A Tech Mage Comes to Visit
With the last free story of July, we welcome you to Cadwell Turnbull’s stunning new world, and the characters who have strange powers over the machines there. ~ Julian and Fran, July 30, 2023
A Tech Mage Comes to Visit
by Cadwell Turnbull
I was a child the first time I saw a tech mage.
My parents had died several years before, during the plague that cut through the entire Eastern Hemisphere. They were lucky, I was told, both gone in a few days. Most people lasted much longer.
I was barely into my speaking years when they passed, and so I don’t remember them much, didn’t remember them very well even then, when the mage came.
The mistress of the house had some trouble with her cooling unit, and like all the backward places, away from the universities, there was no one nearby with the ability to fix it. So they sent a message to Gorudad University, the closest one to our small island community, even though it was on the southern continent across the Enwis Sea.
“Sent a message” meant through the speaking booths then. We had only one on the island, a tallish black box—in fact, all tech was black and boxlike—with a room that could seat ten to twelve people, a little more if some of those people were children. I’d never been in the booth. The village-lord kept it locked and only allowed the village council members and their families to use it.
The mistress of the house was a council member and so had the right to use the speaking booth, but only with express permission from the village-lord.
I didn’t know when she’d sent the message, only saw the mage walking up the hill toward our house, dressed in black robes that flowed with the wind. He had his dreadlocks tied up in a bun above his head, a cube the size of the man’s head effortlessly hovering next to him, dutiful in how it matched his pace.
He paused to take a breath or two—the hill was steep—and so I had a moment to observe him as he made his way up the path. By the time he finally reached the crest of the hill, I’d guessed who he was and why he was there. The cooling box had been acting up for months, spoiling our milk and our meats. I stepped out of the house to meet him, waving.
“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” I said.
He squinted down at me, an amused look on his face. “Are you the master of this house?”
I laughed, not because he was funny, but because his face was pinched in such a way that he made me want to laugh, out of a sort of embarrassment. “Mistress is in town,” I said, heat stinging my cheeks. “She will be back soon.”
“I must have missed her on my way in,” he said. “I sent a message, but it is harder to communicate without a cell phone.”
I puzzled at his words but kept smiling.
“You must be one of her children, then. No master of the house?”
I shook my head. “The plague. And I’m not her child, but an orphan. The plague also.”
“I’m terribly sorry.”
“I was young,” I said in answer.
“You’re young still.” He lifted a gloved hand, and the box that hovered next to him went ahead past me and into the open house. “My condolences to you, nonetheless. Do you mind if I set up?”
I didn’t know what he meant by this, but I nodded my permission. I felt a tiny bit of nerves after, hoping that Mistress wouldn’t be angry and whip me for my presumption.
The mage entered the house. He took a breath, looked around. The sparse living room seemed so small now that this stranger was in it, the carpets old and worn, the walls dirt-stained. I was too young to understand the shame that came over me. Despite his black clothes, I could tell that the man was very clean. His face was smooth like mine, even though he was an adult.
“Apologies. I’m Owan,” he said. “How rude of me to enter your home without giving my name first.” He stared at me and waited.
“I’m Mun. Welcome. Can I get you something to drink? The water will be warm, I’m afraid.”
He smiled at me, this time a full smile, revealing teeth so clean and straight, it made him look like a doll. “You’re so polite,” he said, and rubbed the top of my head with his gloved hand. The deep grooves of the glove felt good against my coarse hair. “Water will be good.”
I led him to the kitchen, through a set of arches. I found that the cube he had sent in before him was already there, resting on the ground next to the cooling box, out of the way against the wall. It made a noise when I entered, a short chirp. Owan was right behind me, so I figured the sound was for him. The strangeness of this man, the hovering box he carried that sounded like a bird—the whole scene felt dreamlike, a waking hallucination.
I got some water out of the cooling box. It was cool, but not cold. Better than I’d expected, anyway. I poured the water into a clay mug and handed it to him. He drank it down fast and handed it back, thanking me.
“I’ll do this quickly,” he said, “but do you mind keeping me company?”
I shook my head and tried to look calm, but inside, an odd sense of excitement filled me up. I sat cross-legged on the floor of the kitchen to watch him work. Owan went down on his knees and put his hand against the smooth black of the cooler box. I saw his brow furrow in concentration. Under the lids, his eyes rolled, and I marveled at the delicate curve of his eyelashes. He made a sound, a soft grunt deep in his throat, and opened his eyes.
I didn’t see it at first, but when I did, my whole body tensed with anticipation. The grooves in his gloves began to glow a soft orange, and then the whole thing was alight, the pentagonal cells that covered the entire surface of the gloves flashing in a range of colors. It was so beautiful that it almost distracted me from the true spectacle: the smooth black surface of the cooler box rippling out from where his glove touched. Two small spheres emerged from the surface of the box, like pebbles leaping out of dark water.
My stomach tightened—I forgot everything but that knot in my core and the magic before my eyes. I didn’t want to miss a single second. The cube Owan had brought in made a sound as it pulled the spheres into itself—the same rippling as before, quick and frictionless. My child’s mind expanded with the weight of what I’d witnessed.
Owan turned to me and smiled, a wide smile, revealing again his too-perfect teeth. He winked. I realized he was closer to me than before, or more accurately, I had inched nearer to him. Somehow I’d done so without realizing. He laughed a little. “You’re a great audience.”
My cheeks warmed again and my heart was a drum struck by fast hands. “What were they?” I asked.
“Elements,” he said, and when he saw my confusion, he added, “Metals.”
I didn’t know what either of those meant, but I nodded, again out of embarrassment.
He looked at me a moment longer, reading something on my face. “Have you ever—” He stopped and thought for a moment more. “Tell me if you feel this.” He closed his eyes and lifted his gloves in the air, fingers splayed like he was holding two bowls, palms up. The box chirped again and two spheres emerged. These spheres were smoother and less cloudy than the ones that entered, clearly reflecting objects around the room. They hovered there. Owan opened one eye. “Well?”
I wanted to say yes, but I honestly felt nothing, other than the tightness in my belly. I shook my head.
He looked disappointed but quickly smiled it away. “All right, then. Just thought I’d felt . . . Well, let’s not linger on it.” He turned his attention back to his work.
I didn’t understand then, this strange feeling, like my body wanted to sink into the ground, like the spheres had done with the box. It wasn’t magic. It was a broken heart.
He put his hands against the cooling box again, and the spheres followed him, dipping into its surface and disappearing as easily as they’d appeared. It was ending, I knew somehow, and my heart plummeted. An anger I didn’t know I had rose above me, tangible as a physical object, and I was overwhelmed by all of it. This stranger would leave and I would still be an orphan and Mistress would continue beating me for being too smart for my own good. I could see my whole life ahead, a mirror of what was behind me. I wanted to scream. Instead, I kept my eyes on the cooling box, hoping to hold the moment, even though it had already slipped from me.
Except, when I looked at the box, the surface had turned somewhat transparent and I could see a swirl of motion happening deep inside the piece of tech (what Owan called elements) engaged in a dance of completion. Dance was the best word I could bring to mind to describe it, and it fit so well that I didn’t feel silly for thinking it. The dance arrived at an end, and the cooling box hummed in satisfaction, a deep, perfect sound of completeness.
Owan took his gloved hands away from the object, and when he opened his eyes, they were on me. The kitchen was somewhat dark during the whole repairing, but at that moment a ray of sunlight came through the kitchen window and caught the amber of Owan’s eyes, making them flash like fire. His mouth was a tight line, but then it opened, not a smile but an O of astonishment. “I knew it,” he said. “I knew I felt it from you.”
I was confused by the words, but the realization was claiming me, too. I’d witnessed something I wasn’t supposed to witness. No, not that—I’d witnessed something I shouldn’t have been able to.
“You have the gift,” he said, a declaration so large but spoken so plainly, I didn’t believe he’d actually said it. I tried to form a reply—
“Mun, who is this man?”
I followed the familiar voice to the archway. There, Mistress stood. She had her hands on her hips in that way I’d learned to dread. Phantom welts burned my arms, a recent beating remembered.
“Mistress,” I said, but hesitated.
“Spit out your words, Mun. Who is this stranger in my house?”
“I’m Owan,” the mage said, rising to stand between us. “I was sent to fix your cooling box.”
Mistress watched the mage. No surprise or embarrassment. Owan seemed not to know that the truer question was:Why did you let this stranger in without me being here? Or perhaps, he had known. I wonder now about the change in his voice, the subtle deepening at that moment, how he’d stood blocking her sight of me.
“I was expecting you tomorrow,” Mistress said.
“I was to be here tomorrow, but my flight was changed.”
I didn’t know what Owan meant by flight, so I pictured him on bird’s wings.
“You should have sent word.”
“I did. You’ll find it saved in your phone booth.”
Mistress didn’t move from her spot, but I could hear that she would very soon. She was preparing for it. I’d tuned myself to the sudden movements of her body so I could get out of the way or ready myself for blows. Owan didn’t flinch when she finally stepped toward him. He held his ground, the action strange to see inside this house, which made room for Mistress wherever she stepped.
“I suppose I owe you payment?” Mistress said, the words themselves nonthreatening, but the tone behind them conveying an edge.
I didn’t know why this was happening, why she was upset with him, too, and not just me. I could only see Owan’s back, but it didn’t shrink at her tone and he again didn’t move from his place. I knew enough to know she wouldn’t strike him, but I worried for him nonetheless.
“There is no need for payment. These sorts of repairs are covered through our courtesy agreement. Please convey my thanks to your lord for this honor.”
Mistress let another silence stretch between them. “Perhaps you should stop by the lord’s house and convey it yourself.”
“I’ll consider it,” Owan said, but there was also an edge to his voice that turned sharp as a cutlass. “Good day, Mistress.” He lifted a hand, and with a chirp, his cube floated up and followed him out.
In the empty place he’d left, Mistress still stood. I felt it again, the magic ebbing away. I knew what would replace the magic, so I closed my eyes as Mistress crossed the room.
In my room later that night, I rubbed the welts on my arm and thought of Owan, his toy smile; those eyes, bright and sweet and welcoming; his laugh; and the way he made me feel warm inside. It dulled the pain for long moments. I thought of the moment, too, when I could see his work, the dance of what he called metals.
The house was so quiet, a breeze whistling through the cracked window. I could hear my breath, feel my heartbeat in the silence. All that I was lay in that bed with me, but there was a crack in it that something was coming through, something from the outside.
These feelings were hard to parse at that age, but I knew that I had changed, and that the world I lived in couldn’t hold all of me anymore, even if there truly wasn’t anywhere to go. I’d lost an opportunity, I realized later, in the time between the beating and my bed. A different world had slipped past me.
I usually didn’t have space for anger at Mistress, only fear, but in my room, my body burned from wounds and rage. I wanted to run. But I was on an island. I’d seen the edges of it. There wasn’t anywhere to go. I knew how to swim, but even with my child’s mind I knew I’d die on my way from there to elsewhere.
There was no possibility I’d get out. Perhaps when I was older—but no, hardly anyone left the island. We had little in worldly possessions. My mistress had her cooling box, a gift from our village-lord. I had nothing but my wits, and no one wanted me to use that part of myself, only my legs and my hands.
Sleep almost caught me, but then I heard something at the window, a scratching sound like a small animal. I looked over, saw the thing, onyx black and spiderlike, only it didn’t have enough legs—four where there should be eight. It put two of its legs up against the glass and tapped. I stood, inched my way toward it. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t afraid. Already my brain was working out a faint possibility. I cracked the window open a little more, and the thing crawled through.
In its center mass, a light began to glow. I didn’t hesitate even then, moved more by curiosity than fear. I put my finger on the light and it buzzed a little, or vibrated, and the light changed color, from orange to green.
“Hello again, Mun. It is Owan. I wanted to leave something with you. A gift. I have questions and I’m sure you do, too. Whenever you need to send me a message, touch the place you just pressed and a blue light will appear. Speak and press the blue light again when you’re done. It will stop glowing and I will receive the message. An orange light will appear when I send a message back. It will turn green when you listen and orange when the message is finished. Touch it again and it will stop glowing. It does other things, but I’ll let you figure them out on your own. Part of the fun, right? Anyway, I hope you are well. I look forward to hearing from you.”
The light on the spider-thing turned orange again. I didn’t know how to shut the light off, so I pressed my finger down on the glowing spot and waited for what would happen. The light changed to blue and I remembered what that meant, so I spoke.
“Hello, Owan. Thank you for this gift. I hope to hear from you again.”
I was too embarrassed to say more. I wanted to ask, “Will you come back for me?” But my instinct told me that would be foolish. The world didn’t work this way. People can’t be taken without a price. I didn’t think at that moment why that would be—a price for a person. My conception of the world was tied to ownership, one thing owning another. I had never considered that a person could own one’s self.
Eventually I would say those words, or something like them, and a great many things would happen—going to university, earning my certification, meeting my husband, Tibor—all the while being plunged headfirst into the murky world of technomancy and the significant alienation and unjust privilege of being one who determines the progression of the world. Even now I can’t believe the strange set of circumstances that followed.
But that night, the promise of something more was enough. I slipped the spider-thing under my pillow, then a sack filled with scraps of fabric, and I closed my eyes and imagined myself on the back of a great bird, wings shiny-black like Owan’s gloves, amber eyes that shone bright in the sun. I tried to imagine the world below, the island shrinking into a green dot in all that blue. A breeze came in from the window and it was perfect, the whole fantasy. My heart was so full—a balm more soothing than any physical medicine—that I forgot the welts on my arms.
Joy followed me into my dreams.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Cadwell Turnbull is the award-winning author of The Lesson and No Gods, No Monsters. His short fiction has appeared in The Verge, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and several anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019. His novel The Lesson was the winner of the 2020 Neukom Institute Literary Award in the debut category. His novel No Gods, No Monsters was the winner of a Lambda and a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.
“A Tech Mage Comes To Visit,” © Cadwell Turnbull, 2023.
The Sunday Morning Transport is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our authors’ work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.