“The Way Things Work”
by Tom Jolly
The last guy we worked with said he could make daisies fall from the sky. It wasn’t an impressive power by any means. Maybe he could distract a bank robber for a few seconds while one of the high-octane superheroes came in and finished the job. “Guys, guys, look at the pretty flowers!” Then, pow, pieces of bank robber all over the lobby. I didn’t see that scenario happening.
And his name was Bill Schwartz, not really superhero material either, but a lot of them use fake names anyway, so we could fix that.
I ran Better Hero, Inc. Our task was to take wimpy powers and find out if there was some underlying functionality in the science behind the power that turned them into real blockbusters. Our business model was simple. We paid the weak supes to come in and be tested. Zero risk, mostly, except for the contract. If they started raking in the big bucks, then above a certain amount we’d get 10% of their income forever. That was all income: speaking gigs, books, derivative products like dolls and t-shirts, licensing fees, and getting hired to actually risk your life acting like a superhero that cared.
Frankly, the real money was in the promotion. Saving people on a burning ship didn’t really pay the bills, mostly because there was a lot of competition for the open contracts.
Bill, the daisy dude, didn’t look like a daisy dude. He looked like a fireman who could carry two people at once down a ladder, with hands that could pinch off the water flow in a firehose. His face looked like it could scare the fire into submission with his ice-blue eyes. He wasn’t a fireman, though. He was a CPA. I so wanted him to do my taxes. Anyway, if we could find something to turn this guy into a powerhouse, he’d be a gold mine for the firm.
“We want to run some tests on you, of course,” I told him.
“Any needles involved? Pain in general?” Bill asked.
“No, Bill,” I said. “This first time around, I just want to set up some data recording instruments to monitor you while you do your thing. As long as creating daisies doesn’t hurt you, then we should be okay.”
“Alright,” he said.
We have a standard setup for matter creation. There are a lot of physical ways matter can be created, and none of them involve any violation of physical laws. That’s really how we stay in business. We know physics and the supers don’t. We know why their powers work. We know why and how they can fly. And while it looks like freaking magic from the ground, it never is.
Matter creation from “nothing” might be as simple as two gamma rays impacting to make a subatomic particle. You start with invisible light, and you make mass. There is pseudo-matter-creation where the matter is already there in the form of air, and the super is just manipulating the gas molecules in the air, building solids. And there are other tricks. So we look for the side-effects of those tricks to find out what’s really going on. Secondary radiation from particle creation, or specific photon emissions from chemical reactions.
We set up the monitor arrays on booms in our shielded test lab; it’s big and it’s strong and easy to hose down. Sometimes tests can get messy.
We put Bill in a plastic chair in the middle of the room, then retreated to the safety of a bulletproof observation booth. We had a good idea where the daisies would appear, and that’s where the monitors were stationed.
“Okay, Bill,” I said, “Make us some daisies.”
He stared into space and held up his hands, and daisies fell out of the air. Six of them. High-speed data recorders saw them crawl into existence with petals folded down, head first, followed by a stem, followed by a break or a bit of roots and dirt. The gravity gradient monitors spiked when each appeared, and spiked again when each finished manifesting, falling to the ground.
My coworker, Alicia, said, “What do you think, Jean?”
“Looks like he’s creating a wormhole,” I said. “Or wormholes. Based on the data stream, each daisy is causing a gravity spike.”
Now, people used to wonder how humans could possible create a wormhole, or move matter, or make things explode, using nothing but one’s own mind. And sometime in the past, humans couldn’t. The tiny electrical fields we produced by thinking just weren’t powerful enough to do anything, unless amplified with a lot of external tech. But then the whole solar system drifted into a cloud of dark matter, and lo-and-behold, we discovered that this material contained a link between thought and matter. Some of us could do incredible things just by thinking about it, willing it into reality.
After checking the hazard monitors: radiation, gravity fields, biotoxins, poison gas, explosives, and a few others, we entered the test chamber to smell the daisies.
“Kinda weird,” Bill said as we approached. “Normally, I’d get twenty or thirty flowers. Last time I only got ten. This time, only six. Am I losing my superpowers?”
I thought about telling Bill that the “super” part of that word didn’t really apply to what he could do. Not yet, anyway. I picked up one of the daisies, casually checking for possible alien parasites, but not really concerned about it. If he’d been doing this awhile, the alien bugs would have eaten his brain by now if they existed. I smelled it; it was just a daisy. There was still dirt clinging to the roots, implying that the wormhole exerted a pull, rather than just cutting it off at the stem. That was a good sign. If we could modify his skill to move humans, then it would be better if we didn’t cut their feet off as they were transported.
“You better hope you’re not losing your powers, my friend,” I replied. “That doesn’t make either one of us any money. Let’s try it again. We’ll activate targeting on the close-up cameras to see if we can get a visual through the wormhole. See where the daisies come from.”
“Come from? You mean, I’m not creating them?” he asked.
“I don’t believe so,” I replied. “It looks like they’re being pulled out of the dirt from somewhere. People who create things tend to make them all identical, and clean. These have roots with dirt on them. On the plus side, creating a wormhole is an awesome ability. Really powerful if we can find out what the heck is going on here. Let’s try it again.”
We ran the test again. Video couldn’t pierce the view through the wormholes; the hole conformed to the daisy’s surface; there wasn’t any background view to be had. And we only got two daisies that time.
“That’s not good,” I said in an aside to Alicia. “We might have to send this one home if his power’s used up.” It happened sometimes with powers tied to a limited resource.
We put Bill up in a nice hotel since he was from out of town, thinking there might be a chance he just needed to recharge. But we weren’t hopeful.
Alicia and I discussed his case with a box of eight daisies sitting between us.
“They’re wilting,” she said.
“They were probably just yanked out of the dirt somewhere today. We should have stuck them in some water.”
“Did you notice? They’re all the same species, and about the same size.”
“That would make sense,” I said, “if they came from a single garden.”
“That would also explain why they’re running out,” she said. “I’ll bet the gardener is pretty pissed off.”
“Enough to complain about his disappearing daisies on the internet?” I wondered.
It didn’t take long once we’d identified the species: Shasta Daisies, also known as leucanthemum. Fairly common, which made the search harder, but there was, in fact, a guy complaining on a gardening forum about an invisible gopher that was eating all his daisies. He’d tried all sorts of traps and poisons and was looking for suggestions, but nothing was working. He’d even posted an open contract on the superhero boards for $50, but didn’t have any takers to come find his invisible gopher for him. Not for $50.
We could actually collect that whopping $50, I thought, if we wanted to.
I flew out to talk to the guy, a Mr. Helmsworth (round trip cost us $255, just to put that $50 reward in perspective). There was a flower garden out in front of his house with a large variety of flowers, and a long bare patch where, I assumed, there used to be daisies. He asked me if I was a superhero, come to solve his problem, but I had to let him down. “No, sorry. I’m hear to ask you if you happen to know a fellow by the name of Bill Schwartz.”
“Are you a cop?” he asked.
I shook my head. “It might be related to your daisies.”
“Really?” He straightened his glasses and put a knuckle to his lips, looking pensive. “Eh, now, there was a boy next door, maybe ten or twelve years old, named William Schwartz. He and his Dad moved away shortly after his mother died. She liked daisies quite a lot; I used to give them to her all the time. Long gone now.” He sniffed. “I think William would be all grown by now.”
That established the anchor point and the reason. If Bill ran into puberty then, that’s often the time that a person’s powers first manifest, though he may not have used them until he was an adult, unaware that they were there. The trauma of his mother’s death might have triggered his powers. With some training, we could probably expand the size of the wormholes Bill was creating, and then he could move larger objects. He could become a useful teleporter with a bit of counseling.
Helmsworth offered me a cup of coffee and we chatted a little more, but most of it was idle, not important to the case. I left his house feeling like I’d made some serious progress.
Alicia and I sat down a week later with Bill Schwartz and we told him what we found out. “The reason you weren’t getting any more daisies was because you plucked them all. You weren’t creating them from nothing; you were tearing them from Mr. Helmsworth’s garden.”
Bill’s face darkened. “Helmsworth. Helmsworth. That name…”
“He lived next door to you when you were young. Said he used to give your mother flowers out of his garden on occasion. He said she really liked the daisies,” I said, trying to refresh his memories.
“Are you alright, Mr. Schwartz?” Alicia asked.
Sweat beaded his forehead, and his mouth twisted angrily. “Daisies! God-damned daisies, and Helmsworth! I remember now!” He gripped the arms of his chair and roared, and something hit me in the back of my head, scratching me. I looked to the floor and saw a rose with a long, thorny stem and then a hail of petunias and chrysanthemums and more roses and tulips and clods of moist dirt were materializing in the air above us, flowers and roots and clods pelting us and pouring down on our chairs and heads, and then with a loud thump, a disheveled man, glasses askew, landed on the floor between us with a gasp.
A confused Mr. Helmsworth struggled to stand up.
“You!” Bill shouted. “It was your damned dried-up flowers that started the fire!” He grabbed the smaller man and shook him.
Helmsworth whimpered. “But I loved your mother!” he cried. And if I could have come up with anything at all that would be worse to say to an angry man with dangerous superpowers right then, I can’t imagine what it would be.
Schwartz roared again and I felt heat behind me. I turned as a new, tiny wormhole started to spread open. A second anchor point? A second trauma? And I saw fire. I didn’t know where it was, but I knew that Helmsworth was just about to get sucked into it. At least it wasn’t the Sun; we’d all be dead now if it was. I glanced over at Alicia, but she was already slamming the Big Red Button on the desk.
The Load Master manifested in a fraction of a second. Open contract, on call 24 hours a day, a juicy gig for him, especially if we actually called on him. He’s got the weird ability of shutting off superpowers, a mental damper, if he gets close enough. And he can teleport.
The wormhole collapsed. The vengeful flames that had illuminated the room in flickering red were gone. Bill looked confused and dropped Helmsworth, then he sat and put his head in his hands. Helmsworth crawled over to the desk and put his back against it, staring fearfully at Bill. The Load Master stood off to the side and just waited until we told him it was okay to leave. We weren’t there yet.
“What’s with the fire, Bill?” I asked.
He looked up at me with tears in his eyes. “My mom died in a fire in our apartment. I was in school and Dad was at work. The firemen traced the fire to some dried-out flowers that fell from a vase into the furnace floor vent.” He pointed at Helmsworth. “His flowers. We moved after the fire. For some reason, I never associated his garden with the report about the flowers. I didn’t even see the report until I was much older. My dad didn’t want me to know how mom died. But when you mentioned his garden, it all clicked.”
“You know he didn’t mean for your apartment to burn down, don’t you?” Alicia asked. She happened to be a psychiatrist, but more importantly, she was a skilled empath and could talk people down when they were too riled up to think straight.
Bill Schwartz glared at Helmsworth where he was still cowering next to my desk. “Yeah,” he muttered, “I suppose I do.”
Helmsworth opened his mouth to say something and Alicia put her hand up, and he just sagged a little instead. Smart.
We never got to the point of asking Mr. Helmsworth what “I loved her” meant. Was he having an affair with Mrs. Schwartz? Or was it limited to gifts of flowers and unrequited love? For his sake, I hoped it was the latter. He was still alive a month later, so however it worked out must have been okay. Maybe Bill understood that as much as he despised Helmsworth, the guy probably tore himself apart with guilt every time the daisies bloomed in his yard, and yet he kept planting them year after year.
There was still the matter of us turning Bill into a money machine. He had two anchors to his teleportation. One was to a fixed location: Helmsworth’s front yard. The other was an event-limited floater. Ideally, it’s nice to have two open wormhole floaters for a true teleportation master, so you can drop the ends anywhere, but this rarely happened. The limited floater was connected to any fire that happened to be close by. Bill could push himself through the wormhole to reach the fire. Which, on the surface, doesn’t sound very smart. But once there, he could pull through anything that was in Helmsworth’s yard: flowers or dirt or whatever else happened to be there.
Carmen Hart, our financial wizard (not an actual wizard, but exceptional at her job), suggested we spend the cash to buy Helmsworth’s place and we worked out an agreement with the city to put in a Olympic-sized swimming pool there, 660,000 gallons, open to the public, with some caveats. There was one spot in the pool that wasn’t open for swimming, caged off, unless you felt like getting sucked into the middle of a raging fire. That one spot included a water-filled vertical shaft one-hundred feet deep.
We got Bill a job at the local fire department. They’d drive up close to a fire and he’d open a wormhole into the middle of the inferno. He had a fireproof suit and an oxygen tank, and he could step into hell-storms that would make any sane fire fighter think twice. And then he could connect his fixed anchor-point to the bottom of that one-hundred-foot-deep pool of water, creating a broad fire hose that floated in the air behind him. He could make it as big as he wanted, up to the width of the vertical shaft in the pool, while the rest of the swimming pool drained into that shaft.
Man, he could put out fires like nothing you’ve ever seen, including one poor bastard who happened to have a barbecue going too close to an existing fire. Or a fifty-acre brush fire.
We took a cut of his wages of course, but the real money was in the posters, books, action figures, and so on. We didn’t change his name; Bill Schwartz fit just fine.
Sometimes we get a good one. And everybody loves a fireman.
Tom Jolly’s stories have previously appeared in Analog SF, Daily SF, Compelling SF, New Myths, Mythic, and elsewhere.