by J.P. Chabot
The gunfire rained down upon Mark as he raced his way through the dimly-lit corridor. The power-suited soldier wasn't really trying to kill him, he knew, but he sure as hell was trying to scare him. Fortunately, Mark had cast a slippery protection ward over his body before entering the compound, so that even a well-aimed bullet would only have a 2 percent chance of hitting him at all. He was more concerned about dropping his package, or having it struck, which would certainly be disastrous. The hallway ended in a T-junction, finally allowing Mark to duck out of the line of fire. He gasped, trying to catch his breath.
'Hey, slick!' The shout came from the power-armored soldier. 'That's a pretty neat trick you did there, making my bullets slide past you. I bet you've kept the spell just for emergencies, right?'
The soldier seemed to be making pretty slow progress down the hall. Strong as it was, the suit was heavy, although it could run at 40 KPH if the wearer didn't mind draining the battery. Mark could hear the heavy metallic thuds of the footsteps approaching. Maybe a minute at that pace, Mark thought, and he would need to run before he reached him. Unless. . .
He had sneaked into the spell-dump hoping to find the concentrated, liquid essence of magic--magic that was forbidden to the public, and restricted by most of international law to the most benign military uses. The package was, in poetic terms, 'worth an eyelash of God,' since each little bottle had surely taken more than five years to make, while slowly draining the life-force from unfortunate sorcs and magi held captive by the Mechanical Inquisition.
It had been pretty easy getting in; he had paid a year's salary for the 'veil-of-ignorance' spell that made all onlookers totally ignore him. Until the solitary soldier had spotted him, he was sure he could have gotten away with the stuff home-free. He cursed himself for not knowing when the veil wore off, and for not remembering that electric eyes were immune to its effects. Either could have been his mistake, but one way or another, he wouldn't repeat it after this night.
He looked at the package. Well, what the hell, you only live once, he thought. If that soldier got a clean line on him at close range, the chances of a well-aimed bullet striking him went up to 20 percent, one in five successfully drilling him, and there were a lot of bullets in that automatic weapon. 'This better work,' he muttered.
The footsteps stopped. Mark guessed the soldier was already halfway down the hall. He hurriedly tore open the cardboard package.
'Well, tell you what, friend,' purred the soldier. 'I can see your breath on the IR scanner, so I know you're just around the corner. Going to try something stupid? Maybe throw a spell at me? My armor is proofed against all known energy, telekinetic, and molecular attacks possibly created by magic. Even if you do hurt me, I bet I can pump you full of bullets before you can barely wave your hands at me.'
Mark risked being voice-identified for the moment.
'Want to bet, soldier boy?' he said, his voice quavering. 'I think I can fry your eyes with magically coherent light: a magic laser beam. You'd be blind before you knew it,' he lied. He searched the labels on the bottles, scanning the endless Latin names and bizarre symbols for something familiar. Confound bureaucracy!
'I suppose you're right about that,' mused the soldier. 'I might just have to use my little cannon instead, and blast you with an incendiary round. That package would be lost, but at least the magic won't cause any problems if it's incinerated instantly.'
He grabbed the two that made the most sense to him and pulled out the rubber stoppers sealed with magiclude wax, a non-magic-permeable substance, similar to that which lined the soldier's suit. But not identical, and that was what Mark was counting on.
'Yes, that's what I'll do. But just for the sake of humanity, I'll give you to the count of three to come out, hands on the back of your head, mouth closed, no sudden moves. One!'
Mark panicked and gulped down both bottles at once. The bitter taste of the green one sharply contrasted the sickly-sweetness of the red one, and he realized that simply drinking them was probably not how the power was reinvested in a sorc like himself. He had been lucky it hadn't killed him instantly. He could barely keep himself from retching, but he couldn't afford to throw up what was undoubtably the most valuable treasure in the world. He forced himself to swallow.
He staggered into the hallway again, hands behind his head as instructed, jaw clamped (but what an effort that was!), eyes watering. The soldier trained his gun straight at Mark's head.
'Lanzotta, I got one here, D-section, corridor nine. Better help me cuff him,' he said into his throat-mike. He turned his full attention back to Mike.
'Now, don't you move,' he growled. One of his hands left the rifle, and came up with a scanning device. He passed it in front of Mike, then glanced at the readout, the gun never
Even if the soldier hadn't had his faceplate open, Mike knew what expression would come next. Astonishment, then a chuckle and a smirk.
'It says here you're nothing but a level-three punk! I don't believe it,' he chortled. 'I figured they already pegged all the level-twenties, they stand right out on the MDF, but no one but a
twenty could get in here. How in hell did you do it? You can talk now.'
Embarrassed, Mike explained how he had purchased the spells from a company infiltrator, who had in turn stolen them during a routine magic-draining session with a mage.
The soldier guffawed. He ordered Mark to pick up the cardboard package (hopefully, he hadn't noticed the two empty bottles on the floor) and he marched Mark down the corridor, clanking footsteps making time in the dark. Mark felt his face flush, then a strange feeling engulfed him.
It was calm, but powerful. He remembered feeling like this the first time he had invoked his magic. Was the concentrated magic being absorbed into his system? He decided to concentrate on the soldier, and thought of a specific idea.
The soldier was so confident, and Mark so chagrined, that he had actually leaned his gun up on one shoulder, and was absently rubbing his chin with his free hand. He had an ugly little stubble forming on his chin, but as Mark concentrated, the stubble seemed to disappear. Folds and tiny creases in his facial skin seemed to smooth and fill out, and his skin tone lightened. The soldier seemed to sense something was happening, but it didn't stop him from laughing and making more irritating remarks.
Mark concentrated harder. He tried not to stare, but he noticed other things about the soldier. Certain changes in his pace, the way he moved; all as though the act of movement had become much easier for him. He looked younger, much younger than the grizzled warrior who had sneered at him in the firefight. It was difficult to tell just by his face, but Mark was sure the rest of him was changing too.
The forty-year-old soldier had definitely become a thirty-year-old, and, as Mark continued pushing the invisible-- yet somehow, red?-- force at the man, he crossed over into his twenties. Now the soldier looked positively handsome, and his smiling teeth shone. He seemed to be having trouble remembering why he was making fun of Mark.
No matter. Mark had to give it all he had, or he wouldn't walk out of this compound. It seemed to be coming easier now. He gave the soldier a stronger shove of the invisible red flux. With a jerking motion, the man suddenly became twenty-one. Mark quickly backed down, not wishing the young man to notice--and he was indeed a young man now, quite a distinction from the older version.
'Hey, why are we going this way?' he asked the twenty-year-old in the power suit.
'Ahh,' said the man, 'hmm.' He mumbled to himself, uncertain of the reason, until he latched onto a solid thought. 'You're coming with me. No more questions.' He resumed stomping down the hallway, prodding Mark to do the same.
Mark decided to push him a little farther. Nineteen, eighteen, there was a teenager in that uniform now. He seemed to be having trouble with his power armor. Mark guessed it didn't fit him anymore. Slipping down to seventeen, the youth seemed puzzled. He stopped marching.
'Why are we doing this?' he asked Mark. Mark smiled.
'You're coming with me. Don't ask anymore questions,' he replied.
The teenager nodded his head, remembering now. He dutifully marched down the corridor with Mark. Mark decided to go all the way, because the soldier might still remember something incriminating later.
The teen youthened to sixteen, then to fifteen. He was really stumbling around in that armor now. When Mark took him down further, he tripped and fell flat on his face. Mark put down the bottles and hurried over to help him.
'What happened?' asked the fourteen-year-old in a cracking voice.
'You tripped,' said Mark. 'You really shouldn't play around in power armor; it's for adults.' He could barely keep his face straight as he helped the kid out of the armor. Underneath, the body tunic hung from the boy's slender frame. And as Mark poured more into the him, his
frame got even more slender.
Mark didn't have much time to youthen the kid any further before Lanzotta arrived, so he concentrated a large amount of the youthening energy in his mind, put a time-release spell on it (a simple level-three trick, but he was still proud of it) and dumped it on the boy.
'Just stay here, okay?' he said. 'I'll be right back.'
There. Now he wouldn't have to worry about him anymore. He picked up the bottles and turned, when suddenly he saw another power-suit approaching from the end of the hall. Lanzotta! Without thinking, invisible-green energy lashed out at the marching figure, snapping
almost like a whip. Red energy flowed forth and bathed the suit for a full five seconds.
Inside the suit, the soldier said, 'Huurrkk! Harrggurrgmblbmm. . .' and crashed down face-first on the pavement. Curious as to the effect of the lightning-green energy, Mark cautiously approached the prone figure. The suit's helmet detached and fell off. A dazed girl of seventeen looked up at him. 'What's going on?' she asked.
A mind-control power? Most interesting. The girl inside was rather butch, being merely a female version of the crew-cut cannon fodder, but Mark had always liked tough women.
'We need to get out of here,' he said to her. 'You put on that armor so we could fool the guards into thinking I'm a prisoner. Quickly!'
She nodded, and put her helmet back on. As they marched down towards the end of the hall, Mike could hear the sounds of a baby crying. Now he wouldn't be able to 'squeal' on Mike, but maybe he would for a bottle.
I wonder, thought Mike, if I should sell these bottles like I planned, or keep some for myself? There was more than a lifetime supply of tiny bottles of pure, liquid magic. Enough to give the Machine Inquisition a major headache, or weaken it to the point of a coup. Maybe, he thought, I'll decide that after I see how good Lanzotta is in the bedroom. . .