We were triumphant as the train rattled down the track, the air whipping around our heads. The magic filled us with an irresponsible joy, a sense of slightly reckless giddiness. We didn’t notice the rocking of the boxcar platform; we felt only the jubilance of creation.
We directed the magic to build the boxcar around us, and the smoky crystals tumbled together and bonded and built upon themselves to form the dark structure we envisioned. The landscape outside was similarly dark: the sky reflected only a dim gray light, there were no stars, and the plains spreading out around us were cloaked in shadow. Even the other cars on the train were black. It would have been gloomy, had we not been reveling in our success.
But the pall settled over us soon enough. As the train followed a needless bend on the flat landscape, the faces of my two companions fell. One of them pointed out the doorway we left open in the side of the car. I turned to look.
There, right by where the track made the lazy curve, a woman stood. She was wearing a yellow dress, cluttered with a floral pattern. Over this she wore an orange coat, the hem of which rested just below her hips. In her left hand she carried a brown suitcase, and she was looking directly at us.
It was Eudora.
Dread filled the boxcar, an anticipation of disapproval.
“How did she find us?” The query came from Erant.
I shook my head. What did it matter? She was there, even if this all should have waited until we had returned.
With a gesture I sent Kip to patch through to the engine car. She did so, slipping between a curtain of space and reappearing a few seconds later, just as the train began to slow. We stood silently, our faces toward the door, rocking gently as the train trembled to a stop. We watched with misgiving as Eudora began walking toward us.
“Why doesn’t she just patch over?” Erant stared out in confusion.
Even though she was still over 50 meters away, Kip and I refrained from rolling our eyes. We had the impression Eudora would be able to sense our scorn.
“She doesn’t like to patch,” Kip answered for the both of us. “She thinks it’s...undignified.”
The look on Erant’s face reflected our incredulity. The efficiency of patching far outweighed the accepted social customs of old. It was true there was some level of chaos when patching was first discovered; before rules were implemented, it was recorded that almost two percent of the population died of fright when someone patched and suddenly appeared next to them. This was of course before it was discovered that patching was only possible through vigorous training and not a small amount of talent, and after a number of grisly accidents. But that was ancient history, although some people continued to cling stubbornly to the past.
We waited, our eyes and thoughts focused on Eudora’s approach. I was the leader of this assignment, so it would fall to me to provide a suitable explanation. But, after thoroughly scanning the parameters of this particular project, I could think of nothing we had a done that would warrant such a visit.
“How did she even get here if she didn’t patch?” Erant murmured.
Kip struggled with a smirk, thankfully winning against it, and then shared with me a sideways glance. In a moment of pure spontaneity, I winked. Her eyes widened momentarily, and then we all straightened our spines as Eudora boarded the car.
She did not look at us directly at first; instead, her eyes shifted around the car, inspecting its construction. Finally, she settled her gaze on my face. I gazed back, unblinking. The suitcase was still in her left hand.
“Passable,” she finally declared, sparing a glance to Erant and Kip.
A flare of anger crackled inside me, but I repressed the urge to comment. She may be an Evaluator, but she did not recruit me, and she would have to concede this was one of the quickest initiations in the troubled history of the Quintin Partnership. I said nothing.
She did not seem bothered by the mounting silence, but I could feel Erant shifting beside me. I willed her to be still.
“Completion was certainly within expectations,” Eudora finally offered.
“High praise,” I replied lightly, and felt a ripple from Kip. She was upset, I could tell, but I also sensed a glimmer of amusement.
“Hmmm,” Eudora looked me up and down and then wandered to a corner to investigate the boxcar more closely.
The three of us relaxed only slightly while Eudora’s back was turned. What she didn’t seem to understand was that magic could be fun. Of course we had all voluntarily joined QuiP, an organization dedicated to pushing the limits of technology to mirror the boundaries of magic. We all subscribed to the cause.
But there were those who understood the wild freedom of magic, saw the boundaries as invitations, thrived in the uncertainty of experimentation. Those people excelled at adaptation, at discovering new uses for well worn spells. And there weren’t enough of those people in upper management at QuiP.
I had chosen this team for a reason. I glanced at Erant. As the newcomer, she had the most to lose, and her face betrayed a barely contained anguish. Kip was also anxious, but she had more experience and was better at concealing it. I cleared my throat.
“Kip, Erant, why don’t you go check on the engine, ensure we can return safely?”
Kip narrowed her eyes, but nodded curtly. She patched through, Erant following quickly after. The echo of Erant’s patch was messy. I winced.
“I’m surprised at you,” Eudora said, immediately after they disappeared.
“In a good way or a bad way?”
Eudora turned and gave me a withering look.
“We had high hopes for you.”
“For my team, you mean.”
“When you work so closely together, it’s all the same.” Eudora waved her right hand vaguely, the left still clutching the case. Its inauspicious presence suddenly made me wary. I considered spelling a warning, but Eudora would sense it. Even if she didn’t use magic, she could feel it like everyone else.
“You thought we wouldn’t notice?”
I suddenly felt trapped.
Eudora was now advancing upon me, slowly, and it took every ounce of my willpower to remain where I stood. She paused, directly in front of me, looking up at my face, searching for something. I couldn’t fathom what it might be. Her voice dropped to a near whisper.
“You really didn’t think a spell of that magnitude could be hidden?”
I felt it before I saw it, the tearing of space as uniformed officers patched into the boxcar. I felt Kip and Erant ripped from the engine car, saw them for a moment, their faces panicked. Then a hand grasped my arm, and I was roughly dragged through a sickening patch.
It had been two days. I could see Kip and Erant, in a cell across the hall. They had placed them together, which was in some ways reassuring. Kip looked worried but defiant. Erant was pale. I would watch them speak with one another, but the walls of magic that kept us caged prevented me from hearing what they were saying. Another blessing, I supposed. I couldn’t imagine any universe in which they would want to work with me ever again.
I stood and stretched. The cot was too short for me, and my back ached. My crumpled uniform jacket lay upon the pillow, a sorry attempt at comfort. Kip and Erant glanced at me from across the hall. Erant looked quickly away, ashamed or embarrassed. Kip just looked at me, her expression blank. But I could feel it, even through the containment fields. Her anger was unmistakable.
Suddenly guards filled the hallway, and I watched helplessly as Kip and Erant were escorted from their cell. Erant gave me one more glance, and it seemed her face was grim with pity. I peered after them, hoping for a hint of where they were being taken, but a moment later the spell before me evaporated.
She scowled, clutching the tablet tightly in her hand. The guards around her shifted slightly.
“That’s Evaluator to you, Mr. Fine. Evaluator Price, if you must.”
“Oh, why, thank you.”
Her scowl deepened. She was wearing a blue suit today, finely cut and made of an expensive material. The fabric glimmered with a slight pattern as she approached.
“Your actions have caused no small amount of trouble, Mr. Fine.”
“Although I was doubtful of their involvement to begin with, I am happy to report we have concluded that Yurica Erant and Suzanna Kip were not in any way affiliated with the event, and have therefore let them go.”
Eudora had moved into the room, tapping on her tablet with measured familiarity. I stepped back, wary, watching the guards from the corner of my eye.
“In fact, it was wise to exclude them from your plans,” she continued. “Things certainly would not have gone well for you if you had exploited your position of influence to make them accomplices.”
“Accomplices? What event? What are you talking about?”
Eudora looked up, her eyes narrowed.
“Mr. Fine, your evasions are not going to keep us from taking appropriate action. You may deny it all you want, but we know you caused the Raven Fire, and you will be dealt with accordingly.”
I felt sick.
“No,” I whispered. “That wasn’t me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Who else requested access to the Raven Drums immediately before they were destroyed? Who else has your level of influence among the Historians?”
My chest tightened. I grew lightheaded as I struggled for breath. I inhaled sharply as Eudora stepped closer, her face raised to mine. I believed I saw a glimmer of satisfaction in her eye and heard a smile in her voice.
“And who else has repeatedly, in public, denounced the Laws? Complained of their obsolescence?”
I backed away but she advanced, forcing me against the wall. I was sweating, desperate to escape. I could feel myself involuntarily reaching out to patch, inwardly wincing at the sting of magical and technical resistance.
“Who else has sought to push the limits of what QuiP stands for? Who else has made it their personal mission to ignore the order of our society?” Her voice had grown sharp, a weapon to wound. I felt it acutely.
“You’re a disgrace to this company, and to this world. You have destroyed something sacred, something we all believed in.”
She finally stepped back, leaving a space between us that pulsed with hatred and disgust. I leaned against the wall, dizzy with fear. The Evaluator moved back into the hallway, and just before she raised the barrier, she spat,
“I hope you drown.”
I heard the buzz of magic as the barrier returned. I retched, barely making it to the toilet before I was sick. I gagged, spitting out the bile that continued to rise at the back of my throat. When I was sure nothing else could come up, I sat back, my head against the wall, shaking, sweat trickling down my neck.
She couldn’t have meant it. There was no greater penalty for a crime than drowning. Drowning was capital punishment. There hadn’t been a drowning for as long as I could remember, perhaps years before I was even born.
If it had come down to that, things were worse than I thought.