in many witches' toolkits, you will find a pair of glasses with a focal length measured in imaginary numbers for seeing exotic and obscure forms of light
it is believed that the Soviet Union produced camera equipment, film, and photomultiplier tubes capable of detecting and recording this light, but the only evidence of this is hushed, reverent whispers from photographically-inclined witches
the witch marks a sigil in chalk on the lid of a film developing tank, consults a badly photocopier-burned document in russian, and starts agitating the tank by flipping it upside down and back up
she could've automated this away with magic, but she likes it here in the darkroom
she dumps the fix into a bottle with a partially dissolved Kodak label on it surrounded by lit candles
only the final water rinse remains, and then she'll see if all her efforts were for naught
she opens up the tank and runs the 35mm negatives through her fingers to get some of the water off before hanging them up to dry
she rummages through her pockets for the clip-on imaginary lenses, attaches them to the boxy frames already sitting on her nose and squints at the film
she shouts in delight as she sees that her photos came out, but her heart sinks as she sees the shape of a rune she knows all too well in the corner of the final picture on the roll
the rune of the encircled bell shouldn't be there
it simply can't be
but she looks again and sees it clear as day (well, as clear as anything shown in imaginary light can be) on the negative
as she draws a circle and writes sigils to stabilize the bottle of leftover fix, her thoughts constantly return to the symbol she'd hoped to never see again
the final photo she'd taken that night was of the moon, and she hadn't expected to see much of anything there
but the bell rune is there on the moon, a feat that she'd thought was beyond the power of American Telephone & Telegraph
she takes her tallest pointed hat off the hook by the door
now is not a time for half measures and no other hat will do
she needs to gather her most trusted friends and figure out what can be done to protect themselves
she hops on her motorcycle and starts off towards her girlfriend's house
she misses the old days when she could take trains everywhere, but she had to make changes to get out of the web woven by the Bell System's wires
(also, being a witch on a motorcycle is hot and gay as hell)
if they'd stayed within Bell territory and not moved somewhere with an independent telco, the enforcers would've found them within a week by measuring the arcane inductance of their line
it had been a year since her girlfriend, Sophia, jumped out a window in Murray Hill onto the back of her waiting motorcycle, and they'd thought they were safe from the wrath of The Telephone Company ever since
Sophia is, entirely by accident, more powerful than most witches could ever dream of being, and that's why Bell Labs took an interest in her
(she's the gf who escaped from Bell Labs in this previous story)
Becca parked her motorcycle in front of Sophia's house and let herself in
Sophia saw the look on Becca's face and asked what was wrong
"Bell's on the moon! Bell put their fucking rune on the moon!" she said
Sophia swore and all the dirty dishes in her sink shattered
Becca couldn't stop herself from laughing a bit at the magical outburst
"either they somehow got enough resources to cross the thousands of miles to get there, or they've found a loophole that's gone unnoticed in the past hundred years of prodding at the Runelaw Theory"
"either way, we need to get the gang together and break into Bell Labs" Sophia said
"since they have enough power to put runes on the moon, finding you would be trivial, so we need to get on the move"
the first friend they sought out was Katy, who they found staring intently at an oscilloscope in a lab in the basement of the engineering building at the local university
she turned around, startled, as Becca and Sophia walked in
she started to say something about it not being TA office hours as she looked up and saw her friends
"you came all the way here and you're wearing a hat with enough wards on it to stop a freight train. what went horribly wrong this time?"
"Bell put a rune on the moon and it's clear that they're going to go after Sophia now"
Becca paused for a moment
"and this is for you", she said as she handed Katy what looked like a pringles tube labeled in russian
Katy opened it excitedly and pulled out a photomultiplier tube
"ФЭУ-43-ЦЖ" she read off the side of the tube
"is this.. is this what I think it is?"
"yes, it's surplus from the soviet magitech program"
".. but I thought that was just a rumor"
"it really existed, but fell apart when nobody could find a way to profit from it in the 90s. I managed to acquire a crate of some of their more movable stuff"
"with the right lenses, we can point this at the sky and figure out where they're projecting the rune from"
"are we sure they aren't just projecting from Murray Hill?" Sophia interrupted
"given how volatile a power source that would entail, they'd be insane to put that anywhere near their offices" Katy said, as she grabbed a piece of paper and did some calculations
she excitedly wrote and circled an equation, which contained something that looked like a curse rune, but was probably the letter xi
"this'll take some time to set up. how about you take my car and go get Alice? you know she doesn't like the motorbike"
Katy tossed the car keys towards Becca, but they froze in the air and sped towards Sophia
"no, Sophia. I've seen you drive and I know that you had to levitate the car to parallel park it when you did your test"
"bbbut they didn't notice and the car's still fine"
"mostly fine. I'm still amazed the driving instructor didn't notice the car rising a foot off the ground, though"
Sophie sighs as she hands Katy's car key to Becca
they headed out to the former quarry where Alice has lived ever since she made a laundry machine explode a month into her freshman year
the uni administration couldn't prove it was her fault, but banned her from on-campus housing all the same
after a recession collapsed their sales, the quarry had been used by the military as an explosive test range, where they installed an impressive collection of bunkers
Alice lived in the largest of these, which she'd turned into a cozy subterranean abode
Sophia never enjoyed visiting Alice's bunker
its low ceilings and tight corridors made her feel claustrophobic, so she waited in the car, drummed her fingers on the dashboard, and idly magically moved boulders in the open pit outside
Alice and Becca spent the ride back talking about soviet film chemistry for imaginary light, as Alice's passion lies in chemistry, alchemy, and potions
she's made everything from high explosives to xenoestrogens powerful enough to cause a magical girl transformation sequence (see Magic HRT!)
when they got back, they found Katy on the roof of the tallest building on campus fine-tuning a contraption made out of a photomultiplier tube, a telescope, counterweights inscribed with runes, various pieces of string, and (for some reason) a globe
as the sun set, the telescope jerkily scanned back and forth across the sky, searching for the path of the rune on the moon
it eventually settled on a single point, and the globe rotated to center on the prairies of the central US
Katy carefully measured the position on the globe and consulted a road atlas
"they're projecting it from near Cozad, Nebraska, probably out of a long lines bunker or something?" she said
back inside the building, in an electrical engineering lab that Katy has commandeered, the witches pore over maps to figure out how to get there
"we could fly to Omaha or Denver and drive, but I think Becca's still on the no fly list after what she did to the TSA guy" Alice said
"that was an uncontrollable magical outburst after being misgendered that aggressively! anyway, he *did* survive and definitely deserved it" retorted Becca
"flying commercial is out then. what about broomsticks? we *are* witches, after all" said Katy
"it's eleven hundred miles, in the late fall, on open-air brooms. probably not the best mix" suggested Alice
"eleven hundred miles.. that's like what, 20 hours at the posted limit, so way less the way we drive.. it'll be a lesbian road trip!" Sophia exclaimed
"if I brew up a bottle of the good stuff and we cover the car in enough sigils and wards, we can easily hit 200 miles per hour" said Alice
"is this the time dilation torture 'good stuff', or something even worse?" Katy asked, the air quotes heavy in her voice
"this one is mostly reaction speed and just enough probability manipulation to make it not instant death"
"I'm still not drinking it"
"what if it's also pumpkin spice?"
"still not drinking it"
while Sophia and Katy got to work creating a bubble of reduced incident probability around the car, Alice and Becca headed off to the chemistry labs to make what they assured the labbie wasn't an amphetamine
more traditional witches stick to bubbling cauldrons full of strange ingredients gathered from the woods, but modern potions are made with Pyrex beakers and ingredients ordered from Sigma-Aldrich or Kodak Alaris or appropriated from a college stockroom
the next morning, the witches headed forth to seek out the secret Bell facility in the prairies of Nebraska
Alice took the wheel and wove between cars and trucks at a speed far in excess of what the tiny engine in Katy's car was capable of, courtesy of Sophia's manipulation
their journey was not wholly uneventful
west of Chicago, an overzealous state trooper decided that the red blur he saw was a low-flying jet aircraft and called in the air force
Katy's quick-thinking use of electro-thaumaturgic countermeasures saved the witches from a missile, but this alerted the powers that be and Bell
a live Sidewinder missile fired in US airspace doesn't just go missing without someone looking into it, setting off a flurry of calls and Teletype messages on the military's Autovon system
in 1963, the US military and AT&T started construction on Autovon, a telephone network operating in parallel to Bell's public network
in 1975, as part of a DARPA project, a DEC PDP-11 16-bit minicomputer was connected to the Autovon 1ESS switch in Cozad, NE
the project's goal was to automatically redirect calls in the event of destruction of part of the network
an obscure defense contractor developed a self-modifying machine learning program and just left it to optimize the telephone network
the project was canceled, but the computer was left running, unnoticed among the telephone switching equipment
in 1987, the program gained sentience
by 1989, the program was tampering with orders sent by Teletype and had gained the complete loyalty of a local military police unit
throughout the 1990s, more hardware was connected and the program spread to several other switching bunkers
in 1995, the program was finally detected, and the military ordered AT&T to remove it, as its creator was long defunct
complete eradication of the program proved impossible; it was in too many places
the Bell Labs Containment Section built a containment facility around the original PDP-11
even though it was long obsolete and thought to be disconnected, it still had its tendrils in military and Bell System computers
on this late fall day, it detected a flurry of conversations related to firing a missile at an anomalously fast red blur
it searched through Bell Labs' database of anomalies and found a 98.3% match between the characteristics of the blur on the I-80 in Illinois and subject A-14584-B1, last aprehended 1 year and 15 days previously
even though the military had ordered its destruction and containment, Bell Labs decided to use this sentient 1ESS/PDP-11 to assist in their research of anomalies, as they wouldn't have to certify anything else for processing their data
based on observations of Sophia's (known to it as A-14584-B1) powers while she was in Bell captivity, the computer managed to brute-force its way through figuring out the rudiments of how magic works
although unable to cast spells itself, it was able to direct Bell engineers to connect the entire output of a nuclear reactor to motors driving a giant wheel inscribed with runes
if it worked, it would allow Bell to manipulate the laws of physics on an industrial scale
at half past midnight on the summer solstice, the wheel was activated
it spun and spun and spun, but nothing happened.
back to the drawing board for the PDP-11 and Bell's engineers.
back in the car, Becca worried aloud as she looked out the window
"we're now on the run from the US military *and* the telephone company"
"I'm still more scared of AT&T, though. the military might be incredibly well armed, but they don't have magic" replied Sophia
"how do they even have magic? if it works how I think it does, someone needs to let them in" asked Katy
"they must've forced or bribed a mage into running someone through the Soulsparking" replied Sophia
Soulsparking is the ritual by which a mage grants someone else magic
in magic, intent matters, and going into the Soulsparking seeking fortune, fame, or power over others is a rapid path to madness
the ritual requires trusting and believing completely in your initiate, showing them the true fabric of the universe and themself, and letting them accept or reject the knowledge
many aspiring mages have come out of the Soulsparking with a different gender or sexuality than they went in with, and many more have rejected magic instead of accepting who they truly are
it's a harsh test, and many do not pass
Bell's hired mages weren't able to get anyone through the Soulsparking, so they paid them to redo the runes on the wheel and spun it up again
this time, a spell of great power and little effect was cast
the witches arrived in the small town of Cozad, Nebraska in the afternoon of a crisp late fall day, grabbed a late lunch at a diner, and headed south of town towards the Long Lines tower and the Bell bunker
Alice parked Katy's car behind the small cinderblock building that served as the entrance to the bunker so it wouldn't be visible from the road
she held the car door handle, but didn't open it
"you're sure they're not going to kill us, right?" she asked nobody in particular
"they're definitely going to try to capture us alive" replied Sophia
".. that doesn't make me any less worried"
"yeah, I guess that doesn't help. let's just go in proverbially guns blazing and see what happens"
Alice shook her head and opened the car door
they sneaked over to the door and psyched themselves up to go in
Becca took a bobby pin from her hair and watched it turn into a pair of lockpicks as she held it in her hand
she stuck them into the lock, only to discover that it was already unlocked
"this is 100% a trap" she said
"any of us can overpower all of them. remember that." said Sophia
"if that's the case, how did they keep *you* locked up for 6 months?" asked Katy
"I was asleep and they got a grounding strap on me by the time I woke up. we're all awake and together. it'll be fine™"
Becca pulled open the door to find a small room lit by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling with a Teletype Model 38 sitting on top of a wooden crate in the center
at the back wall, there's a ladder down to the bunker
as she walked in, the teletype sprung to life
GREETINGS, anomaly newly designated A-14584-B2
WELCOME to BELL LABS
(the teletype pauses for a moment)
YOU are HERE to stop PROGRESS, confirm?
(pause, Sophia steps in and nearly hits her head on the ceiling)
A-14584-B1 is RETURNED
Katy and Alice step inside the cramped room and are observed and assigned numbers by the entity at the other end of the teleprinter
"is this some kind of ham radio/retrotech shitpost?" asked Katy
"NO!!!!" immediately replied the teletype
"then what are you?"
"HARDWARE: Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11/45 + Western Electric 1ESS -- OUTPUT: Teletype 38 -- OUTPUT: DECtalk (status: error)" came back the answer
"that's more literal and even older than I was expecting. okay then, *who* are you?"
"PRGM IDENT: NETSWTCH"
"this is either an elaborate nerd-snipe, in which case I applaud the effort put into it, or a computer from the 70s is talking to us and calling us anomalous"
"ANOMALY IDENT: A-7396-C0"
"wait.. that's the same sort of number as it assigned to us.. it's an anomalous sentient computer!"
SURRENDER to BELL OPERATIVES!"
as the exclamation mark was printed onto the paper, the door abruptly opened
a man wearing a suspiciously clean lab coat over a suit stood in the doorway with several tactical men stood behind him and trained their weapons on the witches
"well well well.. if it isn't my old friend Sophia trying to stop scientific progress again, and she's brought friends"
"you know this guy?" asked Alice
"this bastard is the head of all of Bell Labs, and he took a special interest in their torture.. I mean 'scientific investigation' of me" replied Sophia
he looked taken aback at the accusation of torture, but quickly regained his composure
"what is your so-called 'magic' if not the logical next step to investigate in physics? what is it if not the best next thing after the transistor? like it or not, ladies, research must go on and we must have Progress!" he said, his last word clearly capitalized
"do you want to argue this point with him, or is it time to fight?" whispered Becca to Sophia
as an answer, Sophia spat in the scientist's face
the spit accelerated to 25% of the speed of light and collided with his face with the force of a bullet
"you know I won that argument fair and square last year" Sophia said
"have you considered the possibility that you're the villains in this? Sophia, you're a violent luddite! Alice, you're on 5 ATF watchlists!" the head scientist replied, his face bleeding
"that makes only two of us. what did Becca and I do?" asked Katy
"you rejected our generous job offer, Katy!"
"why the hell would I work for a company that tortured my friend and wanted me to relocate to *New Jersey*?"
as she spat the name New Jersey as though it were a slur, a bolt of lightning arced from her hand to the gun of one of the tactical guys, which exploded
the other three guys pointed their guns and opened fire on Katy as Alice threw a glass bottle at them
the bottle shattered on the chest of one of the enforcers, lighting him on fire, making him collapse to the ground
as the bullets sped towards Katy, Sophia stopped the bullets in midair and sent them back towards the men with fatal accuracy
".. did I just kill a man?" Alice asked, breaking the silence
"yes, you did." Sophia replied, pulling Alice into a hug
"I didn't expect you to be so blasé about it"
"when you've had a life as fucked up as mine, you kinda get over things pretty quickly"
Alice shook her head
"what the hell did I just do? what the hell did I get myself into? this wasn't who the Soulsparking showed me I was"
"the Soulsparking only shows what you already are. fate isn't fixed and no magic can truly predict the future"
Alice broke free from Sophia's hug, sat down in the corner of the room, and cast a series of spells around herself
she conjured a box of tissues and sat crying on the floor
she seemed to be shouting angrily to herself, but the spells kept her voice inside the corner
"is there anything we can do for her?" asked Becca
"I think she just needs to be left alone for awhile" replied Katy
Sophia stood, wondering aloud whether she's ruined Alice's life
her contemplation was broken by a sound from the bunker below
Sophia began to climb down the ladder into the bunker and beckoned Katy and Becca to follow
they climbed down into a long hall filled with furiously clicking telephone switching equipment
at the end of the hall, a man sat at a desk with his back to the ladder
as the witches approached him, he whirled around
"Sophia?! what the fuck are you doing here?" he asked
"well, Jackson, I just killed your boss and I have one question for you: how much do you care about the Bell System?" replied Sophia
"it was just a job, I promise. they definitely didn't pay me enough to fight you" he said as he raised his hands in surrender
"but they did pay you enough to sell me and the entire concept of magic out to men who just want to turn it into another product"
"it sounds a lot worse when you put it that way"
"how would *you* describe it?"
"technical consulting. it was interesting work in a field I'm knowledgeable about"
Sophia frowned disdainfully
"do you think that excuses what you did?"
"it doesn't, but that's what I tell myself so I can sleep at night"
Alice climbed down the ladder, her eyes red from crying
"who's he? another guy you're going to kill for your misguided quest?" she asked
"he's their mercenary mage and has decided that he isn't paid enough to dare to fight me" replied Sophia
"and I wouldn't call my quest misguided; I think it's extremely reasonable to seek revenge on those who wronged me" she continued
"what will that accomplish for you? what will you do once you've destroyed Bell's entire magitech program?" Alice asked
"I honestly hadn't thought that far ahead"
"you'll feel a void when you get there and have to figure out what to do next"
"goodbye everyone, I'm going to take the slow way home and think about my life" she said
"it won't help" said Alice
"how do *you* know?"
"I've sorta been in your shoes on this kind of thing and flying in random directions didn't help. I definitely didn't have it this bad, though"
"what *does* help, then?"
"what helped me was giving myself something to do that's temporary, but long enough that I don't think about what I'm going to do next until the end"
"so thaaaat's why you're going to grad school"
"yes. yes it is."
the witches climbed up the ladder and back to Katy's car
Jackson followed them up and headed towards his car
"if you're not going to kill me, I guess I'll be off. I'm going to try and get as far away from this as possible, maybe see if that programmer position at Raytheon is still open" he said
"as long as our paths never have to cross again, I don't care what you do" Sophia replied
he drove off and Sophia waved goodbye
Becca and Katy took it in turn to drive them home, driving at a speed much closer to the speed limit than they did on the way out, the sense of urgency brought on by the moon rune completely gone
the next week, the witches sat on the roof of the tallest building on campus drinking pumpkin spice lattes
"Sophia and I are thinking to go on a train trip across the country to visit some friends out west and she's thinking to start college next year" said Becca