Contract Witch

Edited by Danny Lore

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

March 2021

1223 words — Reading time: around 6 minutes

When asked if she’d join the team in launching the enchantments that would destroy most of Central Texas, Carly hesitated. “Well,” she began.

Gregor’s tiny golden wyvern interrupted her with a sigh as it settled on the conference table, atop his laptop’s power adapter. The familiar often perched there during sprint ceremonies. It liked the feel of the adapter’s heat on its haunches.

If she had not been a mere contract witch, and if she had not possessed such a finely-tuned sense of self-preservation, Carly would have said no. She might have mentioned that, while all the incantations developed in the last two months conformed to SEC9 standards, they were also wholly unmaintainable. She would have suggested that the team’s æther stewards actually test for quality control instead of producing even more Gantt charts. “And maybe Ben and Andrew could take what I say seriously instead of pretending like I don’t exist,” she might have said.

But no. Carly was a contract hire without benefits, brought on to help the team with a single project. In a room full of Ivy League warlocks and wizards, she was a boot-camp hedge witch with a state school degree. She didn’t know theory or alchemical arcana. She just knew how to build spells — simple, basic spells that worked.

And staring at the incantatory scripts on her laptop now, she knew one other thing: that the suite of enchantments the team had spent six months constructing would fail. It was intended to conjure a series of pure and flawless diamonds by pulling atmospheric carbon and the surrounding thermodynamic energy and running all of it through an Old Norse sigil processor, followed by three API calls to third-party magic systems built with Python, Middle Chinese, and Faerie charm scripts, ending in a transfer of said diamonds to a private vault via SFTP. What it would actually do, however, was coat them, their investors, and at least three major metropolitan areas in a thin layer of fine charcoal dust.

“Wait, why is there an omega on line 137?” she’d asked in Monday’s work session.

“It’s called an ohm,” Ben told her, without looking up from his laptop. “It represents one standard unit of electrical resistance.” Ben’s full name was Ben Hua (not Benoit, like she’d first thought). He’d chosen a headshot of Bender from Futurama for his Github avatar.

Carly suppressed a sigh. “I’m aware of what an ohm represents. I mean, why are you measuring resistance in the constructor? Won’t that get overwritten?”

Ben Hua did not answer, and he still didn’t look up. Carly was left staring at the reflection from his laptop on the lenses of his glasses.

“Hello?” she said.

Still nothing, but his shoulders tightened as if she’d twisted an invisible screw on the back of his neck by a quarter-turn.

She tried again. “Listen, it would be better to shift the thermodynamics logic to the utilities module, where the charms will protect the variable assignment. Otherwise the cubic lattice constructors will collapse when we upscale.” Also known as a very big boom.

Nothing. Carly looked at Andrew, who sat across the table chewing on a slice of pepperoni pizza.

“This is a more object-oriented design,” he said, wiping his hands off on the hem of his black hooded robe. Pink spots bloomed on his cheeks beneath patches of razor burn.

The thing was, Carly’s capstone project from boot camp involved kinetic transformations. She knew Python, Old Norse, a smattering of JavaScript, and enough Faerie scripting language to be left in no doubt that the project would collapse because of line 137. The constructor method — a sub-charm that ran when each carbon object was first assigned — would fail silently once the amount of atmospheric carbon exceeded the model limit, burying most of the region under a layer of grainy, black particulate matter.

Unnerved, she escalated the matter to Gregor. In his cubicle, he’d hung a framed picture of his wife and son sitting in a field of bluebonnets, and another of his kid holding a little violin tucked under one arm.

“Run this by me again,” Gregor said, squinting. He hadn’t actually constructed any spells since 2006. She explained a second time.

He glanced at the clock on his laptop. “Those are great ideas, but we don’t have time to implement anything new before go-live.”

Anything new? But this was about fixing a fatal flaw in the incantation.

Carly returned to her assigned cube with an uneasy burning in her stomach. Did any of them care what it would mean to disburse that much incoherent carbon into the air? Did they think at all about the devastation that would wreak on the entire regional ecosystem? Her back-of-the-envelope calculations said the fallout would poison a thousand square miles of soil, to say nothing of the chaos unleashed inside the cities that fell within the exhaust zone.

She tried again at the next morning’s standup, but Ben Hua cut her off.

“Locating the resistance factor in the constructor method makes the entire incantation suite more secure,” he told Carly angrily, for once looking her in the eye. “Look at the runic decorator. It’s loaded at the point of compilation. Outsourcing to the utilities module exposes the translation.”

“But security doesn’t have anything to do with it,” she said, confused.

But Gregor had heard enough. “Let’s stick to the current plan,” he told Carly. The look he gave her was like the timeout notification on the company’s VPN. From where it sat on his shoulder, Gregor’s wyvern narrowed its eyes and huffed.

She started to protest, but the team had already turned back to the sprint board.

Carly understood. She was here to do the grunt work — the refactoring and the JavaScript, the unit tests and the rune lookups. A contract witch who spoke out (to say nothing of a temporary employee who violated her NDA) was a witch without a job, with a black curse on her resume that would follow her across dimensions. In a down economy with $53K in student loans and a diabetic cat named Hermione, she couldn’t afford the loss of her career. Anyway, if the spell failed, it would be the company that went down. Not her.

Yet, in the final team meeting before go-live, when Gregor asked, “Has everybody signed off?” she faltered. Struck with visions of calamity — the blanket of soot covering the ground and trees, the black cloud that would poison the land and turn the groundwater into a toxic, alkaline soup — Carly found herself trapped.

Ben Hua and Andrew caught the scent of her hesitation. They looked up from their screens like coyotes hungering at the edge of the tree line. Here it was: the moment of her demise. She’d speak according to her conscience, and they would devour her. Then they’d cleanse their territory of the contract witch. She was the aberration and the interruption, the presence that defiled the fragile sanctum of their confidence. Look how much they hated her. Look how much they wanted her silence.

Between them, the wyvern ignored her, folding its papery wings and wrapping its spiny tail around the power cord.

It would be so hard to breathe when the black dust fell.

“Sure,” Carly said. “Let’s go ahead.”

© 2021 Elizabeth Cobbe

About the author

Elizabeth Cobbe

Elizabeth Cobbe is a playwright, arts critic, and software developer living in Austin, Texas. She attended Viable Paradise 2019 and is currently at work on a fantasy novel about motherhood, miscarriage, and magic.