Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 26
Stories
Arkmind
by Niall Francis McMahon
Story with Pictures and Conversation
by Brontops Baruq   FREE
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
Excerpt from Ruins
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Contaminant Source Removed
    by K.G. Jewell

Contaminant Source Removed
Artwork by M Wayne Miller

It was the third spell that got Marco into trouble.

The first spell was easy. An Introduction to Wizardry called it an aptitude spell. It showed whether or not the caster had innate abilities in the supernatural.

The spoon bent. He was a natural.

The second spell took a little more work. Marco read the chapter on introductory invocation and selected an end-of-chapter exercise. He cleared a space on his mom's kitchen table and gathered the incantation's ingredients and accoutrements: An egg, a worm from the backyard, and his shoe. He put the worm on his head, the egg in his shoe, and sang "Alouette" while thinking of purple ogres.

A purple ogre appeared and joined him in a duet before disappearing in a puff of smoke, just like it was supposed to.

But the third spell . . .

After the smoke cleared from the ogre's exit, Marco picked up the book again. He'd found it in a stack of junk at Aunt Violet's garage sale.

"That was your Uncle Joe's favorite. It was a gag gift from a college roommate when he got his first job offer on Wall Street. When folks asked him what he did, he'd point to that book and say 'financial wizardry' and then chuckle like it was the best joke ever." She added, "You take it. He'd have loved for someone else to enjoy it." Uncle Joe had disappeared when Marco was a baby, and Marco didn't remember him at all. Everyone said he'd been very nice.

Marco flipped to the section at the back of the book entitled "Advanced Magicks." The spell headings were printed in a faux longhand script: "The real cure for insomnia: Sleeping Spells," "Cheating on the test of life: Scrying," and the best one "Cleaning your room for good: Hooverology."

Marco opened the book to Hooverology and scanned the page. His mom was always telling him to clean his room. This would be useful.

He needed a vacuum cleaner, a rat, and a toothbrush.

He went to the cleaning closet and pulled out the vacuum. It wasn't a Hoover, but the recipe didn't specify the brand.

He went to the bathroom and got his toothbrush. He had a new one he hadn't even opened yet.

He didn't have an actual rat, but his sister Lindsey had a hamster and his dad called it a rat. It was practically the same. Normally he'd never get near it, but she was at karate camp all week. He walked right past the "Keep Out: This Means YOU Marco" sign on her door and removed Squeaky from his cage. Squeaky squeaked a bit, but didn't complain once Marco gave him a treat. Marco put Squeaky in his hamster ball and carried it to his room.

His room was a mess. Dirty laundry covered the lower bunk. His newest comic books lay strewn across the floor and dirty tissues overflowed his garbage can. On his dresser, his science fair project grew mold.

The project was not about mold.

Performing the spell involved chasing Squeaky with the vacuum (he left him in the hamster ball) and then brushing the light fixtures with his toothbrush, all the while singing a song about the beauty of clean. At first he had to stop every few seconds to review the lyrics, but he soon memorized them and fell into a smooth rhythm of work and song.

Afterwards, he stood back and admired his work. His room looked pretty clean. He'd had to pick up the comics in order to run the vacuum, and he'd taken out the trash, including his failed experiment. But he hadn't felt any magic: There had been no spontaneously-bent spoon or singing purple ogre.

Maybe it was Squeaky. Maybe practically a rat was not the same as actually a rat.

Then a white light flashed across the room.

"This room is now designated clean. You are required to wear personal protective equipment when in a clean area. Please don appropriate protective head, foot, and body cover to minimize particulate contamination. Improperly protected visitors will be removed," said a deep voice.

Marco looked for the speaker, but saw no one. Weird.

"Who's there?" he called.

No response. Squeaky rattled across the floor.

"Improperly protected visitors have ten seconds to exit the area. Ten. Nine. Eight."

"Hey! This is my room!"

"Seven. Six."

What would happen if he didn't leave?

"Five. Four." He didn't want to know. He opened the door to the hallway.

"Three." He reached down to grab Squeaky, but the hamster wasn't in sight. Lindsey would kill him if Squeaky got hurt. Marco peered under the bed.

"Two." Squeaky was just out of reach. Marco dropped on his stomach and wiggled forward.

"One." He swatted the hamster ball towards the door.

The room flashed white.

"Contaminant source removed."

Marco found himself lying in the hall outside his bedroom. His hands were empty. His closed bedroom door now bore a sign with bright red lettering: NOTICE: PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT REQUIRED BEYOND THIS POINT.

What the . . .? Marco looked for the book to see if he'd missed something, but it had remained in his room. He went to get it.

The door was locked.

This was not good.

"Mom!" Marco yelled down the stairs.

"Yes?" His mother's voice drifted up from the living room. "Don't yell."

"Can I stay at Tommy's tonight?"

"Your sister is going to kill you." Tommy chewed on a beef jerky strip as they huddled around a flashlight in Tommy's living room. Tommy was always eating. "If she does, can I have your comic collection?"

"There's got to be a way to get in there and get Squeaky out."

"Yeah, but even if you get Squeaky out, sooner or later your mom will figure out you're locked out of your room."

Marco put the flashlight under his chin and made a face. "Whatever." His sister was scarier than his mother -- his mom could ground him, but Lindsey could ground him to a pulp. She loved to practice her karate on him.

"Maybe you should listen to what the voice said and get goggles or something."

"I think 'personal protective equipment' is more than just goggles. It's like a space suit or something. Those aren't at the hardware store." Marco tossed the flashlight on the floor and stood up. They were getting nowhere.

"My brother was a spaceman for Halloween last year. His suit is downstairs."

"That's just a costume!"

"You have any better ideas?"

The next morning Marco stood at his bedroom door in a spacesuit. His mom and dad at work, he had the house to himself. Mrs. Quack, a neighbor, would check on him later, but she never came over until after All My Children.

The costume was too large, and it smelled like sweat and mildew. The helmet was a big plastic fishbowl with small holes in the back for air, and the gloves flopped loosely past his fingertips.

Marco wished Tommy hadn't had an orthodontist appointment. Some back-up would be nice. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward and put his hand on the doorknob.

It was unlocked.

Marco stepped inside. The morning sun came through the window, reflecting off a polished desk. His laundry was tidily folded in the dirty-clothes basket; his movie posters had all been re-hung square to the floor; and the top and bottom bunks of his bed were neatly made.

His breath wheezed in the helmet, the only sound. He closed the door behind him; no need to upset the voice.

Squeaky wasn't in sight. Marco dropped to one knee and looked under the bottom bunk. The hamster ball rested in the far corner, behind Marco's carefully sealed box of first edition comics.

"Squeaky!" Squeaky was never one to come when you called, but a flicker of movement indicated he was at least awake. Marco dropped to his stomach and wiggled under the bed. This time he got to the hamster without any big flashes of light. He pulled the rodent out.

The primary mission accomplished, Marco looked for the magic book. He hoped it had tips on spells gone wrong. Yesterday it had been on the chair, but not today.

The bookshelf was now sorted by size, and Marco found An Introduction to Wizardry on the second shelf. He picked it up.

"Please be sure to return the book to the proper coordinates. Do not remove the book from the clean area without authorization," the voice boomed. The spell hadn't worn off.

The spacesuit was hot, the helmet air stuffy. Marco didn't see a librarian or anywhere to check out the book. It was still just his bedroom, only cleaner.

Squeaky squeaked. Marco remembered the poor guy hadn't had any food or water since yesterday. He looked at the book and then at the door to the hallway.

Whatever. This was his, and he needed it to fix this mess. With the book in one hand and Squeaky underarm, Marco opened the door and stepped through.

The door slammed shut behind him. "Due to your attempted theft, you are now required to keep at least twenty meters distance from the clean room. You have ten seconds to leave the protected perimeter."

Ack.

"Ten." Marco ran down the stairs and out the front door in five seconds flat.

"Five." He kept running. He hoped Katlin Brimshaw didn't see him in a space suit.

"Four." How far was twenty meters, anyways?

"Three." The suit was hotter and smellier than ever.

"Two." The helmet seemed to be running out of air. He stumbled and fell on Mrs. Quack's lawn.

"You are now banished from the protected perimeter." No flash of white light. Marco let out a sigh of relief. He had Squeaky, and he had the . . . Marco realized his hand was empty.

"Mollycoddle!" His dad said that once, whatever it meant.

Marco twisted off his helmet and gasped for air, furious at the voice. He needed to find a way to beat it.

Aunt Violet smiled as she answered the door. "Why, hello. What brings you here? Is it Halloween already?"

His costume was a little ridiculous. "No, uh . . . I was just playing space-station with a friend and . . ." his voice trailed off. He hadn't come up with a good reason to be at Aunt Violet's at all, let alone in a space suit.

"Well, come in. I remember once your uncle showed up at my door dressed as a toad. I should have known then that he was an odd man. Is that Lindsey's little hamster? I've heard so much about him."

Marco stepped inside. Aunt Violet's house was neatly kept, with polished wood trim lining the walls. Marco's mom always said Aunt Violet's hired help spent more time cleaning the house than Aunt Violet spent living in it.

"Um, Aunt Violet, did Uncle Joe have any other books on magic?"

"Oh, a few -- but those are collectibles, with expensive bindings and whatnot. I think they might be a little too fancy for you, at least until you get older."

Marco bristled. "I have three first edition comic books. I've kept them in mint condition."

"Of course, dear." Aunt Violet smiled.

Marco forced himself to calm down. "Well, can I see those books?"

"I don't see why not. Come on back to Joe's old study."

Aunt Violet led Marco down the hallway, opening a door that he'd never noticed before, revealing a cluttered office lined with bookshelves. A desk sat against the far wall, below a window overlooking the city park. Various stacks of documents and scribbled notes filled the desk and most of the floor.

"This is Joe's place. The help keeps it dusted, but I haven't had the heart to clean it out. I just keep the door closed."

Marco set Squeaky on the desk, wedging him between a big desk calculator and an old phone book. He set his helmet upside-down beside him, between piles of paper. "Where are the magic books?"

"Oh, his collectibles are there." She pointed to a cupboard next to the desk. She opened it, revealing five thick, musty leather-bound tomes. "Do be careful with them."

Marco picked up the top book, entitled Occult Husbandry. He set it on the floor. The second was called Divination of the Improbable. He set it atop the first.

The third was called Invocation of the Impossible. Interesting. He set it on the desk and scanned the introduction.

As any reader of an advanced text such as this should know, The Impossible is a nuanced term. Here we mean that which cannot be otherwise done. We will discuss the ways and means those informed of the supernatural can bend or rearrange the laws (physical, social, or other) of our world. Remember, as with any magic, the risk to the caster is real.

Aunt Violet still stood behind him. "Do you want some lemonade?"

"Yes, please. And maybe some water for Squeaky?"

"Of course."

Marco flipped through the book. The last chapter caught his eye: "When All Else Fails." The good stuff was always near the end.

The chapter text cryptically described a spell which could get the caster whatever they wanted, but the cost wouldn't be known until after it was invoked. A simple recipe followed the text: Mix the spittle of the caster with crow gizzard, and then recite a magic phrase while dancing a jig.

The spell sounded promising, but Marco didn't have any crow gizzard or know how to get any. He lifted the next book, Classic Charms, revealing a half-dozen jars. The jar closest to him read "TOAD SPIT" in block handwriting; the next, "EYE OF NEWT."

Uncle Joe hadn't collected these books just for fun.

Marco pulled out the bottles. GOAT BUNION, PENNYROYAL, SNIPE BILL; he set them carefully in front of the cupboard. The last bottle, a purple container of blown glass, was labeled "CROW GIZZARD."

"Okay, Squeaky. When all else fails!"

Marco spat into the space helmet and uncorked the purple bottle. Coarse black powder filled it. He tapped the bottle on the helmet rim and the gizzard sprinkled onto the splattered saliva.

Marco hoped the gizzard was still good; the bottle didn't have an expiration date.

"Carpe Diem Ipsum Lorem," he read. He didn't know any jigs, but he shuffled his feet best he could. "Succurre mihi!"

Smoke billowed out of the helmet, and then the helmet was empty and clean.

"Oh, I haven't been here in a while!" A tall, heavyset creature leaned against the corner bookshelf. It was vaguely man-shaped, with two arms, two legs, and one head. It even wore a trench coat and trousers. But neon orange eyes and black scales belied the human clothes.

"You seem a little young to fill Joseph's shoes."

"Uh . . ." Marco measured the distance to the door. Could he run?

"Not important. So, what do you want and what have you to offer?"

"Uh . . . I want to be able to go home. I've been banished from my own house. I was trying to clean my room and . . ."

"That's all? A little misplaced Hooverology? You know, Joseph could have cleaned up this mess right quick. Shame he's not around."

Silence filled the air. The creature looked at Marco. It had a tail, which flicked as if swatting unseen flies.

The creature sighed. "You know, I'm kind of bending the rules here, but are you sure that's what you want? Don't you have any interest in where Joseph went? I mean, I always liked Joseph. He was a good guy to work with. I've always thought it would be nice if someone asked me where he went."

"Where did he go?" Marco had seen the whispers and glances when the topic came up, but had never heard a good answer. Uncle Joe had just disappeared one day. Aunt Violet always said she'd give her heart to know what had happened to him.

"Ah, now I can bend the rules, but I can't break them. What do you have to pay me with? You know, I'm not one of those cut-rate demons. Your offering must be something valuable, and truly yours to give."

Marco looked around. The books were Aunt Violet's. Squeaky was Lindsey's. Even the spacesuit he wore was Tommy's brother's. "I've got nothing."

"You don't have to have it with you, it just needs to be yours. I'll find it."

Marco knew his most valuable possessions: his three first edition comic books. But if he gave the demon the books to find out what happened to Uncle Joe, what about getting home? Well, he did have three of them. And if Aunt Violet would give her heart, he could give one of his comics.

"OK. Issue one number one of The Elvis Avenger. It's yours."

"Nice taste. Deal. Joseph is stuck in the inter-temporal vortex."

"He's still alive!?"

"Yep. He was put there by a demonic derivatives trader who didn't like getting the short end of a credit swap."

"Can I get him out?"

"What do you have to offer?"

Marco carefully phrased the next question. "I'll give you issue one number one of Cynopolis if you tell me how can I get him out."

"You need to bring him a watch. He's lost track of time. Once he's reconnected to the space-time continuum he'll know how to get home."

"That's not a complete answer. How do I get there?" Marco only had one comic book left, and couldn't waste it.

"Just look at page thirteen of Classic Charms."

Marco still needed to get home. "Issue one, number one of Squirrel Girl to tell me how to break the Hooverology spell."

"Oh, that's easy. Rescue Joseph and let him do it. You might want to take Squeaky along for the ride."

With a puff of smoke, the demon disappeared.

A sob broke the silence. Aunt Violet stood in the doorway holding a tray of lemonade and water. Tears were running down her cheeks.

Marco pored over the spell ("Getting away from it all") in the charm book, while Aunt Violet sat in a chair and drank her lemonade. She'd seen it all.

"I think I've got everything I need except two watches and a timer. Sorry, but the timer might not survive." Marco wanted an extra watch for himself, just to be safe.

Aunt Violet set down her drink and left the room. She returned a minute later with an egg-timer and a heavy gold watch.

"Here's Joe's watch. He left it on his nightstand, although he usually wore it wherever he went." She took a thin, silver watch off her wrist. "Here's mine. Are you sure I can't come with you?"

"The spell only works for one person."

Marco looked at the watch on the desk. It read 12:30.

"Mrs. Quack! I forgot. Can you let her know I'm at your house?" Marco asked. He put the gold watch in his pocket and strapped the silver one to his wrist.

"Sure." Aunt Violet left the room and a moment later Marco heard her on the phone in the hall.

Marco took off one boot and picked up Squeaky's ball. Then he bashed the timer with the boot, whispering, "time out, time out, time out."

A now-familiar white light flashed.

He was in a white room. A tousle-haired man dressed in a blue button-down shirt, light grey slacks, and black socks but no shoes stood in the center. The man stared at a featureless white wall rising from a featureless white floor to a featureless white ceiling.

"Uncle Joe?" He looked pretty young to be Marco's uncle.

The man turned and looked at him.

"Who are you?"

"Um. Marco. Your nephew."

"Franco and Bessie's kid?"

"Yes."

"Really? Wow. That's the problem with this place. It's just so easy to lose track of time. They say you can count the seconds, but I never knew when to start." Joe stared off again.

Marco withdrew Joe's watch from his pocket. "I think this is yours." He walked up to Joe and fastened it on his wrist. Joe continued to stare at the wall.

Marco stepped back. "Uncle Joe! We have to leave!"

Joe glanced at the watch. His entire body tensed.

"We have to go. Quickly, before . . ."

"Before what?" A Tinkerbell-sized pixie popped into the air between Marco and Joe, its voice high and chirpy. It wore a blue double-breasted suit and waved a cane.

Joe grimaced. "Hello, Alpha. It seems like we just spoke, but it sounds like it's been a while. It's not nice to inter-temporally exile someone while they're napping."

"It wasn't nice for you to stick me with the entire Mexican Peso devaluation either. Nice isn't part of business."

"Dirty tricks aren't business either. I've had enough." Uncle Joe started to mumble under his breath and his feet began to dance.

"I think you still haven't learned your lesson." Alpha pointed his cane at Joe's watch and lightning sprung towards the device.

Uncle Joe's face grew lax.

Marco wished his sister was here. She'd know how to beat up this pixie.

The pixie turned to face Marco. "Goodbye." He pointed his cane at the watch on Marco's wrist.

Lightning flashed. Marco started counting -- One one-thousand. The pixie disappeared. The watch froze at 12:36.17. Two one-thousand. He knew when he started, so as long as he counted the seconds, he'd know the time. Three one-thousand.

"Uncle Joe! It's twelve thirty six and twenty seconds!" Uncle Joe stared at the wall. "Twelve thirty-six and twenty one seconds." Marco shook Uncle Joe's shoulder. No response.

Sooner or later he'd lose track of time and end up staring at the wall like his uncle. Twelve thirty-six and twenty two seconds. How long could he count? He had to find a way out, and quickly.

Marco examined the room for an exit, carefully counting a second a beat. Nothing. It was hard to judge the size of the featureless space, but it felt just a bit larger than his bedroom. The light seeped into the room from the walls; no light fixture hung from the ceiling. The walls stretched unbroken, corner-to-corner. He knocked on the walls; solid, all the way around.

At an hour, Marco announced the milestone to a listless Joe and a quivering Squeaky. "We've made three thousand six-hundred seconds!" It was getting hard to keep counting.

Squeaky squeaked. Marco opened the hamster ball and scratched behind his ear. Poor guy was probably hungry. Marco's stomach growled in sympathy. He'd missed lunch too. Marco wondered if they'd starve to death or lose count first.

"One." He continued into the second hour. "This is impossible, Squeaks. Two. There is no way out. Three."

The impossible. Marco tried to remember the spell about doing the impossible. He needed crow gizzard. Four. Where could he get crow gizzard?

He searched Uncle Joe's pockets while his uncle stared at the wall. Five, six, seven, eight. Nothing but pocket lint.

Pocket lint, crow gizzard, what's the difference? Marco looked at the exitless room. He had nothing to lose. Nine. He spit on the pocket lint and cried "Succurre mihi" while dancing his best jig.

A bright white light flashed across the room.

"Sauna Spell Activated!" cried a woman's voice, followed by a tinkling laughter.

Warm steam filled the room.

"Next time, if there is one," Marco asked Squeaky, "please remind me pocket lint is not crow gizzard."

He sat at Uncle Joe's feet. By one fifteen p.m., per a careful count, he sat in a puddle of sweat and steam. Squeaky panted in his hamster ball. Marco was hot, hungry, and thirsty. He should have drunk his lemonade.

"Squeaky, we're in a big mess," Marco said, tapping the hamster ball.

Marco realized what he'd just said.

"That's it!" he exclaimed. "We're in a mess!" He only knew three other spells: He didn't have a spoon, and didn't need an ogre; but he did have a big mess on his hands.

He started to sing about the power of clean, counting time to the beat. He took Squeaky from the hamster ball, set him on the floor, and scrubbed the floor behind him with the spacesuit sleeve. He cleaned white: white walls, white floor, repeating the song and the time. He even cleaned the white ceiling, sitting on Uncle Joe's shoulders to polish the smooth surface with his sock.

He cleaned white for a very long while.

After three hours, twenty-five minutes, and thirteen seconds, according to his count, the cleaning spell voice boomed across the room, "This space is now designated clean. You are required to wear personal protective equipment when in a clean area. Please don appropriate protective head, foot, and body cover to minimize particulate contamination. Improperly protected visitors will be removed."

Marco picked up Squeaky and grabbed on to his uncle.

"Improperly protected visitors have 10 seconds to exit the area. Ten. Nine. Eight."

Uncle Joe stared at the wall.

"Seven. Six. Five." Marco hoped this worked.

"Four. Three. Two." If it didn't work . . .

"One." The white light flashed. They were back at Uncle Joe's desk. Aunt Violet sat in the chair. She gave a cry and jumped up to embrace Uncle Joe.

"Contaminant source removed."

"Stay out of my room!" Lindsey banged on Marco's door. She'd returned from camp just as Marco got home with Uncle Joe and Aunt Violet. They'd both been sent upstairs while the grownups talked in the living room. Lindsey had not been happy to see Squeaky out of his cage.

"I'm sorry, Lindsey. I needed Squeaky for something." Marco sat on the floor near his bookshelf.

"Oh, you'll be sorry -- when I give you a personal introduction to pain." The door shook.

Marco picked up An Introduction to Wizardry and looked in the index under "Sisters, annoying."

No luck. He'd have to use what he already knew.

"You better be nice to me, Lindsey," he called, smiling. "Or else I'll clean your bedroom. And believe me, you don't want that."


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