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Chapter 20

Touching Base


Ringo leaned forward in his chair and said to Paul, "If you fell over you could join the Rolling Stones.”

At the house they had set Paul up on the edge of the forest, in the shadows so they could look at him without being blinded, and talked at him nonstop, for if he could hear he needed to keep in touch with the world. They'd run through million-dollar smiles and six-million-dollar men, Diamond Jim this and diamond in the rough that, as well as endless variations on the word "rock."

John, who sat cross-legged on the ground, said "Any more of that and we'll enjoy the unique sight of watchin’ a statue puke.” The spurts of information had stopped, but now he could feel billions of invisible water-strings attaching to him. He twitched his fingers and felt the strings respond, and wondered what would happen if he started to pull. But now wasn't the time for experimentation. Especially not with the decision he’d made. (Also, the three had agreed not to use any magic around Paul, even the invisible stuff, until he’d gotten his own.)

Slouching in his chair with his arms crossed and his heels digging into the grass, George threw a disgruntled glance at As’taris's shed. "What is Ass doing in there?” The elf had vanished into it hours ago, long enough for Ringo to complete his hike, and since it was Protected separately from the house, and soundproofed to boot, they could only guess.

"Don't worry, mate," John called up to Paul, "once we've got you ungemmed you’ll get your magic."

"How?" asked Ringo. "I mean, what d'ye think we should do? Mine just sort of showed up, y'know, so I haven't a clue as to how you'd actually work to get some."

"I was just handed mine," said George. "I went under a house to get a magic wand for this woman, but I didn't do it because I thought I'd get something."

“I thought I’d give him this.” John rubbed the blue Kansael, though even as he spoke he got a sense that it didn’t want to leave him, and he had to admit that he didn’t particularly want to give it up, either. Nor did he know how to remove it. But he owed Paul a lot for neglecting him so badly. “I expect he was supposed to’ve gotten it instead of the other thing, and I’ve already got me wings.”

In a low voice George said, "Maybe he really isn't meant to have magic, or he'd have gotten your gem the first time."

"That," said John darkly, "is the best reason in the world for me to give it to him. Nobody's gonna mean anythin' for us except us."

At last As’taris came out of his shed carrying a sack made from one of Paul's smelly shirts. He'd changed into stained old clothes of his own and removed all his jewelry—the first time they'd seen him dressed so casually. He strode over to the three and spread the shirt-bag out on the ground to display its contents: one silver and ten copper disks, a small diamond, three lumps of mica, and a pasty-white piece of flesh that smelled worse than the shirt.

"No eye of newt and hair of frog?” asked Ringo.

"Frogs don't have hair.” The elf reached over and combed his fingers through Ringo's hair, came away with a few strands that he twisted together and stuck to Paul with a bit of sap.

Disgruntled, Ringo felt his head. "What is it about me hair that people want it so much?"

"At least you've proved you're not a frog,” said George.

Checking over his spell components one more time, As’taris gathered the shirt back into a bag and took a deep breath. "Stand there,” he said to the three, pointing left, and when George and Ringo stood up he moved their chairs out of the way. When he had a clear line of sight to Paul, the elf closed his eyes and stiffened, holding the shirt-bag to his chest. He breathed raggedly and convulsed, but nothing happened, and he grimaced in annoyance.

"What's wrong?” John said anxiously.

"The spell didn't catch; my spark wasn't hot enough.” Sweat trickled down the elf's forehead.

"Does that mean you can't do it?”

Possibly John sounded too eager, for he was no more enamored of As’taris than before and wasn't thrilled at having entrusted Paul to him. The elf snapped, "Certainly I can burn the spell! Many spells fail, and this isn’t a finger spell. I'll just cast until it catches.” He made a great show of stiffening again and repeated the spell. In vain.

"I've never seen a spell fail,” John muttered to the others. "The stupid fuck don't know what the fuck he's doin'.”

"Oh, I have,” said Ringo calmly. "Sometimes when I watched people in the city I saw 'em bugger their spells. They'd jerk about and get angry when nothin’- ” He broke off as As’taris strained uselessly a third time, after which he collapsed into a chair, panting.

John remained unconvinced. "Let's wait until Grunnel gets back,” he suggested loudly.

Stung, As’taris jerked in his seat. "I can burn it!” He jumped up, though he clearly hadn't had enough rest, and threw himself into position, convulsing like an epileptic, breathing like a bellows. He bobbed at the knees and shuddered much harder than before.

Fuselike, the musical sparkle of magic trilled in John's ears. "Look!” whispered George, plucking excitedly at John's arm. An opalescent aura shimmered into existence around the elf's body and grew until it was a perfect oval. In a tired, triumphant voice As’taris croaked, “Caught!” He convulsed one last time, and the aura flowed into the shirt-bag, which began to glow with a sunny yellow light.

The elf's proud grin faded into a puzzled frown as he looked down at the bag on his chest. "Yellow? It's not supposed to be yellow.” Then he shrugged and held the bag at arm's length.

The yellow light exploded from the shirt-bag, bathing Paul. Like paint in water it penetrated the diamond, swirling, churning, working its way into Paul's core, tinting him bright gold. The shirt-bag dimmed and crumbled into ash; As’taris wiped his hands on his pants, mopped his forehead, and stepped back to watch his spell finish up.

And was surrounded by angry Earthmen. "What's wrong with yellow light?” demanded John.

"It's supposed to be blue light.” As’taris was as close to embarrassment as they'd ever seen him. "But the color of the light might vary. I don't know. I've never fully burned this spell, just lit and snuffed it before the spellfire left me.”

"You've never - ”

A huge blast of heat whipped away John's sentence and forced everyone back. John threw up his hands to protect his face, and suddenly he knew to weave strings of water together to create a misty water field around himself, keeping him cool. Somebody bumped into him, and he automatically wove the water-strings over whomever it was: Ringo, who was so startled by the sudden coolness that he nearly moved out of the water field. John had to grab his wrist (linking their water-strings together) and bawl "It's me! Where's Ge- oh, shit!” John slammed his other arm over his eyes, jamming his glasses painfully into his face.

Paul was a shapeless mass of white heat and light. Even with his eyes shut and covered, the light burned into John's brain; in fact, it refused to fade away, and through his panic he realized he was still seeing though his eyes were closed. But before he could figure out why, the ground started to shake, and a great rumbling filled the air, like a rocket was about to launch. The light blinked out in John's head and Ringo screamed "Get away!”

John agreed, and, turning, opened his eyes onto a blinding white afterimage. He stumbled forward on the trembling ground, half-dragging Ringo along behind him, weaving his water field thicker as the rumbling grew and the heat increased. Abruptly he could see again, but the perspective was wrong; he could still see Paul behind -

WHAM! Paul exploded in a brilliant shower of fragments.

John and Ringo were thrown forward, landed with a splash on the thick layer of water around them, and slid into the side of the house like otters on a wet rock. Wind roared around them; glass shattered. "Don't move!” screamed John, rolling on top of Ringo in a frantic effort to protect him further from the diamond shrapnel that buzzed overhead and peppered the walls behind them and, thank God, bounced off John’s tightly woven water field.

Finally the wind faded; the buzzing stopped; and the world fell silent except for the hiss and crackle of fire and cooling glass.

Blink, John could see again, and now he understood that by connecting water-strings with Ringo he had tapped into Ringo's mindsight; but he wished he hadn't, for a glassy black spot ringed by smoldering grass was all that remained of Paul. (And where was George?) The thinner trees near him had been disintegrated, and others, blackened and smoking, hung at crazy angles. One of the chairs lay at the other end of the lawn, burning; the other had vanished. Thick black smoke hung in the air, stinking even through the water field. Something splash-bounced off them from above: a shingle, jarred loose.

"Paul, Paul,” Ringo babbled softly underneath John. “Oh, Jesus, Paul....”

John could only stare. He felt light and unreal, floating above the lawn as Ringo shifted perspective; he seemed to be watching a movie. He couldn’t believe what he was looking at, what he had seen; nothing had really happened, had it? Paul was really perfectly fine, laughing somewhere as he put on a grand show; Paul had to be waiting for them in the house; Paul must be playing a joke, a trick, a game….

Then a strange, gulping whine began, soft at first, then louder. Wood screeched and ripped behind them and in the forest. Though still protected by water, John ducked, pushing Ringo's head down, as something whizzed overhead like a supersonic wasp; and then the air was full of diamond bits converging on the glassy spot, a huge, brilliant sphere of diamond dust collapsing into itself like a dying star, or, perhaps, a newly forming one.

John and Ringo held their breath.

When the sphere was about nine feet in diameter it was just diffuse enough to see through; at eight it was opaque and starting to take on a shape; at seven John stood up and moved away from Ringo, severing their connection so he could watch with his own eyes; and at six the ball gave off a final burst of dazzling light, made a whumping noise, and winked out.


"PAUL!” John cried gladly, and ran to welcome him back.

Then he slowed and stopped, staring in fascinated disbelief.

Paul stood bewildered, slowly lowering his hand from the pose he'd been frozen in; but he glittered. Every hair on his body was diamond, from his once-black head hair to his eyelashes and eyebrows, the hairs on his arms and chest, and even down to the delicate wisps normally invisible to the casual eye—yet it fluttered in the breeze as readily as ordinary hair. His fingernails were also diamond, long and sharp, and John couldn't help it, the first thing out of his mouth was “Oh my God, Paul, don't pick your nose.”


Wha hoppen? The last thing Paul remembered clearly was his terror at losing all feeling in his left hand. After that he couldn't piece together anything coherent, just snatches of conversation, the word "rock," and a sort of ripping. Now charred trees had sprung up around him, the ground beneath his feet was black and glassy, the air smelled like a war zone, a blob of water that sounded like John was being cheerful at him, and there was something in his left hand.

His left hand! It was back! And the magnificent diamond was in it. But as his fingers reflexively tightened on it, it disintegrated in a puff of sparkling dust. Slowly he opened his hand to let the dust spill out. Somehow it had coated his fingernails, so he rubbed his thumbnail with his index finger, but the surface stayed shiny. Then he noticed the hairs on the back of his hand, and his gaze traveled slowly, uncomprehendingly, up his left arm, up his right arm, then to the blob of water. "Whaaaa’ hoppen’?” he mumbled. (His teeth were diamond, too, and his nose hairs.)

"Oh, you just turned into a statue and blew up. Routine stuff.” The blob began to laugh and cry at the same time—at least, it sounded like it was; it was hard to tell. "Oh, man, I thought you were dead! I'd hug you, but it looks like it might hurt.”

"Hey!” shouted someone off to his right. Here came George, all smiling excitement, but he slowed and stopped at the sight of Paul, and spared not a few glances for the blob, too.

"Where were you, then?” the blob asked, sounding relieved. "Or maybe I should ask, what were you?”

"I was a rock,” said George. “I got thrown all the way back there.” He pointed into the forest.

"`I am a rock, I am an iiii-sland.’ I didn't know you could do that.”

"Well, I am a rock star.” George waved up and down at the blob. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Neither did I. Right, mate, we can compare notes later.” The vague shadowy form inside the water seemed to turn to Paul. “How d'ye feel, Macca?”

"Uh,” said Paul, finding the conversation less and less palatable as he came back to himself.

Now Ringo came plodding up, dripping from head to toe, hair and clothing plastered to his body. "You left the water runnin',” he told the blob coolly. "When you ran off it all came down on me.”

"Sorry,” said the blob. "I've a lot to learn about this stuff. Right, how do I get rid of this? Okay….” It waved a shapeless arm and became John, grinning sheepishly as he fingered the rounded bottom of the blue teardrop gem in his chest.

Paul’s blood pressure rose about a hundred points in half a second. That blue diamond, obviously the source of John’s new magic, should have been his! How dare John keep it for himself! Even if Paul had stupidly given it to him, what did he need more magic for, when Paul had none? After that big diamond had turned out to be such a bust and caused Paul so much terror! Greedy bastard! Lying, cheating son of a bitch! Paul angrily opened his mouth to scream all these things and much, much more.

But the only thing that came out was “Haaaaaaaa….” as the expression on his face went from fury to wide-eyed astonishment. Something was… happening inside him.

In one great pulse from scalp to heel, the most magnificent sense of physical well-being suffused his body. All else forgotten, he stood perfectly still, savoring it. And it didn’t seem possible to feel any better, but the sensation somehow intensified, building and building until Paul hugged himself as if to keep himself from exploding again, this time from sheer pleasure. Indeed, the threat of exploding felt astonishingly real; when, through the haze of ecstasy, he dimly noticed curious figures approaching, he yelled at them “Get away!” They promptly retreated.

A moment or so later, the explosive feeling subsided into a dull (but still thrilling) roar, the hum of a giant turbine that had settled into his body. He throbbed with power. “Oh, yeah,” he whispered, lowering his arms slowly. Almost, he expected lightning to crackle along their length. “That was worth waiting for.” Then he grinned hugely at his distant friends and called to them, "I hope you felt like this when you got your magic!"

They came a bit closer, obviously pleased for him but wary, not knowing what had happened to him and not sure whether he was safe. “Dunno—what’d you feel like?” Ringo asked.

How do you describe color to the blind? Paul struggled to find words. "I—I—It’s—I’m—It’s—anyway, I feel fantastic!” he finally blurted, aware of the inadequacy of the word. “You wouldn't believe all the stuff that's bouncing around inside me! It's like—” he searched for an analogy they would appreciate “—it's like I just snorted coke or ate lightning or something. I'm all charged up! I feel like I could run around the world!” He gestured grandly and accidentally hit a tree behind him with his right hand.

Now, this tree, a fairly thick individual, was the only one nearby sturdy enough to have withstood the explosion/implosion of his statue-self. It was charred, debranched and deleafed on the Paul side, and peppered with small holes, but it was still upright, still substantially untouched.

No longer. With a screech of ripping wood, the tree broke in half, showering splinters everywhere. The top half of the tree rocketed into the forest, breaking branches off other trees as it flew, finally landing fifty feet away in a tangle of leaves and limbs.

“Jesus!” said John. He stared at the wreckage. “Jesus!”

Ringo said, "Didn't break too many trees when I used coke.”

George just gaped.

Paul stared over his shoulder at the tree, at the distant top half, at his hand, at the others, at the tree again. Did I do that? I couldn’t have, the tree must have been ready to break, it must have been burned through—but then, why did the tree-piece fly so far? And why didn’t his hand hurt? He’d felt it hit the wood, but he might as well have struck a pillow for all the injury it had caused him.

Intending to inspect the fallen piece of the tree, he took a step toward it—and sprang into the air as if he’d been blasted from a cannon. “Hey!” he yelled in surprise and panic as the ground dropped away beneath him—thud! He slammed into another tree hard enough to sink in slightly and stay there as the tree creaked and groaned and fell over with a slow, mighty crash. Jarred loose, Paul rolled off onto his back right next to the tree. Except that he was damp and slightly brown and sticky from sap and water that had been squeezed out of the wood upon impact, he was entirely unhurt by the little misadventure. A little giddy, thinking Finally! Finally!, he reached over and grabbed the trunk with both hands. His fingers sank into the squealing wood so easily—could a rotten strawberry have been any more yielding?—that he almost squeezed the tree in two before he lifted it horizontally over his body (it seemed about as heavy as a piece of paper) and cried to the others, "Look! Look!”

The pressure of his hands grew too great; with a final tortured shriek, the tree broke in two; one piece squirted to the left, one to the right, and Paul was left with hands full of wood pulp. He wiped them on the remnants of his shirt, which ripped clean off at the first stroke, exposing his diamond-fuzzed chest. He grimaced at the sorry rag hanging on his finger and flicked it up. It soared into the air like it was tied to an arrow and caught on a high branch.

A dream, he had to be dreaming, how else could he have such power? How was it possible?

Distantly he heard John said, "Huh, and I thought I was Superman.” The others were watching Paul from way down the front lawn—way, way down the front lawn; they knew a health hazard when they saw one.

The name Superman knocked around in Paul's brain and gave birth to a wild notion. He sat up—which sent him somersaulting through the forest to knock over another tree, and he ended up flat on his face. When he tried to push himself up, he punched holes in the ground and soared backwards into yet another tree. Too much, too much, he thought, still happy but just a wee bit frustrated. Gotta adjust. It took him several tries with increasing delicacy on his part, and rather more damage to the woods, before he finally ended up in a sitting position. From there, he was able to stand up by slapping the ground lightly with both hands at the same time, thus propelling himself straight up into the air, whereby he was able to land on his feet. With great care, exerting himself as little as possible, he took tiny, mincing steps to the lawn that only carried him twenty feet each instead of the God-knew-how-far-he-might-go if he took a “normal” step; he still left footprints each time he landed.

As he moved toward the others, they backed up again—hurriedly. When he reached more or less where he wanted to be in the lawn, he gestured at them to come closer, but George yelled, "No thanks, if you tread on our feet we're not gonna have feet any more.”

Paul was a little disappointed, but he could appreciate their point of view. "Right, then. Watch this!” He crouched down, gathering himself. "Up, up - ”

"Oh, no!” groaned John, covering his face with his hand (but peering between his fingers). "Paul, don't say it!"

“- and AWAY!”

And Paul jumped.



The ground beneath him erupted in a shower of dirt and pulverized rock, and he soared straight up with his arms over his head and his face turned towards the sky, hair blasted back by the wind.

UP, "I'm flying! I don't believe it!” he screamed, looking down quickly to see the house and the others dwindle to ant size.

UP, "I'm flying!” What freedom! No wonder John never came down and George spent so much time as a bird. Poor Ringo, earthbound, never to know this feeling!

AND down? "I'm not flying?” Paul's face fell as he began to drop despite his best efforts to remain aloft. "Ah, shit.” But at least he could land impressively, and he crossed his arms in an exaggerated show of confidence in his ability to survive the drop. He watched the ground expand hugely and rush up to greet him, and


The ground shook; clouds of dirt billowed up. A mild shock traveled up Paul's legs, not at all painful, indeed rather pleasant.

When the air cleared, he was waist deep in the ground at the center of a crater. The others peered over the edge. When they saw he was all right, they chanted "It's a nerd, it's a pain, it's Stupidman!”

"Jealous!” said Paul. He twisted around in the dirt to loosen himself (shredding what remained of his pants, which wasn’t much), then jumped lightly out, lightly being another thirty-foot hop that landed him near the others, spraying them with dirt before they scattered in terror. "Give a fella some warning!” shouted Ringo, who, between John and Paul was now coated with a layer of mud.

"Sorry.” Actually, naked, dirty, afraid to move with the others still fairly close, Paul was becoming more than a bit frustrated with his magic. Strong was great, but strong to the point where he couldn’t perform the simplest physical tasks without causing chaos was ridiculous. He glanced at the others almost accusingly. They’d never had to struggle to use their magic, even when they’d first gotten it. How come they can just snap their fingers and do their stuff perfectly, while I'm stuck playing human bulldozer?

But Paul had to admit, looking at the wreckage of lawn and forest, that he had at least made an even trade-off. Subtle he wasn't, but the sheer force he wielded.... Give him a pound of uncut diamonds over one small polished stone any day. Once he tamed himself, fought down and bottled up and released his strength in carefully controlled doses—wouldn't he be something, just? Paul grinned, feeling much better. It was worth the wait.


Well, thank God that’s done, John thought, deeply satisfied (though somewhat awestruck) by the belated-spectacular arrival of Paul’s magic. He looked down at his—yes, his—blue gem. Don’t reckon Paul’ll begrudge me this any more. Wasn’t sure I could give it up anyway. Indeed, the thought of detaching from the Kansael now gave him the same sense of horror as the thought of cutting off an arm or wing. And now that it was his for keeps, he relaxed his guard and opened himself to the pull of the strings that had been gently tugging in his mind.

At once he felt an irresistible urge. He turned slowly, found himself facing the cliff

and The Ocean.

Big blue jewel to match his little one!

"Erk,” he exhaled through a drunken, rapt grin. His eyes went all soft and misty. "Ooh.” His hand fluttered up to touch the Kansael. A step toward the cliff, and then he was loping for it, dancing toward it really, with his arms outstretched as if to embrace a lover. At the edge he stopped and swept his arms up majestically, pulling at a billion strings. A huge pseudopod of a wave erupted from the water, enveloped him, and carried him into the welcoming sea.


Ringo couldn't take his eyes off the damp spot on the lawn. "Did he do that?”

"Well,” said George philosophically, "if he didn't, he's screwed.” He flashed a hilarious grin. "This has been a hell of a day, hasn't it?”

"Hey!” exclaimed Paul, indignant at the loss of his audience. Whose debut was this, anyway? But he had nothing to show them when they glanced over, at least nothing they hadn't already seen. He wished he had some steel bars to pretzel or safe doors to rip open.

John's cry floated up from the ocean: "Look at me!”

Paul pursed his lips as he watched George amble to the cliff while Ringo closed his eyes and started to laugh. May as well get him over with, he decided sourly. He did have a wary interest in John's new magic, that-which-could-have-been-his. Taking ultra-careful steps, moving his feet so little that he was almost just imagining that he walked, he bounced to the cliff in five-foot hops. He wound up with his toes hanging precariously over the edge, so he had a beautiful view of what John was doing.

Which was running around on the surface of the water, laughing hysterically. "Look at me, look at me, I'm Jesus!”

Just then the ground gave way under Paul, and as he slid, bumped, and tumbled to a painless crash on the beach, he vowed I’m going to practice day and night until I’m as good with my magic as they are with theirs.

But he really was having a damned good time.

At least he was until Ringo discovered As’taris lying face down in a bush: hairless, baked to a turn, oozing from dozens of shrapnel-holes, and very, very, very dead.


~The C'hovite gods did a terrific job on Paul, didn't they? I swear they must be power gamers. I couldn't’ve gotten anywhere near the level of power they got in him. Look at those secondary spells woven into him—I love they way they fixed him so he doesn’t, say, go flying or blow everything down if he just moves his arm. And the fireworks weren't bad either.~

+Rough on the elf, though.+

[Paul's happy; that's the important thing. I just hope he can adjust. I still wish he'd gotten the Kansael like we planned.]

~No, I agree with the gods. The Kansael's strength is in proportion to the strength of the bearer, so John was the logical choice. ‘Course, it might have been fun if Paul had gotten it now. Kinda overkill, though.~

+When do you want to start Operation V?+

[After Paul gets acclimated.]

~Jeez, Shag! That could take forever!~

[Do you seriously think he can go anywhere like this?]

~Nah, I guess not.~


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