by Kim Justice
Trembling and sweating, muttering to himself, the emaciated kid stank of misery. He stumbled through Alyndra’s door.
“Elfs?” he said. “Ain’t this a human hospital?”
Alyndra stood, electric blue lines arcing between her French-manicured nails. The air crackled. Her dark hair lifted from her shoulders.
The lanky youth raised a gun. He squinted to aim, finger quivering on the trigger.
“Cut the magic, bitch, and get me some Oxy 80. Like now.”
“Sleep,” Alyndra said, releasing the spell toward him. A bright web of magic surrounded the intruder. He collapsed, weapon skidding away. Alyndra prodded him with the toe of her boot.
“Call Security, Thorne.”
“A moment, Your Highness” the middle-aged elf said. “This is a most excellent opportunity to demonstrate CryptoCrystal’s unique features. Let’s see if this person is in your medical records system.”
Alyndra narrowed her eyes.
“Thorne, you don’t work here. You’re a trainer sent to teach me your company’s product. If the police get involved, they’ll be quite unhappy about your interference.”
“Allow me some latitude. I promise it will be worth your while.”
“I could be disciplined, even fired, for not reporting this incident immediately,” she said. “Management will demand a full investigation. We need to leave this situation to those more qualified to deal with it.”
Alyndra picked up the phone and pressed the first digit of Security’s number. She paused.
“If you locate him in our database and examine his personal information, it will represent a serious violation of his privacy,” she said, placing the handset back down. “We could both be imprisoned.”
Thorne crouched by the trespasser.
“All for a very good cause, Your Highness. Have patience.”
He extracted a frayed canvas wallet from the kid’s pocket and plucked forth a stained ID card.
“What have you been up to, Robert Jeremiah O’Keefe?” he said. At Alyndra’s desk, he used two fingers to type in the would-be robber’s name. “Mr. O’Keefe is indeed in your database. He was a guest of your Emergency Department a year and a half ago due to a concussion sustained during football practice.”
Alyndra studied the screen.
“What is your intention, Thorne?”
He pulled up a section of CryptoCrystal she hadn’t seen, containing items not typically recorded, including hobbies, sports, and clubs. In the Varsity Sport field, Thorne highlighted “football” and tapped the backspace key.
A gauzy red haze obscured the youth’s prone form.
“I’ve placed him in an indeterminate state,” Thorne said. “Schrödinger’s Thug, if you will. Let’s choose a less perilous hobby for him.”
He typed “baseball” and pressed Enter. A wave of black dizziness passed through Alyndra. She cupped her palms over her eyes. New memories flooded her. The iron scent of blood filled the air. Bile rose in her throat. She remembered dozens of interactions with the department’s intern, Bobby O’Keefe. Before Thorne’s edits, oxycodone addict Bobby threatened their lives. Changing his record created a completely new past.
“Excuse me,” Bobby said from the hallway. “Ms. Rivikin, are you okay?”
The blurry shape on the floor had vanished.
“No, I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head. “This new system is a bit overwhelming, though.”
“I reckon so. Say, you have anything like baseball where you’re from?”
She considered enlightening him about elven blood sport. Would he last even sixty seconds on the Field of Trials? Possibly, given proper training.
“We do have sports in the Realm,” she said, “but nothing as exciting as your baseball.”
“Well, you’re invited. We’re tied for first place with the Falcons. Should be a good game. I could get you in for free.”
“Thank you, Bobby, but I must decline. Perhaps another time.”
The door clicked shut behind the intern.
“What was that?” Alyndra said to Thorne. “We were menaced by a pitiful individual I knew nothing about, but now he is our intern, and has been so for months. I recall him clearly and yet I do not remember him at all. This makes no sense.”
“Your Highness, have you dallied so long among humans that you do not recognize magic?”
“Remember this, Thorne: I ceased being a princess when I abandoned the Realm years ago. I insist you stop using my former title. It carries no weight here and serves only to embarrass me. It furthermore reminds me of a past I would prefer to forget. Do you understand?”
“I hear and obey, Your High — I mean, Ms. Rivikin. Know though, that however you prefer to be addressed, you will always remain our beloved princess.”
“Pestilence enabled your magic, and there’s darkness in what you have done. We don’t indulge in such for trivial purposes.”
“Protecting a member of the Royal Family does not constitute a triviality.”
“Time-altering magic can only be accomplished through bloodshed. Whom did you kill, Thorne?”
“Why, I killed no one,” he said. “I will tell you, though, that no elf, pixie, or even human was harmed to bring this system online.”
“You omit the Fae,” she said with a scowl. “We currently enjoy a rare state of peace with them. Your actions threaten that peace. How many fairy souls did your company harvest to make possible this vileness?”
“Don’t be so quick to judge,” he said with a scowl. “Your family’s talent for violence is what brought them to the top of the elven hierarchy.”
“That was a hundreds of years ago. We don’t behave like that now.”
“More’s the pity,” he said.
“You’re not going to answer my question, are you?”
“I must honor my non-disclosure agreement. Satisfying your curiosity would require me to reveal trade secrets. I therefore cannot oblige you.”
“Then let us stop for the night. My nerves are too jangled to continue.”
“Until tomorrow,” he said.
In troubled dreams, Alyndra wandered, lost in a snowy forest. The frozen path stung her bare feet. She hugged herself, shivering in a threadbare nightgown. Alyndra stumbled upon a steaming circle of red-flecked ovals, each the width of her hand. She stepped among them. The bloodstones whispered in the elven tongue.
“Princess Alyndra Rivikin,” they said. “Free us. Free us and pay your clan’s debt.”
“Free you?” she asked. “You are but stones.”
“Not always thus. Once Fae, we were murdered, murdered by your kin. Smash our cages and release us.”
She knelt and pounded the stones until her hands were bloody and raw.
The next morning, Alyndra found a coworker in tears, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
“Jennifer,” she said, “whatever is wrong?”
She hiccuped a few times, attempting to gain composure.
“Bobby’s dead,” Jennifer said. “He was out with his girlfriend last night. They got mugged after the game. Bobby tried to get the gun but the guy shot and killed him.”
Alyndra, her mouth a severe line, stormed away. Thorne hurried to catch up. She perched on the edge of her desk and crossed her arms.
“Thorne, I knew no good would come of this foul business. I want you out of this building immediately. All your equipment will be removed from our data center and returned as soon as I can arrange it. We will find a new vendor who does not have blood on their hands.”
Thorne steepled his fingers and smiled.
“I am deeply sorry, Ms. Rivikin,” he said, “but these decisions were made by the humans you serve, not your esteemed self. Your employer cannot get rid of CryptoCrystal. Your executives were so eager to buy at our absurdly low price, they signed our contract without requesting a single alteration. Obviously, they did not read it in detail.
“The result of their shortsightedness? Breaking the agreement would force them to pay more than three million dollars in damages. I’ve seen this hospital’s financial statements. The money is quite simply not available. Also, because the hospital’s insurance companies require you to have a new medical records system in place by the end of next month, you do not have time to locate another supplier. In short, we are stuck with one another. We will therefore continue with your training.”
Alyndra chewed the inside of her cheek and drummed her fingers.
“Very well, Thorne. Let us put this unpleasant business behind us.” She double-clicked the CryptoCrystal icon, opening the program. “What next?”
As 3 A.M. approached, Thorne and Alyndra completed the last module. The other IT staff had left hours ago.
Thorne stood and stretched.
“Well, that’s the end of it,” he said. “You are now an expert. As a final exercise, I would ask you to pull up your own record.”
“I would prefer not to. Why should I seek information I already know?”
“To find errors. These databases sometimes have hidden, subtle corruption. Much can go wrong. Checking one’s own file can be quite enlightening.”
“You want me to access my own record,” she said in a flat tone, fine hairs standing on her forearms.
“As a spot check,” he said. “It would put my mind at ease before we adjourn.”
She keyed in her employee number.
“Everything is correct. You may rest easy.”
“Are you aware how disappointing your feeble older brother has been to both court and crown?” Thorne asked.
“There is nothing feeble about Saeldur,” Alyndra said. “He is simply not interested in ‘glorious battle’, as the deluded call it. I fail to see the difficulty.”
“He is a peacemaker. A diplomat. A simpering treaty-signer who cravenly surrenders to every Fae demand. Your brother is an embarrassment. If the King’s second child had been male, then we would have a solution. It would have been trivial to arrange a fatal accident for Saeldur, placing his more satisfactory younger brother next in line for the throne. But alas, you were the King’s only other offspring.”
“Is there something defective about being a woman?” she asked with clear irritation.
“Having a daughter softened the King,” Thorne said. “He became weak, and the Prince followed his lead. The Realm thus suffers insult and injury from all sides, with no end in sight.”
Alyndra squeezed her eyes shut, remembering bruises lasting weeks.
“I have differences with my family,” she said with as much calm as she could muster, “but I would never call my father weak.”
“Oh, but he is, and we had such grand plans for him.”
“Restoring the glory of the Elven Realm. Crushing the Fae once and for all. Since the human world lies between those of the Elven and Fae, we would of course conquer them first.”
“Why tell me this?” she asked. “I can neither hinder nor assist you with these ridiculous plans.”
“Nonsense. You yourself shall bring them to fruition,” he said. “With the aid of CryptoCrystal, you will become the male heir your mother should have given us.”
“This is absurd.”
“I suspected you would refuse, which is why I acquired this little toy on my most recent visit to the Realm.”
He drew a shimmering pistol from his suit coat. Alyndra recognized its hypnotic gleam in an instant.
“Mithril,” she said in wonder. “I have heard rumors, but I never have seen firearms made from such.”
“It gets better,” he said. “Iron bullets. Cursed iron bullets, to be precise.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Oh indeed I would, but only as a last resort.” He took a sneering glance around Alyndra’s small office. “That a member of elven royalty should spend even a moment in such dreary surroundings humiliates us all.”
He produced a syringe of dark fluid. Holding the gun steady in his right hand, he uncapped the needle with his teeth.
“Stay very still. This will sting a little.”
Before she could react, he stabbed her thigh through her skirt and pressed the plunger. She screamed.
“And then it will burn like fire,” he said. “Your blood now carries a lethal dose of iron, enough to kill a dozen elves. You will die soon unless you alter your record according to my instructions. You will become a true elven prince rather than a worthless princess.”
“Why haven’t you made this alteration yourself?” she asked. “Why force me to do it?”
“These magics are tricky,” he said. “Even the most powerful wizards cannot revise a high elf’s history without their cooperation. Now be a good girl and make the change I request.”
“I was never anyone’s ‘good girl’.”
“Thus this dull job working for people not worthy to lick your boots.”
“I’ll take the worst of them over a traitor like you,” she said.
“Hardly a traitor. I have the support of the highest elf clans. Carry on, now. You don’t have much time.”
She double-clicked the gender field and hit backspace. Red haze filled her vision as she found herself suspended between two realities, two sets of memories.
In one timeline, she grew up a strong young woman who escaped the Elf Realm and her abusive family. Giving up royal privilege to live among humans, she gained an education and built a career. Now systems administrator of an obscure rural medical facility, the former princess led a comfortable life, ignored by the elf hierarchy — or so she had believed.
New memories unfolded. The brutal young prince recalled countless bloody battles and mead-soaked, boisterous evenings with the King and his allies. When the siege of the human world came, the elves’ inferiors mounted feeble resistance. The Elven Army thrashed their enemies with fiery jets of deadly magic. The Elf King’s victory was total. Soon, the Fae would taste their vengeance.
He grinned with the recollection. He was his father’s favorite, much preferable to his dead elder brother. He would rule for a thousand years.
“You see,” Thorne said. “You see what you can be. What you already are. All you have to do is make this one tiny edit and the worlds will be yours. Do it and become our most glorious beloved tyrant.”
“Oh, yes,” Alyndra said, her voice quavering. “I do see. I see it so clearly now.”
Thorne’s sweating face, inches from Alyndra’s, stared at the screen in rapt attention.
“Go ahead, girl. Make things right.”
Her abdomen ached, the iron spreading toward her heart. She prayed her fingers would be swift enough. She shift-tabbed up to the race field, where she typed “Fae”.
“No!” Thorne shouted, spittle flying from his lips. “A fairy? You can’t!”
He stepped back and raised his pistol.
“Your Highness, I will kill you if you continue. Don’t delude yourself. I do this for the good of the Realm.”
She typed “F” in the gender field and pressed Enter. Alyndra smiled, tears standing in her eyes. Thorne fired twice. The bullets whipped through the temporal disturbance without resistance. He dropped the weapon and clutched his ears, moaning.
A fairy stood in Alyndra’s place. With obvious disgust, she spat a stream of dark iron fluid onto the floor. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of gunpowder.
“Alyndra gave up everything to be free of you,” she said, “but you couldn’t leave her alone. You drove your ‘beloved princess’ to erase her very existence. Now I will exact revenge for her and release the murdered spirits trapped in your accursed machine.”
Thorne frowned and shook his head. In a too-loud voice, he said, “Can’t hear you. Temporary deafness. Gunfire in a small space, you understand. Very loud.”
“Oh, you’re not temporarily deaf, Thorne.”
She became a sleek black leopard. Thorne staggered backward, flailing and panting. The powerful animal leapt with a snarl, slamming him to the floor. She sank her teeth deep, crushing his windpipe and stifling a bubbling scream. She shook him hard, breaking his neck, severing his spine.
Once again taking humanoid form, she grabbed a toolkit and rushed to the data center.
She removed the CryptoCrystal server’s back panel, deep cold biting her fingers. Chanting and pleading in the Fae tongue came from within the whirring machine.
She yanked out the power cords. The contraption went dark, its loud cooling fans silent. The chanting continued. Within, a circuit board glowed with eldritch power.
The card bore a circle of seven thumb-sized bloodstones. Kneeling with reverence, she placed the board on the concrete floor. She selected a hammer from the toolbox.
“O yes. O please yes,” the spirits chanted. She struck seven times, each blow smashing a stone and releasing a tendril of pale vapor, the remnant of a Fae soul. They whispered their gratitude.
“Operative Caera, we will not forget the one who would have been Princess Alyndra.”
Through her bare soles, she felt the slow plod of human footfalls. Time to go. Caera resumed feline shape and sprinted into the night on four silent paws.
Kim Justice is a Nashville native, a computer professional, and is currently employed in the medical field.