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the magic men

   Ruby held the gun firm—sight squarely on her target. Her hands steady, her target focused on the barrel of the gun. Sweat moistened his forehead, trickling down his plump cheeks. He had good reason to be nervous. His eyes kept drifting to hers. He could see it in her eyes; the fury. Archibald wondered for the umpteenth time if he had made the right decision. Too late now; she began to squeeze. This is it…she’s going to kill me...
   The trigger pulled, the hammer jerked, the bullet flew. The pop came a split second later. Gasps from the audience filled the silent theatre as the pane of glass shattered into hundreds of pieces and Archibald fell backward…

   “Oh no” someone cried. “He’s been shot!”

   Ever too dramatic, Archibald stayed still a moment longer than the illusion called for. A child in front started crying, his mother shielding him. Archibald stirred. More gasps. Slowly, the over-dramatic illusionist lifted his hand, opened his mouth, and wrenched the bullet from between his teeth.

   A smile full of too much hubris swept across his face. In an impossible show of agility for such a stout man, he leapt up, his arms raised in self-indulgence. The audience erupted!

   “That’s how ya’ do the bullet trick!” someone yelled excitedly.

   “Ladies and gentlemen, my assistant Ruby!” he called to her to accept their praise alongside him. He could never forget that again, she already wanted to kill him. No need to add powder to that keg.

Long-practiced in stagecraft, Ruby set aside her loathing and took his hand, both bowing graciously—trained smiles from ear to ear.

   “The Amazing Archibald!” she exclaimed.

   “One of these days I am gonna put a real bullet in that gun, you bastard” she threatened again as they hurried off-stage.

   “Quiet down, Ruby” he begged. “Someone in the audience might here you.”

   “I hope they do hear me. I’ll tell them all your secrets!” she screamed toward the audience. Stagehands, magicians, and assistants walked past, pretending yet again not to notice.

   “Ruby, please.”

   “You weren’t afraid I’d hear you when you were screwin’ my kid sister!”

   “That was a mistake! How many times-”

   “My little sister was a mistake? The only mistake was you Archie. You’re the mistake!” slamming the dressing room door in his face.

   “Nice goin’ kid” the Supernatural Damien, a renowned mathmagician and one of the oldest Magi on the tour, slapped him on the back as he passed. The old Magi mentored Archibald, but in fact, they were rivals back home and he didn’t teach him everything he was supposed to. Especially not about women. A common gag among the old-timers when a new Magi was brought in.

   Archibald was left standing there yet again, wondering again, what exactly her problem was. Both he and her sister had enjoyed the sex…

 

The Pledge

 

   The Magic Men was an exclusive society of twelve travelling magicians, but as with all illusions, they were much more than they appeared. All male out of necessity, they could not impersonate women—they had none on their planet. And could only transmit twelve of their society at one time. The energy to maintain the link between Earth and Titan was immense.

   And necessary.

   “How many made it back?” Archibald asked, having arrived late to the meeting. The other Magi did not hide their displeasure. He found a great deal of tension in the theatre, empty but for them and the animals—rabbits, doves, mice, and a full-size horse and miniature Falabella for Herschel’s’ Rider Switch transformation.

   “Your little problem is starting to affect our work, Archibald” Herschel the Grandiloquent reprimanded. The elder Magi, nearing his end on the tour, would soon return home with the most successful run in Titan’s history. He would not be celebrated, he would be worshipped—his seat on the Gathering all but assured. Tall, lean, and rough-skinned, he set his rigid eyes sternly on the young Magi.

   “Apologies gentleman. If I had been warned-”

   “Save your excuses, boy. The Gathering isn’t interested in them. Only in results” Herschel reminded.

   “If you cannot control the biological functions of that unit, you will be sent home half-spliced” warned the Magnificent Yu-zhang. The stately Magi, had quickly earned a reputation for delivering results, both on-stage and back home. His threat hardly idle, a Magi sent home without meeting the minimum quota found himself expunged by their society, disavowed by their collection, and disowned by their cluster. Essentially a death sentence.

   “Either unit” the Supernatural Damien reminded with a sadistic grin—his meaning clear.

   “I cannot deactivate her, she is essential to my show.”

   “Kill her, boy. Their word is kill. You haven’t become attached to it, have you?” Herschel asked. “That would be a problem.”

   “I could do it for him, if he is unable” the youngest Magi offered eagerly. The Charismatic Umberto, constantly on the look-out for a way to impress both the Magi and the Gathering, adopted a flamboyant manner to play up his psychic extravaganza. His dress, his hair, his speech, even the way he sat, seemed a performance in-and-of itself.

   “I can do it!” Archibald assured them, wrenching his fingers nervously. “If I have to. But she would be difficult to replace, especially in the Assistant’s Revenge. Plus, it would draw unwanted attention. In my opinion.”

   “I agree with the boy” another Magi offered. “We cannot afford to draw any more attention than we already have on us. Other legitimate magicians are starting to question our methods. We cannot afford to have ‘exposers’ looking too closely at our illusions.”

   “Maybe we should flash occasionally. Nothing says legitimate like a screw up.”

   “I dunno. I would love a chance t’ do real magic” another mocked; all laughing but for Archibald and Herschel, who never took his stern eyes off the young Magi.

   “That will do” Herschel admonished. “I will not have you, her, or anyone, disrupting my tour. The service we perform, the sacrifices we make, are more than just a sacred duty. They are a privilege. An honor bestowed upon us by the Gathering. Never forget that. Never endanger that. These units are mortal. Weak. Mundane. We are incarnate. We are eternal. To be disavowed, half-spliced”-eyeing Yu-zhang after repeating the juvenile vernacular-“is not a joking matter. Not now. Not ever.”

   Yu-zhang nodded, accepting the rebuke.

   “Four” a fat middle-aged Magi, the Incandescent Igor, finally answered after a short silence.

   “Huh?” Archibald asked, absentmindedly thinking about Ruby. She did not deserve to be deactivated. And in fact, he had become attached to her. It happened from time to time despite the fact Titans found humans morally and intellectually repulsive. Insects were much preferred, they served a purpose at least.

   “Four made it” Damien repeated glumly.

   “That’s not good” wrenching his fingers harder than before.

   “Yours made it” Herschel assured him.

   “But only four. Four” doing the math quickly. “Our next show isn’t for another week.”

   “They will suffice for now” Yu-zhang assured.

   “But we must have nine in the next performance” Igor disclosed.

   “Nine! We only have seven vanishes in our act.”

   “Yu-zhang will double up.”

   “That’ll hurt” Damien warned him.

   “He never misses” Igor reminded.

   “It’ll still hurt.”

   “Nazim can revise his old one also.”

   “It has been a spell but I think I can still turn the trick” the Nefarious Nazim nodded, the hypnotist’s silly puns drew some nervous laughs, but he did not seem happy at having to do it.

   “And Heinrich has been practicing!” His German accent piercing the quiet theatre, the Haunting Heinrich annunciated each word preposterously—the likable man’s own attempt at levity met with hollow silence. The mind-reader, having no sense for comedy, performed his act as a “dark and mystifying journey into the mind”. The irony not lost on him or any of the others.

   They were all specialists—mentalists, mnemonists, escapologists—performing effects specific to their skillset, but all had to know at least one appearance or vanish involving a member of the audience.

   A mandatory necessity.

   “That’s ten tries” Archibald said gloomily. “Only one chance-”

   “Eleven” interrupted Damien.

   Archibald gaped at him, hopelessness twisting his face into an obscene vision. “But you can only work with children, now.” Damien returned his gaze with a forced nonchalance. “He can’t work with adults anymore, they take more energy than he can generate. He can only work with children!” Archibald desperately repeated to Herschel.

   “If you had been here on time, you would have heard this the first time” Herschel told him.

   “But we don’t transmit children!” Archibald, horrified, looked around, studying all their faces. “Herschel-”

   “It’s done, boy. There’s nothing we can do. We don’t have a choice.”

 

***

 

   Archibald sat dejected on the steps of their road-side motel. Very late, nearly the entire city slept save for the rats, prostitutes, and neon lights; all still offering a weary traveler a glimpse into its naked underbelly. The railing dug into his head, the indentation threatening to become two permanent lines across his face. The lights bathed him in sweltering damnations, condemning his reflections. The rats passed him by unwilling to near the stench of his despair, instinct warning them away from the foul being.

   “Archie what are you doing out here?” Ruby asked him. “It’s very late.”

   Apparently, she couldn’t sleep either.

   “Go back inside” he murmured.

   “We’re not on stage, you can’t order me around” she said haughtily, her arms crossed. The slight committed against her afforded her the high-ground against any argument with him, but was not the cause for her haughtiness. She was born that way. Tall, slender, a statuesque posture and a proper pronunciation of every syllable, she evoked in people a sense of golden-age nobility. Even in a nightgown and robe at three in the morning she emitted a regal aura that spoke to her genuine superiority. She never believed herself better than everyone else, she simply understood she deserved more. So, she strove to achieve it even at an early age, dedicating herself to dance, art, acting and performing.

   “Lee’ meahlone” she thinks he said.

   “Have you been drinking?” the bottle of whiskey dangling from his hand like a noose. “I’ve never seen you drink. Are you an alcoholic? Is that why-…none of you drink” she realized after all this time, an odd tingling causing the hairs of her body to stand on end.

   In fact, none did. And if one of the Magi found him in such a state he would immediately be half-sliced. “I don’ care if they see me. Let ‘em dissa- deac- kill me.”

   “Kill you?”

   She doesn’t get it. None of them get it. Sure, humans are barely sentient beasts, but children, at least they have a chance. Their little minds are still developing, to take that opportunity away! Their society had evolved beyond that kind of callousness millennia ago, hadn’t it?

   “They wanna kill you” he told her.

   “Kill me? What in heaven’s name? Archie you’re scaring me” she thundered pompously.

   “They would transmit you. They would you know”-turning to look at her-“but your brain has the wrong smell” his breath a foul stench.

   “Oh my, you are drunk good and proper. If this is about my sister, I’m over it. And I’m over you. I have been. I have no intention of jeopardizing my career by actually shooting you. You should be aware, one of the big acts has taken notice of me. Someone I worked with before. I think I might get an offer soon.”

   “Good. You should go” he warned her.

   He may as well have struck her across the face. “Well good then, I’m glad we agree. I’m going to go wake Herschel up and tell him you’re in no shape to perform tonight. Maybe I can assist one of the others instead. No reason I should suffer because you can’t handle your liquor.” She turned, stomping up the stairs but stopped, overcome by a peculiar sensation, let them kill me, echoed in her mind. It struck her. She believed it. Against all common sense and purpose of sanity, her instincts forced her to believe it.

   He started weeping.

   “Archie?” The knot that had formed in her stomach only a second ago doubled in intensity. Every instinct told her to run. Sympathy told her to stay. Warily, she sat beside him. “What’s going on? What’s wrong? Why would they kill you? Me? Archie, you’re scaring me.”

 

***

 

   Ruby answered the knock at the door; the loud morning sun penetrating the darkened room.

   “We can’t find-” Archibald, Damien was going to say but saw his head sticking out from under the blankets. “Oh. I- I didn’t realize…”

   For the first time in her six years on the tour she saw him. She actually peered into his eyes. His eyes. “We made up” she said needlessly curt. Why hadn’t she noticed it before?

   “Really?”

   “A lady has a right to change her mind. Is that a problem for you, Damien?”

   “No, of course not. Not at all. That’s great!” he covered.

   “Well, I’m glad you approve.” They stared at each other across the poker table, each suspecting the other’s bluff but unable to get a clear read. “Do you need me to wake him? Is something wrong?”

   “No, of course not. Not at all” folding his hand. “I was just checking up on him.”

   “I’ll let him know you were kind enough to stop by.”

 

***

 

   The bucket of ice-cold water yanked Archibald from sleep. “What the hell?” Then the bucket threatened to knock him back unconscious. “Ow!” He sat up, bewildered to say the least. “What the- Ruby?”

   “Wake up!”

   “What? What am I doing here?”

   “You slept here.”

   “We?”

   “Oh, God no! Are you insane!” shaking in revulsion. “Last night you said they were going to kill you. And me! Now talk.”

   “I said what now?”

   “You were drunk”-he spotted the near-empty bottle-“I’ve never seen you drink. Not in your two years with the show. I’ve never seen any of them drink. Not once. Not in the six years I’ve been with the show. Or smoke. Pop a pill. Drink coffee, Archibald. Coffee! None of you are Mormons so explain.” Her cross-examination complete, she waited.

   “It’s an agreement” he started flustered. “We-we-we-It interferes with our minds, our preparation. You know. The show, the tour” he reminded.

   “That’s not what you said last night. Last night, you said it interfered with ‘the transmissions’.” Her humorless gaze left little room for argument. “What transmissions, Archie? Why would they want us both dead? And what do you mean by Titan? Saturn’s moon, Titan?”

   “Oh hell…”

 

***

 

   She waited, seated on the edge of the bed, her mind a disaster of Poseidian proportions, her legs shaking uncontrollably.

   Archibald finally walked out of the bathroom looking almost presentable, and utterly regrettable. He stood still, staring at her. Though she wouldn’t look up at him, he could see it on her face—she expected him to disappoint her.

   She waited for the lie. Expected it.

   He found that out early on in his first year on Earth learning about human culture. No one had to teach that to him. Women often seemed to wait for the lie, then, in a stunning peculiarity, reacted completely shocked by it.

   He was painfully glad there were no women on Titan.

   “I need to talk to Herschel before the show” he said—her face resolutely pointed at the floor. “We need to add a second vanish. The Bouncing Barrels one. Along with the-” He could see the absurdity of it on her face. Even he couldn’t believe he would bring that up now. Finally allowing himself to near her, he knelt in front of her. “I’m sorry about Abigail. I swear to you, I didn’t know that was wrong.”

   “Are you kidding me?” she swore. Fighting back the tears, she refused to look him directly in his eyes—her gaze bouncing off his cheeks, temples, and eyebrows.

   “No. Please believe me. They never told me about that.” She shook her head unbelieving. “We just need to make it through this show. I promise, I’ll tell you everything.”

 

The Turn

 

   “Herschel, we need to talk.”

   “I’m about to go on, boy! What is wrong with you?” Herschel reprimanded him—being introduced by the emcee. The silver-tongued bizzarist preferred to go first so he could use his captivating stories and his simple yet spellbinding tricks to loosen the crowd and get them in the mood. Yu-zhang was the showstopper, the incomparable illusionist always closed it out.

   “You can’t let Damien do it.”

   “Boy” his teeth gritted.

   “Listen. I can do a second one. I can hit the mark.”

   “You barely shoot fifty percent as it is. Now you think you can hit the mark twice? You even have a feat?”

   “The Bouncing Barrels-”

   “You haven’t even pulled that one off in practice! Get your head in the game before that pretty-little-unit of yours blows it off!”

   “We can’t” he begged. “It’s a kid.”

   “That’s enough” he leaned in real close. “One more word and I’ll have you expunged. I like you boy, but so help me, I will.” Turning on his heel, he walked out into the glory.

“-the Grandiloquent!” the emcee finished.

 

***

 

   Following the Empyreal Olufunke’s clairvoyance masterpiece, Archibald and Ruby performed their routine in a dreamlike trance. None of it seemed real. A Shakespearean mimicry of life. A true tragedy.

   They were brilliant.

   In faking joy like never before, they were beyond compelling. They even pulled off the second vanish flawlessly. Neither had ever given such passion to any audience. They were fighting for a life. Even though she didn’t fully understand it, she knew, instinctively, a life depended on it. And not just hers.

   But a life is just what it cost. Two in fact.

   A faux-smile from ear to ear, she glided off the stage, straight to the dressing room. “Ruby!” her long-time friend, Savannah; the Magnificent Yu-zhang’s assistant called to her. “What’s gotten into her?” she asked another assistant.

   “I was beginning to worry about you, boy but that was truly amazing” Herschel complimented.

   “I hit the marks. Both of them. I-”

   “You don’t know that. It’ll be hours before we know” Damien cut off.

   “I know I did!” he told Herschel. “Don’t do it, Damien. It’s a child.”

   “No. It’s just a smaller unit” Herschel dammed them.

   “Sorry, kid. We can’t risk it.” Damien turned, and walked out on stage.

 

***

 

   Ruby stared at herself in the mirror. Sounds of stagehands and the other performers congratulating her on their once-in-a-lifetime performance echoed in the distance. It felt like a lifetime since she had been that good. The entire act replayed in her mind in slow-motion.

   Sickeningly, she couldn’t stop it. Trapped by the truth. Trapped by the horror.

   The two people who reappeared: the first one in the trunk and the second in the barrel…were not the ones they vanished. Somewhere between the turn and the prestige, they were replaced by something inhuman. Something fake.

   A copy.

   She could feel—smell—the decay on them after she guided them off-stage.

   Every show over the last six years replayed in her mind.

   Hundreds of shows.

   Hundreds of victims.

   Copies.

   Like Archibald.

   Like all twelve of them.

 

***

 

   Archibald watched Damien’s performance in agony, silently begging him to walk back from the edge. He dreamt of rushing the stage at the last second, and feigning or even causing a catastrophe to stop the routine.

   “Don’t watch, son” an elder Magi whispered in his ear. “It’ll do you no good.” The Transcendent Rasputin, who specialized in underwater escapes, would follow Damien. He himself had long ago stopped transmitting people, having lost the stomach for it, but Herschel kept him on because he could thrill the crowd like few others and was an old “family” friend back home. He had a good life waiting for him on Titan but he liked it here.

   Many Magi found it hard to adjust to life back home after living as a humananimal.

   Damien called for a volunteer, a young one. No, don’t do it...

   The excited boy ran up the stairs, almost tripping on the last one—his mother beaming with hometown pride.

   “Go be with your lady friend” the elder Magi urged.

   Archibald ignored the advice. Damien’s shared assistant, a much too sweet woman who’s been doing this far too long, paraded the boy around like a hero home from the war. She led him toward the glass “magic box”.

   No! His legs would not move. Damien caught his eye as he moved to help cover the box with a velvet burgundy drape. He seemed to reconsider—his regret clear—but it was too late.

   Behind the box, hidden from the view of the audience and his long-time assistant, he twitched his fingers and sent a near-imperceptible zap of electricity through the box.

   Done.

   The rest was just choreography.

   Show the audience the boy was gone. Pretend not to know where he went. Panic when he didn’t reappear the first time. Look for him everywhere. Alert the audience this has never happened before. Ask—beg—the audience for help. Drag the drama out for the appropriate amount of time. Then, calling on desperate supernatural powers one last time…

   A miracle!

   An instant later, the boy—no, not the boy but a good copy of him—was back, laughing with joy like a real boy would. He ran into his mother’s arms.

   She noticed. They always did. Always. But what could they possibly think? That in that sanity-assuring magicless moment their loved one had been replaced by a replica? She smiled half-heartedly. Nervously. Not understanding why. Then, as always happened, her mind rejected her absurd misgivings and she gave him a huge big-boy hug.

 

   Days later, the boy developed a strange tick. He would frantically scratch his neck behind his ear for about five seconds.

   From time to time.

 

***

 

   Ruby watched from well back. Not the show, she couldn’t stomach it. But Archibald, hoping he would find the courage to stop it.

   He, of course, didn’t.

   Breaking her heart. Again.

   She wanted to hate him, tried to make the bile swell up from her stomach to her throat but the fire she should have had, died out staring at his defeated posture. Poor stupid man.

   No not a man! A thing!

   Her thing.

   But he had to be a man.

   Somehow, he had to be one.

   She loved him.

   And he loved her.

   She knew he did.

   She caught Yu-zhang staring at her, suspicion ebbing off him in waves. His ever-present assistant, and her dear friend, Savannah, stood next to him. Practiced in entertaining and deception, she threw them a sad smile and shrugged, nodding at her hopeless “boyfriend” whom she was apparently stuck waiting on. They seemed to buy it.

   Maybe. Hopefully.

 

***

 

   When Ruby was done throwing up, again—once in the dressing room.

   “Oh my God. Oh my God! I helped you! I helped you pick them out. I brought them on stage!” Seated on the bed, she rocked back and forth, her arms hugging her knees tightly. “Are they all dead? Did I help murder all those people?”

   They had hurried back to her hotel room as fast as they could—locked the door, jammed a chair up against the door knob, pulled the shades, and turned up the TV real loud.

   “Not exactly, but essentially…yes.”

   She gave him that ‘now is not the time to test me with semantics’ look all women seem to be born knowing how to throw a man’s way. But to be fair, all men seem to be born knowing how to elicit that particular look. Even alien men.

   “Certain human brains”—'Oh my God’—“have a very specific, eccentric, chemical compound”—‘Stop’—“very hard to detect by your standards”—‘Stop’—“that emit a bio-electrical energy we need-”

   “Stop!” She stopped rocking, holding her knees to her chest as if it could shield her from the truth. Or from him. He sat on the other side of the room, as far away from her as he could, hunched over so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact. “What are you?” she finally asked.

   Archibald expected contempt. But that wasn’t Ruby. She was conceited to be certain but not ugly. Not that way. In her own way, she was as beautiful a person as he had ever met, or would ever likely know.

   “The best word I can use that you’d understand is plant.”

   “What, you mean, like a fern?”

   “A spore. Yes.”

   “You’re alive?”

   “Yes.”

   “And you’re from another planet.”

   “Yes.”

   “How do you travel here from Saturn, Titan, wherever. Where’s your ship?”

   Titans did not travel by ship. They did not have arms, legs, or mouths—not humanoid by any stretch of the imagination.

Trillions of sentient microscopic cells living in harmony with each other and the universe, they travelled through the majesty of space on a nutrient-rich comet for billions of years. The comet collided with smaller comets, asteroids, and dark matter, picking up microscopic dust, energy, and other organisms along the way. Along with heat from passing stars, it created the bio-electrical energy they needed to thrive. They explored several galaxies and countless systems on their journey and believed it would go on as such forever.

   Then, the collision happened.

   On their way out of a small galaxy near the edge of the universe, they collided with a dead moon too large to bounce off of. For a time, they survived on what the comet had gathered throughout its journey but the moon itself was nothing more than a cold, lifeless rock too far from its sun to provide enough energy to sustain them.

   They were dying.

   In the Sol System of the Milky Way, a species that had witnessed the birth and death of millions of stars and entire solar systems would itself go extinct.

   “So, why do you harvest us?”

   Fate offered them a slim hope. In a desperate ploy, they propelled countless spores throughout the system in search of nourishment. The sacrifice of billions of their brothers was not made in vain.

   On the third planet from the sun, they found a source. They found, in a mindless feral creature, the key to their salvation.

   The planet itself toxic to them, the first to arrive soon perished. As did countless others who endured the journey in an attempt to adapt and evolve. Weeks away from extinction—using most of the life-energy they had left—they transmitted a single consciousness into the brain of the creature, draining its rich life-energy, and bringing its energy back home to share with the entire civilization. But at great strain. They expended too much energy and had to constantly risk too many trips. Many perished under the strain.

   Soon, they learned to take one of the creature’s body’s as a host and transmit another’s life-energy back home to what the creatures themselves would eventually come to call Titan. The loss of energy was reduced greatly, but since they did not travel back with it, they didn’t always hit the mark and the energy would bounce off into the void of space. Still, what it took thousands to do in thousands of trips, one could do in a single successful transmission.

   Fearful of exhausting their energy source, they developed a method by which they would copy the creature and replace it with a replica. A “better” one in many ways, some believed. Though the energy was nowhere near as rich as the original, the creature still retained enough of its original essence to persevere. And with entire clusters focusing on sending back the viable replica, they never missed. Not in over five hundred-thousand years. Even when the transmission missed, there was still enough residual energy to create and return the copy.

   “Thank God for small favors” barely trying to hide her disgust.

   The development of the humananimal’s intelligence and the colony’s part in it, sparked a debate in every gathering, collection, and cluster that has been raging in their colony ever since: just how “alive” are they?

   One thing not up for debate, they cannot stop. Not without going extinct.

   “You evolved us?” not bothering to hide her contempt this time.

   “Sped it along” he answered quickly. “And Titan.” After a loaded silence “We have one rule, now. One we never break. Not in a long time. We don’t transmit children.”

   She shook her head—judgmental, righteous eyes damning his entire species. “You’re disgusting. You’re pigs. No, that’s an insult to pigs.” She was far from perfect but “I’m a good person, Artie. I send money home to my father, mother, grandmother. Even my sister. I pay my taxes. I vote my conscience. I give to the Red Cross!” Nor ever caused anyone intentional harm. Didn’t believe she ever could.

   This, this was unethical, immoral…inhumane.

   It took him over an hour to calm Ruby down and convince her there was no one they could tell. No one would believe her. Nor could they run. They could track her energy anywhere on the planet and his anywhere in the system.

   Nor could he stop.

   They would expunge him, send another, and simply kill her. Really kill her.

   Technically, Titans did not see what they did as murder, just a transference of life-energy.

   That look again. “You’re stealing a person’s soul” she argued. “Stealing what they are. Their essence. What makes them, them!” But Titans did not believe in “the soul”. Or chose not to. It made what they had to do easier.

   If they had mirrors, they could look themselves in the eye and maybe, just maybe, see the hypocrisy. See the lie. Or so she believed.

 

   “Why a magic show? Why all this pomp and pageantry?” she asked the following morning.

   He spent the night on the floor of her room, both having agreed to maintain the deception that she had forgiven him. “It’s better than kidnapping people and making them disappear and reappear without anyone knowing. We used to do it that way before-”

   “Before you made us too smart. People can tell, now.”

   “We’ve tried different methods but this is the easiest way to fool your minds. No one really wants to believe magic is real.”

   “Wait. People really disappear?” her eyes wide.

   “For a second, yeah. At the molecular level, you’re mostly energy and empty space.”

 

The Prestige

 

   Over the next several weeks, the Magic Men met their quotas consistently, so Damien did not have to do vanishes involving children. But the damage was done. A gloomy aura fell over the entire production that followed them from city to city.

   Some of the Magi found it hard to reconcile breaking that rule.

   Also, over the next several weeks, Archibald and Ruby kept up both of their performances. Though both underwent minor alterations.

   First, she no longer chose members from the audience and barely participated in the appearance portion of their act. Second, while he still sleeps on the floor, she now shares her bed with a bottle of whiskey and sleeping pills. Her descent into depression masked solely by her years of performing. The other alteration, staying well clear of the troupe’s three mediums as much as possible. Archibald taught her how to mask her thoughts somewhat, since she couldn’t avoid them entirely, but if she stayed too close too long, they would see through it.

   Tonight’s dinner, however, could not be avoided.

   The Immortal Ivan retired unexpectedly a week ago—expunged for missing too many transmissions—and his replacement had just been signed. A young, flashy magician by the name of the Illustrious Ichabod—as he would come to be called—who specialized in card tricks but could do quite a few vanishes—vitally important the host body have the knowledge, so the Magi would not have to waste valuable time learning.

   Archibald made certain to seat Ruby between himself and the Astonishing Rohan, who had taken a seat next to Yu-zhang and Savannah. With Damien and the other two assistants next to her, and such a large group at the table, he hoped it provided enough of a buffer between her and the three mediums.

   “How long have you two been together?” Ichabod asked her flirtatiously. He had been flirting with all four assistants during dinner, even the older one, but with Ruby heavily.

   Which Archibald did his best to ignore. They weren’t together. So, who cares if she flirts with him? I don’t.

   “A couple of years now.” She tried to cover but couldn’t help but blush.

   “You mind if I borrow her…for part of my act, I mean?” he asked Archibald, causing Ruby to redden even more. “Since     I’m going to be required to do a vanish now and again.”

   “Of course, you can” blurted the Incandescent Igor, cutting of Archibald’s reply. “Most of us have solo acts, so we have to share these lovely ladies whenever possible. It’s more difficult with Ruby and Savannah, since Archibald and Yu-zhang’s acts require so much more misdirection, but they help where they can.”

   “I would love to share Ruby” Ichabod teased.

   “I’m sure you would!” She tried to ignore his flirting but he exuded a warmness the others seemed to lack. He’s not one of them! she realized. He’s drinking! His essence had not been swapped. She wanted to warn him. Yell at him to run!

Archibald discreetly placed a calming hand over hers, giving it a gentle squeeze before pulling it away. Ruby swallowed hard, fighting to regain control—the second glass of chardonnay making it difficult.

   “You know what I just realized, you two changed your act!” Umberto accused them.

   Had to be the damned psychic! Archibald cringed.

   “They haven’t introduced any new material” Damien defended, his face twisted in confusion as he looked to them for confirmation.

   “I haven’t noticed” Savannah agreed.

   “Not a thing. No, of course not” they both blurted out, doing their best to cover their discomfort. “We’ve been thinking about some new stuff, but–”

   “Yes, they have” Umberto insisted. “Archibald does most of the work on the vanishes now.”

   Curious glances leapt across the table, with Yu-zhang and Herschel particularly intrigued by the revelation.

   “Oh!” laughed Ruby. “Someone’s ego just needs a little more-”

   “My ego has nothing to do with it” Archibald interrupted, taking her cue. “I’m just seeing what I can manage. You’re the one looking at other shows-”

   “You’re leaving us! I thought you two were fine, now?” Savannah despaired.

   “No. I’m not going- I mean, I was thinking about it. Before-”

   “Leave them be, you have poor Ruby all flustered. You damnable psychics can never seem to mind your business!” Igor scolded.

   “Says the mentalist!” Damien laughed.

   That killed the inquiry, with everyone blowing the accusation off and many side conversations breaking out. Except for Yu-zhang and Herschel, who kept stealing curious glances and exchanging knowing looks. Both Ruby and Archibald put on their best game-faces, but they knew their own sleight had just been flashed.

 

***

 

   “Good morning” Ichabod greeted Ruby when she arrived for rehearsal. “We’ll only be practicing the one vanish.”

   “Okay” she smiled warmly—her hair and make up a bit overdone for a rehearsal.

   “I hardly think I’ll need to do another” he continued matter-of-factly—the warmness in his eyes gone…

   As was subsequently, the warmness in her smile.

 

***

 

   “Why do you change their names? The magicians you take” Ruby wondered.

   “No reason” Archibald shrugged. “What’s in a name?” He looked at her through the half-open bathroom door. “Were you able to convince him to choose his own audience member?”

Not turning to face him, she kept cleaning the makeup off her face. “Are you kidding me, I made him think it was his idea. I’m almost getting as good at pretending to be human as the rest of you.”

   For the first time in her life, Ruby really took notice of her just-emerging wrinkles.

   That night, Archibald did not sleep on the floor.

 

***

 

   Ruby awoke to find Igor seated by the bed, staring at them.

   “Well, at least you’re not lying about one thing” his mournful manner subsiding her shock and fear; quickly replaced by a cool, indignant rage.

   She sat up, covering herself with the sheets. “I don’t care if you kill me. You all think you’re better than us. You’re not. You’re murderers. Murderers and thieves. You can try to justify it however you want-”

   “I agree.”

   Archibald stirred slightly.

   Ruby stared into his indifferent eyes trying to gauge his sincerity, deciding belatedly his sincerity was irrelevant. “Then, why don’t you stop? You could tell them how you feel.”

   “They know how I feel. I am but one voice in a trillion, trillion. One of your lives saves billions-”

   “He told me. Frankly, I don’t give a damn” she stated haughtily, lifting her chin up to stand tall, even if only in her mind.

   Igor smiled at that. “Would you stop eating cows if they learned to speak?” She swallowed an angry reply. “What? Speech implies intelligence? Parrots speak. Computers speak. Even some dogs speak. Yet they are nothing more than slaves and nourishment. Get off your soap box or high horse or whatever you’re standing on that leads you to believe you can look down on us. If you believe we are going to let ourselves go extinct because some of us are…”

   “Feeling guilty” she said softly. “That’s what you feel when you know you’re doing something wrong.”

   “You have no idea what I feel. What any of us feels.” He stared hard at her, his eyes growing colder. “Herschel and Yu-zhang want to kill you. I talked them out of it. And out of telling the Gathering. For now, at least.”

   The phrase that erupted in her mind ended the same but she actually said “Thank you. What about Archie?”

   “Worry about yourself.”

   “I thought you said-”

   “Herschel wants to speak to you” he said, going for the door.

   “What about Archie?”

   “You look older. The last few weeks have aged you” he offered apologetically.

 

***

 

   Ruby never mentioned Igor’s visit to Archibald. She started to but his warning reverberated like a surreal nightmare playing over and over in her mind—crows flying, echoing, spooked by a ghoul they could not see but rather feel. The haunting vision drained her of any and all want. Any and all need.

   ‘You’re quiet this morning’ all Archie had said to her, his muted voice the unseen ghoul. At least, she convinced herself it was. They all were. And they were stalking her, she could feel them watching her as she walked past.

   The theatre smelled like someone died.

   “Herschel wants to see you” Savannah reminded her.

   “Herschel?” Archibald asked.

   “Yeah, he wants help with a part of his act.”

   “But he’s going on in a few minutes” Archibald argued.

   “It’s easy” Yu-zhang assured. “Our girl’s a pro, she’ll manage.” If he did not mean to sound condescending, he failed.

   “I’m sure I can manage” Ruby assured, a frigid smile warmed only by years of practice. But she couldn’t keep the apathy from invading her eyes. Not from them. Not from Archibald.

   “Ruby, wait. Ruby?”

 

***

 

   He didn’t speak to her before he went on.

   She waited off-stage as he performed. His stories always mesmerized the crowds. ‘He can sell religion to watermelon’ Savannah joked often. A stupid expression that made everyone laugh. She was a sweet girl. Ruby reflected she herself was also a sweet girl once, when she first started out.

   How long ago was that? A long time ago, a voice answered. He’s guilty too, you know. Archibald, the voice reminded her. As guilty as the rest of them.

   You’re guilty too, now.

   You deserve this, it condemned.

   “Ladies and gentlemen” Herschel’s suddenly booming voice mercifully cut into her self-mutilations. “I have a special treat for you tonight. A very special treat” his smile a near-perfect caricature of hospitality.

   The crowd shifted. Already enthralled by him, they could hardly sit still.

   “Transformation!” electrifying the word like a road-side preacher offering salvation.

   Transformation? Ruby questioned.

   “Webster’s dictionary defines transformation as the act, or process, of altering the structure or character of an object.” He stood still—dead-center stage.

   He wore a plain top hat, the kind worn by doctors in the old west. A neatly-pressed gentlemen’s black overcoat. Jet-black pants with a razor-sharp crease. Leather boots with a thick heel. And a bright-red satin vest. Combined with a short, tightly-trimmed beard and mustache, perfectly manicured nails, and aged, rugged skin—he occupied center-stage like a god.

   Or the devil himself.

   “A magician defines transformation as a change in appearance, property or identity” quickly glancing at Ruby.

   His thumb resting expertly in the left pocket of his vest, he reached for his father’s—the real Herschel’s father—twenty-four carat gold watch with his right, it’s chain gleaming from the bright lights.

   He opened it with practiced precision and stole a long, deliberate look at the time.

   “Time” he started. “Time passes but for the will of God. An unforgiving conqueror, it flows mercilessly forward, vanquishing the single most fundamental, indispensable, quintessential, marvel and wonder in existence…youth.

   It robs us, like a thief in the night, of our vigor. Our passion. Our will.

   Could it be that we had the power to destroy such a vile and wicked beast. Like the knights of old—sword in hand!—that we should have the resolve, the yearning, the capacity, to slay that profane dragon; to turn back time!

To recover our stolen youth. To what heights could we climb? What could we achieve? What could we learn?”

   The ticks, at first low and only audible because of the dead-silence in the captivated theatre, grew slowly louder like a grandfather clock, then impossibly loud, coming from everywhere all at once. Casting Ruby another quick glance, he slammed it shut and put it away, ending the near-deafening illusion.

   The audience clapped nervously.

   “I am going to make…someone here tonight…immortal.” The crowd gasped. Again, he cast a knowing glance at Ruby.

   Immortal? Absentmindedly, she stroked the expertly-covered wrinkles near her lips. The crows stirred. Immortal? No…he can’t…

   “In your hearts and minds” he smiled. The audience let out a nervous laugh. Then, sporadic clapping tickled the theatre.

   Stagehands, on cue, placed two small boxes at opposite ends of the stage.

   One locked up tight.

   “I need a volunteer.”

   Ruby flinched to go on-stage but Herschel’s quick, hard, echoing steps away from her stopped her short. He stopped just as quickly and stared out, scanning the audience.

   People raised their hands, some gesticulating wildly.

   The small boxes, no! Send me. Transmit me! She stood hypnotized, confused. Deep, heavy breaths filling her with dread—the crows stirred more spiritedly.

   He walked across to the other side, his boots hitting hard against the wood of the stage floor, and with genuine professional showmanship, scanned the audience once more—the crows stirring even more.

   “Someone special. Someone unique. Someone deserving of immortality!” A long hard look, he walked back center stage. “I found her” throwing Ruby one last glance.

   Thank God…

   “But I haven’t done this in a while. I’ll need a little help.” Her blood froze. “Ladies and gentlemen—begging your permission—my assistant for the singular performance the Remarkable, the Ravishing, the RecherchéRoobeeee!

   Immortality...with stark dread she realized, she wasn’t the assistant…she was the prestige!

   Only years of practiced professionalism allowed her to walk onto the stage and maintain her poise—her head spinning—the crows above her flew, spooked by the lovely ghoul they felt stalking below them.

   “Now I just need my volunteer” he pointed to a young girl of ten.

   The girl jumped up, her family unbelievably excited.

   Ruby took Herschel’s hand—her own shaking in a panic—bowing and smiling and waving to the adoring crowd in a haze. Still a professional. With a slight tug from his strong hands, he urged her toward the steps to retrieve the volunteer.

   Immortality.

   He’s guilty too, you know, Archibald.

   As guilty as the rest of them.

   You’re guilty too, now.

   Every step she took drowning out her conscience.

   You deserve this…

   “I’m so nervous” the girl giggling excitedly.

   “You’ll be fine” she heard herself reply. Ruby caught Archibald’s desperate stare as she crossed the stage to the open velvet-lined box.

   He’s guilty too, you know. Archibald. As guilty as the rest of them. Her face hardened. Don’t judge me! You’re the monster! Not me!

   Herschel never moved an inch. Keeping center stage like a night watchman.

   Ruby waited. For near eternity it seemed, she waited. At the edge of a long pier on a cold winter night in a small fishing village, she waited. But the voice never came. The ship never heroically pierced the dense winter fog bringing home its weary sailors; long overdue. The voice that should have sprung up from inside herself like an avenging angel commanding her not to do this. Telling her how wrong this was! Damning her if she continued! Ordering her to take the girl and run!

   It never came.

   Somewhere along the way, somehow, she had gotten old. Left with nowhere else to go. Archie? He’s gone when he hits his quota. A middle-aged alien plant-man is not a future. ‘Worry about you’, Igor’s voice echoed—the crows in full flight.

 

   Carefully, professionally, with all the theatricality she’s learned over the years, she loads the girl into the box. She lifts the lid and slowly shuts it.

   With every clasp she closes she feels a piece of her humanity die.

   Whatever humanity remained at this stage—on this stage—of her life.

   She spots Savannah watching her. An amused look in her eyes. Penetrating. Knowing. How young and beautiful she looks- Savannah! Images of the old ads, posters, and billboards, worn black and white photos from a long-bygone era back when the show first started, all flashed through her mind in the blink of an eye. Savannah cocked her head slightly.

   Savannah…that was you…

   She looked at Archibald—his pale, chubby face suddenly less inviting. His eyes as lifeless as the rest. A ridiculous figure, the thought that she had ever loved something so laughable suddenly amused her. A sad amusement borne of surrender to the inescapable.

   She wanted to want to weep.

   But she couldn’t. She was grateful.

   Two clasps left, she could still walk away…

   ‘They’re not really dead’ Archibald’s voice echoed. ‘Just different.’

   ‘You’re stealing their essence! What makes them, them!’ her own voice fought back. But no one was there to listen.

   The last clasp shut, she looked at Herschel—his eyes offering salvation and damnation in equal measure. In hers, she offered acceptance of everything he represented. He smiled the smile of a carnivore who understood his prey, offering neither judgement nor reproach, only the same acceptance.

   If all the world’s a stage, Herschel stood alone as its premiere showman.

   Savior? Damner? Illusionist? None of those

   Webster’s dictionary defines illusionist as a person who performs tricks that deceive. But he was not offering deception. He was offering her only the truth.

   Ruby finally understood.

   Magician; a person with exceptional skill or special ability. That’s what he was. That’s all he was. From the time she had known him, the wordsmith never professed to be anything less.

   In understanding him in that moment, Ruby accepted herself: she never believed herself better, just understood she deserved more.

   In her final human act, she acknowledged who she wanted to be and what it would cost to achieve it. Her sad smile, the one she often wore like a badge of honor, disappeared, along with the warm gleam in her eyes, both replaced by a cool, calculating mask perfectly impersonating humanity.

   She nodded.

 

 

 

 

The End