We’re pleased to be able to bring to you today an excerpt from Ferrett Steinmetz’s debut novel, Flex (out March 3rd from Angry Robot Books)!
Here’s what the book is about:
FLEX: Distilled magic in crystal form. The most dangerous drug in the world. Snort it, and you can create incredible coincidences to live the life of your dreams.
FLUX: The backlash from snorting Flex. The universe hates magic and tries to rebalance the odds; maybe you survive the horrendous accidents the Flex inflicts, maybe you don’t.
PAUL TSABO: The obsessed bureaucromancer who’s turned paperwork into a magical Beast that can rewrite rental agreements, conjure rented cars from nowhere, track down anyone who’s ever filled out a form.
But when all of his formulaic magic can’t save his burned daughter, Paul must enter the dangerous world of Flex dealers to heal her. Except he’s never done this before – and the punishment for brewing Flex is army conscription and a total brain-wipe.
Read on for the excerpt!
Chapter 5: Sexing Chickens
On August 14th at 3pm, the clouds overhead turned a pestilent green, then rained thousands of frogs down onto Father Capodanno Boulevard . The National Weather Service estimated the frogs – later determined to be square-spotted pickerels – had been catapulted high into the air by a freak tornado that had touched down in a nearby pond.
This was not the weird part.
The weird part was the way the frogs were deposited by the side of Father Capodanno Boulevard; they dropped into place approximately twelve inches apart from each other in a row that stretched on for half a mile, cushioned by a fluke gust of wind before they would have splattered into the glass-strewn culvert by the side of the freeway. They all faced the opposite side of the road. It was as though the frogs had been deposited by a meticulous and eccentric storm in preparation for a race.
Which was exactly the case.
After standing stock-still for precisely six seconds, the frogs all leapt into the rush hour traffic in an amphibian ballet. Bleary truck drivers blatted their horns in surprise, skidding to one side; moms in minivans crushed frogs underwheel as their children screamed.
The frogs darted back and forth in vain attempts to reach the other side, in what should have caused an instant traffic jam. No one slowed down, though they stomped on the brakes; every on-board computer in every car on that rush hour road went haywire simultaneously, accelerating to an even fifty miles an hour. Drivers panicked. Some careened into the ditch, driving until their car smashed into the bordering wood of pollution-starved pine trees; others veered into the guardrails.
At first blush, the amphibious fatality rate shouldn’t have been high; the frogs were the size of a man’s palm and should have been safe unless squashed directly underneath a tire.
Except whenever any automobile passed over them, even a truck with what was later measured to be a twelve-inch ride height, the frogs were squashed into wet red heaps. Their shattered bones emerged arranged into rough skull-and-crossbones shapes.
This was still not the strangest thing. The strangest thing, recorded dutifully on police security tapes, was how the frogs all leapt in straight lines until they turned right or left – rotating at perfect ninety-degree angles .
Stapleton was a perfect neighborhood for a little covert ’mancy, Paul thought. What ’mancers wanted for Flex laboratories was cheap housing with big backyards for penning in the sacrifices.
And Stapleton had been a rising star back in the 1960s. The houses, painted in sunny colors, had been built to hold huge futures: sprawling porches to hold cocktail parties, chicken-wire-bounded gardens to grow tomatoes for hearty family meals, a big backyard for big golden retrievers to run in.
But the industry in Stapleton had dried up. The gardens were choked by weeds, the porches warped by years of rain, the sunny yellows reduced to peeling grays. Half the houses here had been repossessed; their unmowed lawns were now wild thatches choked with rusting Coors cans. The children of Stapleton wisely stayed inside, the bright pixelated worlds of their Wiis superior to anything this dismal exterior could offer.
Any dogs on those lawns are coming to bad ends, Paul thought, limping along the road. Someone’s using their Wii for more than gaming.
Paul limped down the road, feeling lucky to be out on the case. His stump rubbed blisters inside the misfit cup, and though the motor in his ankle helped steady his gait, he’d be lucky to get four hours of walking from a full charge. Yet there was only one real way to track down a Flex lab: on foot.
He always thought of chickens when he hunted ’mancers. Mainly because of how he’d explained it to his daughter Aliyah.
“It’s… hard to explain,” he’d told her. “Finding magic is kind of like sexing chickens.”
“What?” Imani had grinned, shoving her latest case aside to kick her feet up on the desk. “This, I gotta hear.”
“What’s a sex chicken, Daddy?” Imani and Paul had both cracked up —a good, clean laughter, one that had probably added two months to their marriage.
“Not a sex chicken, sweetie,” Paul had explained, calming Aliyah’s laughter-inspired outrage. “You know there are boy chickens and girl chickens, right?”
“Technically, ‘boy chickens’ are roosters, sweetie.”
“I am aware, my sweet wife. Anyway, when chickens are born, they’re small fluffy bundles that are – well, about the size of an egg. So you know how people tell which chickens are girls?”
“No….” Aliyah sat still, attentive. She loved learning new things.
“Well, you get a job as a chicken sexer. And on your first day on the job, an experienced chicken sexer sits behind you. And with a magnifying glass, you look at the tiny fuzzy chick-butt.”
Aliyah burst out into giggles. “Chick-butt.”
“Yup. And you look. And the chicken sexer behind you says, ‘Girl.’ And you pick up another chick, which looks exactly the same, and the chicken sexer says, ‘That’s a boy.’”
“But how does the chick sexer know?” Aliyah asked.
“That’s the trick! Even the chicken sexer can’t explain how he knows. But sit with the chicken sexer for a week, and after a while, you start being able to tell! Eventually, you’ll look at a chicken butt and think, ‘That’s a girl.’ And you’ll have no way of knowing why you know that. But after seeing enough boy chick-butts and enough girl chick-butts, the back of your mind knows how to tell the difference, even if the front of your mind can’t explain it.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re telling her this story just so you can use the word ‘chick-butt’,” Imani said, leaning back on her elbow, radiating bemusement.
“No, this is completely true,” Paul shot back.
“Don’t make me go to Snopes.com, my love.”
“Go to Snopes. Go to Wikipedia. Go to the American Organization of Chicken Sexers , if you like. They’ll tell you the same.” He knelt before Aliyah, quashing the irritation that Imani was contradicting him in front of their daughter. “But that’s what magic’s like, sweetie. ’Mancers are rare – I’ve hunted them for almost a decade, and met maybe thirty – but see enough magic, and you get its feel.”
It was a partial truth. His boss Kit hadn’t been able to see ’mancy, no matter how many cases they’d investigated. Still, Paul chuckled; for months afterwards, Aliyah solemnly told everyone she met that “My daddy uses magic to sex chickens.”
And now Aliyah was burned, and he needed to master his own newfound magic before he could help her.
Paul looked along the row of gambreled roofs, the dry yards pinned with forlorn “FOR SALE” signs. After yesterday’s frog shower, there was some chicken-sexing going on around here, for sure. The cops were looking everywhere within a five-mile radius, but they didn’t know what to look for. You had to feel the ’mancy.
He quashed a concern: What if Anathema had moved on after he’d shit the bed and caused all that chaos? Maybe. But ’mancers down on their luck enough to need a Flex lab usually found it difficult to move all their accoutrements. And Anathema–
That house set his chicken sense a-tingling.
Paul strolled by a three-story house with a sagging porch, trying to figure out what had set off his alarms.
The first evidence was simple police work: though there was a “For Sale” sign in the front yard, the first-floor windows were propped open to let in a breeze.
A ’mancer called this place home. Paul was sure of it. The same ’mancer who’d made the Flex that had burned his daughter. The rain of frogs came when this sonuvabitch had lost control trying to freeze his magic within hematite, and flung the damaging weirdness as far away as possible.
That’s what this ’mancer would teach him: to master his magical backlash, so he wouldn’t hurt anyone else.
He popped open the Pepsi bottle he’d brought along, as if he was an old handicapped man who needed to cool off. He sipped the lukewarm soda, checking for obvious ’mancy signs: the glint of a copper wire running around the perimeter of the yard, a large pile of rust.
No such luck. But the yellowed grass in the yard…
…Paul squinted over the decaying picket fence. The uneven grass sprouted in thatchy clumps. But those three dandelions over here, bobbing in the breeze? They had three identical dandelions five feet to the left, their fuzzy white heads bouncing to the same rhythm. That mounded anthill over there? The exact same anthill existed five feet over, the ants running in the same direction.
The entire yard was one five-foot square of bad lawn that had been copied and pasted. A side effect of the magic this ’mancer was trying, inefficiently, to distill.
He reached down to flick a stem of wheatgrass; the others quivered in time. Paul marveled; he’d never seen a cloned landscape before. Then again, he’d never seen most magics. Only the army had standardized magic into Unimancy; everyone else fixated on unique hobbies, blossoming pastimes into power.
Inside was the ’mancer who had harmed his daughter. A man ramping towards mass killing. A man not afraid to murder.
I should call the cops.
His job as an insurance investigator existed because people disliked being told their Mercedes wasn’t covered for frog-related weather accidents. They tended to sue, claiming that this wasn’t magic and hence covered by their insurance. Samaritan Mutual’s legal shark tank had found you could pay amphibian experts and meteorologists to argue exactly how unlikely an event this had been…
…or they could send Paul out to tip the cops toward a ’mancer bust. Which gave Samaritan massive goodwill with local judges to boot.
That was what Paul was supposed to do: get the location, point the local authorities there, oversee the capture.
But following orders would not get his daughter’s face fixed.
So, instead, he looked at the house and saw it not as a structure of wooden beams and plaster but a piece of property – purchased from a bank, subject to a thousand regulatory codes. The house generated bills from electrical companies, water companies, sewage companies, mortgages, every expenditure dutifully recorded…
… Paul felt the Beast shift back at his office. Connecting to his unique magic, his bureaucromancy, felt like flexing a muscle in another city.
Paul envisioned filling out the forms. In dusty rooms, the forms materialized, words appearing on them as though via invisible typewriters. Then he took out a small pad of paper and signed it, activating the magic.
Complete house blueprints materialized in Paul’s mind – both the original plans and the attic addition authorized in 1974. Based on that layout, the basement would be the best place to make Flex.
Could he sneak into the basement?
His prosthetic foot’s motorized whir broke the silence as he opened the front door. The living room revealed a stained carpet with a couple of old Burger King cups toppled over in the corner, a scattering of pennies where a couch used to be.
He had to verify this ’mancer’s skills first. No sense learning from a man who knew less than he did.
Paul slipped through a grimy kitchen and down the narrow stairwell to the basement. The only noise was his stupid artificial foot, whirring as it repositioned his ankle joints on each step. It seemed louder than ever, as if trying to speak: Hey, remember what happened the last time you went head-to-head with a ’mancer? That’s right; you lost your foot ad you got me!
It didn’t matter. He needed to see the magic. Partially to verify, and partially because… well, he’d been always lured to magic’s beauty, a moth to the fire–
–Aliyah’s face melting in a caul of flame–
The basement had once been a 1970s-style man-cave, complete with faux wood paneling and a tiki bar. The liquor bottles had been removed from the glass shelves, replaced by neat stacks of plastic boxes.
It was a wall of videogames: gray Nintendo cartridges, white Sega Dreamcast games, green Xbox games…
It had the jumbled love of a child’s bedroom, each game battered from being shoved into its console a thousand times. This wasn’t just a game collection; it was an altar to gaming itself.
The murky basement windows turned sunlight into shadow. Paul used his cell phone as an impromptu flashlight.
A sixty-inch flatscreen had been mounted on the wall. Several consoles were wired into a connection box, ready to switch channel input from the GameCube to the PlayStation 4 at the touch of a button. A comfortable leather chair rested before this altar, the leather cracked with the indentation of a meaty ass. Crumpled Red Bull cans lay scattered around the chair.
Paul felt the echoes of his own obsession in this place. The entire room revolved around this one interaction: a man, in a seat, and the game before him.
And the Flex-making equipment in the corner.
Paul had seen it all before… but now he could potentially make Flex, that equipment was laden with uncomfortable possibilities. There were sacks of crushed industrial-grade hematite, spilling their glittery brown treasure into the shag – illicit merchandise worth thousands.
Did this ’mancer know what he was doing? The Flex tools laid in heaps along the floor – the bingo machine, the alembic, the blood-letting knife —
But where were the siphon’s copper wires? If Anathema didn’t have a way to whisk excess bad luck away, then he was an amateur. Call in the SMASH team and be done with him.
No, Anathema had to have a siphon. These were old games, from a man who’d gamemancered for decades. And judging by the raw force he’d channeled with yesterday’s live-action Frogger recreation, his flux – the magical backlash – would be as fatal.
Come on, man, Paul thought, searching for wires, you wouldn’t risk the house collapsing on your head. You’d lay in something preplanned to go wrong if the distillation got out of control.
That’s why most Flex-brewers had pets. For the bad luck to be truly bad, it had to happen to something you loved. Get a dog, put it in the back yard, run the copper wire so when the freak accident hit, the flux flowed along the path of least resistance.
Didn’t have to be your dog. Just something you loved. Some ’mancers used their mothers.
Then Paul found it: a thin loop of copper wire running from underneath the chair, where the proper sigils had been engraved, leading to the videogame shelves.
That’s what you love most, Paul thought. Your collection. He filed that knowledge away, trying to reconcile “a love of videogames” with “a love of mass murder.” He peered in – were they violent videogames? Was he–
The crunch of tires on gravel.
A door, slamming.
Paul brought the plans to mind, hunting for another escape route. None. Stupidly, he’d holed himself up in this basement. Now he’d have to face down a more experienced ‘mancer —
–with his foot. His stupid, missing foot.
A cheerful burp. A rattle of cans, shoved into the fridge. Then footsteps, skipping down the stairs. The ’mancer whistled the Super Mario tune.
A strange sense of clarity stole over Paul. All his other options had sublimed away, leaving nothing but a bold con. If it failed, he died.
He plunged his hands into his pockets, standing as dramatically as he could in the far shadows. He was glad he’d worn his suit today – it made him more imposing.
The ’mancer hit the lights. Fluorescents flickered on.
She gazed at Paul with mascaraed eyes.