Ian and the Shape of Change

by Anta Baku

Part 14 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (read part 1)

 

Change was coming.

Particularly my boss, Miss Change. When I got transferred to the Fairyland beat, nobody in the local negotiation department wanted to be responsible for me. So I ended up with a national manager, someone from the Northeast who, up to this point, I had only interacted with by email. She seemed about as excited to be my boss as I was to be her employee. That made her pretty much the ideal supervisor: happy to sign off on my paperwork and assign my bonuses, and never getting in the way. 

But with Booker’s promotion to full-time negotiator, we were beginning to be something like an actual division, and Miss Change wanted to meet us in person. Bright and early Monday morning, which was not my preferred time to be dealing with anyone, especially after one of the longest weekends of my life. Somehow I had ended up with a second roommate in my one-bedroom apartment, and she needed a crash course on what life was like outside of Fairyland. She also needed to repeatedly remind me that she wasn’t interested in me romantically. 

I don’t think she was even doing it on purpose. It’s not like I was hitting on her and being rejected. I wasn’t going to put pressure on someone who basically had no place else to go. But I can’t say I didn’t have fantasies of what might happen with Beth living in the same space as me, and those fantasies went absolutely nowhere. She was just as obviously uninterested as Angie, who was fifteen years older than me, a lesbian, and the one who really ought to have been putting Beth up on her couch. But Angie had a wife and kids, and I had unrealistic hopes, and between the two of those things somehow she convinced me that I should be the one Beth took refuge with when she couldn’t handle Fairyland anymore.

Considering all of that, I was kind of excited to get to work. My other roommate, who at least doesn’t take up too much space, was going to spend the day teaching Beth to use the internet. And I was going to take out my frustrations on whoever I was negotiating with in Fairyland this week.

And then my boss showed up. She cleared off all of my normal work onto Booker, who probably didn’t appreciate having a double load on his first day as an independent employee. And she told me I was going to take her on a tour of Fairyland.

Which, look, when I was just a regular cell tower negotiator working on church steeples and water towers, this would not have been a big deal. I could have driven my boss around town, shown her where we had installations, impressed her with how much work I was doing, and everyone would have been happy. 

Fairyland isn’t like that. More than half of the places I’ve installed cellular nodes in Fairyland I only got out of by the skin of my teeth, and even most of the other half wouldn’t be extremely happy to see me again. We manage to keep nodes in service primarily by not reminding the people in charge that we exist. Anything that’s not central to a narrative in Fairyland tends to be kind of ignored, and that goes double if it’s made out of metal. 

So I wasn’t inspired by the idea of taking my boss on a random tour. I was doing a lot of work, and that was showing up in my reports, and it was even beginning to show up on the coverage maps. But none of that would matter if I got Miss Change attacked by a wolf who wanted to eat her, or a wicked queen tried to cut her heart out of her body. That’s the sort of thing that can lead to bad performance reviews. 

So I told her I’d take her to one place, because there was exactly one place I could think of where absolutely everyone I expected to find there was nice and polite. That was a bridge, high above a rural valley in Fairyland, where there lived a barbering troll.

“Barbarian trolls sound good,” said Miss Change. 

“He’s not a barbarian,” I said. “He’s just a barber.”

“Are you trying to tell me I need a haircut?” said Miss Change. I assured her that her hair was fine, and really it was, if a little too formally businesslike for my taste. She’s quite a bit older than me, and her idea of what a professional woman looks like clearly came out of the 1980s. Her dark hair was very carefully shaped, her boldly-colored blazer had pointy shoulders, and her black skirt ended exactly at her knees. There was a lot of work involved in her look, and she was obviously a perfectionist about it. I’m completely the opposite, but I didn’t think the troll barber would have anything to complain about. 

Well, except maybe my hair. I’d been too busy to get it trimmed recently. Maybe I could kill some time on this pleasure cruise by getting the troll to give me a haircut. I wasn’t sure if Miss Change would see that as misuse of company time, or if she would be silently relieved that I was becoming less disheveled. By her standards, which I just assumed were as high for everyone else as they were for herself. Maybe I was wrong, but better to be wrong in that direction.

Getting to the troll bridge involves a certain amount of mountain hiking, and we were halfway there before I thought about how sensible shoes were never an option for someone with the rest of her fashion sense. On the other hand, you won’t get very far in Fairyland without them, so at least she was getting an authentic experience. Unlike my peers with the company, my job wasn’t about meetings in boardrooms, church basements, and city council chambers. It was better if my boss had an appreciation for how much hiking was involved, even if it meant she had sore feet for a few days.

And I have to give her credit, she held up without complaining, even if she was moving a little bit gingerly by the time we got to the bridge. I had expected to have to do the rigamarole of trip-trapping over the bridge to get the barber to come out, but things had changed quite a bit since the last time I had been there. Before, there had been a barber pole at the end of the bridge, but the troll had kept all of his scissors and combs and other barbering tools in his lair beneath it.

Now it looked like a barber supply salesman had come all the way up here, and left very happy with himself. There were revolving chairs set along the side of the bridge, where customers could look out over the valley while they got their hair cut. There were big mirrors next to them, and work tables. It even looked like when our technicians had come out to install the cellular node the troll had talked them into extending the electrical supply to his own business. That hadn’t been part of the original deal, but it wasn’t an unreasonable thing to add after the fact. I was just a little surprised no one had mentioned it to me.

There was even a waiting room built at the end of the bridge, and the medium-sized Billy Goat Gruff had come back to be the receptionist. The troll’s business was clearly thriving, and I was pleased, although we had to wait while he was finishing up a haircut. Somehow, even though it had only been a few weeks since I had been here the first time, the waiting room magazines were two or three years out of date. Politicians are worried about regulating magic that seeps into the real world from Fairyland, but it seemed like the laws that governed offices in our world were having an effect here as well.

The troll barber seemed happy to see me, as I suppose he should have been since I had prompted him to start a business in the first place. I introduced him to Miss Change, and he immediately told her what an advantage it was to have electricity on his bridge, and how the expectation of our monthly fees for renting space for our node allowed him to raise the money to build out his barbershop. She was engaged by his story, and I think a little startled by how nice and polite a troll could be, even though I had told her about him on the way.

It was all going very well, until the man with a fresh haircut came out to the waiting room, and it was my brother-in-law. Dave has been wandering around Fairyland trying to get himself work there as a security consultant, and I guess he’d discovered the advantages of troll-driven grooming. Or maybe I had mentioned this as the location of the best haircut I had ever received. I try not to tell Dave too much because it tends to backfire, but I was pretty enthusiastic about that haircut and it might have slipped out. 

Anybody else might have observed that I was with my boss and gone about their business, but not Dave. In fact, he insisted on being introduced to her, and telling her that we had worked together in the past. That hadn’t made it into my reports because neither of the times I worked with Dave ended up in successful contracts, and I had been hoping to keep those stories quiet. Now Miss Change probably thought I was subcontracting the jobs to my relatives. 

She didn’t say anything about it, though. She said goodbye to the troll, so he could get back to his next customer. And then she was mainly interested in where we were going next.

“The person who really intrigued me,” she said, “is this butler you mentioned who is also a vulture. I love vultures. I started collecting them when I was in business school.”

I resisted the urge to tell her that was an appropriate place. Not least because she was probably tired of that joke. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go there,” I said. “The wicked queen has probably discovered that we replaced her magic mirror with a regular glass one by now. And she’s the kind of person who would order your heart cut out.”

All that was true, and a good reason, but above all I had no intention of taking Miss Change anywhere else. She’d gotten a taste of what Fairyland was like, and she’d met the nicest person I knew there, and the worst thing that had gone wrong was unexpectedly meeting my most annoying relative. By Fairyland standards that was a win, and I wanted to book it as quickly as possible. Get her back to the office, with any luck get her back to the east coast, without anything bad happening to her, so that I could just get back to doing my job. 

Yeah, like that was going to happen. You come through the gates of Fairyland, and you take what you get. I should have known that by now.

Even so, if she had been willing to leave, I think we’d have gotten out of there safely. And if it had just been the two of us, I think I would have been able to talk her into going. But Dave was still hanging around, and Dave, of course, was not smart enough to know not to encourage her.

“There’s a place I’ve been wanting to go,” he said. “And I could use some company. You could get a new contract out of it. Even more than one.”

I’ve learned by now not to buy into Dave’s optimistic views of where a cell node contract might be appropriate, but Miss Change grabbed onto it as a reason to stay in Fairyland and go exploring. “What sort of thing are you talking about?”

“I’ve heard about two giants,” said Dave, “who spend all of their time building cities. I figure anyone building cities needs a security consultant, and they probably need cell service, too.” 

“Sounds like a lot of potential customers,” said Miss Change. And at that point I could see there was going to be no stopping them. I just hoped Dave wouldn’t manage to get us into any trouble.

The city the giants were building was unlike anything I’d ever seen before in Fairyland. It looked more like it belonged in the United States. Fairyland towns tend to be built more like European cities, all haphazard curves and cute little squares and roads so narrow you want to make sure your car is built out of one of those pumpkins that’s taller than it is wide. 

This was totally different: wide boulevards set up in a strict grid, buildings set far back from the streets, sidewalks. I was pretty sure one of the streets we passed even had a bike lane, and I wondered if the giants had gotten a city planning guide from the real world, because I had never seen a bicycle in Fairyland. 

I know more infrastructure than just cell phones is making its way into Fairyland, and it looked like it was here as well. When I got to the giants I was sure of it, because they had a full set of modern drafting equipment, T-squares and triangles and compasses, parallel rules and French curves. Fairyland hadn’t picked up quite enough modern technology for them to be building with computers, though it probably wouldn’t be that way for long. Still these were sleek and up-to-date, and I had a moment of admiration for whatever salesman had thought to bring them to Otus and Ephialtes.

Those were the giants’ names, and they were happy to meet us and show us around their new city. They’d heard about all sorts of new techniques from the World of Chaos, a name for our world that was becoming pretty popular in Fairyland. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but their city was pretty impressive. I managed to ask how they had gotten giant-sized tools.

“Oh, they weren’t giant-sized when we bought them,” said Ephialtes, who was the more talkative one. “We had to have them enlarged, so we asked our stepmother’s friend to do it for us.”

“Our stepmother’s friend is Hermes,” said Otus.

“And when he did he also made them more powerful,” said Ephialtes. “All we have to do is draw the lines, and the tools will turn them into pieces of city for us. It makes everything much easier.”

“Too easy, if you ask me,” said Otus. “There’s no sense of personal craftsmanship anymore.”

“We still have to shape the buildings by hand,” said Ephialtes. “You’ll be happier when we get to that.” Otus just grunted in response. They looked like they still had a bunch of grid layout to do, but they didn’t mind if we stayed and watched. Ephialtes grabbed a compass, and Otus took up a parallel rule, and they started adding more streets and parks to the grid.

“Those two don’t look like they need a security consultant,” I said. 

“Are you kidding?” said Dave. “Look, they just left the rest of their tools sitting around. They’re not even paying attention. Anyone could just walk up and steal one.”

“If you wanted to steal a T-square,” I said. “And had someplace to keep one that was twelve feet long.”

“A magical T-square,” said Miss Change. “And it doesn’t look too heavy. I bet I could carry it.”

I thought that was a hypothetical. I mean, it’s supposed to be a hypothetical, when your boss starts talking about stealing things from giants, things that she doesn’t even have any use for. But I guess Miss Change was pretty taken by the idea of a T-square that would do all the layout work for her, because before I knew it she had walked over and picked the thing up.

The giants didn’t notice. And I had no idea how to make it clear what a bad idea it was to steal things when you’re in Fairyland. There are no lawyers here to get you out on bail and work out a plea bargain to get you off with a fine. In fact there’s no bail and no fines. Punishments vary based on what narrative you happen to be in, but they’re never ever ever something you want to have happen to you. And I was pretty sure Dave had brought us to another Greek myth, where things tend to be especially harsh, and trivial offenses can get people turned into really unfortunate things.

So we had to get the T-square back before the giants noticed. I could tell Dave was thinking the same thing, and he wasn’t held back by the fact that she was my boss. In fact he probably thought that tackling my boss made him a better security consultant. I would have tried talking first. But Dave went right for her, and wrestled the T-square away from her.

And then something happened to the city. A section of it twisted, and turned, and when it settled down again the grid had been ruined, with a section of the streets at 45-degree angles from each other. Something they did must have accidentally activated the magic.

At that point the giants couldn’t help but notice, and when they turned around they saw the wreck of their perfect pattern, and Dave standing there holding their magical T-square. 

That’s when I learned that my boss has an excellent innocent look. Which is not really something you want your boss to have practiced. But she stood there looking like she had nothing whatsoever to do with the T-square being stolen. I was thinking about whether to say anything about that to the giants, or maybe more importantly how to say anything about it to the giants, when they acted. It was kind of unfair of them to deny me my ethical dilemma, but I probably couldn’t have said anything fast enough to stop them even if I had known what to say from the beginning.

Ephialtes grabbed a bronze pot that had been sitting on their huge drafting table, and Otus grabbed Dave, and somehow they shoved one into the other. That is, they shoved Dave into the pot. It didn’t really look big enough, and he must have been incredibly cramped in there. Apparently too much so to even make a noise. One second he was there, and the next, stuffed into a pot. 

That’s the kind of thing that happens in Fairyland. That’s especially the kind of thing that happens to Dave in Fairyland. And since he’s my brother-in-law I was responsible for getting him out of it. But I didn’t think it would do me any good to place blame on my boss instead, no matter how much she deserved it. I’d have to talk the giants around.

“Did you have to do that?” I said. “I don’t think the damage is that bad.”

“It can’t be reversed,” said Ephialtes. “We’re stuck with these crooked streets in the middle of our beautiful city.”

“Look, the streets still meet up, right?” I said. “They just don’t connect in the same place. That street that’s going east, it goes into the crooked section and when it comes out it’s going north. That’s not so bad.”

“But we wanted a city like your world,” said Otus. “One that’s all a grid, so we could see how it worked.”

“Well, not every city in my world is totally a grid,” I said. “In fact the city I come from, Minneapolis, is just like this. Most of the city is on a north-south grid, but in the downtown the streets go northeast and northwest.”

“San Francisco is like that too,” said Miss Change. I’m not sure if she had suddenly felt the need to be minorly helpful, or just said what happened to be in her head at the time.

“And this works?” said Otus.

“It doesn’t work very well in San Francisco,” said Miss Change.

“No, but it works all right in Minneapolis,” I said before she could go into detail. “It’s a little complicated but we make it work.”

“I was starting to feel like this wasn’t complicated enough as it was,” said Ephialtes.

“Me too,” said Otus. “It could use a little strangeness, if it’s still authentic to the World of Chaos.”

“And it wouldn’t be the World of Chaos,” I said, “If everything was perfectly on a grid.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Otus.

“So do you think you could let Dave out of the pot now?” I said.

Ephialtes looked abashed. “I don’t think we can do that.”

“But you can see that he didn’t do any real damage.”

“He means we can’t do that,” said Otus. 

“I’m sorry we put him in the pot before we thought about it,” said Ephialtes.

“But, you see,” said Otus, “we only know how to put people into pots.”

“Not how to take them out,” said Ephialtes.

Oh, that was great. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nothing in Fairyland was ever quite simple. “So does he have to stay in the pot forever?” I said. “And how am I supposed to explain that to my sister?”

“Oh, no,” said Ephialtes. “I’m sure someone knows how to get people out of pots.”

“I bet Proteus does,” said Otus.

“Oh, yes,” said Ephialtes. “Proteus is our half-brother, on the god side, and he knows all sorts of things, if you can get him to tell you.”

“But he’s a shape-shifter,” said Otus.

“Yes,” said Ephialtes. “You’ll have to trap him and hold him until he stops changing shape. If you can do that he’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“All right,” I said. “We’ll take this pot to Proteus, if you say he can help us.”

“Tell him we sent you,” said Otus. 

“That won’t make it easier,” said Ephialtes.

“Oh, but they might as well anyway,” said Otus. “Let Proteus know that we’re thinking of him, at least.”

“He’s an oracle,” said Ephialtes. “He already knows.”

Eventually I got the information out of them about where Proteus lived, and wouldn’t you know it was another island. I’d already been to one island with Dave, and it hadn’t gone well, although one benefit of him being stuck in a pot was that he couldn’t try to paddle. And while Miss Change wasn’t as good in a canoe as Pol, she got the job done. I wasn’t getting any happier with her, really, but it did make the trip easier than if I had been in the boat by myself. 

And Ephialtes was right: I didn’t have to tell Proteus who had sent us. By the time we got there he knew why we had come, what we wanted, and how we planned to get it. So he was ready to just start the shape-shifting game right away, and assumed I would be as well. 

I didn’t know why I should be the one to have to wrestle with him. None of this was my fault. But Miss Change sure didn’t look like she was going to do it, and we had to get Dave out of the pot somehow. So I took a little bit of a break from paddling, and then got ready to face Proteus.

When we had arrived the beach was full of seals, and Proteus an old man among them. But as I rested, he walked along the beach, speaking to one seal or another, and gradually they moved apart, making a ring for us to wrestle. They made a wide, clear circle of open sand, with seals all around the outside except for one space where Miss Change stood, watching and holding the pot full of Dave.

When I indicated that I was ready, Proteus entered the circle, but the moment he crossed the line of seals he was no longer an old man but a leopard. We stalked each other around the circle, neither one of us ready to make the first move. Those claws and teeth worried me. I’m not sure what he had to be scared of.

But when he got sick of it, he didn’t attack. He changed shape again, to a large snake, and just sat in the sand waiting for me.

Snakes don’t scare me, particularly, and I thought this might be the best opportunity I had to grab him. Unlike a leopard, snakes are only pointy at one end. And while that end is pretty flexible, I felt like if I could get through to the snake’s body and hang on tight I had a chance. 

So I charged, and of course by the time I got there it wasn’t a snake anymore, but a pig. Not just a regular pig, either, but a Fairyland pig, in a waistcoat and looking like he wanted to sell me some drapes or something. From the look on his face Proteus was as surprised by this as I was. Maybe he had been trying for a razorback. I took advantage of his startlement by grabbing hold of his waistcoat and jumping on his back. I tried to kick his legs out from under him, but he was already changing again, and it was all I could do to hold on. 

The waistcoat somehow stuck around, maybe because I had a death grip on it. But inside it now was a tree, an old-growth oak with rough bark that bit onto my face where it had been pressed against the back of the pig’s head. I held on tight anyway. Maybe there wasn’t much he could do as a tree to shake me off, but I knew he’d be something else in a moment. 

And indeed, I only had time for a breath or two before his body shifted again, and a seal slid out of the waistcoat and nearly out of my grip. I only had one hand on him, holding tight to one flipper, and with the other three he dragged me toward the edge of the wrestling circle. I knew if he shook me off for even a moment he would be among the other seals and I’d never find him again. So I dug my feet into the sand as hard as I could, held on tight, and flipped him over onto his back. 

The seals didn’t like that much, and made it known by their barking. But I was past being distracted. For a moment Proteus was vulnerable, and I needed to take advantage of it. Before he could change again I had my full body on top of the belly of the seal, and pinned him securely to the sand. I could feel him trying to change again under me, but apparently there wasn’t enough room for him to complete a shape-shift. Eventually he tapped out with a flipper, and I let up just enough for him to turn back into an old man.

“All right,” he said. “You caught me. I’ll tell you one thing, anything you want.”

“I want to know how to get my brother-in-law out of that jar,” I said.

“Wait,” said Miss Change.

“What do you mean, wait?” said Proteus. I was thinking the same thing.

“He doesn’t get to decide what he wants,” she said. “I’m his boss. I get to choose what we get.”

“We came here to get Dave out of the jar,” I said.

“I don’t care,” said Miss Change. “I’ve discovered something else I want, and I’m in charge here.”

“He’s the one who beat me,” said Proteus.

“Yeah, but I’m the one he reports to,” said Miss Change. And, well, I suppose that might have been a good time to threaten to quit my job, but that’s never really been my approach to things. She was my boss, and it wouldn’t be the first time my boss got something at my expense. Or the last, probably. 

Proteus waited for me to object, but when I didn’t, eventually he turned back to Miss Change. “What is it you want, then, boss lady?”

“I want you to teach me to shapeshift.”

“That could take weeks,” said Proteus.

“I’ll find the time,” she said. “Ian, let people at work know I won’t be back for a while, all right? You can go back, I’m going to stay here so he can teach me.”

“What about Dave?” I said.

“Go ahead and take him back to the real world,” said Miss Change. “I’m sure somebody there can figure out how to let him loose.” 

So that’s what I did. I stuck him in the front of the canoe while I rowed back by myself, lugged it on my shoulder all the way to the portal, took an Uber back to my apartment, and placed the pot very gently on top of a bookshelf. 

It looks nice there, but I hope I won’t have to keep it very long.


Part 15 of The Cell Phone towers of Elfland is coming soon.

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