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February 2012

February 2012 -- Steampunk

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  • Part Time Painter:
    Licensing, Glue for Collage, and Motivation
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    Fiction

  • Fiction: The Wish Machine


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  • The Wish Machine
    by Lyn Thorne-Alder

    There were many things Ruan loved about having an antiquities dealer and amateur museum curator as a beau: his lovely wit, his beautiful eyes, his way around an aetheric detector. But the thing which she loved the most was his wonderful habit of bring her home toys, gadgets, and devices.

    Regarding this particular gadget -- perhaps "contraption" was a better word however, Ruan wasn't certain if she should be happy, or if disgruntlement was more called for. "What, pray tell, is it?"

    It sported a keyboard on one end, but no visible type bars; a series of boxes, one of which appeared to be a card catalog, all connected to some sort of cogwheel system like a box-Ferris-wheel; and, at the other end, a slot feeding into a brass tray.

    "I am not certain," Johias admitted. "Daniel thought it might be some sort of aetheric reader, but..."

    "But you know aetheric readers, and this is not one," Ruan agreed. "It seems to hold some sort of information; perhaps a new library filing system?" She pried at a box, but it seemed to be nailed shut. "A very secure filing system."

    "The input seems to be through the keyboard and the microphone, though what one is supposed to input, I'm still not certain." Johias tapped at the keyboard thoughtfully. "When I run the aetheric detector over them --" He did so, as a demonstration and, Ruan suspected, because he enjoyed playing with the machine. "-- I get a very low-level reading. I wish these damnable things..." He stopped there, because at "I wish," the needle on the aetheric detector had dashed nearly to seven.

    "Try that again," Ruan demanded.

    "I wish," he obliged her, watching the needle jump, "that these silly things came with instructions."

    The needle bounced to eight. Inside the machine, something rattled and turned. A sound like shuffling paper emanated from one of the boxes, and a small card popped out of the slot.

    Please insert the following:
    The current temperature
    The nearest place to dine out
    Your mothers' maiden names.

    "Well, that's a cheeky machine," Ruan protested. Johias, however, was already checking the mercury.

    "Sixty-seven degrees. And since Ostin's has closed, I'd go with D'Angelo's."

    Ruan pecked in the information. "Your mother's maiden name?" she asked, pro forma, already typing it in.

    "Talbot. I wonder why it would need that?"

    "Cheeky, I tell you. You bring me the most interesting toys, Johias."

    "I do try, Ruan my dear. Hrm, it's doing something."

    Something was crunching gears, turning wheels, and making noises that suggested it needed a bit of oil somewhere. And, after a moment, something included spitting out another piece of paper.

    Thank you.
    I am the Johnson-Tanner Mark II Wish Machine.
    Please return both cards to the top slot.

    "Wish machine!" Ruan glared at the thing, even as Johias obediently slid the cards back into the slot. "Cheeky doesn't half cover it!"

    "Certainly an interesting claim. I wish," Johias cleared his throat, "for a thousand dollars."

    "Johias!" She glared at him, but the machine was creaking away..

    Please insert the following:
    The postal addresses of three people
    Your father's mother's maiden name
    Your bank of choice

    "Well, that's certainly interesting!" Johais pecked away, quicker, Ruan noted, than herself. "Hrrm, Rue, could you assist?"

    "Sarah Gilferoy," she offered, and rattled off their common acquaintance's address. After she had provided the data on two more of their friends, and Johias had entered the rest, the machine spat out another card.

    The following bank accounts at First City Bank are currently "orphaned:" their owners have died without heir.

    Listed below were three account numbers, their balances totaling just over a thousand dollars.

    "Well." Ruan stared at the slip. "I see. It's a wish machine."

    They had not meant to mention the wish machine to anyone and, indeed, had done a very good job of keeping quiet about it for several months while they studied it. The bank accounts had been accessible, although Ruan had insisted on donating half the money to charity, and every piece of information the machine offered appeared to be true when verifiable and uncomfortably canny when not.

    To be fair to them, they did not actually mention the machine to their families so much as talk about it to each other while in earshot of one of Ruan's aunts and one of Johias's cousins. They often discussed their projects at social gatherings, both of them more comfortable with lab talk than small talk, and were just as often ignored by their families. The word "wish" however, did what no amount of chat about the aether could do: made them the center of attention.

    "You have a wish machine?" Johias's cousin Andrew demanded. "And you're not sharing?"

    "It's a prototype..."

    "Indeed, quite selfish," Ruan's Aunt Addy inserted.

    "It has barely been tested..."

    "Then we will test it. Surely we have enough wishes!"

    "Surely..." They were overruled, over-shouted and outmatched. Their families and friends would see the machine. They would make wishes.

    "Well," Ruan murmured under the clamor, "at least it gives us a chance to test it."

    Not one chance, but several dozen chances later (they both came from very large families), they had learned several things about the machine.

    The first was that it always provided an answer, but the answer was not always exactly what had been wished for.

    The second was that, while its requests for information varied from the benign to the very personal, no one ever failed to comply after being offered a wish.

    The third was that it used the information it was given. Their first example of this came when a cousin requested a restaurant recommendation, and the machine offered D'Angelo's as the nearest good eatery. Their second, less benign example came when a particularly salacious bit of gossip about Aunt Addy was revealed to someone who wished leverage on her.

    The fourth and perhaps most damning piece of information was that, as their earlier hypotheses had surmised, the machine was fueled by the power of wishes. Furthermore, as it received and fulfilled more and more wishes (every member of both families demanded a turn), the machine was growing.

    They weren't certain how it was doing it, until they caught its request for spare parts in between a question about the weather and a rather personal inquiry. But the machine seemed to be bribing their families into playing stevedores to its expansion.

    It was a little worrisome; the thing seemed to be displaying a mind of its own. Ruan did not truly begin to grow concerned, however, until she caught a younger cousin trying to attach a box to the machine; the box appeared to be mewing.

    "It wanted the purr," the child told her.

    "That's it." She glared at the machine and, by extension, Johias. "This is either being dismantled for parts or going back in your museum -- preferably behind glass."

    "Do you think glass would be strong enough?" Johias muttered. "I'm not even sure dismantling it will be enough."

    The machine whirred and spit out a card.

    Wait.
    Wait.
    I can give you anything you wish for.
    Please do not dismantle me!

    They shared a look, and, carefully, Ruan took the mewing box from her cousin. "We put it in the basement," she decided. "In the 'dangerous things' vault. And no more kittens," she told the machine. She felt a bit silly, speaking to it like a naughty child, until it whirred again.

    I will be good.
    I will be good.

    "That," she sighed, "is what I am worried about."

    Lyn Thorne-Alder lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York State with her husband and their flesh-eating cat. When she's not writing or working her day job, she enjoys hiking gorges and old cemeteries, knitting, sewing, drinking wine, and watching the geekiest television she can find.
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