Sufficiently Advanced Technology (fiction)
"Stab wound" is a really amazing phrase to suddenly be forced to consider from close, personal range.
Laura Ferno wakes up the following afternoon with a belly wrapped in bandage, a mouth tasting like sun-dried vomit and two distinct hangovers: one from the alcohol, and one from the anaesthesia. She spends a restless and irritable Christmas in hospital, forced to keep still so as not to tear her side open again. She is discharged shortly before the New Year, with a sizeable antibiotics prescription and instructions not to drink alcohol while taking them, which only makes her angrier. After a month and a half, her doctor gives her permission to be physically active again, and doesn't bother to set up another appointment. And then the physical injury is totally in the past. Laura forgets about her scar for months at a time. It should be over.
But this is the United Kingdom, and a muggee can't straight-up kill a mugger in self-defence and simply return home to unified rapturous applause. Very large, very serious questions have to be asked, questions to which "But he was trying to kill me!" doesn't qualify as an acceptable answer.
When her solicitor first explains this to her, Laura sits there in the chair unable to actually comprehend what he is telling her, incapable of even a bewildered "Huh?", let alone a full sentence of rebuttal.
They are found guilty, of course: the two-and-a-half people who were left after she'd finished with them. They go away, very quickly. But there is a serious chance that she has broken the law in turn, by having been a victim of attempted murder.
"No. That's not how it is. You've broken no law. That's something you're going to have to keep a firm grip on. It's just going to take a little time and effort and preparation and training to get to the point where a court of law is convinced. It's going to take some reasoning. Let's talk about your weapons."
"They aren't weapons," says Laura, but then immediately realises that this is exactly the reaction that her solicitor is trying to draw out.
"If they're not weapons, what are they?"
"They're tools. I improvised. They are, at best, improvised weapons."
"Go on. Convince me."
"...I'm not a Marine. I'm not a spy. I'm not a gun nut. I don't walk around carrying weapons. I'm a mage. Which, in case you're not clear on this, is a classification of scientist. I'm studying for a degree in thaumic engineering and I spend a lot of time in the lab. In the front ten pages of any thaumic engineering textbook, you'll find a summary of the basic tools that are required to get anything done in magic. That accounts for ninety percent of what I carry. This equipment is advanced and unusual for a random woman in the street, but it's completely standard for a trainee mage anywhere in the world. Most of it was purchased 'off the shelf'. Some of it, I built myself in class. For class. And ten years from now, B&Q is going to stock this stuff alongside the power drills. Convinced?"
The solicitor nods. "Next question. Does a kitchen fitter typically carry his power drill with him when he goes out on the lash?"
Laura glares at him. "I carry my tools everywhere I go. I'm wearing the same equipment right now." She rolls up her sleeves and shows him. "It's how I dress. Ask anybody."
"Do you have a licence to carry or use magic amulets in public?"
"I don't need one."
Laura shrugs. "Magic amulets aren't restricted."
Laura thinks about this, looking into the man's eyes and trying to figure out what he's trying to make her say. "Ah... Because this hasn't happened before."
The solicitor smiles. "Yes. The complicating factor. This is what makes this case a little less straightforward. Magic is... subtle. And it's a little bit new. Now, all things being equal, that would be the end of the case. You were attacked, and you defended yourself using equipment which you had available to hand, equipment which you were carrying legally. It would be no different if you'd defended yourself using something else that had never been used before, like a... a bottle of toilet cleaner, or a stuffed swordfish.
"But tell me about the other ten percent of what you carry."
"I'm... very good at magic."
"How good?" The solicitor has a completely straight face. He doesn't want modesty. He wants a straight answer.
She inhales. "I'm ahead of all of my classmates. I'm ahead of all of my lecturers. I'm ahead of all the theoretical or applied magic textbooks I can find. I have performed experiments and demonstrated results in the lab which, to my tutors' knowledge, are both completely original and highly significant. The only thing stopping me from pursuing a bachelor's degree in theoretical magic simultaneously with my applied course is university policy, and the only thing stopping me from claiming two separate PhDs right now is the speed at which I can type. As for my equipment..." She slips all five bangles off her left wrist and selects one of the silver ones to hold up. "I made this myself. It's called a Veblen arbitrator. I can't explain to you what a Veblen arbitrator does without going through about six weeks of technical jargon, but in industry these are generally expected to be the same size and weight as a grand piano. And cost. And twice as difficult to use properly. Nobody else on Earth has one like this, and nobody else on Earth has the spell I use to drive it. The same is true of most of what I carry in my purse. And yes, I did use this when I was attacked."
He nods. "Okay. Now answer this question. If you're that good at magic, why didn't you defend yourself non-violently? Or at least non-fatally?"
"Do you want to just go with 'Laura'?" says Laura, primarily to buy time to phrase her answer.
"This isn't a trick question. There's a correct response here. I want you to find it."
She counts off on her fingers. "Three reasons. Because I didn't have time; because, advanced as my equipment is by lab standards, it's still experimental and unpolished; because I was improvising and because I'm a mage, not a witch. Well, that's four reasons. The heat spell I used was created in the lab as an exercise for me to see what was possible. I've used it a few times in the lab to heat metal for metalworking, but my supervisors discourage me from doing so because, as should be plainly obvious by now, the spell is incredibly dangerous when wielded by hand. If the technique were to be used in industry, it would probably involve mounting the generator/arbitrator in a static assembly with some manual controls, or maybe combined into some sort of blowtorch-like tool. In either case a visor would be used. As for the kinetic spell, that was, believe it or not, written over the course of a weekend about six months ago when I was helping a friend of mine move house. It was supposed to help move furniture. It didn't work very well for that purpose then, and it doesn't work very well now either, because it's too, uh, 'blunt'.
"Both spells could have been used non-lethally or even non-violently. Unfortunately, I didn't have the two weeks' preparation available that I would have needed. I had about five seconds. Honestly, it's a miracle that I was able to cast anything given the circumstances. We have a saying in our field: 'Magic isn't'. It doesn't 'just work', it doesn't respond to your thoughts, you can't throw fireballs or create a roast dinner from thin air or turn a bunch of muggers into frogs and snails. It's incredibly hard, even for me. It's getting easier, but it's not that easy. Yet."
The solicitor says nothing for a long while as he finishes typing out notes.
"How much of this did you already know?" she asks him.
He ignores her: "If I consult an independent expert in thaumic engineering, will he or she be able to corroborate your statements about the standard range of tools carried by a trainee mage? What about if I ask a selection of actual trainee and professional mages across the country?"
"If I read every thaumic engineering textbook published in the last five years will the majority of your equipment really appear in the front ten pages?"
"Maybe the first fifty pages. And only the entry-level ones. In the appendices for most of the rest."
"If I ask all your friends and relatives and other people on your course, will they all confirm that you wear magic rings as jewellery almost every day they've ever seen you, including formal and informal occasions, in and out of the lab? What if I look at photographs of you taken over the past year?"
"Yes. Yes, almost certainly."
"I take them off when exercising. And when I'm sleeping, obviously."
"Will your instructor confirm the story about writing the thermal spell in the lab and will your friend confirm the story about writing the kinetic spell for a move?"
"I'm going to take a guess and say that you've played the events of that night through in your head about a hundred thousand times since they happened. You've spent the last month and a half thinking about different things that you could have done. Is that true?"
Even having answered the previous question truthfully, Laura has to stop and think for a long moment. All of her alternative outcomes were predicated on chance: she could have taken a different bus, worn different shoes or worn her rings on opposite hands; she could have kept hold of her purse, or ducked, or evaded the first grab; she could have slurred either or both of the spells, or tripped and passed out and bled to death on the steps.
She could have never taken up magic at all.
"There's nothing else I could have done."
"I'm going to talk to your tutors and your sister and the people who know your capabilities best. I'm going to ask them what they would have done, and what you should have done. Will they give the same answer?"
Laura's solicitor smiles broadly.
And that's exactly how it goes.
Surprise witnesses don't appear. Unexpected damning evidence isn't introduced. All hope isn't lost right at a critical dark point two-thirds of the way through the trial and victory isn't triumphantly clawed back in the middle of act three. It's lengthy and gruesome and tedious and involved and expensive and unpleasantly detailed and at times it seems like it's never going to end. But she wins. She straight-up wins.
She wafts out of the court, as light as a feather.
Now it's the day after she was cleared and Laura is having coffee with her sister at the bottom of a skyscraper chasm in the London Docklands-- or, as Laura thinks of it, The Future. This specific Future is the utopian, ultra-clean, ultra-stylish future, with brushed white stone, shiny metal railings and advanced semi-automated mass transit on elevated rails. It's the Future where litter and crime and unattractive people aren't permitted and where, impossibly, everybody makes substantially more money than average.
Laura finishes her thought with: The Future, in other words, that invariably has an ironic, hidden dark side to it.
It's a bright November day, but too cold to be sitting outside, from where one whole side of the tallest building in the United Kingdom would be visible. Laura and Natalie are okay with this.
Aside from her clothes, Natalie Ferno is almost the mirror image of her sister. She's fractionally taller, though well within the error bars introduced when either or both of them wear heels. She's a little lighter of the hair, a little narrower in the cheeks, wears substantially less jewellery as a habit and talks a lot less. But her clothes actually have colour and that's what sets them apart. Laura Ferno blends in with all the white stone and grey concrete and black suits. Natalie is visible: today, she wears mainly orangey-red.
"You're paranoid," Natalie tells Laura.
"I'm not paranoid," Laura tells Natalie. "Just because a court says something is true or false doesn't make it true or false. Courts are not the arbiters of reality. And I don't mean the court that just said I defended myself legally. Even though they're about to go ahead and revise their opinions of what constitutes 'legal' because I just showed them something scary that any idiot with a workshop can do if they know what words to say."
"And what the words mean."
"Magic is perfectly safe, it's not a crushing revelation that you can kill someone with magic. You can kill someone with anything. Rocks, trees, clouds, plants, ants. I don't know. Marbles. Clover. If it's hard, it can split a head open; if it's soft, you can suffocate on it. You can kill someone with magic, so what? That elevates magic from the level of, well, magic, i.e. fairy stories, to the level of something that actually exists. And you can kill someone with fairy stories! Probably. Some fiction is bad for you. Almost certainly. I can't think of any examples offhand.
"Anyway just because the court says magic is a dangerous force that suddenly needs regulating because nobody completely understands it-- that is to say, the court doesn't completely understand it, much like it doesn't understand the internet, fax machines, GPS or... or the offside rule-- doesn't make it so. And if they do pass a law which says I can't carry regular equipment with me--"
"You'll put it in a bag, like everybody else," says Natalie.
"No. No, I will keep carrying my so-called arsenal where people can see it," (Laura is waving her arms around while she expounds on this topic, and the bangles are indeed where people can see them and hear them jangling) "and people will look at me and they will know that I am not a woman with whom to fuck. And other women like me will wear similar-looking stuff and they'll scare would-be whatevers away with fakes. It's a deterrent. But anyway, I was talking about the other court. I'm not paranoid. Despite that ruling, and despite the fact that those wannabes went away for half as long as they should, that was a hit."
"It was not a hit, Laura."
"They recognised me! The blind one said 'Her.' I mean, the one I blinded. And they kicked my purse down the steps because they knew it was full of enough clatter that I could have gone through them like a food processor, which it was. They wanted my weapons. And don't look at me like that, I know I just won a major case on the basis that they're tools, not weapons. You know what I mean. They wanted to steal and adapt and use them as weapons. They wanted something that doesn't need to be mounted on a truck to work."
"They picked you at semi-random because you were in the wrong place and they took the purse out of the equation because they thought you might have pepper spray or something. Laura, if they knew who you were, and they wanted the flamethrower et cetera that you were carrying, don't you think they knew you'd just have to say 'dulaku' and take them out?"
"Ah, but they thought I was drunk."
"You were drunk!"
"But not drunk enough! They knew I was too dangerous to confront at any other time, but they thought I was drunk enough."
Magic is more complicated than pointing a hand and reciting words; one has to think one's way through the spell while saying it, in order for the effect to "catch". It is not unlike performing advanced mental arithmetic. Vodka, naturally, dulls the ability to do this. Laura has made a great deal out of her evident ability to cast reliably under extreme pressure after consuming a quantity of alcohol that, at best, could be described as above the recommended daily allowance for women. Natalie has refused to rise to challenges to meet or beat what Laura has begun to term her "record".
Natalie says, "Here is my take. And here is the court's take. They were unlucky."
"Yes! Unlucky for them. Admit it. Mugging a person at random and finding that they're armed, in this country, is effectively unheard-of. Even if you were specifically targeting mages, the odds of encountering one as battle-ready as you? You're off the charts, if not unique. Nobody carries as much junk on their wrists as you do. I'm a mage and I don't carry as much junk on my wrists as you do."
"That's just because you work with theory. Wait." A completely new expression crosses Laura's face.
"But I still--"
"I said wait a second."
Laura puts her hand flat on the table and thinks for a moment. Natalie takes the opportunity to finish her coffee and chew some more oatmeal muffin. She stares out of the window at flowing people. It's pushing towards dusk. She should probably be moving off home to get some dinner started.
"What do you carry?" Laura asks.
Natalie holds up both hands, revealing bare wrists and ringless fingers.
"What about in your purse?"
"Nothing. Sometimes a linker." A Kaprekar linker is the magic equivalent of a Phillips head screwdriver or a USB key - a keyring-sized object, indispensible for a huge variety of elementary tasks and never available when you need one. Laura has one on her necklace.
"What is your current project?" asks Laura. "In your coursework or off the clock. Is it a physical object? Do you carry it with you? Is it important? Is it valuable? Who knows about it? Can you tell me about it?"
"Nothing, no, no, no, no, nobody and no."
"You can't tell me about it."
"Because I'm not working on anything!"
Laura takes the first bangle off her right wrist and holds it out to Natalie, who gingerly accepts it.
"And this is?"
"Just read the runes while I find the driver dot," says Laura, taking off her necklace and sorting through its various elements.
"This is the top component in a field extruder," says Natalie, reading the engravings on the interior side of the bangle. So far, nothing she has seen is unusual. "So what?"
"This." Laura finds what she is looking for, and laboriously unthreads a small metal bead from somewhere near the middle of the necklace. She hands it to Natalie as well. It has a hole drilled through it and more engravings around its equator. These engravings are much finer and much more unusual. "Keep this somewhere on your person. In your purse isn't good enough, it's too detachable. On a necklace is fine, but an earring would be ideal. I'm sure you can think of something." Natalie's ears aren't pierced.
Natalie picks the bead up in her other hand and says "Zui eset." Invisibly, a small amount of mana jumps out of her thoughts, into the bead, on to the bangle and back into her mind, now carrying a little information about where it's been and what it saw on the way. She examines the echo with interest.
"You'll need to charge it every day before you go out," says Laura, threading the rest of the elements back onto the necklace in a precise order. "S.O.P. is to turn it on and just run away. The full spell takes about forty minutes to set up initially, probably longer for you because you don't enunciate as fast as I do, but once you've bound it to--"
"I don't think I need you to tell me."
"You can figure it out?"
"No, because I don't need this. When did you make this? I don't need defensive magic. This is... zui eset. This is..."
It's a personal shield. Not a sturdy one, and not a perfect one, but a substantial improvement on bare human skin. It coats the skin like a thick duvet and repels objects: knives, fists, maybe even bullets. For a while.
What it is is revolutionary, but Natalie doesn't want to give her sister the satisfaction of seeing her impressed.
Laura continues, "It's lightweight. It's reactive. Invisible by default so that you can see through it. Try it out a few times in an open space before you carry it in public because the extruded field behaves really strangely at the point where your feet touch the ground. Don't use it sitting down. It can't and won't cut anything at extrusion time. Once you're fully enclosed, it contains enough air for about eight breaths, so try not to suffocate. Emergency deactivation, you say 'zui ixuv ixuv', or you can bind your own word, or just take the bangle off and drop it. And don't use it in the rain."
"In the rain?"
"Falling raindrops register as incoming projectiles and wear the charge down."
Projectiles. Natalie turns the bead over in her hand a few times. Talking Laura out of her paranoia was going to be an easy enough task when she sat down at the table. It was going to be an exercise in logic, persistence and patience. Now Laura's reflected all her own shaky reasoning back on her and reinforced it with some frightening and believable logic of her own. Natalie gets it now. Paranoia, defencelessness.
She gets what it's like to feel the need to carry equipment.
"When did you build this?" Natalie asks.
"I've been working on it since the attack. It's not mature by a long way yet, but once I've got another driver dot of my own machined, I'll keep working on it and let you have the progress."
"I'm not working on anything," says Natalie. "I mean, anything. I'm really not. It's raw theory, the most abstruse thing you could ever imagine. Nothing with immediate practical value. Or even foreseeable value."
"I know," says Laura.
For a long while neither of them say anything. They sit and finish their coffee. Natalie lays the bead down in front of her and watches it, as if it might bite her; as if it might not be on her side.
"You've scared me," Natalie says, not looking up.
"I know," says Laura.
The interior of Canary Wharf Tube station is as tall and long as a cathedral, and is as much The Future as the rest of this square mile of London. The hall is sprinkled with LED signs, automated gates, security cameras and beeping contactless pass cards. The number of people waiting or arriving or leaving is large, but manageable, but visibly rising, like a tide.
Laura and Natalie are heading in opposite directions, so they stop for a moment in the wide No Man's Land between platforms.
"You are so far out beyond the pack," says Natalie. "I'm there, but you especially. You've seen some things which could happen if you let them happen. I mean, if you distribute what you've come up with. I'm saying that what gets mass-produced is a function of what people know exists and what people know is possible and what they can understand. And a lot of those prerequisites are already out there because of you. And I know you can take them further. And I'm saying, don't."
"I'm not having the firearms argument with you," says Natalie.
"Have we ever had that argument? Do we even know that it would be an argument?"
"I'm saying... Thanks for the spell. Thanks for the 'metal'. But stay with defensive magic, Laura. Just do the future a favour and prioritise that over... whatever else you want to do. Over catharsis. That's my train. I have to go."
"Be safe," Laura calls after her as Natalie hurries towards the platform.
On the train, Natalie Ferno finds a seat and sits, turning the tiny metal bead over in her hand. She quickly decides that she is too likely to lose it and puts it away. But she puts the bangle on.
And she spends the whole journey, through both changes and the walk home, checking over her shoulder.