. You, little bro, are becoming something completely different.” “You said you could fix this. Now you’re saying I’m some kind of alien.” “I love aliens. They have such cool powers or weapons and crap like that.” “I’m a freak. Girls don’t like freaks.” “Oh yeah, Kari probably hates this. Don’t see skin like this in Cosmo, and if you’re not using the proper moisturizer, what kind of animal are you anyway?” “Do you have a point?” “I have the perfect solution. Hollywood would be proud. You see that thing? Our newest toy, complete dermal and epidermal replacement, this will make those nasty skin grafts history. It’ll give you a brand, new life. Interested?” Damn. That’s all I kept thinking when Dave told me to strip and get into that UFO. He said it’d be weird, take forever, but that I’d be happy with the results. If some stranger told me that, I probably would have punted him in the gonads, but Dave’s my brother, and I was desperate. So, I stepped inside. “Ok, Dave. Now what?” The door closed with a foosh, sealing me into the darkness. The last thing I saw was a smirk on my brother’s face. Then a bunch of robot arms grabbed my limbs and moved me around. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel good either. And with the darkness, I was not happy. “What the hell, Dave!?!”

His muffled voice came through the walls. “Relax, bro. Just let the machine do its thing.” “Easy for you to say!” “You’re right. It is easy for me to see.” Then I heard a door open, footsteps exit, and the door close and lock. Dave had left me alone in the dark, in a weird machine, and all I had to do was trust him. Again. After what happened. Damn. Then automated processes began, which drew all my attention. It got loud, with the sound of spinning machinery. Then waves of light and energy shot out and struck my skin. This just tickled a bit, and would have been fine or even nice for a few minutes. Unfortunately, a clock on the computer outside read 8:15, and for the next forever, the clock would count down as the arms moved me about, blasting every square inch of my body. After a while, my skin looked different, but in the weird light of the machine, I couldn’t really tell. Plus, the robot arms kept me from getting any rest, and maybe I was going delirious. I felt like I’d been in there for an eternity. It wasn’t even a night, but thanks to the robot arms, it felt a lot longer. Then there was a beeping noise, like the oven timer saying that your cake is done. The door to the chamber opened, lighting the reactor with fluorescents from the rest of the lab. It also let in the voice of my brother. “Hey, how do you feel?” “Like I got anal probed by a bunch of aliens. What the hell is this thing?” “Step outside and take a look.”

I took a step outside, first looking for some clothes. My stuff was on a chair. But as I reached out for my pants, I noticed something. And I just stopped. “So, bro, you like what you see.” “It’s gone.” “Of course it’s gone. This is the newest in cytogenic dermal repair. It might feel like an alien anal probe, but it makes you look good as new.” I wanted to be mad at Dave, but he was right. I did look as good as ever. There wasn’t even a hint of the black junk anywhere. He brought me a mirror so I could check every inch, but all the black junk was gone. For the next few nights, I looked over myself in the mirror after I showered, just in case this was some kind of paint or something over the black splotches. I was afraid it’d all just wash off. But it seemed ok, it just took me a few days before I really believed it. I needed help from Ryan. “Hey, Steve, you’re looking your normal, ugly self.” “Thanks man. Asshole.” Hearing that from Ryan made me feel normal for the first time in a long time. And for a guy who saw his skin turn into a blackened mess, that’s something. We both chuckled and as he gave me a hi-five. “Looks like Dave worked his magic. That guy’s got a huge brain.” “Yeah. Kinda.” I looked normal, why wasn’t I normal? I figured that convincing Ryan was nothing. But if I could convince myself, then maybe, just maybe I could convince Kari. That’s what I told myself as I knocked on her door. She was smiling when she opened the door. It took a second for her to realize it was me. It took another second for

her brain to realize what I looked like. Then it took one last second for her to slam the door in my face. “Come on, Kari, open the door.” “You get away from me. I don’t know what’s on you, but I do not want to catch it.” “It’s all gone.” “Like hell it is! You can take whatever crazy disease you have and stay the hell away. I knew I shouldn’t have let you go to Thailand.” “This isn’t anything weird like that.” “Really? So what kind of disease is it?” “One that’s gone. Take a look for yourself.” It took a while, but she finally agreed if I stood in her backyard and she could look out at me through a window. And it took so long that it was getting late, and cold. “Well, hurry up. You got something to show me?” I held up my hands. “Alright, let’s see the rest of it.” I took off my shirt and spun around. “Let’s see your legs.” The pants came off next, along with another spin. This was like some messed up version of “Pretty Woman” or something. “Now turn around.” I spun in place. “Do it again. And again.”

I spun around twice before I noticed that she was smiling. She was just messing with me, but somehow, I didn’t care. It was just nice to she her smile again. It’d been so long. She opened the door and let me inside. And just like that, I was back in her life. No more being pushed away. No more being ignored. We got dinner, went blading by the beach, started up with the wedding plans again. Life was nice. I didn’t realize it then, but I didn’t use magic one bit. No lightening heavy objects, no phasing through doors, no anything. I was happy with life and I wanted it to stay that way. One night we went out to a diner, one of those places with overdressed waiters and the occasional song and dance. After laughing through a performance, we sipped our sodas and looked each other deep in the eyes. “I’m so glad we’re back,” I said. “Yeah, we are, aren’t we?” For a moment, everything was good. “Have you thought about switching to a new office?” “Wait, what?” “Well, you know, there really isn’t any advancement in your job, so maybe you can join up with another place?” “But, why are you bringing this up now?” She just looked away and drank her soda. Yeah, we were back, for better or for worse. The rest of the dinner was just as icy. She hardly said a word to me as we went out to the car. I was about to get in when I heard something behind me. “Are you kidding me? Dammit!”

Behind me, some teenaged kid was pulling on his door while peering through his window. I knew his keys were inside, probably sitting on the seat or still in the ignition. His cheerleader date bounced around near him, screaming out her lungs and staying in perpetual motion. She probably looked great a minute ago, but right now, her face brought me back to everything wrong with my teenage years. “Come on, I’m going to get grounded! Do something!” The kid was nervous. That’s probably how he locked his keys in his car. That cheerleader date of his wasn’t helping, and probably was the cause of his brain fart. “Uh, I know triple-A can get the door open, but I don’t have it. Do you?” “No, but I do have a curfew. God, why did I think you could take care of anything? You’re such an idiot.” The kid fumbled around his pockets, looked to anyone around for help, but just looked beat. It didn’t help that he wasn’t nearly as good looking as her or that he was sixteen, and probably on one of his first solo dates. No one else was helping him out, so I went over. Kari complained, saying something like, “Come on. They’ll be safe, let’s go home.” But I ignored her. I walked up to the kid and said, “Lock your keys in there?” “Yeah. You have triple-A?” “No, but I can help you out.” I walked over to the door and leaned my back against the handle. I reached behind my back, phased through, and unlocked the car, all unseen by the kid. Magicians never reveal their tricks. I didn’t want to either. While I had a second, I said, “That screaming girl, she your girlfriend?”

“No. She agreed to go out with me, though. That’s something.” “Yeah, but do you like her?” The kid lowered his voice. “I’ve had a crush on her since 8th grade. This is my dream.” “Why?” “Have you looked at her? Goddamn you half-Japanese girls.” “They do it to me every time.” The kid’s eyes lit up. Nothing like an obscure song reference to forge a connection. Maybe now he’d listen. “Did you have fun tonight?” “It was cool, I mean, this was really something, you know?” “That wasn’t a yes.” “Yeah.” “Look, kid, I’m the last one who wants to tell you how to live your life, but you got to ask yourself if she really likes you too. Chick flicks and shit talk about winning over the girl, but the truth is, she’s either won or lost way before you ask her out. If you’re not good enough for her now…” “Yeah, I know.” “Well, that’s all I’m going to say about it.” I lifted the handle as I stepped away, opening the door. “Have a good one.” The kid looked amazed at the door for a moment. Then he yelled, “Thanks man! Hey, I got the door open!” I didn’t look back. I just went back to Kari. She seemed bored. “Done with your good deed of the day?”

“I remember what it was like. High school sucks.” “Well, can we go now?” I nodded and opened the door. But suddenly, Kari screamed. “What the hell?! You said you were healed… oh my god!” I looked at my hand. There was a black splotch right were I’d phased through the door to get that kid’s door open. I looked back at Kari, but she was running off down the street, screaming something about needing a lift into her cellphone. I tried to give Kari a ride home, saying I’d call Dave to see what happened, but she didn’t even want to talk to me. When I told Dave, he just had a simple reply. “Hmm, that’s interesting.” “What the hell are you talking about? You told me I’d be good as new.” “Well, your skin was new, so that was true. I wonder what damaged it?” Two days later, I was back in my brother’s lab. I showed him my hand, not covered in black splotches. “That’s interesting. The cytogenic dermis is degenerating, revealing your true new skin.” “New skin?” “Well, I’m not sure what to call it. You’re the medical one. You probably also know what caused this.” “Yeah. But I’m not sure how to fix it.” “Well, a dip in the tank and you’ll be good as new.” “No, but I’ll look good as new.” “That’s good enough for Hollywood.”

Again, I ended up inside the reactor. Dave’s voice came through the wall. “Hey, this might hurt a bit.” Before I could say anything, a blast of energy stripped off any remaining bits of the artificial skin. It’d have probably hurt like hell if I couldn’t phase out. “You still alive in there?” “Shit!” Dave thought I was talking to him, but the energy residue made a little light, and I could see my body. It wasn’t black and splotchy anymore. It was all that black junk. Nothing looked normal. But like last time, after eight hours or so, I looked as good as new. “This isn’t real, is it?” “Nope, it doesn’t appear that way.” “So what do I do?” “Take a dip in the tank every time it gets ugly.” “I don’t have that many frequent flyer miles.” “Then I’ll see what I can do, little bro.” Damn. One again, I went over to Kari’s house. I hoped that it’d go as well as last time, but I somehow knew. “Get away from here! I don’t want your disease.” “I don’t have a disease. Something’s just happening. Not just to me, to the whole world.” My reply was a scream and a threat to call to the cops.

And so I left. And even through I tried to call her, we never spoke again. Even years later, when it was pretty well accepted that my skin wasn’t a contagious disease, she still wouldn’t talk to me. Maybe she moved on with her life. Maybe that was just her excuse to move on. And I know, maybe I’m just remembering the bad things right now, but that’s what I remember.

Chapter 8 – Publish, Perish, or Something Else

Uncle Earl once told me about change. He talked about how he went nuts the first time he saw a color TV. It was back when he was a kid, and it was in a store, but that night, he dreamed of someday having his own. “Yeah, they were pretty expensive, but all through my childhood, that was my goal in life. Own a 32-inch color TV. It’s better than being at the ballpark. You get to see their faces, and a few beers won’t make you broke. I told myself that if could watch the World Series on that, well, then it was a pretty good life.” He told me this while a half-dozen flat-screen, high-definition TVs surrounded us with six different games from all over the nation. Someone yelled out just then. “Hey, can we switch this to soccer? There’s a match right now, Mexico versus Brazil.” Uncle Earl dug up the right remote and switched it over. “Crazy, isn’t it. This is six-times what I dreamed up, but it’s still not enough. Even as the technology and times change, we’re still brats tugging at our mommy’s sleeve for a candy bar.” “Too much is still never enough?” “Yeah, for some people. I’m fine with what I got. I mean, who wouldn’t want a beer with friends every night?” Across the bar, a suit was showing off the keys to a brand new BMW. And apparently chicks do dig fast cars. A minute later, one of those girls followed him outside for a ride.

Uncle Earl watched this and shook his head. “That man sends out more free drinks than anyone I know, but he doesn’t have one real friend in this whole place. I don’t get it, but maybe I’m the one in the minority. Call me stupid, but I’m fine being old, fat, and poor with a bar full of friends.” I don’t call him stupid. I wish I could be like Uncle Earl but we’ve all got different callings in life. For me, well, I’m never sure. For Dr. Hoffman, it was solving the mysteries of magic. This meant developing sensors capable of detecting magical energy or whatever was happening. This meant finding a powerful magician who’d be willing to get strapped up to a probe just for the good of humanity. Finding a powerful mage was hard enough, much less someone who’d sit still for science. But, as fate or luck would have it, there was one more than willing to help. “Alright, Ryan, now I need you to sit still.” “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” It wasn’t a huge problem because he was currently strapped into a steel chair with dozens of restraints. Surrounding the chair were hundreds of sensors, cameras, and things I never could quite identify. Dr. Hoffman and a few college kids manned computers around her lab, all eagerly awaiting a result. “We’re ready to go,” said Jason, the whipping boy from our first visit. I’m sure he felt safer with Ryan all tied up. But he still asked, “Are you sure this is safe?” Dr. Hoffman didn’t respond. She barely looked away from her monitors, constantly clicking away and nibbling on a pen. Finally, she looked up at Ryan. “Alright, I need you to make a fireball. Just a small one.” “Sure, but you’re going to call me by my name first.” “Alright. Ryan, could you please make a fireball?”

“Not that name.” Ryan’s smirk made Rachel roll her eyes. “Fine. Oh mighty Firewalker, could you please grant us the honor of witnessing a taste of your great pyrokinetic power?” “Sure thing, and it’s just Firewalker.” With a wink at Rachel, Ryan snapped his fingers. A flame appeared above his thumb, almost like a lighter. As he did this, numbers flew about on the computer monitors. Jason and the other students were struggling to keep up with the deluge of data. “Dr. Hoffman,” said Jason. “We’ve got something, but I can’t isolate it.” “That’s expected.” He attention was once again locked on her monitor. ”You can put out the fire now.” “So, that’s it.” “No, I need you to do that at least 50 more times. It’s the only way we’ll get any reliable results.” Oops. Ryan wondered if he’d made a mistake volunteering for this. He really wondered that after snapping his fingers and lighting the flame a hundred times, but he still went back for round after round of tests. Still, it seemed that progress was ridiculously boring. I asked him why he kept going back? I never went back for testing. His reply was simple. “You know the line. Publish or perish. That’s University life for you. I don’t want her to perish.” “Even after all that happened, you’re still going through all this for her?” Ryan shrugged. “I got into hero work to protect the innocent for perishing. Maybe this is just part of it.”

“And this has nothing to do with the fact that it’s Rachel?” Ryan didn’t respond to that one. He just stared ahead at the TV. Maybe he’d answer me when he was ready. Or maybe he really did think this was a way to help the world. That thought made me laugh a little. He’d spent hours, hell days or weeks patrolling the city like Batman. Every he turned a corner, he’d wonder if this was the chance, if this could be the day his powers would make the difference in someone’s life. Most of the time, he’d crash into a street football game and get yelled at by some grandma or maybe have someone try to sell him some ice cream or a tamale. Those were good tamales. But I laughed because it seemed like all he needed to do was reconnect with his ex, be cool, and he’d be helping the world understand this whole new magic thing. All that patrolling and Batman stuff was useless. I was laughing about this one day while driving to work. Maybe if made me feel good to laugh at someone else for a change. People would just laugh at me when I told them that I did Physical Therapy and Chiropractic for pets. But at least I was using my magic. Kind of. But it was in a way that wouldn’t require a nightly dip in the reactor. Unfortunately, today was one of those days that gives LA traffic a bad reputation. I wouldn’t be getting into work just yet. About a mile from work, traffic stopped. Now everyone thinks that LA traffic’s always like this, but it does move. Really! Well, usually. Today, the only movement came when cars would make the illegal u-turn and head the other direction. Otherwise,

no one was going anywhere fast. People stuck their heads out of their windows, trying to see what was going on. There was some commotion, but it was at least a mile off, probably near my office. Part of me was almost ready to say screw it, pick up my car, walk it all the way to work, and just take a dip in the reactor. But fortunately, I was close enough to walk. It was even more fortunate that I could turn my car around and park on some side street. As I approached my office, I saw the problem – there was some sort of demonstration on Wilshire. Great, my office was on Wilshire as well. And from right outside my window, I had a perfect bird’s eye view of the commotion. This was a protest from a diverse group of workers representing a bunch of unions I’d never heard of, but probably have been around for decades. Standing in their hard hats and orange vests, they blocked traffic, snarling commutes all around. I’d have stopped to ask them a few questions, but the message of their boards told me enough – Down with Magic! Jobs not Wizards! And then there was their chant, “Magic, uh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” This whole mess started with the NFL canceling their season. The players who could up their strength with a spell realized that this could be useful elsewhere, so some of them got jobs in construction. Sure, you could do the job with heavy equipment, but don’t tell me that being able to punch pillars into the ground or lift girders like toothpicks wouldn’t be really useful. Foremen and companies sure found them useful. They didn’t need to rent out as much equipment, nor did they need as many men. This, of course, meant the elimination of a lot of jobs. Probably at least 473, because I counted 473 people standing on Wilshire with picket signs.

It got worse throughout the day, especially when bullhorns got involved. I’d be working on something when I’d hear a loud squelch. Then someone would yell. “Our city of Angels was build with the blood, sweat, and tears of hardworking men, women, and children. They didn’t need magic then, and we sure as hell don’t need it now! I’m a window washer. Yeah, it’s not as sexy to have to work outside instead of one of your fancy corner offices, but it paid for the clothes on my kids and the food in their stomachs. Now, thanks to some magic idiot who can walk on the walls, my kids have no future. Are you going to allow that?” I don’t know if I was going to allow that, or if his kids really had no future, but I did discover a couple of things. One, Ryan’s side job had gotten him a whole new set of enemies. Not super-villains or evil magicians, rather the local 22 union of window washers, or whatever they were calling themselves. Two, bullhorns make dogs howl. I had a bunch of dogs on the schedule. It was a really long day. By 4:00, I was ready to put down the next screaming animal I saw. But rather than face the glut of lawsuits that’d create, I just closed up shop a little early and hid in my office for a little peace and quiet. It sort of worked. The protest outside had quieted a bit. Earlier, I wished I could control weather because a little rain might have encouraged them to call it a day, but I guess their voices had to wear out after a while I rubbed my head, trying to clear a headache that’d been building all day. I just wanted some peace and quiet. But as I was about to take the phone off the hook, it rang. Part of me wanted to let it go, ignore it, dump it to voicemail or something, but for some

reason, I answered it, like my hand moved independently of my brain. And the next thing I knew, I was saying, “Hello, therapy office.” “Hello, can I speak with Dr. Shao.” “You found him. What can I do for you?” Something about his voice seemed familiar. “Well, hello Doctor Shao. My name is Doctor John Maharin. I founded an institute for promotion of those with magical abilities. Perhaps you’ve heard of us?” “Yeah, I think your interns were calling a while back. I’m not really doing any interviews or stuff right now.” “That I can understand. A little peace and quiet can be quite desirable.” I remember blinking as he said that. Somehow I knew that this guy was good. I’d heard him on TV before, but over the phone, I could tell that he had some major skills. He continued. “However, I do request your assistance. It is something quite unique to your skills.” “I’m a doctor, not a magician. If you’d like to come in, you can make an appointment.” “No, this is not for me, I am feeling quite well. But you are both a doctor and a magician, and that is why I am requesting your help.” “I’m not sure how the two combine? Except for maybe that situation that got me on the news.” “My client might differ with your opinion. His name is Joseph Benjamin.” “The Joseph Benjamin.” “Yes, if you’re thinking about #1 on the Forbes list, that Joseph Benjamin.”

I froze for a moment. I used to joke about having Shaq or Kobe come in for treatment, but I never met anyone that rich or famous, much less had them as a patient. “Hello, Dr. Shao? Not sure if you heard me. Joseph Benjamin wants your medical expertise.” Now let me tell you about Joseph Benjamin. The general consensus was that he should be dead. He had some kind of clotting disorder, kind of like hemophilia, the disease that wiped royal families off the map. He’d had cancer on and off since he was a kid, but somehow, he was still around. All those experiences made him anything but risk-adverse. He’d tried and failed more than anyone on the planet. He’d also tried and succeeded more than anyone else too. During an interview, someone asked him if he had any regrets. His response? “Well, if I do, I’m going call someone right now not and get that taken care of. If you know my history, you’d know that tomorrow’s anything but guaranteed for me.” He then proceeded to ask the interviewer if he had Halle Berry’s number. I think she called him up at some point. But now in his sixties, Mr. Benjamin’s health was really catching up to him. All the money in the world couldn’t fix everything he had. But then again, if Dr. Maharin was calling me, maybe I could? The question came in loud and clear. “Want to help me save Mr. Benjamin’s life?”

Chapter 9 – What is Power Anyway?

Someone asked me once why I got into my field. I told them, “I’ve always liked the human body, but I didn’t want to cut people open, get weird diseases, and I hate looking at films. So I went for what was left.” Life sometimes has different ideas. The sky was getting dark by the time I squeezed through the protest and got to my car. Then there was the hour-long crawl through a mere five miles of traffic. Finally I arrived at an old hospital. It stood 5 stories tall, and seriously showed every one of its 50 years. The white paint was cracked and falling, and one wing seemed half-demolished. Then again, they might have been renovating. A vinyl banner hung from the roof – Maharin Institute. As I exited my car, I could hear the sound of nearby protests. With their bullhorns, I could tell they were complaining about the Institute. However, they seemed to be blocks away rather than right outside the gate. I contemplated this as I walked up a set of cracked, concrete steps. Dr. Maharin met me at the front entrance. Despite looking like he could use a good night’s rest, he stood tall and gave me a firm handshake. Somehow, I instantly forgot every doubt about this situation when he shook my hand. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. We don’t have a lot of time.” He then turned and zipped through the halls with me right on his heels. “Mr. Benjamin’s being prepped for surgery right now. He suffered a heart attack earlier, but we don’t have a lot of options. That’s why you’re here.”

Dr. Maharin led me into an x-ray viewing room. A team of doctors stood in front of the films discussing something really serious. I slid in and joined their huddle. Oddly enough, the films seemed interesting to me. “Even he survives tonight, he’s dead in two weeks if we don’t fix this.” “But if his heart doesn’t get him, it won’t be long before his liver goes too. And, thanks to his immuno-suppressed state, there’s no way he’d be able to survive that invasive of a surgery.” “Not to mention the fact that he’ll bleed out long before that. And, who are you?” Only now did they notice me. I had already looked over the x-rays, MRIs, and Doppler studies. I couldn’t read everything, but I knew enough to know that Mr. Benjamin was on his last legs. “His coronary arteries are toast. He needs some major bypass work.” “True, but he won’t make it off the table in his condition. And who are you again?” Dr. Maharin stepped into the middle of our huddle. “This is Dr. Shao, who I told you about. Don’t you remember, Dr. Carter?” Dr. Carter nodded, but he didn’t look happy. Then again, with his face showing the signs of 20 years of long surgeries, he probably never looked real happy. Looking me over, he said, “Oh yes, the magician.” “I am a Doctor, though I’m not sure what I can do. This isn’t my specialty, but Dr. Maharin asked me to come.”

All eyes turned to Maharin. The look on our faces screamed confusion – none of us had any clue why I was here, nor what we could do to save him. Yet, he stood tall and relaxed. “Dr. Shao here is going to perform the surgery.” Dr. Carter held back a laugh. “Surgery’s impossible.” “Then Dr. Shao will perform the impossible.” “Hang on,” I said. “I’m not licensed to do surgery, not to mention that I have no idea how to do this surgery.” “You’ll be working under the supervision of Dr. Carter. He’ll walk you through the procedures, but you’re the only one who can do this.” Dr, Carter jumped in place. “Impossible. I cannot train a doctor to perform such a complicated procedure on such a compromised patient.” He turned his glare from Dr. Maharin onto me. “What’s your specialty, anyway?” “I got my Doctorate in Chiropractic.” “So, you expect to heal him by cracking his back? Good god…” “No, I treat tendonitis, arthritis, and stuff like that with machines and deep tissue work to get everything moving. I wish I could fix him by cracking his back, but life ain’t that easy.” People started pacing, and everyone looked like they were about to bail. But a simple, “Ahem,” from Dr. Maharin drew all our attention. “Dr. Shao will perform the surgery because he can do the procedure without an incision. That is his magical ability. The rest of you will assist him and tell him what he needs to do, but his hands will do the work.” “How can you do a quadruple bypass without opening up ribcage?”

Dr. Maharin was ready for this question. “You do it by altering your structure and phasing through the patient.” “Can you do this? Really?” Now all eyes were on me. “Uh, well, yeah… I think. How did you know I could do that?” Dr. Maharin just chuckled to himself. “Are we going to pow-wow here all night, or are we going to be doctors?” … Now, the surgery itself wasn’t too complicated. Think of an artery like a hose or tube. What happens if a rock gets stuck in the hose? Well, water can’t get through. So, what the surgery does is cut a hole downstream from the block, attach another hose there, and then screw the new hose onto the water source. Then water will flow through the hole without any problem. The only problem here is that it’s the human heart. Screw that up and the patient is dead. Poke a hole in the wrong place and the patient is dead. Basically, the challenge is getting in and out without causing death. Oh, and then you need to find the tubes to use for this surgery. Normally, they use small arteries from other parts of the body that hopefully you won’t miss too much. But in this case, it could be more complicated. I asked Dr. Maharin about this. He seemed unconcerned. “We’ve gotten a hold of the newest technology for this procedure. Artificial epithelium, synthesized in a lab to be completely free of rejection, it’s perfect for this situation.” Something about this seemed a bit too familiar. “Artificial epithelium. The ones from MIT?”

Dr. Carter seemed surprised at my response. “Why, yes. They’re the newest thing, I didn’t know they were published yet.” “You found out too. Not the biggest secret I guess.” “I suppose.” We all left the viewing room and moved to scrub in for surgery. I wasn’t sure if this was completely necessary, but they figured it was better to be safe than sorry. Oddly, the artificial skin on my hand survived the scrubbing process without a hitch. Too bad it wasn’t a bit tougher about other things. We went from there into the OR. Even in this old hospital, the operating room was spotless. It was also crowded, with nurses and equipment everywhere. And sitting in the middle of the room, the person of interest – Mr. Benjamin. “Hey, docs. I’d get up to shake your hands, but I seem a little tied up right now.” IVs, monitors, and everything imaginable was hooked up to that guy right now, yet he still had his sense of humor. “Lighten up, guys. This ain’t a funeral. You, new guy, what’s your name?” He was looking at me. “I’m Dr. Shao. I’ll be performing your surgery, and it’s my job to make sure this ain’t a funeral.” “See, he gets it. The rest of you could learn from this guy.” The rest of the room had more on their minds. They were rigging monitors and echocardiograms – sonar pictures so I could at least kind of see what I was doing. Information poured from the monitors, keeping watch over heart rate, blood pressure, and anything else that could indicate a problem. Maybe I looked more relaxed than anyone because I had the least to lose. I was a last minute hail-mary, and at the time, I didn’t

have a chance to get nervous or anything. I was still in partial shock, and trying to figure out exactly how to make the magical steps necessary to do the surgery. And I wasn’t even thinking about my skin at the time. Mr. Benjamin seemed more relaxed than even me. “What is power, anyway? What’s money? What’s wealth? Let me tell you this. Five years ago, I could buy anything or anyone I wanted. Yesterday, my bank account was bigger than ever, but I couldn’t even take a crap without help.” He looked me straight in the eye. “You might be able to save my life. There ain’t no one else on earth who can do that. Now, there’s some power for you.” His words didn’t sink in until way after the surgery. Dr. Carter nodded to me. “We’re ready, Dr. Shao.” I nodded, trying to focus on the task at hand. “Is the anesthesia ready?” “You think I’m going to sleep through this?” I turned to Mr. Benjamin, seeing only a pair of determined eyes. “I’ve lived through a lot, but I’m always up for a new experience. Just do your thing. They got me tied down for a reason.” “Alright.” And with that, I phased out my hands and placed them into his chest. Now, I’m not sure what he was thinking when he saw that. I’m sure Mr. Benjamin had never thought that he’d see someone slide their hands into his chest, but he didn’t faint. I tried to focus on the monitors and orient myself. It’s weird when you’re phased. You can feel solid matter. Kinda. Like you know it’s there, you can feel it, but the sensation feels more like sticking your hand into a bowl of pudding, and the different levels are like the pieces of fruit or tapioca. So, it took me almost a half hour before I knew the difference between the heart, pericardium, and

everything else in his ribcage. Then there was another twenty minutes figuring out how to move the heart around and orient myself using the monitors. Finally, I took one of the artificial arteries and wrapped it around the heart. “Just like doing paper mache,” said Dr. Carter. “I’ve never done paper mache.” “No kids, eh?” “I didn’t even do it when I was a kid. And I’m sure they’re not doing it half blind.” Dr. Carter just chucked. “You’re doing fine.” Apparently any of the apprehension he felt at the beginning was now gone. Maybe I earned his trust? As I took a breath, I noticed Dr. Maharin standing in the back of the room. He didn’t seem to be doing anything, but his presence seemed to inspire confidence somehow. The weirdest part of the procedure was trying to see the artificial artery. I could de-phase it a bit, which would bring it into view. Sort of. But I didn’t want it sticking through something, like say, the heart. Finally, I managed to get it wrapped around the heart and completely inside the pericardium. That wasn’t easy. “Now for the hard part, Dr. Shao. You need to connect the new artery to the heart.” “Alright. I have no clue how to do that.” “Normally, we just suture it.” “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen here.”

“Well, a suture’s really just a fancy piece of duct tape. Can’t you just phase a strip into the heart muscle?” I thought about that for a moment. When I phased a stick into a rock, the rock split into two. But living tissue was softer, and theoretically, it could work. Still, I wasn’t about to test this theory on a living person. I took my hands out and tried phasing two strips of artificial artery together. Sure enough, I was able to get them to connect. I then practiced phasing a probe, and then de-phasing it in the middle of the connection between the two arteries. That punched a perfect hole, just like what he’d need. “Perfect,” said Dr. Carter. Perfect on the outside, but perfect inside the body would be more difficult. Well, actually, just more time consuming. Connecting the artificial artery was easy enough. Making the hole to let blood through was a lot harder. I was afraid to make too big of a hole, so I just made a tiny hole to start. Then I’d slowly widen it until enough blood flowed through. That’s making it sound too easy. I’d be sweating as I opened the hole a tiny bit, praying that it wouldn’t make a leak, and scouring the monitors for any sign of damage. Finally, I was done. The monitors showed blood moving around that one blockage without a single leak. I turned my attention to Mr. Benjamin’s face. “How’re you feeling?” “I’m still here, aren’t I?” “I’ll try to keep it that way.” But I had no time to rest. Dr. Carter was already pointing at the monitors. There were still three other arteries to bypass.

I didn’t even know what time it was when I finally exited the OR. I stumbled through some doors, threw off my gloves, and rinsed off my hands. Then I washed my face. My eyes stung, like they’d been overused for hours and hours. There was probably a good reason for that. It took me a bit to realize that my hands were a mess of black junk with bits of skin peeling away. But it wasn’t a problem. I just snapped on a new pair of gloves. Everyone in the OR was wearing gloves so hopefully no one would be alarmed. No one noticed. They were too busy attending to Mr. Benjamin. I wasn’t surprised. I was attending to him earlier, and well, we were all here to attend to him. Still, he noticed me in the back and gave me a nod, as if saying thank you for my hard work. But he looked tired. A moment later, they wheeled him out of the OR and out of sight. I found myself alone in the OR. A feeling hit me - a sense of unwelcome, like I was in a place where I didn’t belong. I had never wanted to be a surgeon, nor wanted to spend hours in scrubs and a small, sterile room. Yet, I had spent hours in this room treating a patient, performing a procedure I had never done using a method I’d never thought possible. I thought about this as I exited the OR. A clock on the wall said I’d been in there for 8 hours. I turned to exit the building when a voice called out behind me. “Dr. Shao?” It was Dr. Maharin. And somehow, I turned and walked back to him. “How’s the patient?” I asked. “He’s sleeping now, but he’s doing well. We have you to thank for that. But it’s late and I know you’ve had a long day.”

I mumbled something. “Get some sleep. Don’t worry, we’ll get you paid for this.” Dr. Maharin patted me on the back and I was headed out the door. I was halfway to my car before his words hit me. Paid. I never thought about payment for my work tonight. What would I charge? I mean, I’d have to spend the night in the reactor. And why didn’t I think of this earlier? I just ran into the room and went about doing doctor stuff. Stuff like this gave me a lot to think about while I drove home. It also gave me plenty to think about inside the reactor. Fortunately, I was dead tired. I finally was able to sleep inside that thing. I guess questions could be answered tomorrow.

Chapter 10 – You live, you learn The next morning, a loud banging noise woke me up. It reminded me of a prison movie, with the inmates banging cups and plates on the bars. “Yo, Steve? You still in that thing? Your cake timer binged hours ago. Get up, it’s noon.” The sound was Ryan banging on the walls of the reactor with a coffee mug. I yelled something incomprehensible to anyone, including myself, but it was enough to make him stop. As I shook out the cobwebs, I realized that I’d been sleeping for hours inside the reactor. Perhaps I could sleep inside it now. Still, I preferred my bed. Ryan seemed to understand my growl. “Cool, see you in a bit. Kevin and Rachel are in the back.” What? Kevin was here all the time, but Rachel? Maybe this was college all over again. Once I heard Ryan exit out the back, I stumbled out of the reactor, checked over my skin, and got dressed for the day. Or afternoon. I noticed my stomach when I exited the house into the backyard. That’s when I saw the spread – steaks, carne asada, baby back ribs, kielbasa sausage, all sitting next to my barbeque. I’m not sure if it was seeing the food or something, but I knew I wanted food. “Hey, Ry, when are you firing that up?” “Have a seat first.” I took a seat near the food. I think I cared a lot more about eating than the fact that this was the first hangout with the four of us – me, Ryan, Rachel, and Kevin. I did notice the gleam in Ryan’s eye. This was the same look he had when he told me about his superhero plan.

Ryan stood, cleared his throat, and began. “Alright, listen up. Me and Rachel have been doing a bunch of experiments, and we’re convinced that magic isn’t quite the way it’s portrayed on the news. They’re saying how some of us have magic abilities. We’re saying that you know how to use magic.” “What the hell are you talking about?” I said. Yeah, I know, stupid. But this was the first time I’d heard anything like this, and I was sleepy and hungry. “Let’s take you, Steve. You can alter the mass of objects without changing their fundamental structure. If this was WoW, you’d also be able to crush enemies by making them heavier or something, and have a lot of gravity related powers. But no, you can talk to animals.” “Kind of.” “Yeah, but there’s no logic to that. That seems completely unrelated, but somehow you’re Dr. Doolittle.” “You’re using World of Warcraft logic. The world wasn’t addicted to that for all of 2006.” “So, what’s your theory?” I had nothing. “Ok, fine. What’s your point?” “The point is that we should be able to use each other’s powers, at least a little.” “Yeah, I think that’s what Rachel told us, or something like that. We’d eventually figure out each other’s skills.” “But we’re actually going to do it today.” Now, he had my attention, but the look on Kevin’s face told me that I might not like what he had to say.

Ryan lifted the lid off of the barbeque. He dumped in a pile of match-light briquettes. “The only thing we need now is fire.” Ryan flicked his finger, igniting a little cigarette lighter of a flame from the tip. “One little flame, easy as that. Except that it’s going to have to come from you. And we’re not eating till one of you lights this grill.” Damn. I knew I wasn’t going to like this. The next half hour was spent staring at the coals, flicking our fingers, and a exchanging confused looks with Kevin. Meanwhile, Ryan and Rachel watched us closely. Rachel even took notes. Ryan held a fire extinguisher. “Hey, maybe we should eat first. Can’t think on an empty stomach.” I said this knowing the answer, but I was hungry. “Sorry, Steve. You see, the problem is that you’re trying to think through this. You just need to do it, and your stomach will motivate you.” Another half hour made me even hungrier, giving me plenty of motivation, but still no fire. Ryan and Rachel whispered to each other in the corner. I’m not sure what they said, but I bet it was something like this. “Maybe this won’t work?” “Nah, they can do it. They’ve got the power.” “But they have a good reason to light the fire. That’s when people figure out their magic.” “Let’s give them even more motivation.” “Ok, it’s your show…” Meanwhile, I was punching away at the barbeque. I’m not sure how this dome of cheap steel from WalMart became the test dummy for my magic, but this was the second time now. First it was trying to phase through the steel. That seemed impossible, but I did it. But now, this was something I could do in a second with a stupid match, yet it felt even more impossible.

“Hey, look over here.” Ryan held a skewered sausage over a flame rising from his hand. “Mmm, that smells good, doesn’t it? You can almost taste the smoky flavor just dripping down this thing. Want a taste, Rachel?” “Sure. Mmmm, this is really good. You guys would love it. If only you could light your little barbeque.” I growled and stewed, but nothing resembling fire came from my hand. I tried using one of the skewers like a wand, but that didn’t do much either. Kevin tried to ignite the skewers, or shoot them with his hand-print, but really nothing much happened. He just made a big mess. Ryan stepped up his motivation. “Dude, check this out. Rib-eye, baby. Rib-eye. Just check out the marbling on this guy. Mmm, that’d be some good eating.” “Yeah, it would be if I could get this stupid thing lit!” My actual words might have been a bit more colorful than that. I threw my skewer into the barbeque. But then something happened. The barbeque lit. “Hoowah! You did it!” Ryan slapped me on the back. Rachel scrambled to take notes and said, “So, how’d you do it?” “I’m not sure. I just threw the skewer.” “Not a problem.” Rachel dug into her bag and pulled out a pair of goggles. “Infrared. Now, try throwing an skewer again, just like you did before.” Ok… I didn’t think it’d do anything, nor did I see anything.

“Jackpot! You made the tip hot. Take a look.” Rachel put the goggles over my eyes, and sure enough, the tip of the skewer was glowing. “Keep the goggles and try to do it again. All you’ve got to do is make it glow brighter.” By the time the food was ready, I could make the skewers glow, and even ignite them about half of the time. I also realized that I could pick up a skewer after trying to light it, or maybe not even throw the skewer and get the same effect. “Just wave it in the air, like a sparkler.” Unfortunately, Rachel’s suggestion didn’t come until after I’d littered my backyard with dozens of skewers. But her suggestion worked. Soon, I could light a stick on fire just by waving it around. Ryan seemed impressed. “Sweet. You’ll be doing this in no time.” A flame rose from his hand and twirled like a tornado. “Showoff.” “Maybe, but if you want to see something even more interesting, look at your hand.” Until he mentioned it, my usual worry didn’t even cross my mind. But now, I didn’t want to look. Just one speck of damage meant another night in the reactor. Rachel grabbed my hand and looked over it carefully. “Not a scratch. No burns, no cracking, seems completely normal.” “Great, my brother’s invention can survive Ryan’s spells, but not mine.” I’m sure that went into her notes somewhere. Come to think of it, I never did see her notes, but I’m sure she was recording everything we did. Any good researcher would have done

that, and she wanted answers as bad as any of us. Of course, at the time, I was more concerned about getting food into my stomach. “Don’t worry, Steve, there’s plenty more. You too, Kev.” Ryan chuckled at the two of us as we destroyed everything in sight. Some of that was due to the starvation torture-training that he’d just put us through. Some of it was because using magic seemed to drain your strength or something, kind of like last night when I was finally able to sleep in the reactor. Luckily, I usually just notice myself getting really hungry and eating a ton. Rachel just watched us eat, quietly laughing to herself, just like she did in college. She only spoke up an hour later. “I can’t believe you’re still eating. I mean, you were a bottomless pit in college, but this is ridiculous.” Everyone else agreed. I had no choice but to concur. “Yeah, I guess I had a long day yesterday. Probably burned a ton of energy.” Rachel must have noticed something because she asked more questions. “What exactly happened yesterday?” “Well, there was this protest outside my office, so it messed up traffic, and their yelling made the dogs go nuts.” “That’s annoying, but why were you in the reactor this morning? And I thought you couldn’t sleep in there?” “Well, last night was hard too. I…” I paused, wondering if I should say. There is something about patient confidentiality, plus the fact that I didn’t really know how I was picked. But I guess these were my friends. “I helped out with a surgery, I guess.” “Surgery? You don’t do that.”

“Yeah, but the patient had a condition, so they needed my abilities.” “You phased through a patient to perform a surgery with no incisions.” Rachel seemed to figure it out a little too quickly. “Yeah.” “Ryan said you did something like that at the train crash. I figured it’d only be a matter of time before someone asked you to do that again.” “That must have been how they found me.” “Who found you?” “The guys who wanted me to perform the surgery, the Maharin Institute.” As soon as I said their name, a switch flipped inside Rachel. Just like that, she seemed real defensive. “Maharin Institute, as in John Maharin.” “Yeah, I met him last night. Something about that guy…” I noticed that a similar switch flipped inside Ryan as well. He turned and walked away, disappearing inside his back house. “Uh, who’s John Maharin?” “It’s not important.” With this said, Rachel picked up a notebook and did some work on a nearby table. Neither her nor Ryan told me anything at that time. I asked Kevin about it, but he had no clue. He just knew that for some reason, neither of them liked Dr. Maharin very much. I didn’t enquire. I was still hungry, tired, and too busy playing with fire. I think I must have tossed a thousand little fireballs into the barbeque that weekend. Anytime I wasn’t burning anything, I was sleeping or eating. And despite the fact that everything I

ate was greasy and horrifically delicious, I ended up losing weight. That was my weekend of living every teenage pyromaniac’s dream. Monday came around a bit too quickly, and I headed back into normal life. Thankfully, no protesters blocked traffic today. I did see a few picketers here and there, but they seemed content to be seen and not heard. The day felt normal as well. Patients and pets came and left, bills and checks were paid, and there was no sign that the past weekend was anything more than a normal weekend. I didn’t mind too much. There was no word of Mr. Benjamin on the wires, so I figured no news was good news. Dr. Maharin didn’t call either. I could say that I didn’t care, but I checked the mail every day for a letter or anything from the Institute. But after a week, I had enough of the usual junk on my mind to forget them. One day, I went to talk to my secretary about an insurance payment. It was the usual thing. “Why aren’t they paying this bill?” As usual, my secretary rolled her eyes. “They’re just doing their usual garbage again. Oh, we need a referral. Oh, can you resubmit the claim? Oh, didn’t we pay this one already? I thought the president fixed this mess back in 2009.” Every time this occurred, I wondered if I should switch to all pets. But just then, the UPS guy arrived with an envelope and the usual, “Sign here.” “Who’s that from?” asked my secretary. “The Maharin Institute.” I tore open the envelope to find two things. One, a note from Dr. Maharin that simply read, “Thanks for your help.” The note was wrapped around a check – for one million dollars.

I’m not exactly sure what I did next. My secretary tells stories about me dancing around, singing stuff like, “I don’t have to worry about money for a-while!” Maybe a lot of “Holy Crap!” or “Jeezzzzz!!!!” So, yeah, it seemed that my first experience with the Maharin Institute worked out pretty well for me.. I sure thought so. My secretary thought so. Kevin liked it when it got him a nice chateaubriand. But Ryan was the last holdout. “Come on, Ryan, what could possibly be wrong with this?” “I don’t trust that Maharin guy. If you take a million dollars from him, you owe him one.” “Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. But this isn’t like Don Corelone or something. He’s just a researcher.” “How’s your history with researchers?” I stopped, not saying another word. He kept going. “Remember working one summer at a lab. You were the man there.” “Shut up.” “No, you figured out their big problem. The lost coding of introns, I think you called it.” “Shut up man.” “The head of that lab got a huge grant because of that. He even got to meet the president. Big time shit. But did you get anything? Nope.” “I said shut up.”

“And who was that big time head? Oh yeah, I remember. It was your brother. Dave.” “Will you shut the fuck up!” Ryan paused. He stood and began to walk away, but he had one more thing to say. “Just be careful.” He didn’t have to say, “Because people like this have used you in the past.” I think I yelled at him as he was walking away. “Just because it happened in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad could happen now, right? I mean, I had no intention of working with Maharin’s bunch. I did a job, got out, and got paid. I could easily say no to anything I didn’t want. Plenty of agencies and people had contacted me already, and I’d said no to all of them. Hell, I said no to Maharin’s bunch a lot of times. I only said yes because someone’s life was on the line, right?” I thought I was right. No matter what, I was just going to chill for a while. Nothing weird, nothing magical, just go to work, treat some dogs, keep a low profile. This would blow over, especially with the protests, the changing work climate, and thousands of people getting weird abilities. Well, most of them were just really strong, or fast, or normal kinds of things like that, but still, no news agencies were hitting me for interviews anymore. I was cool. That’s what I thought when a man in a suit came into my office. I thought he was just a walk-in, or maybe lost in the building. “Can I help you?” “Yes, I’m looking for a Dr. Shao.” “That’s me.”

He handed me an envelope and took a picture of me. Then he turned and left my office. I wasn’t sure what to do for a moment. This felt really odd. But then I looked at the envelope – it was from the Los Angeles Superior Court. It was a summons.

Chapter 11 – No one ever wants to be in Chapter 11 No one likes going to court. Obviously defendants don’t want to be there - they could end up owing a ton of cash, tossed in jail, or at the very least stuck with hours of community service. Plaintiffs wouldn’t be there unless they were hurt. Judges have a tough job, and even if they think they’re doing a good deed, it has got to wear them out. The court reporter has to type a billion words per minute, which sounds like a tough job to me. Hell, even most lawyers would rather settle out of court, get paid, and be saved a lot of time. I guess there’s the occasional ambulance-chaser, looking for a frivolous suit to make a buck, but they’re only in court for long enough to settle. I looked over my summons. The case was the Chiropractic Board of California vs. Dr. Steven Shao. I was the defendant. Damn. Looking over it more, this had to do with a patient undergoing a bypass, not named but who could only be one Mr. Benjamin. Oddly enough, there was no mention of Dr. Maharin or his institute on the page, or in any court document anywhere. There was no way I was going into this fight alone, so I immediately called Maharin. I got some intern who said that they’d call me right back. After a day of waiting, I got sick of waiting and drove right over to the Maharin Institute. It didn’t take me long to notice the differences from the last time I was here. For starters, a chain-link fence with a green plastic sheet wrapped around the whole place. The green stuff covered the building as well, along with some scaffolding. As I got closer, I could hear the sounds of deconstruction – lots of smashing, though without the sounds of power tools.

A foreman in a hard hat met stopped me at the gate. “Hey, this is a construction zone, you can’t go in.” I wasn’t going to let that stop me. “I need to talk to Dr. Maharin, it’s urgent.” Without even thinking about it, I picked up the man with one hand and set up down to the side. Maybe I figured out super strength right then. I guess so. My skin didn’t crack or anything. The weird thing was that the foreman didn’t seem surprised. He just checked his list and said, “Oh, I didn’t know anymore workers were coming in today. What was your name?” “Wait, what? I’m not a worker?” “Worker, magic demolition specialist, whatever. You’ve got the muscle, we need some work done, yadda yadda.” Playing along seemed like the proper course of action. “Thank you. I’m supposed to talk to a Dr. Maharin.” “Yeah, I know that’s what they said, but he’s not here. I just need check you in, you know, to get paid and stuff.” “I don’t think I’m on your list. I didn’t give anyone my full name.” This was met with a sigh. “Jeez, I’ve been getting this all day. Look, you can trust us. We’re getting you a good job and we won’t report you to any black suits with tin-foil hats. Just give me your info, and we’ll get you to work.” “You sure Dr. Maharin’s not here?” “If he was, I’d have dragged his ass out here to do this shit a long time ago. Now do you want to get paid or not?”

I shook my head. “I’m not doing anything till I talk to Dr. Maharin.” “Like I haven’t heard that one today.” Walking away, I saw a few others heading toward the construction site. None of them looked like your typical construction worker. Hell, most of them didn’t seem to have exercised a day in their life, but if they could get a job, why not? See, even though the construction industry made the adjustment pretty quickly, most other industries had a hell of a time figuring out how to utilize magic. That led to fear. Fear leads to decreased spending. Decrease spending leads to recessions. Recessions lead to layoffs. Layoffs lead to 50 something overweight office stooges coming to this construction site because they found out one day that they could lift a car. Or maybe push a dumpster full of concrete slabs. I had to avoid a guy pushing a twenty-foot steel cart full of that junk. He was only sweating a little. I was sweating a lot that night. My lawyer sent me a summary of the charges against me, and that left me with some hard reading despite the fact that he boiled it down to a single page. I was being charged with practicing medicine without a license. Damn. This was something I was afraid of, and wouldn’t have been a problem if I could find Dr. Maharin. I tried to distract myself by practicing super strength or making a fireball in my hand. I guess I figured out that super strength means that stuff still feels heavy, even though you can move it, and that fire makes your hand hot. Still, I was more concerned with possibly losing my license, being fined a ton of money, and just the uncertainty of court. I had done a pretty good job staying out of court. I didn’t even go for sketchy patients that would require me to testify in court. I was a good, law-abiding citizen. I did the right thing.

It didn’t matter. A couple days later, I was walking up the steps in downtown and passing through the metal detectors of the courthouse. My lawyers told me that this was usually a short proceeding. They’d lay out the charges, we’d set up our defense, and a judge would rule. Unless they could find more holes in the prosecution’s case, we couldn’t press for an extension. I still hadn’t heard a peep from Maharin. And this whole thing was his fault too. He should be the one giving me a legal defense team, one that could pour over the case and sniff out every little loophole. I had one guy. I met up with him in front of the courtroom.” “Hey, Dr. Shao. Try to relax. We’ll have better luck if you don’t look so angry.” I guess it showed. “What’s the game plan?” “Well, at the very least, the board’s going to ask for an injunction against magical treatment of patients.” “What’s at the very most?” “They’ll revoke your license, fine you every dollar you made through nonpermitted activity, as they’ll call it, and basically wreck you.” Great. My lawyer seemed a bit more hopeful. “We’ve got an ace up our sleeve though.” “What, Johnnie Cochran rise from the dead to help?” “Nope, but we’ve got the next best thing.” Now, I’ve probably watched too many movies in my life, but what I saw approaching me seemed almost too much cinematic to be real. Four men approached, all in Armani suits, carrying thousand dollar briefcases, and marching in step. Each of them

held their head high, almost scoffing at every other lawyer around them. It was almost like they knew they could sue you, take all your money, and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. They marched up to me and shook my hand. “Hello, Dr. Shao. We represent the firm of Stanbeck and Glover. We’re here to make sure you win this case.” The only thing I could think of to say was, “Thank you.” Then they ushered me inside. The judge and the Board’s attorneys seemed intimidated by my newly found legal team. So did my lawyer. Hell, I was intimidated, but they were on my side. I think. The judge did the best job of hiding his emotion. He focused on a file as the bailiff read in a monotone. “This court calls to order the case of the Chiropractic Board of California versus one Doctor Steven Shao, DC. Being a non-criminal case, the decision will be rendered by the honorable Judge Carl Moritz. If you wish further pursuit, an appeal can be filed at the completion of this case. Do you have any questions?” I had lots of questions, but since my legal team shook their heads, I decided to just sit tight and shut up. The Judge turned to the prosecution. “You may present your case.” The Prosecutor stood up and gave me a once-over. He had that look of a cop who’d been on the beat a little too long. “Thank you, your honor. Today’s case is simple. Dr. Shao here is either guilty of the charge of practicing medicine without a license, or he’s just another scam artist trying to screw over the public for a quick buck.

There are no alternatives. I ask you to simply use your logic here today. I see he brings an entire legal team to fight his war. Such a team must not be cheap.” “Objection your honor. We are not on trial here.” My legal team was quick. “Sustained. Do you have any further comments?” The Prosecutor blinked for a moment. “Uh, no your honor. That is all.” Then he sat down. It almost seemed like he lost his confidence, but I didn’t care. “Defense, any opening remarks?” My lawyers all huddled for a moment. Then the leader of my new team stood. “Hello, my name is Jeremiah Stanbeck and I know what you’re thinking. What is a big time defense attorney like Jeremiah Stanbeck doing defending a simple case like this? He must have been paid a lot of money. So, let me just end those thoughts now. My associates and me are doing this free of charge. That is correct, we are completely pro bono here today. Now, why would be passing up thousands of dollars for this? That’s what we’ll find out today.” When Mr. Stanbeck sat down, he had everyone’s attention. I was sure impressed, and I’m sure everyone else in the room felt the same way. Looking over the room though, I saw a familiar face. Dr. Maharin. He smiled at me. I think I glared back. I mean, he could have contacted me days ago. And yeah, I’m sure I’d be doing a lot worse without this legal team, but dude, a little communication maybe? The prosecutor’s voice snapped me back to the problem at hand. “Our case is simple. According to these subpoenaed files, Dr. Shao was a treating physician for a

patient’s quadruple bypass surgery. Bank files indicate that he was paid one million dollars for this surgery. This is beyond a Chiropractor’s scope of practice, as defined by the state of California. Surgery is not allowed. These are the facts of the case, and they cannot be challenged.” “Objection your honor.” “Sustained. Remove the prosecution’s last statement from the record.” Thing is, the Prosecutor was right. There was no way any legal finagling could make surgery legal with my license. But Mr. Stanbeck was going to try. “Your honor, I submit to you pictures of the patient, both before and after his procedure. What do you see?” The Judge looked over the pictures and said, “I’m not sure what I’m looking for?” “You are looking for signs of a surgery.” “Both pictures look exactly the same. Just a man’s chest, the only difference is the time stamp.” “Do you see any sutures? Do you see any scars? No, you do not. And what surgery can be performed without an incision? Now, Dr. Shao’s license allows him to treat, but not to pierce the skin. I see no signs of pieced skin.” “Objection, your honor. We will discuss this issue when we have Dr. Shao on the stand.” All eyes turned to me. “Perhaps we should hear from Dr. Shao.” My legal team huddled. Then Mr. Stanbeck spoke. “The defense requests a short recess.”

“Very well. We will return at 1:00 this afternoon for a continuation of these proceedings.” There was a thump of the gavel and everyone exited. Mr. Stanbeck whispered to me. “If you’re going onto the stand, you won’t be answering any questions unless I’m the one asking you first, do you understand?” “So, I take the fifth.” “That’s right. We’ll call you up if we think we need it, but for now, let’s keep that ace up our sleeve.” He patted me on the shoulder and went to speak with the Prosecutor. Maybe he was offering them an out or a deal. I didn’t really know how these things worked, but at the moment, a little slap on the wrist or an injunction saying, “Don’t do that again,” seemed fine to me. I found myself alone for a moment, but I had someone to speak to as well. I dashed into the back and caught Dr. Maharin as he was about to exit. He turned and spoke with a grin. “The legal team I assembled for you seems to be doing their job.” “Finally you show up! I’ve been trying to reach you…” “All week. Yes, I am quite aware of your predicament.” “And now you finally show up. Just to watch the judge throw the book at me? Jeez, I’m one step away from Chapter 11.” “My legal team will do their job. You have nothing to worry about. If necessary, we’ll provide financial compensation like last time.” “Yeah, but that’s why I’m here. And those guys could have helped a lot more three days ago. I wouldn’t even be here if you’d have gotten off your ass.” “No, everything is proceeding properly.”

My heart skipped a beat when I heard him say that. Or maybe my mind skipped a thought, you know, the thought that tells you how to stay under control and not go completely ape-shit? It was just for a second. Then my eyes burned, and would have shot fire at him if they knew how. It was hard to keep my voice down, especially when I needed to get my emotion across. Through clenched teeth, I said, “What the fuck are you saying?” “What I am saying is that there will be no deals or agreements. This trial will proceed to a verdict and a judgment, no matter how long it takes.”

Chapter 12 – Chess

The life of a pawn depends very little on the pawn itself. Alone, it waits to die unless its general can marshal his forces and escort the pawn across the battlefield. It

cannot retreat. It cannot move to the side. And even if this march is successful, the pawn merely dies, replaced by a more useful piece. True, in a group, it may have some value. Standing in formation with its comrades, it forms part of an intimidating wall, but its importance only comes as part of this team. I hate being a pawn. When Maharin told me that the trial was going according to plan, I knew that was exactly what I was. I wanted to scream in his face, yell at the top of my lungs, unload all my anger, and make a huge scene in court. Nothing came out. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open like an idiot. After a few moments, Maharin turned away from me and strolled away. The worst part of all this? I still had to wait three hours before getting my time in court. Stupid trial recess. I didn’t see any of my team at lunch. They told me later that they huddled up with Maharin to prep my defense or some crap like that, which left me nothing to do but sit in the cafeteria and hit up the unlimited self-serve soda machine. After my third cup, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one killing time with their unlimited refills. There were others, though their drink of choice was usually coffee. Most of them sat alone, mumbling to themselves about lawsuits, creditors, how she was a mistake, or something about the stupid economy. One guy, though, seemed like the

only happy person in the room. He’d bounce about from table to table, chatting with

people, wishing them good luck, and generally being a welcome annoyance. His name was Jonathan Bradford. I think he was 45 at the time, getting a bit of a gut, and as loud as ever. And it wasn’t long before he ended up at my table. He introduced himself and said to call him Brad. “So, what brings you here today?” “Board’s trying to screw me, my lawyers are working their own angle, and all because I saved someone’s life. How about you?” “Screwed for doing the right thing. I hear you. I got the same thing, just backwards. I’m suing my former employers for wrongful termination because I did the right thing.” “That sucks, Brad. Who fired you?” “First Cornerstone Church of the Valley.” “That’s the big one out there?” “Ten thousand strong, except for the strong part. They’d rather do the wrong thing than possibly consider that they’re wrong.” Ah commiseration. “What got you fired from a church? Every time I hear of that, some pastor got a little frisky or something.” “Heh. Nothing that fun, you won’t hear about me on TMZ. My job’s to speak the truth to my congregation, right?” “Yeah, preachers preach.” “Well, I told them that having magical abilities isn’t a sin. That something happened, and the world changed. It wasn’t because of demonic influences or spiritual warfare. So, whether they have powers or not, it doesn’t mean anything. You still have

you use whatever gifts you have to serve God and love those around you. Just like what you did, Steve.” “What?” “You heard what I said. I know what you can do, what you did, and why you’re here. It’s messed up that you’re getting into trouble for this, but unfortunately, it’ll probably get worse before it gets better.” “How do you know this?” “How did you save Mr. Benjamin’s life?” Brad winked. He never was too open about his magic. He patted me on the shoulder and stood up. “Chat with me anytime you need to. I’d invite you to my church sometime, but I don’t seem to have one right now.” I wasn’t quite done yet, however. I jumped up and chased after him. “Wait, so they fired you just because you’re cool with magic?” “It’s more than that. See, a lot of people use verses against magic or sorcery to say how people shouldn’t have magic gifts. Or maybe if they have them, they need to refrain from using them, maybe because it’ll cause others, or god-forbid children, to stumble in their faith. I told them this. What we call magic today is different from magic back in the old, old days. There’s no weird sacrifices or rituals or wands or potions. That’s worshiping some weird demi-god, and that’s not cool. But this ‘magic’ is merely what we don’t understand. Something happens, it’s beyond our comprehension of the world, so the media’s labeled it magic. But the truth is, there’s an explanation for everything.” For a second I though he mumbled at the end, “You just might not like it.” I don’t know if he did, but he was right.

The explanation I wanted was why I got into this mess in the first place? And why was Maharin the one talking with my legal team? Shouldn’t I be the one to defend myself? This was beyond my comprehension for the time being, and there had to be an explanation for it. And yeah, I probably wouldn’t like it. I went back into the courtroom at 1:00. Maharin had his back turned, talking to some of the lawyer guys. Stanbeck patted me on the shoulder and told me to sit tight and that everything would work out. Then he walked away. No one else said a word to me. The Judge seemed all business and pounded his gavel, calling us into session. “I am aware that the defense wishes to call a witness.” Stanbeck nodded. “Yes, your honor. I call our expert witness in the matter of magic, Dr. John Maharin. He is the preeminent authority on these matters, a former university professor, and now heads the institute in question.” Dr. Maharin strolled into the witness bench. He looked the room over, eyeing everyone from the prosecutors, to my legal team, and even those watching. For some reason, everyone looked intimidated. Even my legal team seemed intimidated. Then with a pleasant smile, he turned to the Judge. “First, I must congratulate you.” Judge Moritz’s poker face cracked. “Excuse me?” “In ten years, this proceeding will be a case study in every law school across the nation, possibly the world. These are historic times.” “Thank you, but case studies are usually from higher courts, not simple hearings.” “But this is a special case. You have the opportunity to interpret laws which have governed us for centuries, and are now possibly antiquated.”

The Prosecutor stood up. “Your honor, the witness is wasting time. He has not added anything to the case.” But the Judge didn’t seem to mind. “I’ll allow it, but what is your point, Mister… Doctor. Maharin.” “Your honor, laws are written with the best of intentions, but it is quite impossible for legislators to predict changes in technology. For example, the Federal Government set limits on computers, limiting the amount of processing power in electronic exports. Not long after, they found that a Playstation, a simple child’s toy, easily exceeded this limit. Today, even my cell phone possesses more power than this.” “We are not speaking about technology. This case is about legality of treatment and medical practice.” “No, we are speaking today about the basic human right to be allowed to do what we are physically able to accomplish. There are no laws governing the will of a man to test his own limits. If he wishes to climb a mountain, this is not illegal, nor should it be. In the same way that technology allows a man to fly, magic allows mankind a whole new set of avenues.” “Yes, but a mountain climber may still be fined for negligence if his actions result in financial or human cost.” “That is true, and if there was negligence performed, this would be a malpractice case. But there was not. Mr Benjamin is alive and well today because of the actions of Dr. Shao. The best medical professionals assisted and supervised the procedure. And you must remember the oath of doctors to treat those in need. A man was dying and Dr. Shao saved him using every skill he possessed. Is that not the duty of every doctor?”

They were sure letting Maharin talk a lot. I thought there was supposed to be questions directed by the lawyers or something, but what do I know? Maharin was just getting warmed up. “The facts of this case are simple. Legally, Dr. Carter was the surgeon, Dr. Shao assisted. Truthfully, Dr. Shao was the surgeon, Dr. Carter assisted. The legality issue is only important because of obsolete laws created by those with little knowledge of the medical advances now possible. The prosecution challenges this legality because their job is to protect the commerce of those in control. Well, that’s their job. They do it very well. Unfortunately, their job impairs progress, and this is a progress which will occur whether you rule in our favor or not.” “What exactly do you mean? This ruling only affects Dr. Shao.” “Do you honestly believe that across the whole globe, there will only be one doctor with the magical abilities to enhance his abilities? Or perhaps there are others who will heal and then be regarded as gods. A ruling that Dr. Shao is allowed to incorporate his magic into his practice allows this to be regulated by the government and placed into mainstream society. A ruling against magical healing arts pushes honest practitioners into the wild. Now, if they were all charlatans, this would not be a major concern. Truth would be told eventually. But the truth in this matter is that Dr. Shao did heal the patient. He did repair a condition that was untreatable by any other means. And if you push the truth into the outlaw realms, the public will follow that truth and become outlaws as well.” Whispers started to rumble in the courtroom. The Prosecution huddled together. My legal team huddled together. I just sat and watched. I guess this was Maharin’s plan, and I was just his pawn to get it done. There were more discussions that afternoon, but

nobody remembers them. Hell, I sure don’t. I do remember having to come back a few days later for a ruling. Those were a couple of crappy days. No one knew if I could work or not, and my lawyers weren’t very forthcoming, probably because they didn’t know anything either. I guess a super defense team only cares about the verdict. Apparently that’s all anyone else cares about as well. During the original hearings, there was like nobody watching from the seats. For the verdict, the place was packed, and not just the room, the whole courthouse was packed. I had to squeeze through a crowded hall just to get to the room. Reporters barraged me with questions. “How do you feel about being on trial?” “Were you unfairly singled out?” “What do you think of your chances?” I couldn’t really answer anyone without being overwhelmed. Then again, I seemed to be able to move the pile of humanity and get through. Inside, I saw Ryan, Kevin, and Rachel. They’d come to offer moral support, and a little “insurance” just in case… or at least that’s what Ryan called it. I didn’t ask if he used a fireball to move people around to get inside. Maybe he should have used one to get people to shut up. I know they weren’t supposed to be asking me questions while I sat in the defendant’s penalty box, but I guess reporters don’t really care. I could barely hear the bailiff when he said, “All rise.” It took a few loud whacks from the Judge to quiet the room. “Order! Order! You will all settle down or I will hold you in contempt.”

Just then, I noticed Maharin stroll into the room. The crowd didn’t seem to give him any trouble. In fact, aside from myself, I don’t know if anyone noticed him. Oh, and Rachel, she threw a nasty glare towards him. Once the room settled down, the Judge cleared his throat and read from piece of paper. “I thought long and hard about this case last night. Dr. Maharin is correct when he says that although simple, this case and this decision will affect a vast array of policies, especially affecting magic and the workplace. The words I speak today will be analyzed for the next decades in every single case involving legality of magical abilities. But I also must be true to the words of our legislature. Now the letter of the law is simple. In his scope of practice, Dr. Shao cannot pierce the skin for any therapeutic technique. But what does that truly mean? If he accidentally scratches a patient, is it a crime? No, it governs the use of tool or instruments used to perform surgery or injections of any kind. I see none of that in this case, and so my ruling is simple. The defendant is not guilty. All of his therapy was performed by his hands, the literal definition of Chiropractic. Therefore, case dismissed.” Instantly, the room erupted in noise. Some cheered, others yelled things that I couldn’t quite make out, but would have gotten them kicked off most message boards. The prosecution hung their heads. My team shook each other’s hands. They didn’t shake mine. Maharin sat in silence, only showing a slight smirk. A few whacks of the gavel settled down the crowd once again. The Judge set down his paper and said, “Now, I know this isn’t the last you’ll hear of cases like this. I wouldn’t be surprised of the Appellate panel looks this over. It might even get Federal recognition. But my thoughts are now part of the record. I’m done here. Any questions

you might have are answered in my brief. As for you, Dr. Shao, I’m afraid that over the next few years, you might be asked to answer a lot more questions like these.” Damn.

Chapter 13 – You can’t stop life I was hoping that life could return to normal once the trial ended. Maybe just for a little bit, even a week of normal Los Angeles life would have been nice. Thing is, normal no longer existed. Normal meant flomping on my couch with a 2 liter of Coke, a bag of Cheetos, and a ballgame, xbox, or something. Now, the only thing I could stare at in my house was the reactor. Its sprawl wasn’t too exciting to look at, but even when I watched a little TV, I still felt bored. Sports leagues all over the world folded or sat on “indefinte hiatus” generally because of magically powered athletes. The news spit out nothing but bad news, mostly involving magic. Slow transitioning industries couldn’t keep up with this “new advance,” putting a lot of people on unemployment. True, the number sat around 10%, not good but not terrible, yet the news made it feel like the end of the world. And they all thanked magic for all of this. As much as I hated this, how could I argue? A big bulldozer moves tons of dirt, but costs millions. The average strength spell gives you the ability to lift about 1000 pounds. Get a few guys like that with big shovels, pay them 20 bucks an hour, and you’ve done the same thing with a lot less cost and a lot more accuracy. That lowers demand for bulldozers and gas, and pink-slips those workers. Or on a smaller scale, roadside auto repair shops opened up. Want an oil change and tire rotation? No problem. One guy would lift the car and set it on blocks, or just hold it up while they rotated the tires. It was way more jiffy than Jiffy Lube. With this and all other affected industries, businesses complained like crazy, filing injunctions and lawsuits. They did their job, shutting down a lot of the startups. Then again, chasing a couple guys with shovels and wrenches proved to be a bit tough for

the LAPD, especially when some can run 50 miles an hour. So, the reality of this whole mess fit the profile that Maharin painted – an outlaw world. The government saw this and held hearings of their own. I guess they’re not as clueless as talk show hosts think. Committees looked around for any authorities on this subject who could give any recommendations on policy. Maharin sat on top of every list, just like he wanted. He strutted into every packed room and gave his usual speech, titled the “You can’t stop life” address by the press. He didn’t really say anything that I haven’t written already, and would always drive home the fact that regulation would be the solution to this problem. Oh, and that he could manage this regulation. Yet they always asked him to speak first. Unfortunately, I was next on the list. Looking back, they really weren’t so bad. They weren’t all just musty, old rooms filled with musty, old men as I described it back then. They flew me out, paid my housing, and the capitol buildings all looked pretty nice. The politicians honestly seemed to want to know something. A few of them had their own agenda, but most were too confused to make any kind of agenda. I probably was a big jerk, grumbling through all the hearings just because I was forced to be there. Rachel didn’t mind nearly as much. Being one of the only university professors dedicated to this field, she got called in not too far after me. She always seemed cheery as the senators or whoever would stare down at her. A common question was, “What can you tell us about organizing magical abilities into categories?” “That’s easy. It can’t be done.” She would say that with a smile.

Now, the senators would lower their glasses or stand. “We have heard dozens of testimonies from experts who have created their own systems for organizing abilities. Projection, abilities that involve energy or matter traveling away from the wizard. Ablation, the vaporization of objects like stone. Alteration, the changing of normal processes such as strength or speed.” I think Maharin said something like this. “Yes, I have heard such claims.” “And you still say it cannot be done?” “No, and I will tell you why. These systems all organize magic along lines created by the laws of the natural word.” “And this would be a problem?” “Magic fundamentally does not follow the laws of the natural world. Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics, gravity, things are magic because they violate these laws. Thus, organization based upon these same laws is foolish. We need to first understand the laws of magic. Only then can any summaries or organizational system be created. Otherwise, we might as well just use a writer’s fantasy and place ourselves in Hogwarts for training in the mystical arts.” The Senators frowned. They wanted to yell, that’s what they were good at doing. However, it was hard to do that without sounding like an idiot later. Finally, someone asked, “What rules can you tell us about magic then?” “At this time, I have none to report.” Her administration hated it when she said that. “None? But you’re a researcher. Certainly you must have something.”

“It would be worse to misinform your committee than to say that I don’t know. I am being honest with you. Research takes time. We will have the answers, just not today.” The politicians wanted more than her conservative research approach. Anyone with proven magical skills found their way onto every subpoena list. They could forget about their normal lives for a while, though the expert witness fees usually got them more money than they’d normally make. Unfortunately, the only doctor who used magic for his practice was me. Yeah, I got a thousand a day or more to answer questions, mostly on the line of, “I really don’t know.” I should have been thankful. Shoulda, woulda, pleh… it sucked. The worst part was that they were all the same. Imagine having to answer a question that you didn’t have the answer for. Then imagine doing that every day for six months. Hell, they’d pay you to answer it. They’d offer you more to make something up. I’m sure a lot of people made up whatever they could. That probably led to me getting more subpoenas since at least they knew I’d be honest. Pleh. There was only one hearing that I really remember. It was with the North Dakota legislature, way off in the boonies. I think the state senator’s name was Peterson. He was an old cop Republican who wanted some answers. I did my best, and he appreciated my honesty. But then he surprised me. “There have been a series of robberies in Fargo. Can you shed any light onto those?” “I wasn’t aware of any robberies. Was magic involved?” “We’ve got no other explanations. Since you’re not from these parts, let me give you the nuts and bolts. Citibank HQ has suffered a number of break-ins over the past two

years. Millions, maybe billions have been stolen. They’re smart thieves too. They wiped out all their tracks and nothing physical ever goes missing. It’s like, poof, funds would just go.” “Sounds like hackers.” “Nope, they hit sealed, internal networks, completely isolated from the web. No wifi, no firewalls, nothing. Only way to get in would be from the inside.” “So an inside job.” “That’s what we thought until we checked the tapes. Nobody went in, nobody hid, nobody sneaking around. We only see cameras blurring a bit every now and then, exactly where the computers get hit. It’s almost like someone walked through the walls, zapped the cameras, and did some hacking. Now, you wouldn’t happen to know anyone who could do that, do you?” I noticed every eye locked onto me. They knew I could phase through a body. They wanted to know if I could phase through more. “Let’s cut the bullshit. You want to know if I can walk through solid steel into a bank vault. The answer is that I have no clue. I’ve never tried.” “But it’s somewhere you could go.” “It’s nowhere I’ve gone.” “Dr. Shao, there’s not ten people on the entire earth could have pulled off a stunt like this. But you here are one man who could have done this.” “Just because I might be physically capable of this robbery, that does not mean that I committed the crime. There are more people capable of magic like this.” “You seem awfully sure.”

“You would too if you didn’t commit the crime.” The senators glared at me, but there was nothing to see. I didn’t know who robbed the banks, but after all the crap those jerks put us through in 2008, I can’t say I was surprised. Maybe if I’d thought of it, I’d have waltzed into their vaults and taken stacks of cash, or something like that. I just had no clue how to pull off an Oceans 11 heist like that one. Still, after that day, I had a bad feeling that this would continue to be a problem. I hate it when I’m right. I found out one day at the office. Pet patients filled the waiting room, and their owners barked more than they did. “It’s impossible to get an appointment! Why isn’t the doctor in more? Doesn’t he know how to run a business? I don’t care what your excuse is, tell the doctor to see my baby now!” By my baby, she meant her little rat-dog. All of them kept making appointments. There were a lot of these. I kind of think they’re all the same person. My secretary hates them. I had just finished with one guy’s dog and was walking them to the front when she decided that she’d had enough. She jumped into my face and yelled, “I don’t know what your deal is, but you’re going to listen to me. My precious has been in horrible agony for the past two weeks. I have been calling every day, but there hasn’t been an opening. She needs your help now!” Her ‘precious’ little Chihuahua seemed plenty healthy enough to bark at every other dog in the room. Most of them decided to respond.

I yelled over this racket to my secretary. “Does she have an appointment?” “No!” “Why haven’t your made an appointment?” The Chihuahua lady snorted at me. “No one ever picks up when I call.” “Why didn’t you leave a message?” “I don’t talk to machines. I deserve a conversation with a real human being.” By now, the barking was deafening. I noticed a suit standing next to me. He said something, but I couldn’t hear a word. “Sorry, you’ll have to wait here or make an appointment for another day.” The suit said something, but I couldn’t hear a word. “What was that? I can’t hear you.” I could hear the Chihuahua lady. “Look at my little precious! She hasn’t been herself for days. She used to run around and sniff and shake her cutesy little touché. She was the sweetest thing, always so cute and loveable. But now, she limps around and just lays on the ground. You have to help her. I know you can do something if you just take a little look. Please help my baby!” The suit tried to say something else, but the barking and the Chihuahua lady drowned him out. I think my secretary tried to say something too, but it didn’t get through the curtain of noise. Finally, I had enough. “Shut up! All of you!” Just like that, all the dogs stopped barking and the Chihuahua Lady closed her mouth. The dogs laid down in complete submission and the Lady sat down. “Finally. Now, can I help you?”

The suit held out his hand. His hand held an FBI badge. “We need to talk. Is there somewhere private here?” When the FBI speaks, people listen. As I led the Fed into my office, the patients started to squawk again. A few seconds later, they quieted down. I think my secretary told them about the FBI guy, and they all decided to shut up and pray that I wouldn’t be getting hauled off. Inside my office, the Fed was brief. “I am here to obtain a sample of your DNA. If you willingly provide the sample, this will be a quick visit. If not, I will be forced to bring you downtown. Do you understand what I am saying?” A set of forms sat in front of me so I could sign off that I understood. “Whoa, hang on. What’s this all about?” “You are accused of a serious crime by the simple fact that you are capable given your magical skills. However, if your DNA does not match our sample, you will be exonerated.” “Let me get this straight. You found a DNA sample at a crime scene, and now you’re going to test me just because my abilities seem to indicate that I’d be able to commit the crime.” “That is correct.” “No other evidence or motive or anything?” “There’s always a motive for this crime.” “And if I give you my DNA, you’ll get out of here.” “That is correct as well.”

Now, I know this was illegal search and seizure or whatever the term is. This would be definitely something that the ACLU or any other civil rights attorney would protect me against in a second. But at the time, I was sick of dealing with institutes or agencies. “Cheek swab ok?” The Fed swabbed my cheek with a giant q-tip, sealed it in an evidence bag, and left without a word. Unfortunately, that still left me with an office full of impatient patients. Fortunately, I figured out a way to distract them. The conversation would start with something like, “What did the FBI agent want?” “I’m still a free man.” “But what did they want? Did you do something wrong?” “I’d rather not discuss this matter.” Of course, once I said that, they’d do nothing but try to get me to discuss that matter. And I’d avoid the question like a good politician. Watching them in all those hearings taught me the art quite well. The patients would usually stick on this topic all the way to the end of their treatment. Hey, it beat listening to their complaints. And I didn’t want to listen to that stuff any more. Flying off to testify only to return to annoyed patients was exhausting. I was tired. I was also sick of dealing with all this junk. Why couldn’t I just have a normal life and go to work, get paid, and live with my 1.5 kids and golden retriever? Or maybe just spend a night trying to bring down the Lich King or run around a Halo battlefield? At least I didn’t have to sit in the reactor. I guess that’s a little bit of good news, even though that thing still sprawled over my entire house.

That’s what I was thinking when I heard a knock on the door. The thought turned to something like omgwtfbbq! when I opened the door. It was the Fed. And he had friends. The friends wore dark suits and had flashy lights on top of their identical black sedans. And they all had their guns out.

Chapter 14 – Everyone has their day in court I used to always joke about this. I’d say to my lawyer friends, “Hey, when the cops haul me off, you’re going to get me out of prison right? You’ll defend me for free, right?” They’d laugh, because we all knew that it’d never happen. And we’d never be able to lift cars and walk on walls either. I never really thought about what would happen if they ever really knocked on my door with guns in hand, but I never thought I’d freeze and just stand there with my mouth hanging wide open. “We would like to search your house, Mr. Shao. We have a search warrant.” He wasn’t really asking. There are no questions when the FBI has a warrant. The Fed shoved a piece of paper into my hands and pushed past my semi-zombied form. Other agents surrounded me and ushered me to the side. Later, I read the search warrant, granting the FBI the right to search my home for any evidence of financial theft, numbering in the hundreds of millions. It didn’t take long for them to find that evidence. “What the hell is this?” Instantly, all guns pointed right at my head and cuffs went around my wrists. “You better get in here. I’ve never seen anything like this.” “Is it a valuable?” “Yeah. I think? It must be.” That’s the effect that the reactor had on the FBI. They stared at it like a bunch of idiots. They called in LAPD, ATF, and anyone else they could. Those people all stared

at it like a bunch of idiots. Pictures went out to Langley, not that anyone there had any clue as well. Finally, they came to me. “What the hell is that thing?” “The big machine sprawling all around my house?” “Yeah, what the hell is that? And how’d you get it inside? And where’d you steal it from? I mean, you can’t buy stuff like that at Walmart.” “Why don’t you answer this for me first? What are you doing raiding my house? I’m a law-abiding citizen.” “We’re just serving a warrant. Agent Daly’s the one in charge here. Blame Washingtion.” I growled something under my breath. I think it was, “Great, my tax dollars at work, funding you idiots.” Agent Daly, the Fed who visited me in my office, came out of my house and asked the question of the day, “What the hell is that thing?” I wasn’t very cooperative. “Hey, I did your damn DNA test. Why the hell are you here?” “The DNA test had… inconsistencies. Now, what the hell is that thing?” The sight of ATF agents entering my house with giant clampy tools pulled my attention away from Agent Daly. “Hey, where are you dumbasses going with those? Get away from the reactor!” “Reactor? What the hell do you have in there?” No one heard Agent Daly. All the agents and cops turned their attention to something else - the entire house and all of their cars now surrounded in a dancing, tenfoot wall of fire.

Ryan’s voice boomed in from over the wall. “LAPD. Government agents. This is the Firewalker. You are holding an innocent man. Lower your weapons, uncuff him and we can discuss this like civilized individuals.” It felt nice to see the Agent’s look of shock and awe when they stared at the fire. I think Ryan made the flames dance a little more than usual just for the psychological effect. Agents dashed around, looking for the keys to the cuffs, and Daly actually spent the time to explain their warrant. Unfortunately, that might have been the end of the good news. Agent Daly said, “We’re looking for something worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I think we found it, whatever it is.” “I’ll show it to you. Steve can chill here.” Ryan took Daly inside. He knew I wasn’t about to cooperate, so he played tour guide. “This is one of the most advanced pieces of medical technology in the world. It’s a skin regenerator, and it’s very important for Dr. Shao.” “Where’d he get it?” “This is all his brother’s stuff. Dave’s the big MIT research prof who figured all this out.” “And where did brother Dave get this? It looks like it costs millions.” “I really don’t know. It just showed up one day, and people set up it.” “Then, you know this could be evidence.” “Yeah.” “And we have to confiscate it.”

“Good luck with that. You won’t be able to move it without Steve’s help, and he’s not going to help.” “Then we’ll have to seize the whole house.” And that’s how I got kicked out of my own house. Daly said it’d have to be this way until my trial at the very least. The cops set up a perimeter around my house and gave me a few minutes to pack up some clothes. They blinked when I carried out a pile of stuff as tall as me. I blinked when I saw Ryan do the same from the backhouse. The good news was that he’d figured out super strength. The bad news was that he too was getting kicked out of his house. “This is fucked up.” I shared Ryan’s sentiment. “Yeah. We could totally take them if we wanted. We’re letting them do this to us.” “Yeah, but we’re the good guys. It’s now always easy being the good guys.” Ryan went to crash on Kevin’s couch. Kev offered me his floor or any space I could find, but I passed and got a hotel. I wanted a little space, but more than that, I didn’t want to be talking about magic all night. Yeah, I didn’t have my reactor. But that also meant that I had a good excuse not to phase. Hey, this was as good of a reason as any to keep my abilities under wraps. I could afford a hotel, and this would all pan out. I wasn’t a crook. Maybe new I could get away. Then my phone rang. It was Rachel. “Oh my god! Ryan just told me what happened!” “Yeah. I’m not sure how they even knew the reactor was there.” “Oh, that… that might be my fault.”

“You?” “They subpoenaed all my notes a few days ago. I wrote about the reactor and how, uh, it’s necessary. I didn’t publish it or anything though, and I’m not sure how they even got a subpoena for my notes. We’re getting railroaded here or something. I’m not sure what’s going on.” “Well, let me know when you figure out. I’m going to sleep.” Click. Yeah, I hung up on her, but I didn’t want to discuss this. If magic was gone from my life, fine, whatever. I couldn’t care less. Though I wouldn’t mind having my house back. And there was no way I’d be going to jail. My friends did a good job of not leaving me alone. Even though I hermited away in my hotel, they’d call me up and get dinner with me, and they kept an eye on my case. Honestly, they probably kept me informed. I kind of ignored my lawyer, but Ryan and Rachel gave me summaries about all that was going down. Unfortunately, Rachel had a good point as well. “How exactly did Dave get the reactor?” “I don’t know. It just showed up.” “Exactly. It might be stolen. Or purchased with stolen funds. Would Dave do something like that?” “You know damn well that he’d steal in a second. He did it to me.” Rachel seemed shocked. Apparently Ryan hadn’t told her. Oops. Oh well, I guess I had to tell her. “Remember when I did research that summer with my brother?” “You were doing some genetic research right? With introns?”

“Yeah, the parts of your DNA that get clipped out when your body uses DNA to make proteins. Basically, no one knows why they exist, but…” “But?” “But I figured out how to recombine a few of them to make proteins. It was a huge breakthrough. The NIH paid out a ton of money to continue this research.” “Except.” “Except, fucking Dave took all the credit for it, didn’t even mention me, and rode my research all the way to the top. He offered me a position with him, but after getting screwed like that, I told him to go to hell.” Rachel got quiet, like she was thinking. Then she said, “I think that happens a lot in universities. Professors take credit even if it was the idea of their grunts.” “It was a little more than just an idea.” “Yes. But why would Dave be helping you like Robin Hood now? Well, if that’s what he’s doing. He’d have to know that he’d get caught. Even if he was feeling guilty, I doubt he’d steal 600 million dollars.” “600 million?” “That’s what the FBI estimates as the cost of the reactor. Unfortunately, that makes it a big problem even if they believe that you weren’t in on it. They’ll probably try to say that you must have known something was wrong with something that valuable.” “Shit! I hate this magic. Why the hell is it fucking up my life?”

That made Rachel really quiet. For a second, I thought a saw a flash or something from her. It was something different, not like the flash between her and Ryan when he touched her shoulder after she told me, “Sorry. This has got to be hard.” It was hard. As good as a four-star hotel room insulates against the stress of the world, let’s be honest. You always know what’s going on, even if you try to lie to yourself. Especially when you’re in a different city, like a few weeks later when I had to go to Washington. I got myself a sweet five-star suite, probably a place that diplomats everywhere would put on their country’s tab, possibly the fanciest place I’d ever stayed. I still couldn’t sleep. I laid there all night on 1000 count sheets, thoughts swirling around what would happen. What if I got thrown into prison? Could I really phase through the bars and just walk out of there? They couldn’t hold me, right? But then what? Still, I was innocent, right? I didn’t take their money, and I didn’t really know if Dave had stolen the money to get me the reactor. Speaking of Dave, why wasn’t he charged? That thought stuck in my head the longest. It was still on the top of my mind when I wandered into court the next day. My lawyer met me outside the courtroom. “Jeez, you look like hell. I told you to get some sleep.” “Well, yeah. What do we got for today?” “Look, I don’t want you to freak out in court, so I’m going to tell you now. You’re going to be formally accused of being an accessory to 600 million dollars in theft.” He was surprised when I didn’t freak out. I was probably just too tired. “If I’m an accessory, aren’t they going to offer me a deal?”

“They will, probably. They usually do it by now, but maybe they’re trying to sweat you since you’ll have to testify against your brother.” “I’m ok with that.” That surprised my lawyer as well. Maybe not as much as when Stanbeck and his crew took over my last trial. Compared to that one, a lot of things were different. For starters, there were armed guards everywhere. Second, there was the grand jury, a group of guys who actually wanted to do jury duty. As I looked at their faces, I somehow knew that they wouldn’t buy my story. One thing was similar. Maharin. He sat in the back, just like last time. He acknowledged me with a nod, but the look on his face seemed like he was watching a ball game. Oh, one last difference. Dave. He sat in the back and nodded at me when I went in. I don’t think I gave him a nod back. Overall, this day in court felt a lot harsher than my last one. Fewer words were said, but the tone felt brief and condemning. The Prosecutor merely said this. “We will let the pictures speak for themselves. Dr. Shao has hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment in his home, and he will tell us why.” Agent Daly talked everyone through those pictures. He even gave a price breakdown. “This here is fiber-optic wire, a heavy-duty gauge. It runs 5 dollars per linear foot. Not bad, but that fat, red one is some serious wire. 1000 dollars a foot, capable of delivering enough electricity to power a hundred city blocks, and you see three of them.” “And why would you need so much power?” asked the Prosecutor. “Because of what we believe is a cold fusion reactor.”

“Those don’t exist. Do they?” “Our experts have that as their best guess.” This went on for a while. At the end, Agent Daly’s price tag was 125 million, and that’s just what they knew about. Another 400 to 500 million was allocated for the cold fusion power source and some technology they couldn’t understand. It didn’t look good for me. The Judge turned to my lawyer and said, “There appears to be enough evidence for a trial. I am ready to move onto bail unless you have anything more to say.” My lawyer had one shot. “We have issues with the very issuance of the search warrant. Our argument centers around the DNA test.” The court swore in a DNA expert and my PCR gel went up on a screen. It took him a few minutes to explain how DNA can be “cut” with different enzymes and run on a gel where big, heavy pieces move less than small, light pieces. This is usually just called a gel. Since everyone’s DNA is slightly different, it forms a “fingerprint” that can definitively identify a person. Two areas were highlighted on my gel. “Now, tell me about those two areas? What do the lines mean?” “Alone, nothing. But compare them with the gel from the crime scene.” Another blot went up. The lines in those areas did not match at all. “This seems to indicate that Dr. Shao and the perpetrator are not the same person.” My lawyer stood tall and confident. “So let me be certain here. You are saying that Dr. Shao could not be the perpetrator?” “That is unclear?”

“Excuse me? But you just said that area one and two seems to exonerate my client.” “Yes, but look here.” The expert highlighted a tiny line on my gel, perfectly matched by a tiny line on the crime scene sample. “Now this line here is intriguing. In all our years of DNA testing, this line has never appeared. This could indicate a match.” “But the first two areas…” “I agree. We appear to have conflicting information. Thus, we recommend that DNA evidence not be used as a final say in this case, but that there is sufficient cause for the issue of a search warrant.” Damn. That was our best chance. The rest of the proceedings went quickly. “We request that bail be denied due to the magnitude of this case.” Thank you Mr. Prosecutor. But then a voice came out from the back of the room. “I think the defense would like me to speak.” It was Dave, and he started walked towards the witness box even before my lawyer could speak. “Uh, the defense calls Dr. Ste… David Shao.” Dave went onto the witness bench and they swore him in. “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” “I do.” Dave gave me a nod before sitting down. My lawyer stood and tried to look confident, but I knew he was just as confused as me. “So, you are Dr. Shao’s brother?” “That I am. I’m the other Dr. Shao, the one who works at MIT.” “And you’re Steven Shao’s younger brother?” “No, I’m older. I only look younger.”

“Very well. You seem to have information to add to this case.” “That I do. This case isn’t really about my brother, is it? I mean, you’re accusing him of harboring stolen merchandise, but you’ll probably get some kind of plea deal and make him testify against me, so I’m just going to save you the trouble and come up here now.” The Judge glared at Dave. “This is highly unusual, Mr. Shao.” “That’s Dr. Shao.” The judge didn’t like that. He liked it even less when Dave kicked his feet up onto the railing. “Dr. Shao. If you do not behave yourself…” “What, are you going to hold me in contempt?” “You are quite close to spending the night in jail. This is your final warning.” “I don’t give a damn. You’re going to have that guy over there slap cuffs on me and drag me off to jail in a few minutes anyway.” “Are you trying to get arrested?” “No, your honor. I’m trying to confess to ripping off Citibank for 740 million dollars.” Everyone froze in place. I guess it didn’t totally surprise me, like I had been talking about this possibility with Ryan and Rachel, but I didn’t expect it to come out like this. Yet, Dave seemed completely nonchalant about all this. “You need me to repeat myself, your honor?”

Chapter 15 - Go

Respect is something they demand in court. Everyone needs to dress professionally, speak when asked, shut up when told, and if they don’t play nice, they get tossed behind bars for contempt. This works for the most part, so long as everyone’s sane. Nobody wants to go to jail. “Did you dumbshits hear me? I’m the one who took Citibank for 500 million.” The whole courtroom seemed unsure what to do next. Everyone just stared at Dave in complete shock as he smirked on the stand. Well, I heard Maharin also looked relaxed, but I didn’t see it. Finally, the Judge spoke up. “Bailiff, please take Dr. David Shao into custody.” “Relax, your honor. I’m not going anywhere. Wouldn’t you like a few of your questions answered first?” “You’ll have a chance to talk at your trial.” “Why wait. Go for it, prosecutor-guy. What would you like to know?” The Judge paused a moment. Then he blinked and sat back in his seat. “Very well, I’ll allow it. Make sure all this goes on the record. And for you, Dr. Shao, be prepared to spend the night in federal custody.” “Tonight, you guys are going to walk me into a cell, but that’ll be later. Go ahead, prosecutor-dude.” The Prosecutor gathered his notes and whispered to his team. My lawyer leaned to me and said, “This is really unusual, but at least it looks like you’re free.” I didn’t really say anything. Confusion over Dave’s actions, both before and now, along with

conflicted emotions and uncertainty over the fact that my case might be over – these thoughts ran laps through my head. Finally, the Prosecutor stood, hands full of notes. “Hello, Dr. Shao.” “Call me Dave. Or Go.” “Go?” “Cause there’s nowhere I can’t go. What’d you like to know?” “Very well, Go.” The Prosecutor cracked a grin as he said that. “First off, why are you doing this? You don’t have to talk now, especially with no representation.” “I’d have to talk sooner or later. Why wait? Besides, I’d like the credit for my actions.” “Or someone else’s,” I mumbled. I don’t think anyone heard me. Then the Prosecutor asked his first real question. “Did you deliver what Dr. Steven Shao refers to as ‘the reactor’ to his home?” “Yes, I did. Guilty as charged. And oh, he had no idea how I got it, or if it was stolen or anything. You know, just for the record.” “But, Mr. Go, certainly he must have known. It’s worth 600 million dollars.” “Actually, it only cost me 431 million. I took a few extra bucks, just in case, but if Citi’s claiming 600 million in losses, you Fed boys are getting the boondoggle again.” The Prosecutor’s colleagues scribbled notes as Dave said this. One of the colleagues said this as he wrote, “431 mill for the reactor, whatever it is.” “Ah, whatever it is. I was expecting that one first. Guess you dumbasses don’t care about progress. You don’t even care that you’ve just taken the first glimpse at the future of medical technology in America, fuck, the world. This is a full body epithelial

regenerator, or for you plebes, it replaces your skin. If someone gets burned over 90% of their body? No problem. Get a DNA sample, park their butt in there for a few hours, and presto, good as new. A lot of lives are going to saved by this.” “Very impressive. Now, why would your brother require this?” For the first time on the stand, my brother’s arrogance cracked a bit. “You’ll have to ask him that. It’s not for me to say.” His cocky smile came back a moment later. “It’s pretty damn cool technology though, don’t you think?” “We are more interested in how you robbed Citibank.” “Oh, that was nothing. I just walked in and did my thing on the computers. Not a lot of internal locks once you get inside.” “You just walked in? Mr. Go, the location you’re talking about is one of the most secure financial locations in the world. Guards watch the facility 24 hours a day. Every electronic measure defends against all forms of wireless access. The computers themselves sit behind a 4-foot steel vault. Every worker undergoes a search before both entering and exiting. The FBI would be proud of a facility such as this. Nobody can just walk in.” “This will make sense to your little brain someday.” “Excuse me?” “Hey, I’m Go. There’s nowhere I can’t go. You can call me Mr. Go too, if you want.” The Judge turned to Dave and stared him down. “Do you expect us to believe what you are saying?”

“Maybe hope’s a better word. Then again, morons like you like to be sheeped around. I mean, you’ll believe anything from an ‘authority’ sometimes.” “I have had enough of this. Bailiff, arrest this man.” The Bailiff and a group of heavily armed guards ran to the witness bench and surrounded my brother. “Take it easy,” said Dave. He stood and put his arms behind his back. The cuffs snapped around his wrist in a second. “Put the leg irons on him too. If this man is anything near what he claims, we should take every precaution.” The Judge’s order was carried out in an instant. Just like that, Dave was locked up in 15 pounds of steel. “That took him long enough, the judge must be losing it,” mumbled my lawyer. Even locked up, Dave stayed as cocky as ever. “Don’t you want to know how I beat your estimate? I hired this company down in Vietnam to make my wires. Cost ten percent what you found, and probably better stuff too. Who does your shopping? Oh, speaking of money, don’t bother looking for the last 69 million. You’ll never find it. But look into Citi’s claim, cause they’re using me as a writeoff. I mean, I’m ok being an expense, but if you’re going to blame me for a hundred and seventy million, I want the cash.” “Get that man out of here, now!” Dave didn’t shut up one bit as they were dragging him out. “Hey, court reporter. Make sure you get this. They’re going to lock me up, but there’s no way I’m spending the night in jail. Got that? There’s no way Go’s going to spend the night in jail.”

SLAM. The guards closed the door behind them as they took my brother away. Silence filled the courtroom. The Judge took a deep breath and turned to me. “It seems that you are a free man tonight, Dr. Shao.” I exhaled and said, “Thank you.” But I’m not even sure what was going through my head. I barely heard the Judge continue. “However, there is still the issue of the stolen items, or rather the items purchased with stolen funds. Until the court decides what to do with those, your house will be considered seized property. If you attempt to force your way back in, you will be arrested. Do you understand?” “Your honor,” said my lawyer. “My client’s home is not and has never been listed under the items of stolen property.” “Yes, but according to documents from the FBI, there is no feasible way to separate the two. Perhaps if Dr. Shao could be of assistance?” Let’s see, the only way to get the reactor out would be to phase it through the walls. However, if I phased it, I’d have to get back in or else I’d look like a freak. Unfortunately, at that point, the thing would be on a truck and headed to spend its days next to Indiana Jones’s Ark of the Covenant. So, I just said, “You’ll have to ask my brother. It shouldn’t be hard, you have him in custody.” Yeah, about that custody thing, Dave wasn’t making it easy on the Feds. First, they took him to a holding cell where a bunch of prisoners waited for processing. Not a very fancy room, just a bare concrete box with concrete benches for inmates to sit and wait behind bars. This was the holding cell for white-collar criminals, and pretty much

everyone here just sat with fear plastered on their faces. Aside from Dave, no one wore leg irons. And aside from Dave, everyone was quiet. “Come on, what is this, club Fed? Surround me with a bunch of guys who skipped on their taxes? Ooo, I’m scared now. At least make it a challenge.” No problem, the Feds took him to a holding cell filled with the guys they got from Federal drug busts. Dave still didn’t shut up. “Now this is more like it. Gangbangers, murderers, drug dealers, maybe there’ll even be a fight. I’m sure someone here’s got a beef with someone else.” Actually, there were members of four rival gangs in the cell that night, but like nobody’s crazy enough to start a brawl in the holding cell. Cameras sit everywhere, there’s nowhere to run, and armed guards stand like ten feet away. Prisoners want to be known as crazy mofos you don’t want to mess with, but not till they get to the big house. Here in processing, any craziness would have to be repeated anyway. Dave didn’t get that memo. “Come on, you pussies. This is boring as shit. Tell you what, anyone who wants a shot, go ahead and hit me. I’m all locked up, I can’t fight back. Come on, someone’s got to want a free shot.” Initially, no one really wanted to hit him. But after a few minutes, he’d managed to piss off a few big boys. “Yo, shut the fuck up, you Chink.” “Yeah, come over here and shut me up, you fucking racist. Or do you got the cojones? No huevos on you, gordo?”

That did it. Three guys, all over 250 pounds, all inked with their exploits and affiliations, all came over to beat the crap out of my brother. This was nothing new to those boys, they’d done the beatdown a lot of times. Everyone cleared out of their way. Not Dave. He didn’t show a bit of fear, actually, he looked excited. This worried them. See, normally, these guys would just run over and start swinging, but because Dave seemed totally nuts, they stopped in front of him and stared him down. Dave looked up and smirked. “Alright, big boy, here’s the game. Each of you gets one shot. Punch, kick, whatever… Surprise me. If you knock me out, you win. If not, you’re a pussy who can’t even drop a defenseless a-hole who’s all locked up. You game?” WHAM! A big right hand spun Dave’s head around and he fell off his seat. A collective shout filled the room as he went down. The big boy slapped a few high fives and flexed. For a moment, he was the king of the room. “You can do better than that.” The whole room gasped as Dave got up and sat back on the bench. “Alright the score is men, zero. Pussies, one. Who’s next?” The next guy took a second to get into a fighting stance. Then, WHAM, he slammed his boot into Dave’s face. This time, Dave slumped onto the bench. For a moment, the room oooed and ahhed about the knockout, but these became whoops and cheers when Dave sat back up. Now, the guards also gathered near the bars to watch the show. Dave wiped a bit of blood from his mouth onto his sleeve and looked good as new. “Alright, two strikes. One more and all of you are pussies.”

The last big boy was the smallest of all the guys. After looking over Dave, he charged. But at the last moment, he stepped to the side and headbutted the wall. The wall lost. He must have known some kind of steel-skull spell because he left a nice dent in the concrete. Then he looked at Dave and said, “You got a big mouth.” “That’s true. Let’s see if I’ve also got a hard head.” WHAM! A massive headbutt slammed into Dave’s head, coming down with enough force to shatter his concrete seat. Everyone huddled around, trying to get a look at his body, now lying on the ground surrounded by chunks of concrete. Whispers started. “Is he dead? Dude, no one gets up from that.” Whispers became yells. Yells became a roar. “Alright, that’s enough. Everyone settle down. I said settle down, now!” That was the Warden. A commotion always got his attention, and he was not the sort of man who would put up with this. His voice boomed through the room and the inmates scattered to the sides. Then the door opened with a buzz and he entered. Although a small man, his demeanor demanded respect. And if that wasn’t enough, then the machine gun wielding guards by his side would have to pick up the slack. Dave lay in a bloody sprawl when the Warden entered, but as before, he sat up and wiped the blood off onto his sleeve. Then he stood up, looking good as new. “Hey, you in charge here? You’re going to need a new bench.” The Warden glared into Dave’s smirk. “You’re a troublemaker, aren’t you?” “Maybe I am, not that there’s anything else to do.” “This is prison. Federal lockup, not just any Barney Fife county jail, this is the big house. This is where you will stay for a very long time.”

“No, this is where you’ll try to keep me for a very long time, but I’ll split when I’m ready.” The Warden got right into Dave’s face. “You are a troublemaker.” “You have no idea.” “I think I have just the place for you.” The guards grabbed Dave and whisked him through processing, with all the nasty stuff that’s been told in other books and movies. All the time, Dave ripped on the guards, “You better watch me close. You don’t want me to split on your watch.” So, the guards put him into a bright, orange jumpsuit and chained him to a cart. The Warden checked the locks and nodded with approval. “Put him in the hole. And make sure you’ve got him tagged.” They locked an electronic ankle bracelet onto Dave. A guard said, “Don’t even think about taking this off. Not that it’ll matter, you foot will come off way before this thing.” “I’ll be sure to remember that.” Word spreads fast in prison. As they wheeled Dave past the cells, the prisoners all whooped and hollered at him. Some cheered his defiance, others mocked his stupidity, but they all welcomed a little excitement. The Warden hated excitement. He personally watched over the scene as the guards led Dave into a windowless room. Then they leashed him to the wall, chaining him up like a wild animal. Finally, they closed a set of inner and outer bars. The Warden looked in at Dave and asked, “How do you like these surroundings?”

“Yo, Warden-dude, there ain’t no bathroom in here. Where am I supposed to pee?” “Oh, I think you can figure that out.” For once, Dave seemed impressed. “This must be your best cage. I’m honored.” “I’ll be honored when you show us some respect.” “Oh, speaking of that, did they tell you what to call me?” “You are identified only by your serial number, ID35631” “No, you should call me Go.” “You are prisoner ID35631. Nothing more.” “No, I’m Go. Or, Mr. Go, if you’d like.” “And why would that be?” “Because there’s nowhere I can’t go. Now watch closely.” And just like that, Dave was gone. It didn’t matter how closely they watched, none of them saw a thing. In a fraction of a second, the room was empty. Well, not empty. The jumpsuit was neatly folded on the floor. The chains sat on top in a neat coil, and the electronic ankle bracelet topped the pile. The guards ran to the door, but the Warden stopped them. “No! This guy might be able to throw illusions or something. I’ve planned for this.” He hit a button and a grid of lasers shot throughout the cell. “There’s nowhere for you to hide. Come on out.” “Uh, sir, none of the lasers are reporting a contact.” “What?” “They’re all going through, there’s nothing there.” “Get me IR.”

A couple guards ran to the cell with infrared goggles and they looked over the area. “Nobody can hide their heat. Anything they touch will show a mark.” They didn’t see a thing. Now, the Warden was mad. “You guys got beanbags?” “Yes, sir.” “Fire at will. I don’t care how tough or sneaky you are. These guns leave a mark.” So they fired over and over, filling the cell with smoke and scattering loose beads all over the floor. And that’s how the room looked when Maharin showed up. He was brought in by the Justice Department as an authority, since they needed someone with magical know-how. Maharin looked over the room and asked, “Has the door been opened since the prisoner entered?” “No, sir.” “Well, go ahead and open it. It needs to be cleaned.” “But what if he’s in there?” “He’s not in there. You’ve all been pretty thorough with this.” None of the guards liked this, especially the Warden. “If there are magicians who can literally walk through walls right before our eyes, then this is a very disturbing development.” “Yes, this is disturbing indeed.” Although he was agreeing with the Warden, everyone I asked has told me the same thing – when Maharin said that, they all detected a hint of pride in his voice.

Chapter 16 – 252,741 The commercials started three weeks after Dave disappeared. “Are you feeling different? Have things been happening differently from how they used to? Do you feel lost? Confused?” While the narrator said this, people of every age and color looked at the camera, each with a somber gaze. “Then come find the truth. Technology advances daily, and we can help you do the same. Our safe, confidential analysis will give you the peace of mind you truly need. TMS. We’re here to help you.” At the bottom of the screen, there was the fine print. “Funding by the Maharin Institute.” I guess that’s what an institute like Maharin’s should do. But then there were the other ads. These involved a mother playing with her kid. “You know he’s special, everyone says he’s special. Wouldn’t you like to know just how special? Come, find out, know. Because knowing is the enemy of being left behind.” I hated these commercials. They were cheesy, but with their saturation, they must have had some effect. I really didn’t like how they preyed on the fears of parents, but the worst part probably wasn’t even noticed by most people. Sometimes, under the Maharin line, there’d be one for the Astrial Project. Or maybe it’d just say, “Astrial.” Just a flash as it faded to black. And none of us knew about Astrial back then. I found out from an angry phone call from Rachel. “Astrial. Have you been contacted by them?”

“Uh, no, though I’ve been ignoring any number I don’t recognize. Is this some new, magical society or company or something?” “I wish. You sure they haven’t contact you? You’re positive now?” “I have no idea. Why does it matter?” “Why? I don’t know. Maybe because they’re a governmental agency? Maybe because big brother is now working with Maharin? Why should I be worried? I don’t know, why?” “A government agency? You make it sound like the FBI’s working with Maharin.” “FBI? I only wish it was them. This is a government law-enforcement agency specifically designed to manage the introduction of magic. They’re a branch of the State department or something, the details haven’t all come out. But why do you think they’re out there? And why have a cutsey little name like, ‘Astrial?’ I’ll tell you why. Because they want to watch over all of us. They’re sick of progress leaving them on the sideline, and they’re going to grab the reins now. People getting magical gifts? No problem. We’re going to regulate it. That’s what the government does.” “Hey, uh, Rachel? You ok? I don’t remember you being a tin-foil hat conspiracy nut.” “Well, maybe I’ve learned a few things in the past couple of days. Maybe I learned a little something from a few too many court-ordered search and seizures at my lab.” “I thought they just took your notes.”

“Oh yeah, my notes. That was fine. I just made them a few copies and they were on their way. I don’t care about those, they’d have been written up sooner or later. I care about them stealing all my research methodology.” “Uh, your what?” “You know, those machines you saw when you came by?” “Yeah, they didn’t do jack.” “Well, I got better machines; machines that actually can analyze energy and production and transference and a lot of things. I’d have tested you one of these days, but you were busy. The big breakthrough was that I might be able to tell exactly how much magic someone can kick out. Well, I could, before they stole my equipment.” “Wait, the government can’t just take all your property. Can they?” “They can if it’s on a search warrant. I don’t know how they justified that one, but now I’m out one lab and someone’s using my hard earned knowledge to their gain. Give you one guess as to who that someone might be.” I thought back to the commercials from the Maharin Institute. “So, if I’m following you right, the government’s stolen all your gear, and they’re going to use it along with Maharin to analyze people’s magical abilities?” “They are using it. There’s nothing else out there. What, you’re going to test people’s height? Weight? Blood pressure? That won’t do a thing. The only way they could do any testing is with my equipment, and the only way they could get that was to come in and rob me.” “That is seriously messed up. But, uh, why would the government, what’d you say they’re called, Astrial? Why would they be looking for me?”

“Why? You’re about as powerful of a magician as there is in the world, at least according to the press. You can be damn sure that they want to run a baseline using you.” “Well, I have no intention of being a guinea pig for anyone. They can’t force me to go and get probed or whatever you call it.” Yeah, boy was I wrong about that one. I got a call at work on a Friday. My secretary picked it up. “Steve, there’s a call for you. Some agency known as, ‘Astral’ or something like that.” “Astrial?” “I don’t know. Maybe?” Rachel’s warning came to mind when I picked up the phone. So, I just gave a gruff, “Dr. Shao.” “Hello, Doctor. This is Astrid from the California State Board of Chiropractors. Do you have a moment?” The State Board. I wonder how my secretary missed this one? Then again, the Board never called for anything good. “Yeah, what’s going on? I thought my case was settled.” “Your case? Oh, that case, yes, you’re right. But this is something new.” “Oh great. We’re going to court again?” “No, no, no. This is much easier. Really, nothing major, it’s not even from us. This is a new federal regulation. We’re just passing on the word.” “Federal regulation? I thought the laws were administered by the state.”

“True, but this is really nothing. It’s just a secondary license for people like you. I think you just need to show up, fill out some papers, and they’ll give it to you.” People like me. Yeah. “Where do I need to go?” “The Agency’s called Astrial. What a nice name. Ok, I’m biased. But that’s not where you go. It’s an Institute, how do you say this, mahala…” “The Maharin Institute?” “Oh, you know it. Excellent. You just need to set up an appointment, and oh, the government wants you to do this by next month.” “That’s in 6 days.” “Yes, it is.” CLICK. Great. Three days later, I had an appointment at the Institute. It didn’t take long for me to notice the change. All construction fences and signs were nowhere to be seen. The old hospital was gone as well. The new building stood tall and impressive, with mirrored glass surrounding arcane angles and unnatural curves. A glowing “M” on top of the 15 story walls looked down on all around. A grassy ring surrounded all this, creating a feeling of modern and new mixed with something gothic or mystical. Signs covered the grounds with their new name – TMS. And in smaller letters, the Maharin Institute. I didn’t care. Actually, I didn’t notice any of this at the time. I just wanted to get in, get out, and get on with my life. A few crowds prevented this from happening. First were the protestors outside. They yelled, waved signs, said magic was unnatural, of the devil, or some stuff that sounded plenty angry but made little sense. Then there was the crowd of law

enforcement, both the cops and Maharin’s private guards. They tried to manage a crowd of cars trying to get in and out, but it all turned into a big mess. Finally, there was the press. Reporters, photographers, papparatizi – they all wanted a piece of this action. Not that I could blame them, there was no other action in town since magic arrived. Of course, I just yelled at all of them that day. By the time I parked, I bet steam was coming out of my ears. I stormed through glassy gates into the lobby and growled, “I have an appointment.” The receptionist didn’t care. She looked more bored than anything. She just said, “Please have a seat. We’ll be with you shortly.” “How long will it be?” “We’re doing our best to get everyone taken care of.” “Maybe you could give me a little estimate? Like 15 minutes? A half hour?” “It’s hard to say.” “There’s like 20 people waiting here. Do you get them in every couple minutes?” “As I said before, please take a seat. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.” As soon as we can took over an hour. And that’s not because they called me in. I started watching their procedure, how they’d buzz a door, and the client would push it inward to enter. I also noticed that the receptionist didn’t seem to give a crap about anything going on. So, I hung out by the door. The receptionist called out in her bored monotone. “Stevens?” “Here.” A mother raised her hand and led her second-grader to the door. A buzz and a click unlocked, and a push let her inside. This time, before the door closed, I slid a

magazine into the door jam. This way, the door would “close,” but stay open just enough to stay unlocked. I waited a minute. Then I leaned on the door and let myself in. As I walked down the corridor, I first noticed how much they’d remodeled. Offwhite, cracked stucco now became a stylish blend of colors and steel. Next, I realized that I was sneaking around the place. Maybe I was just frustrated enough to stop caring. Maybe I’d picked up a bit from Dave’s antics in court. In any case, I pretended to be an worker and walked about the halls. Fortunately, no one really noticed or cared. Technicians looked overworked and powered thorough the day with coffee and junk food. I heard a conversation between two techs as they walked past me. “Does this shit even work?” “I don’t know. It looks like nothing ever changes on the dials. Unless I push harder. Then stuff changes. Probably all just a bunch of bullshit.” “Seriously. How the hell did Dr. Maharin get funding for this?” “I don’t know, but as long as they’re paying me, I don’t care.” Apparently, they didn’t care about closing doors either. That helped. I hung out next to a coffee maker and peeked in as a tech worked with the second-grader and her mom. He hooked up a set of electrodes to her head and arms. The machine was something I had seen in Rachel’s lab, but I don’t think I used it. Really, it was just a glorified box with wires sticking out of it. Naturally, the kid toyed with the electrodes, almost like they were stickers. Her mother’s response couldn’t have been more different as she hovered over everyone.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. This is all completely harmless. See, I’ll do it to myself first.” The tech placed pads on himself, matching the pads on the kid. “I think we’re getting kid pads next week, with dinosaurs or something on them. But this doesn’t send anything into you. We’re just measuring magical impulses.” During the civil suit months later, Rachel said it’s actually measuring bioelectrical impedance, and that the impedance correlates directly with magical potential energy. That’s about all I really understand about this. The tech’s readout read zero. “Is it working?” asked the mother. “Yep, doing exactly what it’s supposed to.” “Then why isn’t it reading anything?” “That’s because I’m not magical. Now, let’s try it on your daughter.” The tech hooked the wires to the pads on the second grader. She seemed excited. Her mom looked ready to crap. “Ok, now I want you to think about your special ability.” The second grader turned to her mother. “It’s ok, Sarah. Go ahead and do as he says.” The tech had more instructions. “Now, what I need you to do is almost do your ability, but not actually do it. If you go through with it, we’ll get an inaccurate reading. Ok?” The second- grader nodded and held out her hand. A moment later, her fingertip began to glow. At the same time, numbers jumped all over the place on the machine. “Wait, wait. That’s a little too much. Turn it down a bit.”

Her fingertip returned to normal. The numbers on the box dropped, from the thousands, to the hundreds, and, finally settling on… “35. Wow, that’s really good. You saw what I had. Thirty-five means you’ve got some power.” The second-grader laughed and cheered. Her mother gave her a big hug. “I knew you were special.” However, as the tech made his notes, he didn’t seem the slightest bit impressed. By his body language, I’d guess that 35 was better than nothing, but it still was pretty weak. After some more testing, the tech took them out of the room and down the hall, leaving the room empty. I felt a little curious so I went inside. Even though I’d never used the machine before, there was a picture of a cartoon body showing the proper placement of the pads. Idiot-proof. A moment later, I was all hooked up and ready to go. First, I tried lifting the desk. I actually started lifting it initially, making the numbers go nuts, but then I relaxed and the numbers settled at 1142. I guess my hunch about the 35 was right. Next, I tried lighting a fire in my fingers. Since I had just done it, it felt easier this time to “almost” use magic but stop right before casting the spell. And just like the, the numbers rose to 1624. Now, I had a dilemma. Should I try phasing? Especially since if my skin broke, there’d be no easy way for me to fix it. I sat there for a minute. Then curiosity won. I talked to Ryan later about why I did that. I had nothing to gain. And if I screwed up, I’d be in a bad place. But he said, “Hey, you’re a scientist. You want to know stuff like this.”

Anyway, I held back just enough so my skin held, and nothing phased anywhere. As before, the number rose and settled nicely on a number. 252,741 I just stared at that for a minute. I probably stared a little too long. “Hey, you? What are you doing here?” That was a security guard. Apparently, they’d called my name, and when I didn’t show up, they sent out word to look for me. I wonder why they sent out a special guard to find me, and didn’t just let me in quickly? But I didn’t think of that at the moment. I just ripped off the pads and jumped to my feet. The guard blocked the exit and glared at me. “You must be Mr. Shao. I need you to come with me. And you should know better than to be messing with the equipment without proper supervision.” “It’s Doctor Shao. And I was messing around in this building long before you even got here.” “Hey, don’t talk back to me.” The guard grabbed a table and lifted it with one hand, just to show off. “Big deal.” I picked up a bigger table with one hand and waved it over my head. It didn’t take long for the guard to back down. Then again, it was probably because I was waving the table a little too close to the equipment in the room. “Ok, settle down sir. If we all calm down, I’m sure we can get this all taken care of.” “Hey, rent-a-cop, why am I even here anyway? Don’t you know that this whole place would still be a dump if I hadn’t saved some dude’s butt? Now you want me to sit

my ass in your waiting room forever, just to get some POS license for something I won’t even do anyway?” I noticed that the guard was backing away. I didn’t notice myself striding towards him while waving the table around, at least until I whacked the wall with it. And by whack, I mean slam. Actually, it stuck into the wall. I guess that super-strength spell works better than I thought. We both paused for a moment to look at the table. That thing went right through the drywall, both sides, and was hanging out the other side. I must have been holding it upright because it missed every 2X4. The guard kept backing away, but me, along with everyone else, just kind of stared at the table. And that’s when I heard a familiar voice. “Hello again, Dr. Shao.” It was Maharin. “Quite a show of strength. But you could have just demonstrated that on our equipment.” “Why do I have to show you anyway? I know what I can do. Your institute wouldn’t look nearly as nice if you never had my help.” Maharin seemed to ignore me and looked inside the room. But then he turned back to me and said, “You must want your license.” “Yeah. What the hell is up with the licenses anyway? I don’t use magic on anyone, but the government shut me down until I got one.” “Oh, we all need a license to drive. Are your powers not all the more dangerous? You never know what someone with enough power could do, especially if he had no respect for the law.”

I paused. He was right, dammit. And he was also talking about my brother. “Fine, hook me up to your voodoo.” “No need.” He turned to a tech. “Please obtain Dr. Shao’s license.” The techs seemed confused. Maharin gave him another look, and the tech nodded and ran out of the hall. “So that’s it?” “That is it, unless you want to help us remove the table from the wall?” And that’s the last thing Maharin said to me. He left with a smile, but I didn’t like the way he looked at me. Kind of like how a lion looks at a prime rib. I liked my license even less, but at least then I could open my practice. And that was messy as well. Astrial called me to tell me to call them at another number. Then they put me through a dozen operators and transfers before finally getting me to someone who took care of all the government junk in five minutes. I complained about all of this to Ryan and Kev over a couple beers. They were cool about it, but they also seemed worried. Not surprisingly, they had no desire to be licensed. I did have a question. “Hey, Ry, did you ever get tested by Rachel?” “Oh, her power machine. Yeah, I helped her with it, why?” “What’d you test?” “Let’s see. I was at 4751. Kevin was at 1,229. That doesn’t mean I’m three times more powerful though.” “How does it scale?”

“It’s not exactly a scale. It might be logarithmic, but it doesn’t seem that way either. But here’s what I can tell you. Rachel’s guess is that something around a thousand and you can do some crazy stuff. If you get to five thousand, you’d be able to cause some serious damage to a few city blocks.” “What if you’re at, I don’t know, a quarter million?” “A quarter million? 250,000?” “Yeah, something like that.” Ryan got quiet all of a sudden. “A quarter million would make you nearly unstoppable. You’d be like a god.”

Chapter 17 – Meaningful conversations Eventually, I told Ryan what I measured on the machine. His reply stuck with me. “If that’s true, no one can do jack to you. You might be able to do anything you want.” I thought about that mostly at work, where it seemed like I couldn’t do anything that I wanted. I thought that after getting that license from Maharin, everything would work out smoothly and I could practice in peace. I wonder why I thought that? Dealing with the government never works that smoothly. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, or stupidity. The first packet from Astrial arrived the following Thursday. This was a request for information on my patient statistics, treatment protocols, and measurements of success. Oh, and they wanted a lot of specifics, like how often a patient would come in, their progress, exactly what treatments would get what results, and things like that. And they wanted to know exactly how magic was involved in any of this. My first reply consisted of a letter describing my treatment techniques, how magic really wasn’t involved in any of this, usual outcomes, such as, “Patients get well in 2-3 treatments.” Finally, I stated that due to patient confidentiality, I would be unable to provide more specifics without a release or a court order. No problem. I got served with a court order the following week. They wanted copies of all my records for the past seven years. Hard copies. I wonder if Xerox made any major campaign contributions to whoever wrote up that protocol?

A phone call to my lawyer didn’t help much. “All you can do is demand payment for the time required to make the copies. If they want your files, they’ll get them. I can write a letter for you. Oh, it’ll also buy you more time.” More time? I didn’t need more time. I needed stupid Astrial off my back. But, cash is cash, so after they got me 10,000 dollars to make those copies, my secretary started her new job as copy machine wrangler. She also hired a temp to run those copies as well. 400 man-hours, three cases of toner, and a forest of dead trees later, couriers wheeled out a legal record of my work. I wished that were it. Two weeks later, I got this package from Astrial. There’s was a nice letter which read, “Thank you for your cooperation. We have enclosed a number of bulletins for you to dispense to your clients, that we may better understand the conditions and maladies treated by your institution. Thank you again for your help.” Of course, there was also the fine print. “By section 11.235 of Federal mandate for extra-scientific studies, and by clause 63.913 of your license, you are required to leave this literature in plain view and offer it to all clients.” Now, the bulletins themselves weren’t so bad. They just talked about how Astrial wanted information and how it would be greatly useful in the future. The hard part was explaining it to the patients. “What? Why is the government getting into the middle of this?” “Are you under investigation again?” “Is this legit? What’s Astrial anyway?”

Yeah, I hated that one. Not only did they make me do their dirty work, they also made me explain their organization to others. That’s really hard to do when you hate that organization. And they’re sneaky, they knew I couldn’t totally badmouth them without harming my own practice. No one wants to see a doctor who says, “I need you to read this, but it’s all bullshit.” Oh, and then the paranoia started. “I heard that the government’s using this to track magicians and their friends. Who knows what they’re going to do with it?” And then came the big request. “Can you make my patient information anonymous?” I’d just sigh and roll my eyes. I’m not good enough of an actor to hide these emotions. “Actually, I wish I could. However, government regulations require me to keep a record of everyone I treated.” “Well, I don’t want the government to know. Can you destroy my previous records.” “Sorry, we’re required to keep all files for a minimum of five years.” They never liked that one. “What kind of country is this? I have a right to my own information, and no doctor should be allowed to keep my information if I don’t want it. This is a crime! Robbery! I have a right to protect myself from identify theft and anything else that could possibly be a threat. I want my file now!” After three days of this, my secretary quit. I wanted to quit too. Either that or use my strength to chuck them out the door. Or window. Or maybe barbeque them with a fire blast. But I still had to work. I had to pay rent. Plus I still paid my mortgage while the feds still couldn’t figure out what to do with the reactor.

Oh, on top of all this, traffic got a lot worse thanks to growth of the protest industry. Exactly who was protesting or what they wanted varied. One day, people would hold signs telling magicians to leave their towns and their lives. “Go back to Hogwarts!” “Muggle and proud of it!” I bet JK Rowling loved these. The next day would bring a response from an even larger crowd. “Equal rights for all!” “Race? Check. Religion? Check. Magic? Why not?” “Licenses? Regulation? We’ve seen this movie.” That last would have a picture of a swastika or Hitler in the background. Yep, there’d be a counter protest. “Get your magic away from our kids!” “Magic causes cancer!” I blame talk-radio for that last one. Someone made the connection that magic was high power. This could mean magic had radiation. And of course radiation leads to cancer. Therefore, magic causes cancer. Idiots. Of course the flip side of this – “They’re making us have licenses just for being magical. What’s next? A license to have a kid if we’re magical? Just say no to breeding-panels! That has no place in America!” Of course, the idea of breeding panels or anything like it never came up. Some well-meaning politician said something about possibly having counseling for parents, if one or both proves magical, and maybe seeing how that might affect the life if their kid, possibly suggesting different schooling or early identification. Since the protesters still made the 6:00 news every night, they keep coming out and yelling. The press reported it, people watched it, and talk radio played caller after

caller, everyone convinced that their words would be the different between a solution and the utter destruction of our nation. Oh, one more group of protestors, Brad’s crew. That’s wasn’t their official name, but they were a group of both magical and non-magical people who tried to show unity amongst all the conflict. Their slogan – I’m an American. They tried, “We can all get along,” or “Magic or not, you’re my brother,” but they didn’t have much success until they tied into people’s patriotism. “We’re still not that successful,” said Brad. “I’ve gone weeks without hearing a blip about our cause.” We were hanging out in a New York style pizza shop after I saw him protesting outside. He had a few people with him, and they held their signs outside while he took five. Probably a good thing that I saw him, he looked really beat. His people outside didn’t look too much better, and everyone pretty much ignored them. Still, I was surprised. “You haven’t heard anything? I mean, I can’t go five minutes without hearing a soundbite on the news, radio, or a tweet, or a Facebook entry, or something about the protests.” “True, but how many positive stories have you heard?” “Like none.” “Exactly. Anger. Fear. Paranoia. That makes better news than a few people trying to get along. It makes for better movies too. When was the last time you saw a movie about peace?” “True true. Have the other protesters complained?”

“They yell at us when we’re in the same area, so we try to give them their space. I follow their tweets so that’s not so bad, but we’re going to have to face them sometime.” This seemed to make his shoulders slump further. “Aren’t you picking a fight, kinda, if you face off with the other protestors?” “Yep. But what else can we do? Jesus, Dr. King, Ghandi, they didn’t just stay on the sidelines.” “They also all got killed.” “Yeah, but they changed the world.” Damn. Brad was right. Apparently getting killed might be a prerequisite to changing the world. Fortunately, I didn’t think that was Brad’s goal. He wanted something a little simpler. “Why don’t you come out with us? You’ve got a little face recognition, the news will give us a look, and if you bring your friends, I doubt anyone will mess with us.” “My friends?” “You know, Firewalker, Longarm. They’re still calling themselves that, right?” I wasn’t sure how he knew about Ryan, but I was sure about one thing. “You know, I’m not really ready to go out and protest right now. I just want to lay low for a bit, you know, just live a normal life.” “How’s that working for you right now?” Brad knew something. I don’t know how he knew, but then again, I never know how he knows. “Look, dude, I think what you’re doing is really cool. It’s probably what this whole debate needs. Someone needs to remind people that we’re all still people, but I’m not sure that person is me.”

Part of me expected to hear some fire and brimstone bit from Pastor Brad, but he just nodded. Maybe he knew I was going to say this. I don’t know. “We’ll be out there. Come join us when you’re ready.” And with that, he shook my hand and walked back out onto the street. When I’m ready. I didn’t think I’d ever be ready. Then again, I wasn’t ready for magic, and it snuck up on me. I wasn’t ready for court, but that didn’t stop the prosecutors. I wasn’t ready to be saving lives and performing never-before-done surgeries. Why should protesting or getting my opinion out be any different? I still felt conflicted over all this. To put it simply, I really didn’t want to be any kind of talking head or face to any sort of movement. Yeah, having everyone get along would be better than angry rants from people who only listen to news and messages from people with the same point of view, but how was I supposed to change all their minds? That’s one spell I didn’t know. Ryan agreed with me. “Can’t do much about their opinions. I can barbeque them, but I’m not sure that’ll help.” “Yeah, great. It’s a good thing you’re trying to be a superhero, not a supervillain.” Kevin had a different opinion. “People will trust whoever they decide to trust. Sometimes it the guy saying whatever it is they want to hear. Sometimes it’s an authority with all the scientific research to back him up. Sometimes there’s no good reason whatsoever. That might be you.” “Wait a second. You want me to go out there, get into all their faces, and tell them what I think?”

“It might work.” Great. That’s just the life I’ve always wanted. But my buds wouldn’t leave me alone. Ryan handed me a cellphone. “I hacked this one so the only thing it’ll do is call me. If you’re in trouble, just hit the buttons and I’ll get a call. It’s got GPS, so we’ll be able to find you.” “You want me to go out there, don’t you?” “Hey, that Brad guy knew about us. I’m always one to help a fan.” Great, Ry, it’s all about you and your fans. As for me, I tried to hide in my low-profile job. Unless Astrial ordered me to do something, I didn’t do jack. I don’t think I’m very good at hiding. Brad got my email somehow and sent me this. “Hey, Steve. Not sure if you’re interested, but here’s the tweets for both the pro and anti threads. Just follow #FUmerlin and #evolvednlovenit Cool, hope you’re well.” Now, I’m not sure why I didn’t just delete that email. Maybe I was stupid. Maybe it’s that curiosity thing that Ryan said I have. Whatever, I followed them. An hour later, I wondered if I made a mistake. People I knew posted enough anger about magic, enough that I thought about de-friending them. But following strangers brought a whole new level. “Click here to find ways to make your magical neighbors move. The cops won’t notice these.” “Astrial wants to throw us all into holding pens. Call your senators, representatives, and buy a gun. Or two!”

“Principals Connors, Dominguez, Chu, and Lee support integration. Here are their addresses. Let them know how you feel!” “Anti jerks will be at Sportsman’s grill on Friday at 7:00. If you’ve got super strength or anything ready for a fight, show up and let’s go fuck up some Neanderthals.” Oh yeah, the magicals called the non-magicals Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, or Lucys. Can’t say that made me proud to be magical. Then again, maybe the antis deserved it. Maybe not. I don’t know, but I wasn’t getting involved. I told Ryan and Kevin though. They had a slightly different opinion. At 9:30pm Friday night, the cops showed up to find a dozen drunken people stuck to the walls and parking lot of the Sportsman’s grill in Northridge. The witness report on the news was great. “See, the first bunch of people came in about 7, 7:30. They pounded a few beers and cussed out magicals and stuff like that. I told my manager, but he said that as long as they kept buying and didn’t start anything, they could do whatever they want. Then the bouncer saw new bunch of guys come in at 8. They took tequila shots and said stuff like, ‘Come on, Neanderthals, why don’t you come over here and say that.’ I think we had a thousand in sales before anyone stood up. That’s when our bouncer told them to take it outside. They did. We all went out too to watch. Funny thing is, even drunk off their asses, they wanted to talk trash more than throw down. We egged them on, but that didn’t do much. That’s when the two superheroes showed up. They told everyone to settle down. The drunks decided that they’d rather just make fun of the superheroes. Bad idea. Someone took a step towards them, and the fire guy took a warning shot. That pissed off the drunks and they started

moving in. So, the spiderman guy shot all these things and stuck them to the ground or the walls. We all laughed our asses off. The superheroes called the cops here and took off. People just laughed at the drunks and took pictures. Take a look.” The press had a field day with this one. When the cops asked Ry if they were responsible, he just said, “Yep. Oh yeah, we’re Firewalker and Longarm. Make sure you get it right.” Oh, the newspapers got it right. Everyone got it right. I showed Ryan something on my phone. “Take a look at these tweets.” “Firewalker and Longarm need to join our cause. With their power, we are unstoppable.” “Firewalker is an asshole. Let’s put his magic against my Colt .45.” “If the wizards are going to be like Firewalker and Longarm, we should lock them up now before it’s too late!” Ryan didn’t seem to affected by his press. He simply said, “We did the right thing. No one died that night, no one was even hurt.” “Yeah, but now you’re the target for every nutso out there.” Ryan shrugged. “Just part of being a superhero.” What he didn’t mention was that last bit from the end of Batman Begins. Something about escalation, about how a super powerful superhero also brings out super powerful supervillains. That wasn’t exactly what we got, but we did get something.” From #FUmerlin - Come out to Pershing Square. We’re going to give the city a protest that even Firebrain can’t stop.

From #evolvednlovenit – Cro-Mags are going to Pershing Square on Monday. Can’t let them get all the attention. Hope wannabe spiderman stays away. Oh yeah, Brad and his guys usually held their signs at Pershing Square. Damn.

Chapter 18 – This will make the 6:00 news

August 18, 2018. Saturday. It was a scorcher, the third day of a massive heatwave over Los Angeles. When we got to Pershing Square, the temperature already hit 90. And it was only 10am. It was me, Ryan, and Kevin. The square sat calm, an empty expanse of red brick, without anyone near the fountain. Protesters wouldn’t arrive for a few hours. The only people holding signs were Brad and his people. He didn’t seem surprised to see us. “Glad to see you Steve. You brought your friends, the Firewalker and Longarm. You here to support our cause?” Ryan spoke first. “You need to get out of here. In two hours, this is going to be ground zero when the magicals and the antis hit critical mass. I’m sure the LAPD’s not going to be real happy about all this either.” “So, it won’t be safe.” “That’s one way to say it.” “That may be true, but I’m not worried. You three will protect me.” I took a step back. “Wait, me?” “Sure, Dr. Shao. You’re as powerful as anyone here. Plus your friends might want to hide. They’re not real popular with either side right now.” “No, no, no. I’m just here to warn you. I’m not about to get into the middle of a war. Hell, I don’t even know what the solution is for this mess. I warned you. My job is done. I’m leaving.” “Where are you going? They have your house.”

“What? How do you know this? And why should I help you anyway? You haven’t done a thing to help me. None of you have. I’ve been the good guy. I’ve saved lives. I’m gone the extra mile, but what has it gotten me? A few lawsuits? A big mess of a life?” “And yet you’re here.” “What the hell are you talking about?” Brad turned and looked across the square. A news van had just pulled up and reporters hopped out. “Eyewitness news is here too. You should go talk to them.” “Why would I want to do that?” “Because they’ll want to talk to you.” As I watched the reporters, they turned their focus towards me. Somehow, it seemed like I could tell what they were saying. “Is that the magical doctor from that trial?” “Yeah, I think so. Dr. Shao, I think. He’s next to those guys with signs, guess he’s out here to protest too. We should get a statement from him.” Then a reporter and a cameraman walked towards me. Brad strolled about with his sign, “We’re all brothers, we’ve just got different gifts. I make a mean guacamole.” Before moving down the street, he said, “Go talk to them Steve. Say hi.” Well, they’d seen me, they were coming over, what else could I do? And I thought they asked before interviewing you.

Microphones appeared in front of my face. “Hello, Dr. Steven Shao is it? This is Sonya Young with Channel 5 news at the site of impending dual protests concerning magic in America. Now, which side are you protesting for?” “Uh, me? Neither.” “Neither? But you must be pro-magic. You were put on trial for using you magic. I remember you from that day outside the Superior Courts?” “Really? Did I give you an interview?” “No, you blew me off, so you owe me a comment today. If you’re not here to protest, why are you here?” “That’s a good question.” If you watch the newscast, there’s an uncomfortable pause here. You can almost see the frustration rise in the reporter. “What do you think of the protesters on either side? You must have an opinion on that.” “Yeah, I think they both love to yell.” “That is part of protesting. Emotions have got to come out.” “And it’s working great, isn’t it. We’re all seeing each other’s points, not making mobs.” For a moment, I thought that maybe I’d gotten through to someone. “Hey, you better get to a safe place. I don’t think those protesters are just going to stick to yelling this time.” “Don’t worry about us.” The reporter walked away from me. She seemed disappointed. Apparently, I don’t make good television. The only time she showed any excitement was when I suggested that the protesters might do a little more than just yell.

Within 30 minutes, a dozen news vans surrounded the square. Each one of them came to me for a comment, and each of them left a bit disappointed. One guy even tried a different tactic. “Doesn’t it make you angry that so much of America hates you?” I just shrugged. “Is that really any different that America not giving a damn whether I’m dead or alive?” “But those protesters hate you, just because of your magic.” “Nah, they just hate my magic. Without that, I’d be nothing to them. And you know, I’m not that crazy about magic myself.” That sort of thing went on for a while. I seemed to be the only thing interesting in the square. Nobody seemed to want to talk to Brad. Too bad, he usually had something interesting to say. Of course, none of that mattered once someone yelled, “Hey, the protesters are here!” No one hit me up for an interview after that. They all shot across to the square towards a small, but noisy crowd. This was the group protesting against magic, and they had a new chant, “Hard work and sweat’s the American way. Magical fools can go away!” I’m not going to write that again. I heard enough of it that day. The reporters flocked around them. They yelled too. “What do you want to say to America? Let’s make sure they can hear you all the way in Washington!” The protesters responded with shouts and a lot of jumping around, but after a while, the reporters returned to their vans. I guess after a few minutes, yelling and screaming doesn’t make for such good television. You need to up the stakes or

something. And, yeah, people get tired. No one jumped around anymore, and some of the protesters sat down on the sidewalk. Brad went up to them, but they just waved him away. They didn’t yell at him or anything like that, just a simple, “Go away,” wave of the hand. The response was different once the pro-magic picketers showed up. Out of nowhere, cops showed up on horseback. Yellow roadblocks went up, and riot cops corralled the protesters. Orders blared out of bullhorns, “Pro-magic protesters, stay on the west side of the square. Anti-magic protesters, stay on the east side of the square. Any protesters violating these protocols will be arrested.” For an hour or so, LAPD kept everything under control. Well, that is if you can call endless yelling, name-calling, and the occasional arrest control. The reporters stood between the lines, filming everything. I stood with Brad in the corner. We were mostly ignored. “It’s going to get crazier,” said Brad. “If they’re not here not, they’re watching it on TV, and that’ll bring out the real crazies.” “And you still want to stay?” “You see me running? How about you?” I’m not sure why I stayed. Maybe I should have split while I had the chance, because 30 minutes later, there’d be no escape. Both sides grew by the hundreds, maybe thousands, and like Brad said, these new adds seemed more interested in making a mess than any message. On the pro-magic side, they started a new chant. “It’s not our fault you suck!” That became a simple, “You suck!”

The response from the antis was just as simple. “Fuck you!” That and the occasional thrown water bottle, though the antis couldn’t really throw them across the square. Not a problem for the magicals. Enough of them had super strength powered throwing arms, and water bottles started raining the antis. LAPD tried to stop this. They tried to find the perpetrators, but none of them wanted to enter the crowd filled with super strong angry protesters. One group finally tried, moving in with riot shield and helmets, but the protesters pushed them to the ground without much effort. Now, it was on. Hundreds of riot cops streamed into the square. They formed a double wall of lexan between the two groups and held clubs and tear gas launchers. A voice blared, “The is the LAPD. Everybody exit the square immediately. This is your only warning. Exit now.” No one moved. A few bottles and rocks clanked off the riot shields. I noticed the chants change a bit. “Fuck you, pig!” “Come over here, and I’ll show you some Rodney King!” Apparently, both sides could agree that the LAPD made for a better target than each other. I noticed the magical side putting dents into the shields with their projectiles. Strong arms, I guess. Cops don’t like being targets. They responded by firing dozens of tear gas canisters into the magical side.

Now, I’ve never been tear gassed, but from guys I know in the military, that stuff’s supposed to make you hate life. Your skin and lungs burn, your nose fills with snot, your eyes water so much you can’t really see – just misery in a gaseous form. Most of the magicals seemed unaffected. Come to think of it, I don’t remember feeling a thing. A few even picked up cans and threw them across into the antis, or rolled them in with the cops. Some magicals went big bad wolf and blew the cloud of gas into the police. The cops reached for gas masks, which lowered their guard a bit. The antis were feeling awful due to the gas, but there wasn’t quite enough to knock them out. And then a shout rang out. “Fuck this! Get ‘em!” A few antis rushed over the barricades and charged the cops. The others took a moment, but they followed close behind. People have debated what made the protesters attack rather than scatter like usual. Maybe it was the wall of people in the square, or maybe all the anger made them snap. I never could figure it out. The cops shot teargas and ordered them to stop, but they were also retreating. I can’t blame them. Standing your ground as thousands rush you isn’t my idea of fun. Soon, they bumped up against the magical protesters, putting them into a pincher between both groups. Now, the cops panicked. They weren’t carrying guns, but they shot their pepper spray, tazers, and anything else they could find. A few people went down, but this wasn’t nearly enough to slow the flood of humanity.

Oddly, from where Brad stood us, we had an empty road behind us to escape. He still held his sign high, though he stayed near his exit. My focus stuck to the mess in the middle of the square. “You know what you have to do.” I turned to Brad. I opened my mouth, but I don’t think I said anything that made any sense. “You know what to do. Go do it.” Apparently, what I knew to do was grab a police barrier and run right into the middle of the riot. The rioters moved. I guess I’m stronger than I thought. The barrier turned into a plow in my hands and I scooped the rioters aside. Within 30 seconds, I’d reached the cops and they were able to retreat out through my path. This had a different effect on the magical protesters. “Hey! Check out what our brother’s doing? We can do it too!” Great… A dozen guys with super-strength followed my lead, grabbed barricades, and pushed into the antis. They didn’t seem to toss people around like me, but they pressed the antis backwards, moving the mass towards the outskirts of the square. I had my hands full with getting the police out of the mess. But once they all escaped, I noticed that the antis were getting pressed against buildings and storefronts on the sides of the square. And the magicals weren’t letting up. “Crush the cavemen! Crush the cavemen!” That chant drowned out everything else in the square. The antis tried to fight back with rocks, pepper spray, and the occasional knife, but they couldn’t slow down the crushing push of their opponents.

Huddled in an alley, the cops looked powerless. “Come on! We need to stop this, people are getting killed out there!” The cops didn’t move. “What are we going to do? We tried teargas, but that didn’t seem to affect the Merlins. We’re not strong enough to beat everyone up. And we’re not just going to shoot everyone.” “So, you’re just going to sit you asses down?” “We’re awaiting orders. My butt’s not going to be on the line for this mess. You want to stop them? You go ahead.” Two seconds later, I did something that got onto every single newscast in America. If you watch the video, you’ll see the mob going nuts in the square. Then you’ll see a little speck holding a yellow thing rush towards the mob. That would be me holding the police barrier. I rush into the front edge of the magical mob, carving a

wedge as people fly about or get pushed back. It’s pretty impressive. The whole mob gets cut in half. With a bit of running room, the antis dart off the walls and sprint away down every street, alley, or crack they can find. Of course, that’s when it doesn’t go quite as well for me. The magical mob sort of envelopes me, and you can’t see me anymore. From where I stood, it felt a little different. Yeah, I was being bum-rushed by thousands of crazily strong, angry men, but I also held them off. I fought my way to the edge of the square, used a building to protect my back, and pushed back against the masses. Yeah, they were strong, but maybe I was just a little bit stronger. As we pushed, the mob yelled, “You should be protecting your magical brothers. Don’t you know what you are?”

“Yeah, I do. They’re asking for impossible shit. People are going to hire us when we can lift ten times as much or run errands at 40 miles an hour. That ain’t fair, I get it. But you guys want special positions for magicians, just so it’ll be fair. That’s the same shit they’re asking for, except that it helps you. What hell is wrong with you?” Yeah, it did occur to me how weird it was that we were talking in this situation. “If we don’t shout them down, we’ll lose all our rights.” “If you do shit like this, we’ll all get locked up. Open your eyes! Whoever’s getting you to protest is turning you into sheep, and you idiots are just eating it all up.” And that’s when I heard a loud BANG! And that’s when I got shot.

Chapter 19 – Most People I’ve asked a few others, and the story seems to hold true. When you get shot, you don’t really notice it initially. You know something happened, you know something’s wrong, but the pain doesn’t come for a while. I knew something had happened when I felt something in my chest right after hearing a bang. When I looked down and saw the smoldering hole in my shirt, time slowed to a crawl. My focus stayed on my chest, and I just stared at the hole in disbelief. I didn’t try to touch it or anything. I just stared. As I did that, my strength faded, and the crowd started to overrun me. I fell to the ground and the sea of protesters flooded over me. I don’t remember much about this. I think I was still in shock over being shot. I only remember hearing a new sound. Not just a bang, this one was a deep boom. After another boom, I heard the screaming. From my spot on the concrete, I couldn’t make out too much, just something like, “Holy shit! Screw this, run!” I couldn’t see a thing, just the crowd pressing me into the ground. But just like that, the sea parted and I could see the sky. It was nice. But then I felt the heat. I mean, the day was hot, but this felt like an oven, or maybe what I picture a forge would feel like. I’d only be confused for a second. That’s when I saw the sea of blue fire encircle me. Now that was hot. But just for a moment. The fires cleared, and I saw the square mostly empty. The remaining protesters ran away

down the streets. They didn’t want to be barbequed. The only people I saw were Ryan controlling the flames, and Kevin running towards me. “Steve! You ok? Hang in there!” My friends ran up to me, but I stayed down on the concrete. “Yo, can you get up? What’s hurting.” Actually, nothing hurt. I just kept staring at the smoldering hole in my shirt. It took a second for Ryan to notice. “Holy shit! You’ve been shot! But…” Ryan ran his fingers over the hole. “You’re not bleeding.” I don’t think I moved. Ryan had to grab my arm and move my hand over the hole, pressing it down on the area. He waved my hand in front of my face. “You’re not bleeding. You see any blood?” No, I didn’t, but it took a bit for that to register in my head. “Sit up, you’re not bleeding.” I heard them, but I don’t think I sat up until they pulled me up. Even then, I kept staring at the hole, my hand, and generally just looking stoned. Finally, I spoke. “I got shot.” “Yeah, you did.” “But, I’m ok. How?” A new voice came down to me. “Take off your shirt.” I looked up and saw Brad, holding his sign as always. “Take a look at your chest.” I lifted my shirt. Sure enough, there was no blood. Actually, the only thing I saw was a black circle on my chest, maybe a centimeter in diameter.”

“Let me see your back.” I leaned forward and they took a look. “Yeah, same thing. Just a little, black circle. Does that hurt?” “No.” I poked around the front hole and felt nothing out of the ordinary as well. Only Brad didn’t seem surprised by this. “The bullet didn’t touch you, Steve. It’s sitting in that wall behind you.” “But, how is that possible?” “You phased out. I got to say, your skin’s pretty neat. It knew to phase out a little section of your body when the bullet came. You can’t get hit if you can’t get touched. That skin’s pretty tough too. You didn’t get banged up when those knucklehead squashed you either.” I didn’t hear anything past, ‘phased out.’ “Wait, if I phased out, then… Awww shit! Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” I think I jumped up and started storming around. I don’t really remember, I was really pissed. If I’d phased out, that meant that the black spot was just my skin, and that the artificial layer was compromised, and that it’d be cracking and falling off soon, and that with my house on lockdown and Dave who-knows-where that I’d have no way to fix this. My friends tried to calm me down. “Hey, you just got shot and you’re fine. That’s pretty sweet!” “Look, we’ll talk to the government and work something out.” “Relax, it’ll be alright.” I stopped and turned back to them. “Alright?!?! You know how hard it was just to get anyone to talk to me. Now, they’ll just let me use hundreds of millions of dollars

of stolen property so I can fix something they don’t even know about. Yeah, that’ll work. You know how long I had to wait just so they wouldn’t shut down my office? And that wasn’t shit compared to this. Why the hell would they help me out?” Only Brad had an answer. “It’s not like they can stop you.” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” But Brad just waved and walked away, leaving the three of us in the middle of smoldering, crumbling bricks and concrete. Apparently, Pershing Square doesn’t like being the site of a riot or being turned into a sea of fire. Oh yeah, the cops rushed back into the square and yelled at us, well, mostly Ryan for setting the place on fire. I just kind of slipped away. I’d had enough of magic for a day, or hell, my whole life. I went back to my tiny apartment, showered, ordered a pizza, and plopped in front of the TV. Escapism is my friend. Apparently, it’s not a two way street. First off, the riot made every single newscast or tabloid show. Even after that, there were other stories. “Tonight, hear about a UCLA researcher’s new discoveries about magic. Could you be in for some new abilities?” Now, normally, I’d have switched the channel, but the UCLA researcher was Rachel. As I waited through commercials, I checked myself over, looking for any other injuries from the day. Now, cuts I had, but they were all shallow and really just in the artificial layer. I couldn’t find a single bruise or sore spot. I checked again since that was a lot of protesters that had stepped on me. But no, Brad was right about my skin. Maybe

I was tougher than I thought. Really, I looked fine, except for the black circle on my chest. “Magic is everywhere nowadays.” The voice on the television turned me back to the newscast. “That it is, and no one really knows how it starts. Or do they. A UCLA researcher may have found something new.” The picture cut to a recorded interview with Rachel at her lab. “There seems to be a way to teach certain abilities.” It went back to the voiceover, “Dr. Rachel Hoffman at the UCLA center for health sciences has been one of the preeminent researchers in the field of atypical abilities for the past few years. With her research on those with magic, she had made quite a discovery.” The picture cut to another interview with Rachel. “These gifts we see, these skills, they’re not unique to a single person, at least in terms of increased physical strength or speed. It also seems that the first ability shown isn’t the end of development. Due to its non-unique qualities, we find that instruction can give abilities.” And again to the voiceover, now showing pictures of Rachel’s lab. “Yes, just because you can run fast today, doesn’t mean you can’t run on walls tomorrow with a little help. Much research still needs to be done, but perhaps higher education will someday have a totally different meaning.” The screen cut back to the anchors. “This is quite a discovery.” “Yes, but it also raises new ethical issues. What skills should be taught, or should they even be taught.”

“Yeah, and what about teaching someone who doesn’t have any powers already.” “That’s right, maybe this could be the first step in giving magical powers to anyone who wants them.” I don’t think Rachel ever said that. Actually, I know she never said that. That’s because she blew up when she saw the headlines over the next couple days. “Magic for Sale?” “Could Magical Children be a Eugenic Benefit?” “Large Coffee and Super Strength Please.” We were all at Ryan’s place that night, watching Rachel storm and pace around his tiny living room. “I can’t believe this! First they rob me blind of all my research and equipment, and then when I finally get a second on the news, they misquote me and use me to start some big ministry of misinformation campaign. I said, ‘Due to its non-unique qualities, we find that instruction can give abilities IN THESE SPECIFIC CASES,’ these specific cases only. Dammit, why do they even bother interviewing me if they’re just going to twist my words and use them to start controversy and drum up ratings? I should just give interviews to Star or TMZ or something, they’ll be just as honest as the ‘reputable’ news sources.” “We all got problems.” Rachel turned and glared at me. “This is my life here.” I lifted my shirt, showing the black circle, and the two-inch black, spidery cracks in the skin now surrounding it. What do you got to say? She didn’t have much to say. She just sat down and crossed her arms across her chest. I had something to say, though. “Anyone have any suggestions?” “Yeah, break into your house.”

“Anyone have any suggestions, that unlike Ryan’s, won’t get me thrown into jail?” Ryan didn’t shut up. “You know, I wonder if your friend Brad had a point. What could they do to you?” “This isn’t helping, man. I need to get into the reactor and get this fixed before I freaking look like the Thing.” No one had much to say. “Rachel, you know anyone in your circles who could pull some strings.” “There’s some help you just don’t want.” “Wait, you know someone who can help? You do, don’t you. Who’s got some pull?” “No one, forget it.” “No, I need this fixed, and if you’re not going to tell me…” “Use your brain. You know who can help you.” “What the hell are you talking about? I don’t know anyone who can…” And then I realized something. I did know someone. He was someone who probably had the exact kind of pull to do this. And he was exactly the person who I didn’t want to ask. But now that his name had gotten into my head, there was no getting it out. I tried to ignore it, tried just going to work and doing my everyday junk. Tried calling everyone I knew. Tried calling Astrial to see if anyone could help. It didn’t do a whole lot.

It’s a funny thing when your biggest enemy is your own skin. You can try to cover it up, try not to look at it, but you know it’s there. Even if it doesn’t feel like anything, you can still kind of feel something. It’s not really a sensation. Maybe it’s just an over awareness that something’s not right. And when it’s right in the middle of your chest, there’s not a whole lot you can do to ignore it. Even when it’s hidden under a shirt, you’re still wondering if people can see something off when you’re talking to them. If they look down from your face, you wonder if maybe it shows through. Maybe it’s spread up to your neck? Maybe it’s only a matter of time before your whole face falls off and you’re a freak of nature. Maybe most people don’t think about these things. I thought about these things practically every minute of everyday. But then again, I’m not most people. But most people will end up doing whatever it takes to get rid of something like this, even if the person they have to ask is anything but a friend. Even if they know that this person definitely does not have your best interests in mind. I stepped into the Maharin Institute four days later. “Hello, I have an appointment with Dr. Maharin.” I guess I am most people.

Chapter 20 – Best Seat in the House

675 feet above the ground floor, overlooking the LA basin, Dr. Maharin’s new office would have been worth millions even if it were just an empty space. How much more did it cost, with its combination of sharp angles and planned minimalism? Maharin didn’t seem to need much of that. He faced the window and looked out over the city when I entered the room. He didn’t even turn when I entered. “Hello, Dr. Shao. Welcome to my center.” “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it.” “Oh, I beg to differ. A map would say that you have set foot in these premises. However, little, if any, of the original stone and steel from your first visit still stands here today. Even from your last visit, changes have been made. This room here was far from completion on that day. So, if brick by brick, a building is replaced, at what point does it become a new location?” I’d heard this bit of philosophizing before, but if felt different today, somehow. “Maybe it is new, but you’re still the same.” “Perhaps to the cursory glance, much as our address on the map, but neither of us are quite the same as in our previous meeting.” “Wait, what do you know?” “Know is such a strong word. What do we really know about our world, our country, even our own bodies? Five years ago, we knew that nobody could run on walls or phase into a man’s chest. Apparently, we were mistaken.” “We just didn’t know.”

“Or perhaps we were lied to by our own minds.” I blinked. I’m not sure why, but I distinctly remember blinking. “We do the best we can with our knowledge, but mistakes are hardly lies.” “What is a lie but an untruth? If one unintentionally spreads an untruth, is it a lie regardless of whether the teller is ignorant of its veracity? But this is no surprise. Our world relies on lies.” “Wait, what?” I remember blinking again. Maharin continued. “You seem like a intelligent man, so I will speak to you honestly. Lies, Dr. Shao. Every morning, people put on a face to convince the world and themselves that they have things under control. Yet, our anti-depressant habits tell us that society is quite the opposite, with everyone in complete agreement that their things are not together. People run from truth to cope with their lives. More lies, Dr. Shao. There are very few things we truly need. Take food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and candy. We want more dessert and candy, but we are a nation of overweight souls. So, they sell us healthy desserts, low-fat candies, granola bars, trans-fat free foods. If people were really to look at labels, they would see that their bran muffin has the same, if not more calories than my Krispy Kreme. Why then do these horrible snacks sell?” He paused, waiting for an answer. “Uh, good advertising?” “You’re rationalizing, Dr. Shao. Good advertising means a lie believed by the masses. Do you truly need the latest and greatest in televisions, cars, and will those

things bring you happiness? Will a certain brand of rum or beer cause your parties to be suddenly filled by supermodels just dying to bed you?” “Of course not.” “But we see this everyday, so much so that the truth becomes strange and unusual to our perception. If it were not so, then why do your patients fight your bills?” “How do you know all this?” “Simple. All patients fight their bills. I know our world, Dr. Shao, and I know that your patients believe the lies of healthcare, which by definition requires a lie. Its very concept gives assurance and piece of mind, a complete falsehood considering that we will all die. Yet millions cling to every scrap of hope given by their providers, not seeing how their trusted health plan whittles away unseen before their very eyes. They picketed and protested against rationing of health care, death panels, they called them, not realizing that their own insurance was doing the same thing that very moment. Lies, Dr. Shao, all lies. Lies are how abortion and homosexual marriage became major issues when 95% of the people would not be the slightest bit affected. Lies are how politicians decry these moral sins while cheating on their wives and selling their votes to mistresses provided by their special interests. And yet, lies are how we can guide the masses to a better place.” I finally managed to butt in. “So, you admit that you’re lying to the people.” “I am also lying to the government, my employees, whoever and whenever it suits the purpose.” “How do I know you’re not lying to me?”

“There is no way for you to know.” I froze. Looking back, that was a pretty good way to tell me that he wasn’t lying. He didn’t try to make it easy or comforting or anything. He was good. Maharin finally broke the silence. “Why are you here today?” “Well, uh, I need your help.” “That, I believe, is the truth.” “Yeah. The government seized my house and I need to get in and use… do something.” “Ah, yes, your home filled with millions in stolen merchandise, the event with your brother that I used to convince the government that magical humans were a threat and needed to be monitored. I know it well.” “Wait, you used me?” “That is true, but I merely showed the truth and perpetuated their own lie to gain the government’s trust. Now, I believe, you wish for me to lie in order for you to gain something else. You are one of the rare men who does not wish to live a life in blissful ignorance. For this I commend you.” “You commend me? For wanting the truth?” “Yes. Look out over this city. Few, if any, wish to know the inner workings of those in charge. They would rather keep their piece of mind and believe that everyone knows and cares about their wishes, and works for the good of society. We all know that is a lie, but how hard do they work to deceive themselves? You, Dr. Shao, are wise. Honest. You have not run or created an outburst as I speak the truth. This is why I commend you.”

He was right. Never in the conversation had I wanted to bolt from the room. Also, my initial anger had faded. “So, now what?” “Now we must work with society. It is a delicate balance of continuing the lies while revealing just enough to drive the masses in the right direction. Society must be allowed their tantrums, such as the one you experienced. But the fussy toddler must learn discipline in time and grow.” “I meant for me.” “The government is another fussy toddler. Even with my connections at Astrial, I cannot lift a court order quite so easily. Keep your patience and your hope. Eventually, even a judge can be persuaded to the truth.” “Patience and hope, easy for you,” I muttered. “True, but perhaps if you see my plans, they will give you some rest.” Maharin handed me an ID badge with my name and picture. “This will allow you access into my locale, as well as any Astrial location in the city. Feel free to tour and learn. Remember what I have told you today, and see how I am leading society to a better place.” As I turned to exit, I noticed for the first time that we were not alone. A few men in suits stood against the back wall, semi-hidden in alcoves. Their clothes blended into the color of the room, and they stood still to avoid attention. Dark glasses hid their eyes, but somehow I knew they were watching me. Come to think of it, one of the men was Jack Karrins, the former quarterback. I received nothing but icy stares as I entered the elevator for my trip down from Maharin’s office. He left me with one final word. “You should come back. You’re at home here.”

The doors closed and he was gone. For the rest of the night, I though about the things he’d said. As much as I hated to admit it, he was right about a lot. There weren’t a ton of people out there who don’t cover up their mistakes or the ugly things in their lives. I thought about his words at work too, especially with the pet parents. Their dogs usually could figure out how to live with an achy paw. They’d just hop about on three legs, usually wagging their tails and wanting to play. But their owners wanted to see them jump on four legs, and if I could do that, they could have their peace of mind that they were doing the best thing for their animal. The pets didn’t care, as long as they were pet, played, and fed. Lies. The next night, I visited another Astrial facility. Unlike the Maharin Institute, this one was much smaller, in the valley, and given more time to set up, had their act together compared to my visit through processing. Few people waited to be seen, and everyone seemed happy. “Hello, Dr. Shao. Welcome to our facility. Can I give you a tour?” This came from a nice, young woman who greeted me with a smile. “Uh, sure. I was just taking a look around.” “No problem, sir. As you can see, we’ve come a long way since those early days.” “Yeah, it was a zoo back then. What’d you do different?” “Honestly, I think it was just the initial rush of getting people registered. No that that’s over, we can just focus on our primary goal.”

“And what would that be?” “You don’t know? It’s to help magical persons integrate seamlessly into society. Didn’t they run that to death in orientation?” “I’ve never been to orientation.” “Ah, yes, then you’re a recruit. That explains why we’re supposed to be so nice to you guys. Just us putting our best foot forward.” “Why don’t you show me around.” The tour didn’t take long. They had some of the equipment copied from Rachel’s lab, but mostly, they had tables set up for counselors. “This is where we can discuss life and future plans with our clients. See, magic changes lives for sure, but we don’t want to change everything completely. That’d be too big of a shock to people’s lives. We just need to use magic to build upon what works, use a clients abilities to augment what they already do well.” “Like super strong construction workers?” “Exactly. You seem to get our strategy.” “But what if their gifts don’t fit into their jobs?” “Well, that gets a little more tricky. Let me show you.” She sat at a desk and flipped on the computer. “Here’s where we enter the gift into the database.” She brought up a page with boxes for name, demographic information, and magical listings. “We sub-categorize gifts into projection, alteration, enhancement, ablation, and other.” “Other?”

“Yes, those are the gifts we can’t quite categorize. Unfortunately, those take longer to integrate.” “I don’t think I follow you.” “Oh, I’m sorry. Let me explain. Our experts go over the lists of clients, and use these lists to find work or schooling appropriate to their specialness. For the categorized gifts, instruction usually returns in a week or so, but for the others…” “It takes time.” “Yes, it does. But hopefully our experts can guide the lost into a life where they can find true happiness and meaning.” A life of true happiness and meaning, isn’t that what we all want? Well, I’m sure people would like it, but not a lot of people pursue it. That’s because of life like that is almost impossible to attain. If Astrial thought they could bring it to a bunch of lost magicians just by analyzing their abilities, they were nuts. Or they were lying. Or maybe this was Maharin’s lie. If he could convince people that they could have a life where their magic would give joy, then maybe they wouldn’t riot. Yeah, it wasn’t true, but for society, wouldn’t that be better than a free-for-all in Pershing Square? Apparently, Maharin thought so, because a half-dozen Astrial sites that I visited all used the same protocol. They spread the message of meaningful magic, one even doing with a sort of sermon-speech using a version of the classic, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was all quite an impressive presentation. Going through all this, I didn’t realize until a few days later that Maharin never said anything about him helping back into my house. He only said that it might be

possible. It was odd that it took me this long to realize it. I mean that’s why I went to him in the first place. I gave his office a call. “Hi, this is Dr. Shao. Has Dr. Maharin had any progress on my situation?” “I’m sorry, what situation would this be again? Dr. Maharin has so many projects on his hands.” “I understand, but this is involving the justice department and some seized property. I’m sure that doesn’t come up very often.” “That’s true. Come to think about it, I don’t remember that ever coming up. Let me ask him and get back to you.” She called me back a day later with this message. “Dr. Maharin says that things like this can take a lot of time, but to hang in there. And oh, perhaps they might be more amenable to helping a government employee instead of just any civilian.” “What do you mean by that?” “I’m just reading his note to you. I figured you’d know.” Actually, I did. He meant that if I was working for Astrial, this might get done. I guess he wanted to guide my life too. Or maybe it wasn’t just my life. Maharin made it onto the news that night. The reporter started off the conversation. “Tonight, we bring to you Dr. Maharin, chief consultant for Astrial in the Los Angeles area. Now, the first question everyone has concerns licensing.” “In my opinion, licensing has gone quite well.” “But, Dr. Maharin, this seems to make people apply for a license just to live.”

“Yes, it does seem that way. But think of it this way, why do we need licenses to drive? Safety. A car is a dangerous weapon, and we require all users to pass a certain bar to be given this privilege. Unfortunately, magic can make a man even more dangerous than a car. For some people, magic gives them a gun. Do we not require licenses for concealed weapons? And yes, I agree that licenses intrude on personal liberty. This is not a perfect solution, but the government must first be concerned with safety. Licenses help ensure this.” “But some allege that the government should not be given this much information. If they knew the magic capable of all the people, who knows what they could do?” Maharin laughed. “Who could possible know all this information? There are 20 million people in Los Angeles alone. This is like saying that traffic cameras could allow the government to spy on you at all times. Yes, it may be possible, but nobody as the time for this.” The reporter seemed to accept this answer, but as I look back, I see the lie. See, to watch the city, all they would have to do is watch the small number of leaders. Most people will just trail after the leader like sheep. Track the leaders and their magic, and you’ve controlled the city, and maybe the whole nation. How do I know this? Because that’s what I found out at the Maharin center when I broke in.

Chapter 21 – At Some Point, You Care Less I decided to take a better look inside Maharin’s offices the next night. Thing is, that place is never empty. During the day, they do their testing, counseling, and usual junk for the lost. During the night, they hold junkets and fund-raising events to woo the rich. These usually went pretty late at night, with bouncers pulling out drunken bodies at 3am. Kind of like college, expect these drunks were major power brokers or political bigwigs. All this made it really hard for someone to sneak in and steal files. Of course, there was always the direct approach. “Hello, Dr. Shao. Enjoy yourself tonight.” That was my greeting from a young, female receptionist in a slinky cocktail dress. Dozens of her clones patrolled this meeting room high up in the Maharin Institute’s tower. As the city lights glowed below, the leaders of the city shared drinks and stories with each one another. Everytime a bigwig laughed, there’d be two ladies doing the same nearby. Then the bigwig would throw down his drink and go for round two. I’d seen this game before. Lobbying, it’s called. Back in school, the national organizations would try to recruit the best looking students to go and talk to a politician and convince him or her to support a certain bill or position. Now with students, I’m not sure how far it went. But in this room, some of the ladies seemed awfully touchy with their congressmen. Maybe pillowtalk was a good way to get their ear. “Champagne, Dr. Shao?” I took a glass but didn’t take a sip. I needed every bit of my brains tonight if I was to pull this off.

“I’ll have two.” That was the mayor, whose face glowed beet-red as he fumbled with two glasses. He was on his third term and had just finished off his second divorce, so it didn’t surprise me to see him enter a circle of beauties. He ignored me. I didn’t mind. I wanted everyone to ignore me. I needed them to see me there, but make little enough of a commotion as to draw absolutely no attention if I went missing. I spent a lot of the evening sitting on a couch near the window, just enjoying the view. Occasionally, a bigwig would nod to me, or maybe a lobbyist Barbie would ask who I was, but once they found out, they’d move away. From my spot by the window, I could see what sort of security patrolled that night. It seemed more for show. I mean, there were a bunch of giant men in black suits, but they didn’t seem to keep a great watch over the room. I could come in and out without checking in with anyone, and nobody stopped me or asked for my invitation. Also, Maharin was nowhere to be seen. I asked around, but they told me that he’d left for the day. Coercing politicians was something to be outsourced, I guess. I was sure nobody gave a damn if I came or left, and that was just what I wanted. “Hey, Doc. How’re you doing?” I turned around at the sound of a familiar voice. It was Joseph Benjamin, still alive, though now rolling about on a robot-chair. “How’s the magical surgery business?” “Actually, I haven’t done any since you. I got the third degree from the regulators and government for yours, and well, it’s been kinda rough.”

“Sorry, Doc, I appreciate what you did. Those government suits can be a real bunch of assholes.” I looked around, wondering if anyone would be coming. “Don’t worry, Doc. These pussies are so sloshed, they can’t hear a damn thing. They’re too busy with their corporate ho’s to worry about an old fart like me.” I could see he was as brash as ever, and that gave me a laugh. Good thing too, it took the edge off tonight. “You come to these things a lot?” “You could say that, Doc.” “Why?” “Now, there’s a smart question. You know I’m not having fun here, why the hell drag my ass up here to watch fat cats drink? I’ll tell you why. Because they built this place with my cash and I’ll be damned if I don’t at least get something out of it.” “So you come to all of these.” “Beats the hell out of dying at home. At least if I croak here, Maharin will have to drag my fat ass off his carpet. And, I know that man had to have worked you over some. What are you doing here?” “I’m just looking for some answers.” “I see. Don’t trust the fucker either, do you.” “I didn’t say that.” “You can trust me, Doc. And no one’s listening to us anyway. They tune me out real quick.”

Sure enough, it almost looked like there was a, “Caution, do not enter,” zone around us. Plus, all the big boys were keeping an eye on the mayor and his drunken buddies. A good eye, actually, as he got kind of touchy with a lobbyist. Mr. Benjamin started rolling towards the exit. “Good luck with everything. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to fix me again. Sometimes life ain’t worth the price when you deal with the wrong people.” Actually, Mr. Benjamin didn’t exit. He rolled around the exit, playing chicken with big boys, and just being a nuisance. Or providing cover. While he did all this, I slipped out of the room. The first thing I noticed while sneaking around was that the place wasn’t deserted, even late at night. Thing is, no one cared that I was there. As long as it looked like I was going somewhere, not just wandering around looking lost, no one stopped me or asked me a thing. The second thing was that most offices held a lot of nothing. If this was a James Bond movie, there’d be stacks of files to photograph, or maybe a secret room or something. Being the 21st century, everything sat happily on servers. All I needed to do was hack into their system and I’d find out everything. I got good news - a few people stayed logged into their accounts. I got bad news when I got nothing but forms to fill out and work emails. Low-level guys don’t get to see files, it seems. Occasionally, there’d be a file attached to an email for analysis, but I didn’t see any way to access the database. The third thing I realized was that I didn’t care about phasing my hand through doors to unlock them, reaching into locked cabinets and feeling around, or phasing in

general. Maybe I realized this earlier, when I decided to break in. Maybe I realized this two days ago when the cracks spread to my arms. It doesn’t matter. By now, cracks were all up and down my arms, across my body, and it wouldn’t be long before I’d look like some kind of comic book super villain. I wonder if my actions would be more superhero or super villain? I was breaking in to steal information. That could go either way. Batman would do this to expose a criminal, and you might say that could be what I was doing. Or maybe just expose something that was technically legal, but dirty. Then again, I wasn’t really trying to expose anything. I just wanted to get into my damn house and get my skin fixed. That’d a selfish gain, something more supervillainly. I don’t really know. I do know that eventually I figured out how to phase my key through an elevator, de-phase it enough to short the button, call the lift, and go up to Maharin’s office. The room was dark when I got up there. That made for an incredible view of the city, but I tried not to focus on that. Thanks to Maharin’s minimalism, it didn’t take long to see that I was alone. The alcoves seemed empty, as did the whole office. I didn’t see any cameras or security, but I kept the lights off just in case. I sat at his desk and switched on his computer. Fortunately, it was left on, just like most professors and grad students do when they don’t have to pay their own electricity. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave it logged in. I guess he’s not an idiot. Of course that left me with trying to figure out how to hack into his computer. I tried his name, Astrial, Wilshire, and a few other LA names. Nothing.

I tried Kobe, Shaq, and a bunch of sports combinations. Still nothing. I figured, why not? I put in my name, Ryan’s, Kev’s, and even Firewalker. That didn’t do a thing, but then I wondered about putting in Rachel’s name. I tried Rachel, Rachel Hoffman, but then I could think of any superhero name for her. Well, maybe Dr. Hoffman. And then the screen blinked. I was in. I froze. How on earth did this, or why did it, and why Dr. Hoffman, and was it the same Dr. Hoffman? It took a moment for me to snap out of this and remember that I was breaking into someone else’s computer. Looking through Maharin’s folders, I noticed that he kept his desktop as minimalist as his office. There weren’t a lot of icons, nor extra games or time killers. Just a listing of a bunch of phone numbers, mostly of bigtime government types, and a database. As sleek as his desktop was, the database was messy. This must have been some hack job from the lowest bidder because it was hard to find any information. Name searches were clunky, you couldn’t search by powers, hell, even categories for powers were sketchy. I think I spent an hour wondering it the thing was even working before something would finally come up. And the info in the database was terrible too. Mostly, it’d just say stuff like, “Mostly harmless, recommend that life without these gifts would be beneficial,” “Common ability, recommend further schooling unless he wants to work in construction.”

So I quit this database and starting looking for something more, something that he’d look at a lot more than this junk. I found it under his “recent documents.” It was a listing of people with a little more magic than the other database. Sitting at number one me. Although I was kind of happy to be number one, reading my scouting report turned my stomach a bit. Dr. Steven Shao, DC. Abilities – Phasing – can pass through matter and affect it selectively. Useful for medical purposes. Can perform surgery combining medical and magical training. Possible side effect still unknown. Requests use of skin regeneration system in his home – currently seized. Ration use to influence Dr. Shao. Dammit! I hoped it wasn’t like this, but maybe I knew deep down inside and I was just lying to myself. I kept reading. Survived a riot with minimal injury. Use caution, may have resistance to injury. Ok, that made me feel a little better. Maybe we’d be able to work something out. Control of this asset is of high importance. His will appears to be his weakness. Continue affecting. Alright, what the hell did that mean? That didn’t sound good. It couldn’t be good. I don’t know what was going through Maharin’s head, but it couldn’t be good. There were also dozen of pictures of me, taken at home, at work, and some from news sources. I felt stalked. But that was it on me. I looked through the other names on the list. Ryan was there.

-

Ryan Douglas – calls himself the Firewalker. Abilities – fire projection. Excellent offensive weapon. Alteration of transport – very fast feet, may also flame. Very strong will, believes he is a superhero. Questionable affecting possibilies.

There were also pictures of Ryan, but he seemed to be posing in all of them. I guess he liked the paparatizi. Kevin’s entry was surprisingly short. Kevin Hernandez – calls himself the Longarm. Spiderman-like projection/ensnare ability. Not especially powerful. And then there was my brother’s. Dr. David Shao – calls himself Go. Says he can go anywhere, though exact powers unknown. Escaped from prison, stole millions, extremely dangerous. Known – resistant to injury. Questionable ethical structure. Possibly reachable through his brother, Dr. Steven Shao. Great. If Maharin wanted to know about my brother through me, I had some bad news for him. I hadn’t seen or heard from Dave in months, ever since that day in court. Good luck. In any case, I had seen enough. My bad feelings about this were justified, and I was going to tell Maharin to get lost. Of course, I still had no clue how to fix my skin, and it looked like hell. Maybe I could use this information for leverage to get into the reactor. I don’t know. I wish I knew, but I didn’t know what to do.

That’s when I noticed another name in the file. Dr. Rachel Hoffman. I wondered about the login code, wondering if it was the same Dr. Hoffman. I also wasn’t sure why she was there. She didn’t have any abilities. She was just a researcher. Right? Right? Well, her file indicated something different from the other files. First were pictures, and they weren’t all new. Some looked like they were five or ten years old. She was posing in some, like they were friendly shots from a trip or dinner. Some seemed to be edited, with someone or something cut out of the picture. Others seemed more stalker-y than the shots of me or my friends, showing her alone at home or other situations. The text looked different too. Dr. Rachel Hoffman – PhD in molecular genetics, 2010 from Northwestern University. Lived in Chicago until 2014, doing post-doc at Univ. of Chicago, moved back to Los Angeles, attaining tenure track assistant professor position at UCLA. Reconnected with former college lover, Ryan Douglas, during research on magic. Currently residing at… Ok, that was odd. It was all tabloid information, like personal stuff. There was only one line later regarding anything that I expected. “Possible discovery of magical training.” All this made me want to call Rachel and warn her. I wouldn’t have to. Right then, I felt a phone buzz in my pocket, but it wasn’t my phone. It was the one that Ryan had given me, the one with the quick dial so I could reach him if I needed help. The only thing was that it was buzzing me now, and the caller was Ryan.

Chapter 22 – On the other side of town

As I was sneaking around the Maharin Institute, Rachel, Ryan, and Kevin were working in her office. Tonight, they ran an experiment on Ryan, trying to get him to learn Kevin’s skills. “I don’t get why this isn’t working?” Even though she wasn’t doing any of the work, Rachel seemed to be the most frustrated one in the room. “I don’t know, maybe it’ll just take some time to figure it out.” Ryan was lying on the ground below a wall as he spoke. Kevin stuck to the wall about him like Spiderman. For the past half hour, Kevin had tried to talk Ryan through the process of creating a snare and projecting it from his hand to trap a book onto the wall. So far, Ryan had burned through a small library. “You need to project something from your hand that’s not on fire.” “Easy for you to say, Kev. I’ve always been good at burning stuff.” “This ain’t a bbq. Turn down the heat.” Thing is, Ryan’s failure wasn’t frustrating Rachel. It was the fact that Ryan had been able to teach Kevin how to walk on walls. It wasn’t exactly the same. When Ryan did it, his feet would catch on fire and he’d run around like gravity no longer existed. For Kevin, he’s just jump and stick on a wall, a lot more like a certain friendly, neighborhood wall-crawler. “This just doesn’t make sense,” said Rachel through clenched teeth. “All my calculations are correct.”

“What’s the problem again?” “Well, off your power measurement, you’re more powerful than Kevin.” “Uh, ok.” “But he can adapt your magic, while you can’t do anything with his. This shouldn’t be what’s happening.” Ryan shrugged. “Power’s a funny thing, I guess. And didn’t you say that the power measurement thing wasn’t quite accurate.” “Yes. And no. It isn’t accurate at high levels, but for your case, there’s nothing in my hypothesis that’d explain why you’re not sticking things to walls.” Rachel fumed and stormed about the lab. A few minutes later, she sat back down. “Sorry, I just get frustrated, you know.” Ryan put his arm around her. “It’s alright. Magic doesn’t always follow the laws we’d expect. Sometimes we just need to modify our theories.” “But I spent a lot of time on this.” “Maybe, but effort doesn’t make things right. I’ve worked a long time at being wrong.” Ryan’s line didn’t seem to do much for Rachel. She still stormed around the lab. So, he tried again. “Well, at least no one’s going to be asking you to teach a class on magic training.” This had an effect, but not the one he wanted. “Goddammit, that’s the last thing I want to hear. Oh, teach us how to teach magic to people. We can make a lot of money off this. I don’t know how to teach anything like this! I just know that it’s possible, and that I have no clue how it works or what rules it follows, or even if there’s any logic to

this. I thought I knew. I thought I could teach some of the lower abilities, but I guess I was wrong.” “Well, uh, at least Astrial will get off your ass now.” “No, they won’t. Because of him.” By him, she meant Maharin. She never referred to him by name. I guess it makes sense. The inference of Maharin made a few spark fly from Ryan’s fingertips. “Look, I know you two dated before, but that was years ago. He’s got to be over you.” “Like I told you before, I don’t want to talk about it. It was a mistake, and, yeah, let’s just call the whole thing a mistake.” During all this, Kevin retreated to the back corners of the lab. He wanted to jump in and ask about the unopened letters from the Maharin Institute sitting in in the trashcan at his feet, but he held his tongue. When she started taking readings off her equipment, he decided that she’d calmed down enough. He asked a simple question. “What’s Dr. Maharin’s power?” “We don’t have powers. We just know how to use magic.” “Very well, what magic spells does Dr. Maharin know?” “Magic isn’t really in spells. We just do something, almost like breathing or dribbling a basketball.” “Ok, I can kick a 40 yard field goal. What can Dr. Maharin do?” “What does it matter?” “You talk about him like he’s the big evil doctor, you toss out every letter his institute sends you, his name drives you nuts. Yeah, I think it matters.”

“You really want to know?” “Are you going to tell me?” Rachel still didn’t seem to eager until Ryan touched her shoulder and said, “What can Dr. Maharin do?” “What do you want to do? I don’t mean what you want to eat or watch on TV. I mean, what do you want, what do you really want?” “I want to work with you and make this a better world.” “That’s sweet. But that’s not what you’ll be saying if Maharin gets a hold of you. See, it won’t look like he’s doing shit, but he’ll be inside your head, doing flips with your dreams and desires. He affects your will. He uses that to make you do things that you never thought you’d do, that you never wanted to do, but once he’s inside, he makes you want to do them.” Rachel’s eyes started to water. Ryan put his arm around her, but she pushed him away. “That’s why he talks like some James Bond villain. He thinks that helps him use his ability. Idiot, he can just do it sitting on his ass, just like he does every time he sits in court or congress.” “Why is he so interested in your work?” asked Kevin. “I don’t know. I never bothered to figure out, but I know it can’t be anything good. He’s talking to everyone in government he can get his hands on. That’s probably how he’s working with Astrial and all that. I don’t know why he’s still interested in my stuff. Maybe I’m just further along than his goons at everything. Maybe he’s still got something for me. Maybe he wants to offer the government something more. I don’t know, but I know he’s all about control.” “What does he want to control?”

“It’s not what he wants to control, it’s what he’s already got. Why do you think nobody’s done shit about his goons coming in here and taking all my research? I filed lawsuits and patent infringements, but they all got thrown out before I even got a day in court. Why do you think that’s happened? Maybe he already controls everything!” “I think we’d notice if that happened.” “Why? If he’s really in control, he’d want nobody to know. He’d want us all to think that he’s just another bureaucrat or something, or maybe not even exist. That’d be even better. He’d be hiding right before everyone’s eyes.” At this time, Ryan nodded to Kevin, telling him that they’d probably asked enough questions and that they should probably try to calm Rachel down a bit before she started blowing up at them. “Maybe we should get back to the experiment,” said Ryan. “That’s a good idea.” They went back to the testing, but they didn’t get much done the rest of the night. Rachel’s mind seemed somewhere else and Ryan couldn’t get the magic right anyway. After an unsuccessful attempt, Ryan said, “Should we call it a night? “Whatever.” Rachel flicked her finger, showing more interest in her fingertip than in the experiment. A few minutes later, they were walking to the parking lot, and Rachel was back on the Maharin topic. I guess it never left her head. “Why can’t he just leave me alone? Doesn’t he have anything better to do?” She said a lot more, but that’s all they remembered. She probably went off for a while, Next thing they knew, they were deep inside lot 9. As in every big university, giant parking structures handle the flood of commuters, stacking their cars over a half

dozen levels. UCLA was no different. This structure also led underground, with rows of walls and cars snaking downhill. This is where they parked that night. By this hour, a lot of the commuters had left, though there were still cars all over the place. Also, the area seemed quiet and deserted. “It’s awfully quite tonight.” Rachel distinctly remembered saying this. “It was pretty quiet on campus too. I wonder where everyone went?” “I don’t know, babe. Let’s get out of here.” That’s when they saw a man approaching them. Though they couldn’t see his face, Rachel seemed to already know. “Get away from me.” “That’s no way to speak to an old friend.” “You’re not an old friend.” Rachel backed away with her finger extended as she said this. “Perhaps I am not, though many would disagree,” said Maharin as he stepped into the light. “It matters little, however. I have come to discuss a business matter.” “There is no way I’m working with you, asshole.” “Such anger before you have even heard my proposition. I am here to offer you funding and facilities, greater than you could ever imagine. A place where you will practice groundbreaking research and gain discoveries to make your name a common conversational topic.” “What’s in it for you?” “You possess means of creating magicians, at least in the eyes of the media. I seek to reveal the truth, for I know the process cannot be quite so simple.” “That’s still nothing for you.”

“Perhaps it is something for my colleagues in the government. They wish to keep control over the proliferation of our condition, and would very much like know the truth, which I’m sure, you would love to share. They would give you the power of their publicity machinations. Do you want to be the most well-known researcher in the world?” “Not if it means working with you. This dream is nothing but lies. You would control every bit of my research and squelch anything you didn’t want revealed to the world. I know you better than that, and anyone would see through this. Did you really think I would fall for such a simple trick? And did you think I wouldn’t be ready for your stupid whispering?” “No, suppose not.” Just then a half-dozen men stepped out from behind the walls and took up positions next to Maharin. They all wore black suits and moved with a lot of confidence. Then again, they were Maharin’s hand-picked goon squad. Kind of a weird looking goon squad, actually. Some of them weren’t that big, though they did have plenty of magic to back them up. “Now, I must insist on your cooperation.” But Rachel had help of her own. “Look alive, boys.” Ryan and Kevin didn’t move a muscle. Actually, they looked frozen in place. “Ry? Babe?” Still nothing. They just stood there like statues, with only their eyes moving. Across town, I got a buzz from the cellphone Ry gave me. The text held their location and a pre-typed message – HELP! He must have sent it first or maybe he fought through Maharin’s haze enough to press the button. I’m not sure.

Maharin and his goons started moving towards Rachel. “Surprised that your friends don’t seem to be helpful?” Rachel didn’t respond. Instead, she stepped towards the goons and waved her finger through the air in some wild pattern. Then she seemed to give the air a high five. The goons were pretty close now, and she backed away. The goons kept advancing toward Rachel, when suddenly, they couldn’t move any closer. “What’s the problem?” said Maharin. “We can’t… go…” The goons extended their hands, stopped by a transparent glow of violet. They looked like mimes, feeling an invisible wall. But this was barrier that could really stop them. “Interesting.” Maharin’s teeth gleamed and he turned to Rachel, who was currently backing away from him. He focused on her finger, now glowing with a hint of violet. He turned back to the wall, and squinted. “You cast a spell.” Everyone squinted at the wall and saw it – Chinese characters reading, “Wall.” “Perhaps that is your gift. And perhaps that explains your interest in the various abilities across our world. I see you and I are quite the same.” Maharin said all this with a proud gaze. Rachel started down the goons, who now eyed her with caution. She held her finger high, with its tip glowing bright. This time everyone could see what she was writing – the character for fire. When she hit the character with her palm, liquid flames poured from her hand, and she drew a line in front of herself, just daring anyone to cross. With a smirk, she glared at her attackers. “Well, what are you waiting for, boys?”

Chapter 23 – I Never Thought I’d Do This in Lot 9

West LA is always busy. The 405/10 intersection is one of the biggest parking lots in the world. UCLA students sometimes drive an hour to get to Santa Monica, and that’s only five miles away. Bumper to bumper traffic floods the streets, even past midnight. Except tonight. I blew through another red light because there was no one waiting and no one coming. I didn’t know why at the time, but I didn’t like it. Back on campus, Rachel created a standoff. Although the goons could break through her walls, it took a while and occasionally required smashing a car against it to knock it down. Then there was fire, streams and flows of molten heat. One of the goons could extinguish them with a blast of snow, but this too took time. Unfortunately for Rachel, she was being backed into a corner at the bottom of the structure. Maharin sneered at her. “There is not escape for you. Why do you keep fighting? Together, we could do great things.” Rachel seemed surprisingly confident, considering her predicament. “Great things? If you were so great, then why are you hiding behind those goons?” “Great men know when act, and when to step back. No man can do everything himself. The wise man knows when to allow his comrades to do their jobs. If you were wise, you would do the same. “What do you mean by that?”

“My dear Ms. Hoffman, why do you insist on studying the magical gifts of those around the world? The reason is quite obvious. You possess the gift of creating spells. As you write your characters, you are able to channel the talents of others into your own personal magic. As you encounter more gifts, you gain more power. You do not care about teaching or learning or anything of the kind. You merely concern yourself with the power possessed by yourself. Quite wise, I must say, but you forget the mark of wisdom. You are only as powerful as yourself, in this case. You may have all our gifts, but to defeat a larger group requires quite some more help. Can you fight us all alone?” “And this is what you think?” “This is what I know. I thought I would need to control your ability to create more magicals, but instead, I find that I need to control you. Perhaps that is the solution.” “So why don’t you?” “You are greater to me as a willing partner.” “No, if you could control me, you would have done it already. You’re just wasting time letting your goons chip away at my defenses. You’ve only got the power to hold two people. If you could hold three, I’d be stuck in my tracks and you’d drag my ass into your little hole for this conversation. Maybe I’ve got you figured out. And oh, I do give a damn about magic, not just so I can learn them, but just so I can know. Remember that bit of science, where just learning is its own reward? And no, I can’t do everything I experiment on or document. If I could, I’d probably screw your brain right now.

And one last thing. You know that bit about fighting alone? Ain’t going to happen.” Maharin’s face showed a hint of confusion. “You seem quite alone.” Rachel took another step back. “Really? And oh, it’s not Ms. Hoffman. It’s Doctor Hoffman.” She turned and swung her fist into a box by her side – labeled Campus Security. A blaring siren filled the structure and probably the surrounding halfmile. Strobe lights flashed all over the walls. Rachel glared back at Maharin. But Maharin and his goons didn’t move an inch. A minute later, the siren stopped, leaving only the strobe lights. “It’s a silent alarm now,” said Rachel. “Campus police are on their way.” “Oh are they? Then we shall wait for them.” Maharin stood at ease as his goons continued chipping away at Rachel’s walls. Initially, she smirked at them, waiting for the cavalry. However, after ten minutes, she looked worried. “Where are your heroes?” “Shut up.” She turned a glance at Ryan and Kevin, whose eyes were turned toward her, though they seemed unable to move a muscle. “Perhaps the police are on a holiday. Or maybe having a donut.” Rachel looked about, avoid eye contact with Maharin. “You’re now wondering about other workers or students. Surely they must have heard the alarm or can see the lights.” Rachel kept pacing. She knew she wanted to know, but at the same time, she didn’t.

“Then I’ll tell you. I whispered to everyone in Westwood to stay inside or leave the area for the night.” Rachel snapped back, “That’s impossible. There’s no way to affect that many people. You can’t even hold the three of us.” “No, it is quite possible because the people are sheep. You know this quite well. How many of them have contacted you for a magical give based on a single news broadcast? How little it takes to bend their will, you would be quite surprised. Seeing, unfortunately, is believing. Your friends being here makes it oh so much more difficult. But for the typical American sitting at home in front of a television with a super-sized happy meal and developing arteriosclerosis? Quite simple in fact.” Rachel wanted to yell back at Maharin, to tell him that this was completely impossible, that he was mad and would soon be in jail. Unfortunately, the facts did not support her wish. Hitting the alarm generally meant help within one minute. At the very least, someone should have come by for their own car. But no one was around. No help would be coming. Well, that’s what she thought. She decided that she only had one possible outlet. “Fine, if I’m going down, you’re all coming with me.” She drew fire characters with both hands and flames poured out at the walls. Maharin didn’t seem concerned. “Are you really going to burn down this entire structure?” “Yeah, and you with it.” “But then you’ll be crushed as well.”

“No, I’m going to encase myself in a barrier. I don’t know if it’ll work, but I’ll take my chances.” “I see. Unfortunately, concrete does not readily burn, and your flame abilities seem quite lacking. Besides, what of your friends?” Dammit! The flames ceased and her shoulders slumped. She was out of options and she knew it. That’s when I showed up. I think the sound of the fire masked the screeching of my tires around the corners because I was bearing down on them by the time they saw me. A few of them jumped out of the way as I ran towards them. Some had to roll on the ground to avoid getting hit by my Honda. Unfortunately, one guy was smart. He stood his ground and kicked at my car right before I hit him. And he knew his own strength. The entire front of the car collapses and I spun off to the side. I think I ended up crashing through one of Rachel’s barriers and plastering myself against a wall. Not exactly the finest rescue. But it was enough to knock Maharin off his feet. That broke his concentration and Ryan and Kevin jumped into action. Ryan started firing at everything, setting cars on fire, sending debris flying with explosions, and generally making a big mess. Kevin jumped on walls and the roof, firing snares at everyone, and though he didn’t hit anyone, he made the goons run for cover.

In the middle of this, Maharin noticed Rachel trying to run. A moment later, she stopped in her tracks. Looking at Maharin, you could see that it took a lot more than he expected to keep her in place, but despite her efforts, she couldn’t move. “Get Rachel!” yelled Ryan. They moved forward, firing at will. The goons had trained for this. Now that they had a moment to organize, they took up flanking positions, spreading out to minimize the effect of Ryan’s fire. He tried to slide up a wall, but one goon shot a ice-beam or something and froze the wall. Ryan fell right off. This ice magician also managed to create sheets of cold, deflecting or absorbing Ryan’s fire. No matter what Ryan tried, his efforts were stopped. “Go, I’ll cover you!” Kevin leapt into action, climbing on the ceiling. Ryan fired wildly, burning the ground and opening a path for Kevin. As he scrambled on the ceiling, he passed over most of the goon and almost made it to Rachel. That’s when he heard a scream from Ryan. While fire and ice were neutralizing each other, the goons found another weapon. Ryan jumped out the way as a car smashed into the wall inches behind him. The goons pushed another car, making him dive for safety. That gave the ice mage a chance to shoot Ryan and freeze him inside a block of ice. Kevin looked back, wondering if he should go back to help his friend. He froze for the moment of indecision. Suddenly, a car flew through the air and smashed him into the ceiling. They fell back down to the ground, leaving a bloodstained dent on the concrete.

That’s when I finally got out of my wreck of a car. I saw Ryan encased in ice. I saw Kevin’s body lying on the ground. I thought that my friends had died attempting one final heroic deed. And I knew who was responsible. “Maharin!” I ripped away any bits of steel still holding me to the car and stormed towards Maharin. “What the fuck have you done?!? What the fuck are you doing?!?!” Goons jumped in between me and Maharin, blocking my approach. I stopped, looking them over to plan a defense, but they didn’t attack. They just stood there, forming a wall. Keeping my eyes on the goons, I yelled, “Why did you kill my friends?” “I did not kill them. They showed a lack of cooperation and were unfortunately harmed in their rebellion by law enforcement officials.” “These thugs aren’t law enforcement.” “They are deputies of the state department by way of Astrial, making them law enforcement in the eyes of the law.” “So, what, you’re going to kill me too?” “I had not planned on any deaths tonight, merely a business discussion with Ms. Hoffman.” Rachel stood across the lot, still unable to move. Maharin continued. From what I saw, he didn’t move his mouth when he spoke. “But your arrival does accelerate my plans, somewhat, for you were my prize recruit. Do you not realize what good we could do together? How many lives could be saved by our cooperation? Is that not what you want? To save lives? To help the people of our city?

You could be helping the citizens of our country, perhaps our entire world. This is what you want.” Maharin’s words echoed through my head. I tried to tune him out, but they blared through every inch of my mind. “Why are you fighting yourself? These are your dreams and desires, not mine. But on your own, you find yourself stymied by the law. With me, you will create the law, a law that will give you the freedom you desire. This is what you have always desired.” “What are you doing? Get out of my head!” I think I said this. I’m not sure. Actually, I’m not sure about anything that happened here except for Maharin’s voice in my head. “Let go, Dr. Shao. Let go of your apprehension and frustration. Release the cuffs binding you to your poor existence and come to a better place. This is not your destiny. This is not your obligation. This is your dream. Make it your life.” And that’s when everything went blank. I have no recollection of what happened next.

Chapter 24 – Rachel’s Story

I don’t know why I’m writing this. Steve asked me to, and I owe him one I guess, so here goes. He said I’d be more fair than he’d be about this whole thing. He’s right. Besides, I remember what happened, while he doesn’t. I guess I’ll start how I always start. Hi, I’m Dr. Rachel Hoffman, Associate Professor of Advanced Human Development at UCLA. In English, that means my research is about magic, both the skills it grants, and the people who use it. I gained my publicity through my theory that magic in itself was a gift, not just a collection of different gifts to be classified as magic due to their unnatural appearance. To be honest, I formulated this theory based on my own magical gifts. I can perform other magical skills provided that I’ve learned them and that I’m capable of doing them. Or in other words, I can cast spells, providing that they’re not above my level. Yeah, there’s no levels or anything like that, but I’ve found that this seems to make sense to people more than any other analogy. Because of this, I started investigating whether or not it’d be possible to teach magic to people already demonstrating magical abilities. From the research, the answer is… maybe. Steve seems to be able to learn anything. Others have some limitations, but something can generally be taught. I know, this isn’t supposed to be about my research, but that leads us into this mess. Dr. John Maharin, former Astrial regional chief, took a special interest in the fact that abilities could be taught. I believe that he either wanted to use this create a special

force of magical troops, or perhaps offer this training to others for a price. The exact motivation will never be known, but I do know that he accosted me one night in Lot 9 at UCLA. You might have seen the aftermath in the news, and Steve has written about what he remembers about this, so here’s the parts you might not know about. I suppose I’d have to be the one to write it since I saw the whole thing, and this is about as close as we’re going to get to the truth. Looking at Steve’s notes, here’s where he left off. I was stuck in the corner, unable to move, and he was blacking out. Ryan sat inside a giant block of ice, and Kevin… That’s a sad story. Kevin was the king in high school, the best athlete, dated the prettiest girls, but once he got to college, he wasn’t as smart as Steve, or as reckless as Ryan. He had a hard time adjusting to being average. Once magic came around, he wasn’t as powerful as the others either. Still, he went out and fought as hard as anyone. Unfortunately, once he met opponents with more power, he lost. I only hope he didn’t suffer too much. It looked really bad. Steve looked ready to rip Maharin to pieces when he saw Kevin’s body lying on the ground. That’s when Maharin focused his energy on him, and stopped him in his tracks. While he did this, I could feel my legs coming back to me. In another second, I’d be able to run. I hoped that Steve could keep on fighting, even if just for a few more seconds. When I moved my foot, I felt my hope return, I mean, I’d never been so happy to take a single step in my life.

Three steps later, my feet felt like lead again, and I stopped in my tracks. With my last bit of will, I turned around and saw Steve lying in the ground. Maharin and his men walked around him like he wasn’t a threat, and all the hope drained out of me again. Then Steve started to move. The others looked down at him, but none of them seemed overly concerned. When he stood up though, I noticed something… something about his eyes or expression just wasn’t the same. Maharin seemed awfully happy, which made me feel down. “Stand up, my comrade. Come join your new family.” Steve stood up. He looked over Maharin and his people. And then he started laughing. This wasn’t just a little chuckle, no, this was like when someone’s really mocking someone else. I even felt a little uncomfortable, to be honest. For the first time tonight, Maharin looked worried. His men spread out, forming a semi-circle around Steve, with a few standing guard near Maharin. Steve just kept laughing. For almost a minute, he kept going and going. Then, just as quick as he started, he stopped, and looked Maharin in the eye. Maharin glared at Steve. I knew he was trying to do something to Steve’s brain, but it didn’t seem to have any effect. Finally, he asked, “Will you join us?” Steve had only one thing to say. “No.” “That is quite unfortunate.” Out of nowhere, a flying car smashed into Steve, carrying him along, and flattening both of them against the wall. I couldn’t see exactly, but I knew a few of Maharin’s men had thrown it. What I did see was another man redirecting the car in the

air so it’d hit on mark. Oh, and obviously I could see the mangled mess against the wall and scrap iron bouncing about. Steve, I couldn’t see. Maharin shook his head and snapped his finger. His men turned their attention to me and started marching. I knew this would be where I got taken away to some basement somewhere and tortured or brainwashed or I don’t know, something really bad. And just then, when I was lost in my panic, I heard it again. Laughter. It was the same laughter I’d heard a minute ago from Steve. All eyes turned back to the mangled car, and some of the men took up their defensive positions again. But the car didn’t move. No, that would have been the logical thing to occur. Steve walked through the mangled mess, like right through the car like he was a ghost. It made sense on one hand. He could phase his hand, why not his whole body? But no one was thinking about this because he looked terrible. And by terrible, I mean scary. His skin was gone or ripping off in sheets, showing nothing but a dark mess of flesh underneath. Yeah, his clothes were all ripped up or burned, but that only let us see more of his skin, or whatever it was. His face was the worst, with patches of skin intact, and an evil, toothy grin shining at all of us. Now, I know that’s just his skin, but I still don’t like looking at it. That night though, I was freaking out. There had already been plenty enough to scare me for a lifetime. This was just what I did not need. I spent so much time staring at him that I didn’t notice Ryan melting himself out of that block of ice. He said that he used an ‘inner fire’ skill to survive the freezing, and then just slowly melted his way out. Steve made a good distraction, according to Ryan.

I don’t know about a distraction. Every sane, or partially sane human would have paid really good attention to him that day. He looked over Maharin’s men and sneered at them, almost like they were something beneath him and disgusting. “Which one of you threw this at me?” One of Maharin’s men flinched. I don’t even think it was the man who threw it. Just like that, the mangled mess of a car flew towards that man at over a hundred miles an hour. It completely wiped him out, crushing him against some cars and leaving a trail of blood. Thinking about it now, Steve probably reduced the car’s mass to that of a baseball, increased his strength at the same time, and turned that lump of scrap-iron into a missile. Maharin backed away from this. I could tell by his weakening grasp on my body that he was scared. The more his emotions trembled, the more I could wiggle my limbs. I could almost break free. Almost. Maharin must have been able to hang onto his confidence because he still had his men around him. “You cannot possibly expect to defeat all of us.” Maharin sounded sure of this. I think his men bought it. Steve didn’t say a word. He just reached down through the concrete at his feet and felt around. Then he ripped a 15 foot steel girder out of the ground like he was pulling out a weed. Other girders around that one popped out of the ground like roots, and the concrete gave way and shattered into pieces. This also made a small earthquake, knocking Maharin and his men off their feet.

I almost fell, but I was able to take a step and catch myself. I also noticed that the structure seemed to be tilting a bit. Steve walked away from the concrete trough he made towards an undamaged area. He dragged the girder behind as he walked. Once he reached an undamaged spot, he inserted the girder into the ground, feeling around. “Get him, now!” Instead of his normal tone, Maharin screamed this order. His men charged at Steve. When the first guy got close, Steve flicked his wrist, turning the girder into a fly swatter. I’ve never seen a human sail through the air like that. Then he swung it back, ripping through cars, showering the area with debris. Maharin’s men retreated after seeing this. They retreated further when he bowled the girder at them. Thought they were able to run to safety, Steve used the distraction to find another girder and pull it out of the ground. Over and over, he ripped the girders out of the ground, tossing them about, making a huge pile of steel. It didn’t take long for the whole structure to start leaning. “What are you doing? You’ll bring down this whole place!” When Maharin said this, I was finally able to move. It was just a walk, and every step was a struggle, but I could move. Steve didn’t respond. He just kept pulling out girders and swatting away Maharin’s men. “Don’t you care about your friends? You’ll kill them too!” Steve looked right at Maharin. Then with a shrug, he smiled from ear to ear. Back to the digging he went.

The place was really shaking now. A section of the roof fell after Steve pulled out its support. I wasn’t going to make it out in time. But then Ryan came out of nowhere, picked me up, and with his feet blazing, we shot up walls and through holes until we finally made it to ground level and dashed to safety. Behind us, the whole structure started to come down. Once it started falling, the whole thing fell and kicked up a giant cloud of dust. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of Maharin’s men carrying him out to safety, running at maybe a hundred miles an hour. I wanted to shoot at Maharin, like a firebolt or something, but the dust cloud obscured my vision before I could do anything. It was then that I finally got a good look at Ryan. He moved alright, but his skin wasn’t doing so well. There were huge areas of frostbite on his face and his hands looked terrible. “Ryan, you’re hurt! Put me down,” I yelled at him. “Not till you’re safe.” Either he thought we were safe near the sculpture garden or his strength gave out because we both fell to the ground. He stayed down too. I knew he was in a lot of pain. But his mind was on something else. “Did you see Steve?” “I don’t know. He was bringing down lot 9 the last time I saw him.” “Did you see what he did to the goons?” “He was knocking them away like flies…” “No, did you see what he did to those that actually got close?” Ryan started shaking, and it wasn’t because he was cold. “Did he kill them?”

“No, that would have been the compassionate thing to do. One guy got close, and took a swing at Steve. I think he just phased out or something, because the guy didn’t hit anything. Steve phased his hand inside the goon and…” “He ripped him apart? I wouldn’t have thought he was that cruel.” “No. He did something to the guy’s skeleton, like increased its mass or something. The man’s ribcage ripped right through his body and down to the floor. I think it must have weighted a ton because it crashed through the concrete. The guy just screamed in pain, as best as he could with no lungs, and crumpled to the ground. I don’t even know if he died, but there’s no way he could have survived. Maharin did something to Steve. He’s a monster.” I’ve thought a long time about what happened that night. Maharin was trying to control Steve, and I know he’d been trying to chip away at Steve’s will for a long time. The plan must have been to break his will, and then he’d have no reason to say no to Maharin. Looking at his writings about psychology that the police found in his office, he believed that people were sheep looking for a shepherd. If one revealed himself, and there was no reason not to follow him, then the sheep would just flock around. It must have worked a lot. Maharin had a dozen bills ready to go through government at different levels to give him way more power than the politicians would have every wanted to give up. But Steve must have been something different. As best as I can figure it out, his will was holding him back from doing what he could have been doing the whole time. There is no reason that he can’t walk right into any country, destroy their entire army, and take over. The explanation for this is simple, and I can’t take credit for this one.

That night in the sculpture garden, Ryan told me this. “If he stays like this, there’s no way we can stop him. Even with all my power, even with a nuke, there’s nothing any of us can do. We can’t touch him.” That’s what scares me. If he really wanted to take over or kill us all, there’s nothing we could do to stop him. The only thing stopping him is himself. As I took a look at Ryan, I heard a helicopter flying overhead. I think there was a marker on it, reading US State Dept, or maybe Astrial. Right when it was over us, a giant tongue of fire struck the rotors, shearing them off, sending the helicopter plummeting to the ground. It landed about 500 feet from us with a sickening crunch. I took a peek back up at the sky and noticed that the fire had formed a pair of serpentine dragons, almost sneering down at the wreckage below. The dragons retreated back towards a path headed our way. Then the air grew quiet. I might have heard a pair of footsteps approaching. Maybe not, maybe it was just my heart, but I knew he was coming. I did hear the sound of sirens approaching. Steve arrived first. I hid. I didn’t know what to do. He looked worse than before. His clothes and body were a mess of shredded cloth, peeling skin, and streaks and patches of black. I wonder if he saw me? I know he saw Ryan, but he walked right past him like a stranger. He was making a line right for the wrecked helicopter. Maharin was still alive. He said something like, “So, is this where you finish me?”

Steve didn’t respond for a long moment. He finally said, “You know what I think?” “Why don’t you tell me? The last request of a dying man.” Steve thought for a moment. Then he ripped a block of concrete out of the ground and flattened what was left of the helicopter and Maharin. And he stood there. He spent a good minute or two looking down at his handiwork of destruction before walking off. A few minutes later, police arrived. Paramedics from the UCLA hospital arrived soon after than. With Maharin gone, everything worked the way it was supposed to, though the wreck of lot 9 made them take another route through campus. Steve showed up as they were putting Ryan into the ambulance. I was scared. Fortunately, it seemed like he was himself again. Or at least he acted like himself. He went right up to Ryan’s gurney, looked him over, and asked how he was doing. The paramedics almost ran away when they saw him, but eventually, they did their jobs and took Ryan to the hospital. I guess I can’t blame them. Something in me wanted to run away also when I saw him, even if I didn’t know what he just did. Steve doesn’t remember any of this. Maybe he’s just repressing it, I don’t know. Maybe when your brain gets scrambled like that, the parts that normally work go to sleep, and the deeper parts do all the thinking. Perhaps there’s different layers that make up what we are. Maharin would have been the one to answer this. He manipulated minds to gain power, though his one mistake cost him dearly. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

About why Steve acted the way he did, I still have no answers. People ask me this all the time, but I still have nothing to say. One theory is that something in his mind knew he was trying to be controlled by a weaker entity. No one likes that, so to show dominance, the stronger entity will attack the weaker and defeat it, demonstrating it’s power. Another theory is that this is what Steve is really all about, and that we all need to be scared. I don’t know about this one, but I wouldn’t be tinkering around his brain, even if I did have those abilities. Maybe everyone’s just scared still. People were scared when magic showed up. Once someone showed some real, dangerous power, such as invincibility, to the world, it’s natural that the world would react with fear. Maybe I’m writing this to tell people not to fear him. I don’t know. I still have a lot of questions about that day. I don’t know how he got out of that berserker rage. I don’t know how the police and courts seemed to completely ignore all he did that night. I don’t know how it all worked out. I do remember the headline on the LA Times the next day. “Spellcaster Destroys UCLA BUILDING.” A reporter got to cops and saw the surveillance footage, showing Steve wrecking the place, and so they ran the headline without much of a story. People never did get the full story, but the article did have one effect. From that day on, the world referred to Steve as, “Spellcaster.”

Chapter 25

No matter what I do, the chunk of memory from that night is gone. Corrupted, just like Vista does to your hard drive. The official story is that everything’s a blank from the time Maharin got inside my head to the point I showed up and was myself again. Yeah, that’s not totally true. Then again, it’s not totally false. I don’t remember what happened. Consciously. Subconsciously, some parts of me remember how to take something or someone apart. I touch a building and can feel the girders and support beams, and this doesn’t require phasing or anything. Every time I treat a patient, I somehow know how to make them better, but I also know how to make them a lot worse. Who knows what our subconscious selves know. The night this all happened, I came back to consciousness in a grove of trees near the business school. I remember being totally disoriented, like I didn’t know who I was, where I was, what had happened, or pretty much anything else. Thanks to the dark, I couldn’t see my skin or else that might have sent my mind spinning a bit. I was just sitting on the ground, a nice bed of leaves, and staring at the ground. I actually don’t remember any of that. The first conscious thought I recall is that of purring. All around me, I felt the purring of a cat. The first thing I saw was a gray fluff moving about, almost like a living shadow. I watched the blur for a while, but then I saw a pair of yellow globes staring up at me. I looked into it’s eyes as it pawed gently at my hand. “Where am I?”

Now, I don’t remember it speaking, but I could have sworn that cat told me to relax. “What happened?” Note – I don’t remember saying this out loud. I might have. I didn’t think it was weird to talk to a cat either. I do it all the time at work. The cat just kept asking me to relax. As I did, I started coming to my senses. I remembered that Ryan and Rachel were in trouble. That’s when I jumped to my feet and noticed the trees and leaves and stuff. Are you ok? That’s from the cat. “I don’t know? Where are my friends?” Follow me. The cat ran off down through the trees. I sprinted after it. Not long after, I could see the flashing lights of the ambulance as the paramedics loaded Ryan inside. “Thanks!” You’re welcome. The cat ducked into some bushes and I ran to the ambulance. I never saw that cat again, but since then, cats have given me a once over anytime I pass by. They also don’t notice if my skin’s a black mess. Or maybe they just don’t care. Paramedics are a different story. A few of them almost had a heart attack when they saw me. They might have relaxed a bit when I talked to Ryan, but not by much. As they were leaving, I said I’d follow and meet them at the hospital. I think I heard one of them say, “Oh god, why?” Another ambulance took Rachel to the hospital. I offered to ride in her ambulance, but she just shook her head.

It isn’t a long walk from the sculpture garden to the hospital, but with the thoughts going through my head, it felt way longer than the normal fifteen or twenty minutes. The cops told me about all I’d done, how I killed Maharin, but that they could wait till later to take a statement from me. None of them ordered me to come to their station, and they seemed awfully eager to head off and do anything else. I noticed a few people wandering about campus during my walk. They all ran as soon as they saw me. I’m sure it was due to my skin. I finally took a look at my reflection against a window. Damn, it looked bad. Even without it though, seeing a guy wandering about with shredded clothes probably would have caused a similar reaction. I can’t blame anyone for running. But as bad as this was, my friends were hurt. And to make it worse, they were scared of me. I tried to think of a way out, but I didn’t have anything. The only person who didn’t run away was a photographer who shot a picture as I entered the hospital. This was the one that made it onto the Times and every other newspaper front page across the planet. Inside the hospital, the nurses seemed to want to run, but they often were trapped in booths or behind the desk. “Excuse me, I need to know how my friends are doing.” “I’m sorry,” said a nurse. “We don’t uh, normally give out information. You need to ask the doctor.” “I need you to find out for me. Please.”

“Uh, ok, right away.” The nurse ran from me. I thought there was not way she’d be back. But a few minutes later, she reappeared. I think I saw a doctor whisper something to her and push her towards me before bailing down a hallway. “What’d you find?” “Your friends, one Mr. Douglas and our Dr. Hoffman, the professor?” “Yeah, there’s another too. Kevin Hernandez. Have you heard anything?” “Mr. Douglas is being treated for frost burns. Eventually, he’ll need severe skin grafting. Dr. Hoffman suffers only minor injuries, physically, but she appears to have undergone severe mental trauma.” “But Kevin?” “She also told me to tell you that Kevin’s dead. She says it wasn’t your fault.” That was the first time I ever lost a good friend. My memory’s kind of blurry after that, but I know I stormed around the hospital for a while. Eventually, I stood outside and alone. No one came anywhere near me. I sat down on a stone step and sighed. The next thing I noticed was a small object sailing at my head. I caught it – a cell phone. “Your brother wanted me to give that to you.” I looked up to see Brad standing nearby. He seemed as relaxed as always, and not at all surprised by my appearance. Then again, he was the only person standing near me. “What am I supposed to do with this?” “I’m not sure, but he’ll probably let you know.”

Just then, the phone buzzed with a text – Meet me at the capitol. Yeah, the one in Washington DC. “What the hell is this?” Brad didn’t even look down when he said, “I think your brother wants to meet up with you.” “Just like that? After disappearing? After breaking out of prison?” “He is your brother. What would you like to do?” “How am I even getting to Washington?” I pulled out what was left of my wallet, keys, and cell phone. Them, like my clothes, didn’t quite phase out with me, and were completely shredded to pieces. Brad didn’t look concerned. “Let me take you to the airport. I’m sure they’ll work something out.” As usual, Brad knew. He always knows. The first sunshine of morning cracked the sky during the drive. That meant that morning paper deliveries and newscasts covered the city. That meant that my face, in its current state, was now quite famous. I realized this when I stepped out of Brad’s car at LAX. A few skycaps took one look at me, yelled something that didn’t really make sense but seemed really freaked out, and bolted away. The terminal sat pretty empty this early in the morning, but a minute after I entered, a group of security surrounded me. Sort of. They kept their distance, making it more like I had a halo of people surrounding me. A few of the airport cops held their guns, though they looked more confused than anything. Their captain yelled at them, “Put that shit away. Didn’t you hear the news? Nothing hits this guy.” They lowered their guns, but some of them still clutched their pistols with a death-grip.

Unfortunately, the police were the only people in this terminal, so I went around the airport until I finally found a manned counter. The lady behind the desk froze when I approached. I blame the cops. Before I could reach her, the captain asked me, “What do you want.” “I need a plane ticket.” “Ok, wait here. I’ll take care of this.” “I think I can ask her myself.” The captain sprinted for the counter, arriving before me. He said something to the lady, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t hear a word from him. My question was a lot simpler. “I need a ticket on your next flight to Washington DC.” I wonder what my expression looked like, trashed skin and all. The lady froze for a moment, but once she looked down at her screen, she seemed to be typing quickly. Not sure if she was looking for a flight for me or just calling for more help. I distinctly remember hearing her whisper to the captain, “This is the Spellcaster.” A few minutes later, she looked up and said, “We have a plane for you.” Security led me past the metal detector and other gates and right onto the tarmac. A 737 sat alone, away from everything else. A few fire trucks sat around the plane’s vicinity along with a line of police cars. Yeah, they sure trusted me a lot. But it did get me a free flight into DC. Of course, there were no stewardesses or anyone else on my flight. The pilots stayed locked inside their cockpit. I yelled to them, “Hey, are we cool? I don’t want you flying me to the middle of nowhere and then bailing out.”

I heard a yell back. “We’ll fly you to Washington DC, just like you want. We won’t give you any trouble, but regulations say we can’t open this door either.” I could have just walked through the door, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. During the flight, I raided every fridge on the plane. They had peanuts, lunch boxes, sandwiches, and with no one to serve me, I just helped myself to as much as I wanted. I received a similar reception from security at Dulles. The plane landed, rolled away from the terminals, and I got dumped outside on the tarmac. Guards watched me as I headed out to the street. But this time, the public had a different response. Security had to clear a path for me as people shot pictures with cell phones and yelled, “Hey, Spellcaster, over here!” A guy got through the cops and came up to me with a pen and paper. “Can I get your autograph?” I signed it for him, but I wonder if he was disappointed that it read Steve Shao? Or maybe my writing’s so bad that it could have said Spellcaster? But yeah, I guess a little destruction brings a lot of infamy, and infamy has always been one big element of fame. Most of the people didn’t seem scared to see me either. Maybe excitement got the better of them. The taxi driver didn’t get the memo. When I walked towards his cab, he took one look at me and jumped out of his car. Not a problem. I just took his cab to the Capitol and left it outside. As I went up the steps, I saw another cab pull up and the taxi driver jump back into his car. Guess it’s good to have friends. The secret service met me outside the Capitol. “I’m sorry, you can’t go in there.”

“Why not? I’m a citizen?” “You are not allowed inside. Now move along.” “I’m just looking for my brother, and what are going to do anyway?” These were the only guys not to bolt when they saw me coming. Of course, it wasn’t too hard to push them aside. I knew all of them pulled guns on me, but none of them fired. Maybe they’d gotten the memo that I couldn’t be hurt? Maybe me wandering about looking for my brother wasn’t exactly a threatening stance. “Hey, anyone see my brother? He looks like me, except…” Oh yeah, I looked like hell. He looks like how I normally look. That wasn’t much help. I wandered to a heavier set of doors guarded by a group of serious secret service agents. Now most of the agents are serious, but these guys took it to a whole new level. “Turn around now.” “Or what?” They all moved back their coats, showing sub-machine guns. “Turn around now!” I think it surprised them a bit when I didn’t even seem to care. At least that’s what I thought for a second. Then a voice came from behind me. “Or what? Are you going to shoot my brother?” I turned around and shouted, “Ok, I’m here. Now what? Are you turning yourself in?” Dave didn’t hear me. He was too busy taunting the agents. “Come on, big man, all tough-guy with that MP-5. You going to stop us from talking to the senators? You know they’re all just stealing our taxes, right?” He pushed a few of them right in the

chest as he walked by. “Come on, anyone want to take on the champ? I kicked the asses of all your Fed buddies. Let’s see what you’ve got!” Yeah, secret service agents don’t like that. They all whipped out their guns and leveled them at my brother. Everyone else in the area ran for the door. “Whoa, hold on,” I said. “We can talk about this.” “The only talking that’s going to happen is with my foot up their asses!” “Shut up, Dave!” “These pussies won’t do shit. Watch.” Dave proceeded to throw a trashcan at the agents. They returned fire, filling his body with lead. I’m not sure what happened next. Maybe it was a reflex to seeing my brother go down. I think I yelled, “No!” I do know that I shot a pair of flaming dragons from my fists and trashed the area. When I regained my senses, every wall and door around was either destroyed or crumbling or burning. The agents peeked out from behind cover at me, and a lot of their clothing still smoldered. Flames still covered my hands, but since no one made a move at me, the fires went out. I glared at all the agents. “Come on, bitches. How tough are you now? Don’t you got the balls to play with some real competition?” One agent tried to come around the wall. I threw a block of concrete at him, smashing through the wall, and agents scattered like cockroaches. “Come on, what are you waiting for. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere. Finish what you started!”

I could hear the buzzing of walkie-talkies and panic in all their voices. None of them knew what to do. But then I felt a hand pat me on the back. I spun around, ready to strike, but I stopped just as quick. It was Dave. His face and clothes were covered with blood, but he was standing and seemed unhurt. He wiped his face with his sleeve, and there wasn’t a single cut on it. Now, I was as confused as the Agents. I think I said something, but it didn’t make much sense. Dave patted me on the shoulder. “Come on, bro, let’s go in.”

Chapter 26 – How to Get Politicians to Listen 101

You know that evening news shot of Congress? The one where the congressmen sit in a semicircle of wooden desks, all nice and orderly, democrats on one side, republicans on the other, and they all listen to someone talk on the floor in front of everyone? Yeah, the day we went in, it looked nothing like that. The politicians were scrambling about, climbing over chairs, tables and each other, all trying to find an exit or a place to hide. There were a few agents trying to maintain order, but their guns came out once they saw us. A few politicians shrieked like schoolgirls. Others tried to run for the door. “Relax, everyone, I’m not here to hurt you.” Dave spoke a little louder than usual, loud enough that it seemed like everyone in the room could hear him clearly through despite the clatter. “Take your seats, you don’t want to miss the show.” The politicians still looked clueless, and a lot of them blocked our path down to the floor. This didn’t stop Dave. He floated up in the air, right over everyone and shouted down, “My friends, bureaucrats, politicians in bed with special interests or banging interns, lend me your ears and your eyes. I am here to demonstrate to you the power of the new evolution. Magic. You can deny the stories, you can squash the reports, but you can’t forget what you see. There is no trick. You know your secret service boys, and boy are there a lot of them in here right now. You know your building that my little bro here nicely chopped up for you. Now, I’ve got a trick for you. I am Mr. Go.”

My brother’s grandstanding got them all to stop and stare up at him. Thing is, politicians really don’t like anyone taking the stage from them, especially in their own house, especially when they suddenly had a hundred agents rushing in with machine guns backing them up. They started screaming at my brother. “Get him out of here!” “What gives you the right to speak to us like this?” “Liar! Terrorist!” “Use whatever force you need to remove that man!” Dave raised his hands and took in the sounds. Then he flew, or maybe teleported, down to the floor. I say that because he moved faster than we could see. “Thank you for your cheers, for you will see something truly amazing. Now, you may have heard the stories, about how I escaped from your best supermax prison. Or maybe how I started a fight or two in the hole? They’re all true. But today’s trick has nothing to do with escapes or fighting. Today, I will cheat death. Watch as I heal my own wounds and pull my own body back together. Shudder as you see my corpse fall, only to rise once again. You might ask yourself, is this real? Can this be true? the money you just pocketed yesterday. You might wonder if this hurts? It hurts as bad as it looks. This is real, baby. This is a live show.” By now, the agents surrounded my brother on the floor. They kept their distance from me. Not that I blame them. Still, I was in no mood to fight. I leaned back against a barrier and waved them on. It’s every bit as real as

“Thank you, we have a volunteer.” Dave was pointing at the captain of the agents, currently pointing his pistol right at Dave’s head. “You, my friend, will assist me with this demonstration. Now, tell me, what is your name?” “Shut up, asshole! You’re under arrest. Turn around and put your hands in the air.” “Very well, Mr. Asshole, now let me tell you what to do. I’m giving you five free shots at me. Not one, not two, but five. Take anything you want. Nine millimeter to the head? Sure! Shotgun blast? Go for it! Be creative. If you decide you’ve had enough, feel free to stop, but remember, I’m being fair. I figure that if you imbeciles haven’t figured it out after five shots, then there’s really no point continuing, and maybe we need to heat things up in here a little.” No one moved. None of the agents or politicians really knew what to do, but nobody wanted to miss the show either. “Come, Mr. Asshole, you may have the first shot.” Dave moved right in front of the captain. “Come on, let’s get this show on the road.” He then reached out and grabbed the captain’s gun. It was probably a reflex to someone grabbing his gun, but the captain fired. BOOM Blood sprayed out the back of Dave’s head and he slumped to the ground. He sure looked dead. But a few seconds later, his body started moving. A few seconds after that, he sat up. Then, wiping his head on his sleeve, he stood up and looked pretty much ok, well,

maybe just a little bloody. He bowed and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Who’s next. Who wants the next shot?” BOOM A shotgun blast nailed him in the gut, slamming him against the wall. He looked dead, but just like the last time, he stood up, cleaned himself up as best as he could, and bowed. “Yo, I’m getting kind of messy here. Anyone got a towel?” That’s when an agent snapped. He screamed and rushed my brother. He started beating Dave over the head with his baton, over and over, smashing and swinging, until the baton bent and he could hit no more. He glared down at Dave, hands bleeding from the impact, teeth clenched and breath racing. It made no difference. Dave got up and smiled. “I’m not going to bother cleaning myself off, I don’t think there’s anything clean on me anymore. But I’ll just count that as one. Two more, anything else? Anymore?” I thought I heard some buzzing in the crowd about an airstrike, but then a voice from the back of the room filled the hall. “That’s enough.” It was a familiar voice to all of us. It was the President. “I think we all believe you now, so why don’t we go somewhere and talk, unless of course there are any objections.” None of the other politicians had much to say. Dave started strutting up toward the exit, walking all cocky and stuff. That’s when a blast of fire knocked him off his feet and left him looking like an ashy lump of coal. I’ll have to claim responsibility for this one. Yeah, I shot my brother, but he got up. It took a little longer for him to fix himself, and he was like butt naked, so everyone got a good laugh at his expense. He

deserved it after all the crap he put me through, especially dragging me across the country just to use me as a little extra muscle to pressure Congress. During the walk across the mall, Dave asked me why I shot him. I said it’s because he’s a cocky jackass. He said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.” A few minutes later, I sat in the Oval Office with my brother and the President. He looked quite presidential, just like on TV. Dave looked like an idiot in his US Capitol t-shirt and sweats, but otherwise looked pretty clean. There wasn’t a scratch on him. I still looked like hell. The President nodded to his Secret Service Agents and didn’t seem the least bit concerned. I can’t say the same for the agents. “Are you sure, sir? We can stand here and watch.” “No, please go outside. I’ll be fine.” “Alright, but we’ll be right outside. If anything happens…” “Go. Now.” Oddly enough, the President didn’t seem the least bit surprised by my appearance. He looked me over and did the same to my brother. Something about that look set me on my heels. I’m not sure if it was magic, or maybe that’s just what happens when you meet the president. After the uncomfortable moment, he spoke. “You wanted my attention. That’s the only reason for you pulling a stunt like that, so here I am. What do you have to say?” Before Dave could say anything, I jumped in. “I got a few questions for you. What the hell is going on with Astrial and all that shit?”

“Astrial is our agency to regulate magicians such as yourself. Especially after your antics today, I doubt you have any evidence to argue otherwise.” “But you were working with Maharin.” “You mean Dr. John Maharin? I believe you killed him yesterday.” “You were working with Maharin, the man who was trying to take over, trying turn me into his zombie, the man who killed and injured my friends, the man who’s made my life hell.” “Yes, that’s correct.” I think I paused a moment to seethe. Then the words just poured out. “You must have known that he was just advancing his own agenda. How couldn’t you tell that he was just tricking you into funding his own drive to become the leader of all things magical, if not the whole country? Why did you give him all that power and authority? What the hell were you thinking?” “That’s quite a bit to respond to, but to address your first question, yes, of course we knew.” “Then, why.. why did you let him continue?” “To be honest, Dr. Shao, if you look at most of the government’s dealings, especially with foreign entities, you’ll find cooperation with people who are only out for their own interests, so this isn’t anything new for my administration. As to why we worked with him, we needed a way to manage the magical growth of our nation. He tracked each one of the most powerful magicians in the country, including yourself. This will always be important information for us, so we had to get it no matter what the cost.

But we also knew the nature of our associate. There were always protocols and means to control him if necessary.” “What exactly are means to control him if necessary?” The President sat up straight in his chair. “You seem to have controlled his aggressions quite well. I don’t think I need to explain this any further.” He was right, and I had nothing more to say. What could I do, yell at him? He knew exactly what he was doing, why he was doing it, and maybe I could disagree with him, but he had his reasons. Dave, on the other hand, was just getting warmed up. “You’re talking about means of controlling your cohorts, but what about those beyond control?” “Well, Mr. Go, I believe that’s what you prefer to be called, I suppose you’re speaking of yourself now.” “That’s right, and my bro, of course. Now, you just saw with your own eyes that you can’t kill us. Law and order depends on a deterrent to exact control. That usually means jail or getting shot. Well, you’ve tried both and you saw what happened. That means you can’t control us. Hell, you’ll can’t even touch us. So what are you going to do?” “Excuse me?” “What are you going to do? You’re in a room with two gods amongst men. You can chuck every bullet, missile, or bomb at us, and it’ll just piss us off. We’re still coming to kick your butt. What are you going to do?”

My brother’s words surprised me, but not as much as the lack of reaction from the president. He sat motionless for a moment. Then when he spoke, he just had this to say. “Mr. Go, what are you going to do?” “Uh. Um. Excuse me?” “Yes, Mr. Go. What are you going to do to America?” Yeah, my brother didn’t expect this. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t have a smart-ass reply or cocky insult. The president stood up and stared my brother down. “I’ll ask you again. What are you going to do? Are you going to attack America? Fight against every citizen unless we bow down to you? Well, come on. Bring it. Kick our ass. Destroy every tank, every soldier, on every single block, in every single city across the land. Go ahead. We can’t stop you, can we? Why don’t you destroy us? That’s right. Because you still need someplace to live. If you trash America, then what? Move to London? Sydney? It’ll only be a matter of time before you piss them off, they rise up against you, and then you have to beat them all down, just like us, all over again. And that will keep going on until you’ve destroyed every city in every little corner of our globe. Then what? Where will you live? You might be able to blow us back to the stone age, but then you’ll be stuck in the stone age as well. You don’t seem the type who lives in a cave and eats crickets. You want your luxury hotel. You want a 72-inch flat screen HDTV in front of your leather couch. You want gourmet meals, single-malt shots, thousand dollar bottles, all the shit this world can pack together. And if you kick our asses, it’ll all be gone.

Don’t think the people won’t fight you. People have been fighting occupation forces for all your years, and even your grand-daddy’s. They don’t care if there’s no chance at survival. They’ll blow up their own ass just to piss you off. Bet that’ll be a lot of fun for you. So, come on. Kill me. I’m the President of the United States. Kill me! You’ve got the power, go ahead. But oh, you won’t. You’ve got something to live for, and the second you cross that line, you can kiss those posh dreams of yours goodbye. Your brother gets this.” I looked at the President and my brother. I didn’t really respond, but it was true. I’d rather have my life back and be done with all of this than burn down the White House. Dave backed down. “Ok, let’s talk.” The President sat down and straightened out his suit. “Excellent. We’re both reasonable men. What would you like?” I jumped in first. “I need my house back. I need my job back, and I need all this extra paperwork over. I’m here to treat patients, not fill out forms. I need the reactor, I need all your agents off my ass, and I need this no questions asked.” “Done. Anything else?” I didn’t have anything. I think I was just too shocked to say anything. Actually, what could I say? That I hated all he’d done to me, that he could have done this long ago but didn’t? Even if I blew up at him again, the conversation would have gone like this. “You knew all the time? You must have known. Maharin and Astrial are you stooges,

and if I was in all your hearings, I must have also been in your briefings. You put me through hell, but you just wave your magic wand and everything’s kosher?” And then he’d say, “Yes, that’s right.” Maybe I should have said it anyway, but I knew. Somehow. Still, after all the hell I’d gone through, could it be as easy as that, just a simple executive order? Yeah, it was. They’ve never troubled me again, but I guess there’s a reason for that. Dave took his time before saying, “I’ve got a few things. I need my lab back, my… oh, both of our records clean. I want to keep my cash, though you wouldn’t find it anyway, and, uh…” He paused, not sure of what else to ask for. The President took out a folder that read, “Astrial. For your eyes only.” He slid it to my brother and said, “I think I have something that’ll take care of all your needs. This briefing is for the director of Astrial. That means, the big boss. The director controls a 500 billion dollar budget, with plenty more in reserves, just come up with a reason. He also gets immunity from darn near anything short of high-treason. He can set up whatever research or investigation he deems necessary, as well as deputize whomever he wants. He also sets his salary, as well as that of his highest lieutenants. This is for you, Mr. Go. If you accept this position, it will fill all of our needs, as well as yours.” “Who was the previous head? And what are your needs?” I still felt skeptical. “I think you’ve met our previous head, but he’s been permanently removed from his position. As far as our needs, it’s simple. We cannot allow unregulated growth of magic in this nation. We cannot stop it or control many things in this world, but with the

use of regulations and their enforcement, we find that the population falls into line. In this case, who better to set policy and enforce than the most powerful magician around?” “You think he’s the most powerful?” “I don’t seem to be able to kill your brother, do I? And oh, we’ll need you on as well. We need to tell the world that we have both Mr. Go and the Spellcaster working for us. Thanks to your display of power, the world believes that you’re the most powerful magician around. Personally, I don’t really care. But the press will.” “Why would I ever want to work for you? Do you know what kind of shit you put me through? Am I supposed to just forget all that, shake hands, and sing kum-bayyah? And, oh yeah, you’re nuts if you think I’m going to be Maharin’s replacement. I’m not going anywhere near those jerks working your shops.” “That’s right,” said my brother. “I’m Maharin’s replacement, and I accept. I expect regular briefings, and will provide you with the same.” The President didn’t seem surprised. “Details are inside that folder. Welcome aboard.” I couldn’t believe my ears. “Wait, I’m not working for you.” “Yes you are,” screamed Dave. He calmed down and said, “Well, not really working since I’m not going to make you do anything. That’s cool, right?” The President nodded. “You’re in charge.” Dave grabbed me and the folder and dragged us to the door. “Thank you, Mr. President. I’ll be in touch.” “That you will. But set up an appointment. Not that it’ll kill you, but the secret service might give you some trouble if you just pop in. Why am I telling you this? You

should remember from all the times they whisked me away from you. I’d rather not have that happen anymore.” “Not a problem. Thank you, Mr. President.” Dave pulled me out the door and slammed it behind us. And just like that, the government gained control over magic. Or maybe they just held onto the same control they always had. I don’t know.

Chapter 27 – The End of This Season of Life

When I look back and think about all I had to do to keep doing my job, I wonder if it was all worth it. I mean, I did it, but was it the right thing? What kind of idiot would have gone through all that? And it wasn’t a great job, I guess I was just good at it. Or maybe that’s the normal thing to do. We get used to our lives, and once we settle into a schedule, anything off from that feels stressful. As much as people say we hate the routine, it also brings a sense of comfort. That sense of comfort should have returned right when I exited the oval office with Dave. I’d be going back to my house, a dip in the reactor would get me back to normal, well, normal looking. I could go to work without worrying about any governmental junk. Astrial was now something I could control, not something that’d try to control me. And any legal trouble would be over. I had been given all that I wanted. I should have been thrilled at this turn of events. I didn’t feel thrilled. If anything, I was angry. I growled at my brother, “I can’t believe I get dragged all across the country just to have all my problems solved in five minutes.” “Hey, you’re clear now, bro. Go live your life.” “And you get to be an Astrial bigshot. Great.” “What, you jealous? You can be an Astrial bigshot if you want, but you turned it down. The job’s still there for you if you want.” “No, I know what happens when I work for you.”

Dave stopped me in the hall of the While House. “Hey, what do you mean by that?” “Remember that little bit of research I did, that bit on the introns? I bet you do since you stole that from me.” “I didn’t steal it. It was from my lab. All that research is technically mine.” “You stole it, and you know damn well know you stole it. We could have easily shared the credit, but no, you never once mentioned my name to all the press and scientists. So what happens? You get all popular while I just get pissed.” “That’s not exactly how it went down, Steve.” “Really? Cause it sure feels like it went down like that. I do experiments, I create my own procedures, they give you some major breakthrough, and I never get mentioned. Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went. Tell me I’m not going crazy. Yeah, tell me that, I dare you.” Dave’s face morphed from his bravado to a look of pain. “You want to know the truth? You want to know what happened? Well, here you go. I found out where you got your cell culture.” “What does that have to do with anything?” “Let me tell you about something called an ethics violation. You couldn’t find anyone who’d sign off on their DNA, so you just used your own cells and signed it all yourself. You knew the administration had specific rules against this, but hey, you didn’t give a damn. You figured that being lazy here wouldn’t hurt you since that research wasn’t going anywhere, and you were just putting in some time for note on your

transcript and an easy summer. But what do you know? It worked. You’re actually a damn good scientist. Of course, if the suits ever found out, you’d be locked in hearings for as long you could breathe and then they’d never let you do shit anywhere close to a lab, ever. You probably wouldn’t even be allowed a license to do whatever shit it is that you’re doing now. Not so fun being a felon. That’s why I took credit for your research. That’s why I couldn’t let you out into the public’s eye.” “I’m supposed to believe you did this to protect me?” “I don’t care what you believe, I just telling you the truth. Like about that skin regenerator you call the reactor? That took forever to make, and I made it for you. A lot of thanks I get for slaving away and giving you a free pass to walk around not looking like some kind of freak. And that wasn’t just something I had lying around. I based that design off my own magic. And it took me forever. I had to run loads of tests on myself, and damn that was scary when I didn’t know if I’d heal. And oh yeah, I still feel the pain, so all that shit hurt. It really fucking hurts. I don’t need this machine. Maybe it’s a great medical breakthrough, but it’s too expensive to really be practical. It’s just for you. I just made it so you could look normal. And it looks like so your buddy Ryan can get back to normal as well.” “What?” I couldn’t think of anything to say. If he was right, then I didn’t know who to hate anymore. Was he really doing all this just so I could have a normal life? And he was right about Ryan. After a dip in the reactor, his skin was as good as new. It looked fine when he stepped out. It looked fine on the day he married Rachel. It

looked fine yesterday. He didn’t need skin grafts or surgery, and no matter how much he uses magic, the skin’s never cracked or failed. It’s been like a miracle. Lucky me. “Oh yeah, bro, there’s one more thing.” “Haven’t you said enough? I’m supposed to believe that you’re looking out for me, what else are you pulling out of your ass.” And then Dave got really quiet. “I did a lot of research with new cell lines, but I took a second look your cell line a few years later. Turns out you did more than you thought.” “I just messed around with introns and stuff.” “You activated two processes. One set off a whole cascade of new genes because it reordered the base pairs into something new.” “New genes, whee. So what, you sell that?” “No, the other process causes a spore-like reproduction. All your cells took flight.” “So they’re gone.” “Not exactly, they still have human surface antigens, so they’re more like a virus. And they self-replicate.” “Are you telling me that I made a disease?” “Not any disease. Once inside a new host, they activate that same cascade of new genes. These are the genes responsible for magical abilities.” “WHAT?”

“I’m not lying to you. If you believe one thing, believe this. I kept it quiet because I don’t want the world to know that you’re responsible for this magic outbreak.” “You’re lying. There’s no way.” “Why do you think your closest friends all have powers? Why do you think you’re more powerful than anyone, or that your closest genetic match is also crazy powerful? The closer the host’s DNA is to yours, the more power it creates. Plus the virus hangs out around its original host, which means you. You unintentionally unlocked a set of lost gifts. They were already there, somehow, they got lost, but now they’re back. Since it was from your DNA, I knew someone would want to research this from the source. So, I protected you from the world, since if they found out about this, they’d either stick you in a lab and turn you into a guinea pig, or just lynch you. That’s why I gave them something else to look at in court, otherwise it’d only be a matter of time before someone realized that everyone magical is carrying that little piece of your DNA evidence inside their cells.” The facts started settling in my head, and the more I thought about it, my brother was right. Except for one thing… “Wait, they can’t do anything to me. They can’t even touch me. Or even if they tried, I have the weapons and defense to whup their asses.” “That’s true, but until this week, I didn’t know about that, and neither did you. I just tried to keep you safe.” “I don’t need your protection.” “Yeah, it seems that way now.” We were outside now. Dave started floating up into the air.

“Hey, where are you going?” “I’m all out of truths. Nothing else to say.” “So, I’m just supposed to think you’re Dr. Cool now? Just like Robin Hood? Stealing from big business to save your little brother?” “Think whatever you want to think, but I did what I thought was right with what I had. You might not like it, but at least I tried to help someone other than my own, fucking self. What the hell have you done with your abilities? Get rich snobs to pay you to pet their dogs? Wow, good job.” No, that’s not all I’ve done. When the opportunity presents itself, I’ve always done the right thing, or at least that’s what Brad says about me. I act when I have to, which isn’t nothing. Yeah, I want a normal life, who doesn’t? Why should I have the weight of the world on my shoulders? I’m not Spiderman. But then again, there’s a lot of people out there doing a lot more than me with a whole lot less. They have something to lose. As of now, I don’t. I can risk my life without actually risking anything. I could have done a lot more before, maybe, I don’t know. I could hide behind licensing requirements or stuff like that before, but now, I make the requirements, or just tell Dave and he’ll take care of the grunt work. I can write my own job description. And that puts me in a weird place. All our lives, we’re told that we have to jump through hoops to do anything, and we hate those hoops. Well, we say we hate those hoops. I’d actually welcome a hoop or two right now because then I’d know what to do next. It’s hard having a clean slate because then you have to create something from

nothing. But I do know that I hated being treated like an idiot by the government. They were the ones in the know, I was kept in the dark, and that sucked. So that’s why I’m telling you this now. That’s why I want the world to know how magic began, the basics of why it’s here, and also why it’s not going away. If you want someone to blame, I’m right here. This whole magic mess was my fault. I’d stop it if I could, but I can’t, so I’m going to try and make the best of it. I ask that you do the same. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for this. And if you can’t? Well, what are you going to do? Shoot me?

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