Philo's Stories

The Lathe of Heaven

Evelyn sits in the back of the class, distractedly fidgeting with a pen
it turns out to be really hard to focus on statistics when you're going to hang out with friends and learn more magic that afternoon

as the class ends, she steps outside into the late November snow and thinks about how close the end of the semester is
she hasn't seen her parents since they dropped her off on campus back in August, and wonders what they'll say about her abrupt transition

the worries slip away as she arrives at Alice's bunker
today, they're defying physics in a small but surprisingly useful way: defeating immiscibility
Alice takes a glass and fills it halfway with water, and then pours a layer of olive oil on top of it

"as you know, oil and water can't mix under normal circumstances, but nothing I do is really 'normal circumstances'" Alice says as she picks up the glass and magically makes the oil evenly mix into the water
she pours another glass for Evelyn and asks her to give it a try

Evelyn picks up the glass and stares at it intently
magic is like a muscle she never knew she had, and tasks like this are a bit of a warmup
she feels a rush as the power flows through her fingertips into the glass, forcing the water and oil together

nothing else can match the feeling of magically bending the laws of physics, and this small rush from mixing the unmixable only prepares her for the jolt of power that comes with bigger spells

the last time they'd hung out, Alice had taught Evelyn how to weave a blanket of protective spells around her brand new pointed hat
Alice promised Evelyn that once she had the hat to protect her, she would teach her even more powerful spells than before

the two witches step out of the bunker into the gently falling snow, and Alice tells Evelyn what she's going to do
"you're going to make it summer in the quarry pit"
"so I need to make it warm enough to melt all the snow? that seems more than what I can do"

"I said 'make it summer', not warm it up. think about it."
Evelyn thinks for a minute and decides to try something
she walks around the edge of the pit and writes some runes in the snow, and then reaches her right hand out towards the pit and begins to flex her magic

the snow falling in the pit starts to rise back up towards the sky, revealing a blanket of brown leaves, which gradually return to their bright fall colors, and then fly out of the pit

Evelyn is clearly straining against the flow of time and holds the pit in summer for only a few seconds before letting go, sending time snapping back to where it was with a bright flash of imaginary light
she follows Alice back inside the bunker for hot chocolate

as they sip hot chocolate, Evelyn asks Alice a question
"what would happen if I did that spell to myself?"
"why would you even want to do that?" Alice replies, confused
"I'm heading back home for winter break, and neither my parents nor my doctor have seen me since the magic E"

"if you do it to yourself, you'll be as you were then, with no memory of anything after then, which seems like it'll cause more problems than it solves"
Alice stands up and searches through her piles of papers
"if I remember right, I've got something that might help" she says

she rummages through some papers and digs out a zine titled A Girl's Guide To Boymoding, which has a witch hat and the transgender symbol (⚧️) on the cover
she flips through the pages to find one covered in runic handwriting that even Evelyn could tell is nearly unreadable

"I don't see how magic can help with this, unless you have a spell in there to make my parents accept me" says Evelyn
"you know as well as I do that that isn't directly possible through magic; it's impossible to get inside the mind with spells" replies Alice

"even though we can't get *inside*, we can make things *appear* to be how they were by covering a hoodie with directed illusions" she continues
"so they'll see me boymoding, even though I'm not really"
"exactly. unless you think that'll cause more problems?"

"hmm.. fooling them should be pretty easy, but what about my endocrinologist? he's asked me to get another blood test, and I have no clue what that magic estradiol did to my levels"

Alice flips to another page in the zine and begins to read aloud
"like any other test, a blood test can be cheated on"
Evelyn looks over Alice's shoulder at the zine and reads about how spells can be used to manipulate hormone levels in blood as it's being drawn

miles away, Becca and Sophia are heading to an abandoned factory that they'd scouted out earlier
Becca drives her motorcycle year round, even when the weather is less than ideal, thanks to the web of spells she put on it to keep the wheels on the road and herself warm

neither witch wears a helmet, relying instead on the spells on their pointed hats
this, and riding a motorcycle through the snow, attracts some weird looks as Becca weaves between cars, but she ignores them like she ignores the weird looks she gets when she doesn't quite pass

the motorcycle was already pretty fast when it rolled out of the Honda factory, and with Sophia's spells and Becca's Mountain Dew-addled reflexes, it's faster than anything else on the road
they pull up to a rusted gate, which Sophia opens with a gesture

they're heading for building 7B, which was abandoned after a mysterious incident in the late 1990s
the rest of the factory is still nominally in operation, but it's late on a friday night during a snowstorm and the facility is empty

the incident in building 7B was never publicly explained, and some have theorized that it was related to the nuclear reactor that the company had during that time period
Becca brought a geiger counter, even though she's pretty sure that the incident didn't involve radiation

she turns on the geiger counter, which occasionally makes a quiet click, and begins to pick the lock on the door to building 7B
her pick slips and she curses
Sophia laughs and the door flies open
"what's wrong with keeping in practice with my lockpicks?" asks Becca

"nothing, it's just a bit funny that you do it by hand when you can just magic the door open" replies Sophia
Becca sighs
"not everything has to be done by magic"

as she steps into the cavernous building, she clips the imaginary light lenses to the boxy frames of her glasses to confirm her theory about the incident
following her lead, Sophia takes her glasses out of her pocket, looks around, and immediately takes them off

"what the hell is *that*?" Sophia asks, pointing in the direction of the blindingly bright magical light
"I think that's what we're here to find out" Becca says as she draws some sigils in the air and begins walking towards the machinery at the far end of the room

every spell emits a burst of magical light when cast and every enchanted object constantly flickers with it, proportionate to the magnitude of the spell
this light can't be seen with the naked eye and can only be perceived through special lenses

one might think that a practicing witch would enchant her normal glasses to always be able to see magical light, but this invariably leads to eyestrain and annoyance from the flickering light of her household enchantments, so most witches keep a separate pair of glasses for it

the machinery at the far end of the room is glowing brighter than any enchanted object that either witch had ever seen before
with that much magic around, the wards on their hats and the sigils tattooed onto Sophia's left shoulderblade might not be enough to protect them

the machine turns out to be a giant lathe, covered with runes
in the jaws of the lathe's chuck a large uneven chunk of a strangely shimmering metal is held
next to the lathe, they find a 3-ring binder with a logo the company last used 20 years earlier on the cover

Sophia opens the binder to find photocopier-burned typewritten instructions for operating the lathe
"The Lathe of Heaven is a delicate piece of precision equipment, but is also quite dangerous. DO NOT OPERATE WITHOUT TRAINING!" she reads aloud

"forget about the Lathe of Heaven, I want the Vernier Calipers of Heaven" jokes Becca
"they're probably around here somewhere, unless this thing has a DRO"
Sophia flips through the instructions, trying to figure out what could be done with the Lathe

"The Lathe is the key to our Company's success and can guarantee that a specific event will take place in the next 3-5 years, no matter how improbable" Sophia reads aloud
at the back of the Lathe, Becca finds a pile of locks and tags that had clearly been cut off the power switch

she finds a tag that reads "fatal arcing in the drive motor! DO NOT REMOVE UNTIL FIXED AND RECERTIFIED!" with a set of initials and a date of 03/11/98
although most of the lockout and tagout locks are rusted, the bolt cutter marks still shine brightly

she picks up one of the locks, writes a rune on it with chalk, and begins to change its place in the flow of time
she doesn't have to pull it back in time very far for it to pull itself back together
Becca guesses it was cut only about a month before

Sophia looks at the chunk of metal in the chuck and finds a broken lathe tool and some suspiciously fresh metal shavings on the lathe bed
"this doesn't seem as abandoned as we thought it was" she says

"it's not truly abandoned, but it's aesthetically abandoned, and that's good enough for me" Becca replies, taking a bulky film camera out of her bag
she levitates herself and the camera to get the perfect angles for her growing collection of photos of the Rust Belt

a few minutes later, the factory's night janitor is doing his rounds and sees a light moving in building 7B
he searches through his giant ring of keys, opens the door, and finds two young women in pointed hats kissing on the gantry above the Lathe

if he had paid more attention, he would notice that their hands are on each other in ways that seem incompatible with balancing on the narrow beam and yet they have no trouble staying up there
he loudly clears his throat and says "excuse me, are you supposed to be here?"

the witches jump down from the gantry and begin walking towards the door, but he tells them to stop
"stop right there! you'll stay here until the police and my boss show up!" he says
Sophia turns around and stares him down

"if I were you, I'd forget this ever happened" she says, her voice cutting through the wintry air in the poorly heated factory like a knife
"you're meddling in something you don't understand" she continues
"no. *you* are meddling in something you don't understand." he replies

the death glare on Sophia's face turns into a look of surprise
"I worked the Lathe for 20 years before I got a herniated disc and had to switch to something deemed less strenuous. I learned how to read the true purpose behind what they had me do and how to tweak it a bit"

"so you're running the lathe again now?" asks Sophia
"so you violated lockout-tagout?" asks Becca
"OSHA's regulations don't cover machinery that manipulates fate and won't stop us from reaching our goal"

"*us?* who else is in on this conspiracy? what are you doing with the lathe?" asks Sophia
the janitor realizes that he's said too much
he quickly pulls a pistol with one hand and dials his cellphone with the other

Sophia pulls her fingers into a fist, catalyzing a spell that crushes the barrel of the gun as Becca snaps her fingers to make his phone fly from his hand to hers
as she looks at the phone, she realizes that he managed to finish dialing the call before she took it

she hangs up before the other end (a contact named Dr. Bossman) picks up

elsewhere, the phone of Dr. Steven Harrison, one of Becca's least favorite professors so far, begins to ring
the ringing stops before he can pick up, but he knows that something's happening at 7B

as he drives towards the factory, he tries to call the janitor back, but gets no answer
his brilliant plan may have started falling apart at the seams, but he will do anything to see it through, even if that means killing anyone in his way

he arrives at the factory to find the janitor taped to a chair and the shimmering chunk of metal missing from the lathe
he makes a motion that should remove the tape, but his spell rebounds, hitting him in the face

he hears laughing behind him and turns around as Becca and Sophia step out from behind a manual mill
"you must be the infamous doctor that John here told us so much about" says Sophia
Becca sees his face and realizes where she's seen him before

"you're the professor who said I code like a girl and would never make it in CS" she says
"do you know how many people I've told that to? I consider a semester a failure if more than half the class passes."
"I thought that was just a conspiracy theory"

"the department chair wishes it was a conspiracy theory, but what does he know? most of the people he lets into the CS program aren't prepared and shouldn't be studying CS. it's my *duty* to weed freshmen out" he says

Becca sighs
"is it really your duty, or are you just a terrible professor who hates his students?" she says
Dr. Harrison grows angrier and a large toolbox lifts off the floor
with a shoving motion, he makes it fly towards Becca

with a wave of her hand, Sophia sends it harmlessly to the floor
"if you're actually going to kill us, you'll have to try harder than that" she says
he jumps towards the Lathe and hits the button to start spinning it up

as it spins faster and faster, lightning arcs from the spindle, striking other machines in the factory and blasting a hole in the roof
he laughs
"the Lathe surpasses all other magic, and I am fated by the Lathe to not die until after my goal is reached"

as Becca prepares a spell, Sophia ponders what he said and what she read in the Lathe's manual
one of the few established laws of magic is that fate and destiny are never fixed, which should make the Lathe of Heaven impossible

but the company that built it was hugely successful until the incident and it glows brighter than anything else, so she knows that the Lathe clearly does *something* powerful
she comes up with a guess, but she has to stop several tons of spinning lathe to test it

despite the weather, Alice, Katy, and Evelyn are sitting on the roof of the tallest building on campus, thanks to a bubble of warmth created through spellcraft

the roof has been the de-facto magical hangout spot on campus since before any of them started at that college

back when Katy was a freshman (she's now a grad student), she saw people on the roof one night and decided to try and get up there
the door to the roof was locked and alarmed, so she practiced her lockpicking and devised a way to bypass the alarm with a paperclip

she emerged victorious onto the roof, to the confusion of the mages there, who hadn't expected anyone to get up there by non-magical means
after this initial surprise, she became fast friends with the rooftop mages and was soulsparked only a couple weeks later

to this day, Katy has kept up the tradition of meeting in plain view in a place that nobody else can get to, in hopes of meeting some other members of the university's magical community

on the roof, Katy excitedly shows off the spells she just developed for her glasses

with one tap of the left hinge, the big round frames fill with darkness and become prescription sunglasses
with another tap, the darkness vanishes and the focal length changes dramatically to focus imaginary light

her explanation of how the spell works (similarly to Transitions lenses, the chemical structure inside the lenses changes) is cut short by what she sees as she looks to the north with them set to imaginary light
"what the what the hell's happening there?" she asks

as Alice and Evelyn put their magic glasses on, they see a bright light shining from the factory complex by the river miles to the north
"it's constant, so it's gotta be an artifact" Alice points out
"that's one hell of an artifact to be this bright this far away"

"I don't know much about this, but if it weren't magic, I'd be reaching for some iodine right about now" Evelyn says
"that's a good point. let's apply Stevenson's Rune and go check it out" Katy says
"Stevenson's is the one with the concentric circles, right"
"that's the one"

as they drive north, Evelyn texts Becca, but doesn't hear back
"what did Sophia and Becca say they were doing tonight?" she asks
"I can't remember. I don't think *this* was their plan, but it seems like the kind of problem Sophia would end up in" replies Alice

at the factory, fighting Dr. Harrison amid a Lathe-induced lightning storm is proving more difficult than Becca and Sophia had expected
dodging heavy machinery parts and lightning bolts, Sophia tries to approach the front of the Lathe

she magically propels a wrench at the emergency stop button
the wrench pushes in the button with a distinct click audible above the noise of the battle, but the lathe keeps spinning and lightning keeps arcing
Sophia has to rethink her plan

as she's trying to figure out how else to stop the Lathe, she hears a screech of tires and brakes outside
she wonders whether this is the arrival of another of Dr. Harrison's conspirators, or if help has arrived

Evelyn tries not to show her fear as she steps out of Katy's car
she has no clue what she's going to do in this magical battle or how she's going to fight what appears to be a very angry lathe

as she walks into the factory, she picks up a strangely shimmering chunk of metal up from the floor to magically throw at the first evil-looking thing she sees
her hand tingles with magic as she picks it up
*something* is clearly up with this chunk

Alice magically throws a toolbox at Dr. Harrison
he doesn't see the heavy metal box until it's too late to cast a spell powerful enough to deflect it and crumples to the ground
"he's an enemy mage, right?" shouts Katy over the sound of the Lathe
Becca replies affirmatively

"we need to stop it!" Sophia shouts, pointing at the Lathe
Evelyn approaches the front of the Lathe and finds the emergency-stop button already pushed in
in her haste, she forgets to put the chunk of metal down before she casts her spell

as she casts a spell to pull the panel off the front of the Lathe, the magic flows into the chunk of metal and it begins to vibrate faster and faster until it rings with a clear tone like a bell
a beam of magic shoots out from it, leaving a gaping hole in the front of the Lathe

the lightning stops as the beam melts the wires in the panel and the lathe begins to spin down
Evelyn turns the chunk of metal in her hands as she tries to figure out what she just did
"is it an amplifier for magic or something?" she wonders aloud

John (the janitor), who is still taped to a chair, chimes in
"that beam it made looked like the arc that sometimes happened between the cutting head and the part, and that looks like the same metal we were always machining on it"

"why are you so cooperative all of a sudden?" asks Becca
"well, it looks like he's dead now and isn't going to pay me the million dollars he promised me"
"a million dollars? what did he want you to do with the Lathe"
"start a nuclear war"

"he didn't think that humanity deserved to survive, and neither did some murderously libertarian venture capitalists, who decided to fund his idea to start a war"
"didn't he say that he couldn't die until he'd fulfilled his goal? how is he even dead?"

"there's a rule of the Lathe that I never told him about: it has to be running to do something. since it's off now, he's dead for good"
"so it *doesn't* conflict with the rules of magic" says Sophia
now convinced that he won't try to kill them, Sophia frees John from the chair

"if I were you, I'd get out of here before the fire department shows up. I'll tell them it was a ball lightning strike or some shit and I've never seen any of you before" he says
the witches thank him and depart

the next week, Alice and Evelyn are still trying to identify the strangely shimmering chunk of metal
it somehow broke the x-ray spectrometer Alice stole from from the chem department's store room, and it seems to reflect any magical means of identification

as she waits for her parents to arrive to pick her up for winter break, Evelyn realizes that she hasn't prepared her spells to appear as a boy to them

she hadn't remembered to copy the runes from Alice's zine into her grimoire (a Field Notes notebook with a pink cover), so she decides to give girlmoding at home a try
she's fought and won against a Lathe that can change fate; why should her parents scare her?