"What would you do?"
She ponders. It's a hard question. It's magic. Magic could do anything. "Riches are the usual," she says. "People wish for riches, or for love, or health. What if I just want magic as it is? If I could just do anything in general, but with limited scope in any instance? I could be a level four wizard. I could make a beautiful home. I could make the trees grow and the dragonflies happy, and it would be lovely and mine. I would have to apply it to something, though. Make money without arousing suspicion. Do something long term."
"Many wish for eternal life," he says.
"Well, sure," she says. "But by itself, that's silly. There's nothing to live for. It'd be lonely. But with this, maybe I could do that anyway, if I wanted. Maybe it could scale. It's all telemeres anyway, right?" She smiles. "Can you do that, give me magic like in my stories," she askes. "Can you make me a mage?"
He shakes his head. "The mages in your stories are dangerous," he says. "It would be too much."
"It's potential," she replies. "Of course it's dangerous. But it's not too much. By itself, it's hardly anything. That's what you are, after all. Potential. And people get you and take your gifts and totally ruin it, because most people just don't know what to do with potential."
"And you do." He sounds doubtful.
"Of course not," she says delightedly. "That's why I want a little bit of my own, so I can hold onto it and maybe find out!"
He sighs. "A little, then. I suppose I could do that. Are you certain this is your wish?"
"Will I be able to make trees grow?" she asks. "Get them properly big, oh, in maybe a year?"
"Will I be able to make kids laugh? Put on little light shows to delight them with random tricks?" She pauses. "Transfiguration? Conjuration? Straight up illusion?"
"If it's small," he says.
"Could I cure things? Fix a scrape, trigger a proper immune response against a virus?"
"It would be difficult," he replies. "But potentially."
"How difficult?" she asks.
"Concentration and precision will be required," he says. "It will take practice. Understanding."
"And I could mess up," she says.
"Could I fly?"
"You already can."
She laughs, delightedly. "I like you," she says. "All the stories are djinns trying to trick people, but you... you just talk of potential and hint at all the clever possibilities. But I suppose you're still leaving things out too."
He eyes her curiously, waiting to see what she'll say next.
"What would this magic cost, to use?" she asks. "Where does the energy come from? What is the mass behind it?"
"You," he says.
"I'll take it," she says.
She doesn't do much at first. She learns the little things. How to set things in motion, how to hide the fireworks, how to make the fireworks. She learns to use the sun, and channel heat and electricity to make the spells stronger, and herself. She makes trees grow, planting them as gifts for those she loves, planting them in the desert in order to change the shape of the landscape. She plays, and speaks to cats in the dark.
She doesn't try to make money off it. There's no point. Her day job pays well enough as is, and doesn't need magic, just patience.
They solve ageing. It's complicated. It's deceptively simple. They don't tell anyone, and have a frank sit-down with the six of them all gathered around the breakroom after hours one night.
"So this looks like it works," Nathan says.
"It definitely works. And it should work in humans, too," Jonah says.
"Yeah, but... then what?" Nathan says. "We set out trying to do this mostly just for the challenge, right? We didn't expect to actually pull it off. We didn't expect it to be so easy."
They don't know her means. They don't know where what she brought came from. She doesn't understand it herself, but at this point, she's as much a scientist as the rest of them. Her background was psychology, but she just got bored at one point, is the story. She's good at stories, and they all have similar stories. Curing ageing is not a field people get into because they're normal, or want normal lives. They get into it because secretly, they enjoy the impossible challenge. They enjoy the interest their sponsors put into it. They like the jokes it affords at parties. But none of them really took it that seriously.
Now they're scared. Now it's serious.
"So people stop ageing," Anna says. "Then what? They don't get old, they... what? Hang around? Build an empire, and hang onto it? Make their children miserable forever and ever?"
"We're not ready for this," Pierce says. "You're right. Humanity... we live short lives for a reason. We evolved to die so we could change, and keep changing. We stop dying... then what? Our genetics still suck. We don't know how to perfect the genome, and people don't want it anyway. We don't even know how to convince people to teach evolution to their children, let alone accept... change."
She doesn't speak up, just listens. They're right, these scientists and weirdos. They've talked to the sponsors, seen their strange lust, seen how ill-suited they'd truly be for any of this.
"People make families and grow old. The families grow up. People make new families. Old baggage eventually dies, and the young break away from the sins of their fathers, and make their own." Anna sighs. "People are messed up," she says. "They need... they need..."
"Closure," Nathan says.
"Some people might manage," Jonah says. "They could be able to let go, and watch from the sidelines."
"And be happy?" Nathan asks.
"The rich people trying to live forever are often the most profoundly unhappy," Anna says. "But they want power, and living is power."
"But they're miserable," Nathan says.
"We can't sell it to them," Pierce says.
"But this is what they paid for," Jonah says. "They paid us to find this, and now we have. Do we just not give it to them?"
"No," Anna says.
They sit around unhappily for a bit. None of this quite sits right.
"The need for genetic drift hasn't gone, and we have nothing with which to replace it," Pierce says. "Even if they don't age, the population will suffer for their presence, and they'll still die."
"They'll definitely die," she says, finally speaking up. "They'll still get cancer. Everybody gets cancer eventually, if they live long enough."
"What?" Nathan asks.
"We should cure cancer," she says. "We've solved one impossible already, so let's solve another one that is more concretely useful regardless. And that we'll need anyway."
Somehow it always comes back to trees. She's older, and yet the same. Two out of five opted to use it, before they buried it, and they never grew old. They lost touch years ago. It doesn't matter. She has her trees, and she grows them, protecting them, changing them, little by little, to become something new. Different trees, better trees. They resist the diseases that tried to kill them earlier. They grow taller than ever. As the world moves on around her, she ignores it mostly, letting it be, looking forward to the surprise when she finally returns.
She supposes, one day, she might like to start a family.
The same potential she saw at the start, for all of this, has never really faded. She knows she can do anything, so she takes the time to do things properly. She relishes the details, the precision, the perfection. She makes dragonflies out of twigs, but they never quite fly right.
"You've done well for yourself," the djinn says, standing behind her, announcing his arrival with nothing more than this.
She smiles, fiddling with a twig, not turning around. "Is this usually what you'd find?" she asks.
"No," he says. "Wealth and power burn people out. What are you doing?"
"Trying to make dragonflies," she says. "I always loved dragonflies. At some point they all disappeared, and now I can't quite remember how they'd go. How they'd flit about, maintaining their patrols. How they'd make summer happier just by being there, nomming the annoying little things."
"You could bring them back if you wanted," he says. "For real."
"I know," she says. "But if they're going to be gone, they might as well be gone. It's an art project. Maybe I'll do something proper later."
She turns to look at him properly. "What brings you by, anyway?"
"You don't get lonely?" he asks.
She shrugs. A cat peers vaguely over. "A little. Not a lot. I've got cats, after all. And every saturday there's games."
"I do," he says.
"Ever tried tabletop?" she asks.