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|I confess it: I'm a huge Disney fan, and so are my family. Our idea of the best fun we can have is to holiday at Disney World, Florida as often as we can save up! It is, quite simply, the friendliest and most wonderful (lit: full of wonder) place I know. So when Bob Stein and I agreed to do a story exchange, I got to thinking, what if the magic was real?|
1963, St. Louis, Missouri
‘Card’ Walker watched as his employer stood with his eyes closed and his face raised slightly. It was cold; just below freezing, but a lot warmer than it had been. The ground was covered with frost-crusted snow, and the night was one of those cuttingly clear ones, where the stars were diamond lights. Card imagined they were holding their breath, as he was. He wriggled his fingers inside his gloves and kept his hands under his armpits to preserve the warmth. He stood still though, careful to make as little distracting noise as possible.
The team had spent months here, and the preliminary results had been very promising: promising enough to call his employer down to look for himself. They had even gone so far as to talk to local dignitaries and land-owners. If everything checked out, they were ready to commit on paper the following day. If it didn’t, well, the business community of St Louis was going to be very disappointed. Now it all came down to a man, standing in the snow.
The man’s eyes may have been closed, but his mind saw everything. The night was perfect: very still, and this deep in winter, even the pulse of life was subdued. The patterns of energy around him were not still, but they were sluggish, and much easier to get a true impression of. The sky was impassive: an infinite well of cold blue above him, with no moon in view to influence things – a deliberate consideration. Equally deliberate was his choice to stand on the site of the soon-to-be-begun Gateway Arch: the ground was already cleared and topsoil removed, eliminating another layer of complexity from the local energy patterns. Only a hundred yards away, the Mississippi was a broad conduit of browns and greens, slow and the creatures in it glowing only dully at this ebb in the yearly cycle of life. He let his senses play over it, accepting it, then excluding it from his mind. On his other side, the majority of the city of Saint Louis was an intricate play of colour, but that too was muted at this hour of the night: it was three in the morning, and though cities seldom slept, most of the residents were asleep. Again, he took in the patterns, familiarised himself with them, and excluded them from his consciousness. There was still a residual input from the surrounding countryside, but that was easy to ignore. What he sought was below his feet. This was what they’d come to find.
To his wizardly senses, the ground became translucent. Mighty currents of power moved through it, and right beneath his feet several such flows converged and formed a nexus: a Node of power, brilliant and beautiful. He indulged himself for a minute, enjoying the play of energy, letting his Sight adjust to it, as if adjusting to a sunlit street after emerging from a dim building. Gradually his sight deepened and he began to see subtleties in the Node: patterns not immediately apparent but yielding to his mastery. His team was good; the very best in fact, but he was better. This was no conceit: he was the most modest of men, but this was his strength and calling.
Slowly he began to unravel the complexities of the Node and See how it influenced the land around it. He Tasted the power; Scented it; Listened to its music; Felt it’s tingling energies. Ah ha! That was interesting. Not entirely what it appeared, this one. A tiny discord in the mighty symphony of light was probably only tangible to him, and might only matter to him. He was a perfectionist without parallel, but the great task he had set himself demanded nothing less.
Carefully, he closed his wizardly senses off, returning to worldly sensation with all the care of a deep-sea diver rising to the surface: too fast could be disastrous. There were entities that could use mortal minds as conduits, and ensnare unwary explorers. Satisfied though, he opened his mortal eyes and took a deep breath, exhaling it as a plume of vapour in the freezing air.
Card stepped up to him. “What do you think?”
His employer shook his head. “Close. So close. It’s a sham though. There’s power here alright, but this isn’t the Primary Node we thought it was. And there’s a very slight taint to it that needs capping. No wonder this city’s fortunes have been ebbing. Saarinen’s got the right idea. This Arch of his will be perfect: it’ll earth the dissonance, and the city will profit again.”
Card accepted this. Having worked for the man for nearly thirty years, he wasn’t fazed at the idea of abandoning a year’s work a day before its completion. He knew that ultimately, wherever they decided upon, it would be better. “Where’s the Primary then?” he asked.
“Southwest,” his master answered, gazing in that direction as if he could still See it. “And not close. A thousand miles, give or take. The ley-line dives deep and doesn’t surface until then.”
“A thousand miles? Would that be the other site we short-listed, then?” Card asked.
The man nodded. “I think so. A pity. I grew up not so far from here, you know. It would have been kind of fun to set up near my roots, but such is life. Let’s pack up and get out of here.”
Card nodded. “I’ll tell Donald and the Admiral. What shall we tell the local bigwigs?”
His master pulled a face. He wasn’t a businessman and hated dealing with that side of things. He hated the cynical ways that so many businessmen and politicians used to manipulate folk. Even so, he wasn’t entirely happy at just waltzing off when so many land-owners, local politicians and financiers had regarded this project as a sure thing. Then he raised an eyebrow. “Who was that old fool that sounded off at the reception this evening?”
Card smiled.”The one that called you an idiot for thinking you could establish an attraction here that didn’t sell alcohol? Ah, that would be the notable August Anhauser Busch Junior. I think he took your views on alcohol rather personally.”
“The feeling is mutual. Let the rumour out that his comment decided me against coming here. Let’s get down to Orlando as soon as we can.”
“Yes, sir.” Card signalled to a flunkey who stood by a car some distance away. When the man approached, Card told him, “Please contact Mr Tatum and Admiral Fowler and tell them that Mr Disney says the Florida Project is a Go.”
2010, Walt Disney World, Florida
Bob wasn’t quite sure what obscure impulse had drawn him to Animal Kingdom that day. He’d been in a whimsical mood when he’d awakened at his aunt’s house in Winter Park. As a semi-regular visitor to the area, he was already very familiar with all the sources of out-of-production car parts to be had there, and had spent several days happily browsing. Today though, he felt like something different, and to his own mild surprise, had ended up guiding his rented Toyota into Disney World, and then towards its newest park, a decade old already.
Bob wasn’t especially a Disney fan, or a theme park enthusiast. Oh, sure, Pinocchio was one of his favourite films, but he’d never quite forgiven the Disney animation for straying from the original book and not giving the little wooden boy the full donkey treatment. He’d only visited Disney as often as he had because his English friends Ana and Matthew were complete Disney-Diehards (and proud of it) and always dragged him into one or more of the parks on their infrequent visits from the UK.
He sighed. The association of Matthew and Pinocchio had reminded him that life had been too busy lately to really indulge his second great interest in life: human transformation fiction. He really ought to get around to writing some more, but after that last work project (he’d been called in to expedite things when someone else’s project had run over deadline) he’d been so exhausted that he’d even slept the flight from Norfolk: time he usually put to profitable use writing on his PDA.
Following through whatever subconscious prompt had brought him here, he bought a ticket (wincing slightly: Feeding The Mouse wasn’t cheap) and moseyed in through the gate, amused as a small palm tree in a planter cruised independently around the queuing area greeting guests with cheerfully atrocious puns (“Don’t worry folks; my bark is worse than my bite”, “I think I’ve outgrown this park: I’m thinking of branching out,” and “Gotta go now, folks: I’m expecting a trunk call.”). While part of him knew it was radio-controlled with a two-way voice link, the illusion was convincing and a large part of his mind was willing to be beguiled.
Florida’s weather was whimsical in late January. Today was what Bob thought of as pleasant: warmer than Virginia in January for sure and bordering on tee-shirt temperature. He grinned at the Floridians all wearing fleeces and some even wearing gloves and huddling themselves as if it were frosty. He wandered down the cool green paths of Animal Kingdom, amusing himself for a few minutes looking for equines among the sculpted creatures set into the carved bark of the Tree of Life. The horse was an easy find, dramatically rearing out of a large branch. He thought he found some others, but some creatures weren’t as easy to identify as others. He thought he saw a donkey (but it might have been a deer: angle and shadow made it ambiguous) and he was pretty sure that was a unicorn, high up. Matthew would know about that one if it was.
He wandered for about an hour, enjoying the sights, and openly admiring some of the “street-theatre” acts that popped up from time to time. The jugglers in Dino-Rama were good, and the alienesque vine-woman (De-Vine, he later discovered), nine-feet high and moving with giraffe-like grace along one of the paths, was worth a photo or two. Ultimately though, he had to ask himself what he was doing there.
Bob wasn’t a thrill-ride fan (he still winced at the recollection of Mission Space, six years ago). Expedition Everest and Dinosaur just weren’t for him. The Kali River Rapids Ride was kind of fun, but a lot more fun when you were with friends (How had Matthew gotten off that ride with only a single drip of water on his teeshirt when every other occupant of the same boat got well and truly drenched?).
While he was pondering his decision, he came across a caricature artist, sitting outside one of the merchandise stores. His cast-member badge (all Disney staff were known as cast-members, in keeping with the philosophy that walking into a Disney park should be like walking into a story or a film) identified him as Michael from Norfolk, England. Bob smiled.
“Hi there,” the artist greeted him. “Fancy having your portrait done today?”
Bob had encountered Disney World caricature artists before: last time he had been here, Matthew and his daughter Jade had both had their portraits sketched – as cartoon unicorns. “Maybe.” He picked up the promo portfolio and flicked through. Besides straight-forward caricatures, you could have your portrait “fantasized”: you could be Tarzan (or Jane): you could be drawn as a gorilla, or a number of other creatures: dinosaurs, dragons, elephants. You could be a knight or a pirate or a princess. Bob recalled Matthew’s unicorn and wondered about a centaur. Or maybe… “Can you do draft horses?” he asked.
“You mean riding one?”
“Actually, I meant as one,” Bob admitted.
“Cool!” Michael said. “Yeah, no problem. Actually, I live fairly close to a Shire Horse centre in England. Ever been to the UK?” As he spoke, he guided Bob into a chair, and turned his easel, busying himself with marker pens.
“A few times. I’ve got some friends there,” Bob said.
“Ever been to Norfolk?”
Bob chuckled. “I live there!”
“Really?” Michael raised his face in surprise.
“Oh!” The artist chuckled. “Yeah, I get kind of confused over here. All the place names are the same. Well, if you get a chance, it’s called Hillside Sanctuary, near Norwich. They’re on the web.” He chatted on, quite amiably, his voice assuming a slightly distracted tone as he concentrated on his work. Bob couldn’t see the work in progress, but the young man’s drawing hand was in vigorous motion. “Do you have a favourite breed?”
“I love Clydesdales.”
“Oh. Clydes, huh? I don’t think we’ve got any of those here. You should get over to Busch Gardens in Tampa. They’ve got the Budweiser Clydesdales there. We’ve got some Belgians. Been to Magic Kingdom?”
“The horse-drawn tram there is pulled by our Belgians. And if you visit our Port Orleans resort, they do carriage rides there every evening.”
“Yeah, I visited some friends there a couple of years ago,” Bob nodded. “Didn’t quite get a chance to do that though.”
“I’ll draw you pulling one of our trams,” Michael said. “So. Being drawn as a horse. That’s unusual. I’ve done a few centaurs before, especially after the first Narnia film came out.”
“One of my friends from last time got drawn as a unicorn,” Bob offered.
The artist laughed. “Really? That’s cool. It’s a pity really: did you know this park was originally intended to have a mythological section? Look at the animals on the park logo: lion, elephant, triceratops, and an antelope. And right in the middle is a dragon. They built the real animals section, then added Dino-Rama on the success of Dinosaur, but ran out of money when it came to the third section. Camp Minnie-Mickey is there now. The only hint that it was ever going to be something different is when you cross the river bridge as you head that way. Look down on the right hand side and there’s a stone dragon’s head with water coming out of it. I rather hoped when Disney did the Narnia films they might start expanding again, but I hear they’ve dropped out of that title now. A shame. Read the books?”
“Of course,” Bob grinned.
“I think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was my favourite,” opined Michael.
“I was more into A Horse and his Boy.”
Michael laughed. “Figures. Got a thing for horses, huh? Are you into the TF scene then?”
“I’ve been known to dabble in it,” Bob said deadpan, like a card-sharp asking, “Poker? Is that a game?”
“Hence the picture, heh?”
Bob smiled in response.
The artist nodded and gave him an appraising glance. Pausing in his work, he asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, how seriously do you take it?”
That wasn’t a question Bob often heard asked so frankly in a face to face conversation. He’d answered the question a dozen times in emails to people in the last decade or so, but to have the question put so baldly temporarily flummoxed him. “Uh, what do you mean exactly?”
“I’m sorry, that was a bit of a personal question, wasn’t it?” Michael apologised. “I should back up a bit. This is Disney, so it’s a given that ninety-nine percent of our visitors are, shall we say, in touch with their fantasy sides. And I get quite a lot of people asking to be portrayed as various animals. Sometimes it’s just a whimsical thing. You know: what would I look like as a..? Sometimes it’s more serious. It’s a lot more common than people would credit though: wanting to be something completely different. Wolves are probably most popular: that ‘noble wolf’ image is very New Age, and the Indians… I’m sorry, Indigenous Americans seem to identify strongly with them too. Fantasy creatures are very popular. We actually have a program for such people here.”
Michael’s tone was so matter-of-a-fact, and had returned to that talking-while-working distraction again, and Bob didn’t fully register the last sentence for a few seconds. “Excuse me? You have a program for TF fans here?”
“Oh, sure. It’s one of the reasons we built Animal Kingdom. We can’t openly advertise of course. Our detractors would have a field-day if we went public with it. But if you’re serious about TF and want to give it a shot, I’ll tell you where to go.”
This is a joke, Bob thought. He’s good: so straight I almost believe him, but he’s just told me Disney run a TF program as if recommending a pizza parlour!
“Ah, now you’re giving me one of those sceptical looks,” Michael nodded. “You’re right to, you know. But let me ask you frankly: do you believe in real, honest-to-goodness magic? The real, turning-Pinocchio-into-a-donkey sort?”
Bob hesitated. “I’d like to,” he admitted. “It would be great to think there was a way to achieve something like that.”
“Would you say you’re sceptical but would love to be proved wrong?”
Bob thought about it. “I suppose that’s true, yes.”
“Uh-huh,” Michael nodded absently, as he frowned in concentration at whichever detail he was currently doing. He didn’t pursue the subject, but moved on to another topic. Bob quite enjoyed the conversation to be truthful, swapping comparisons of Norfolk, VA, against Norfolk, UK. He found himself telling Michael quite a lot of things, and was not unaware that he was being subtly probed for background information: quite likely it was a good way to personalise a caricature.
“There,” the artist announced at length. “That about does it. What do you think?”
He turned the easel around and Bob laughed. “Oh, that’s great!”
It was recognisably a Clydesdale pulling a covered tram, with the hint of a proud, multi-towered fairy castle in the background. The really clever thing was that Bob could detect his own features on the horse’s face, despite it being a very subtle caricature. Perched a little incongruously on the horse’s head was Bob’s worn, grey Montpelier Hunt Races cap.
“The finished transformation,” Michael announced.
“Oh, I really like that,” Bob chuckled. “Thank you. How much do I owe you?”
Michael scribbled on a receipt pad. “Here you go. Just take that into the shop there, and bring it back with the sales receipt. I’ll pack this for you to keep it safe.”
Bob assumed the joke about the Disney TF program was just a gag about the picture, and as he queued to pay he mentally thought up the email he would send Eric and Matthew that night. Matthew would probably be astonished that he, Bob, had gone anywhere near Disney of his own accord.
Bob collected his picture, thanked Michael again and promised to send him some more custom via the TF community. Then after wandering the park a little longer and stopping for lunch at “Pizzafari”, he headed out of the park and back to his car.
Michael had sealed the picture in a clear plastic bag, with a sheet of card to keep it from getting crumpled. Bob slipped the picture out of the bag. Something brushed his fingers as he did so and he turned the picture over to reveal a Post-it note attached to the back.
Bob stared at the note. Was this taking a joke too far? In his limited experience, Disney cast-members didn’t play practical jokes on guests. And Michael would be going out on something of a limb: if he, Bob complained about this, he was sure Michael would be in a lot of trouble, if it was a joke. And what else could it be?
But… he had to pass the Downtown Disney area on his way home. He knew about the Pleasure Island area: where the Disney night-clubs were. He and Matthew had often joked about it, wondering how many guests went missing and whether it would be worth a visit, just to get turned into donkeys. He could stop and have a look, right?
Twenty minutes later he pulled into Downtown Disney’s immense parking lot. It was nearly full at this time of day, despite being out of season. He walked past the Planet Hollywood restaurant: a large blue planet with a flying saucer and a big, green, lizard-like alien outside.
Bob crossed the bridge into the Pleasure Island area and soon located the pier. Downtown Disney was built around the southern shore of a thirty-acre lake; an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants and other entertainments. At one end of the half-mile strip stood the artificial volcano of the Rainforest Café, while at the opposite end stood the distinctive edifice of the Cirque du Soleil, designed to give the impression of an old circus big top. Bob stood roughly midway. Since he had last visited, a large tethered balloon ride had been added: a giant yellow sphere decorated with the silhouettes of Disney characters, with a large circular cage slung beneath to afford passengers an aerial view of Walt Disney World and much of the southern Orlando area. Not far from the balloon was the Pleasure Island dock, one of three such piers serving Disney’s internal watercraft service. Bob approached warily, still thinking this was some kind of joke, but unable to see the purpose of it. He watched the dock, and saw several squat little passenger boats arrive and depart. They did all bear flags, but though he saw red, green, and blue ones, he saw no mauve ones. Eventually he ventured on to the pier and approached the cast member there.
“Hi there,” the man greeted him. His cast-member badge identified him as John from Kissimmee. “Where would you like to travel today?”
“Uh, actually, I was just wondering,” Bob said. “Do the flag colours on your boats mean anything?”
“Yeah, they’re route markers,” the man called John told him. “Red flags just run from end to end of the lake here, from West Side to the Marketplace. Blue ones’ll take you to the Saratoga Springs resort, and Green ones to Old Key West. If you leave from the Marketplace pier, there’s yellow ones n’all. They serve Port Orleans.”
Bob nodded. “Right. Are there any other colours?”
The man gave Bob an indecipherable look. “What colours were you thinking?”
“Someone told me there were mauve ones.”
Somewhat to Bob’s surprise, the man nodded. “They aren’t part of the regular service, but yeah. Who mentioned ‘em?”
“A cast-member at Animal Kingdom,” Bob said.
“Uh-huh. Did he give you a note by any chance?”
Bob showed him the Post-it note. The man nodded again. “And you’d be thinking this is some sort of joke at your expense, right?”
“Something of the sort,” Bob admitted.
“Well, I’ll tell you this much. It’s not a joke. I don’t know what you discussed with this Michael, but this pretty much entitles you to visit a facility we don’t advertise to the general public. It’s entirely your choice, and if you don’t like what you see at the other end, you can head straight back. We don’t hold with coercion here at Disney. And before you think it, we’re not out to sell you Vacation Club membership either.”
“When do these visits take place?”
“Are you busy this afternoon? I can have a boat here in fifteen minutes. Round trip’ll take maybe a couple of hours, or a bit longer if you want.” There seemed to be some kind of in-joke there.
Bob considered. He had no commitments, and wasn’t flying back home until the day after tomorrow. His aunt wasn’t expecting him at any particular hour. And he had to admit he was intrigued.
“All right then,” he agreed.
“Good,” said the man, looking satisfied. “Just a moment here.” He took a walkie talkie from his belt and spoke into it. “Control? This is John at Pleasure Island. I have a special referral for you. Could we have the mauve machine, please? Thanks.” He looked up. “Heading out as we speak. Sounds like they were expecting you.”
John made small talk as they waited, but Bob’s attempt to find out exactly what waited on this excursion was met with an apology and a rueful shake of the head. “I’m sorry; it’s not for me to say. I haven’t even been where you’re headed. You ‘re one of a privileged few.”
The boat appeared in just a little over ten minutes, moving at a good speed. It did not look like one of the squat little river ferries: it had more of the look of an executive power boat; sleek and low. Two mauve pennants fluttered proudly from her stern as she curved swiftly across the lake. She closed rapidly with the pier, at the last moment turning sharply and cutting power so that she was side-on to her direction of travel: water resistance braked her effectively, and residual momentum brought her perfectly and gently alongside the pier. The boat was astonishingly quiet: at no point did Bob hear any engine sound.
“I take it he’s done that before,” Bob said, unable to avoid an appreciative grin.
“Oh, a time or two,” the pier attendant said.
The pilot turned out to be a she: a handsome middle-aged woman of about Bob’s own age, snappily dressed in a dark blue trouser suit. The ubiquitous cast-member badge read Carol, under an icon depicting Mickey Mouse’s sorcerer hat from Fantasia. Unusually though, it did not say where she was from.
Having tied the boat off, she approached Bob and John, greeted the latter familiarly, and held a hand out to Bob. “Hi there! Carol Fleismann. Are you our special guest for today?”
Bob shook hands with her (she had a very firm grip) and introduced himself.
“And you’re probably feeling a bit wary and wondering what the hell this is all about, right?” she asked with a grin.
“That’s about it,” Bob agreed.
“Well, relax: we haven’t mistaken you for a visiting senator or a corporate VIP, in case you’re worried about that, okay?”
“I was beginning to.”
She laughed. “Well, our founder’s philosophy was that we should make everyone feel like a VIP. You’re just one of the lucky few who was in the right place at the right time. Now, if you’re still willing, I’m going to take you on a ten minute trip to a facility which isn’t part of the public parks, give you a quick tour, and then I’m going to make you an offer. You won’t be pressured, and if you’re not interested, I’ll bring you right back here.”
“And if I am interested?”
“Well, that’s what we’re hoping. We’ll get to that. Are you still interested?”
Bob shrugged and grinned. “I guess so!” He still didn’t know quite what to think about this development. Despite John’s assurance, he still half suspected he’d been singled out for the hard sell on Disney’s time-share scheme, but the DVC recruited quite openly from numerous kiosks around the parks, and seemed to have no trouble doing it. Why use this bizarre technique? Especially when he’d shown no interest in such a venture. And yet the casual discussion with the caricature artist, Michael, seemed just as unlikely to have initiated anything either. And yet… how much about himself had he told Michael? Quite a bit, now that he thought about it.
Carol helped him onto the boat, with a friendly but professional hand on his elbow. The craft was apparently named Pixie-dust, and had a little picture of Tinker Bell on the prow, casting magical sparkles in a swirling line along the boat’s flanks. Carol seated him beside her in a beautifully upholstered leather seat, and saw to it he was strapped in. There was no engine sound at all. Bob assumed that the motor had been shut down, and consequently was taken thoroughly off-guard when Carol announced, “Here we go then. Hold on!” and the boat surged away from the pier with only the rushing sound of displaced water.
“It’s so silent!” he marvelled aloud.
“Our first demonstration,” Carol laughed. “No motor.”
“No motor?” he repeated. “Then what..?”
“Oh, just faith, trust, and pixie-dust,” Carol said in a studiedly offhand voice. “And that’s a more literal answer than you’re likely to believe right now, but I’ll guarantee you this much. You’re welcome to examine the boat when we stop. You’ll find no diesel; no electric motor. She isn’t wind or solar powered. It’s not clockwork or elastic and there are no hamster-powered treadmills as one guest suggested.”
Bob opened his mouth to respond, then thought better of it. Okay, he thought. This is one of two things. It’s either a clever hoax: some sort of new ‘limited edition’ experience that will enhance Disney’s reputation as the best theme park builders in the world, or it may just be the real deal. If it’s the former case, it doesn’t seem to be malicious, so sit back and enjoy it like any other ride. If it’s the latter… then wow!
He tried to approach the situation analytically, but he could not work out how the boat was travelling. Now that he had the leisure to study it, the wake looked wrong: there was a broad vee of displaced water from the bow, but no frothed wake from a propeller or impeller. Moving water really was the only sound the vehicle made. There were conventional-looking controls, but Carol didn’t seem to be using them, and Bob noticed every dial; speed; temperature; fuel; read zero. The throttle handle was at idle. There was no key in the ignition. Carol did seem to be steering, but that was it.
Okay, so how did this boat move? Submerged cables? It seemed unlikely: the lake had a fair bit of conventional traffic, and looked deep. And the boat was moving quite swiftly: faster than the stubby little passenger ferries, and they didn’t exactly dawdle. Bob was willing to bet the boat wasn’t air-powered: there was no sound of motor or fan, and no hiss of compressed air. He’d also seen the boat’s stern as he boarded, and there were no obvious nozzles for such a propulsion.
Magnets? Some sort of linear magnetic track submerged on the floor of the lake? But twice now he had seen Carol deviate around another vessel; one of them was one of the small, rented motor boats that guests could take out. Unless it was a scrupulously detailed blind to put him off the scent, he didn’t see how such a manoeuvre could be pulled off if the boat were being pulled along a magnetic track.
Carol, he noticed, was watching him surreptitiously, and her face was amused. “You can’t work out how it’s done, can you?” she asked. “But I can see you going through the options. Come up with any ideas?”
“Magnets?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Lake’s about thirty feet deep here. Take a hell of a magnet to pull us this strongly from that depth. Enough to fry anything electronic. Do you have a mobile phone or an iPod; anything like that?”
Bob pulled out his PDA. Little experimentation was needed to verify that the device seemed to be working fine.
“And it’s very easy to prove we’re not following any kind of track,” Carol said. Without any sign that she was operating any control, the boat slowed. “Pick any landmark on the shore.”
Bob looked around and pointed back and right, where the mock-volcano of the Rainforest Café was clearly visible: he’d eaten there a few times with Matthew and Ana.
“Okay,” Carol agreed. “I’ll head that way, and I want you to stop me at a random point, and choose another landmark. Or guide me on any course you fancy.”
Feeling slightly self-conscious and not sure why, Bob counted to twenty as the boat moved swiftly toward the east end of the lake, then said, “Okay, do a big circle here: fifty yards.”
Carol nodded. “Okay, here we go.” The boat smoothly curved round to port and executed a sweeping circle. “Not tracks?” she asked.
“Not unless the whole lake is some kind of very sophisticated grid, absolutely covered in magnets, and that seems like an awful lot of effort with very little return,” Bob admitted.
“Well, let me cover the ones you missed,” Carol grinned. “It could be a magneto-hydrodynamic drive. Water is electrified and propelled magnetically out of the boat without using any moving parts. Believe me though, if we could make a boat this small run this fast by MHD, the navy would pay us enough to double the size of Disney World. Another guest suggested that all the working parts of this boat are concealed in a submersible pod, far enough beneath the surface to eliminate any noise or turbulence. We’ve estimated though that to effectively pull an illusion like that off, we’d need to use an electric motor with one heck of a battery, and in order to avoid any tell-tail bubbles or noise from propeller cavitation, it’d have to be at least ten feet below the water line. That’s quite a bit deeper than many parts of the river system leading from this lake.”
Bob nodded. “And I guess something like that would make the boat almost unrockable,” he noted. “And it isn’t.” The boat had noticeably dipped to one side as they had climbed aboard.
“There’s a reason I’m going to such an effort to illustrate this,” Carol said. “Disney has a deserved reputation for some of the best special effects and illusions in film-making and theme-park design. Fooling you into suspending disbelief is what we do, and we flatter ourselves that we’re not too bad at it. This boat isn’t a product of that sort of technology though. In fact, there’s hardly any technology in this boat at all, apart from the basic structure that stops us getting wet, and that’s just a plastic shell with some comfy chairs on top.”
“You’re steering,” Bob noted.
“Not with this, I’m not,” Carol laughed, and pulled the steering-wheel off its column, tossing it casually into the back of the boat. “Ergonomic design suggested most people feel more comfortable if they have something to do with their hands.”
Bob looked back at the discarded wheel, then ahead: the boat was swinging easily toward the western end of the lake, where the narrow entrance to a river could be seen. Once aligned, it straightened and maintained a straight-line course for the small window.
“There are gauges and things,” he pointed out.
“Dummies,” Carol said, popping the control panel out of snap-on mountings and revealing that none of the instrumentation was actually connected on the reverse side. “To make it look more plausible.” She popped the panel back again.
“O-kay,” he said slowly. “I can see that, taking aside the hidden propulsion system, you might have micro-sensors on your fingers, or a hidden accomplice in the bow of the boat who is actually steering…”
“Oh, good one,” Carol said. “I think I’ll suggest a transparent boat to replace this one. Sorry. You were saying..?”
“Well, That might be the case, but…” Bob hesitated. “I can’t imagine any scenario that would cause a company like Disney to go to such elaborate lengths to create a deception. I mean, it’s really cool, but where are you going with it?”
“To a place we call the Disney Nexus,” Carol said.
“Uh, right. Intriguing and completely uninformative. But I meant, why?”
Carol nodded. “Perhaps you should start with a different ‘why’. Why did you visit Disney World today, Bob?”
He shrugged. “It was just a whim. I didn’t really have anything else planned today.”
“Do you usually visit theme parks when you’re bored?”
“Well, I wasn’t… uh, no, not usually,” he admitted.
“You visited Animal Kingdom?”
“Did you go on any rides? Dinosaur? Expedition Everest? The Kali River?”
“Kilimanjaro Safari? Primeval Whirl?”
“The Lion King? Flights of Wonder?”
“No, I just kind of wandered.”
“You paid eighty-two dollars plus tax to ‘kind of wander’? Do you usually do stuff like that?”
Bob almost mentioned how much he spent on tf artwork and fiction in an average year, but then thought, No, she’s right. Why did I go there today?
He shook his head. “How did you know?”
“Because we summoned you,” Carol told him, facing him.
“You… summoned me?”
Carol didn’t comment further: just watched his face.
“Are you trying to tell me you used… magic?” Bob asked. The boat moved quietly but quickly between two grassy banks. Resort car parks lay to either side, tastefully broken with trees and grass verges. Beyond, the mock-Victorian mansions of one of the resorts gleamed in the sun. It was an attractive vista, but at odds with the idea of magic. It looked too real.
Carol nodded. “Not a compulsion. We’re looking to recruit certain unique kinds of people. We cast a little seeking spell that spirals out and finds them for us, and if that person is agreeable, they’ll find themselves knocking at our front door, so to speak, with no very clear idea about how it came to pass. But you’re not being controlled. Do you feel in any way as if your thinking is cloudy or not your own?”
Bob managed a chuckle. “That’s kind of hard to answer, isn’t it? You could be making me think my mind was my own.”
Carol laughed. “Yes, that’s true. But if you were that firmly under my control, why would I be trying to convince you otherwise? You’ve already voluntarily jumped on board: I could have just quietly taken you where we’re going, and you’d have just followed along. Do you feel clear-headed?”
“Uh, yeah, I think so,” Bob said. “But the situation is a bit too surreal for me to be sure. I mean, you’re trying to convince me you’re using magic here.”
“Michael gave me a call after you’d left him,” Carol told him. “He told me you’d said you wanted to believe in magic. I’m giving you that chance. I know it’s a very big leap of faith for you, but if you will trust me, and open your mind, I’ll show you wonders. Are you game? Or if you think I’m nuts, I’ll drop you off right now: at the riverbank here, or take you back to Pleasure Island.”
The boat passed beneath a bridge, eerily silent but for the almost metallic echo of rippling water. Now golf-courses flanked both sides of the river. A yellow-flagged passenger boat went past them in the opposite direction with a purposeful growl of diesel. Resort guests waved and Carol waved back. Bob couldn’t help but do likewise. “No,” he said. “I am seriously intrigued, but I’d like to know where we’re headed with this, and I don’t mean this boat’s destination. If you spoke to that artist, then he must have told you what we were talking about.”
Carol nodded. “You’re a serious tf fan with a fantasy about becoming a draft horse.”
Hearing it stated so baldly caused a slight flush of colour in his cheeks, but he nodded. “So are you seriously going to try and convince me that such a thing is possible?”
Carol looked at him squarely. “Yes,” she said, completely serious. “I am.”
The river branched at a big ‘Y’. A wooden sign indicated the left route headed toward Old Key West resort; left was Port Orleans, which Bob was vaguely familiar with: Matthew and Ana were fond of staying there. The boat swung unerringly right. “Not to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth,” Bob said, “But apart from anything else, why?”
“Because I hope you’re going to help us spread our magic around and bring universal happiness to the world,” Carol told him matter-of-factly. And then she told him the story.
Walter Elias Disney was an artist and an animator, and a visionary. He was also a wizard: a genuine, bona-fide, authentic spell-casting wizard. And he was appalled at how fast the human race was driving itself toward its own destruction. People were just so miserable. And there was no-one to turn to. Pitifully few people were capable of generating a little good-will here and there. Fewer still were content with their life. Those few industries purporting to offer amusement to the people were almost always out to make a quick buck at the customer’s expense, offering little in return. Science was achieving incredible steps forward, but so much of it was driven by the increasing need to kill people in greater numbers. Religion was promising much in the next life but shrugging helplessly when confronted with this one. Walt was an empath: he could feel the emotional current around him, and he didn’t like it.
He knew his gift for entertainment could help, but cinema and the new television weren’t quite powerful enough. He looked around. There was plenty of natural magic in the world to draw on, flowing through the Earth in great rivers. If he could tap it somehow, purify it into a positive force, and literally immerse people in it, it might be possible to start fighting the encroaching despair before it became too late.
In Anaheim CA, thanks to the effort of some like-minded practitioners from the Stanford Research Institute, he located a powerful convergence of natural magic: a Node, currently nurturing a truly impressive orange-tree orchard. The orchard was being run in a modest fashion, but the oranges were putting a lot more than vitamins back into people’s lives and Walt reckoned he could do better than oranges. He built Disneyland there.
As an experiment, it worked beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Sneering critics gradually fell silent as it became clear that this astonishing new park, so different from anything else ever conceived, was a runaway hit with the American people.
But it was only an experiment. The node at Anaheim was respectable, but Walt knew there were more powerful nodes out there, and he also knew that while Disneyland was popular, California was not ideally located if he wanted to bring magic to the world. He need bigger – much bigger! – and he needed better access. The vast majority of America’s population lived on the opposite coast – more than seventy five percent east of the Mississippi in fact.
After months of searching and investigating, and a few false leads, Walt and his team found the Florida Node, or the Nexus, as they came to call it: a real honey pot of a node, extremely powerful and completely unsullied by any negative taint. This was the site for a new, bigger, and better development. Road access was good, and better yet, the Orlando Jetport was nearby, serving air traffic. This node would serve the world.
There was a catch: the node’s energies were tightly contained, leaking only a residual quantity of power to the world above. Walter Elias Disney gave the matter some thought, and managed to open it up, devoting his own life-energy to the process in a sacrifice he truly believed in. The effort drained him so far that he was unable to recover, and ultimately cost him his life, but the others Disney had gathered around him were dedicated to continuing his work. The Disney Nexus could save the world.
“Forgive me for saying this,” Bob said, “But ‘bringing happiness to the entire world’…” he trailed off.
“…Sounds really cheesy, and just what any corporate entertainment business would say,” Carol finished for him, nodding. “Absolutely. But we’re serious, and everyone thinks it’s just a neat slogan for a cool theme park. Parks. ‘The Most Magical Place in the World.’ It’s a really neat cover: classic strategy: we hide in plain sight. If the truth ever surfaces, we’ll be able to say, ‘Well, we did tell you!’”
Bob nodded slowly. “I like it. But I’m not sure I believe it.”
“You’re riding in a magic boat,” she pointed out. “And you can’t really explain how you came to be here this morning. You might not be the whole way yet, but part of you wants to believe it, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, definitely,” Bob agreed, grinning in spite of himself. “But wanting to believe something isn’t the same as actually believing it.”
“Very true,” Carol agreed, “And belief is a critical factor in the practice of magic. But you possess the necessary spark: you want to be convinced, and where I’m taking you, that’s enough.”
The boat made its way down a meandering, tree-lined stretch of river. On the right bank, octagonal villas on stilts, the Disney Tree Houses, could be seen peeking through the trees.
“Are you driving this boat, or is it driving itself?” Bob asked.
“Yes,” said Carol, and laughed.
The boat passed beneath another bridge and reached another junction. Down the left spur, Bob could glimpse the familiar quasi New Orleans buildings, but it seemed the boat wasn’t going there. The faint suspicion that Matthew might have known something about all this and that he had chosen the Port Orleans resort accordingly was quashed. The boat turned sharply right and passed beneath another bridge flanked by ‘No Entry’ signs. Now the river ran straight, and thick tree growth on either side gave no clue about where they might be, or what they were heading for.
“Almost there,” Carol said. “We’re off the main guest track now. Are you ready for some serious weirdness?”
“It doesn’t involve high ‘G’s or going upside down does it?” Bob asked, only half in jest; queasy recollections of Mission Space resurfaced.
Carol laughed. “No, it’s a gentle ride.” She produced a torch-like object from her pocket. “This is technological magic; not the real deal,” she said. “But it’s still pretty cool.” She pointed it at a seemingly random section of the right-hand bank and the device bleeped softly.
A disturbance caused ripples to appear from the bank, then, like a secret base in a spy movie, a ten yard section of the bank began to rise smoothly into the air. The boat slowed and waited until a dark, eight-foot tall portal had appeared, looking a bit like a camouflaged boat-house.
“That’s pretty neat,” Bob admitted.
“It’s an elevator,” Carol told him. “Are you happy to continue?”
“Oh, I’m twice as intrigued now,” Bob said, grinning. He couldn’t help himself. Some part of him had flipped a mental switch and made a philosophical shrug: this may be just some strange new attraction, but it’s pushing all the right buttons so far! He felt no sense of threat: Carol’s whole demeanour seemed genuinely friendly, and he was catching a barely restrained enthusiasm: someone who was really enjoying the sharing of a big secret.
The boat slid into the darkness. Three panelled, metal walls became visible as his eyes adjusted from the sunlight outside. There was a quiet whirring noise and a jolt that caused the water to slosh, then a sense of descent. Bob looked back. Like a lock-gate, the river was held back by a low barrier that had risen in place, and now the water level in the strange room seemed to be lowering rapidly. The window of sunlight was now above them. There was a faint click and Carol held aloft a fluorescent lamp, casting a soft glow over the dripping walls of what was evidently a shaft. The gurgling of water filled the damp air.
“How far does this go down?” Bob asked, a little nervously.
“About thirty meters. This area used to be all swampland. We’re descending beneath the bedrock layer. Don’t worry. It’s all perfectly stable and safe.”
The sunlit opening above suddenly shut off: Bob assumed the same camouflaged cover that had obscured this incredible elevator had lowered back into place. The damp descent continued for maybe two minutes more. He tried to feel concerned, but was mildly surprised to discover he felt a rising euphoria: a sense of energy. Irrationally, he wished he was on his racing bike. He felt excited, energetic, and most surprisingly, happy. It was irrepressible, bubbling up inside him until he could feel his lips twitching in a grin. He turned to Carol, and found she was watching him with answering grin on her face
“Feel good?” she asked.
He nodded vigorously. “Amazing! But why?”
“I’ll show you as soon as we get to the bottom. Don’t worry though: I’m not using any mind-altering gasses on you or anything like that.”
Bob wondered if he cared very much. He didn’t feel zoned out in any way: quite the contrary in fact. He felt incredibly alert. His body felt as if he’d had long, refreshing night’s sleep followed by an invigorating shower. What fizzed in his mind was like concentrated essence of Christmas, Thanksgiving with family; it was like driving his prized MG TC in cavalcade with a thousand other classic cars; like any celebration where you felt truly a part of it.
The gurgling water stilled, and the boat ceased its downward motion. With a smooth electric hum, the wall before them slid gracefully aside, and Bob saw a rough-hewn tunnel before him. Metal girders formed arches every ten yards or so. A central waterway was flanked by a walkway on either side, and the ceiling was high enough to eliminate any sense of claustrophobia that might have resulted.
“Wow,” Bob breathed. “Is this natural?”
“This bit isn’t, but just around the corner, there’s a junction. I’m not intending to abandon you at any point, but if you find yourself separated down here, as long as the roof has reinforcement, you’re safe and within the Nexus perimeter. This hooks into a lot of natural tunnels though, and they go on for miles. How do you feel?”
“Amazing,” he admitted, laughing. “Like a lottery winner, except…”
“Somehow, I feel like…” He struggled to articulate the feeling. “It’s like being in the centre of a really good group of friends,” he said. “Does that make sense? Or is that really daft? It’s more than just feeling good: I feel like a part of something good.”
Carol nodded, smiling. The boat slid noiselessly forwards again. “Let me show you something,” she said.
The tunnel followed a gradual curve for about a hundred yards, then met a T-junction.
Bob stared. “What is that?”
“Well, in technical terms, it’s dust and water vapour reacting with a strong magical current,” Carol told him seriously. “But we like to call it pixie dust.”
The boat drew closer to the junction and Bob gazed at the odd phenomenon in awe. He’d never seen anything like it in real life before. Rainbow-hued motes of light were sleeting down from the tunnel roof, whirling like light snow in a breeze, but also showing a peculiar animation. Shapes formed and evaporated in an instant. Intricate patterns evolved and dispersed. Maybe it was some sort of special effect? Something cleverly projected onto glass? But the sparks of light had a complex three dimensional movement that belied that idea, and the next moment, the boat had reached the junction and swung into the stream.
Bob yelped, but not in fear or pain: simply surprise. As if attracted to him, the flowing points of light formed a swirling halo about him and Carol and the boat. Although the lights were of all colours and intensities, the fuzzy aura about him seemed to glow a predominant green. Carol by contrast, was outlined in blue, and the boat glowed dimly with a soft red that was almost brown. At the edge of hearing, there was a faint tinkling sound, crystalline and resonant. And the welter of happy emotion within him seemed to rise a notch. He wished his parents were here so he could share this. He wished all his friends were here. Heck, he even wanted to share this with his office colleagues!
“What do you think?” Carol asked.
“I don’t know what to think,” he answered truthfully. “What I’m seeing, and what I’m feeling… it’s kind of sensory overload. How do you do it?”
“We don’t. God’s truth,” she said as Bob looked at her and attempted to look sceptical. His senses wouldn’t let him disbelieve it though, and his intellect was strongly swayed. He could think of no way to emulate this amazing sight. Maybe hallucinogenics, or hypnotic suggestion, his brain offered half-heartedly, but he found himself not believing his own scepticism. “This is natural; as natural as apple-pie and taxes,” Carol told him. “This is a conduit of natural power. A ley-line, or a line of power. This one is more powerful than most, and we’re close to a node of some size: they usually aren’t this spectacular.”
“Are these things a local phenomenon?” Bob asked, holding a hand up to his face to better examine the phantom fireflies milling around it.
“Oh no,” Carol assured him. “They’re global, but they vary tremendously in power and composition.”
“Why don’t people know about them then?”
“Well, many people do. But very few are as visible as this one, or as spiritually tangible. If there’s a natural passage or a cave, they tend to flow along them as a route of lowest resistance, but most ley-lines exist in solid rock, at varying depths. This one is very shallow. And they carry a sort of emotional charge with them. This one, as you can feel, is very highly, positively charged. That’s why you’re feeling that “Christmas morning” feeling. Some are very negative, and most are somewhere between, so that you wouldn’t really notice them.”
“I don’t think I’d like to meet a negative one,” Bob commented.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Carol assured him soberly. “People that chance across negative nodes or strong negative lines tend to just collapse in despair and die there; starving to death because they lose the will to live. A few people have made use of them for malign purposes but fortunately they tend to succumb to their own power. Less potent nodes just have a negative influence on local populations. There’s a deep negative node under Manhattan Island for example. Good job New Yorkers are naturally tenacious.”
“So what makes them?” Bob asked, awed. “This isn’t electricity.”
“Like I said,” Carol said, “This is magic: the real deal. To quote from a certain movie, ‘Life creates it’.”
Bob laughed and made his voice low and croaky. “Ah! Jedi master you are!” He pantomimed holding an imaginary lightsabre. He was utterly unprepared when a four-foot beam of humming green energy materialised with a familiar hissing buzz. He yelped and threw his hands back and the humming manifestation vanished, dispersing into a million pixie fireflies. “What the hell was that?” he demanded, shaken.
Carol was openly laughing. “Don’t worry. It was only an illusion. You wouldn’t have harmed anyone with it.”
“With what?” Bob demanded. “What was it?”
“Illusion. Magic depends on belief, faith, and visualisation, but the threshold gets lower and lower as the strength of the local magic field varies. Immersed in a ley-line, your thoughts are sufficient to cause a reaction. Go ahead and experiment. Or if you don’t want to do it, try to keep your thoughts from becoming too visual.”
“Oh, thanks,” growled Bob. Don’t think about something? Wasn’t that the best way in the world to guarantee you thought about something? Suppose he thought about… no!
He caught it quickly and the coalescing image turned into his MG, which was fortunately just as curvaceous as the image he’d suppressed. Cars. Think of cars. Or horses. Just don’t think about the sort of things you’d rather didn’t manifest in front of another person. Especially a woman… cars! Cars! CARS!
“Well done,” Carol said, nodding. “Not very fair of me, but that was a sort of test. You have pretty good control considering you’ve had no formal training. Uh, you’re not a practitioner of magic, are you?”
“I’m afraid not,” Bob said.
“Here in this conduit,” Carol said, “a practiced adept can harness the power and work quite substantial acts of magic. Where we’re heading is a junction point of seven of these, and the field strength increases exponentially. There, it would take the most cynical of people not to work magic.”
In a way he couldn’t define in words, Bob could feel the strange power sluicing along the underground passage. He felt what he could only describe as ‘fizzy’: amazingly alive, alert. He felt even better now than he had when the boat had reached this subterranean place. But his thoughts were spinning with implications. And though he had been distracted by the motorless boat, the amazing aqua-elevator, and Carol’s new spin on what Disney was all about, he really wanted to know what he was getting into.
“Why are you bringing me here?” he asked. “No offence, but why all this trouble to bring me down here, following a somewhat odd conversation with a cartoonist?”
“I want to offer you a job,” Carol answered. “It doesn’t pay anything, involves largely menial labour, and involves you turning your back on the life you know now. Interested?”
“Uh, gee,” drawled Bob. “Can’t wait. I take it there is a carrot somewhere, or are you going to impose this on me against my will after all?”
“No,” she said seriously. “We can turn back and return to the surface even now if you wish. But carrots… well, interesting that you should put it quite that way. I’m going to offer you a way to turn into a horse.”
Even when it had been a lifelong fantasy, and even with a nimbus of magical energy glowing about him, it was hard to address an offer like that at all seriously. Bob didn’t know how to respond. And yet, he didn’t know how to explain this amazing cave passage. He couldn’t think of any way this magical radiance could be achieved, that responded to thought. Maybe he was drugged or hypnotised, but he felt so awake: so alert. If this was some sort of induced dream, was there any harm in going along with it? And if it wasn’t…
“Why?” he demanded, giving up on the possible/not-possible tug-o-war going on in his head. “I know I keep asking the same question, but this is just so weird! Never mind whether it’s possible or not: why would you want to turn me into a horse?”
“Because being an animal is the most efficient way to achieve what we do here,” Carol said. “Let me explain.”
Walt Disney World was situated over the most powerful positive node in the world. Despite the planet’s increasingly cynical outlook on life, the venture soon gained momentum, rapidly becoming the most popular holiday destination in the world. How could people not love coming to a place where they were literally saturated in positive emotional energies? “Even we have trouble talking about bathing people in happiness,” Carol admitted, interrupting her narrative.
“Uh, that’s better than the acronym,” Bob chuckled.
“Positive Emotional… oh, yes,” Carol laughed. “Not quite the catchphrase we wanted. We tend to talk about Plusitrons and Negitrons.”
But that still wasn’t enough. It worked, in varying degrees, for the vast majority of the people that visited WDW. But you couldn’t expect the entire population of the earth to visit Florida: not even close.
“Okay,” said one bright imagineer. “We can’t bring the people to the Nexus. Can we take the Nexus to them?”
A spell was devised: a simple one. Visitors to WDW were ‘tagged’ with it, all unknowing. When they departed, they carried with them an invisible charge of “happiness” which would discharge into their environment over a period of weeks. It worked very well in theory, but in practice it was difficult to tie to the average human being. Humans are cagey creatures, layered in natural shields of wariness, distrust, and cynicism. The crystallised “happiness charge” needed to get through this somehow. Another human couldn’t do it: people are at their most defensive when approached by a fellow homo sapiens.
“So don’t use humans,” said that bright imagineer. “Most people relax around animals, don’t they? Let’s run a few tests.”
It worked, to a point, but most animals lacked the intensity of focus required to cast a spell. How do you come up with an animal that can spell-cast?
Bob got an attack of the giggles at this point. Partly it was euphoric feeling of the raw magic around him, but mostly it was the ludicrous concept. “So you want to turn me into a horse so I can cast happiness spells on theme-park visitors? Why didn’t you just say so?”
Carol shrugged, deadpan. “Just cynical I guess. I thought you might not believe me.” “I’m, uh, struggling with this,” Bob admitted. “You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t,” Carol said. “But would you agree to discuss it as if it were real for a moment? Let’s call it a role-playing exercise.”
“Okay,” Bob agreed cautiously.
“In a minute or two, we’ll reach the Nexus. The Nexus will allow you to achieve your fantasy. You will do it: not me. You already proved with the lightsabre thing that you have the potential you need. We’ll turn you into a nice draft horse, and you’ll ply your way through the parks. Horses work really well: people just naturally let down all their shields when they’re near horses, even if they don’t particularly like ‘em. You’ll perform some nominal work: pull a tram or a parade float, or work a carriage in one of the resort areas. You’ll be taught how to cast the happiness spell: it’s a simple thing requiring only eye-contact and a modicum of will-power. And believe me, once you’ve experienced a shape-change, you won’t ever have any doubts about magic ever again: you’ll have all the conviction you need. You’ll be part of a team, so to speak. We have nearly fifty transformed equines here, mostly stabled at our Fort Wilderness stables. And that’s just the horses. Where you went today is our power-house: Animal Kingdom was specifically designed with this project in mind. Almost every animal there is a volunteer spell-caster.”
“You get that many volunteers?” asked Bob, a little sceptically.
Carol gave him a direct look. “Michael told me you have a strong involvement with the TF scene on the internet,” she said. “So do we. You know very well that there are thousands of people out there who would do almost anything for a chance to change shape.”
Bob nodded. “That’s true. It’s just…”
“You’re unprepared to put that fact in a practical context,” Carol nodded. “But we are. We have a huge population of squirrels and rabbits around the parks and resorts. Birds too. They’re very popular forms. Wolves are extremely popular too, but the options to include real wolves in a theme park are limited. We’ve a long-term plan to introduce some mythicals, but that needs very careful treatment.”
“I might know a would-be unicorn or two,” Bob said.
“You might find we already know them,” said Carol with a grin. “Like I said, we keep a close eye on the TF community. It kind of helps if they’re regular Disney visitors.”
Bob laughed nervously. “Uh, so what’s involved here? Are you offering me a permanent change? No way back? How thorough is the change?”
“The change is as permanent as you want it to be,” Carol said. “You can try things out and if it doesn’t work for you, you can change back. Some people find that being an animal isn’t quite what they expected. I wouldn’t expect that in your case, but the option’s there. And if you get tired of it in six months’ time, you can give it up then, or whenever. Heck, you can just do it for the holidays if you want. In fact the more often you do it, the easier it gets. Once you get over the stumbling block of cynicism, you won’t even need to visit the Nexus itself. Any halfway good ley-line will work for you. If you decide to make it permanent, we’d suggest some measures to reassure friends and family. Then again, you may not need them: magic has an interesting tendency to smooth over the rough edges. Turn into a horse and you might just find all your friends remember you that way, or your parents turn into your owners.
“As for how thorough the change is, it’s a complete physical transformation right down to the smallest detail. That in itself imposes some mental changes but nothing of a permanent or debilitating nature. A transformee typically finds himself struggling to process abstract information such as symbol-processing: you’ll have difficulty reading or doing math. A certain amount of instinctive behaviour is inherent in the change, but nothing you can’t override if you want to. Uh, I’m afraid current legislation mandates that you be a gelding if you’re male, but that’s part of the transformation: painless and reversible.”
“Uh, right,” Bob said. That was a slight blow to his male ego, but it sounded reasonable. “And I’ll still be me?”
“All sense of identity and personality is completely retained. No loss of memory. We’ve found that brain activity in transformees is much, much higher than in a natural animal. Pretty much all mammals, birds, etcetera have a lot of redundant brain material. Comes in handy when you’re transforming.”
“Will I be able to talk?” Bob asked.
“If you concentrate,” Carol assured him. “You won’t find it easy or natural, but yes. The problems are associated with that abstract processing thing I mentioned. As far as being a horse is concerned, your mouth and larynx will be quite adequate to producing intelligible sounds. Ah! Here we are! Brace yourself. You’re about to experience a high energy magic field for the first time in your life.”
The boat emerged into a wider cavern, where the waterway apparently ended. If the water continued its journey, it did so downwards. A small dock of gridded metal stood proud of the rocky bank, and the boat quietly slowed and butted up against it. Carol tossed a loop of rope over a mooring bollard and jumped out, offering Bob a steadying hand as he followed.
It wasn’t really until his feet touched rock that he noticed anything different. He would have said he could hardly have felt any better than the ley-line had made him feel. He was wrong.
It was like stepping into a kaleidoscope, except that it involved all his senses. Sound and light were everywhere, but there were shadows of scent and touch too, and he could taste things. It was overwhelmingly beautiful and he felt the onslaught foaming against his mind. He wanted to cry for joy: to kneel down and let this maelstrom of wash over him while he gently dissolved in its centre…
“Take a moment, and go slowly,” Carol’s voice came to him, as if from a great distance. He tried to concentrate on her voice. “Thomas! Could you lend me a hand for a second?”
The sensations didn’t vanish, but a strange detachment entered his mind, as though somehow his emotions had gone to sleep. It helped somewhat, although he still felt a little like he had stepped out of a quiet street and into the middle of a dance floor. There was even a beat, although Bob was confused to discover that he couldn’t tell what sense was detecting it, or even if it was the same sense all the time.
“You okay?” Carol asked, echoed by a young man whom Bob hadn’t noticed approaching. He wasn’t sure if he’d have noticed Godzilla sneaking up on him.
“Hi, I’m Thomas,” the newcomer introduced himself. “Welcome to the Disney Nexus, South-East Portal. I hope you don’t mind but I’m damping things a little for you right now. Your mind will adjust fairly rapidly, but that first step is a doozy.”
“Uh, thanks,” Bob said, shaking his head. “Wow.”
“This is just the edge of it,” Carol said cheerfully. “You’re going to stand at the centre shortly. How does that sound?”
Bob looked at her dubiously. “A bit like walking into a nuclear reactor. Will I come apart?” Somehow the prospect didn’t worry him.
She laughed. “You’ll be fine. Come on: let me show you what magic is.”
She took him by the hand, and Thomas laid a gentle support on his other arm. Bob was glad to let them assist him. He felt pleasantly disoriented, as if having drunk slightly too much. He couldn’t control the huge grin on his face. Even with Thomas apparently easing the way for him, he still wanted to tell everyone how much he loved them right now.
They walked slowly from the dock cavern into a lined corridor. It had a rather utilitarian look to it, like a maintenance corridor in a shopping mall, but it was clean and brightly lit. Even so, everything glimmered within an iridescent sleet of pixie dust. It collected around everything to form rainbow auras, especially strong around the three humans.
“I guess I’m technically what most people would call a wizard,” Thomas told Bob as they proceeded. “I tend to think of myself more as a technician though. I’m part of a fairly large team of individuals that shape and guide the radiance of the Nexus in the right direction.”
“Excuse me?” asked Bob.
“Well, a node is like a light bulb. It shines in all directions indiscriminately. In the case of the Nexus, we’d lose some seventy five percent of its power radiating downwards or laterally underground. My colleagues and I –Carol is one of them- act like ethereal lamp reflectors. We reflect all the wasted power and direct it upwards. It’s not homogenous: we concentrate it slightly in the parks, but it permeates the land above for about a ten mile radius. Even Universal Studios benefit from it.”
“What is it I keep hearing… feeling… something?” asked Bob. “I keep feeling I can… uh, feel a beat or something.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Thomas exclaimed with a grin. “That’s what we call the Eartheart. That’s the living pulse of the planet you can detect. And don’t worry: your mind is hearing it, and trying to assign the sensation to a recognised sense. That’s why you can’t tell whether you’re hearing it or smelling it.”
Bob became aware (and was rather proud of himself for noticing, distracted as he was) that they were making their way through a circular warren: a series of concentric rings linked by radial connecting corridors. He imagined it must be a bit like this in the particle-accelerators underneath CERN. Except CERN didn’t lead to a central node like this. He didn’t think it did anyway. His eyes widened. Was that what they were really up to maybe? America had Disney World while Europe covered its efforts with a frontier science lab?
The curvature of the corridors grew more pronounced, as they headed inward. They passed doors, and widened seating areas with vending machines. One area behind a glass wall appeared to be a television lounge. The big screen showed a field of rainbow static. Thomas gestured at it. “That’s one of the off-duty lounges,” he explained. “Magic plays merry hell with technology though. We all know how to shield things when we’re using them, so if I actually want to watch the big game, I can get it to behave for me. We actually have three people permanently on duty whose only job is to keep the critical systems running: pumps and air-con mostly, plus the phones and a few computers. And the Coke machines of course.”
“Not that we need a lot of caffeine down here,” Carol laughed.
They turned into another radial tunnel, which ended in a very high-tech looking set of frosted glass doors. A sign above them read,
You are entering the Nexus Node proper.
Practice mental discipline at all times.
Normal reality is suspended hereon in.
“You won’t have felt it,” Thomas told him, “But you’ve been adapting to the Nexus as we’ve approached. We deliberately stagger the radial corridors to prevent anyone making their way straight from outside to the core. I’m still shielding you, but no more than before, and yet the field strength here is about a hundred times as potent as it was at the dock. I’ll keep shielding you, because an unguarded thought in here can have unexpected consequences. We’ve trained for this extensively: it takes a lot of practice to be focussed enough to work here. Field strength increases exponentially as you approach the core. If you find yourself going blind, don’t panic. Just stop for a moment and let your mind adjust: it’s merely sensory overload. It’ll clear in a few seconds. You’re going to turn into a horse, aren’t you?”
Bob laughed. Thomas asked the question in much the same way that a waiter might ask, “You ordered the chicken soup, didn’t you?”
“Uh, sorry,” Thomas apologised, obviously catching on. “Don’t think I’m blasé about what we do here: we call ourselves the Lost Boys because we never grow up here.”
“That’s right,” Carol quipped. “I’m a Lost Boy too, and proud of it!”
Bob laughed. “Well, yes, I guess I’m here to turn into a horse.” Surprisingly, although it still felt pretty weird to be saying that, the concept felt easier to believe here. The whirling pixie dust radiance leant things a dreamlike quality, and his emotions were still muted by Thomas… he did a double-take. Christ! He hadn’t even reacted to the idea of the young man altering his thoughts by magic! He’d just accepted it like an everyday occurrence, like being told by a technician that his broadband connection was going down for a few minutes.
The doors opened before them. Peripherally, Bob was aware that the chamber was circular, with a high, domed roof, and a slightly dished floor. The whole space was about forty yards in diameter. As they stepped into the room, he saw that a slightly raised deck ran around most of the chamber, punctuated by doors at the compass points. There appeared to be four people in the room, each seated in a small alcove halfway between each door, facing the centre of the room.
The centre of the room…
It defied the senses, but drew them at the same time: a rainbow-haloed sphere that flashed with dazzling light, and sang like a crystal choir. It was awesomely beautiful. It caressed Bob’s skin like sun-warmed silk, smelled of pine smoke and wild flowers and fresh-mown grass. He could even taste it, but the taste defied any attempt at classification, save that he knew he would never taste earthly food so wonderful…
He had stopped to stare. Thomas gently stepped forward and placed gentle fingers around Bob’s arm. “Are you ready?”
It was all happening too fast, and his senses were dazzled by the shining light before him, but he wondered if you could ever be ready for something like this. He knew, now that he saw it, that whatever happened, whether he became a horse or not, that this wasn’t faked! This wasn’t a drug or hypnotically induced illusion. The light sang with an undeniably reality: a rock in a chaotic ocean, so that it was somehow more real than anything he had ever beheld before. Bob stepped forward nervously. “What do I do?”
“Step into the Nexus,” Thomas told him.
“Is it safe?” asked Bob nervously.
“For you, at this time, yes,” Thomas answered, somewhat cryptically.
Bob took another step forward. The light seemed to react, sending more of the pixie dust motes in his direction. “Uh, do I need to undress or something?” he asked, embarrassed.
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Thomas told him. “Stand within the light. Listen to my instructions. I’ll keep my mind on yours and stop casual thoughts from interfering with your focus. Carol is going to feed you a mental image of a horse. If you’re happy to go through with this then concentrate on the image and wish yourself into it. The magic will take care of the rest.”
“Everything?” Bob asked. “I don’t need a veterinary knowledge of horse anatomy or anything?”
“Magic is generated from the natural world,” Thomas told him. “It knows what a horse is.”
Am I really going to go through with this? Bob asked himself. I haven’t prepared for this! I haven’t wound up my affairs: I haven’t told my parents…
The light beckoned. He was ten paces away, now seven. A nimbus of faerie light shone about him now. Two paces; one. Then in…
The world went away. Or he was the world. Concepts he had no words for; senses he could not have imagined, collided in him. Something filled him; stretched him. He was a Niagra of life-force; a supernova of it. It was incredibly heady and euphoric, and he shouted with laughter. The emotion transcended mere happiness.
“Are you okay?” Carol’s voice came to him, though through what sense he could not tell.
Was he okay? The sheer inadequacy of the question staggered him: an explosion of mirth that caused actinic rainbows to detonate around him. With an effort he answered her, and wasn’t sure he used his voice. “I’m fine…” Incongruously, the phrase reminded him of his friend Eric and his noted tendency to quip, “I’m fine!” after numerous painful riding accidents. Matthew had joked that there was an unspoken scale, ranging from “I’m really fine,” to “I’m fine: the doctors say I’ll be able to breath unaided in a year or so.” I think the scale needs a new positive limit! he thought.
The image of a horse appeared in front of him, although he was mildly uncertain as to whether that was strictly the case: it was more like having a very clear memory imposed in his mind. The image wasn’t limited to sight: he could hear the animal’s breath: he heard it snort, and felt the hot moistness of the exhaled air. He could smell the animal’s warm, grassy musk; such a dearly familiar scent.
It wasn’t a Clydesdale, virtually his trademark ‘ideal shape’. Though the horse was obviously a draft animal, broad-chested and muscular, it did not quite have the leggy grace of a Clyde. It was stockier, but equally tall. It was a pale chestnut in colour, with flaxen mane and tail.
“Would this work for you?” Carol asked.
“Oh yes,” breathed Bob.
“Then concentrate. Will that shape to be yours.”
“I wish…” Bob said, and let his mind fill with the image of the horse.
“That’s it,” Carol encouraged him in a soft, hypnotic voice. “Cloth yourself in that shape. Feel yourself standing on four strong legs. Feel the mass within your body; the powerful muscles; the broad chest. Feel the ground through your hooves; feel the different way your four legs bend, and the massive strength within them. Feel your long neck, broad and arched; your head long and handsome; your ears tall and pricked. Feel that velvety muzzle, and the strong jaws. Feel your huge lungs inflate and the hot breath rushing through your nostrils. Good! Good boy!”
There wasn’t really a sensation of change; the horse imaged in Bob’s mind became steadily more vivid. His mind felt more focused than he could remember it ever being before: He could not not have thought about the horse.
“That’s perfect, Bob,” Thomas’s voice joined Carol’s. “But stop thinking of it as an image. It’s you, Bob. That’s whatyou look like now. You are standing on all fours. You are a horse now: a young, seventeen hand Belgian. Your coat is russet brown, fading to a paler colour on your legs and muzzle. Your mane and tail are pale, almost cream. This is you, Bob. This is your description…”
Within the rainbow light, Bob nodded, and felt the mass of his head and neck. The movement was easy and instinctive, but there was a heaviness to it: his head carried so much more momentum now, but it was easily carried by his new strength. He snorted, and marvelled at the quivering feeling in his flaring nostrils. His ears twitched; another marvel, and he swivelled them back and forth. A similar sensation at his hinder portions and he swished his tail side to side and flicked it, whip-like. The hair was surprisingly fine and fell to his hocks. He rumbled in his throat; a soft, low whinny of approval; utterly unlike any sound any human could make.
He did not need to be told that the transformation was complete. He moved forwards out of the light, taking his first steps on four legs. It felt both completely natural and utterly novel to him. He did not stumble. Without conscious thought, he moved his ears as his hooves touched metal gridding on the floor with a ringing impact. He felt fantastic; aware of his new body in ways he had never anticipated. Every tiniest twitch of his skin served to emphasise how massively different his body now was. His senses seemed to have shifted: sound from his alertly pricked ears conveyed an awareness of the space around him, and the whirring of fans and the hum of electrical units all had their own voices. The song of the Nexus now seemed much more complex as he became aware of subtle harmonics that gross human hearing would not have detected. His sight was very different, and colours had shifted somewhat. The light of the Nexus seemed dominated by reds and blues now, and it was strange to have such a huge field of vision: he could see in a huge arc with only a comparatively narrow blind cone behind him. His nose quivered as tried to decipher the complex pattern of odours in the room. He smelt metal and plastic, cold rock, and he could smell the people here. The odours were as sharply individual as names.
He didn’t know what had happened to his clothing, and wondered without much concern what might have happened to his wallet and his phone. He guessed it had all just faded away, or had in some magical way been absorbed into his growing mass. The idea seemed elusive and of not much concern to him: too abstract. He was hungry; he knew that.
He was slightly startled to hear cheers and applause from the people in the room. Carol and Thomas approached, both wearing wide grins. Bob was astonished to see how much smaller everything seemed: it was odd to stand on all fours and yet look down on them. He didn’t know how tall he was now, but Carol was about three heads below his eye level, and Thomas, who was tall and thin, still had to look up to meet his eyes.
“So,” Carol said, “Do you believe in magic now?”
Bob nodded vigorously.
“Can you talk?” Thomas asked.
Bob tried it. It was an effort: mostly to come up with the words in the first place, but partly to get his drastically altered mouth to shape them. “Can… talk, yeth.”
“Do you feel okay? Nothing wrong?”
Bob shook his head. “Feel fine. Hungry,” he added.
Thomas chuckled. “Proves you’re a real horse. Let’s take you somewhere more appropriate and you can fill that giant belly.”
Bob frowned – an incongruous expression on a horse. “Boat?” he asked.
Carol laughed. Thomas grinned and said, “Uh, no. There’s more than one way out of here. We have a passage to the Fort Wilderness resort, where the stables are. We’re well used to new horses.”
And to further whoops and clapping, Bob followed Carol out of the Nexus chamber.
2011, Port Orleans Resort (Riverside), Walt Disney World.
It was two months later, though it seemed so much more. Bob couldn’t quite believe how different his life had become. He was well used to his new form now, and his training was complete. Not only had he learned how to perform the surface aspects of his new role, such as pull carriages and floats and occasionally even take a rider, but he had learned the simple spell that was his real new job: spreading happiness. Who’d have thought it?
It was early evening and pleasantly warm, even here by the Sassagoula river. Here at the quayside which formed the hub of the Riverside half of the Port Orleans resort, Bob and one of his colleagues (though he tended to think of them as herd-mates) were harnessed to the ornate white carriages that ran short jaunts around the resort. His human partner, Steve, was welcoming a small family and ushering them on board, showing them the blanket in case it grew cool, as it often did beside the water. Bob felt the vehicle shift as his passengers climbed up: mother, father, and a young girl about six years old who was obviously a horse-lover, and had already been told gently that she couldn’t ride the ‘pony’- or sit at the front with Steve.
Steve climbed up onto the driver’s bench, gathered the reins and clicked his tongue. “Walk on, Bob,” he called.
Bob leaned into the harness, and with little effort, began the half-hour ride. The route was pleasant and the carriage, well balanced, was easy to pull. The riverside pathway was broad and smooth. The water taxis passed up and down beside him, and on the path itself he passed strolling holiday guests and a few enjoying the rented bicycles.
He remembered cycling, though it was hard to remember what his human body had felt like. Carol had assured him when he’d asked, that reality had a way of filling discrepancies and that it was very unlikely that anyone (even his parents) had missed him, or even remembered him. If and when he changed back, he was likely to discover that life would just resume where he had left off. He thought he would probably take a “human holiday” every once in a while, but for now…
A pair of guests, a young couple probably honeymooning, stood aside to watch as he ambled past, arms around each others’ waists. The woman looked at Bob, and without pause, he met her admiring gaze.
The spell took but a moment: a quick draw on the Nexus and to Bob’s newly trained second Sight, the woman took on a golden radiance. Now she would be the emotional equivalent of a full watering can headed out into a parched garden. The positive emotional charge he had just tagged her with would dissipate slowly when she returned home, spreading its influence to those around her. Happiness spread! thought Bob, smugly. He cast the spell six more times in the next twenty minutes, and when his passengers disembarked at the end of the ride, managed to catch both the little girl and her mother too. As the family strolled away, the father glanced back and Bob, angling his tall ears to catch it, overheard him commenting whimsically to his wife. “Not a bad life, heh? Pulling carriages around a place like this? I think I could do that quite happily.”
Bob met his gaze: Flash! If you only knew…