Space Magic (fiction)
Return to Space Magic (fiction)
Rachel Ferno's burning mana so fast to stay in the air that it feels like it's doing physical and mental damage to her, as if she were consuming body parts and organs and memories as reaction mass, as if whatever it is that's finally going to match velocities with the plummeting orbiter won't be even be a human being anymore but a spent propellant tank. Autokinetic effects must, on pain of burst retinas and crushing death, be applied uniformly across the whole body. She pulls what would be lethal gees to keep up with the machine's chaotic tumble, desperately fighting to stay out of its smoke trail where she can still eyeball her interception trajectory.
Virtual instruments spread out in front of her like playing cards show her relative position and velocity, her airspeed and orientation, her oxygen levels, mana levels, and her degree of concentration, but the more closely she monitors the flashing values, the closer she edges towards completely losing it, breaking the spell and then bodily breaking apart under aerodynamic stress. So she dismisses them and the shielding holds, flexing actively to stay stable at supersonic speed. Rachel rolls and deliberately loses the horizon, throwing on another twenty percent thrust. She fixes the orbiter in the centre of her field of view and pushes towards it, burning blue-hot and singing and in control. She hears music, bass waves so loud that it feels like she's riding them. She burns her life story for fuel. She burns her fingers and toes and her attachments to the ground until there's nothing left of her but purified, abstract acceleration.
Relatively speaking she hits the Atlantis nosecone as softly as a feather, wrapping her fields across the windshields and locking herself into the vehicle's motion. She feels the impact numbly, as if insulated from it by thick wool. There are seven people inside and they all look identical in the flight suits and the helmets and she can't spare the mental bandwidth to remember any of their names, but she singles out the figure in the seat in the middle row on the left. It's her daughter, having the dream again. It's the same dream. This is just a different angle.
Some messages are all medium. They have no payload. "I'm on the orbiter's exterior," Rachel tells them. "I'm going to try to save you all using magic." It's not words or sign language. She tells them this just by being there.
"What happens next?" Nick asks Laura.
"I wake up."
"No, the other thing."
Nick's cooking dinner. Laura's flat on her back on his floor in the next room, pouring it out like a psychiatric patient and intermittently guessing what he's doing from the smells and cookware clunks. "What happened next was the most well-observed event in history," she replies. "The thing went up like an atom bomb. Spark, fuel, liquid oxygen. It was caught on thirty-five distinct film sequences and it shows up as the terminating point on almost all of the telemetry. In fact-- what happened next is the only known fact. And it's also the only part I don't get to see in the dream."
"Because you get blown up."
Laura says nothing.
"Oh, wait," says Nick. "They recovered all seven bodies? So you don't get blown up, but the explosion knocks you out. Out of the dream."
"But my point is-- my point is that everything up to that point is... conjecture. It's fantasy, I must have pieced it together from my research. There isn't footage that shows any of what I'm imagining. There aren't voice recordings. The fact that Mum turns up at the end of it is... I don't know if she got there. I don't know if she even tried to get there. It's fan fiction!"
"You have to speak up," says Nick. "I can't hear you over the hood."
"I don't know why I keep having this dream. When I'm dreaming it, I care--"
"Do you know you're dreaming?"
"When you start off strapped into the chair, do you recognise it? Do you remember that it's a dream you've had before? Is it lucid?"
Laura stares at the ceiling and splays her fingers out against the carpet. She doesn't know.
There's a long lull in the conversation before she pipes up again. "I smell thyme."
It was an educated guess. She watched Nick buy some earlier that day. "When I'm dreaming it, it matters. Whether I know I'm dreaming or not, I treat it as real. I try to stop it. And then afterwards, after I wake up, I realise that I don't care. I have no reason to care. Because it already happened. It's in the past. I have no reason to dream this dream."
"Maybe your subconscious cares more about your mother than you do."
Laura considers this unlikely. "Maybe. All I consciously care about is duplicating what she did."
"Six-ish. And I'm getting there. Her O2 supply wasn't much more than a fan-shaped force field rotating at high speed. That kind of fine-grained force field projection is definitely going to become possible soon. And I've almost got the Montauk storage theory cracked. That much energy stored and released in that amount of time? It's almost definitely-- well, I mean it's definitely possible, because I've seen it happen. But I've almost got it duplicated. And I'm going to guess... turkey?"
"Gestural casting and non-vocal casting might be the same thing," continues Laura. "But I don't understand them. Or autokinetics. Those have been very difficult. I don't know where to look. I don't even know where to stand when I'm looking. I feel like there are empty bookshelves waiting there, you know? Whole new Dewey Decimal categories. But I'm only trying to figure out what got her to that point, or at least what could have theoretically got her to that point. Like a bug on the windshield. I don't care about what was next. Maybe the dream cuts out at the point where I stop caring."
"Okay, it's done," says Nick. He comes through with the plates. Turkey is involved, as are thyme, green salad, sautéed potatoes and a thin brown sauce. He puts plates on the table and goes back for cutlery. Laura sits up, gets up from the floor, then sits down at the table.
"What was next?" Nick calls through from the kitchen.
"What was the plan?"
"The plan was that I tell you about my day while you're cooking, and then you tell me about your day while we're eating, so that you don't eat all of your food incredibly quickly and start stealing mine."
"No," says Nick, coming back in with knives and forks. He hands one of each to Laura and sits opposite her. "What was your mum's plan?"
"I don't know." And this revelation explodes in Laura's mind, like an airbag. Suddenly it occupies all the available space. I don't know?
Nick puts some food in his mouth and carries on talking: "You've said yourself that new magic takes like a day of prep, plus. That's why you need to build a toolkit. You can't improvise. So she must have had something worked out." He chews and swallows. "Or maybe she didn't have a plan, what do I know? Or a clue or a prayer. Any of them."
Laura holds her knife and fork and stares at a point on the wall directly behind Nick's head. "Wait a second."
"So potentially there's a seventh impossible thing here. When you count what her actual plan was, if she had one, there's an extra thing that you didn't even know that you didn't even know."
"But she doesn't demonstrate it. She fails. Failed. Just give me a second to think."
"Sure," says Nick. "So you're driving yourself mad. It's a jigsaw with a piece you didn't realise was missing."
Laura's elsewhere entirely.
"What was she going to do? Why can't you see that in the dream?" Nick presses.
"There's... nothing that she could have done," says Laura.
Laura stares back at Nick but she's not looking at him. She's trying to remember what her mother's face looked like. She's trying to read her intentions, across a gap of years.
Douglas Ferno's forty-something, but looks older. Not fat, but expanding; not bald, but thinning. He doesn't care, but the degree to which he doesn't care is diminishing. A city council treasurer, he finds the routine and the rationality of his workplace soothing. He has settled into a kind of career Main Sequence, even with retirement still a sizeable distance off. In his spare time, he pursues falconry.
Raptors aren't dogs. Having found himself with the time and stability, Doug Ferno threw himself into something requiring a sustained effort across years plural to get a positive result. Raptors are stunningly well-adapted for their evolutionary niche, all talons and laser eyesight and two-hundred-mile-per-hour dives, but none of that makes them smart or friendly or obedient. Hela, his Harris Hawk, is a wild, paranoid animal. She accepts humans into her life only to the extent that they appear to be part of her successful hunting strategy. Even having been essentially raised by Doug Ferno, Hela treats him like the terrifyingly smart and dangerous apex predator he is, the same way that a man would treat a tiger who mysteriously began cooking meals for him. The instructions Hela understand extend as far as "fly into that tree over there", "fly back here to my hand" and "LOOK LOOK A RABBIT GET IT!".
Today Hela perches on a thick leather glove on his left hand, with thin leather jesses tied around her legs and the other ends held tightly in his fist. Hela is a uniform dark brown, with yellow hooked beak and a one-metre wingspan. Her feathers are delicate and brittle, like glass. She weighs about a kilogram, almost little enough to forget about.
Doug and Laura are working their way up a forest track to the largish field where Doug usually brings birds for training. Laura's carrying a mobile perch, basically an oversized metal croquet hoop, heavy enough that a bird can't fly away with it.
"I got a job interview," Laura says.
"I thought you were going to stay on for a master's," Doug Ferno replies.
"So did I," Laura says. "It's at Hatt. I think it's 'Hatt Group' in full but they just call it 'Hatt'. They're an aerospace group. They're using a lot of magic in their work. And if they're using a small amount of magic in their work that'll be ten times the amount of magic that any other aerospace outfit uses, because the industry moves like a petrified snail."
"You sent an application?"
"They phoned you out of the blue?"
"Emailed me out of the blue. Come on, Dad. They want me to come up and see the factory."
"Have they mentioned money?"
"They've mentioned hardware."
"Toys," Doug Ferno translates.
Laura grins a kid-in-a-toy-shop grin.
"Everybody knows. Everybody who'll sit still and nod and smile for long enough. As to how many people spread that word or think I'm seriously going to get anywhere, your guess is as good as mine. I guess at least one person gives me the credit. This wasn't a form email, Dad. It wasn't an artificial mail merged mailshot thing sent to four thousand people or even to four people. It was personal. Somebody sat down and decided to write to me."
"How flattering. Will you go?"
They get to the top of the track and they're out of forest onto the hillside. It's a dazzling day, the world all blue, green, orange and yellow. Laura and her father take the view in. Weather this good is a precious resource at any time of year. Hela looks around indifferently. Like all birds, her eyes can't swivel in their sockets. She has to turn her entire head to look at things. It would be impossible to tell what she's thinking, or even, with mere human eyesight, what she's looking at.
"Yeah," says Laura.
"And give up on postgrad work? Give up on a Ph.D.? Is that what you want to do?"
"If they'll let me, I'll give up on the degree."
"What? This close to the end? Honey, that's madness."
"What I want to do is go into space. You know how I'm making decisions right now, Dad? I'm making decisions based on what's going to get me into space fastest. You ask me where I see myself in five years? I see myself in space. I don't think academia's it. I think academia's going to keep me on Earth. If Hatt are going to give me the materials and the equipment, the toys, then I'll annihilate what's left of the theory in... in--"
"About half of an Apollo program?"
"Something like that. End of this decade."
At the near end of the field, Laura plants the mobile perch in the ground and drives it into the soil with her foot. She helps her father tie a very long, lightweight line to Hela's jesses. Doug could do it himself with one hand, but there's more than one individual being taught today. Doug sets the bird down on the perch, then he and his daughter retreat to the other end of the field, with Doug trailing about thirty metres of line behind him.
From a large leather pouch, Doug Ferno produces about one-third of a dead male chick. He gets them in bulk from a battery farm, where they only have use for the females. Laura wouldn't touch the gross tatter of chicken unless she was wearing a thick leather gauntlet of her own. She takes it with her gloved hand and holds it out straight, where Hela can see it. Doug whistles, and the bird comes.
Hela takes a lazy, low-energy path from perch to glove, almost grazing the grass at her lowest point, barely flapping her wings except for a split second of activity on landing. If the weight of the creance affects her flight, Laura can't tell. The fragment of chicken is gone in a second, gobbled up whole, even its head. Hela's hungry, which is as well, because once she's fed up, no accrued years of training and familiarity and mutual respect will move her. This is entirely about food.
Laura resists the temptation to stroke the bird's head, or to brush sticky yellow fluff off her face. Hela has absolutely no concept of personal contact. On reflex action, she would most likely gouge a hole in Laura's arm. Instead, Laura half-throws Hela back to her perch.
Doug says, "I think you're radically underestimating how big a deal getting into space is. Throw a living human being into that equation and the job becomes easily twenty-five, fifty times harder."
"Don't lecture me, Dad, do you think I haven't researched this stuff?"
"I think you have researched this stuff, and I think it's lulled you. I think you've read a lot of books and worked through a mountain of theory and you've written some pretty amazing spells. But I don't believe, and you're deluding yourself if you believe, that you're the smartest or most capable engineer in the world, and I don't believe, and you're going to get yourself killed if you believe, that you can handle a task like this on your own in five years flat. You're either going to kill yourself with stress or you're going to drop a term in some mental Vedic whatever-it-is-that-you-do--"
"--and pancake yourself with some rogue extra force that you didn't account for. Or worse, pancake somebody else. And you'll drop that term because of overwork." Doug hands Laura another slice of chick and whistles again. Hela flies to them, as before. "And that's if you're allowed a free rein to go and work on whatever you like all day. If that's what you think Hatt wants you to do, you've lost it. That's not what a job is. Being paid to entertain yourself is very, very rarely a real job. You know things they don't, that's what they're paying for. After they've bled you dry they might just sack you, and build their magical spaceship by themselves. Did you think of that?" While talking, Doug attaches a tiny and unobtrusive radio transponder unit to Hela's tail. He checks that it's signalling correctly with a handheld unit. He checks a few batteries, then lets Laura send Hela back to her perch.
They feed Hela a few more times, getting her into the routine.
"You need to loosen your grip on this thing," Doug says. "You have your entire life to get it right."
"I need to know what Mum was planning to do when she caught Atlantis," Laura says.
"...I don't know anything about that," says Doug Ferno.
"In five years' time I'll have everything else. I still need to work out autokinetics, and gestural spelling. But there's no way she could save it. Once she got there, there would have been nothing left. I need to know."
Doug Ferno's expression has dropped. So has his whole bearing. He won't meet Laura's gaze and he seems like half the man. "I don't know anything about that," he says.
"Then what do you know? Where did Mum get her knowledge from? Who taught her? When?"
"We're going in," Doug decides. He stalks back over to the mobile perch, wrapping up the creance as he goes.
"I'm making a point." Doug had told Laura he was going to take Hela off the creance for the first time today. That's what the radio transponder was for, so that Hela could be tracked (as far as possible) if she flew away. It's a huge, hugely nerve-wracking moment for a falconer. It would have been a privilege to see.
"It's been too long," Laura says. "I know you don't like talking about this. But we've gone too long, not talking about this. Going on eight years. You said she was a self-taught mage. An amateur. An enthusiast. You told Nat and me the story when we were kids. You met in a choir--"
"Your obsession is problematic," Doug says.
"But it can't all be true. Not all of it. It doesn't make sense. She was secretly a whole other person. And I need to know who."
"The deal was exactly what you saw," Doug says. "The marriage was exactly what you saw. And what I saw."
There's a long pause as Doug ties Hela back to his wrist. Hela, indifferent to the human conversation, decides to make a break for it. She gets about ten centimetres and is pulled up short. She hangs by her legs from Doug's hand, mildly flummoxed, until he gently pushes her back up with his free hand.
"Who was she?" Laura asks.
Doug Ferno stalks away down the track. "I don't know," he says.
Then there's the other dream.
Along the corridor and through the next door on the right, after the Atlantis exhibit, is a newer room of the same size. This one has a fat rectangular slice of Icelandic volcanic fissure in it, irregular along the top but perfectly cut along all four sides, a black chunk of chocolate cake with lava leaking out of its sides. On top of the fissure there are three people. One is the raving psycho-duplicate of Benj Clarke, caught in time at the moment before he tried to end the world, with a ball of subcritical plutonium in one hand and a magic/metallic force field implosion assembly in the other. One is Laura herself, in voluminous black robes, stood a little downhill from Clarke and pointing a three-metre mercury staff at him, with her triple-spell pipeline just starting to take effect. Green cutting laser light is crawling out of the staff's sharpened tip, across the gap towards Benj's hand.
In her dreams - her other dreams - Laura sees all of this from the point of view of her sister, stood far away and down the hill with the real Benj.
But there's a third person there at the top of the fissure.
Since getting back from Iceland this dream has recurred as often as the other one. It makes sense to Laura that Atlantis would occupy a huge chasm in the middle of her mind. Unthreading her mother's tricks is part of the plan, a stair on the path to human-powered spaceflight, a big locked box with question marks plastered all over it. But why this too? It's a dream of a dream. Do they have something in common?
The third person is probably male, and short, barely taller than she is. He stands beside dream-Laura. His features and clothing aren't clear, because he's a hollow glass shell, glass as thin as spider silk. There's not enough ambient light to make him glisten, but Laura - real-Laura, from her transfixed perspective at the bottom of the hill - sees an outline of green photons splashing off him, reflected from the laser beam.
Everything in the room is stuck fast. Even the photons in flight. Real-Laura can't move forward to confront the barely-visible man, or even shout at him. He was part of a dream to begin with, right? Which means that the dream of the dream is as real as the original dream, right? Which means it's the same man.
And when she realises this, he looks back at her. He was stuck fast in the tableau, but then he looks around, noticing real-Laura watching him. The green light on his face changes shape when he turns. She cannot move.
And that's the moment when she also notices that the glass man seems to be helping dream-Laura with the spell. One hand on dream-Laura's shoulder. The other steadying her grip on the staff, helping her aim.
Hatt Group's "ancestral home" is a low office building and a factory and a runway in Norfolk, with flat greenery and canals in most directions. The offices have pleasant, modern architecture. There are glass and pale bricks, modern furnishings, an airy reception with a high ceiling and a lot of light. A customer-friendly front end. The place is a royal pain to reach via public transport.
The man who meets Laura at reception is fifty-odd but looks a lot younger, ash-blond, in a casual suit with no tie. He practically bursts through the door from the office area, and zeroes in on Laura immediately. The handshake is energetic. He is a fast-moving person. "Find the place okay?"
"Yes," Laura lies.
"You drive in?"
The man smiles in a consolatory sort of way. Evidently, he's as aware of the lousy local bus service as she is. "Bad luck. Can I get you a drink?"
Laura indicates that she has already been directed to help herself to a complimentary coffee.
The man says, "Well, I'm out of small talk. I'm Edward Hatt, let's talk about your final year project."
"You own the place?"
"Huh," says Laura.
Hatt smiles broadly.
Laura says, "I didn't bring any of my equipment. Also, my final year project takes about an hour to cast. And I didn't bring my notes either. And it's not finished."
"You didn't bring any gear?"
"Should I have? It's a job interview."
"We were aiming for more of an informal chat."
"Okay. ...So it's a collection of small-scale kinematic spells. The idea is that I hold out my hand and my staff assembles itself. In my hand."
While Laura's talking, Hatt goes to the receptionist and obtains a red card of some kind which entitles Laura to pass, escorted, into the rest of the building. "I'm listening," Hatt says.
"At the moment I have to hold out the first segment of my staff in one hand. The top segment, I mean. The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth segments assemble one at a time. I use measurements of background magic so that the spell can determine how many of the segments are already assembled and which segment to move next. As each new segment connects up the background flows change--"
"S-tensor effects," Hatt observes, holding the door for Laura and waving her through.
Laura hesitates, just for a fraction of a second. "Yes. I put a continuous measurable flow of mana out into the world, and the partially-assembled staff alters that flow in ways I can pick up with other tools. Then, once the spells that detect the staff assembly progression are in place, I've also got an array of very small-scale kinetic spells to lift and guide the segments. Screwing-- I mean, rotating a staff segment on its axis without translation-- is a delicate operation."
"Small-scale spells always take more skill than brute force pushes," says Edward Hatt. He leads her through office corridors at a brisk pace, ignoring all of the actual offices and meeting rooms they pass.
"Right," Laura says.
"How long does the assembly take?"
"Speaking the spell takes more than fifty minutes. The assembly is two minutes at the moment."
"Are you looking at making it faster?"
"The second part, sure. Like you say, though, I'm increasing from small-scale pushes to large-scale pushes while trying not to break anything by flinging a staff segment across a room in the wrong direction. It's the skill at speed that I need. I think I can get it down to a second. I want to be able to throw the pieces in the air and they'll come down assembled. The first part, I don't know. I can streamline the verbalisations but getting to the position where, mentally, I've got the whole thing 'juggling' reliably, takes--"
"--it takes longer the more you try to hurry. But if you relax and slow down it takes even longer. And trying not to consciously think about either of those things is worse still."
"Right. You've done some magic?"
They reach a hefty locked door. Hatt waves his ID card at a reader next to it, and motions for Laura to do the same. The reader bleeps green and Hatt pulls it open. He strides out into the place, picking up a luminous yellow hard hat from a rack and putting it on as he walks, wasting no seconds. Laura does likewise and has to jog a little to keep up.
The next room is the factory floor. It's big enough to fit a stadium. Not to function as a stadium, but to actually fit an entire stadium inside it without touching the sides. It has air conditioning requirements from hell. It's stacked with machinery building other machinery; a confusing, high-tech mess of airframes, engines, loaders and tiny people in overalls and hard hats. It would take a month for Laura to make sense of the layout, but after that month, Laura would know that the room contained four different production lines and components for eleven different aircraft. The place is flooded with warning signs: moving machinery, moving vehicles, falling objects, chemicals, electricity, heavy loads.
At the tail end of the big table of warnings is the one Laura was looking for. It is a black warning triangle with Mohit Dehlavi's triple diamond symbol inside it. Like the biohazard symbol and the radiation warning trefoil, it is a spiky abstract form with order-3 rotational symmetry, instantly recognisable from any angle. It means "High Energy Magic". Beside it is a rack of fat Montauk rings, suitable for throwing around an out-of-control experiment to drain all of its energy and shut it down. These look bigger than the ones Laura's familiar with from the university labs. And they look used.
"Magic's the missing link of aerospace," Hatt says. "Aerospace needed rebooting and we're doing that. We're vertically integrating our assembly lines in ways that make the rest of the industry look like a joke. Do you know Boeing ships their hulls to five different countries for assembly? I'm not talking about having multiple plants operating in parallel. A single airframe passes linearly through five different countries, having different parts glued onto it. And between countries it's on a boat. And magic does wild things with fluid dynamics calculations--"
"--not that magic doesn't have its own proven-generally-unsolvable fluid dynamics problems--"
"--so we do it numerically, obviously. But by 'wild' I meant 'valuable'. And magic changes the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, and if you've spent as long as I have staring futilely at the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation wishing it wasn't such a bitch, you'd understand how much of a bitch it is."
"Actually, I have."
"To get a delta-vee of four times the effective exhaust velocity we need a fifty-to-one propellant-to-vehicle mass ratio! Fuck that! You know this."
"Fuck the natural logarithm!"
"Fuck it, indeed," Laura says.
"Yes, I've done some magic," says Hatt. "This job has a lot of straight, blunt business to it, meetings-in-rooms-and-on-phones, and the more of it I do the further I get separated from the physical hands-on mage work. Which I regret. But I can stand it for as long as it's in the service of advancing science. Two things, I have realised. One, that the future isn't something that happens just by sitting still watching digits roll over. The future's something you make a conscious decision to build. Two, what you build, you can sell. Magic makes the world a lot more confusing, but I think you'll agree that admitting that there's something in the world that will never be fully understood is the exact opposite of science. With magic, we're going to cut the cost per kilogram to LEO in half. And after that, actual God-damned flying cars."
They stride on for another few minutes, reaching the far end of the factory and exiting through a door onto the apron and runway beyond. Hatt keeps walking in the same direction, now apparently leading Laura out across the concrete, away from the forest of aircraft and towing vehicles, towards nowhere. It's nowhere near as nice a day today. It's windy and grey.
"Do you get the bizarre dreams?" Hatt asks.
"Let me show you what we're looking at," Hatt says. They stop in the middle of the runway, which, Laura can only assume, is not currently in use. From an inner jacket pocket, Hatt produces a slim black case and from the slim black case he produces a handful of thin metal cylinders, like dry spaghetti strands. Connected together they form a scaled-down magic staff, as long as his forearm and only a few millimetres thick. In other words, a wand. He has the thing assembled so quickly that Laura doesn't have time to speak. "
There's a pure clear night sky above them, with a triple-pointed galaxy. There's glass underfoot. The glass is sapphire-blue and rough, as if heavy vehicles have driven over it in every direction a hundred times a day for a decade. Where the Hatt Group hangar was, there's an even more colossal building, totally made of glass, lit internally with constellations of futuristically blue-tinged flood lamps, filled with sparkling sleek black launch vehicles covered with magic runes. Where the Hatt Group offices were, there's a vast two-storey terminal building, with mass transit rails connected to all of its orifices, ferrying passengers to and from the rest of the UK.
Edward Hatt and Laura Ferno are still standing together in the middle of the runway. Hatt grins wider than ever and Laura ducks as a spaceplane shrieks over their heads, blasts their hair with reversed thrust and touches down. The machine is 737-sized, brilliant white on top, gloss black underneath, and angular like a seagull. Under its wings, instead of jet engines or rocket motors, it has red-hot glowing inscriptions and thin, comb-like distribution channels for mana. In the sky, in the direction from which the first spaceplane just came, is a column of lights, a queue of other spaceplanes on their final approach. The queue stretches out beyond the limit of human eyesight, stacked up by Space Traffic Control as close together as they'll go.
"We will build this," says Hatt, "and there's nothing stopping us launching from the North Pole, straight up. You've seen enough of the quantum physics by now. Magic violates laws. Big, big laws. There." He points.
On the far side of the terminal building is another runway. A different spacebird of a much larger model takes off, using barely two hundred metres of 'asphalt'. Once airborne, it pulls up to an almost vertical attitude, and accelerates out of eyeshot. Laura loses track of it in less than thirty seconds. She can't tell if its trajectory is suborbital or not.
She realises that the big spacebird had windows all the way along its hull. Passenger windows. In fact, it had about the same configuration as the one that just landed, which means no discarded components. No spent fuel tank. No fuel, aside from a gargantuan quantity of magic.
"This is the Earth half of the dream," says Edward Hatt. "I don't know what's on the Moon yet, but there's definitely something there worth looking at."
"Can you do this? Even theoretically, how much of this is possible?"
"We're going to have to invent some theory," says Hatt. He says this with absolute confidence. It doesn't even appear to have occurred to him that the theory could be too difficult to invent. A fragment of paper whips past in the wind. He snatches it out of the sky.
And they're back to the grey Norfolk day.
"How did you do that?"
"Somebody lost a boarding pass," Edward Hatt says to Laura, handing her the piece of paper. It has the texture of a banknote, and a barcode of a style Laura doesn't recognise. The date on it is thirty years from now. The flight is from here to Cape Town. Duration: two hours, eleven minutes.
"You just had this in your pocket," Laura says.
Hatt puts his hands in his pockets. "Are you in?"
"That was the interview?"
"We want your finished final project. The low-level thaumokinesis. If you can complete it to your own satisfaction, you'll have shown the level of skill we need. Finish the degree too if that makes it simpler for you."
Laura holds Hatt's gaze for a while. "The thing you built in Tanako's world is no great trick," she says. "Anybody can dream that big. And I know wands cost a lot. But back there I saw mages in hard hats, doing things I actually don't understand. For a living."
"Is that a yes?"
"Send me the paperwork."