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Spell Robbers, Page 2

Matthew J. Kirby

  But he couldn’t sit. Not right now. And he didn’t want a science lesson, either. “Not much. It’s physics for really small stuff, right? Electrons and quarks and stuff like that.”

  “Yes, that is the conventional understanding. Basically, the laws that govern larger objects, like planets and basketballs, start to break down when we get to the smallest of scales. That’s when things get very, very strange.”

  Ben knew this was a science camp and all, but a lecture? Really? Now? After what he’d just seen Peter do?

  “Look, Dr. Hughes, I —”

  She silenced him with an upheld finger. She really was a teacher. “Quantum mechanics inform our understanding and predictions for many things. Every natural process, whether chemical, or biological, or astronomical, ultimately comes back to quantum physics. As strange as it is, the math works perfectly, and because of that, we have things like lasers and microprocessors.”

  Ben felt a growl of frustration rumbling just under his breath. “Okay.”

  “Have you heard of quantum entanglement?”


  “It is possible for two particles to become what we call entangled, such that their states are inextricably linked. The measurement of one particle instantly affects the state of the other particle, whether they are in the same room, or even on different planets. The particles are connected. Are you with me?”

  Ben didn’t see how that could be. He thought nothing moved faster than the speed of light. “So when you say ‘instantly’ …”

  “I mean instantly. No matter the distance.”

  This was new to Ben. “But what does this have to do with that?” He pointed in Peter’s direction.

  “Well, in some ways, everything in this world is connected through entanglement. Any two objects that have interacted become entangled on a level we can’t perceive and find difficult to measure. All the universe is a great bubbly fabric, and you are a part of the pattern, down to your atoms.”

  This was starting to sound kind of hokey. Ben probably would have walked out at that point if he hadn’t just seen what he had seen.

  “‘Thou canst not stir a flower without troubling of a star,’” Dr. Hughes said.


  “It’s a poem.”

  Even more hokey.

  Dr. Hughes continued. “It means that small disturbances can have tremendous, even unimaginable consequences. There are certain people, Ben, whom we call Actuators. They have the ability to disturb the universal fabric with their thoughts, to actuate an event. So long as we have the proper equipment.”

  Ben looked back at Peter. “So Peter is a — an Actuator?”

  “Yes. Someone who can focus his or her thoughts in such a way that the entanglement of his or her consciousness with the world brings about events. Like that rain cloud.”

  “Like being psychic?”

  Dr. Hughes pursed her lips. “I prefer you not use that term. And I don’t like the term ‘magic,’ either. They are not scientifically accurate.”

  “Okay. But that’s basically what it is, right?”

  “I suppose.”

  “So what are those doing?” Ben pointed at the tripods.

  “Those are augmenting devices. They reflect and magnify the quantum energy radiating from Peter. That is how he was able to do what you saw. Without them, he would not be able to actuate that cloud.”

  “Can you actuate things without them?”

  “No. My equipment is what makes actuation possible.”

  This was unbelievable, and Ben was confused. “How can the rest of the world not know about this?”

  “When the idea of actuation was theoretical,” Dr. Hughes said, “I was laughed at by my colleagues. We’ve now gone beyond theory, but the technology isn’t perfected. Before I go public, I have to make sure the data and evidence are unassailable. But I do hope to make an announcement in the next six months. Until then, I expect you to keep this a secret.” Dr. Hughes looked at him from under her brow. “Understood?”

  “Understood,” Ben said.

  “Excellent. Then let’s begin your first lesson.”

  A few minutes later, Ben stood inside one of the tripod rings. Dr. Hughes and Ben’s classmates stood outside the circle. It felt to Ben like he was on some kind of stage, with bright lights and an audience staring at him, and he did not want to trip.

  “The key to actuation,” Dr. Hughes said, “is how fully you realize the event you are trying to bring about. Like the visualization exercise I just had you do in the hallway.”

  Ben took a deep breath. “Okay.”

  “The more detailed your visualization, the more complete your thought, the greater the chances of actuation. That means understanding all the consequences, all the precursors, everything about the event that you can.”

  “Got it.”

  “So now.” Dr. Hughes went to stand in front of one of the computer monitors. “I’d like you to close your eyes.”

  Ben did.

  “Relax,” she said. “Take a few deep breaths. Hold your hands out in front of you, like you saw Peter do. And now picture a cloud between them. Imagine the moisture condensing out of the air, molecules collecting.”

  Ben saw what she described. He turned his normal vision into science-documentary animation, zooming in on the atoms floating in the air around him, the hydrogen and the oxygen. He grabbed two hydrogen, one oxygen, and stuck them together, and he imagined others coming together, too. Hundreds, thousands, millions more. Together, they became a mist, and then a cloud, and then falling water droplets, all between his hands.

  Suddenly, he became aware that the room was silent around him. He became aware of his feet squishing inside his tennis shoes, and the coldness of wet jeans against his shins. He opened his eyes.

  A charcoal cloud the size of a car churned in the air in front of him. It stretched to the edges of the circle, flooding the floor with rain even as Ben’s excitement burned hot. This was power. This was control. In his hands.

  The others had all stepped away from it. They looked back and forth between the cloud and Ben with fear in their eyes. Except Peter. Peter was looking past the cloud, right at Ben, his expression blank.

  Dr. Hughes’s fingers flicked over her keyboard. “Good. That’s good, Ben. And now I need you to disperse the water in your cloud back into the air, just as you collected it.”

  The cloud flashed with an angry little bolt of lightning.

  “Close your eyes,” Dr. Hughes said. “Before it gets away from you.”

  “Gets away from me?” Ben asked.

  “Just do as I say.” Dr. Hughes’s voice sounded calm, but strained. Was she afraid, too?

  Ben closed his eyes. He pictured the cloud in his mind, and focused on its molecules. He cracked the bonds holding them together and broke them into atoms, just as he’d assembled them, and scattered them like smoke until they’d dissipated.

  He opened his eyes. The cloud was gone. But the floor was still wet. “How was that?” he asked.

  No one said anything. They just stared. Like they were still afraid. But not Peter.

  Dr. Hughes cleared her throat. “Class, you will continue practicing your exercises. Ben and I will return shortly.”

  Return? Where were they going?

  “Yes, Dr. Hughes.” Peter smiled at her, and then cast a dark look at Ben. Was he angry about something?

  “Come, Ben.” Dr. Hughes waved for him to follow and led him through the classroom door into the hallway. “Let’s go up to my office, shall we?”

  “All right.”

  They climbed the stairs to the first floor, and then up to the second, past more creepy old photographs. The wooden steps creaked a little under their feet on their way up to the third. The ceiling on that floor slanted, giving Ben the feeling of needing to duck his head. They walked down a narrow hallway to its end, where Dr. Hughes unlocked a door.

  The room inside was round, and lined with shelves and shelves of books. A de
sk overflowing with papers stood before a single slit of a window, straight ahead.

  “Are we in a tower?” he asked.

  Dr. Hughes glanced around. “Yes. I asked for this office. I don’t like corners. Things get stuck in corners. Please, sit down.” She motioned toward one of two chairs in front of her desk, and she took her place on the opposite side.

  Ben sat. “Am I in trouble?”

  “No, no, Ben. Nothing like that.”

  “Then why —?”

  “I’m sure you took note of how the others reacted to your actuation.”

  “Yeah, I guess so.”

  “The fact is, none of them, not even Peter, has actuated anything remotely close to that. And they have been practicing for weeks and months. You were able to do that on your first try. It’s quite astonishing.”

  Ben kept his pride from turning into a smile. But then, what she’d said made him wonder something. “Can you actuate, Dr. Hughes?”

  She smiled down at her desk. “No, Ben. I can’t. I haven’t found an adult who can.”

  “Why not?”

  “I think it has to do with imagination. Adult brains have already decided long ago what’s possible and what’s not.” Her eyes watered up, and her voice got quiet. “But actuation would have meant a great deal to me when I was your age.”

  Ben looked away, unsure of what she meant or what he should say.

  Dr. Hughes cleared her throat. “During the actuation, I told you it could get away from you. Do you remember?”

  “Yes.” Ben leaned forward, grateful for a change of subject. “What did you mean by that?”

  “In the beginning, it was your thoughts that created and sustained that cloud. But if you had let it go long enough, or get big enough, eventually, there would have come a tipping point when the cloud would have ceased being an actuation and become an actual cloud.”

  “What’s the difference?” Ben’s cloud seemed plenty actual to him.

  “An actuation is still just the physical manifestation of a potential, one remote possibility. But an actual thing isn’t potential anymore. It’s there, and it has a material life of its own. A runaway train.”

  “So what happens if it gets away from me?”

  Dr. Hughes shook her head. “Who knows? Bigger cloud. More rain. Lightning. It hasn’t been a high enough risk to worry about until today.”

  “I see.” But inside, Ben wasn’t worried. The cloud had felt completely under his control. It hadn’t felt like a runaway train at all.

  “I’m glad you understand,” Dr. Hughes said. “Knowing what I know now about your gift, I’ll be better prepared next time. We’ll take it slowly. Cautiously. You’re very unique, Ben. Who knows what you might accomplish.”

  AFTER class, Ben walked with Peter to the bus stop. Ben didn’t plan to ride the bus, but it was on the way to where he was meeting his mom. It was a busy time of day, and they moved with a tide of college students.

  “What did you think?” Peter asked.

  “I don’t know what to think,” Ben said.

  Peter nodded. “That’ll pass.”

  Ben didn’t see that happening. How could you get used to this? “Why’d you give Dr. Hughes my name in the first place?”

  “When we met at school, I could tell you were an Actuator.”


  “You start to sense it after you’ve practiced for a while.”

  “Well,” Ben said. “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome. Since I got you in, maybe you could do something for me.”


  “Tell me how you did that with the cloud. I’ve never seen an actuation that big before.”

  Ben shrugged. “I don’t know.”

  “Yeah, right. Your first time? That was too good.”

  “Really. I’d tell you if I knew.”

  Peter frowned. “Okay.”

  They arrived at the stop, but the bus hadn’t come yet. Peter took a seat under a Plexiglas awning papered with homemade flyers for local bands.

  Ben stood in front of him. “So I guess I’ll see you at school tomorrow?”

  “I eat lunch in the library.”

  Library? “Um …” Ben might not have made any friends yet, might not ever make any real friends while he was at that school, but that didn’t mean he wanted to throw in with the outcasts. But as soon as the thought occurred, he felt guilty. Peter was the reason Ben was here. Actuating. The least Ben could do was hang out with him for one lunch. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll come find you.”

  The bus pulled up then, with its squealing brakes and rock-tumbler engine, and Peter took a step toward it. The door hissed open, and then he climbed up the steps and took a seat. Ben watched it pull away through the black cloud of its own exhaust.

  His mom’s words echoed in his ear. At least one good friend.

  But thoughts of lunch reminded him of the cafeteria table, and Ben suddenly wondered if Peter — and actuation — had been involved in that.

  Ben’s mom brought home pizza that night, the kind you have to bake yourself. She slid it into the oven and collapsed onto the sofa, where she slumped with one elbow up on the sofa’s arm, her hand resting over her eyes.

  “Could you set the timer, Ben?”

  “How long?”

  “I don’t know. Fifteen minutes?”

  He double-checked the directions on the packaging and set the timer for twenty.

  “How was the science camp?” she asked.

  “It was … fun.” Ben wasn’t sure how much he should share with her. He was still trying to understand what had happened. The whole thing was back to seeming unbelievable to him now, just a few hours later. Like he had imagined it.

  Did the other kids’ parents know? How could they not? How could you keep it a secret? But standing there, Ben imagined how that conversation would go.

  Hey, Mom, guess what? At science camp today I created a rain cloud out of thin air!

  Right, Ben. A rain cloud.

  No, really! I created a rain cloud!

  Fine. I get it. You don’t have to tell me about science camp if you don’t want to.

  And he imagined it would sound something like that for every kid and parent. He wouldn’t have believed it if Peter had told him about it before Ben actually saw it. But even if Ben’s mom did believe him, wouldn’t that just get her all worried about safety and stuff? He figured it was probably best to just stay quiet.

  “Fun how?” his mom asked.

  “What? Oh, just interesting. I think it’ll be good.”

  “Make any friends there?”

  “Maybe,” Ben said. “That guy Peter was there. But … he eats lunch in the library.”

  “What’s wrong with that?” His mom smiled. “I’m grateful it will give you something to do in the afternoons.” She sighed. That deep sigh usually meant trouble and it made Ben nervous.

  He almost didn’t want to ask, but he did. “How was class?”

  “Oh … the world is too small.”

  Ben tensed up. Not yet. It couldn’t be happening this soon. They’d practically just gotten here, and now Ben had discovered actuation. She couldn’t quit yet. They couldn’t move again.

  “What —?” Ben shook his head. “What do you mean?”

  “Oh, I ran into someone today. He was in my art history program a few years back, and I couldn’t stand him. Really self-absorbed. He asked me out a couple of times. Anyway, I guess he got a teaching position here, and he seemed a little too happy to see me. Small world, that’s all.”

  Ben relaxed, exhaling, relieved it wasn’t what he’d thought. “That guy, Marshall?”

  “Yeah, that’s the one. You remember him?”

  “I remember. He tried to talk to me about video games.” Ben had met him at the Art Department’s New Year’s party for families. He hadn’t liked him any more than his mom had, but the guy had clearly figured it would help his chances with Ben’s mom if he made friends with her son.

“I’ll just have to do my best to avoid him.” She lifted her hand away from her eyes and let her arm fall over the side of the couch. “Shouldn’t be too hard. Our departments are across campus from each other.”

  A little while later, the oven timer dinged. His mom rose from the couch, and they sat down at their table to eat.

  The next day, Ben walked past the library twice before going in. The librarian nodded to him over a copy of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett as he entered and walked past her desk.

  “Any good?” he asked.

  She winked. “Read it and find out.”

  He went to the study area, where a few tables were clustered in the middle of the room. Shelves of books surrounded them, and several students huddled together there. Their own little group of outsiders. But Peter wasn’t sitting with them. He was at a table by himself, outside the outsiders.

  He nodded to Ben, leaning back in his chair, peeling the wrapper back from a granola bar.

  “That your lunch?” Ben pulled out the chair opposite him.

  “Yes.” Half of it disappeared in one bite.

  Ben dumped the contents of his brown paper sack on the table. Same as the day before — bologna sandwich with yellow mustard, apple, bottle of water — except there were two bags of chips. One had a note taped to it in his mother’s handwriting: for Peter. Ben smiled to himself, peeled off the note, and slid the chips across the table. “You want ’em?”

  Peter tipped his head at the chips. “Sure. Your mom packs your lunch?”

  “Every day.” Ben looked at his sandwich. “It’s kind of her thing.”

  “Where does she work?”

  “She’s in school right now. Getting her master’s.”

  “Oh.” Peter opened the bag and ate his chips one at a time, examining each one before popping it into his mouth. “And your dad?”

  Ben shook his head. “It’s always just been me and her.”

  Peter nodded.

  “What about you?” Ben asked.

  “My mom plays the oboe for the city orchestra. My dad teaches economics.”

  “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

  “A younger sister.”

  Ben had often thought it’d be nice to have a younger sister. Someone to do the girly stuff with his mom. She was usually pretty good about not asking him that kind of thing, but a sister would be much better for helping her pick outfits.