Plugs

Uther Pendragon, high king of all Britain, looked into the mirror, and a face that wasn’t his looked back. He stuck out his tongue. The face of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, did the same.

“But when will I change back?” said Uther.

“Soon,” said Merlin.

They sat together in a roofless, nearly wall-less hut, abandoned years before by whatever hermit had built it.

“How soon?” said Uther.

It had only been a few hours since Merlin had worked the spell and Uther had ridden off to Gorlois’ fortress.

“Remember when I said I couldn’t give you the likeness of the Duke for a night so that you could have your way with the duchess?”

“You did say that,” said Uther, “then you did it anyway.”

“No,” said Merlin, “No spell will change you for a single night.”

“You’re saying I’m trapped like this?” Uther threw the mirror to the mossy ground. “I’ve traded my kingship for the beauteous Ygraine?”

Merlin picked up the mirror, polished it with his sleeve. “It lasts a month.”

“Eh,” said the king. “I might not even tire of her by then.”

“Looking like Gorlois,” said Merlin, “only lasts one night.” He turned the mirror.

“Who’s that?” Uther stared at the teenager in the reflection.

“A stableboy of the duke’s. I believe the other servants call him ‘Onions.’”

“Onions!?!”

“I have no idea why,” said Merlin.

“You cast the spell!” The king who looked like a stableboy looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel in his pimply forehead.

“No, I mean, I don’t know why they call him that.” Merlin tucked the mirror in his cloak. “About the spell–of course you’ll keep changing. It’s a moonspell. You’ll change nightly until the moon is dark again.”

“Why?”

“It was the only spell that would give you what you asked for,” said Merlin. “Magic can be complicated.”

“I suppose it will be an adventure,” said the king. “Life is boring at court…”

“Indeed,” said Merlin. With luck, Uther might learn something, might rule a little less unwisely before Britain dissolved back into squabbling dukedoms. “You need to get to the stables by dawn.”

“Adventure!” said the king/stableboy.

With even more luck, the king might become Ygraine, might gain some sense of consequences, some appreciation for life in its faintest flickerings. Or at least experience the adventure of morning sickness.

The Coelacanth Coat
A coat of coelacanth skin, royal blue with milky patches. Vat-grown to order and seamless. Lost tech out of the lost time. The fit always reminded Aurelia the coat was tailored for someone centuries dead: shoulders loose, waist tight, arms a little long.

When she got it, she emptied the pockets, kept the contents in a box in a desk drawer.

Powerhouses
Take things there to recharge. Leave them overnight. Come back.

Lingering’s said to be unhealthy. There’s a shivering you feel in the air, and you can tell it’s coming from outside you, not inside.

They’re big, multitiered platforms like circular parking garages.

Drive your car in on the pad of the lowest level or climb the stairs in the central column to charge smaller objects on the upper levels. Set them on the concrete, or on the wooden shelves that seem to decay too quickly. No metal shelves, and you’ll want to leave coins and belt buckles outside.

What Was in the Coat Pockets
Coins with geometric designs, a scrap of scarlet paper. A metal cylinder, the segments of which could be twisted so that the lines etched on it connected in different ways. It didn’t do anything else.

The Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain
Powerhouses nearer to the reinhabited cities had managers and waiting lists; this one had nothing but a few pilgrims and the occasional curious visitor. So the Walking City stopped there twice a year to unload its powercells and recharge.

The first years after she came to the future, Aurelia travelled with the Walking City. One time they stopped there, she climbed the spiral stair to the top floor and left that metal cylinder on a shelf between a straylight mirror and a couple of moon keys.

Powerhouse By Night
She reconsidered, went back just after sunset.

Her fillings tingled. The ring she’d forgotten to remove ached. The night spooky with all the charging objects glowing. A sound like rushing wind, but the air utterly still.

After
Her coat’s scales were dull dead brown.

The metal tube was now a telescope that showed a world that didn’t exist anymore, a world of crystal towers and floating bubblecars. The future that had come and gone while she’d been in suspension. Looking through, she felt a sort of sunset sadness.

She gave it to a friend, someone future-born. He loved it.

Wishes fluttered around us with the snow. I held out my hands, cup-curved, and tried to catch one. Throughout the square, men, women and children did the same–hoping they would catch their own, which was the best luck of all, or that theirs would fall into the hands of someone who would understand, someone who would say Yes and grant it.
I had little to wish for this year. My son grew strong, my husband’s back had recovered and when the ground thawed he would return to our spice fields. War had not come to our province in five years. Perhaps I should have wished for my sister to fall pregnant again with a baby that would not die only days out of the womb; but no, that was her wish to make.
War would come and go regardless of wishes. We all knew that.
Looking down at my snow-flecked and spice-stained hands–red and orange and yellow between the grooves in my palms, and the colours would not fade no matter how hard I scrubbed–I saw a wish. Black letters in the curves and dots of our script covered the paper-scrap.
A final kiss, before I depart for Aratavi.
My hand shook, a little.
I imagined the person who might have stood in line earlier in the day, waiting to write his or her wish so that it could be scattered by our town’s priest. Knowing that soon the journey to Aratavi must be begun–a journey to search for the remains of a loved one. People went to Aratavi during peace-time for no other reason. And in the marshes and pools, rife with the stream-women and algae-men who had killed so many of us, many found only their own grave.
Yes, I thought.
I rubbed paprika on my lips.
One by one, I kissed every person in the square. I left red marks in my wake. That way, I knew who I had yet to step up to, smiling kindly before I pressed my lips against their cheek, their brow.
An hour after the priest scattered our wishes, the bell tolled again, signifying that the previous year had transitioned into the current. I had kissed every man, woman and child.
I would never know whose wish landed in my hands. There was the man who touched my hair, briefly, before I moved on; the woman who whispered Thank you when I kissed the fist-shaped bruise on her chin; the man who wept silently through the hour. Perhaps it was one of them, but perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. I granted the wish.
And my own wish, also: Happiness, in whatever dose possible.

To go under the arch of that particular stone bridge is to pass through a gate. To go over the same bridge is to pass along a road, a simple straight-line journey without riddles or challenges.

The road over the bridge will take you from one city you can find on a map to another. You can also find both in post cards, tourist pamphlets, and history textbooks.

The bridge, you can find on some of the better-researched, higher resolution maps, a pair of facing crescents intersecting the road’s line. The very best might have a couple dashes implying a trail down from the road to the streambed on one side.

If you stand there, looking through the dark below the bridge, hearing the thrum of tires and rush of engines overhead, the gurgle of the river down the waterfall steps ahead of you in the bridge-shadow, you can just make out the form of the sphinx jutting out in the middle of the rapids.

Climb the slick stone of those steps, stand face-to-face with it, and you’ll hear questions in your mind.

Chances are, if you’ve found your way this far, you learned about the sphinx from a note on the back of a postcard, or from one of the more transgressive tourist guides, or from the story told by the friend of a friend, who gave you a map with the bridge location circled. Any of these will also have given you a list of the seventeen questions the sphinx might ask, with answers.

If you’re correct, you’ll pass beyond, and the stone arch becomes your gateway to a world transformed. If you’re wrong, it’s you that’ll be transformed, to become the sphinx while the former sphinx walks free.

So reach carefully into the plastic pocket of your rain slicker and shield the paper from the dampness dripping from everyone. Maybe a pocket flashlight would help? It is darker than you might expect. Not that it matters, since all the answers you know are wrong.

We made sure of this–out of kindness, not cruelty. We former sphinxes have made sure to spread information about the bridge and a host of wrong answers. That way, someone will come along very soon with equally incorrect responses, and you’ll be free.

What would have happened if you’d answered correctly?

If we had any actual answers, we could tell you.

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