12 min read

CHAPTER 02 : Cameron Green

Ending credits for The Cartel
The Butterfly Koi
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Last time: Fujiwara Eika and Toyama Misora ran into a dead end on their project, saw some surprising news about magic from across the world, and Eika decided she needed to step up and do some recruiting herself.
Cameron

I’m in the break room at work, watching the House vote on C-SPAN, when my portable buzzes.

Incoming call: Vanessa Green

“You’re up early,” I say after the call connects. It’s afternoon here in Minneapolis, which translates to pre-dawn in Tokyo.

“I set a Minotaur alert for when the voting started.” She pauses to stifle a yawn. “Drew didn’t want to get up, but I felt like I needed to see it live. Not every day that your country steps on a rake in front of the entire world.”

True, but my brother-in-law probably still has the right idea. I wouldn’t mind going back to bed, either.

“It’s only the House,” I reply uneasily as the yes tally ticks higher above the chyron HOUSE VOTES ON MAGIC BAN. “Will you have a briefing at work today?”

“Guaranteed. I don’t envy the guys in Public Affairs. Oof, even Rep. Wagner? He was part of the congressional delegation that visited us here at the embassy last month. I thought he had more sense.”

“Over 200 of them don’t have any sense.” The door to the break room opens, revealing my labmate, Chuck O’Connell. We exchange nods, and when he sees what’s on the TV, he slumps into the chair across from me. The last vote is cast, and the final numbers reflect what most pundits had predicted: the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill outlawing magic. The whackjob in the White House is definitely on board, so if it passes the Senate, then I’m out of a job. You can’t research the practical application of magic to human biology when at least sixty senators think it’s witchcraft.

“Well, crap,” I say, half to Chuck, half to my sister. The possibility of this didn’t feel real before, but suddenly it does. It could actually happen. Chuck nods grimly.

“It’s only the House,” Vanessa says, echoing my earlier words. “Call your Senators.”

“Sure, Ness, will do,” I reply, with little enthusiasm. She’s a federal employee, she has to believe in the system.

“But, Cam–”

“Yeah?”

“You might want to start thinking about a back-up plan, too.”

I end the call and turn to Chuck. He’s flipped the channel over to CNN, where some talking head is already forecasting how the Senate votes might fall.

“Was that your sister?” Chuck and I have been lab partners for a couple years now, and we’ve collaborated on a lot of complex, high-stress magic. He knows me pretty well, including the details of my family.

“Yeah. Listen, do you have a back-up plan? For all this?” I gesture at the TV. The anchor is now recapping the events that led to the proposed ban, starting with Wellspring of the People, the pseudo-magic cult who burned down half of Redwood National Park.

Chuck peels open a container of yogurt, then shapes the foil lid into a little ball. “Not really. I’ll probably have to retrain in synthetic bioengineering. You?”

“I guess. I don’t know. I thought this was going to be a state-by-state thing, not federal.” When California and Missouri enacted their bans, I shrugged it off. And even when the Minnesota legislature made some noise about “protecting our state’s natural heritage from magical degradation,” I figured I could just move. I never mentioned that to Chuck—his ex-wife and kids are here, so he’s anchored. But I only have Ingrid, and her job as a financial analyst is flexible. I think she’d be open to Oregon or Colorado, someplace with big trees and clean air, and the kind of outdoorsy culture we’re used to. Moving is easier than trying to retrain. My parents already paid for one graduate degree I didn’t finish, they won’t be keen to fund another.

“Even if it’s federal, you could move.”

“Out of the country? I don’t know. I read that Canada’s specialist work visas are totally backed up due to the California exodus.”

Chuck flicks the balled-up yogurt lid at me. “Canada? What are you talking about, doofus? I meant Japan.”

* * *

Japan.

I’m supposed to meet up with some friends at a tequila bar downtown tonight, but I need to stop by my condo first to let Panzer out. A good run might burn off some of my twitchy energy, too, and get me in a better headspace. As always, Panzer is thrilled when he sees me pull on my running shoes, launching himself into full-on zoom mode. It lifts my mood a bit, buoying me into a swift pace as we head out for a loop around Lake of the Isles.

If I’m honest with myself, I’ll be completely fucked if I lose my job. I have 15 months of payments left on my BMW, a mortgage plus HOA fees on a lakeside condo, and this high-energy German Shepherd to keep in kibble. Ingrid has hinted that she’d like to see our relationship get more serious, but I don’t think moving in together because I can no longer afford my place was quite what she had in mind.

Japan.

I get why Chuck suggested it. Beyond its powerful magitech companies and plentiful government R&D funding, it’s also familiar to me, my home-away-from-home. My siblings and I went to elementary school in Chiba prefecture, a slice of endless concrete suburbia that hangs between Tokyo Bay and the Pacific. Our dad is a civil engineer, and his company sent him there for a short-term build that ended up taking six years. Now my sister is back in Tokyo, newly placed in the Political Affairs division at the U.S. Embassy.

I like Japan, but I never thought I’d have a reason to move back. My life is here in Minnesota. Besides, the law won’t pass the Senate. With our huge swaths of prairie preserves and natural forests, U.S. magic is abundant, a precious resource for both the public and private sectors. It would be ludicrous to shut down an industry with this much promise, and though I doubt most Senators care about protecting magic for the sake of science, there are the fat profits to consider, too.

My thoughts have carried me the three miles around the lake, and we’re back where we started. I look down at Panzer, who’s panting in the unseasonably warm early October air. “It won’t pass the Senate, right?”

His dopey doggy grin doesn’t dispel the gnawing in my stomach. I open up a text conversation with my sister.

(Would it be crazy if I looked for a new job in Japan? If this magic ban happens} Cameron Green

Vanessa Green {WHAT! No, not at all. Move to Tokyo. Immediately!)

VG {What does Ingrid think?)

(Don’t know. Haven’t said anything to her yet} CG

VG {Might want to get on that, if you’re serious about this)

Am I? Maybe. I am if it turns out to be my only option.

* * *

“You’ve been watching too much political news lately,” Ingrid says, leaning across me to take the remote. “Let’s catch up on The Cartel instead. We missed last week.”

She scrolls through her queue, pausing to delete a soccer match that we watched at my place. The bass thrum of The Cartel’s opening theme song starts, and Ingrid settles into her preferred TV-watching position: sideways on the sofa, legs across my lap. We’ve been together long enough to have this rhythm, and yet—not long enough for me to tell her why I’ve been watching the news, or for her to intuit the reason.

Ten minutes into the show, an alarm goes off on my port. “Oh, crap,” I say when I see the reminder for Video call: No P in the Gene Ool on my screen. “I totally forgot.”

“Forgot what?” Ingrid asks, pausing the show.

“Sibling chat.”

She frowns at the interruption, but she knows I won’t miss this. Since we’re located on three different continents right now, in wildly different time zones, my brother and sister and I take turns on who gets the worst time. Reilly stayed up late in Europe so that Vanessa could go to a morning appointment in Asia and I could eat a normal dinner in North America. I can’t shaft him by skipping.

“Can I use your computer instead of taking this on my port? Keep going with the show, just catch me up later.”

Once I’m settled in Ingrid’s bedroom, I open up her laptop. The wallpaper is a photo of us on the rooftop terrace here at her condo, backdropped by a sunset over the Minneapolis skyline. How I’d like to be that guy again, tanned and unbothered.

I log into the Minochat, expecting to hear about it for being the last to show when I had the best time, but only Reilly is there. “Hi, Ingrid Nygaard,” he says. “Nice throw pillows.”

I look over my shoulder at Ingrid’s bed, piled high with soft shapes in shades of rose and gray. “I don’t know what half of those are even for.”

“I’d worry if you did,” he replies. Unlike me, Reilly has had the sense to use a background, navy blue with the red-striped shield of the U.S. Men’s National Team. He yawns, stretching his arms above his head for a moment, and I try to quash the pang of envy. I swear he’s bulked up since the last time we talked. It’s a humbling experience to have your baby brother become a professional soccer player. 0/10, do not recommend.

“Remind me what time it is there?”

“Three AM. Oh, there’s Ness.” A new block on the screen labeled “Green-Mukherjee” resolves into our sister, seated at a small table in her Tokyo apartment.

“Late!” Reilly accuses cheerfully.

“Sorry, sorry. My doctor’s appointment ran over.”

“You okay?” I ask.

“Yeah, it was just a check-up.” Like always, we catch each other up on the last couple weeks of our lives: the usual work, relationships, random funny stories. Finally, when I think we’re about to wrap up, Vanessa clears her throat. “So, are we going to get to the elephant in this room?”

Reilly crinkles his brow, confused. “Elephant?”

“Whether Cam has thought any more about moving to Japan. It would make scheduling these chats easier.”

“Wait, what? Why would Cam go back to Japan?”

I jump in before Vanessa can reply. “Has the possible U.S. magic ban made the German press?”

“Ah,” Reilly says. “Yeah. There was a political cartoon about the president in Süddeutsche Zeitung—well, it doesn’t translate, but it was pretty rough. Is it looking like a done deal?”

“Unclear,” I say, drawing on what I’ve learned from my new nightly hobby of watching The National Mood with Cara Becker. “Polls indicate most people don’t want a ban, but when have politicians ever cared? A couple senators are being wishy-washy.”

“I think it’s happening,” Vanessa says.

“Insider knowledge?”

“No, and if I had any, I wouldn’t tell you. More of a feeling. Cam, you should definitely discuss this with Ingrid.”

From the doorway behind me, a quiet voice: “Discuss what?”

From the living room, drums and cello: the ending credits for The Cartel.

I guess we’re having this conversation now.

Reilly Green {Do you still have a girlfriend?)

(Er, well. We had a fight. Big fight. But after I explained, she also said she’ll think about it} Cameron Green

RG {Thats a good sign)

(Yeah. She started a pro/con list} CG

(Pros: I can work in my field. It’s an adventure. We stay together. Cons: she doesn’t know the language or culture, doesn’t want to sell her condo. No clear end to it} CG


RG {All fair points)

(Yeah. Irritatingly} CG

RG {Is she expecting a ring if she goes?)

(Oh god. It’s too early in the day over here for that convo} CG

* * *

The morning of the Senate vote, I start by checking messages in my office. There’s one from my boss, Saida, with instructions on things she’d like the team to prioritize today, and all of it is business as usual on our primary project, a magitech-boosted ventricular assist device. If we ever get to submit it for FDA approval, it could save a lot of lives. But if it’s banned by this time next week, it will be ten months of hard work wasted.

Chuck is already in the lab when I get there, hold music playing from his port while he cross-checks some of the magic we shaped yesterday. “Morning, Cam,” he says, not looking up from his task.

“Does Saida actually think we’re getting work done today?” I ask, slouching onto the stool next to him.

Chuck just grunts, eyes still laser-focused on his work. I put on my lab lenses so I can see what he’s up to.

“Line A5 has a loop,” I say, peering over his shoulder. “It will keep trying to implant in the tissue without moving on to initiate blood flow support functions.”

A tinkling chime from Chuck’s port, then a soothing feminine voice: “As a constituent, your voice is important to Senator Thao. We are experiencing a high volume of calls today. If you would like to wait to speak to a staff member, please stay on the line. If you would like your call returned tomorrow, please press 3.” The message repeats in Spanish, Hmong, Somali, and Vietnamese. The hold music resumes.

“How long have you been on hold?”

“Since 8:00 AM Eastern. Thao’s supposed to be a no, but it can’t hurt to call.”

“What about Senator Schmidt?”

“DC office went straight to a full mailbox. I did get through to her local office, though. Her staff said she’s still weighing the data and isn’t ready to make her decision known.”

“Is that code for ‘I’ll do whatever I want, in spite of my voters’ opinions?’” I ask.

Chuck slides a stack of panels my way. “No point in wasting the morning worrying about it. Make yourself useful.”

It’s hard to see why I should bother. And yet… in spite of myself, I get absorbed in the puzzle of what I’m doing, and the sheer scientific elegance of it.

Magic is a recent phenomenon, and most people don’t bother to try understanding it, but it’s actually pretty simple. Imagine a river. On its own, the water is already useful for any number of things, from human hydration to industrial processing. However, the river can also be dammed to generate energy. Magic has similar capability—it can be shaped to create technology, or it can be used to power it.

So, take your average magitech portable. Your personal magic, which will vary based on where you happen to fall on the bell curve of magic potential, will power up your port every time you slap your palm on the Syphon panel and consent to the transfer. But what you probably don’t ever think about is that the port itself was engineered via shaped magic, magic that people like me draw up from within ourselves and arrange into structures that will obey commands. At that point, it’s not too far off from computer coding, at least conceptually. Unfortunately for me, the skill set isn’t transferable.

“Clear as mud,” my Uncle Mitch once said when I tried to explain it all to him.

As I find myself getting engrossed in the structures of the panels I’m checking, I only dimly notice Chuck’s call getting answered by a congressional staffer. I’m relieved to overhear that Senator Thao is a definite “no” vote today. Then the work draws me back in, and it’s not until my stomach rumbles that I realize the morning has disappeared.

“It’s one,” Chuck says, either reading my thoughts or hearing my stomach. “We should eat. The vote’s in half an hour.”

I put away my tools and store the panels in trays above my workbench. I love doing this work. Fuck. I don’t want to give it up.

Most of our team, including Saida, is in the break room, the TV already turned to CNN. About ten talking heads are on screen, each rehashing the things they’ve been speculating on for weeks. No one is saying anything new.

The energy in the room is weird. Staff from other teams are giving us a wide berth—as the magitech team, we’re the only ones whose jobs will be affected by this ban. For everyone else, it’s just another Tuesday. I reheat my leftover chicken and wild rice hotdish, no doubt a bid from Ingrid to remind me of what I’d lose by leaving Minnesota. She’s taped a note to the container: No matter what happens, I <3 you. -Ing

She doesn’t usually make my lunches, but I was at her place so late last night that I ended up staying over. We talked for hours, mostly in circles, as ineffectual as the cable news pundits. What’s becoming increasingly clear: I care about her, but not enough to give up my career. She cares about me, but not enough to give up the U.S.

The infuriating thing about all of this is that it amounts to a branding error. Magitech—the general umbrella field for biokintech, which is my sub-specialty—got called “magic technology” to make it more palatable. To help average people feel more comfortable with what scientists were doing: creating devices that draw on previously undetected, unused human energy. It isn’t magic at all, except in the sense of Clarke’s third law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. No one is stirring potions or waving a wand around. It’s science. Yet the fact that a significant number of my fellow Americans don’t get that—well, it’s why my whole life is on the verge of getting turned upside down.

To the left of the talking heads, CNN is broadcasting a livestream from the Senate floor. Senators are milling around, shaking hands, sipping coffee. Finally, they gavel in the session, and the pundits are silenced in favor of Senate business.

There are a few impassioned speeches on both sides of the issue. Senator Lee of California is so vehemently “yes” that he opposes even the Department of Defense exception that’s been added to the bill.

After an agonizing delay, they vote. It’s so antiseptic, so anodyne, this moment that might change my life.

The presiding officer calls Senator Schmidt of Minnesota. If she’s in favor of the ban, then she’s the clinching vote, and SB-114 will be law as soon as it hits President Garcia’s desk.

“Yea.”