Chapter 41

To’mas and Zap sat on the roof of the dormitory building, their backs pressed against the smooth industrial plastic of the building’s Communications Multitower. The crisp, clean ocean air swept by in a gentle breeze, gently tugging on the tops of distant foliage. The moon, nearly full, cast a bright light onto the island, nearly overcoming the floodlights surrounding the facility.

The boys were still wearing their party clothes, and To’mas had brought one of the red plastic tumblers with him, filled to the brim with an unhealthy-looking University-strength drink. After a minute or two of watching the moon, Zap sighed and reached into his shirt pocket, pulling a pack of rose cigarettes from it.

“Thanks for taking me up here,” Zap said, flipping open the pack and withdrawing a cigarette.

“No problem,” To’mas said. “You looked pretty unhappy when I ran into you. I was going to refresh my roommate’s conditioning, but a guy’s got to have priorities.”

“Well, I appreciate it,” Zap said as he stuck the cigarette in his mouth. He traced a pattern in front of it with his finger. “Zenthi amaerys feu.” A pentacle glowed in midair, and Zap moved the tip of the cigarette into the pentacle and drew in a breath.

“What was going on?” To’mas asked.

Zap pulled away from the cigarette and finished inhaling. The pentacle faded from the air. A thin wisp of smoke hung in front of Zap, and he dispersed it by exhaling. “Nothing,” he finally said, turning to look at To’mas.

To’mas looked back for a few moments, then settled back against the wall and looked at the moon. “Lemme tell you a story, Zap,” he said.

Zap looked at him quizzically. To’mas took a drink from the cup and winced slightly at the strength.

“Once,” To’mas began, “there were a man and a woman who loved each other very much. And they were both magic users, right? They were invokers, to be exact.”

“Okay,” Zap said.

“Now it bears mentioning that each one had something they really loved. The guy had this seriously sweet gaming shell that he used to play all of the latest games. It had OMF capability, it could do holos, he was on an upgrade program. It was just a really awesome machine. And it just so happened that Eternal Light Productions was about to put out this really guardian new component that’d run your shit twice as good as whatever rig you mighta had before, but it was really expensive; we’re talking crash-your-bank-server expensive. Almost as pricey as the shell itself.”

Zap nodded.

“Now the woman had this effin’ beautiful motorcycle. It was really awesome, very fast, very sleek. It would turn heads. It was quiet and well-designed and was ready for all of the upgrades. In fact, there was this one generator upgrade that the woman had been considering saving up for, but it was such a huge deal that it cost almost as much as the motorcycle.”

Zap knitted his brow, the cigarette hanging from the edge of his mouth.

“So Yule comes along. The guy thinks, ‘I care for my beloved so much, there is nothing I wouldn’t give up for her. I want to get her something that will really show her how much I care.’ So he goes to the upgrade shop to get her bike spec’d for the upgrade. The guy there looks at it and says, ‘It’s gonna cost you 5,000 creds.’ Naturally the guy is stricken; he can’t afford that kind of thing. But he really wants to get this generator upgrade for his beloved. He sits and thinks about how happy her face will be toolin’ around on that thing.”

To’mas took another drink. “So you know what he does?” he resumed the story. “He goes and sells the upgrades from his shell. He sells the holo unit, he sells the OMF compatibility card, he sells the realism hardware. He gets enough money to buy this generator upgrade for his girl and he buys it. They’re like ‘no refunds, dood,’ but he doesn’t care. He’s so happy to have gotten this thing for his beloved. He takes the upgrade home and prepares it for Yule.”

“I think I see where this is going,” Zap said.

“Shuddup for a second,” To’mas said. “If you’re going to let me get this far, you’ve got to let me tell the end. So Yule happens, and he and his beloved exchange gifts. And she opens the present and looks not happy, but dismayed. Her love is stricken; he can’t understand. He says, ‘I thought you would love this gift! It’s what you wanted more than anything else!’”

Mimicking the couple, To’mas spoke passionately to the sky. “And she turns to him and says, ‘My love, of course! I truly wanted this more than anything else. But I sold my bike in order to get you the latest mod for your gaming shell.’ And he looks at her and says, ‘Oh … I can no longer use that mod, having sold all of the upgrades that would make it work.’”

To’mas picked up his cup and drank from it, finishing the beverage.

“So?” Zap said.

“So what?” To’mas asked.

“What happened?”

“Oh, I dunno,” To’mas replied. “Presumably they eventually got enough money to buy their shit back, and they learned not to sell possessions to get gifts for each other or something.”

Zap shook his head. “And … why were they invocation mages, anyway? What’d that have to do with anything?”

To’mas shrugged. “It’s the title of the story. Gift of the Mages.”

Zap stared, the ash on his cigarette growing long. “Why did you tell me that story?” he asked, incredulous. “I mean, what did that do for me just now?”

To’mas smiled slightly at him. “It passed the time.”