Wednesday, August 15, 2007

genie in the lamp redux

Eftiar felt rather than heard the pop as the stopper was removed from his prison. With a mighty rush, he surged up and outward from the tiny confines of the lamp that had held him for most of his eternal life. In the moment it took him to gather his wits, he already had grown to nearly eight miles high. It would be an easy thing to let himself continue to go, to grow ever larger and ever more diffuse, to lose himself in the endless sky until that he was had been lost beyond the point of recovery. But it was not to be; already the curse that afflicted his kind was taking hold, and he found himself drawn back downward by an unseen tether, regathering his substance into a shape that his newest discoverer would find bearable.

His eyes widened in surprise -- like all his other outward displays of emotion, this was a response learned over the ages to make his interaction with mortals more bearable for them both, since any body or form he assumed was a mere construct meant for the benefit of those who freed him, however temporarily from the lamp that held him. His rescuer was not a man, but a woman, and there were three of them. Together they held the lamp, and all three gaped at him in wonder and amazement. He skimmed the surface of their minds as he sought for the familiar concepts, common to all humanity, and taught himself their language.
 
"You have freed me from the lamp!" he called once he had found the words. "I shall grant you three wishes." It was a popular game among the djinn. Played badly, it could leave the new master either fabulously wealthy and happy, or dead; but when a true master played the game, the human would the last of his wishes in a vain attempt to finish no worse than he had started. "There are three of you, so each shall have one wish."

Magical fingers followed the loop and whorl of the women's DNA, while Eftiar's mind viewed the panoramic display all around him. The women bore no relationship to the Spanish captain who last had opened Eftiar's lamp. (The captain had wished to arrive in the New World swiftly and safely; Eftiar had provided a wind that blew the ship across the ocean hard and fast until it wrecked on a coral reef. The captain alone of all his crew reached land alive and unharmed.) They were blonde, with unfamiliar names, and they walked around the beach in clothes that Eftiar found absolutely shocking by any human standard he had ever encountered. A steel bird flew overhead, sculptures raced down a nearby road at speeds no animal could match, and even here by the edge of the ocean he could smell traces of burning oil far greater than he ever had encountered in his old country. Could the world have changed so much?
 
He was torn from his reverie by the first of his mistresses. Jolie was tall, with blue eyes, hair the color of straw, and skin that had been burnt a light brown by the sun overhead. Yet he saw in her mind a puzzle that had troubled her for months, a complex polymer she hoped to synthesize that would have the proportional strength and flexibility of a spider's web.
 
"Well," said Jolie. "I'd like to be really smart."

The words were no sooner out of her mouth than the wish was granted. With an imperceptible nod of his head, Eftiar changed Jolie from blonde to brunette. The light in her eyes twinkled and went out, and as her blue eyes turned brown, they went darker still in mood, the careless cheer replaced by a somber, thoughtful look. Neurons fired in new ways, and in those fires new connections were forged. Jolie thought with annoyance of her supervisor, who routinely ignored her advice and based decisions on the lesser information at his disposal, even though it invariably turned out that her advice would have been better. Then, suddenly, the elusive nature of the polymer became clear to her, and Jolie saw not only how to make the polymer, but how it could be used in bulletproof vests, to save the lives of police officers and troops the world over. The sudden understanding that flashed across her face was dazzling, and her companion Jackie noticed it.

"And what is your wish, then?" Eftiar asked Jackie.

The woman's continued frustration leapt out at Eftiar like a lit torch in a dark night. He saw a man she had loved, years earlier, who failed to appreciate the relationship he had with her, and who had carelessly walked away from her, leaving her pregnant and unable to finish college. The djinn saw how she had supported herself and her daughter as the manager of a small electronics boutique, and he saw her concern for the environment: the destruction of the earth's forests and the web of life that they supported, the levels of pollution that were trapping the earth's heat and melting the permafrost, the toxins humanity carelessly spewed into the air and poured into the water. Jackie would never admit it, but Eftiar could see the envy she felt toward her friends and the power they had to make the world a better place.
 
"I'd like to be even smarter than she is," she said, and Eftiar saw the jealousy that pointed her finger at Jolie.

He consented to her wish, and as Jackie's friends watched, her eyes the color of sky turned as dark as night, and her hair grew even darker than that. It turned upward and rolled itself around a pencil that appeared from nowhere, and glasses materialized on her face, which flowed forward until she looked every bit the mousy librarian. The transformation was shocking to seem but Jackie didn't mind; with her new understanding, she already was finding the way toward meaningful change in energy policy on an international scale, and taking the first mental steps through the twisted path that could bring lasting peace to the Middle East.

And now Eftiar turned toward his third mistress. She was tall and thin, and like her friends had been, she was graced with long blonde hair that had made it an easy matter for her to catch the eye of any man she wanted. Her mind was filled with images of the men she had interviewed and written about for her job at the newspaper: politicians bickering over position and prestige; small men jockeying for influence, power and fame; fools who would sell the future for the fleeting popularity and happiness that today could bring. She considered the change in her friends with dismay, and her mind raced to find a wish that would make her happier without taking away anything she would miss. Intelligence she had in abundance, but her looks were fading like an aging flower's.
 
"I want to be dumber than I am now," she said triumphantly, certain she had worked it out.

And so Eftiar changed her into a man.

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