« Ragdoll Physicist | Ra

Laura and Natalie Ferno are engulfed in hellish red light underneath what might as well be a million tonnes of magma. Their world is barely larger than a pair of coffins. The noise the magma makes is strange, more of a creaking than a rumbling. The noise is pervasive and unpleasant.

Their shared multiplied force shield fizzes under load as it races through Laura's mana reserves to maintain its structural integrity. The shield only lets visible light through, which is the only reason that they haven't both been incinerated by radiant heat. They're running out of air.

About eight breaths each.

"Laura," Nat hisses. Her voice rebounds strangely inside the tiny enclosed space. "You've got to do this. I've no mana left and you're running out. You've got to do this now."

"I can't-- I don't know any spells that can get us out of here." Laura wonders why Natalie is talking so quietly. She realises it's to conserve oxygen. They must have used half of it up already. The orange-red light is saturating Laura's consciousness, she can't shut it out, even with her eyes closed. She can't think.

"Then we'll write one," says Natalie, softly.

"We don't have time," says Laura. She knows that nobody can improvise magic. Not in seconds, not even in minutes.

"Then build a lightning machine," says Natalie. She says nothing else. She has exhaled deeply and is trying not to breathe.

The world shakes. Magma folds around them, pushing them in a different direction. Is Benj's spell still cascading? Laura slips her Veblen arbitrator off her wrist and turns her necklace around to find the right pair of driver dots. Of course, that shared mage dream is dangerous. They could die there. Or die here while there. But dream time is different. Not so much slower as... passing in a different direction. She inhales, closes her eyes, and chills her mind. It takes her a long moment to get there. Inside the silver ring clenched in her fist, Dehlavi's triple diamond symbol flares up.

*

In her dream Laura is strapped into the seat of Mission Specialist Elaine L. Barry, the rear left seat on the flight-deck of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, with four minutes and one second left on the launch timer. It is therefore obviously 10:02 hours Eastern Standard Time on 17 December 1993, ten minutes before the Disaster. Of course this is where she is, and of course this is when. Even if she hadn't had this one before, there's nowhere else she could be.

There are six other seats, all occupied by men in spacesuits and bubble helmets identical to Laura's. "There's ice in the ET," she shouts at them. She doesn't have enough control over the mission to abort it directly, but she could alert the mission Commander, USAF Colonel Michael Wilcott, front row right. She struggles with her seat harness, but it's jammed. Her helmet is soundproof. Occasionally Mission Specialist Kevin Hope, in the next seat, will look over at her and pass a few words. She looks back with wild eyes. "There's ice in the ET. The SRBs haven't ignited yet. We can still scrub the launch. You're going to die." Nobody pays attention to her warnings. Not a single instrument gives the slightest impression that something is wrong.

The mission starts with hard, constant acceleration, like being ground under the heel of a giant. After 45 seconds, there is a petrifying sideways lurch as the first and second SSMEs shatter, milliseconds apart from one another. There is no profanity when it happens; in fact, there is almost no involuntary reaction at all. Astronauts are built to be very, very difficult to faze. Mission Control sends the "Abort RTLS" command up almost immediately. The pilot, Soichi Noguchi, acknowledges it and the flight plan seamlessly switches tracks. An entire minute of careful preparation elapses before the SRBs disconnect and the abort sequence starts, and that minute is too long. The calm in the cabin is icy, almost supernatural. By the time the last engine expires - another loud bang, another lurch - Laura has had time to pass through denial and anger into acceptance.

Noguchi is fighting the attitude controls, not entirely without success. Laura wonders why. There's nothing he could do that could save the mission, and he knows that better than anybody. LOCV: Loss Of Crew & Vehicle. The orbiter tumbles like a sock in a dryer, having long since left its flight envelope. Kevin Hope, in the next seat, holds his hand out. Laura takes it.

And then there's a duller clunk, soft enough that she'd miss it if she wasn't listening for it. And through the centre-right window, Laura sees a woman. She's splayed across the orbiter's nose cone like a gecko, one hand on the centre-left window pane and the other spread backwards, holding a magic staff by one end. She's venting mana like a volcano, enough to make Laura's eyes physically sting to look at her. Everybody sees her. There is a fraction of a second during which she has the whole crew's attention.

And the fraction draws out and freezes. Laura focuses. It's not who she thinks.

"Nat?"

Nat waves at her. "Wake up," she mouths.

Laura's perspective shifts. She is flat on her back on cold stone, in a room as as wide as a petrol station forecourt but as tall as a lift shaft. Suspended upside-down over her head like a misguided Smithsonian exhibit is the dream she was having, Atlantis at the moment before its destruction. Its nose is pointed down at thirty or forty degrees and its fat rust-coloured external fuel tank is plugged into its belly like the egg sac of a pregnant spider. She can see a static trail of liquid fuel pouring from the machine's mangled engines upwards into the ceiling. She can see right in through the cockpit window. She can see Noguchi and Wilcott at their seats.

Nat is kneeling beside her, lifting her to her feet. "Did you build this?"

Laura gets her bearings. The room is well-lit, made of sandstone, smooth and modern, like a medieval castle finished yesterday. Just like she imagined it. "I don't sleep well," she remembers. "This is Tanako's world. I came here enough times that I started to get used to it. And then I started... putting things here. For safe keeping. And then I built a thing to keep everything in, so it would all be safe. So I could find it all when I came back. Ideas, I mean. We're asleep, so ideas and memories and things are the same thing. So this above us is what this event looks like. In my head."

"External memory." Natalie stares upwards. "A memory palace. Not unheard-of." Then she frowns. Below Atlantis, but still above head height, is their mother, flying. She is caught at an instant of extreme motion, knees tucked up, arms thrown back, hair blown back, magic staff oriented horizontally across her shoulderblades. She, too, is upside-down and motionless, but clearly about to match velocities and land on Atlantis' nose cone-- or else misjudge it and get pulverised.

"I-- I think about this a lot," says Laura.

Nat says nothing.

Laura takes Nat's arm. She escorts her out of the Atlantis room and along a spaghetti tangle of curving corridors, which eventually spits them out onto a defensive wall. From the outside, Laura's memory palace is a convoluted half-built castle, partially fuzzed with translucent scaffolding, rising at its centre to an infinitely tall, thin spire. The wall around it is a five-pointed star with jagged bastions. The world outside is as dark as it always is, with cracked glass plains spreading in every compass direction. There's no Sun; the castle is lit with torches. In the sky overhead, a triple-pointed Milky Way hangs. Wind howls past their ears, with nothing to slow it down.

Having the idea simultaneously, they both sprout thicker clothing. Laura's design is thick, subdued and black, with a hood and scarf. Natalie's is blue and green and furry, with heavy gauntlets. Noticing her sister's idea, Nat adds a hood too. Laura, as afterthoughts, adds a hefty collection of magic bangles on one arm and an ornate magic staff as long as a pike.

Tanako's world is technically a nightmare. But the noise isn't audible yet.

Way over in the distance, perhaps five kilometres away if that's a meaningful figurative measurement, Laura can see the Krallafjöll ridge. It rises out of the ground as if some snake monster's spinal ridges were forcing their way up from below. She can see that the ridge has opened up, and that a flurry of orange and black material has erupted from it. There's a tiny white spark, which is Benj. And beyond the ridge are the slopes leading down to Blönflói village and the fjord and the ocean. She can see the whole thing, like a tiny static diorama in a box viewed through a peephole. It must be their shared mental image of what just happened, she decides. That is, of what's happening right now.

"What is he doing?" Laura asks.

Nat's extremely long and thoughtful silence is more telling than any verbal response. Eventually, she surmises: "He has managed to cast a quine, a self-calling spell. The spell is now casting itself without his help. He usually uses the Name of ennee, that's what he used for the first cast. But the second cast onwards were in another Name, ra. I don't think that's one of his Alternates." Two gobbets of greenish paint fall from her mouth. She wipes them up, momentarily puzzled. "Ennee. Ra. Use/mention distinction. Okay."

"Magic doesn't work here," Laura explains. "It just comes out as colours."

"His spell's using Krallafjöll's reserves of natural mana," says Natalie. "Energy consumption is going up geometrically. After he bleeds this ridge dry, he might be able to tap other mana foldback points elsewhere on the Mid-Atlantic Rift. With that much energy he could trigger a full-scale eruption."

"...You're saying that he hasn't done that yet," Laura realises. "We can still shut him down."

They have both been educated about what happens when a volcanic fissure erupts. Of more concern than the immediate physical threat to Blönflói - lava flow, ash, fumes and so on - is the environmental threat, which is potentially global in scope. The death toll would be, in Tómas Einarsson's words, "somewhere between zero and everybody in the world".

What Natalie's saying is that surviving the next ten minutes is their second priority.

"I know exactly one spell," Nat continues. "And that was it. So what have you got?"

"What about eset?"

"Alright, I know two spells."

"And uum?"

Natalie says nothing.

"...You don't know uum?"

"I do theory, Laura. Vector calculus and ring theory."

Laura rolls her eyes. She tries a few magical syllables of her own. "A al anh a'u ay." She catches each primary coloured paint blob as it drips from her mouth, then tosses them all into the air. They line up in colour order, just above head height. "This is what I've got. You can show me how to fill in these gaps with theory. You can't spell, so--"

"I can spell."

"Okay. Can you paint?"

*

It could be dream logic and dream time messing with her perception, but it seems to Laura that they arrive at their finished paintings very quickly. Natalie is a very fast learner. Starting from what is clearly a skeletal knowledge of spell structure and syntax, within hours (?) she's mixing new colours and finishing Laura's thoughts for her. She has no spells of her own, but does have a seeming arsenal of heavyweight theoretical results from which Laura draws ideas. Her exact field solutions are hardcore, often too abstruse or complex for Laura to understand properly. Total comprehension is a prerequisite for a good cast, so they have to put those results aside and look at simpler ones.

Within X amount of time, maybe a few heartbeats, they're done with their montage. They have four spells worked out, which gives them some options. They work out a few plans of attack. Then they go to the edge of the defensive wall, facing out towards the ridge in the distance. Nat sits on the wall and assumes the lotus position, folding her hands in her lap and becoming a fat bundle of robes. Laura stalks about, fiddling with her jewellery and staff. She can't bring herself to sit down.

There's no more useful preparation that they can do. There's nothing left to do but worry.

"Just to be clear," Laura says to her sister, "we're probably still going to die. Nobody is going to wake us up from this, which means we're here until the dream ends naturally. My shield is still out there," she points at the ridge, "running out of mana and when it does run out of mana it's going to implode and a million tonnes of red-hot rock is going to land on top of us and we're going to die instantly. There'll be nothing left to bury, nobody'll even find our teeth. And even if it does somehow manage to last, then what's going to wake us up instead is asphyxiation reflex, because we're going to run out of oxygen. So I'll wake up choking to death, and while choking to death I'll have to save us both, and/or the village, and/or the world."

"You'll be fine," says Natalie.

"And I'd really like to know how you're justifying that statement! You're saying that to calm me down and... and psych me up but I'd-- in fact, I'd like to know where this calm demeanour you're showing is coming from! Am I the only person I know who's human enough to freak out in the presence of life-threatening danger? Of threats to life? Am I the only person with the good sense to panic?"

"Would it help you if I panicked?" Natalie asks.

Laura spins her staff fretfully. "It might."

"You're not scared," Natalie informs her, without turning around. "You're just upset that I'm not scared either."

"I'm upset because I don't want to die."

"Why not?"

Laura is stunned by the question. Seven completely different reactions collide in her head, and she fails to verbalise any of them.

There's a distant rustling, like leaves, but it goes on continuously. There is a sort of clicking, grinding noise. Kkkhhhhhhh.

Laura prowls through her mind, trying to detect the impaired thought processes which would arise from oxygen deprivation. She breathes in once and breathes out once. She can't feel anything. "I'm worried about Benj," she says. "Do you remember that accident in the lecture? You weren't there but you heard about it, right? If nothing else I talked your ear off about the insane amount of paperwork that we had to do, right? When we were in the dream, last time... we tried to find him. But we couldn't. He was running away. He didn't want to be found. So... so we made another Benj and brought him back instead. It was dream logic. So who--"

"Is that yours?" Natalie asks her suddenly. Laura looks up at her and then looks at what she's pointing at. There is something else out in the glass world. If the Krallafjöll ridge is to the north, then to the east is another castle, kilometres away, on a different horizon. It is citadel-like, substantially more heavily fortified than Laura's. It's darker than the sky behind it. It resembles a Ministry from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Many mages have this dream, Laura knows. But does that mean it's a shared space? "No, it's not mine."

Natalie uncurls and hops lightly down from the wall-- a drop so far onto solid glass that it would kill a person in reality. "I think we've got time. I'm going to take a look."

"Wait. What if we wake up?" Laura calls.

"Then we wake up."

In Laura's head something is telling her that they shouldn't get separated, but elsewhere in her head something else is telling her that she doesn't know why she believes that. She doesn't want to say something if she's not sure of it so she just sits still and watches Natalie blip off towards the other castle, bypassing space in the same perfectly consistent way that they've been circumventing time. She fiddles with her clothes, reformatting them to be more comfortable. Then she experiments with her new three-metre-long staff. It is a cutting-edge piece of hardware, an oversized piece of jewellery rather than a tool, something from the very back page of a catalogue too high-end to list mere prices. It's twice as ornate and decorative as it needs to be to do the job. It's made in a single piece for better structural cohesion and drastically reduced portability, and its length (√3 times the usual) gives it harmonic performance properties worth dying for. It's wish fulfillment, exactly as practical for everyday use as a Formula One car. And since Laura's wishing, she made it out of mercury. If it wasn't a poisonous liquid at room temperature, mercury would be by far the most useful magic metal.

Wake up. Get to safety. Stop the eruption. In no particular order. Laura checks her watch; its face is, of course, blank.

"I need more information," she says to herself. Out on the horizon, she watches the brilliant white spark which marks her mental image of Benj.

The noise is getting louder. The nightmare's about to begin.

 

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