a collaboration with @l1lyposting
the tower casts a long shadow in the midday sun as Sophia approaches it, the sun shining through its right triangle trusses
she puts on her mages' glasses and looks up at the horn-shaped antennæ that crown it
it's faint against the bright sky, but there's clearly a crisp line coming off of them
the gate in the fence yields easily to her spell and she climbs towards the magic and RF above her
this tower is the intersection of several long distance trunks and thus the intersection of several leylines
by building this network of towers, they've created a web of parallel artificial leylines spanning north america that can be tapped into like any other leylines
she sets her bag down on the platform at the top of the tower and takes out several candles
she places them around her and lights them and shelters them against the wind with a spell
she draws on the power of the continent-spanning network and begins casting a spell
the company van rattles on the gravel road up to the tower
he shouldn't be taking it this fast, but he's in a hurry to get up there
looking through binoculars, he sees her on the platform at the top
checking his pistol and donning his blue and yellow striped hard hat, he begins to climb the tower
engrossed in her spellcasting, she doesn't hear him until he's halfway up the tower
she stands in the center of the circle of candles facing the ladder and stares him dead in the eyes as he climbs up
"you need to come down; it isn't safe up here"
"what if I don't?"
the candles flare brigter as she says this
"please. I promise you won't be in trouble if you climb down now; I just don't want you do do anything stupid"
he tries to pick up a candle to blow it out and recoils as it seems to shock him
she leaps from the tower, furiously tracing shapes in the air with her one hand to slow her fall as she rummages through her bag for her broom with the other
a few feet above the ground, the broom kicks in and she rockets off into the sky
back in the van, he rummages through the glovebox for an envelope of pills and takes three of them to settle his nerves
he knows that nobody will believe him, so he starts to invent a plausible story as he shifts the van into low gear and rattles down the hill
"she's tall with long dark hair and was doing something with candles up there"
"that's her all right. that's the third tower she's tampered with this month"
at 11:36pm, the Greenstar device deep within a telephone company office detects a 2600 Hz tone for twelve seconds in the middle of a long-distance call and starts recording
fifteen seconds later, the tone plays for another five seconds
"hi there. I know you're listening." a woman's voice says on the line
the next morning, maintenance workers come to swap out the tape and find the reel full of light gray ash with only a small sliver of tape left unburnt: two 2600 Hz beeps and the woman's voice
from the tape, Bell Labs is able to trace the call to a payphone that turns out to have fingerprints faintly scorched into the receiver
the FBI takes the phone company's complaint very seriously and begins intense surveilance of the grocery store the payphone is in front of
after a week of watching, two FBI agents stop someone in the soup aisle
"ma'am, do you have a moment to answer some questions?" says the first, flashing his badge, while the second readies handcuffs
"I think I'm a bit busy" she says, putting a can of tomato soup in her cart
"I think you're going to come with us" says the second agent, putting a handcuff on her wrist
he starts to tighten it, only to discover it's somehow tightening around his own wrist
a can of chicken noodle soup hits the other agent in the face, providing Sophia an opportunity to escape
she runs at the wall of refrigerators at the back of the store
instead of colliding head-on with the glass, she passes through it and the shelves of yogurt behind it, tumbling onto the concrete floor of the store's back room
she leaves through the loading dock and kicks off on her broom
she falls asleep uneasily, wondering how they found her and planning to try and scry for the answer in the morning
she's woken up by the van she's in the back of going over a bump
everything around her seems blurred and her thoughts feel like they're moving through molasses
she feels rings of cold around her left ankle and right wrist siphoning the heat from her body
as she wakes up and her mind clears somewhat, she tries to cast a spell to warm herself up, but doesn't feel the usual power at her fingertips
she tries to conjure a light and barely sees a glow
this is a Problem.
she notices wires running from the rings to a curious machine covered in lights that seem to blink in phase with her heartbeat
as she realizes what it does, she checks her wards and spells in a panic
she reaches for the sigil of protection against others' magic tattooed on her left shoulderblade, a task hindered by the wire on her wrist
touching the sigil, she finds it intact and still holding power
she runs her fingers through the wispy aura of spells surrounding her, searching for what went wrong
most of her usual spells are still there, but lack any power
one of the spells she cast while fleeing the FBI the day before seems to have lingered, though
it must've interacted with something in her regular stack, nullifying both and letting this machine sap her power
there's no visible connector on either end of the wires, so she gives the ankle wire a sharp tug
the machine starts to tip over and an arm reaches for the frame from the passenger's seat to steady it
"don't mess with it!" he shouts
after a drive that feels interminable, the van arrives at Bell Labs' sprawling campus in New Jersey
they put the machine on a cart and take it and Sophia to an office on the third floor of one of the older buildings that's been hastily converted into a jail cell
while heavily armed guards intently train their guns on her and still more guards hold her down, a man in a lab coat puts more cold rings on her and removes the previous ones
wires run from these up to a track on the ceiling that seems to have the same effect as the machine
Her guards and escort led her down the hall, ashtrays on this side of the building far less utilized luckily, as he opens a door for her and the guards "gently" encourage her to get in and take a seat.
As she sits with the intensity of a lead brick, her eyes follow the scientist as he walks past the wood veneer desk and she finally gets a good look at him. Trim glasses, well kept beard, lab coat immaculate.
"Hello." he began, smiling with a grin that she *knew* had been recorded before. "I'm Alexander Darby. Terribly sorry about these being the circumstances we meet in." he said, voice trailing off as he noticed her eyes. As he stared at them, he felt the primal urge to hide, knowing damn well that if she wasn't thaumically bound to neutral, there wouldn't be a "him" left, or a Holmdel left, there'd be a smoking crater cursed for millenia where most of New Jersey used to be. He gulped, and listened to her response.
"Do you actually regret it?" she began, pausing to readjust her chair and make herself damn visibly uncomfortable.
"Or are you putting up this fucking song and dance after ordering me to be kidnapped?"
Taken aback by the accusation and how personal she was taking this whole kidnapping business, he opened his mouth to respond, paused, and began his technical introduction.
"You've probably been wondering how we've bested your, uhm, *magic*." he started, the curl on the word magic feeling less like a scientific researcher said them and more a slur, and she felt her chest welling like she was going to burst.
"Here at Bell Laboratories, we don't believe in such things. Your "magic" is, ahem, merely a yet to be explored, studied, documented, and utilized region of physics." he said, air quoting magic this time.
As he punctuated the sentence, she felt something in her gut yield, but not by much. That must've done something, right?*
"Get to the point." she glared across the table, landing firmly where his head presently was; he wasn't sure it'd stay there if he didn't do what she asked.
"In our lower levels."
"We've constructed an artificial thaumic ground. It seems adequate to contain you and your phenomena. I hope you enjoy your stay at the Labs." be finished, getting up from the table and waving the guards to open the door for him.
Sophia mutters as he passes the doorframe "I won't, don't worry..." middle finger aimed right at the camera pointed at their "interview".
Becca dials Sophia's number again and listens to it ring
she hears the start of Sophia's voicemail greeting and hangs up
nobody's seen her around in the two days since she fled FBI agents in the grocery store
it's very unlike her to go missing like this, so Becca stops by her apartment
finding the door unlocked, she steps inside and finds the place ransacked
the kitchen is a minefield of smashed potion bottles, with strange mixtures bubbling into each other on the floor
she takes a piece of chalk from her pocket and draws runes in various places throughout the apartment and begins to push power into her spell
the potions start to bubble backwards before their bottles reassemble themselves and fly back onto shelves
but Becca isn't paying much attention to the potions
she's instead staring intently at Sophia's bed and bedroom
the door slams closed and she pauses it, playing back what happened in the correct order this time
it looks like two people broke into the apartment, one of them moving a heavy object on a cart that took a chip out of the paint on the doorframe
they then clumsily searched the place for something, smashing the potion bottles in their haste, and dragged Sophia out
she looks for one of Sophia's most prized possessions: a Western Electric lineman's set that she'd stolen out of a Bell central office and heavily modified
as the cop starts to tell the young woman to go away, she stares into his eyes and he feels an overwhelming pressure inside his skull
"uhhh.. yes, ma'am; I'm searching the computer for an arrest record now" he stammers
Becca stops her spell and the pressure in his head goes away
"there's nobody matching your friend at all"
after intimidating officers of every agency from the local transit police to ICE into giving her answers, she concludes that Sophia was either whisked off to some agency's black site or kidnapped by a very powerful criminal organization
the witches meet at their usual booth against the back wall of their favorite diner
waitress with a dirty apron refills their thick-walled mugs with mediocre coffee
Katy carefully pours a packet of sugar into hers, holding the packet steady as she spins the mug counterclockwise below it
she snaps her fingers and a test tube full of blue crystals leaps into her hand
she pours a few grains into her mug, stirs it, and squints at it
Alice pulls the mug over, looks at it, and passes it to Becca, who's not really sure what they're looking for
"she's a witch and definitely pissed about being kidnapped or whatever, so there should be enough magic to see it like this" Katy says
"but it looks like just another mug of diner coffee to me" says Becca
"that's the problem. there should definitely be something, but it's just blank"
"you said her apartment was ransacked like they were looking for something?" Alice asks
"yeah, all the potions were smashed and that lineman's set of hers was missing"
"the lineman's set? do you think it was the phone company?" she asks, her voice sinking to a conspiratorial whisper
back at her bunker, Alice scrys using much more sensitive thaumic instruments and potions than a mug of diner coffee and month-old stale crystals
she clicks a BNC cable onto the end of a knurled probe and drops it into a cauldron of deionized water, then pours in a beaker full of shining turquoise crystals and turns on a vacuum tube-powered electronic counter
the water begins to boil, filling the bunker with a smell not unlike car exhaust on a winter's evening
the number displayed on the nixie tubes on the counter starts to count up
she connects the counter to a half-broken National Instruments datalogger, marks a line on the cauldron in chalk, and starts the whole setup rotating
that night, the cauldron spins through a full revolution, graphing the thaumic fields a thousand miles in each direction
in the morning, she sees a gap in the data about 250 miles nearly due southeast of her bunker
there's usually a low level of magical energy everywhere, but a small area of northern NJ seems to be a complete void thaumically
Alexander Darby gets out his notebook, clicks a pen, and gets to work furthering science
at first glance, the item on the lab bench in front of him is an ordinary Western Electric Lineman's set, but on closer inspection, he sees a second dial ring outside of the first
both are marked with sigils that the labs' linguists couldn't identify and rotate in opposite directions from each other
he clips its alligator clips, which are blue and green instead of the conventional black and red, to the probes of a bench multimeter set to measure resistance
with the tip of the pen, he pulls the outer dial clockwise from the furthest sigil to the stop and releases
a jolt of pain hits his hand, making him drop the pen, which then crumbles to dust before it hits the floor
a wisp of acrid black smoke emerges from the multimeter, marking the destruction of a very expensive piece of HP test equipment
Alice buckles the oscilloscope into the back seat of Katy's red hatchback and takes a seat next to it
as they drive southeast towards New Jersey, she anxiously fidgets with the scrying probe and looks at the oscilloscope's display
the line on the scope goes higher when Katy merges onto the Garden State Parkway by magically unfolding a space in the merge lane
a couple dozen miles later, the line bounces vigorously
"I think this is our exit" Alice says
Katy swears in what Alice is pretty sure is Akkadian and gives Becca a nod as she whips the wheel right
they feel a tingling sensation as Becca casts a spell and their car phases through two lanes worth of cars to make it onto the exit ramp
"this is the last fucking time I'm letting you give me directions" Katy complains as the car slows down to a sane speed for suburban streets
in the converted office, Sophia paces, dragging the wires back and forth in their track on the ceiling
she pulls the wire attached to her wrist taught as she looks out the window and feels something
she lets go, pulls on it again, feels the same thing, and smiles
it's tiny, but the feeling is unmistakeable
she draws on it and conjures a tiny light that blinks out after a second
exhausted from the effort, she dramatically flops onto the bed, which was very clearly the cheapest one at the local IKEA
from the strange mix of carefully built equipment and hastily prepared accomodations, she can tell that Bell Labs cares more about studying the physics of magic than getting revenge on her for tampering with company equipment
she wonders something about what she just did and stands up, her curiosity outweighing her exhaustion
the spot at the end of the track feels a bit more disconnected from ground
her spell did more than just making a light; it seems to have corroded the grounding track a bit
she drifts off to sleep dreaming of escape
Alexander Darby knows that if he doesn't write some preliminary reports soon, higher-ups at the Labs will have a lot of questions
ever since Jan Hendrik Schön was fired and lost his doctorate in physics for falsifying results, they've required ever-increasing documentation of what researchers are working on and their research methods
he gingerly picks up the lineman's set and takes it to the xray machine
it's around noon and most of the other researchers are at lunch; nobody'll see him using the equipment without reserving it or recording his results
he powers on the beam and watches the screen as the image loads
the handset shows up as a solid xray absorbing brick
as he adjusts the settings to try and scan it again, the xray emitting tube shatters explosively, showering the sample chamber with shards of glass and fragments of lead shielding
Darby is back at the lab bench with the lineman's set, which was completely unharmed by the small explosion in the xray machine
he takes a screwdriver and starts to disassemble it
to his surprise and relief, it doesn't melt his screwdriver or anything like that
when he pries apart the halves of the casing, his theory about the device's origins is confirmed: it's definitely modified company equipment
a mess of wires are soldered to various components and converge on a small oblong object covered in black electrical tape
he cuts through the tape to find the wires soldered to a dull gray crystal, which the Labs' xray spectrometer cannot discern the composition of
he sees some speckles in his eyes when he touches it, but doesn't think anything of them
Katy drives around the Labs' ring road as slowly as she can without attracting attention so that Alice can get a scan of the inside of the building with her sensitive scrying equipment
with a click of a knob, she adjusts the scale on the oscilloscope, but this building in Holmdel is still almost completely bereft of magic at the most sensitive option
she passes the probe to Becca to try and get a better angle and sees a faint trace of something as she turns it
"turn it back a bit, I think I saw something"
"is this ri-?"
"there! what's the angle?" Alice asks as she leans around in her seat to get a better look at the probe
"looks like it's in the basement?"
"whatever it is, it's *weird*"
every time he so much as thinks about his right arm since he touched the crystal, it flares up in pain
he can't see any radiation burns, so he decides to ask his prisoner some questions
"you witch, what the hell did you do to me?" he asks, spitting the word witch with the anger of the Witchhunter General
"you and I both know I haven't cast any spells since I got here."
she pauses for a moment and feels the residue of the effect of the crystal
her sense of magic has been honed over the past few days by not having felt any
"if you did what I think you did, ouch, that's beyond a novice mistake"
"I'm not a novice! I have multiple advanced degrees and am pioneering a new field!"
"Mhm. Novice. How's the thaumoirradiated components of my shit treating you?"
"How could you possibly know what we took? you were unconscious."
"So you did specifically drug me and you were involved."
Darby curses silently as his burns worsen immeasurably from her laugh.
"Oh yeah. Dipshit Darby one thing... I didn't curse you. Not yet. Bye!" she says, walking out
the witches sit on a bed in a cheap motel trying to come up with plans to rescue Sophia
"we should probably get in through conventional means; the more magic we use getting in, the sooner they'll notice"
"why should we care if they notice us? we can easily overpower them"
"Becca, you've been watching too many movies"
"we're witches. realism is overrated and I wanna be as cool as Trinity"
"do you want to make this cool and take far too long to pull off, or a bit more boring and doable?"
"okaaay. I'm still wearing my leather jacket, though"
Katy drives her car through rush hour traffic headed into Holmdel, not using magic in case the Labs have equipment as sensitive as Alice's
their plan is simple, but they hope it'll be effective
Sophia's in the basement being thaumically drained somehow, so they just need to get down there, grab her, and get out
should be simple, right?
in the crowded elevator, Becca reaches over and pushes the button for the basement, but it doesn't light up
at the top of the building, she hammers on the close doors button in a futile attempt to hide the fact that the three witches haven't gotten out yet
as the elevator speeds back down towards the ground floor to pick up more engineers coming into work for the day, she gets to work on the lock and mashes the B button just in time
the basement of the Labs clearly isn't a place where most employees go often
its mazelike unpainted concrete hallways hum with the sound of machines
Alice dips her pinkie in a vial of a light pink potion, blows on it, and slowly turns around with her arm and finger outstretched
she decides that the tingling of magic is strongest off to the left and sets off down the corridor with the others in tow
she leads them to what appears to be a storage closet
the door is locked, but she gives it a kick with her Doc Martens and it opens
she downs the entire vial of potion and steps inside
"what weird shit does *this* potion do?" asks Katy
"it's just rosé"
the room is clearly too big to be a closet and is mostly taken up by banks and banks of capacitors and a box the size of a refrigerator covered in blinking lights
Becca looks around the room and touches the side of one of the capacitors
"I guess Sophia isn't here, but this is definitely her spellcraft in here"
Katy's attention turns to the mysterious box
she pokes at its metal case, feels a sinking sensation, and quickly pulls her finger away before it drains more of her power
she takes a pair of gloves and a screwdriver from her bag and goes after the exposed flathead screws on the front panel
inside, she finds a mess of coils wrapped around a graphite brick, a bottle of something labeled in what appears to be Latin, and a pair of grippy socks, as well as a mercury-arc rectifier furiously sparking
"can we just cut the red wire or something?" Becca asks
"hmmmm... well, we need to bypass the coils and reverse the rectifier"
she rummages in her bag for a soldering iron and some wire and begins messing around with the mysterious machine
Sophia wakes up, the dissonant footsteps echoing down stairwells and hallways further away as the morning commute gives her a time of day more than the window does.
day in day out, every minute, it's thought after thought of escape plans, and ways to make Darby's experiments go down the wrong path.
she may be trapped but she'd never forgive herself if she even gave him a little of what he was looking for.
as she sits there considering the fourteenth variant of the "asphyxiate and keycard" routine, her mind suddenly clears.
the fringes of consciousness and the edges of her clarity suddenly sharpen and she feels herself light in step again in a way she hadn't since the rooftops.
the shackles holding her down begin to heat up, quiet sparks flowing into her, her magic rushing back into her.
magic wants to be friendly with those who wield each other caringly, and it's never more free than with a witch.
she wills forth a light, a small divot on the tip of her fingernail, the thin paint coat she did weeks ago nearly gone as the small ball grew absurdly quickly into something blinding as she averts her eyes and catches herself to not fall.
smiling to herself, she lets the magic flow through her; it knew what she wanted to make this work.
her filthy sweatpants and stained t-shirt, Darby not giving her the luxury of humane treatment, became a black sparkly dress, twinkling as the fabric flowed and reformed into something far more friendly to her.
she twirled a bit before steeling herself and beginning a new escape plan; this one, for real.
she twisted her hands slightly and flicked her fingers as the locked door in front of her buckled and folded past itself, the cinderblock and concrete flowing through impossible geometries as she was given a staircase of exactly the right spacing leading to a room she knew *must* exist: the capacitor room.
someone was helping her, and she needed to find them first.
the ceiling above the capacitor closet unfolds as stairs shove themselves into existence from the recently relocated space, an incredibly happy Sophia practically flying into Becca's arms.
Sophia, tears in her eyes, mumbles "I missed you so much" as she spins about, Becca still not putting her down.
Becca holds her even closer, "missed you too, Sophia..."
Sophia puts her down, her heels of the hour turning into much more practical sneakers as Sophia realizes they probably have quite a bit of running to do as Becca rummages through her bag to find Sophia's most charmed hat, half industrial accident and half arcane blessing; illegal in fourteen states.
as the hat lands on her head, sparks practically vaccum it on, Sophia glowing momentarily as it settles and thaumic equilibrium is reached as Katy giggling quietly.
her hair even bounces and unknots slightly as the hat settles, Katy thinking to herself endearingly, what a showoff.
she quickly reaches into her bag to procure a yellow tupperware container with a crisp white lid on it, chock full of chocolate chip cookies.
Sophia's eyes lit up as they all realize this was probably the first real food she had in an alarmingly long time.
"Thamf-you Kat-yh" mouthed Sophia, levitating a few over so quickly she skipped over the step of "passing it into her own hand", choking down the cookies as chocolate smeared slightly on the corner of her mouth.
Alice taps her foot slightly, "shall we get out of here?" the look in her eyes telling her that none of them particularly were stealthy in their entrance, and no amount of fake paperwork will explain four witches, one in what looks like a dress from the Met Gala, in the subbasement of one of the most secure buildings in the state.
especially when Bell's categorization as "critical infrastructure" gives them the authority to shoot to kill, without warning, and without due process.
with a snap of her fingers, Sophia opens up another staircase
as the witches head up it, they watch offices and hallways move out of the way and disappear into the stairway's smooth walls
the stairs end in a lab, where Sophia's lineman's set lies disassembled on a bench
just from her looking at it, its pieces pull themselves back together
she picks it up and gives the inner dial a spin, sending lightning crackling from it, frying half a million dollars worth of test equipment and experiments in progress
the day the witches broke in, Darby was called up to Murray Hill for a meeting with his boss
"Mr. Darby, what do you think you're doing?"
"I'm exploring a new area of physics"
"by having armed guards lock a girl in an office? I don't know how you guys do physics down in Holmdel, but this isn't like anything I've ever heard of"
"she's a physics-defying witch and once we figure out how she does it, it's a guaranteed Nobel Prize"
"Alex, be honest with me. what the hell's going on?"
"what we thought were fixed laws of the universe are merely suggestions for her! she defies gravity for *fun*!" he shouts
"Alex, I want some of whatever you're on, but please don't do it at work" his boss says, barely above a whisper
"Ed, I'm sober! this is the *truth*!"
his boss slides a piece of paper across the desk
"upper management would prefer if you went on a leave of absence for a bit. you're a damn good scientist and we want you here, but not like *this*"
as he starts to respond, he feels something clawing at him
he cries out as a portal opens underneath his seat pulling him back to Holmdel
holding the lineman's set in her left hand, Sophia traces a circle in the air with her right hand, leaving a ring of blue flames that hovers for a moment before fading out
"he's not here"
with a wave of the lineman's set, a hole opens in the ceiling and a confused and scared Alexander Darby drops onto the floor with a thud
she hovers in the air, her dress billowing in a nonexistent breeze
"I'm not letting you get away with this" she says, her voice echoing in the increasingly cavernous lab
it turns out that filling a thaumic capacitor with your enemy's power is a terrible idea, especially if you barely understand the theory behind it
he starts to scream as the consequences of his actions come back to bite him in the form of a barrage of spells
he falls to the floor, not screaming anymore, but still barely alive
"shall we get out of here?" Sophia asks
without waiting for an answer, she starts shifting the building around them again
the walls open up to form a tunnel leading to a ramp outside
Katy's red hatchback appears before them, pointed out the ramp
they pile into the car and Katy speeds down the ramp, which to her surprise merges into the express lane of the Parkway
"What... happened to that guy?" Alice quietly askes as they barrel away from the hill.
"He's... in pieces but not dead technically." she says matter of factly, her eyes finally showing the thousand yard stare as they exceeded the range of the thaumic capacitor.
"Good gods..." she says, holding her head in her hands and trying to take in the fact that one of her closest friends just disassembled a man.
after watching his star researcher get pulled through a portal, Darby's boss adjusts his glasses, blinks, and takes a very large sip of coffee
from what he just witnessed, Edward Craft has a better guess at the possibilities of magic than Alexander Darby could have gained from years of attempting to solve the physics behind it
a Nobel Prize would be just a drop in the bucket compared to the changes commercialized thaumaturgy could bring about, but he can tell that the situation is quickly sliding out of the company's control
he hits the intercom button and asks his secretary to get him the Global Operations Center in Bedminster
they find his request for an armed helicopter to be sent to check on the Holmdel labs strange, but the head of Bell Labs is not to be ignored
Sophia falls fast asleep in the back seat of Katy's car, tired from casting more spells in a single day than most witches do in a year, her head resting on Becca's shoulder
when the helicopter arrives in Holmdel, its pilot finds a ramp with two perfect lines of burnt rubber coming out of the Labs' building
its expensively architected lines are distorted with additions and vacancies, as though constructed by a toddler with building blocks
Edward Craft stubs his cigarette in the ashtray and breaks the seal on the envelope, closing his blinds slowly.
he didn't have any idea what he was getting into, and frankly, has a feeling in his gut he hated.
the feeling that he was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and he was adrift at sea more than he knew.
the photos were vile at best, and horrifying at worst for the implications.
the upper hemisphere of his star researcher's brain continued to get blood, flowing through the magical edges of his dissection.
remaining power in the thaumic battery in the basement, which he later found out was Darby's pet project, was the only thing preventing him from dying before they reassembled all of him.
it took six days, and his neurology still was struggling to recover.
the last time Craft got personally involved in a project, two researchers quit, one died, and three got presidential medals.
he was ready to play chess, and now he knew the pieces and the stakes.