Coming Clean

Jevol was looking more casual than I’d ever seen him. His tie was actually loose around his neck. And there was another sign, even more telling, that I’d never witnessed: he looked tired.

“How – how did…?” Kathy started. As usual, she cut to what was likely the more pertinent observation.

Jevol strolled into the brighter light of the living room. His smile was the usual all-teeth, however worn it looked around the edges. “I know more than just necromancy, my dear lady,” he said. “Quite a bit more.”

Since we had no plans to throw him out, my southern host instincts found this a good time to kick in. I stood and waved him to the recliner across from the couch. “Uh… have a seat. Can I, um, get you anything to drink?”

Jevol sat with his usual grace. “No. Thank you, Philips. I won’t be here long. In truth, I shouldn’t be here at all. However, there are a great many things moving right now. I thought you deserved to be aware.”

Kathy was leaning forward intently, her eyes wide. The stance she reserved for engaging lectures and especially tense moments in anime. Neither of us asked any questions, but it was clear their were dozens hanging in the air.

“When I said the rest of the industry is scared,” Jevol continued. “I mean it quite literally. There is a great deal you don’t know about how our system works. There are those… higher up who manage things. They have let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that you are anathema.”

I shook my head. “And they don’t say why? I mean, I think you at least would be owed an explanation, right? You run one of the largest necromantic service companies in the world. Are you saying you just listen and don’t ask questions? That… that doesn’t really seem like you.”

Jevol smiled again. “It isn’t. But these aren’t the sort to give tolerance to questions nor would they answer them if I tried.”

“Sterling,” Kathy said, her voice shaking, “I don’t think he’s talking about a board of directors.” I turned to look at her. There was genuine fear on her face.

“Then what?” I asked. Jevol cleared his throat and nodded to Kathy.

“He’s talking about the old gods.”


Job Hunting

“Blacklisted?” Kathy exclaimed. “What do you mean?”

I threw my laptop down on the couch and myself shortly after “I mean that every single company I’ve contacted has responded with a perfunctory ‘no thanks’ or hasn’t responded at all. And I’m not exactly throwing around a commonplace resume these days.”

“Well, the job market…” Kathy started, trailing off when she didn’t even sound like she’d convinced herself. She came in from her office, dressed down into her winter PJ’s for the unseasonably cold.

“There are more vacancies right now than you could fill with the next graduating class from MKU,” I said. “Some of which call for only half my experience. Hell, I can’t imagine anyone throwing themselves at rune maintenance work like I do.”

Kathy cuddled up on the couch beside me. “So why do you think it is? I mean, you had nothing but praise at N-Corp.”

I chewed on my lip, stopping only when I realized it was already bleeding. “Do you think it might be the formula?”

“I don’t see how. You didn’t tell anyone about it, right?” Kathy said. “I certainly didn’t. Your notes have been locked up in my desk.”

“No, I haven’t even dropped a hint. All my work on it has been in my off hours.”

“What if… I don’t want to scare you, but –”

“Go ahead.”

“What if someone felt what you were doing? Started watching you?”

“A sensitive, you mean? You really think what I’m doing would stand out that much?”

“It’s certainly possible. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Who knows what it would feel like to a sensitive?”

“I… I guess it’s possible,” I said. “But even if that’s true, if someone had some idea what I was working on. Why would that get me blackballed?”

The room suddenly chilled, sending both Kathy and I into shivers.

“It’s because they’re scared,” a voice said from the door.

The door that had been locked all evening.

End of an Era

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go,” Mr. Jevol said. His face was as inscrutable as ever – and it might have been my imagination – but I thought I heard a hint of remorse in his voice. Probably my imagination. For as long as I’d known the man, he’d never emoted anything but dry cheerfulness.

Remorse on his part or not, I was feeling nothing but shock and fear. I mean: what the hell? I had literally, last week, received a star employee award with strong hints of an upcoming promotion. I struggled to react professionally.

“What the hell?” I asked. So much for professional. “I mean… I’m sure you understand that I’m surprised. Can you tell me the reasons?”

“I wish I could say,” Mr. Jevol. “It is out of my hands. Orders from above, you know. Out of my hands.” He shrugged, gesturing up to the ceiling. It was the first time I’d heard him make mention of a higher authority. Jevol always acted like the buck stopped with him in all things. I mean, on some level I knew there had to be someone. An owner, a board of directors, or something like that. He just never talked about them.

Unfortunately, that also meant there was no real reason to argue here. “I… I’m really sorry to hear that, sir. I’ve genuinely enjoyed my recent time here. I had really planned on staying for the foreseeable future. Is there any – any sort of recourse? An appeal I might make?” I was starting to sound whiny, I knew, but at this point I didn’t really care.

Jevol shook his head slowly. “Their word is final, I’m afraid. Someone’s already cleaned out your desk for you. The box should be forwarded to your house.” He stood up, extending his hand. “I wish things were different, you know. When you need a recommendation for your next job, you will receiving nothing but good words.”

I nodded and shook his hand numbly, standing to leave. “I appreciate that, sir. I… I suppose I’ll see you around.” I turned to the door.

“Indeed so, Mr. Philips,” Jevol said. “I imagine you will.”


“So what do you think?” I asked for the fifth time. Kathy had looked away from the sheaf of papers, so maybe she was actually done reading this time. She looked up at me, this time without the glare of annoyance.

“I think your penmanship is atrocious,” she said. “And that you seriously need a remedial class in basic algebra.” Her mouth was tucked in at the ends, though. I knew what that meant.

“You think I really have something?” I asked. I had been pacing the whole time she read my summary. I started again. “Even with the horrendous math? I mean, the equations are kind of –”

Kathy laughed in her usual glittery-waterfall way. “Oddly enough, more than half your errors are canceled out by other errors. It actually looks like a really solid basis. Have you ever looked into particle modeling?”

“Um,” I began. I briefly considered acting like I had. I hated looking ignorant. On the other hand, Kathy always saw right through it. “I have no idea what that is.”

“It’s…” Her mouth twisted as she pondered her explanation. “It’s kind of hard to explain without a graduate-level course or two. Fortunately, there’s computer programs that take care of the heavy lifting these days. It might be able to help you prove this out with the side benefit of not risking killing yourself in the process.”

“Always an added bonus,” I replied. “I only get the one free resurrection per year and I’d rather save it for something important.”

Kathy waited for me to laugh. I didn’t. Then she laughed herself as she realized I wasn’t joking.

Coffee Next Time

“This has… has been a lot of fun,” Kathy slurred. “Although… maybe next time, we should just get coffee?” One of her cultured curls had flung itself over an eye. She hadn’t bothered to correct it. One of her legs was also flung over mine. I hadn’t bothered to correct that.

“It’s just possible that… our jobs are a little too. Too stressful,” I said. “Or at least they have been.” I wasn’t really sure of the position or behavior of my own hair. Or my legs. Or any of my limbs, really. I was slightly aware of the analytical stare of the bartender.

“It’ll get better, right?” Kathy replied. “It has to, right? I mean… there’re people a lot dumber than me who’ve done this job. It’s gotta get easier.”

“Course,” I said. “Just look at me. I’m pretty damn stupid but a year in and I’ve got the hang of it. Sometimes people even listen to me.”

Kathy waved her wrist limply in my direction. “You’re not stupid. You got all that… on lock down. I’m surprised you put up with it. You should come do research, like me!”

I giggled. Yes, giggled. Probably first time in my life. “And how’s that working out for you? Better than midnight etching runs?”

“Well, yeah. It’ll get better, though, right?” Kathy smiled lazily and leaned in toward me, lips puckered.

I stopped and held up a hand, pulling myself upright. “Just a second,” I said. I pulled together whatever sloppy threads of thought I could. “Hold on that… that notion.”

“Oh, right,” Kathy responded, pulling herself away. She seemed to finally notice her leg and withdrew it.

“We are entirely too drunk to make rational decisions right now,” I said. “Maybe next time it… it should be coffee.”

“Yeah,” Kathy said, her eyes staring intently into mine. “I want to be stone sober for it.”

First Week

Kathy collapsed into her old, moth-eaten couch – her favorite. No dust clouds plumed upwards, but it certainly looked like there should have. Her parents kept telling her to get rid of it. No such way. She’d sit it on the day she died. It was the ultimate comfort on days like this.

She was thoroughly exhausted. Working at the distribution node center had been physically taxing and emotionally numbing, especially during the longer shifts. But working here at NCR Labs was an entirely different animal. All this time, she had thought that acing her classes at MKU was the epitome of challenge in her life. That it would pave the way for a brilliant career that would bring her a sweet life of ease and respect.

For one, the pay was a long way off from a life of ease. And two, the respect would be a long time coming. Sure, the hiring manager had been suitably impressed by her resume. He’d expressed astonishment that Kathy had lasted as long as she had maintaining rune nodes. “Not the kind of work for a brain like yours” he’d said. She’d taken the tour, met some of the faces, and felt like she’d finally found her niche.

Then came day one. The people were still friendly. The office was still shiny and well-kept, with just enough of the macabre vibe to keep up appearances. Kathy could goth up to her heart’s desire and get nothing but kudos from the boss. But damn was it overwhelming.

Only ten percent of what they did hear resembled what she’d learned in school. The majority of the runic script was improvised, modified, and sometimes completely off formula. She had no idea how it even worked. There was no doubt it did. NCR produced quality enchantments and paraphernalia. In just the first week, she’d had been subjected to enough that she felt like her degree had been rendered useless.

Some part of her despaired that she’d ever amount to anything there. Her mind was completely drained and it just kept on coming. She sighed and pried herself up from the couch. At least there was a good distraction to take her mind off for the weekend.

Date tonight! Time to her make herself up something special.


I stifled a yawn for the third time in the last minute. Sitting for five hours straight at a desk will mess with you that way. I really felt like I was on the brink of something, though. My off-hand joke to Kathy had sparked something in my mind. Something about containment runes. I had spent the entire morning pushing at it, going over designs. It was time I could have spent at other aspects of my job, but I had underlings. They could deal with it for a while.

The trash can was nearly full of balled up, discarded parchment. Each one represented at least ten minutes work with a wax candle and a stylus. I would have to make sure to incinerate the lot before I left. Ambient energy interactions are nothing to be careless about, especially when one’s office is right above a charging reflex node.

I had lost count of how many times I’d written the traditional fifteen strokes over the years, stretching from undergrad all the way up to yesterday. It wasn’t something anyone really looked at anymore. Some renowned so-and-so a hundred years back had “perfected” it so now it was gospel. Magic was like that in every field.

Of course, the people who thought it “perfect” had probably never had to draw five hundred of them in two hours using nothing but beeswax and sawdust. There had to be a better way, right? That’s what I kept telling myself, pushing to the back of my mind the realization that many others smarter than I had thought similar thoughts over the years. Instead, I drew a fresh parchment off the stack, trickled some scarlet wax onto it, and begin to spread it into a neat circle with my stylus.

Ow! Damn it. I’d caught my finger in the hot wax. Proof I was way past my limit. I was not usually so sloppy. I yanked my hand back and shook it, flinging droplets onto the floor before the rest set along the side of my finger. That was clearly enough for the evening. I tossed the parchment into the bin with the others before going to get the broom to sweep up the mess.

Broom in hand, I stared down at the scattered wax with bleary eyes, giving it long enough to harden before I swept it. There was more on the floor than I’d expected. Probably cast off from my previous drafts when I’d thrown them out too quickly. Well, sweeping was sweeping. A few dozen more pieces of wax wouldn’t make any difference.

Wait a second. Droplets. A few more dozen pieces. Something caught in the back of my head.

Holy hell. I had something.

Changing Jobs

“I’m sorry to see you go,” I said. I meant it, too, in more ways than one. I had learned a bit more about professionalism over the last year, though, so I stood up straight and offered my hand for Kathy to shake. She took it and smiled.

“We both know this was never the right place for me,” Kathy said. “Moving into research is a good step. And it will be way better on my joints.” She drew her hand back sharply like it had been stabbed. She winked one beautiful, eye-shadowed lid. Not as heavily done as it would have been a year ago. Her makeup had become more practical in her year at the node tower. Possibly just due to lacking the time or energy to do it up as fancy as she once had.

“I do agree it’s the right move,” I said. “I like to think your practical experience here will be an asset to the team. At the very least, maybe you’ll be inspired to develop a containment rune that takes less then fifteen strokes.” I smiled back at her, then. We had shared a few of those over the past months, although probably twice as many frowns and curses.

“No promises,” she replied. “But I might try to get it down to fourteen.” Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she stole a glance. “Well, it looks like my cab is here. You’d be amazed the up-charge they add for coming within two blocks of this place.” At my expression, she added, “No, I guess you wouldn’t be.”

“Need any help with your things?” I asked.

“No, it’s just the one box,” she said, lifting the handful of cardboard beneath an arm. “I’ve been thinking, though, there is one really good thing about leaving your employment.”

“Oh?” I said. I raised an eyebrow, fulling expecting another of her acerbic jokes.

“Yeah. I can finally ask you out for a drink. I left my cell number on your desk.” With that, she winked again and stepped quickly down the stairs and out the door.


Hard Work

Kathy was crying and I felt like the worst person in the world. I had been trying my best to help her out. She was smart – brilliant, really – but it was becoming increasingly obvious that her high-grade education hadn’t done what it should preparing her for the realities of this kind of work. Primarily in that it was complex, monotonous, and entirely unforgiving. No amount of caffeine could make a midnight call re-etching fifteen hundred warped sigils into a manageable evening.

My instincts were to offer her a hug, tell her it would all be okay, and maybe sit her down with some hot cocoa. The truth was, though, that we were both on the hook for a major outage. Corporate activity was in a virtual stand-still for a fifty mile radius because of the blockage here. Nevermind that it wasn’t our fault. Nevermind that chronic underfunding and an incompetent predecessor had left this place a wreck.

If this lasted much longer, Jevol would be on the line. Nobody wanted that.

“We have to push through this,” I said, as gently as I could. “I imagine your drawing hand is as numb as mine right about now. But we’ve still got three hundred left and we can’t power up until they’re all in place.”

“Damn it,” Kathy said through her sniffling. Her face was streaked black from her eyes to her chin. “My parents were right. I should have gone into research.” Despite her complaints, she stretched out her left arm and hand, joints cracking in dozens of little pops, and picked up her etching wand again. “How the hell do you put up with this?”

I laughed a hoarse little laugh as I knelt down on the opposite end of the ring. It was critical we keep it balanced, even powered down like this. Each rune had to go down in pairs, finishing within seconds of the other. On a good day, it was like a dance, each of us synchronizing with the other. Tonight… well, it was more like a junior high prom.

“It’s good work,” I said. “It pays well. And I’ve learned you can get used to anything if you focus on the reward on the other end. In this case, a hot bath, a massage, and a bottle of wine.”

Kathy groaned. “That sounds amazing. Though I might go for the wine first. Assuming I don’t pass out beforehand.”

“Tell you what,” I said. “You stay conscious and the first bottle is on me.”


“So, ahh…” I said. “What makes you want to work in channeling node services?” I restrained from straightening my unfamiliar tie. I tried to peak my hands in front of me like Mr. Jevol did, but my shaking fingers ruined the drama.

“Can I be honest?” Kathy asked. She tilted her head, sending carefully dyed curls tumbling over her deeply shadowed eyes. “This is just an in for me.” This did not surprise me at all. Kathy was dressed head to toe as a “goth chick” – her words, not mine – and had every indication of being the sort that romanticized necromancy in poetry every chance she got.

“An in…?” I asked. I knew perfectly well what she meant, of course. But Jevol had announced I was giving this interview precisely fifteen minutes before I’d come into work that day. He had insisted on the tie. I was looking for any excuse to draw things out while I tried to come up with things to say.

“You know. To get into necromancy,” Kathy replied. “Everyone says you have to start at the bottom in this gig. You don’t get to to do the really cool stuff until you’ve done your time.” She shrugged. “Well I’m willing to do what it takes.”

“I see,” I said, attempting Jevol-level gravitas. “That hardly speaks to your skills in this particular department, Ms. Hedvigh. While I appreciate your ambition, we are looking for someone with specific –”

“Look,” she interrupted. “You’ve seen my resume.” In fact, I hadn’t. “You know I can do this. In my sleep, probably. How many times are you going to have a girl walk in, top of their class in Runic Studies at MKU, asking for a position like this to get started? I don’t care what you pay. I’ll do the work and you know I’ll do it better than anyone else you talk to.”

I coughed to cover up my embarrassment. MKU? God. She outclassed me by a mile. And it proved she was no stranger to hard work. She was a serious candidate for the position.

It’s also possible I was developing an entirely inappropriate crush.