Finally it was done. The life’s work of more than one man made manifest as shining steel encasing pure and unadulterated power. Cool, clear water rippled gently in the vat above the device where bright white and neon-blue lights flashed intermittently. Though Mago wondered now what had compelled him to have them installed in first place.
“Turn it on.” He said to Hodge, his apprentice.
The tall, stooped shouldered young man shuffled over to the controls, his long brown robe dragging across the floor, inadvertently sweeping a path through the thick dust. He raised a hand and held it hovering above, flexing his long fingers and pursing his lips in apparent confusion. After several long seconds of anticipation he plunged his thumb down with such purpose and relish, Mago feared he might plant his entire fist through the plastic covering and embed it in the wiring beneath.
The machine hummed with power so strong he felt it deep within his chest and saw the floor shake the embers of dead skin from its surface. Nothing happened initially, aside from the ripples on the water increasing under the violent vibration below. The glass tank rattled so violently that Mago took a step back and tugged on his apprentice’s robe so that he might do the same. Fear and trepidation gripped him tightly as he imagined all possibilities ending in his complete and total failure.
He noticed it first with the tear-like drops of condensation upon the outside of the tank, pooling together as they might do under the influence of a gentle rainfall. However, instead falling, the tears inverted their shape and began to drift upwards. They merged with others, forming larger droplets and gaining momentum, before trailing up to the edge where coils of liquid reached up from the rippling surface of the water like transparent snakes stretching for the ceiling.
Mago felt a sudden buzz of hysteria rise from deep within his core. Something in his stomach flipped and began to churn and he felt his heart palpitate. He wanted to shout and scream to the heavens, but the initial hum of the machine had reached such a crescendo that everything else was drowned in its noise. It was the biggest and brightest moment of his career, necessitating some kind of encapsulating speech, though all occurred to him were sore and sorry stereotypes. In the end he decided he said it best with silence, and instead watched the neon lights dance a display on the stupefied face of his apprentice.
A gap opened at the base of the tank, no more than a couple of inches, but it continued to grow. Water lifted over the sides of the glass but refused to spill, holding a shape similar, though not the same, to the rectangular block the vat had forced upon it.
“By the greatest of the Gods…” Mago muttered, acknowledging the deities he rarely ever considered.
He stared transfixed as the water raised beyond the confines of the tank and collected as one mass, suspended in the air. His apprentice mimicked his own expression of wonderment, though his was mixed with fear. Mago saw it in him, but was unable to turn his attention away from the defiance of gravity.
“Imagine the possibilities…” He said softly, almost a whisper.
His apprentice heard and mulled over those words, misgiving their lack of intention. Mago ignored him, hoping the moment might pass. It didn’t. As if struck by an epiphany, a confident and convinced look swept across the young man’s face.
“You…you could drown people standing up.” He said.
Mago creased his brow and gave him a hard look, the confidence evaporated immediately.
“I’m not sure you’re fully grasping the potential here.”
The apprentice was just into his twenties, less than a third of his own age. Mago had inherited him along with the house and his predecessor’s project. The hole still remained in the roof above, a stark and cautionary reminder as to the pitfalls of personal experimentation.
What he knew of Hodge was a sad tale, orphaned in his youth and unwanted by anyone else. He was stinted by a lack of discernable education, and could barely read, and write even less, but what he lacked in knowledge, he made up for with a dutiful adherence to his work and a constant optimism. Mago had always liked him.
He gently touched Hodge to one side and took a step forward, approaching to within a few metres of the machine. He could feel the buoyancy in the weaker edge of the anti-gravity field and slowly swiped an open hand through the air, thick with risen dust particles. His clothes too, floated up from his skin, the fabric of his old t-shirt lifting and rippling as if touched by an unseen wind.
So subtle was the effect that it wasn’t until he looked down to the floor that he realised his feet were above it. An initial spasm of panic quickly gave way to the kind of exhilaration he hadn’t known since his younger days. He looked up to the rafters and dreamed the dream of weightlessness before allowing his eyes to wander back down to the ground.
Below him stood Hodge, his face fixed with concern.
“Ok, reduce the power.” Mago conceded. “And do it slowly.” He added with extra invective. One wrong button pushed and he knew he might meet the same fate as his predecessor.
Hodge stood over the controls, contemplating his next move in the same way a chess master might prepare for a checkmate. His dull, dark eyes stared transfixed at the console while his right hand hovered above like some unwieldy blunted sword of Damocles.
“Slowly…” Mago reiterated.
But it was too late. The decision had already been made and the hand came down, with Mago watching powerless.
The machine didn’t crash, burn or explode, much to his relief. Instead it powered down and the rhythmic sound of its engine slowed and deepened. The invisible step beneath Mago fell away and he dropped a couple of feet back down to the ground, landing somewhat unsteadily. He gave Hodge a hard glare, but saw the young man was not so much looking at him, but behind, and then he remembered the water.
Several tonnes of liquid descended from the air, bound back to the Earth by the unopposed force of gravity. It crashed back into the tank once again with a sound reminiscent of a surging waterfall and pushed up as more fell in its wake. Torrents rose and cascaded from all sides, soaking the floor on three sides and Mago on the fourth.
His clothes were saturated and the water was so cold he felt as though it might permeate his skin. There was not an ounce of dry cloth or flesh, and droplets continued to fall steadily from his hair, his noise and the tips of each finger.
He scowled at his apprentice, but held his tongue, while Hodge stepped out from behind the control panel and fidgeted on his feet, smiling uncertainly.
Once Mago was dry and he’d changed his sodden clothes, the day was almost up. The soft sunlight of the afternoon had given way to a dim dusk. Almost none of the lights in the house remained functional, so moving around after dark was difficult and frequently coincided with stubbed toes and loud cursing.
He gently lowered himself down the staircase, never quite sure whether he could trust the strength of the step below. Each of them creaked and complained beneath his feet but held firm. When he reached the bottom it was with a certain sense of accomplishment.
In the old lounge Hodge was busy tidying things up, though he seemed to had made little progress since Mago left him. His definition of cleaning usually consisted of moving all their equipment from one side of the room to the other, and then back again, perhaps in the belief that somewhere along the line some of the detritus would go missing.
Mago stood still watching him for a moment, waiting to see if Hodge would notice him, but he proved oblivious.
“That’s enough for now.” Mago said aloud, breaking the young man’s concentration. “I need to make a call.”
Breaking him from his duties seemed to almost disappoint Hodge. He shuffled off slowly without a word, his back hunched and shoulders loped forwards like some unruly child. Hodge shut the door behind him, without excessive force, but hard enough so that the wooden rafters rattled slightly in their places, shaking more dust down towards the floor. Mago looked to the ceiling as some fell upon his head, and considered the merits of religion.
He sat and turned on the vid-com unit, hailing his chief investor, Edward Garrant. For what seemed like several minutes he waited for a connection, watching the circular motion of the buffering symbol with a kind of hypnotic intensity.
When Garrant did answer, his large Warlus-like physique caught him with such surprise that he almost fell of his chair. He tried to pass of his fright with an attempt to swat an invisible fly. Garrant did not appear convinced.
“What is it?” He said, his slack distended jowls flowing like the tides of the ocean.
“Good evening, sir.” Mago greeted.
Garrant leaned forwards, closer to the screen.
“You look terrible. What’s that in your hair?”
Mago brushed a self-conscious hand across the top of his head and tried to suppress a cough as dust and small chunks of masonry came down past his eyes.
“I have some good news, sir.” He said enthusiastically.
“Go on…” Garrant answered sullenly.
“The device you commissioned me to develop, well… we’ve had a breakthrough.”
He hadn’t expected too much excitement from Garrant, but some kind of reaction seemed only natural. However his face remained still, devoid of any kind of telling emotion.
“Is that so?” He answered eventually, his voice cold and sceptical.
Edward Garrant had never been an easy man to talk with, too quick with his criticisms and mean with his praise. Mago had only met him on a handful of occasions; the first time when he pitched his ideas he’d said almost nothing, the last at a fundraiser when he never moved from within striking distance of the buffet table. He was a man devoid of charm, whose appetite was matched only by his cynicism. Mago often pondered which he held dearer.
“What kind of breakthrough?” Garrant followed up.
“Oh…er, sustained lift of four cubic tonnes of water.”
His interest seemed to peak at that, his eyes glazing over ever so slightly.
“For how long?”
“I’m not sure. We shut the machine down without any sign of instability or deterioration in the field.”
“Have you tested it again?”
“Not yet, sir. We plan to do so tomorrow.”
Garrant scratched at his broad chin.
“I’m coming to visit.”
“You sure that’s wise, sir?”
The look on his face darkened.
“I’ll decide what’s wise! This is my money after all.”
“Yes, of course, sir. We’ll look forward to your arrival.”
The platitude was obvious, transparent to a blind man. Garrant looked at him suspiciously, but said nothing and with a flick of his wrist ended the connection.
Mago leaned back in his seat and exhaled softly, half with relief and half with trepidation. He took a cautious glance over at the device, wondering whether tomorrow would bring success or disaster, there would be nothing in between. Nervousness rang through him, and he sat for a long while alone and silence as darkness slowly filled the room.
Once night had conquered day, Mago picked himself up and wandered casually through to the kitchen. Hodge was attempting to dry the dishes from the previous day, although the trail of broken crockery around his feet told its own story.
“Why don’t you leave that for now.” Mago told him.
He was weary, though from more than a mere day’s work. It was the winter of his life and he knew it. There wouldn’t be many more chances and if he failed in this endeavour he’d have nothing to show for a lifetime spent in study and science.
Hodge left, carefully stepping over the broken shards with his head bowed in shyness and humility. He cast furtive glances over at Mago when he thought he couldn’t be seen, and left the room as if in defeat.
“You hungry?” Mago asked. “I’ll make us some dinner.”
He craned his neck to peer at the young man as he shuffled down the hallway. Hodge mumbled something indiscernible in response. He took it for the positive.
Their meal that night consisted of a sloppy brown stew made from tinned vegetables and a jar of mysterious pickled brown meat that Mago couldn’t place. Regardless, the ingredients combined relatively well, perhaps more through accident than design, but it left him feeling strangely proud.
Back in the old lounge, Hodge sat at the table with two spoons, one in each hand, eagerly anticipating the source of the smell that wafted from the kitchen. When it was presented he stood in response and leaned towards it with the kind of awe usually reserved for the divine. He poured the contents into the two wooden bowls, handing the first to his master and then filling one for himself. Mago thanked him with a smile.
“You excited about tomorrow?”
Hodge paused with a spoonful of stew close to his gaping mouth. Evidently, he was more excited about dinner.
“Mr. Garrant will be personally attending the next trial.”
Hodge didn’t answer, he was too busy eating.
“We don’t want any mistakes this time.”
The young man held fire on his chewing momentarily, and nodded.
“We do things carefully, we do things slowly and we get them right. Ok?”
“Yes.” Came the monosyllabic answer, accompanied by dribble of brown stew that slid down Hodge’s chin and dropped back into the stew.
Mago turned away and took a mouthful from his own bowl. His initial impressions had been wrong. It tasted worse than it smelled, and it didn’t smell particularly good. He carried on eating reluctantly, and watched Hodge from the corner of his eye as he shovelled his spoon through the stew with abandon. He wondered whether they were truly eating the same thing.
When he’d finished his first bowl, Hodge helped himself to another, though not before offering Mago some first. He declined with a wave of the hand and continued to watch the young man curiously, feeling an undeniable smile grow across his face.
“How long have you worked here?” He asked.
Hodge paused, contemplating the question, his brow creasing with mental strain. He placed the spoon down and began counting his fingers as he worked out the mental arithmetic.
“Ten years.” He said, once he was convinced the answer was correct.
“Since you were twelve?”
He stopped again, and recounted.
“I didn’t realise you’d been here so long. Did you never want to do something else?”
Hodge shrugged his big shoulders.
“Nothing else I could do. Never did go to school.”
Mago decided to stop the line of questioning, feeling both pity and a sense of guilt. He returned to his stew, though he no longer felt hungry. Hodge finished his second bowl as quickly as the first and began clearing things away without being asked or told.
“There’s no hurry.” Mago said warmly. “The dishes won’t likely grow legs and walk away. You should relax, do something you enjoy. I’ll take care of this.”
Hodge stopped, suddenly unsure and fearful. Another guilty tremor passed through Mago’s gut as he recalled that in all their time together he’d never once spent a minute with him aside from their work, and had no idea what he actually did enjoy. Faced the sudden potential and uncertainty of recreation, Hodge didn’t seem to know how to react. He loitered besides the table as if bound by an invisible chain, casting his dull eyes to Mago, wide with appeal for inspiration or acquiescence.
For the first time, Mago saw in his apprentice, a kind of odd mirror. He’d devoted his whole life to higher pursuits, learning and invention, but in doing so he’d sacrificed simpler pleasures. In his youth he’d considered anything else to be trivial and a waste of time, but now at the wrong side of sixty he found himself reconsidering.
Mago looked up to Hodge and met his eyes.
“How would you like to learn to read and write?”
Hodge paused on the question, like a man wary of deception, and nodded cautiously.
“Good. Tomorrow morning, then. We start at dawn.”
Mago made himself get up early the next morning, remembering his promise from the night before. He staggered from his bed, still half within a state of slumber and got dressed with a certain degree of difficulty. The sun was yet to rise, but as he peered out through the boarded window of his room he saw the distant horizon turning to a pale grey.
Downstairs, Hodge was already up and awake, his previous hesitation seemingly having evaporated overnight. He seemed eager to learn, and sat quietly captivated as he watched the sunrise filter in between the wooden slats at the front of the house. Dust floated within the beams of light that shone in, bringing illumination to that long left in the dark.
“Ready to begin?” Mago asked.
Hodge didn’t answer, but the question succeeded in distracting him from the spectacle. He turned and smiled.
After collecting an armful of dusty old tomes, Mago returned and dropped them down upon the table. The weight and the impact unsettled the fragile wooden legs and they swayed with a moment of indecision before retaining their balance. Hodge pulled one of the books towards him and delicately prised open the front cover. He bent in closer to the opening page and pawed a finger at the first faded line of text, trying to curl his mouth around the word. Mago circled around and stood besides him, leaning over his shoulder.
“Who moves the world?”
Hodge broke the words and syllables down, and then repeated them.
“What does it mean?” He asked.
Mago lifted the corner of the paper and turned the page.
For the next few hours they proceeded through the first chapter. It was slow progress, and hard work, but Mago found it rewarding in an entirely new way. With the turning of each page Hodge found greater ease with the words and his desire to continue was unfaltering. It was as though they had awakened something voracious within him.
So embroiled in their endeavours, were they, that time became forgotten. The sun rose higher in the sky as morning passed into afternoon, but still they remained, enthralled and oblivious. When he was sure they’d had enough, Mago inserted a bookmark and closed the front cover. Hodge reclined in his seat with a smile of satisfaction.
Just as he did the doorbell rang, searing right through the moment. The tone rang high, then quickly descended into a garbled tinny rattle as the charge of the long dormant battery dwindled. Mago patted Hodge gently on the shoulder and left his side for the first time in hours.
He strode to the front door and undid the latch, opening it to find the large distended figure of Edward Garrant standing on the porch. He glared back, breathing heavily and Mago’s good humour quickly evaporated at the sight of his grimace.
“This better be worth my time.” Garrant said, his jowls shaking with his rumbling basso tone and sourness of expression.
Mago summoned the best smile he could manage and stepped to one side. Garrant waddled in, turning sideways to fit through the door as his bulk stressed the floorboards beneath.
Once inside he proceeded to remove his jacket, spinning on the spot like a slowly rotating planet. Damp patches extended from both his armpits, soaking through his pale blue shirt. Then, without so much as a look in his direction, he cast the jacket in the direction of Hodge, who caught it awkwardly.
“Well, are you going to show me this, er… breakthrough, then?” He said, his annoyance coming through clear as he gasped thick gulps of air.
“Of course, sir.” Mago answered. “Right this way.”
He led Garrant through to the back of the house, apologising for the mess on the way. Hodge followed them both, but kept a cautious distance.
The spillage from the previous day had done much to clean the floor around the device, but in the time since a gentle layer of the ubiquitous house dust had fallen and settled onto the shining new black steel panels of the machine. Mago displayed his invention with his hands, casting them through the air as if he were a salesman.
“My machine.” He said proudly.
Feeling Garrant’s eyes watching his strange new affectation he became suddenly self-conscious, and placed them down rigidly by his side.
“Let’s see it working then.” Garrant said.
“One moment.” Mago uttered.
He could feel his heart beginning to palpitate, while the pores of his flesh became thick with perspiration. Each step felt like a mile as he made his way over to the controls, whispering noiseless pleas for good fortune. Then, with a deep breath, he powered it on.
The cables hummed as harnessed electricity surged through them and fed into the machine. In response the core engine fired into life with a deep pulsing throb that shook the floor, flesh and the foundations beneath.
Hodge took a step back, to stand beneath the frame of the doorway. The young man looked afraid, a new fear gripping him and shining bright in his wide eyes. Garrant approached to within a few feet of the device and leaned towards it. As the water began to rise a strange grin appeared on his face, wide and stretched and unnatural. Mago had never seen that smile before.
As the water rose above the confines of the tank Garrant peered up at the spectacle his mouth agape.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” He muttered, “You actually did it.”
The grin returned and he laughed. So deep and guttural was the sound that it combined with the pulsing thrum of the machine, gaining a new dimension in power and depth. Mago smiled, unsure and half expectant of a hidden chastisement, though it never came. Instead, Garrant waddled over to him and with his grin still intact, clapped him on both shoulders.
“You’ve done well. I didn’t think you’d be the one.”
Faced with his investor’s praise and sudden exuberance he didn’t quite know how to react.
“Thank you, sir.” He said, apprehensively.
Garrant laughed again, and placed a large flaccid arm around his shoulders.
“Come, we have much to discuss. Have your boy make us something for dinner, I’m starved.”
Before Mago could muster so much as a word, Hodge ducked out from the doorway in the direction of the kitchen. Garrant reaffirmed his grip, his limp flesh turning suddenly hard and strong.
“This is something we must discuss privately. We’ve hit upon something special here, and the fewer people who know the details, the better. It’s ours, it is, mine and yours.”
Together they walked through to the adjacent lounge. Garrant swiped the rickety table clear, knocking the book Hodge had been reading down onto the floor, where it landed face open in the dust.
Mago sat across from him as Garrant pulled a crinkled piece of paper from his pocket. Without sitting, he began to run through the stipulations of the contract, ownership and rights. Hours passed like a shapeless blur and Garrant’s words began to lose their form and substance. He had in that moment everything he’d always wanted; fame, achievement and better still, a legacy, yet the victory felt strangely empty.
He continued to listen dutifully, but in truth his real attention was on the slowly diminishing light that signalled the end of the day, and the finality of all things.
After dusk had settled, Hodge presented the two men with their dinner. He lifted the heavy soup pot onto the middle of the table and began to serve them both. It looked similar to Mago’s attempt from the previous night, yet it smelled infinitely better. He thanked the young man, yet Garrant’s expression was far less content.
“What in all the heavens is this?” He said. “Dogs eat better than this slop.”
He bent in and smelled it, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
“You spent hours in that kitchen and this is the best you could come up with!?”
Garrant’s look of derision made Mago uncomfortable, though he said nothing.
“Take it away! I’d rather starve than try to eat this… this piss water.”
Hodge began to clear the table again, removing the pot and Garrant’s dish, though when he came to other side of the table, Mago placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“It’s fine, Hodge. Thank you.”
Garrant watched him coldly, waiting for him to leave. When he did he leaned across, stressing the fragile table legs.
“Why do you tolerate that idiot?”
“He’s a good lad, I couldn’t have done any of this without him.”
“Pffff…” Garrant sniggered. “Believe me, I know that boy’s uses, and they are few. What I don’t understand is why you and the others have wanted to keep him around. Are you really content to divide this thing three ways? There’s a lot coming to you, do you really want to share it with that simpleton? Think on it. Think how much you really owe him.”
From the corner of his eye, Mago noticed the book lying on the floor. He looked towards the door Hodge had left through and he did think on it.
Mago woke late the next morning. Sleep had not come easy to him that night. Concerns and re-evaluations had plagued him until the early hours and upon waking he felt groggy.
He pulled one of the slats from his bedroom window and leaned out through the gap. The back garden, abandoned to time had become overgrown. The grass grew tall and yellow, and competed for space with the strangling vines that swarmed over the back of the house and choked the ancient tree that had long since withered.
In the distance, the city encroached ever closer. Tall buildings of blue, black and grey reached into the sky, their tops disappearing into thick dark clouds of smog and condensation. He closed his eyes and felt the soft breeze against his face while the warmth of the sun pervaded his skin.
The moment was interrupted by Garrant’s deep booming voice reverberating from the floor below. He sounded angry. As quick as possible, Mago made his way downstairs.
In the back room, Hodge stood by the controls, blocking them defiantly while Garrant loomed over him, his face red and contorted with rage.
“Just turn the bloody thing on, you absolute cretin!”
“What seems to be the problem?” Mago asked.
“This idiot of yours is the problem. Not only does he refuse to take my instruction but he stops me from trialling the machine myself! Have you both forgotten who you work for!?”
“Wait.” Mago interjected. “It’s my fault. I told Hodge the machine is never to be used without me present. I apologise.”
If he thought that might dissipate Garrant’s anger, it did not. Instead he waddled over furiously towards him and jabbed him in the chest with a finger.
“Then you listen to me, get that idiot away from me and do exactly what I tell you, or you can forget about everything.”
Mago carefully guided Hodge away from the controls and turned on the machine himself. The water in the tank was growing stale and a thin dusty film had settled across its surface. With the anti-gravity field in effect the dust soon lifted and floated in the air above the water, which began to rise the same way it had done in the previous tests. This time, the sight didn’t seem so awe-inspiring.
“This is the one thing you’ve got right in your whole miserable life, Mago. And you stand to make me a lot of money.”
Garrant stepped towards it, casting a hand through the field and smiling as it lifted and pulled at his fingers. Hodge moved to pull him away, but Mago placed a gentle hand across his path and looked at his apprentice, shaking his head. Then, with the other hand he turned the dial up, increasing the strength of the field. Garrant’s face went pale as he felt the power lift him from his feet. The cloud of water spun up to the highest point in the house, filling the crest of the ceiling, while Garrant himself shot up like a bullet, breaking a second, wider hole in the roof and disappearing as a speck into the sky.
Hodge’s mouth dropped open in shock, while all Mago could do was smile, feeling laughter build from inside him. He turned off the machine and walked Hodge into the lounge, sitting him down facing the boarded windows while he picked up his book and dusted off the pages.
“Are you ready to continue?” He smiled.
Hodge nodded and grinned in agreement as the water came tumbling down behind them, back into the tank.
“I think I might remove those boards. It’s about time we had some light in here.”
Just as he finished, another object came smashing back through the roof and landed square in the water, casting almost every inch of it out of the tank and down onto the floor.