Freezing spirits of Air

by Matthew Skala


My cat watches me from his patch of sunlight. No familiar spirit this year; just an ordinary cat, black and sleek and wise in the manner of cats. Does he feel my pain? I have heard that cats have a similar disease, a slow waning of the body's defenses. But can he comprehend my unique fear?

When I was young and immortal I feared nothing; but in eight centuries I have grown wiser. Even as I advanced my position, removing my enemies one by one, I was learning the price of such advancement. Wizards have long memories, I know this; even dead ones. I fear not death but who waits for me on the other side.

Virgins are not what they used to be, nor their blood the potion of life it was when I first performed the ritual atop my tower centuries ago. Virginity is not actually required; only it serves to reduce the chance of disease. Last century it was syphilis. In this damned time a needle's prick is as dirty as a man's. Too, the full moon has lost her healing virtue, defiled by men's footprints. Now full again she peers in my window.

Killing does not become easier with practice. The girl seemed so young, an innocent waif new on the street, probably running from who knows what trouble at home. Carrying the body to my laboratory I told myself I was saving her from an unpleasant and short life. The newspaper only confirmed my fears; I knew my mistake as soon as the chalice touched my lips, but already too late.

"JUNKIE STREET KID SLAIN". They do not print "and good riddance", but it is clear as an invisible rune. Such hypocrisy. Like me; I know the value of a life all too well yet still place my own above all others, because what else can I do? I am too old, but cannot turn back now. I sigh and turn to more modern things.

The television never ceases to amaze me. True, I could once create phantasms a thousand times more real, but the box works entirely without magic. Maybe the world really is too old for my work, when people make their own magic this way. Feeling like a relic I watch a show on the latest developments of science. What else to do with my now-finite time?

The researcher places a greyish disk on a saucer, then pours fuming liquid over it. Carefully he balances a magnet - on nothing at all. It floats suspended above the saucer. I am aware of trick photography and similar means to deceive the mind, but I can also sense the truth of what I see. Truly, magic without magic!

The show's host asks about the liquid, but I recognize the stuff. Freezing spirits of Air would be my name for it; the old names are so much more poetic than today's systematic descriptions. It is useless in alchemy because it makes the glassware break. There is a blur of childish explanation.

But one statement gives me pause. In passing the researcher mentions the use of freezing spirits of Air in preserving specimens. With skill, he says, one can freeze a live thing colder than dead, and revive it later. "Some people are even arranging to be frozen at death, hoping that some day medical science will be able to bring them back."

He starts the old demonstration of shattering a rose, but I already have my pointed hat on and am walking, rapidly, to the public library. The beggars cease mumbling "spare change" and shy away from my flowing robes; fortunately the young librarian does not blink. I'm sure she has seen it all.

As she directs me to a CD-ROM database, inquiring solicitously whether I need "help with the commands? No?", I catch a fleeting impression of denial, suppressed longing. A month ago she would have suited my purposes admirably, but too late for that now, and in my soft old man's heart, I am as glad. The language of the computer is transparent to a mind accustomed to the words of demons. I quickly have the address I seek.

I am just one more rich eccentric to the interviewer. She quickly satisfies herself that I am at least partially sane and no undercover agent, so we proceed to details. The general public, who cannot afford the process, would prefer it be illegal. There are backup plans, conditional trust funds, bonds and penalties. I am given names of lawyers and accountants, and invited to fly to California and tour the "facility".

It will be a one-way trip. I know the minute ordained for my death, when my weakened body will finally succumb to the infections I can feel even now. This is one privilege of my profession. But nothing can predict the future infallibly, and I intend to change the rules. I have just time to close my tower and settle my affairs before stopping the clock.

My current residence was built before my birth by a wizard who later died by my hand. It stood before the red civilization rose on this continent and they kept three leagues distance in all directions. When the white civilization gained power they lost their wisdom and I was forced to place heavy wards on the tower rather than kill thousands.

From the outside it seems a ten-story office building in the heart of the city, and nobody allows himself to observe that it has no door. When I leave the concealment will break down eventually; in thirty or a hundred years time the residents of this city will be asking each other difficult questions about zoning ordinances.

No matter. My equipment is mostly sold as curios, the more dangerous items dematerialized, or, if indestructible, simply transported to remote wilderness areas. I have no qualms about leaving nasty surprises for the people of a time I will not see. I explain to my cat that he must find a new domain, and he does not look back.

No broom or ointment for me anymore; I fly to the coast on a commercial jet, crammed in a seat between two pathetic specimens. Sensing the tiny threads of their lives I am struck by the tragedy and magnificence of it all. My life left no room for romanticizing, and the last weeks have given me new perspective. I am met at the airport - the society would not risk having a new member mugged on his way to the facility.

A brisk young man leads me through rooms of equipment, pointing out amenities. I notice the ID tags at his wrist and throat and think, "Also a customer." But I wonder why. And not just for him, for all the hopeful frozen people in these flasks.

What can they fear so much to drive them to such lengths? I have just cause to fear death, but I know of no other wizards remaining. I let none live. And for those without such persistent enemies, death is but an eyeblink, I know this. Am I the only sane mind in this place, counting those under glass? There is sickness here more subtle than the virus I carry.

The brisk young man reminds me of myself when young and full of enthusiasm. For a moment I imagine I feel an aura of magic around him - but there has been no new magic born in the world in many decades. It died as I am dying, and any power this man wields must come from the new magic without magic. I shake the thought away and concentrate on his words. " Liechtenstein, where there is no Rule Against Perpetuities. We can put you in touch with them. Say, are you feeling all right?"

I claim tiredness and retire to a simple hotel. In my remaining time I make the necessary financial preparations, silently thanking the gods I deserted so long ago, for allowing man to invent compound interest. After centuries of magical investment, I need waste no more power on money. When my body cannot support itself I am admitted to a quiet private hospital.

Now I am in a white room, waiting. My robes have been taken from me, replaced by a shroudlike garment. There is a doctor near my head ready to pronounce the exact moment when by this world's laws I am a corpse. The suspension team is waiting with their needles and preservative solution. I can feel my enemies waiting too, can almost feel their breath on the back of my neck. These spirits have waited long for a cold dish of revenge. Cold indeed - I will cheat them one more time, suspended among other spirits, freezing spirits of Air.

[From April 1996.  Archived here:]

Solid Work

Thanks for posting this here. Really nicely done, a clever idea handsomely executed.


I agree

nicely written and imaginative.


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