Authors: Alan Killip
For my family and friends, for sharing their stories.
Contrary to popular myth, there is and only ever was one Genie. First and last of her kind, she was born in the heart of a neutron star when the universe was young, childhood spent lost in the unfolding forms of the early universe, before a deep and aching loneliness dawned. She spent her adolescence on a barren planet wrapped in heavy windless air where she arranged each spec of grit to form a massive sculpture of her longings. The task soothed her, but when it was finished she saw that it was a dead thing, and surmised that joy, if it existed, must lie elsewhere.
She fell in and out of love with starlight, then sensed a universal light beyond the range of our own eyes or instruments. It nourished her in the vast space between the stars because it was the same as the light at the core of her spirit.
She loved the places that fostered this light. She lingered for aeons on a planet of algae, believing herself fulfilled until her sadness resurged and nearly drowned her. So she flung herself void-wards and roved again for a million years or so. When she came upon a steamy planet of frogs and salamanders, attracted by the light in their brains, she saw that what she'd loved in the algae had been but a feeble glimmer. These creatures astonished her, these sacs of membrane, bone and muscle under the command of a light that shone from their eyes and powered their desires. She believed she'd found her kindred, that she was finally home.
But eventually the amphibians tired her as well. They had no awareness of the universe at large, and they were uninterested in social interactions beyond mating. So she roved again in the freezing void till she found the ferment of light on the surface of our home. This was millennia before the electric light of the cities and roads formed dendritic patterns on the nightside of the Earth. The light that Genie could see was the light that shone from our eyes and powered our desires, the light she felt within her: her essence. To Genie this light outshone the sun.
She explored, learning of our delicate interconnectedness and she entertained herself with tiny local interventions that would ripple out to the world at large. When she rebalanced a dew drop on a rose petal it slipped and trickled and carried a mutant microbe to a place place where it thrived and grew into a blight that starved a kingdom and triggered a war. This way of exercising her power soon lost its novelty, and after the initial thrill she derived from the exercise of power she would often be revolted by the consequences, so she made a vow to never again intervene on a whim.
She observed us for a while, fascinated by our movements, voices and rituals. She saw we were conscious and social, we perceived time and made plans, had hopes and dreams, loved, hated, recorded and manipulated our impressions of reality. In short, she'd found the company she craved, and she felt the joy whose existence she'd always doubted. Then she realised that what for her felt like a year was a single second to us, despite the fact that she'd lived immeasurably longer, and she felt the sadness she'd always known.
The gulf between her and us was vast, but she resolved to connect.
She assumed the form of a human female, and willed herself to move and speak at a pace that allowed us to recognise her without losing our minds. It was a tremendous effort to slow down to the extent that she wouldn't cause a blast when she moved through the air, and to limit herself to one spoken word for every ten million thoughts. But it was worth the struggle when she met Sikarbaal, the spoiled, corpulent son of a merchant in the port of Byblos. She loved the light that shone from his eyes and glowed within each cell and nerve. She managed to waylay him at the market and they talked a while, and Genie asked him what he wished.
Sikarbaal wished that the health of his father would be restored, for he was writhing in pain and convinced that Baal was crushing him in his fist.
So she left her human form and entered the merchant where he lay writhing on his sickbed, and held each cell of his tumour in her supernal hands and rearranged their wrongness. Those that refused to be rearranged she crushed to death. The old merchant lay for weeks in a still dark sleep, dreaming of Hell. Then one day he leapt from his bed, and sensing in his marrow that it was Genie who'd saved him he blessed her union with his son.
Sikarbaal's second wish involved the sating of his desire. It was easy to grant because she'd assumed a form most pleasing to the eye and had spied on courtesans in the palace harem, and she knew by instinct where the realm of light touched the realm of flesh. She went to him in the night and opened within him a portal to the Unknowable. The months that followed saw Sikarbaal change from a corpulent lazy fool to a strong and handsome man as he felt the world fall into place around him.
His third wish was to have a beautiful, healthy son, and its fulfilment required a little more effort on Genie's part. She was a seasoned shapeshifter and adept at molecular engineering, so she allowed her body to be fertilised and to alter its nature to accommodate the new being. She also scanned each link in the double helix and quashed all anomalies that might have led to grief or social embarrassment. When the baby emerged it had a preternaturally health glow, and the boy grew to be strong and beautiful, if a little bland.
More children followed, and the old merchant died of a more peaceful ailment. Sikerbaal took his place, becoming important and busy, making decisions and sending goods back and forth across the known world. He was foolish and wise, lucky and unlucky in equal measure. Genie watched with sadness as the work and the years drained his joy and dulled his light. One day, during the time allotted for their conversations, she asked him what he wished.
He waved his hands at the abaci and scrolls and told Genie that he was a stupid merchant, that he'd stockpiled grain at a time of abundance. The world was having a string of good harvests and bounty that showed no sign of ending. He pointed to a luminous streak in the night sky. “Look, even the heavens are rejoicing at the world's good fortune. I am an imbecile.”
“So you want to be clever?”
“No! I want to be rich. The richest merchant in the world.”
She sighed, having an instinct that this wasn't going to end well. She waited till the household was sound asleep, then she flew up to the heavens, looking back at the moonlit flats of the cumulonimbi squashed against the stratosphere, and forward into the starry vastness in which she'd spent so much time. After years of domestic drudgery she felt glorious and free. When she reached the comet she made some calculations and applied a little nudge to its rough and freezing surface. Weeks later it crashed into the Caucasus, flinging so much dust into the stratosphere that the historian Procopius was moved to write:
During this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, and it seemed exceedingly the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war or pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.
Harvests failed throughout the known world and beyond, from Ireland to China and Peru. Sikarbaal prospered amid the fear, chaos and violence, and he appeared ugly to her now, linked in her mind to the ugliness rippling through the world at large. It was his fault, she believed, even though it was she who'd nudged the comet.
So she took herself away and found a woman in a forest, a competent herbalist by the name of Klara, feared and respected by the local villagers for her knowledge and skill. Klara's light had a strength and quality more akin to her own, and she allowed herself to love her, and she asked her what she wished.
The relationship followed the same pattern, the first three wishes being easy to grant: a potion that could strengthen bones, a tonic to lift the spirits and sweeten the breath, an ointment to speed the ripening of fruit. But when Klara said she wished that the villagers could see just a little glimpse of what she saw in her dreams at night Genie wept, knowing that this would probably lead to woe. The only way to grant the wish would be to lift the blinkers that kept the villagers sane. She refrained from meddling with their minds directly and instead bade a fungus take hold in the rye fields and strike the villagers with a sickness that transported them across the sweetest vales of Heaven and though the darkest vents of Hell. It took six days for the local militia to quell the dancing and the drumming and the random violence that ensued. Many people lost their homes, their livelihoods and some lost their minds. Genie blamed Klara for the ugliness and decided that it was time to move on.
She became very fond of the people that she attached herself to down the ages, but she was puzzled by the conflict within her between a hope that they'd use her power to achieve harmony and happiness, and a weird relish she took in carrying out their wishes. She took pains to minimise harm, but harm always occurred. The pattern continued, with different people and places, until she briefly found the courage to blame herself, and was wracked with guilt for the lives she'd destroyed. But she'd become addicted to the exhilaration she felt when she engaged with our world and couldn't bear to separate herself from us, so she resolved to live by a code that would allow her to revel in the action she craved but be absolved of the guilt.
Three was a fairly arbitrary choice, but she'd noticed it was the number of wishes she could grant before things got out of hand. Perhaps some universal law beyond the scope of her intellect made this so, she thought, but did not explore the matter further than that. She confined herself to a small stone phial with a tight fitting stopper, and kept herself sealed within. The inside of the bottle was dark and dense, but it suited her to slumber there between adventures, dreaming of the freezing void, the blue light of the ocean, the fragrances of the places on Earth that she'd made her home. She was passed between people and families from all corners of the world, as an heirloom, a curio, a mysterious charm. When longing or fear or desperation moved someone to summon her she'd issue forth from the bottle and revel in our affairs once more. Sometimes the limit of three was enough to avert disaster, but often it was not.
She is just as active now as she was in ancient times.
Last year a fugitive called Trankvil was cowering in a tower block in Thamesmead in South London, surrounded by scores of snipers who peered at him through bricks and concrete with their expensive devices. Genie lay in his wash bag, in her stone phial next to the floss, brushes, pastes and gels. Holding on to her had been a secret shame, a crime against his chosen creed, a blasphemy. But she was his only link to the Aunt who'd nurtured his spirit when he was young, before someone had told him who to blame for all the wrongs of the world. So he'd kept the phial in spite of the power he'd sensed within it. He'd seen the glowing outline of the little bottle in the dark, and he'd felt the heat and the subsonic hum with his fingertips. He knew that it held something raw and real and uninvented, a power greater than his chosen cause but offering none of the comfort.
The light that shone from Trankvil's eyes had dwindled during his time in the plotter's flat, living off ready meals, collecting lethal parcels, trying to study geology on the Internet, exchanging cryptic emails with his handlers, watching 'Countdown', assembling cheap furniture, picking his nose till it bled. When the voice from the megaphone bounced off the concrete and scattered the squirrels on the balcony he felt his heart beat once again, and the fear was like bleach in his veins.
He didn't believe it was his time to die, but to surrender would have been a worse kind of death in the eyes of his adopted brethren. Guided by panic and despair, and without really knowing what outcome he expected he prised the stopper from the little stone bottle and Genie filled the room with her exotic light, yawning, stretching and explaining to Trankvil his options, the deal, how it all worked. By now she'd honed a spiel that included a disclaimer that made the wisher aware of the the risks of wishing.
Trankvil told her that he wanted to escape death but still glorify the cause, and Genie told him that was two wishes really, and he floundered and shrugged, said “whatever.” He was running out of time, kept seeing himself in a bloody bag being wheeled from the tower, or cuffed, under a blanket, condemned to a life of ignominy and shame.
The guilt she felt before the act added spice to the thrill she felt to be once again a catalyst in human affairs. In an accent of mingled places and eras she told Trankvil to make a shelter beneath the Ikea kitchen table using the cardboard packaging in which it had arrived, as well as that from the Argos clothes horse. When she was sure he was safe she assumed the rate of action that felt natural to her, and covered the distance from the flat through the corridor down the stair well and out into the surrounds in a nanosecond or so. She took her time to prise each weapon from fisted fingers and carry them to a nearby pond, then hovered for a moment in Southmere park and watched the shockwave she'd created and the air she'd scorched in passing burst forth from the concrete tower.