« The Seventh Impossible Thing | Ra
Nick Laughon teaches now. He's brand new at it, only a month into the job and still full of momentum. It's the first job he's had which uses any meaningful fraction of his energy each day. It's the first time he's ever gone to bed tired without serious exercise. It also means that he gets home earlier than most. Today, Laura is waiting for him.
"Hello," he says, stacking a crate of unmarked red exercise books in the flat's nominal hallway and dumping a weighty rucksack on top of them. Laura's sitting in the living room, positioned to face the door directly. Between them on the coffee table is a glass filled with a colourless, effervescent liquid which Nick assumes to be gin and tonic. Basic signals given off by Laura suggest a relatively high gin-to-tonic ratio. The drink, however, is full. Laura sits behind it, not drinking it. Deliberately and purposefully not getting drunk. She is deeply unhappy.
Nick last saw Laura more than twenty-four hours ago. Work has demanded that she stay ungodly late before, more than once, but for Nick to receive no phone call and for Nick to wake up still alone the following morning is unprecedented.
"What happened to you?" he asks.
"I lost my job," Laura explains.
Laura doesn't move. "I stole the CEO's key card. I broke into a secure room in the site's basement. I broke into a secret mana accumulator which Ed Hatt had set up more than fifteen years ago and I stole something in the area of sixty megawatt-hours of mana from it. And then I burnt it all on a boondoggle. Ed Hatt caught me and shut the spell down. He fired me on the spot."
Nick opens his mouth, but can barely vocalise. He is stunned. He rubs his temples. "Why? I-- Why did you do that?"
"I had a spell that I needed to try. This is-- you know this has happened before. I have to try things. I can't let an idea fester. I have great difficulty... sleeping on things."
"I know all of that, Laura. I know who you are. What was the spell?" Nick asks.
"I can't even say it," Laura says. "It sounds so stupid to say it out loud. It sounds so stupid to say what I'm trying to do before I've achieved anything! Do you know what I'm talking about? At the very beginning, when magic was first discovered, the people who first discovered magic had the same nightmares. I've got to be able to prove it before I announce it and I've got to do it before I can prove it. If I'd succeeded, if I had enough power, then nobody would be laughing and-- and it would have changed everything. Literally everything. But I need more power, and I feel like my head's coming unscrewed, like I'm trying to open a safe using a blowtorch that's inside it. She has all the answers, but I need all the answers before I can talk to her."
"This is about your mother," Nick realises.
"When I first met Ed Hatt, he showed me a piece of sleight-of-hand." Laura holds out the fake boarding pass and tries to do Hatt's finger trick, but she doesn't have the dexterity and she drops it. "And I knew, I knew he wouldn't be wasting my time with something like that unless he was serious. He wasn't hazing me, he isn't that person. I thought he'd worked out how to pull a small amount of mass back into his hand from the Tanako construct. The only problem is that a human weighs a hundred thousand times this much. The mass-energy problem is that much harder. So I thought he'd be amazed that I got it to work on a macro scale. You know, like that story where a lecturer puts an unsolved maths problem on the blackboard and some prodigy at the back of the room comes back the next week having solved it? I had this whole fantasy scenario worked out. I think I'm losing my mind."
Nick doesn't immediately tell Laura that she's not losing her mind. He observes her from a distance. She's staring unfocused at her untouched drink, fiddling obsessively with the boarding pass, folding and folding it. The material it's made of is closer to linen than paper, designed for wear and to resist tearing. It won't hold a crease.
"I need the Ra codes," Laura says. "I need to find Benjamin Clarke again and-- and smash his brain open and see what's inside."
"You need to get another job," Nick suggests.
"I don't want another job," Laura says. "I want that job."
"Well, maybe you should have got my opinion before going out and losing it! We're on the same side, Laura! You should have called me! I tried to call you."
"I was underground."
"You were scared. You were scared to tell me what you were trying to do. Well, guess what, I know what you were trying to do. Because I know who you are and where you're from. And believe it or not, I don't think it's a stupid idea on its face. I just think you picked a monolithically bad, premature way to execute it."
"Don't you think I'm angry enough at myself already?"
"No," says Nick, levelly.
He picks up the G&T and escorts it back into the kitchen. "You and your gaggle of girlfriends had a saying at university," he tells her. "'Drink through it'. Breakups, hangovers, finals. I have never encountered a shorter, worse, more densely bad piece of advice." Next he goes into their bedroom for a moment. He returns with four running shoes. "You did the right thing by waiting for me. Probably the first right thing you've done in the last twenty-four hours. I subscribe, as you know, to a different mantra. So we're going to run."
The route to the top of St. Nicholas' Hill - which most refer to as "Nick's Hill" and Nick refers to as "My Hill" - is two miles horizontally and about that far vertically. Laura reaches the top hoarse, wobbly and in a substantial amount of pain. Nick is in infuriatingly good shape and has essentially taken it at a brisk walk. The nominal park at the top is deserted. The view of the city is impressively lofty. The Sun's dropping fast, but Nick's accurate Knowledge of local running routes and timings predicts that they'll be home long before dark, even if he has to carry her.
Laura staggers over to Nick and leans the top of her head against his chest. "One-word answers," she pants.
"Feel better?" asks Nick.
"Noooooo," says Laura, but she does. She recalls being one percent of the way up the first foothill of a figurative peak as tall and black as Doom. It feels good to be at the top of a literal one. No magical jewellery, no bangles. She sometimes forgets how heavy the equipment is.
As for Nick, he has run through all of his anger. He asks, "Are they going to press charges?"
"Well, that's something."
"...You're going to find another job."
"Frankly, though, you could use the break."
Laura shrugs. "Probably."
"And we'll have to do some financial acrobatics in the meantime."
Nick stares at the horizon and the setting Sun for a long moment. "...What is Ra?"
Laura can't answer that in one word.
Applied Magic is a vocational qualification. It was a safe assumption that Benjamin Clarke would go professional mage after graduation. In his first free year, he maintained thaumochemical processes at a gas terminal in south Wales, but before long he had developed severe restlessness and an itch to travel. With the parent company's blessing, he switched tracks and took a job as magical engineer on the monumental liquefied natural gas carrier TTN Plesio, where he's been ever since. Benj is still way down the hierarchy of the ship's startlingly small crew, and will be for years to come, but he rates the job highly. The working environment is intense, the working day is long, the world is huge, the engineering is challenging and the magic is real in a way which lab study never really drove home for him. He's doing heavyweight spells on a routine ten times as demanding as his training. He's also losing a surprising amount of weight.
Laura learns all of this in bits through friends of friends. She and Benj haven't met or spoken since university and Benj is at sea three months out of every six. It takes her more than a week to raise him on the phone. And he doesn't want to talk about what happened.
Laura insists, again, that he must have something for her.
Benj says, again, "I remember nothing. I have always remembered nothing."
"But you remember the time between the first accident and the second one."
"From the beginning, then," says Benj. "What I have always said: I built the conical force field. I built the oscillation spells to drive it. They were clunky and impractical toys, done to win marks, not to serve a purpose. They didn't work. I never found a way to store and play back modulated sound. You made that up. I never developed a self-casting spell. You made that up."
"I didn't make it up, Benj, I saw it happen--"
"You'd need a literally infinite mind. At the instant that you cast the spell, you'd need to have total comprehension of the entire spell and of your own brain doing the casting, which is obviously impossible."
"It's not impossible, Benj, that's what the word quine means--"
"It never happened. I remember nothing of what happened on the mountain. I remember nothing of what you did to me."
"I never did anything to you!" Laura protests.
"Then why are you calling me?"
Laura hesitates for a split second. She's just inhaling to respond when Benj continues:
"This is over. I have a life, you should get one. Reverse-engineer my spells if you need them. You were supposed to be the best mage in the world."
"I told you--"
"Yeah, you told me you couldn't do it. You told me that a bunch of times, like it was supposed to be a compliment. So, well done, I guess, on finally figuring out when to stop."
Laura bites her lip, trying to somehow manufacture a sentence that will placate Benj, but she can't do it quickly enough.
He concludes, "Don't call me again."
Natalie Ferno spent her undergraduate studies strictly pacing herself. She made a point of getting one hundred percent of Pure Magic locked down before letting herself advance. She did this out of an arguably rational desire to miss nothing: no important principles, no critical little details. It felt like running on the spot. Now she's through her master's degree and into her PhD, and for the first time in her life she's found academic traction. She feels like a real person now. It was as if she spent four years hiding from being good. She carries herself differently, walking just a notch taller than before.
She meets Laura at the railway station and they immediately start walking into town. Laura is here to talk. She is visibly far less together than Nat is. She has spent the train ride with a book open in her lap, staring straight through it, turning no pages, thinking about completely different things. She apparently forgets the human tradition of "Hello" and instead greets her sister with:
"Waste mana is disowned. Or to put it another way it has an owner but the owner is the null owner. That makes it reclaimable using aliasing hacks that Mum taught us. But naturally occurring mana is different. Natural geological mana is owned by mage Ra. That makes it non-retargetable. The only possible expenditure of natural mana is by the mage with True Name Ra. The mage with True Name Ra is hypothetical. He or she or it does not necessarily have to exist. Everything I've said so far is factual."
Natalie raises an extremely sceptical eyebrow at this last assertion, but does not interrupt.
"Now here's what I think based on what I've seen. I think 'Ra' is a naturally occurring True Name. And I don't think that's completely outrageous. Names form a polydimensional phase space, and it's logical that there would be an origin to that space. An ideal point would form there, like a crystal. Or like a gas cloud collapsing under gravity until it starts to shine. I think that makes sense. Of course, this immediately brings us up against one of the Open Problems: how you steal mana owned by somebody else. Which leads me to the second thing I've discovered. I tried aliasing as Ra, obviously. Couldn't make it work. Fifty percent failure. I tried the obvious hacks and nothing worked. I tried the cleverer hacks that Mum taught us. Nothing worked. Which suggests that what's happening is exactly the same as what would happen if I ran into another mage Named Dulaku and tried to cast a spell: the spell taps into the other guy's mana reserves and fails because of the mismatch. In fact the probability seems to work out to exactly fifty percent failure with a very small margin of error which implies not only that there is a mage Named Ra right next to me whenever I try to cast a spell while aliased as Ra but also that this mage may or may not himself or herself or itself be naturally occurring, just like the Name Ra and just like the mana with that Name. This is a virtual or incarnate mage Named Ra who theoretically has access to around a hundred million times as much power as any living human. This is not inconsistent with the currently-fashionable theories of deep magic. So the major question remaining is: what is the nature of this mage? Who or what is he or she or it and how can I get him or her or it on my side other than by using infinitely convoluted, incomprehensible quine spells?"
"You're an idiot," Natalie says.
"Nick told me everything. He was too polite to suggest that what you're trying to do is insane. He doesn't know enough about magic to pass judgement. I do. What you're trying to do is insane. Do you want to know what you're doing wrong?"
"You're not writing anything down."
"This is not a mystical adventure. You are not the protagonist. You're seeing and doing things which are having profound emotional effects on you. You're being irrational. You're not thinking things through, you're not working things out. You're going on mental arithmetic instead of paper arithmetic and you're going on gut instinct instead of worked, peer-reviewed results. This is not good science."
"But I'm right."
"I don't care how right you think you are. I don't even care how right I think you are! I want to see a LATEX-typeset paper from you. You need to show your working, because there are demons at work in your working."
Laura seizes on the small, critical piece of information that Natalie has let slip. "Do you think I'm right?" she asks.
"I think you understand very well that it doesn't matter what I think."
"But do you?"
Natalie says nothing.
"You think I'm right."
"In the absence of firm data to support any of your wild nonsense, I have to fall on the side of the null hypothesis. This is the way it's supposed to work."
"But you have a suspicion." Laura pokes her sister. "You have some evidence."
"I don't have any evidence yet," says Natalie. "I have data. Until data supports a conclusion it isn't evidence, it's just data. And I don't have enough data."
"You've got to tell me," Laura says.
Natalie has thus far studiously avoided revealing the subject of her PhD studies to anybody outside of the university, including her sister and their father, and has kept the information constrained to an impressively small circle even within the Theoretical Magic department. In part, this is just another facet of Natalie's general tendency towards quietness, introversion and deliberate information hygiene: avoiding sharing for the sake of avoiding sharing, simply because released information can't be recaptured. In part, this is because a few years ago Laura was attacked by four men and almost killed. It's possible that Laura had been deliberately targeted. It's possible that Natalie was being deliberately targeted but that the men mistook Laura for Natalie. It's even possible that the men wanted to dissuade or suppress Natalie's apparently abstruse and useless theoretical magic work. The probability of all of those possibles being actuals is slender, but Natalie rates it high enough to be worth worrying about, even after several years in which both she and her sister have apparently been left alone.
In no part is this because of the nature of the work itself, which Natalie still sees almost no practical ground-level worth in.
"I'm working on space magic," she says.
Laura lights up. "Space magic!"
"Nothing like anything you've been doing," Natalie explains. "Theoretical astrophysics. I took the equations of magic and tried to calculate what happens under extreme conditions. By which I mean neutron star core extremes, electron degeneracy extremes. Conditions we couldn't duplicate using all the mana on Earth. What I found was that certain types of supernovae, one supernova in every three or four hundred supernovae, should also generate magic. Huge quantities of magic. Enough for the chi emissions to be visible from Earth. All you'd need is a suitable optical telescope and a suitable high-fidelity oracle to fit over the end."
"Like I say, all we have is data right now. The whole astronomical community observes around a thousand supernovae per year, but that's across half a dozen different scanning projects. We've only configured two telescopes so far and they've only been collecting for seven months."
"Which gives you around a hundred and ninety-four data points," Laura guesses.
"And no positives yet," Laura guesses.
"No. But that's what I'm saying. It's too early. Conclusions like this are conclusions which take time to draw. The data has to be allowed to mount up over time. And all the while I'm checking my working and other mages are checking the instrumentation and spellwork."
"Conclusions like what?"
"Like... that magic doesn't happen in space," says Laura.
"Like I said: you need to slow down."
The following morning, Laura lunges for her alarm clock and silences it before it's had time to more than peep. Nick is lying on his side beside her, facing away from her. She stares at the back of his head for a minute, making sure he's undisturbed. She watches his shoulder rise and fall and runs calculations while trying to avoid being lulled back to sleep herself. Then, staying completely still otherwise, she reaches out with one hand and picks up a Montauk ring from her bedside table, where she left it after unwinding her full day's charge into it, last thing before bed. She also collects a second bangle-sized ring and a pair of finger rings, which she slips onto her right middle finger, all without looking or shifting position.
Nick doesn't stir. He breathes in and out.
Laura clenches the Montauk in her hand and puts it under her pillow under her head, where its light won't blind her or wake Nick. She fixes her gaze on him and listens for the swirling orientation change in her ears while she murmurs the words that need to be murmured, as softly as she can while enunciating clearly enough for the spell to catch. Under her pillow, a Dehlavi lightning machine instantiates.
She doesn't notice it but Nick wakes up a second before she finishes. But it's too late for him to do anything about what's about to happen.
The world rolls right ninety degrees and drenches both of them in coldness, as if their duvet were just ripped off.
Laura almost falls, but grabs at something as it passes. She is left clinging to a weather vane at the top of a pointy tower at the centre of her memory castle. The vane is sharp, metal and cold, it hurts her hand. It starts to bend, too. With care, she drops down the pointy roof to the narrow and very short circular path which runs around this uppermost turret's roof.
In the buildings below her, she can peel away the bricks and see stored memories arrayed in rooms and halls. They are laid out and visible like specimens in glass boxes, like satellite photographs of the past. There is the black, red-hot slice of mountain, and the fat white spaceplane, and the other locked-off doors and the glass person. There are systems under construction, works in progress. The saying is "Sleep on it"; these are thoughts on which she is sleeping. And overhead, the Dehlavi lightning galaxy spins disorientingly.
She hurries clockwise around the circular path, and immediately runs into someone coming the other way. It's Nick.
"I don't know what's happening," he says.
He genuinely doesn't. Laura has the Tanako dream weekly now; she'd miss it if it went away. It's not part of her psychosis, it's a routine component of her mundane life, like regular dreams and hair care and scrubbing the toilet. But she never takes magical equipment to bed. For one thing, there is the risk (however slim) of randomly vocalising some significant spell; for another, her equipment consists for the most part of uncomfortably cold, hard metal. A Tanako shift without any magic behind it is a paper-thin hologram illusion, with no energy to give it weight or significance. A Tanako shift without a power supply is just a confusing television show in a sleeping mage's head. And so, Nick has never been here before.
A shift with power, though, carries danger. Not just danger, but it can carry bystanders with it. And invariable consequences.
"I've done this before," Laura says, trying to sound confident.
"On purpose?" Nick asks, and it's the critical question. Laura dodges it, and backs up, making room between them.
Nick runs after her, worried. "Laura, what are you doing?"
Laura backs further away from him. The path around the tower parapet, formerly just a two-metre-wide circle, expands to make room for her to retreat around the corner. She turns and soon she is running flat out, out of eyeshot of Nick, who is still chasing her. At this point, Laura does the thing that she has been trying to do. And just like that, she catches up with Nick from behind. He is standing there, facing away from her. She turns him around to make sure of his identity.
"Laura?" he says.
Behind her, there are running footsteps. "Laura!" cries a distant, identical voice.
Laura smiles wryly but does not look back. The running footsteps behind her are getting no closer. In fact, they're fading. It's not as if her boyfriend is running in the wrong direction. It's just that she doesn't want to be found now. The space between them is lengthening faster than he can cover it physically, and he doesn't know the trick to skipping through the spaces.
Laura takes the arm of the facsimile man in front of her, and turns him back around to face away from her, mimicking reality. She says, "Here we go."
The world rolls left again and Laura neatly breaks her own line of concentration, bringing the spell to a perfect halt with no stall. She's lying behind Nick in bed still, magic rings inert again. Nick breathes in and out once more without stirring, but she can tell just by holding him that he's wide awake now. And he's smiling.
He says, "This was an extraordinarily bad idea." There is no disapproval. He merely seems to be making an amused observation.
"He'll be safe," says Laura. "Shunting bodies around I can't do yet, but shunting minds I've done three times now and I can do it a fourth time any time I like. Nick is safe. But I genuinely don't know if I can bring Mum back. And I can't take not knowing either way.
"I want a deeper form of magic. I want to surpass my mother by an order of magnitude. I want you to explain this system. Do you understand?"
"Who are you?" she prompts.
"Ra," says Ra.
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