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author: k.l.

This is Alexandra Velens. Don't leave a message.

(Beep.)

Lex, it's Debra. Listen, there was this--

(Beep.)

This message is from CVS Pharmacy. We are calling in regards to your Alprazolam prescription--

(Beep.)

Lex, Debra again. So there's been--

(Beep.)

Alexandra, this is Dr. Garcia. You've missed--

(Beep.)

Lex, me again. Look, I'm going to come over today, we need--

(Beep.)

Miss Velens, I'm from St. Giles' cemetary, and there's been--

(Beep.)

Alexandra Velens, I'm Stephen Ollivier, calling regarding your brother's property at--

(Beep.)

Lex, fuck you for moving without telling me! You don't understand, it's your--

(Beep. )

The user's inbox is full. Goodbye.



The rapping on the door started at midnight, and didn't stop.

With a sigh, Lex got off the sagging couch--she hadn't been sleeping, not really, anyway. She tugged a threadbare blue bathrobe around herself and picked her way to the door, stepping over takeout containers and dirty laundry on the way.

She yanked the door open. A cop stood there, out of uniform. But Lex knew who she was--she'd shared secrets and jobs and interview rooms with her for years.

"Debra. What are you doing here?"

"You weren't picking up."

"It's not personal. I don't answer the phone for anyone." There wasn't enough Xanax in the world for that. "I doubt you're here to tell me I've got my job back."

Debra sighed and ran a hand through her short brown hair. "Jesus fuck, Lex, I want you back. My new partner is insufferable and there's already an office pool on how long before I get arrested for wringing his neck. But if you're having a goddamn panic attack every time the Nokia tone plays, you can't exactly come back. Not that I fucking blame you--after what you went through."

From anyone else it would have been a vicious insult. From Debra, Lex knew it came from a place of deep affection.

"I'm getting better. And half the precinct are nutcases anyway, probably on more drugs than I am."

"Still, Captain's not going to clear you without good reason."

"Then why are you here?"

"Because you want to get back on the force, I want you back on the force, and I'm thinking this case could do it."

"Mmm."

"We got this really weird call. Forty-three year old male, no history of mental illness or drug use, swears up and down his wife disappeared into a telephone two weeks ago."

That got Lex's attention.

"Needless to say, DC's finest are arguing over whether he should be in a holding cell, or a padded cell."

Lex snorted. "And you disagree?"

"I do," Debra said. "And you know I'm not allowed to be wrong."

Debra was on the DC Metropolitan police force, as Lex had once been. But in addition to still being currently employed, Debra was also a Justiciar. She served Law--in the same way that a Druid served Nature, and Phone Phreaks served Telecommunications, and Highwaymen served Motorcars. Not only served, but derived both power and responsibilities from their element. And arresting the wrong person was very much against the Law.

And whereas an ordinary cop arresting the wrong person might get a suspension or a firing, a Justiciar, having betrayed Law, was in for a far worse fate. You wouldn't like to know what kind of prison exists for those of us who know better, Debra has said.

Lex believed it. And Debra.

"So what do you think it is?"

"I think it's magic," Debra said. "I think a Phone Phreak is involved. Who else could have done it?"

"One disappearance--"

"Sixteen."

Lex stared.

"People go missing all the time, but not like this. Every time they chalk it up to someone else, but it's always after receiving a phone call. I checked their lives--no intersections as far as I can tell. Except for the phone call. This smells of Phreaks, Lex. You have to help me."

Lex said, "I'm not a Phreak. That was my brother. I didn't have any talent for it."

Not that Martin, sweet-tempered and long-suffering, hadn't tried. He had sat her down in front of his Linux box when she was sixteen and he was twenty, and had just written his first article for Usenet.



rec.arts.magic.phone-phreaks/welcome.txt

"In the beginning, there was the dial tone" -- Cap'n Crunch, 1986

I'd say welcome to the world of the Phone Phreaks, but the truth is, if you're here, then you don't need me to say that. You know that you have been here all this time, every minute that you've been bathed in electricity.

You believe, as we do, that telecommunications have created a second, shadowy world. You know it's not entirely magical, although you want to be a magician of the telephone wires. You believe there are more than simple electrons to telecommunications, although they are our source of power.

The ancients had their elements--air, fire, earth, and water.

We have a new element: electromagnetism.

For what is human consciousness but the tiniest eddy currents dancing between our millions of neurons? It should come as no surprise that our life, our energy, our electrons have created so much resonance in the wires that we have put up, that we have created life and consciousness and energy of our own. Our very thoughts are the energy that make up our minds. It is of no surprise that every word, every thought, everything of us that is transmitted by the pulsating of electrons, has begotten a new energy.

Some call it magic.

We call it Phone Phreaking.

(Some Luddites may tell you that 'phone phreaks' are mundane hackers, limited to playing prank calls on telephone companies. Ignore them, and then send a few gremlins to their Windows 98 boxes.)

Phone Phreaks are the mages of telecommunications. Our medium is the telegraph line, the radio waves, the telephone wires, the satellite dishes.

If you're ready for your first lesson, then pick up that phone. Yes, an old-fashioned land line. We're going to start with the basics.

Let it off the hook. Listen. Breathe it in. Taste it on your tongue. Let your skin buzz, your neurons fire, your body tremble in time with its frequencies.

Now close your eyes and believe, really and truly believe: in the beginning, there was the dial tone.



That was as far as she'd gotten. It had sounded lovely, truly it had, but after the abstract philosophy came entirely concrete equations. Martin had never finished high school, but in the pursuit of Phone Phreaking he'd taught himself college-level mathematics, graduate-level physics. Lex, whose talents lay more in the direction of interacting with real life humans, had left him alone with his blackboards and keyboards and entered the police academy.

So she said to Debra, who shook her head.

"Wasn't Martin training someone else in magic?"

"Roy?" Lex said. "He's sixteen, barely trained. And he's been through enough."

Roy was Roy Lestat. Martin had come over to the station one day for one reason or another, and Roy's paperwork had been on her desk. He was eight years old, newly orphaned. His parents had died when a drunk semi driver had slammed into their car. Roy's mother had died shielding him from the impact, huddled over him in the twisted metal ruins and darkness.

Lex had, as a favor to the homicide detective processing the driver, tried to track down the child's remaining family. He had none.

But Martin had plucked his paperwork out of Lex's folder and inhaled it, ignoring suspicious looks from the other desks. His file smells of magic, Martin had marveled, imagine how powerful his person must be. I've never seen this much potential in anyone. If this kid wants, he can be the best Phreak this generation, in this world and all other worlds.

Martin was not a registered foster parent, and Roy--eight years old, traumatized into silence--could not be simply adopted by any adult who came around asking to meet him. After a quick hello to Martin, he was thrown into the state's care. Which hadn't stopped Martin, who could have simply dialed himself into the foster parents' house if he had wanted. But instead Martin would stop by every so often, showing Roy spells and tricks that delighted the boy.

When Roy was twelve, Martin taught him ping spells for locating people and bought him a phone to cast with. The next day the child showed up at Martin's apartment, and electronically hacked the key.

He didn't leave after that. Lex toyed with the idea of calling it in, but when the foster home didn't report the child missing, she opted to look the other way. Especially since whenever she went to see Martin, she saw the child flourishing in a way that made Alexandra smile for him and ache for the other, unluckier children in the system.

Not that it had done him any good in the end. Roy had watched his parents die, and then he'd come home one night to find his teacher had strangled himself with a telephone cord, while Lex stood in the doorway, catatonic.

He had been the one to call 911, because Lex couldn't do it, couldn't bring herself to look at or think of or visualize, much less pick up, a telephone. The first week after, a ring tone had made her sick to her stomach. Three weeks after, the sight of a dialpad made her black out for two hours at a doctor's office.

That was no way for a police officer to be, and so they'd put her on indefinite medical leave, with pitying glances and strong hints towards applying for disability while they pushed her out the door.

"Lex? Are you okay?"

Debra's voice, low and urgent and worried, cut into Alexandra's blooming panic attack.

"I was just trying to remember Roy's address. I guess he's still at Martin's old place."

"How's he holding up?"

Guiltily, Lex said, "I don't know. We haven't talked since just after the funeral."

Roy hadn't shown up at the funeral. Lex had buried Martin in his favorite clothes, with his favorite cell phone. She only saw the kid again when she went to look at Martin's apartment. Her brother hadn't made a will, because of course no magicians bothered themselves over these things, and anyway it was presumptuous to assume you wouldn't die blowing yourself up in your own workplace along with all your files. So being next of kin, Lex had inherited everything of his, or at least, what was actually set down in legal records. Which was to say, his property.

She'd gone over with the keys, and found Roy sitting on the stoop, his short black hair damp in the rainy Maryland morning. He was reading a magazine or journal of some sort.

"Are you throwing me out?" He'd asked quietly.

"I could never," Lex had said. "You were important to Martin. This was his place. Not mine. And I'm giving you the keys. It's yours now."

He had shrugged inside his anorak.

"What will you do now?" Lex had said.

Roy's eyes, as if in spite of themselves, lit up. But he was looking at something in the distance, beyond her.

"Martin was researching something when he died," Roy said, hands fisted around the damp pages in his grip. "I'm going to complete it."

Lex came closer and looked at what he was reading.



Review: On the Phenomenon of Telephony Voices Of Unknown Origin
Die Zeitschrift der Zauberei (The Journal of Modern Sorcery), Berlin, Germany

Author: Martin Velens

The phenomenon of phantom vocalizations and signals of indeterminate origin has been reported in various telecommunications devices since 1876, when Tivadar Puskás, working on the first telephone exchange, reported hearing his own voice ("hallom") during sessions in which not a word has been spoken. Since then, thousands of reports of similar phenomena have occurred. Here we provide an overview of what is known of such occurrences.

Despite the title, these signals did not emerge solely from telephones. In fact, phantom signals have been reported since the days of the telegraph and the radio. Spurious Morse code signals have been logged.

As of yet, thankfully, they appear to have no true consciousness, as they are unable to interact with humans. They merely repeat themselves, as broken records or radio testing sequences do. It is currently unclear what causes them to appear, or what their origins are. They appear to be the detritus, the artifacts, of human telecommunications. Yet not all telecommunications lead to the generation of phantom voices. It is left to a future researcher to more rigorously evaluate what human acts are retained in the wires.

Many fanciful names for these voices have been proposed, but no consensus has ever been reached. In 1998, Kikyo Tachibana, of the Tokyo Institute For Modern Magical Studies, proposed calling them the 'homunculi', as they appear to be scattered seeds of human consciousness ...



"Martin told me, just last month, that he had some breakthrough on what the Homunculi might be," Roy said. "I'm going to figure it out for him."

"Martin will live on in your work, then," Lex said. "That's good, Roy. I'm really glad."

He'd only shrugged, still not looking at her.

Then he turned around, whip-fast, and so sudden and Lex stumbled backwards, nearly falling into the overgrown bike path.

"Did he tell you? That he was going to do it?"

"He didn't tell me anything," Lex said, truthfully.

They had never talked again.



Because Lex couldn't look at a cell phone or hear a dial tone without a panic attack that left her sobbing in a corner, the police department put her on medical leave and made unsubtle hints about putting together the paperwork for disability. She explained the situation, briefly. There was no way she could work on Deb's current case.

"I didn't know how Martin died," Debra said quietly. "No wonder you're staying away from phones. If I'd seen someone strangled like that--"

"No!" Lex snapped, and then hugged herself, rocking back and forth on the couch.

Debra waited.

"He called me before he died," Lex finally said. "I was distracted. I don't even remember what with. But the end result was: I didn't pick up. I came back an hour later, I saw the missed call. He didn't pick up when I called back. Martin always picked up. That's how I knew something was wrong." She turned to Debra. "I let him down, Debra. Martin is dead because I wasn't there for him. I'm scared of phones because they remind me of my own fucking cowardice."

Debra said, without missing a beat, "So be there for the victims now." And threw the folders at Lex.



Case Number: 01283216
Reporting Officer: Deputy Esposito
Prepared By: CPL Kim

Incident Type: Abduction
Address of Occurrence: 245 Piney Branch Avenue, Hyattsville, MD 20782
Victim: Ella Landry, 40, African American
Witness: Michael Landry: Husband of victim. Male, 43, Caucasian
Evidence:
- Fingerprints (taken from cell phone)
- Cell phone (Samsung Galaxy S2, screen cracked, non-functional, hard drive unrecoverable)

Statement:
At approximately 22:05, Michael Landry reports that the victim, Ella Landry, received a telephone call on her cell phone. She remarked that it was an unknown caller before answering. After saying "Hello", Ella began choking, according to Mr. Landry. He rushed over, thinking she was in distress, but as he approached, Mr. Landry claims that she "was sucked into the phone", which then fell to the ground. A cracked cell phone was found where the victim had been standing.

Deputy Esposito arrived on the scene at around 22:20, responding to Michael Landry's 911 call. Michael Landry repeated the story multiple times despite what he admitted to be the "outrageous" nature of the tale.

Michael Landry was taken into custody and charged with the abduction of his wife.



Sixteen more files followed. They all described cases where a person had been reported missing, but there had been no witnesses, only worried-sick family members and loved ones.

Debra, amazing at her job, had tried to search their lives, interview their people, but had found nothing in common. Ella Landry was a social worker who had once run a crisis center (that had been shut down a year ago due to lack of funding and being unable to, literally, keep the lights on, Debra had noted). The others were nearly random: a garbage-truck driver, a hotel manager, a psychiatrist, two servers, and a smattering of "unemployed" people that, Lex had a feeling, would turn up a few spells if you had turned them upside down and shook them very hard while they were still alive and present. And one AT&T senior engineer.

Martin had once worked for AT&T, Lex remembered, and wondered whether he had ever known this victim, a woman named Chaya Avery. Martin's name wasn't in the associates list, though, and his phone number--of course--did not show up in Chaya's telephone records.

The telephone records, however, did show something very telling.

Every single one of them had an untraceable last call.

That didn't mean a call from a burn phone. No, the telephone companies--and the victims ran the gamut of carriers--could find those, as long as they weren't switched off (and sometimes even then). Instead, every time the police had called and asked, it had come back that the data had somehow, inexplicably, been corrupted. Eventually one intrepid intern at Verizon had managed to triangulate the signal, and then the entire branch office's computers had fried. Melted into glass and burnt plastic. The company had filed a successful arson claim, but no perp had ever been found.

"So?" Debra said. "Are you convinced now?"

Lex traced the files and nodded, jerkily. Her stomach was roiling and her hands were clammy with sweat.

"It does seem like a Phone Phreak was involved," she said softly. "All right. I'll take you to someone. Martin used to outsource work to him."

"I'll drive," Debra said.

"I need a few minutes to get--dressed," Lex said, gesturing at her bathrobe. "I'll meet you there."

Debra gave her a narrow-eyed look, then apparently decided not to push it. "Fine. But--and I know this is hard--you need a cell phone, Lex. This could be dangerous. If something happened--"

"I don't have my cell anymore," Lex said. "I haven't even answered the landline in six months."

"I know," Debra said, and pulled a disposable phone out of her handbag, with the crazy-preparedness that had made her the quickest-promoted to Detective, ever, in Precinct history.

Lex flinched so hard she dropped the coffee mug. It cracked on the floor.

"Maybe this was a bad idea," Debra said.

"No," Lex breathed. "I can do it. I will do it. For Martin. I can handle a phone for him. Let me give you the address. I'll meet you there."

After Debra left, Lex went into her closet and sorted through several boxes of shoes, until she found the one she wanted--though it advertised Doc Martens, inside was a very illegal Glock 17, a spare clip, and three boxes of 9mm rounds. Debra, magic cop, would have found it--and Lex didn't want to know just how far she would've bent her Allegiance for the sake of hunting down this killer.

She found some clean clothes--faded black tee, worn jeans, a tattered blue sweater for keeping out the autumn wind (and hiding the gun).

Then she went out.



Her destination was near a Green Line station, but Lex didn't want to go on public transport with an illegal firearm; that was practically asking a Trainspotter to run her down. So she drove into Anacostia-- that town blighted by neglect, white flight, and Interstate 295. You didn't have to be a Metromancer to feel the draining despair of the neighborhood; it had soaked into buildings and people, who nevertheless fought it with all they had.

She parked the car--the joke was on anyone who stole it--in front of an electronics parts and repair store. Debra was already there.

Lex opened the door to the shop. The security system beeped. Behind the counter was a short man with fairish hair and a pudgy face. He wore flannels and jeans and his hands were covered in soldering residue.

"Ex-Detective Velens and a friend," he said, eyebrows lifted. "Been some time."

"Yes it has. Debra, this is Yuri Kamalov. He taught Martin hacking, which makes him the best living Phreaker Hacker that I know."

Yuri waved a hand. "I owed Martin plenty of favors in my time. Sorry to hear about that. If you ever need anything--"

Lex nodded. "I need to cash in some of those favors now."

"I like clearing debts as much as the next person," he said. "What do you need?"

Lex opened her files and spread out the information Debra had given her: the telephone numbers and addresses of all the victims, plus their entire last week of known telephone calls.

"Well, that's basic enough, should cost you about half a favor," Yuri sang. "Not a problem. We'll just go to my laboratory."

Lex gave the tiny shop a dubious glance. "You have room for a laboratory in a place like this?"

"Of course not. It's hidden, inaccessible except through a telephone. Safest way there is. But first, supplies."

Yuri led the small party past the used computers and burner phones in plastic cases, past a green curtain, past a secured door, into a warehouse of raw materials: copper wire in shiny spools, cables covered with a rainbow of colorful plastic, what seemed like enough Ethernet cabling to wire an entire quadrant of DC. Plastic bins were labeled MEMORY CARDS and CRTs DO NOT TOUCH! and more things that Lex did not understand at all. One shelf was entirely filled with rolls of what she recognized from Martin's workshop as blueprint paper, the best medium (he had said) for writing and applying E&M formulas to magic. It gave Maxwell's Equations a boost, Martin had once said, just before using it to make a light show out of electrons, drawing the zodiac constellations into the night sky so bright they rivaled the actual stars.

It was one of those paper rolls that Yuri got now, explaining how old it was, how he'd scored it in an auction that was from a sale of a sale of a sale of unwanted materials from the breakup of Bell, the big one, into the Baby Bells.

Yuri cut a square of the paper off, and with a pen he wrote:



"This is Gauss's law, the integral form," he explained, "even though Faraday is the one who discovered what it really means."

He also cut off what seemed like ten feet ("three meters, you damned Imperialists") of copper wire with a Leatherman, folded and put the knife in his back pocket, and then he took it all outside. They followed.

They walked to a vacant lot, on the corner of which was a battered pay phone. It was dented and scratched, covered in wads of chewing gum and graffiti and urine from more than one species of animal. But when Yuri took the receiver off the hook, there was a dial tone, and an operator recording telling them to enter money.

"Since the dawn of time," Yuri said, "humans have tried to understand the rules of the world. And the more you understand it, the more you can channel it, use it. Understanding gravity let us make waterwheels. Understanding the electron gave us computers. But there's other ways of using the rules. Like this ..."

He took the scrap of precious blueprint paper and centered it on the left inside wall of the phone booth.

"First we have to put up a Faraday Ward, so that we don't blow up DC in case my spell fails."

"Faraday?"

"One of the greatest scientists this world has ever known," Yuri said as he scotch-taped the equation onto the phone booth, next to a penis doodle in Magic Marker. "He experimentally discovered many, many basic laws of electricity. In particular, he invented the Faraday Cage--it's just a metal cage, but it protects you from electricity. Like in a microwave, that's the metal grid that shields you from the microwave radiation inside. Because I am considerate, I always attach a shield spell just in case something goes wrong. Now here we go."

In the darkness, under the buzzing streetlights, Yuri began to cast.

Operators! I call upon the names of Gauss, and Faraday, and Maxwell. Their equations bind these wires, as they do me. I transfer my flesh to electrons, I transform my breath to oscillating waves. My particles to signal. I decompose and deconvolute. I commit my soul to your exchanges and trunks and switchboards: I would like to place a call.

A voice, that spoke with a composite voice of all operators, responded:

Please deposit your payment.

Lex reached for her wallet.

Yuri shook his head and held up a hand.

"Some of the oldest forms of magic had it right," he murmured as he reached into a pocket. "Magic is energy. And the purest form of energy that we mortals have is life."

So saying, he took out the Leatherman, sliced an inch in his left palm, and then he pressed the dripping bloody cut to the coin slot, and he paid. He cut himself two more times, paying the toll for his other two passengers.

"I'll go through first, see if it's safe," he said. "If I give the all-clear, then you follow. Understand?"

The two women nodded.

Yuri held the receiver up and said, "Operator--connect us."

Space and time warped, and Yuri folded in on himself, and then he was gone.

Lex grabbed the phone as Yuri had done, and listened.

"I'm in," Yuri said after a few seconds. There was thumping. "I'm in a laboratory, I think. Lots of reagents. Good lair for a telecomancer. But so far all the magic residue's pretty innocent, not sure if your killer is--oh. Oh shit!"

"What's wrong?" Lex shouted into the phone line. "Hang on! We're coming!" Without waiting she grabbed the receiver with one hand and the Ward with the other. "Operator! Connect us!"

The telephone sucked out her breath as the spell dialed her in, in pulses and tones that rippled through her body, deconstructing her into electrical pulses, Fourier Transforms of decomposed sines and cosines and Dirac deltas. She snaked along copper cables and through coaxials, racing along while a million billion other data packets raced alongside, their EM fields brushing up against hers in little eddies of power. She did not so much hear, as parse, them:

you've reached me please leave a message at the

by mx.google.com with ESMTP id o9mw30qu6036try.24.45.124.356.4.679

you gotta just give me another week man I swear please don't

prog.cpp:(.text._ZN1BD0Ev[B::~B()]+0x12): undefined reference to `A::~A()'

is trying to place a collect call do you acc

and then through ancient telephone trunk lines, alive in old coils and twists of copper, which seemed so fast until Lex hit the fiber optic lines that DC had so recently laid down. The speed of light was beyond her comprehension, stretched out in a line of particles, and she felt herself becomes photons, luminescent elementary particles of herself ...

And then the telephone lines spat her out in a pile on the concrete floor, congealed into ungainly flesh, and pain shot up her nerves.

It was so cold and so solid.

She could feel and not only understand, now, why Martin had loved it so much.

Behind her was another thunk, and Debra fell out, cursing musically as she unfolded her limbs and staggered to her feet.

"Where are we?" Lex demanded.

Debra closed her eyes, and Lex knew she was calling on the District, the land whose laws she had sworn to uphold. In return, the District opened up its secret geographies to her--including its gas lines and sewer pipes and street addresses even when they were below the surface.

"Volta Laboratory & Bureau, 1537 35th St NW, Washington, DC 20007," Debra recited. "What the hell is it, though, is a question for this fuckin' Phreak over here."

"Martin loved it here," Lex said. "It's important to them. Some kind of historical site."



phonephreaks.mag/history/bell.xml#lab

While the best known incarnation of Alexander Graham Bell is no doubt Bell Labs, in fact, his very first laboratory was in Washington, DC. Bell, having just received the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs from the nation of France for inventing the telephone, set up shop with Charles Sumner Tainter and his cousin, Chichester Bell. In 1983, Bell Laboratories was built in Georgetown. Today, it is known as the Volta Bureau, named in honor of Bell's prize.

Although Bell eventually moved his operations to the more well-known Bell Labs, a number of important inventions were developed at the Volta Bureau. For instance, Bell improved upon Thomas Edison's tinfoil phonograph by using wax cylinders. These early progenitors of the later phonograph are, in fact, the only surviving record of Alexander Graham Bell's voice. Those cylinders are now in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The Volta Bureau, now known as The Volta Laboratory and Bureau building, is a National Historic Landmark and also currently the headquarters of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Appointments are limited.

Of more interest to us Phone Phreaks, of course, is the fact that--perhaps in deference to the building's history--or perhaps because someone noticed that *somehow* the signals ran uncommonly well inside--or perhaps just because it was in DC--the CIA (then OSS?) operated a secret wartime telephone exchange directly underneath. There isn't much left for tourists to see, the exchange having been decommissioned and all the underground access tunnels filled with concrete some years ago. This stops the ordinary urban explorer, but, obviously, not a good Phreak.



They were, true to Yuri's words, in a laboratory. It was historical, though; a preserved remnant of the past. Displays of antique experimental setups and phonograms had once been neatly set up; they were now smashed all over the floor. The National Park Service was going to have a collective fit on Monday morning, Lex thought.

Yuri was gone, but his cell phone was there. The screen was smashed, but it had frozen on his last, unfinished and unsent text message:

YOU DIDN'T TELL ME YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH THE HOMUNCULI DONT FOLLO

"Well shit," Debra said. "And fuck. What the hell just happened? And what are the homunculi?"

Lex swallowed.

"They're what Martin was researching just before he died," she said.

Martin told me, just last month, that he had some breakthrough on what the Homunculi might be, Roy had said. I'm going to figure it out for him.

"Roy," she said. "I have to go warn Roy--if they're after Martin's research, then Roy has it, he's going to be in danger!"



Being fresh out of friendly Phone Phreaks, they took the Metro instead of teleporting through the telephone lines.

On the way Lex dry-swallowed two Xanax and in a haze texted Roy, over and over, asking if he was all right, telling him to please text back, call, anything, get out of DC immediately.

Martin's old apartment had once been a cheap little bar with a walk-up in Brookland, under a railway bridge. He liked it that way; he said the railroads were ley lines of the Trainspotters, and he liked listening to their ghosts. It was also near an old telephone trunk line, defunct electric-wise but powerful magically.

He'd turned the bar into his workshop, and lived upstairs in two shabby rooms. Wards and binding spells cleaned up the peeling walls and killed the mold, or at least kept it at bay, and propped up the cracking foundation.

Roy had cooked and cleaned and decorated: curtains instead of vinyl shades, dishes and cutlery that he'd bought with money from a day job fixing computers for people not inclined to ask why a fourteen-year-old wasn't in school (and why their electronics tended to smell of ozone after he was done fixing them--or why they could never email or call him if he didn't want to be found).

Martin's workshop, however, was untouched. It was a mess: miles and miles of wiring; tens of computer monitors and TV screens; keyboards, cords, other parts everywhere. At the center of the storm was an old desk and a rickety chair, where he'd sit for hours at a time, listening to violin music while scribbling equations in Steno notebooks or coding on one of his twenty laptops.

"Roy?" Lex said. She bit the bullet, so to speak, and took her very illegal handgun out. Debra gave it a bland look, and then took out her own, legal issue. Together they moved in their well-trained patterns, back to back, covering all angles as Lex kept calling out. "Roy, are you in there? You're not safe. You have to listen to me."

There was nothing, except some odd crackling and buzzing of electricity. Were there live wires? Lex swallowed and moved forward.

"Shit, fuck, where's Roy gone? There's no message, nothing at all ..."

Upstairs was clear. Martin's bedroom was covered in dust, but undisturbed. Roy's room had been occupied, but it was a mess, not unlike Lex's own after a night of bad dreams. He was nowhere to be found. But there was no blood, and no sign of struggle other than with nightmares.

Then they descended into the basement.

"First sign of trouble, I'm casting 911," Debra said.

"I'm not sure it's the best idea to touch anything telephone related right now, given the situation," Lex said. "Whoever it is is obviously a powerful Phreak. They're probably monitoring the airwaves. Or whatever."

"I said cast, not call," Debra said. "It's cop magic. Equivalent of the big red button. Has absolutely nothing to do with telephone lines--doesn't need electricity, even."

"Oh good," Lex said. "Let's go."

Lex hated herself as they walked into the basement. She was useless, so useless. Martin had tried to teach her basic spells, but she'd had little interest in playing with electrons and wave-forms, dial tones and trunk codes. If only she had learned. If only she had paid attention.

If only she had answered.

The stairs twisted and turned, far more than they should have, and Lex was fairly sure they were not walking through merely space. Time was also being passed through. She heard horses whinnying somewhere on the surface, and streetcars rumbling past, and the screams of a burning city--the footsteps of marches, the speeches of presidents she had only seen in tattered schoolbooks.

The staircase disgorged them into a concrete box, more like a negative space carved out of a block than a room built as a positive structure.

Martin hadn't built this, she thought. Had Roy? Was this where he had hidden Martin's secret research?

It looked like a telephone exchange, a colossal version thereof. Switchboards from tens of thousands of telephone exchanges lined the walls, ceilings, and even floors; Lex was not sure that she could have even told which way was up without the benefit of gravity. And in a place that was clearly stitched together by magic, even that was in doubt. Electronics were arranged on each and every surface like mazes, or perhaps labyrinths; was it to keep someone out or someone in?

Splatters of blood, still fresh on the floor. A shoe--a teenager's size.

Telephones and receivers, cell phones and pagers, hung from the ceiling like bats, and Lex's skin crawled. They came to a summoning circle made up of telephone books (did anyone use Yellow Pages anymore?), twisted cords, receivers, cell phones. Lex shivered, shuddered, felt the room starting to spin.

Roy might be in danger, she thought. And if she couldn't save Martin, well, at least she could save Roy.

She was about to call for him, when she heard his scream.

"Over there," she said, only she had no idea where there truly was, in this maze of telephone exchanges.

Debra said, "I'll fire up a target retrieval spell. Don't worry--we'll find him."

Roy's voice again, desperate and begging and raw. "No--no! Stop it, stop it! Please!"

And then there was an electrical explosion, and Roy screamed again, and there was fear and sadness and torment in the sound.

They ran. They ran down corridors made of wires, and through walls of electricity that tore at their skin despite Debra's shielding spells, and finally rounded a corner where they found Roy.

He was on his knees, at the end of a path between two exchange panels that were painted with desperate formulae written in blood, and he was holding down a writhing body.

It was a, to be charitable, corpse. Embalmed, but Lex had spent enough time on the force to know what a dead body looked like. But it was animated: it was seizing on the ground, gurgling while Roy pressed its chest to the ground.

"We're here now!" Lex said. "Roy, you're safe! Step away, we've got it from here."

Roy looked up, eyes flashing, and Lex realized with a shock that he wasn't relieved to see her: he was annoyed.

And afraid.

He'd relaxed, and dropped his guard.

The corpse got up.

"Stop, don't get up," Roy begged. "You'll just get hurt--you'll get tired--and you'll start dying again--and then I'll have to--"

Lex raised her gun to shoot, and then froze.

She knew this corpse. The blue jacket, his favorite. The lump in his pocket, where his everpresent cell phone still was, even in death. The familiar face, like looking in a mirror.

"Martin?"

Roy's face twisted, and he made a motion with a hand, like dialing and invisible telephone, at Debra.

"Collect her calls," Roy ordered, and Martin reached out a hand towards Lex's ex-partner.

Phantom telephones rang all about her, in a cacophony of tones and jingles and not all that clever catchphrases. As they repeated themselves, Martin, or his body at least, with its eyes dead and blue, approached the cop.

He--it--spoke in voices, in tongues. Fragments of sentences came out, but some words pulsated with intent, with anger, with sadness, and together they stitched together a sentence:

... I come at you, son, with ...
< > < > < >... shit's fucking done, am I the ...
< > < > < > < > < > < >... jesus fuck belay that order the enemy's fucking ...
< > < > < > < > < > < > < > < > < >... in ancient times, a Homunculus was said to be ...

I am the Homunculus, it said. I speak for the Homunculi. You have six hundred fourteen thousand five hundred forty-two calls. I am here to collect your answer to us.

The phone calls went silent. And then Martin opened his mouth, and a thousand voices came out, this time, speaking directly to Debra.

(This call is for Deborah Strauss...)

(Hey bitch I'm gonna fuck ...)

(Ms. Langley, I'm pleased to offer ...)

(This is Home and Gardens calling to ask if you'd like a subscription to ...)

(I'm calling on behalf of the candidate ...)


From Martin's fingertips came wires, great masses of ghostly copper and fiber-optic and plastic and Ethernet, broken and jagged and live. Debra twisted her hands, casting something that Lex could not recognize, and in any case it did no good: the wires wrapped themselves around Debra, coiling themselves tight and thick, covering her entire body like a thousand snakes.

You didn't answer us, the Homunculi wailed in their composite voices. You abandoned us, why, why, why? You condemned us, you betrayed us, you left us behind!

The wires lit up, glowing as if live and electrified. They squeezed, like a thousand snakes. Their live ends, spitting blue sparks, attacked Debra like a thousand hands ready to tear her apart. Debra screamed, but there were no broken bones, no gore; she simply vanished into the wires.

The Homounculus repaired itself, it seemed, coming more alive, and slightly less broken, though it still favored its left side. It groaned a little and fell over, like a badly made patchwork doll.

Lex walked over to him and held him. Like this, Martin seemed harmless, helpless. She knew very well he was neither, but if he was going to kill her, then she at least wanted to see him up close, one last time.

"Roy," Lex murmured, looking up from Martin to the apprentice. "What have you done?"

"Better question," he said. "What did you do?"

"What?" Lex said.

"You left Martin in the wires," Roy said. "You left him to die. That's how this was possible."

"I don't understand," Lex said. "Martin was researching the Homunculi."

"And he failed." Roy shook his head. "Because he approached it from the wrong angle. You see--Martin was a great researcher. But he never figured out their true essence. And then he died.

"When he died, I didn't know what to do. I was lost. But then I remembered his research into the Homunculi. Do you know what they are, Lex? Telephone voices, in the wires, that nobody could figure out where they came from. Martin thought he had it, but it was a dead end. I immersed myself in his research, as it was the only way to be close to him. And then one night, when I had left the phone off the hook, I heard Martin's voice. He was calling someone, but they would not pick up. But he spoke into the ring tone, in desperation. Do you know what he said?

"He said, 'Lex, I need to talk to you. Please call me back.'

"And I knew you hadn't picked up his last call that night. I knew you hadn't heard him say those words. And that was when I figured out what the Homunculi are: they aren't just our leftover telephone voices. They are our unheard telecommunications messages! They are deleted emails. Radio chatter that went unheard. Text messages never sent. Chats to out-of-service numbers. Calls never taken. They are the left-behind.

"That's why nobody else ever found them. Hundreds of Phreaks conducted experiments, but of course, they sent messages and tried to retrieve them. Those messages, those voices, are sent and received. They would never linger on, unwanted, abandoned, lost, like the Homunculi!

"And once I knew, then I knew that a little fragment of Martin's soul, a tiny shard of his power, in the form of his voice, was lingering in the wires. So all I had to do was formulate a spell to call out that fragment. Do you know how hard it was? To reconstruct the exact audio fragment, so that I could pull it out with a retrieval spell ... for some magicians it would take ten years. It took me ten months. Then all I had to do was retrieve his body—"

So that was why the cemetery had called her.

"--and I called his soul back, I reanimated his body. I had Martin back. I had him back."

"So why are you having him eat people? What's your strategy here?"

"Because he needs more and more souls to keep his dead body alive," Roy said. "The fragment barely did it. He was in constant pain. He wasn't himself. I had to take out more and more other Homunculi from the wires to sustain him. I eventually constructed a spell to pull all the Homunculi into Martin. The amount of power that he holds within himself is extraordinary--he has enough power inside of him to be a god. But while the magic is strong, the flesh is still weak, and even godlike magic only sustained his human body for a few months. And then ... and then I realized that whole souls, not the fragments that make up the homunculi, might last longer. So I sent Martin out to take the souls of those who had taken his soul first. They failed him. Now they can learn what it's like--their families can learn what it's like--"

"Who failed Martin?"

Roy listed his grievances. The engineer who had cut the budget, resulting in Martin being let go. The psychiatrist who had called Martin a freak for being a magician. The friends who stopped coming by when Martin sank into his black moods. And the last victim: the social worker who had closed the suicide hotline. Martin had, apparently, been a regular caller. Only it had shuttered its doors, and so there was no one for Martin to speak to.

Except his sister, who hadn't picked up the phone.

"Roy," Lex whispered. "You have to stop. Martin wouldn't want this, and you know it!"

The Homunculus was curled up in the fetal position in a corner, rocking steadily back and forth as if in great pain. Blood dribbled from a corner of his thin mouth.

Roy screamed, "If you cared so much about what Martin wanted, he wouldn't be dead now!"

Lex staggered back, a fist in her mouth. Roy was right. He was right. She hadn't been there. She hadn't picked up. She had let Martin die.

At that moment the switchboards exploded. Roy backed away, coughing from the dust. When the smoke cleared, twenty Justiciars stood there, guns in their hands.

So Debra had at least gotten the 911 spell off, before she had been eaten.

"Citizen," said their leader, a tall black woman wearing a uniform the color of midnight. Her name was Senai, according to the otherworldly-gleaming brass name tag affixed to her shirt. "Cease this now, in the name of the law."

Roy smirked.

"Homunculus," he said once again, and Martin rose, staggering as the control spell animated him. "Collect all the calls from this room. Especially from Alexandra Velens--I believe she owes you one."

Ghostly telephones rang, and Lex's heart rate exploded. She curled up on the floor, shuddering, remembering. Remembering. Martin's face above the cord, his blue lips, his curled hands, the horrible silence, the way his computer screen was still on, the way that the telephone's time-out tone burned itself into her brain like bullets.

Roy stood there, but he was not gloating. If anything, he looked sadder than ever, and his fists were clenched.

"You can't do this to everyone," Lex chocked out as the wires wrapped themselves around her. "It isn't fair."

"I'll tell you what isn't fair," Roy snarled. "What isn't fair is that I have, in my entire life, always answered every single telephone call! If only Martin had called me that night, instead of you, I would have answered, I wouldn't have let him down! And he wouldn't have died!""

"And no one is going to die now," Lex said.

As she, shaking violently, reached into Martin's pocket and fetched out his cell phone, that she had buried him with.

And she dialed Roy's number, the same one that Martin had given him years and years ago, and of course Roy had never, ever changed it.

Roy's pocket rang.

Roy froze.

So did Martin.

"He's not answering," Lex said, shaking, to Martin. "You have to eat him, too, isn't that right? He's got an unanswered call. That's what he said. Everyone in this room who has an uncollected debt. Well, Roy owes me."

The phone kept ringing.

Martin reached out a hand, and wires shot out towards Roy.

"Stop it!" Lex screamed, even as the wires tightened around her chest, choking her. "Stop the spell, Roy! Stop killing us, and live!"

"You know," Roy said, quietly, as the wires came for him. "All I ever really wanted--this whole time--was to be with Martin. And--this was--really the only way that it was ever going to happen, wasn't it?"

"No," Lex said, staring. "No, no, no--"

Roy dropped his ringing phone.

Martin's wires entangled Roy, who did not struggle or cry out. He smiled, painfully, and then he dropped to the floor.

The other wires disintegrated.

And Martin's eyes dulled, now that he was no longer under the control--the power--of Roy.

And now I've just created an unhinged God, Lex thought, terrified. She hadn't considered this end result. She waited for Martin to strike out in a frenzy, but instead Martin gave an agonizing shout of pain, doubled over, and threw up blood and electricity all over the concrete floor.

The Juisticiars staggered to their feet, and Senai yanked Lex back.

"He's dying," she hissed. "A reanimated god is dying. This is going to be very bad. Do you know this god?"

"He was my brother," Lex sobbed.

"Tell me all about him," the officer ordered. "Before we all die here."

So she did, while Martin coughed and seized and writhed in a pool of his own blood on the basement floor.

"This one's got the goddamn Homunculi in him?" Senai's eyes widened. "Shit, shit, shit! All right everyone, listen up! We got a Ground Zero here!" Turning back to Lex: "He could level the entire District, so we're going to have to evacuate and set up a perimeter to contain the explosion to this building. C'mon, honey, good job saving the day. Now let's make sure we all live to tell the--"

Martin choked again, and this time, instead of blood, Homunuculi came out of his mouth.

They were sublimating out of Martin's dying blood, transforming from blood to spirit to magic. Their forms, distorted uncanny fetal-like faces, swarmed out in blood-red face-like spirits, all angry, all screaming.

you left us

you abandoned us

come back

come here

come with us and see how it feels to be unanswered, unloved, lost, hopeless, sad, weary, desolate, forever and ever and ever!

you have done this to us

so now come with us

learn how it feels to be trapped for a hundred years and a hundred more!


They were pure magical power. Once bound by spells and flesh, they were now leaking out of the dying body. They were no longer bound by the body of the sorcerer-god, or the will of the sorcerer's apprentice-summoner.

"Faraday Ward," Lex gasped, remembering Yuri's formula. "Need to--cast--around the building--"

"Good call, sorc," Senai said with approval. "Go cast it. We'll cover you."

I'm not a-- was on the tip of her tongue, but Lex ran and did it anyway. The other officers, without blinking, helped her haul out a huge coil of copper wire and lay it around the entire room, while a mathematically inclined officer (she had gone to MIT for a degree in particle physics and discovered that she enjoyed applied magic that much more, she said while helping) wrote down Gauss's Law and tossed in Maxwell's Equations for good measure. They left a small gap, to be closed after everyone had evacuated.

"Let's go," said Senai when they were ready. "Everyone out, now! Smith, Garcia, you two get Debra. We'll figure something out, after ..."

Lex was at the end of the line, and she was at the top of the staircase, about to cross the safety threshold of the Faraway Ward when--

--her cell phone rang.

CALLER: MARTIN VELENS

She stopped.

She answered.

"Martin?" she whispered.

"Is it you?" came his voice. "I wasn't sure ... is it me? I think ... I think the others have all left ... I just wanted to say ..."

"Save it, I'm coming, and you can tell me in person," Lex said, and she turned around and she ran down the stairs.

"What are you doing!" Smith screamed. "It's going to blow!"

In response, Lex kicked the door shut, and sealed up the Faraday Ward, closing the circuit.

"You're all safe now!" She shouted. "Go! I'm--I'm going to do what I should have done in the first place. I'm going to be with my brother."

Back into the basement she ran.

Martin was lying, dying, in a pool of his own blood, while the furious spirits that had possessed him had leaked out, and they filled the room, trapped with their own anger and despair. She could feel them, tearing at her skin, trying to drive into her nerves, but she could only focus on Martin.

She took up his broken body and put his head in her lap, as he had done for her when they were children.

"Lexie," he said, face twisting. "You shouldn't be here. You should leave. I wouldn't have called you if I knew you'd come down here."

"Don't, Martin," She whispered. "I'm so sorry. For everything. I should have picked up. Roy was right, I--"

"Roy," Martin sighed. "Don't be too hard on him, Lexie. Or on yourself."

"But I should have--"

"Saved me?" He shook his head, coughing, and more blood came out, smearing on Lex's sweater. She didn't care. "I wasn't calling to ask you to save me, then or now, Lex. That's not your job."

"Then why were you calling me? What did you want to say?"

Martin smiled, a hand raised, but unable to find its way to her, so Lex took the hand and pressed it into her own.

"I called to say that ..."

His eyes closed.

The Homunculi roared into the room, millions upon millions of spirits. The ceiling cracked and strained. The ward crackled, and the spirits rebelled, as if they knew that it would lead to their own destruction, but at least it would be their choosing, at least it was better than staying inside the wires forever.

They burned at her skin. Crumbling infrastructure imploded. Shards of glass impaled her skin, severing arteries and veins. She slumped forwards over Martin's already-dead body, as her blood mingled with his in a pool surrounding them both.

It was too late for Martin, for herself, but Lex spoke anyway. She was blinded by blood, deafened by the roar of destruction, but she still had air, and she still had the weight of love and sorrow in her arms.

"After all this time, all this trouble," she whispered, throat swelling. "I'm still too late to hear what you wanted to say. So here's what I have to say. What I should have said: I love you, Martin. You're my brother. You're all I have. If you call, I promise to always answer. Always--"

Her breath gave out then, and she slumped against a wall, Martin's hands still in hers while the world ended.

And then everything froze.

The roar and din of the destructive Homunculi vanished, and the voices, the spirits, the fragments of ghosts murmured with each other for the briefest of moments.

And then they came for her.

Not to attack, this time. This time their touch on her skin was not a blistering burn, but a warm soothing touch. This time they did not hurt; they healed. They seeped into her blood and flowed back into her body, mending cuts, stitching up vessels, knitting bone. They gave her back breath when she had none, and as she slowly, painfully came back to life, she heard them all, crying out in her blood, electrified in her nerves. They were a part of her, now, and suddenly so was every electron dancing through the wires in Roy's lair, in Martin's old workshop. Suddenly formulas danced through her brain, spells were at her hands, power so intense that it nearly ripped her skin apart as a million billion demigods joined with her to become one new god.

Homunculus, a voice said. We are the Homunculi. You are the Homunculus.

Lex shuddered in fear.

"But I'm not magical. I can't even fix a toaster. And phones give me panic attacks. Why me?"

It was Martin's voice that responded, so faint it might have only been an echo.

I think it's because you knew something that neither Roy nor I did, said the faded, tired voice. What does a telephone call--an email message--a faxed letter--a radio signal--what do all these things want, more than anything else in the world? They want to be received. Delivered. Heard. Answered. They were so angry, because they had been abandoned. They wanted nothing more than to be found. I was only interested in studying them. Roy was only interesting in using them. But you, all you wanted was to listen to them. And they heard you promise to always listen with your dying breath. They--we--I--took you up on it.

"Oh, Martin," Lex said, eyes wet. "I don't want any of that. All I want is to know: what were you calling to say that night?"

"Only that you're the best sister anyone could have, and that I love you," Martin's voice answered. "Thanks for listening, Lexie."

His message delivered, Lex could feel the fragment of Martin's spirit disintegrating, dissolving into nothing.

When the Justiciars came down to see what had happened, they found Lex curled up, her hands around an old flip-phone, her tears soaked into it, rendering it useless.

But the last caller was a Martin Velens, and so they said nothing as they picked her up and carried her out.



"So," Lex said, fiddling with her hands, "how's it feel to be back from the dead?"

Debra, in her hospital bed, rolled her eyes. It turned out that having your soul safely returned from a magical dimension didn't mean your body wouldn't suffer some trauma and shock in the meantime, and have to shut itself down to recover, so Debra had suffered some muscle atrophy during her coma. But she'd woken up and was giving everyone attitude and had already threatened to hit one overly helpful intern with a crutch, so Lex figured she was going to be fine.

The various people whose souls had been eaten had also returned, having been spat out of the wires and back into their bodies. Lex had gone around and made sure of it.

Roy was the only one who didn't return.

"I suppose he really did want to go," Debra said quietly. "I hope--I hope he found some peace in the wires."

Lex sighed and said nothing.

"Anyway!" Debra slapped the bed. "So--so you're the Homunculus now, huh, Lex? Never thought I'd see the day that my best friend would be a goddamn god!"

"Stop saying that!" Lex moaned. "This morning I touched my fridge and it started singing. I can't turn on the TV without it transmitting transdimensional weirdness. And all I hear in my head all day long are telephone conversations ..." she trailed off.

Debra gave a meaningful look. "How are you handling that, by the way?"

"Better," Lex said. "It still makes my blood pressure spike, but I can see, now, what Martin loved about telecomancy. There really is something beautiful in everything. In the words, in the electricity."

"So what are you going to do now?"

"Do? Well, Yuri said he'd teach me how to control these powers a bit better. So I don't fry the entire DC grid. And he says I need to meet some other Phreaks--this whole god thing is really weird--"

"I mean with your life," Debra said. "I bet you can come back to the force now. If nothing else, you would make an excellent magical wiretap."

Lex gave her a sour scowl. "Just because it's magic doesn't make it legal. And I don't know. Figuring things out, taking down bad guys, that was never my bag. All I wanted to do was help people."

"All right," Debra said. "So what will you do?"

Lex said, slowly, "I think I have an idea."



Ella Landry stared at the open doors.

"How'd you get the power company and the phone company and all the rest of them to do this?"

Lex smiled.

"Let's just say I have a little pull with the electricity folks," she said vaguely.

Ella frowned, shrugged, and put her hands on her hips. "So are you my new boss?"

"No," Lex said. "I'm here to apply for a position. I'd like to volunteer at the Crisis Center."

"Why?"

"Someone needs to listen," Lex said, and she followed Ella inside. "And I want it to be me."



the end
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