A Short Story by Sadie Maskery
It found her, the last woman, snug in a pod, orbiting the planet in a hunk of pitted metal that had faithfully protected her from the universe for near eternity. As it gently tugged the landing sequence into play, the holographic console flared briefly. “Oh, this seems – ” it said, and initiated life support sequences.
“Genie is a recognised species. All the stories throughout time, all the sightings, it’s like any magic,” the hologram said. “Pre the Second Fall, reality was only what was in the numbers. Afterwards, between them, beyond them, all the potentialities became possibilities. Enough possibilities you get probabilities. And after the Third Fall -” he stopped, uncomfortable talking of the Third Fall to the last known survivor. “And that was the biggest spike of magical energy ever recorded according to my databank. And recorded by me,” it sounded quite proud.
“So why am I here?” she asked, sipping her tea.
“To make wishes. If you make a wish, even accidentally, it comes true. What happens next depends on the motivation behind the wish, but the main aim of a genie is the destruction of mankind. Which, as things stand, is you. Wish for rescue and it will result in a future even more hellish than this. Wish for happiness, you perhaps become a psychopath who takes pleasure in the destruction of the universe. Your extinction, physical and spiritual. They are not happy bunnies. And they are sneaky. Set some ground rules. We will get out of this.”
So when she found the lamp conveniently placed on the stump of a pillar it wasn’t a surprise. She shrugged, rubbed. A puff of desiccated deathsmell, ghost dust, and then a crushing sonic roar that knocked her to her knees. He came out screaming, howling, words that had not been heard for millennia, anguished howls of betrayal and pain, why hast thou forsaken, such bestial hate, such despair. Eyes of hellfire and agony. She sat quietly holding the lamp until dusk as he flew through the ruins, battering against walls with bruised wings like a moth against lantern glass. Finally he stilled, lungs heaving, thunderous, a fallen colossus, at her feet.
They watched each other for a moment or two and considered what they saw. No threat, thought the genie. A woman. Tired. Young. Obviously from a time massively into the future from his last call to this universe. She did not seem shocked by his appearance, that was odd, but nor was she magic herself. Poor thing, she thought. So much power. So much unhappiness.
“Before you say anything,” she said, laying a tentative but quelling hand on his massive knee (as far up as she could reach) “Any statement I make that could be assumed to be a wish should not be acted upon unless the terms of that wish have been agreed upon by both parties, and ratified by my ship’s hologram. Who does not, to put it mildly, trust you. If I say oh, I wish I had a cup of tea and you provide that cup of tea, that is totally up to you, but it does not count towards any deal that you propose on the whole ‘three wishes, but careful what you wish for, monkey’s paw type twist in the narrative’ scenario you are cooking up. I rubbed the lamp with no motive other than to see what we were up against and to prevent any accidental rub and wish malarkey, not because I want anything. Is that all right? Having said that, if it was in your power to be more my size, I feel we would be able to communicate more effectively. Your species scares me, but size is not the issue, you can be scary and smaller. It’s just I won’t have a crick in my neck.”
“-” said the genie. He allowed the form he took to shift and diffuse, some of the arms fading to nothing, shrinking to human height, reducing the colours of his skin to the visible spectrum and settling on a respectable purple. “I am male,” he said, politely. “Would you prefer an alternative?”
“No.” She smiled briefly and turned away from him.
“What is your desire?” he asked.
“Nothing. I rubbed to check if you were there. I assume this -” she gestured at the ancient ruins, blackened glass rivers where the sand had fused during some unimaginable fiery blitzkrieg, scrubby mounds hinting at trenches, fortifications, battlements, slaughter – “was your work? Or are there more of you? More lamps to watch out for?”
He closed his eyes in concentration.
“I am all there is in this potentiality. At this point. It has been…” he paused “…many of your understanding of years since I last manifested a wish. This point within the space time continuum is still earth. I sense humanity underwent disruption and a small degree of evolution, and is now extinct. Magic is extant, barely. And you are alone. Do you desire another lamp, is that your wish?”
“What are you wanting from me?” she asked. “Just so we are clear. The three wishes?”
“As has always been the case in this version of time, a genie – you know I am a genie, I assume your hologram has informed you of that -“
“Hob. I call him Hob. Do you have a name?”
“Not in your words – is called from his prison, according to the rules of the game a lamp -“
“A very nice lamp. Lovely patina. May I call you something?”
“You rubbed the lamp. You are entitled to three wishes. I am constrained to accept your conditions for granting of wishes, if you make your first wish the wish that I accept them. Is that your first wish?”
“My wish, my only wish without Hob here, is that, yes. Other than that you are free to go. Please let me know a name though.”
The genie smiled mirthlessly. “Whim.”
He raised his hands and a small mist formed in the air. It vibrated, flew between the genie and woman, then dissipated with a satisfied pop.
“I manifested your wish. It was mainly administrative, so small, of its kind.”
“It doesn’t just come true?”
“Truth is relative. I am a conduit. Magic is not bound by human rules but there are rules to Their game. All effects have to be considered before their expedition.” The genie hesitated. “This is an explanation almost entirely inaccurate but the best fit to this reality. May I …apologise for my initial behaviour. It had been – too long.”
“Quite understandable. What happened here?”
The genie scanned the shattered land.
“The third wish was for triumph over the world. It was unspecific. Complications arose.”
“You were a naughty boy,” she said, but without malice. If not the genie, some other doom. It always ended in hate and war. She was tired. This was her fate, then, to fossick in the detritus of Armageddon. “It was uncovered – you were uncovered – by a massive magical storm, according to my ship. I mean, massive. You have probably been buried and uncovered hundreds of times. This time I was here to find you.”
“I was not…naughty. I have been created with a purpose. I have no choice but to fulfil my function. But,” Whim added, “My thanks. Your presence is a happy coincidence for me.”
“Isn’t it,” she replied, dryly. “I’m Mia, by the way. I seem to have come out of hibernation unnaturally sanguine about this situation. But if you don’t mind, I would like some privacy now.”
“Is that your wish?”
She gazed at him and the pain in her eyes made him recoil. It so nearly matched his, ageless. Haunted. He nodded and drew himself together to return to the lamp.
“No, I wouldn’t ask that of you. I might get run over by a bus and you end up trapped for another million years. Just, somewhere else.”
“Bus. You are an archaeologist.” He left, the conventional way. And she took herself to the corner and wept.
It was a couple of days later. She let the grief wash over and drown her. The last woman. The last human. The last, the last. No future. She wept until the sobs that wracked her body left her stomach bruised, no tears to fall, only dry, heaving wails. Her throat was raw and dry. Her fists were cramped with clenching and her knuckles bled where she scraped them on the rock to feel a different kind of pain, any pain other than this fear. It left her a frail shell that staggered on facing the weight of dawn. She returned to the ship and buzzed Hob.
“Don’t waste me,” it warned, straight away. “I’ve finished running diagnostics and that was a timely landing. Much longer and we would have been a morgue. We have energy but no replacement parts.”
“What do I do?” she asked it.
Hob hummed. “Live.”
“There is always hope. A twist in the tale. We are in a loop, I think. Something is playing with us. But it is not malicious. Neither benevolent. Live. See what transpires. There is an energy source from your genie pal that has its own signature. No wishes without me, let me run hypotheticals before you decide anything. And don’t trust him. The lamp has an energy signature as well, stay clear.”
“Well, fuck. That’ll be the magic I guess. Don’t waste away just yet, sweet Prince.”
She headed for the galley and looked at the food reserves.
“Manageable. But why so much tuna pasta?”
“Do you require a different source of protein?” he asked, looking over her shoulder.
“Jesus, don’t do that.”
“Is that your wish?”
“No. I am taking inventory. I don’t know how long I have to stay here.”
“Until you die. There is no one to rescue you. Unless you wish it. Is that your wish?”
“No…. No. No. I thought of it, believe me. Hob is right, there is something going on. I want to work things out.”
She walked back out of the ship, the genie following, and pointed at a green shoot poking through a crack the weight of the ship had made in the fused sand.
“See that, Whim. That is hope. That wasn’t there before.”
It was weeks later. They sat together in a decently made dwelling, part hut, part recycled hull, with curved windows looking away from the landing site towards far hills.
She was tired, pleasantly so, and stretched her shoulders with a groan.
“Oh that hurt. I know I figured for enough crop in a couple of years to complement the ship supplies but do you think we ought to store the harvest for seed for three years not two? What’s the likelihood of another big storm? I worry about contingency plans, Hob says we are doing everything right according to the data, but you’re the magic guy, what are we missing, anything?”
“No,” Whim said, shortly. “It is time I retired. I will return to the lamp unless you require further hoeing assistance. I do not understand why you do not want me in my primal form, I could farm much more swiftly and it would be less painful. “
“Oh Whim! You never have to go in the lamp again. And you don’t have to help at all unless you want. The drones are fine for years, they are practically indestructible. Hob can plan basic things without too much stress, I don’t need you.”
“Then what is my purpose? What is the point of me?”
“To live. I am sorry, I spoke badly. I do need you.”
“I am a slave in a lamp. My kind is at war with yours, I must grant wishes and ensure they are the architect of your doom. That is why I exist, to destroy your race. This – this -” he gestured contemptuously at their cosy quarters – “Is not why I was sent to this reality.”
“Whim,” said Mia gently. “Just how many genie are there?”
“I am all there is, in this potentiality, at this point. I have told you.”
“At this point. Does that mean in space, in time, in this moment, this universe?”
“At this point, ” he repeated, and drew himself into vapour and disappeared into the lamp.
“Whim. Are you the last genie?” she asked, but the lamp did not answer, being a lamp.
She went to visit Hob in the pod they had created from the ship’s bridge. Solar powered units were banked around the console and a faint aura of hot metal wavered above its fascia. She had used insulation panels and coolant paks to channel excess heat and ensure ventilation, but Hob was running hot, there was no denying.
“He is angry,” she told it sadly.
“We are treating him as one of us,” said Hob. “Not a god or monster, or enemy. It confuses him, unconditional kindness. Well -” it hummed a little. “I still don’t trust him. Does he still ask if things are your desire?”
“No. He hardly speaks at all. I’m going to let him out again.”
“Be careful,” warned Hob. “He can’t hurt you, but his energy aura is erratic. Something is off kilter. “
She rubbed the lamp. Whim manifested, in his gigantic elemental form.
“Please come back to me, Whim?”
“Is that your wish? Hob is present, do you wish to make it a formal command?”
“No. I miss you. “
“You miss me. You miss me. I am your nemesis, Mia. I exist to obliterate your kind from the face of this planet.”
“My kind WAS obliterated from the face of this planet. I didn’t ask to be brought down. I am alone here, all I have is you, and Hob is -“
“Running down,” added Hob, helpfully.
“I am alone,” Mia repeated. “I need a friend.”
“I. Am Not. Your friend,” spat Whim, and he roared out of the compound, expanding with a boom. “NOT. YOUR. FRIEND.” A whirlwind, a raging twister, magic-made cloud of fury, he shrieked across the sky. He rose taller than a skyscraper from the old tales, a cumulonimbus of inchoate wrath, spiralling and contorting as if once again newly released after aeons, but now, Mia wondered, why now the anguish?”
“You make him question his whole raison d’etre,” said Hob. “How can he destroy something he cares about? It would be less worrying if he had headed away from the fields, however.”
“Oh fuck, not the crops,” she cried, and bolted to the edge of the homestead.
Whim was a dark mass heading to the horizon and behind him, beneath him, the green shoots from the ship’s seeds lay crushed and mangled in the field he and Eva had scratched from the sand and dirt with the help of the drones.
He came back that night, in his human form. Mia looked as frail as in the first days after touchdown. Her eyes were pools in dark hollows, her skin almost translucent. She looked at him.
“I hate you,” she said. “I wish you were dead. I hate you so much.”
“Is that your desire? Is it your wish that I die? Shall I go to Hob?”
“Yes. I wish you were DEAD,” she ran to him and hammered at his chest with her fists. “I hate you I hate you what have you done I was your friend Whim, why, why do you despise me so much, it was such a small thing, so small, o god such a small hope.” She laughed hysterically. “Just a little green. Just a little chance for something fresh and sweet not scraped from a pack, I wish I was dead I wish I was dead I want to die I can’t, not any more, I can’t do this, I can’t ah I can’t bear this why do you hate me, just let me die.” And she beat him, sobbing, and he held her away from himself in self protection but then sighed, relaxed and let the blows land, until she fell against him and his arms embraced her, and “Mia, oh god Mia I am sorry, forgive me I am sorry, so sorry, I didn’t mean, I can’t any more, let me die, wish it my love, wish it before I hurt you, I can’t, I can’t ” and she held him, and they stood in the darkness, her tears a dampness on his cheek. The awareness of the warmth between them grew heavy. Whim froze to stillness. An eternity. A heartbeat. The tick of the universe. The lamp glinted and seemed to shift in the flickering firelight. “Mia.”
She reached her hand to his head and drew her fingers through his hair until he bent under her touch. “I can’t ” he whispered and felt her lips brushing his with each word. “Oh god. We can’t.”
“Yes.” Hob hummed and there was a staccato tick beneath the sound. “There are various reports throughout written history. Often the djinn seduces a women forcibly in the course of some temple ritual, perhaps as, or instead of, an offering or sacrifice being made to dark forces in an attempt to guarantee an heir. Mistaken identity. A trick. A lie. A betrayal. It is a way for a genie to attain the destruction of a family or lineage.”
“Love?” asked Mia.
“You are both the last of your kind, forced together on a planet in the twilight of its existence. You face loneliness, boredom, death by tuna casserole and ultimately the extinction of your species. Any emotional outpouring at this juncture must be taken as a very specific definition of the word ‘love’.”
“What do we do?”
“You are asking me a question when you already intend the answer to be ‘wish for a successful union’. I could state myriad objections. We already know that such a wish will be twisted to a negative outcome.”
“But I wish it, too,” said Whim. “The genie always manifests the wish with a desire and intention for destruction. I will manifest it with love. This woman loves me. She saved me. I love her. She is…. Oh god Mia, you are…you are my reason to live. I love you. You deserve so much more than I can give you. But let me try to give you happiness.”
Mia held him, eyes brimming.
“I wish it.” If a console could shrug, Hob would have shrugged.
“I approve the wish. But it won’t end well,” it added, unheard, as a mist flowed from nothing between Whim and Mia, gyrated and bellowed frantically and washed across both their faces.
“This is not like the first wish,” Mia gasped.
“The game is having to reconfigure. We are both having to change. There is perturbation,” Whim shouted, as the mist started to sing, a wordless birdcall that resonated from the metal of the lamp, echoing in the city ruins and expanding into the air. The whole sky began to fill with sound, pure yet strident. There was an urgency to it that thrummed in their blood.
“WHAT is perturbed?” asked Hob, “WHO?”
“The Other,” sighed Whim, and fell. Mia slumped beside him. The mist settled over them and seemed almost to fuss at their unconscious bodies before seeping into their flesh.
“It won’t end well,” said Hob again.
And yet. And yet.
The next few years were bliss. Hob settled into a state barely above stasis to preserve remaining function, undisturbed by the lovers, who kept the pod scrupulously clean and at optimal temperature for Hob’s degraded circuitry. The crops grew. It took another season and much anxious husbandry for the surviving sprouts to produce viable food, but eventually Mia and Whim knew that the ship’s supplies were relegated to emergency rations once more. Hob could have told them that the magical field continued to flicker like a questing flame around their auras, but Hob never answered unasked questions now. The lamp remained on its shelf, and Mia kept it shining.
“It was not the lamp’s fault it was your jailor. It had to fulfil its function just as you did. It is free now as well, to just be a lamp not a prison. And it’s pretty. Lovely patina,” she whispered to it.
“It is a guardian as well,” Whim told her. “It has a connection with the Other. I could hear it whimper in my madness, in the years of darkness.”
“Could it hear you?”
“Perhaps. Like a dog. Or a camel.”
“In my time, animals had souls,” said Mia gently.
“I have much still to learn of your time,” said Whim, kissing her. “And you mine. And now, this is our time.”
The lamp said nothing, being a lamp, but Mia gave it an extra caress before placing it next to Hob.
Hob could tell it was winter when the console was booted up, it could feel the frost. “Good,” it said sleepily, “cold circuits are more efficient.”
“They’re dying,” said Whim, and Hob snapped into full operation.
“Mia. The baby. Our baby is so still, so still, I think she couldn’t…it wouldn’t. We tried so hard, I didn’t want to hurt them. She got so tired. The blood. We need you.”
“Can she come to me?”
“No, it’s too late. She will die if I move her.”
“Then the mountain will have to come to her,” said Hob. “Can you rig one power unit?”
“You will fail.”
“I am already failing. This will shut me down, yes. But my functionality was already fatally compromised. I was dreaming. I never knew a machine could dream. I am dying. Take me to them.”
“I can’t make a wish,” said Mia, smiling at them. “A human one always fails. Although I am not quite human any more, and my daughter, she is definitely not human. She is still here, I feel her.”
Whim stifled his cry against her breast.
“No. Don’t, my darling. We made our choice. We knew the wish would twist on us and bite. But don’t you see, it gave us happiness. It gave us hope. And it hasn’t quite taken it away. We are here, and our baby is here too, in this moment, in this place.” She sighed. “This potentiality. I grant you my wish, Whim. You can be free now. No humans left to destroy, it’s over, you can be free and the game is done. Take the wish. “
“Without you there is no freedom. Without our child what hope is there? I can wish for you to come back to me but how would it work, what horror would it make of us? How do I wish, what can I do. Hob, what can I do?”
“Ask your makers,” said Hob, faintly, and Whim let loose a primal howl that shook the earth. “And hurry,” Hob added as the elemental that was Whim subsumed himself into the lamp’s maw.
“But you renounced your reason for existence,” said the Other. Whim felt the lamp around him. It seemed to nudge his leg but it stayed silent.
“The reason was no longer there. I existed to destroy mankind. Mia and I loved each other and became something else, genie and mortal together, so we could be one. Our child was born…could be born…of love, not hate. I fulfilled my destiny. Humanity as you define it is gone. My wish is only to save the family I love.”
“By saving them you preserve part of that which the Other decreed you must destroy. That was the game. Any wish you make must ultimately doom them. There is an escape, we wait for one to find it.”
“Any wish a human makes must doom them. I am the genie. What happens when the genie makes the wish?”
An eternity, a heartbeat, a tick of the universe. The Other replied.
“We offer possibility. Return to the beginning. A different reality, gamble anew. Perhaps different rules. Maybe the smallest difference in the rub of the lamp will lead to an different outcome. The possibility of joy.”
“But the possibility of doom also?”
“We promise neutrality, the chance will be even. But you will not remember this. Back to the beginning in all ways. We reload the game.”
Hob ticked a final benediction as Whim gently grasped Mia’s hand. Blood stained their intertwined fingers but Mia smiled.
“Make a wish, my love.”
“Oh, this seems – ” it said, and initiated life support sequences.
The woman stepped from the ship onto the ground. Some hideous heat had fused the sand to glass, but there were cracks where time had weathered the rock, and frail green shoots peered at the sun.
“See that, Hob,” she murmured. “That’s hope.”