"Rajesh is a fucking moron," Ed Hatt explains.
"That seems--" Martin Garrett begins, but then the toll barrier flips up and Hatt floors it, which means that for the next two or three seconds Garrett is squelched back into his seat by acceleration, unable to respond. On the other side of the Dartford booth is a wide apron where exiting traffic condenses from twenty-four lanes down to three and resumes its course south around the rim of Greater London. At peak periods, there are close to a hundred vehicles jostling for position here, but it's not peak period. If anything, it's valley period: pitch dark, three fifteen on a chilly and wholly unremarkable weekday morning in the spring of 1986.
"That seems harsh," Garrett concludes, once he recovers the ability to speak.
"'Seems harsh'," Ed Hatt echoes. "He doesn't get it. If I have to go through one more call with the man where I have to straighten out his priorities, I may well have him retired."
"That seems a brutal way to put it."
"He's on the way out anyway. His contributions have been on the way out. I only keep him around because he holds the reins of the ten or eleven actually smart men in that lab. They look up to him, they use him as a, what's the word, weathervane. Barometer. They take cues from him more readily than they'd take them from me because he's a scientist and he can frame what he needs-- I mean, what I need-- in the right terms. They're not as likely to take orders directly. But he - Raj - is not fruitful anymore. He's not rich. No good results. These new fellows, Devi and Mitra, leave him standing. He's losing it."
"How old is he?" Garrett asks.
"Seventy-three," says Hatt, carrying out the swift burst of date arithmetic too quickly for the pause to be detectable. "That's the other thing. He's old enough! To retire. I mean, this is Wile E. Coyote style, running out on empty. Retirement age is the edge of the cliff and he's well over it. I don't think he realises it yet."
"Then he won't stick around for much longer anyway, surely," Garrett suggests.
"He'll stick around for as long as he can. He wants to leave a dent in the universe. Which is credible, I think everybody in the world wants to leave a dent in the universe in some respect--"
Garrett raises a highly sceptical eyebrow. Hatt actually notices this, despite the ludicrous velocity at which he is piloting the car. Garrett notices in turn that Hatt has glanced at him momentarily, and this frightens Garrett a little. In his opinion, a three-digit speed mandates a maniacal, laser-like focus on the road ahead, not on one's passenger. "Watch the road."
Hatt continues, "--but he hasn't accepted yet that he's had his Moon landing moment. I mean, his Neil Armstrong moment, to the extent that he's ever going to have one. The Vidyasagar field equation is it for him. His footprint has been left, indelibly, in scientific history. From here it's downhill and he should just enjoy it. He thinks there's a bigger jewel left inside himself somewhere, figuratively speaking. But there isn't. He should actually fucking enjoy himself for a few years before he falls over one day and doesn't get up."
"I've met Vidyasagar briefly," Garrett says.
"Yes, I remember. I was there." It was the Hatt Group AGM, almost a year ago now.
Garrett continues, "He seems like science is what he does to enjoy himself."
"Well, that's his problem, because science isn't something I do to enjoy myself," says Ed Hatt. "There's a third thing which I interpolate between science and enjoyment, which I call profitability."
Martin Garrett is forty-eight, one of Hatt Group's principal solo investors, easily Hatt's equal in the adrenaline junkie stakes and, by Hatt's reckoning, trustworthy. Ed Hatt isn't the only young/stupid/successful man who takes his pet supercar out on the illegal high-speed London Orbital circuit like this. It's a small and largely anonymous and actually vaguely unpleasant community, all testosterone and oneupmanship, no collective safety conscience, no concessions to personal responsibility. It will all end in tears one day, either in speed cameras or in a meaninglessly irresponsible death, but until that day, there's luck to be pushed.
Hatt's unnecessarily powerful Porsche 911 chews up the road like its birthright. Hatt has convinced himself that the vehicle sounds irritable until he gets it past eighty-five. It's almost impossible to conceive that the machine was built to do anything other than this. It's almost impossible to conceive that the freshly-completed, mint-condition M25 motorway was built to have anything else done to it. Hatt and Garrett are both stone cold sober and in an excellent mood: Hatt Group has had an extremely successful financial year, and this is Hatt's idea of entertaining a trusted and valued business associate.
Hatt asks, "What was the split at the toll booth?"
Garrett pulls out his stopwatch. The stopwatch is a novelty, and bringing it was Garrett's idea. Most racers drive solo, and just use their wristwatch. "You said to catch it at the moment when the coins hit the bucket? Twenty-five minutes, fifteen point oh three seconds."
Hatt coughs irritably, as if having just swallowed something foul. "Not good at all. My PR is twenty-four oh eight. WR is about one millisecond below twenty. That was in a car built specifically to break the production speed record and nothing else. Fucking bullshit time."
"'PR' is Personal Record, 'WR' is World Record?" Garrett guesses.
"Yeah." Hatt moves them to a different lane as they fly over the M20.
"Why do you call it the World Record when it can only be set on this specific road in this specific country?"
Hatt cackles. "Don't-- just, don't start with me, all right? This is your fault anyway, Martin. You're acting as ballast."
"It was your idea," Garrett says.
"Well, I hope you're having a good time, because the only way I'm going to get on the leaderboard today is if I throw you out at Sevenoaks."
"That's fine," Garrett says. "We're taking the wrong route for the record, anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"We're on the outside, going clockwise. If we were on the inside carriageway the route would be shorter."
"Only by about a hundred and fifty yards," says Hatt. "The ratio of lengths is the same as the ratio of radii, and you're looking at about twenty-five yards' difference over nineteen miles, which is basically nothing. If you think about it, you lose more time on the roundabout, because the service station's on the outside."
Garrett frowns for a second, working this out. "Huh."
"You don't loop the entire capital in less than seventy minutes by not examining the details."
"Something like seventy minutes," says Hatt. His personal record is in the low eighties. "If you're good. I reckon in the next year or two somebody's going to break the hour mark."
They cruise in silence for a few miles - which is to say, a minute. Vast blue and white roadsigns flash past overhead, indicating exits towards the south-east of London and the South East of England. UK motorway signs are sized according to the speed of passing traffic - the faster the traffic, the bigger the signs have to be for motorists to read them. Garrett can't read these. They're written in foot-high letters and they're still passing too quickly.
The major consideration when taking a public highway at high speed is road curvature. Cornering ability doesn't enter into it-- Hatt's car is built for sport, and very few highways in the world have surprise hairpin turns. The greater risk is of coming around a bend - and it doesn't have to be a sharp bend, just enough to hide a little of the road ahead - and running headlong into the back of another car fast enough for the initial impact alone to kill everybody involved. In curvature terms, UK motorways are designed to be completely safe up to around 110% of the speed limit. Beyond this design cutoff, in the largely unexplored blank areas of the velocity phase space, the skill level of the driver and the make of the car aren't relevant: there is absolute danger.
So it's a game of extreme skill, of reflex times, of weighing the need for caution at the brow of a hill against the need for a fast time, of watching every part of the road ahead and of intimate familiarity with one's vehicle's behaviour under envelope-pushing conditions. At this time of night the road is almost completely empty, which is another way of saying that it's not empty at all. Hatt keeps his right foot permanently on the accelerator and his left foot permanently over the brake, and stays in the far right lane where the presence of another vehicle is less statistically probable. His eyesight is fine, his tyres are new, the road is dry. All of this amplifies his confidence. None of it makes him safe.
"The tragedy is that he knows his shit," Hatt says, continuing the thread from earlier. "Every now and then, he and I line up with one another, and he sees exactly what I see. But most of the time it's like he's seeing the two faces while I'm seeing the candlestick. What I said, way, way back at the beginning of all of this, is that in order for magic to be commercially viable we need to invent the shelf. Every other company out there is manufacturing a different ring every fucking time. They're almost casting a new mould each time, it's asinine. Because there was this milestone paper by Mukhopadhyay, you must have heard of it--"
"Yes," says Garrett.
"--which basically said, 'For any problem in this set, you can make a ring or a concentric ring system which will solve it for you. Here's the algorithm that'll do it, one two three four the end.' Brilliant piece of work! Rings were the breakthrough moment, they're the transistors of magic. But everybody takes that paper literally. Everybody goes around using up thousands of mainframe hours numerically solving the most God-awful PDEs and then building a new ring to order for every client. And Raj was completely okay with this. What he wanted to do was run on ahead and try to scrape the next layer of crap off the universe and see what's underneath, and I almost had to physically restrain him and say, 'No. This isn't good enough. It's a solution, but it's not the solution.' It's not that I'm against crap-scraping in principle. I see its value. You know how much we invest in research. But that's just the R in R&D. Development is just as important. We can always do better."
"Hence the componentisation concept."
"Exactly. Imagine you're a company with no experience with magic, no mages on the payroll. You perceive magic as a risk, you care more about what magic can do for you than what magic can do for science or the world. You want to build a magic solution cheaply. 'Cheaply' is code: it means you want to use off-the-shelf parts. You'd rather use robust components with a track record than bespoke one-off crap which will become a maintenance nightmare universe all unto itself at the very second that the state of the art moves on. You want standard rings, standard amulets, standard spells. And you want it to be easy to hire mages who are familiar with those standards."
"You're preaching to the choir," Garrett tells Hatt. In fact, Hatt is rehearsing a familiar Hatt Group investor pitch. What he's describing is exactly what Hatt Group did, and does, and will continue to do for the foreseeable future.
"It's not even as if the challenge wasn't interesting once I got Raj to pass it on," Hatt says. "I knew there was some fun science in there alongside all of the practicality and profitability. Raj just didn't understand why you'd dwell on a solved problem. Classic mathematician. Proves on paper that a bucket of water will put out the fire, has no desire to pick the fucking bucket up and put the fucking fire out. But when his people got the idea they ate it up like... hot cakes."
"I don't think that's the right idiom," says Garrett.
"I don't either," says Hatt, "but you take my point."
"We were the first company in the world to make a ring in two semicircular pieces that you can weld together around an existing piece of equipment. Because nobody wants to shut their process down and take it entirely to pieces to slip a magic condom over the end of their pipe. Most of the industry said it was literally impossible, because of precision. Precision! Meanwhile, I'm watching Rajesh Vidyasagar and his guys casting thermal reduction field effect spells with sticks driven into mud. I say, you throw a thick layer of the smartest applied mathematicians in the world on top of a problem like that, and the problem folds up like a..." Hatt snaps his fingers irritably, groping for the rest of the saying.
"Cheap suit?" Garrett guesses.
"Yeah. You've just got to sell it to them."
"You've got to sell the problem to the mathematicians?"
"Yeah. If you want them to bite."
They drive in silence for a little longer. Signs for Sevenoaks, Crawley and Croydon rise and fall. Hatt relaxes a little, shifting position, then snaps himself out of that overly relaxed state as a few more slow-moving cars appear on the horizon. They blitz past them with a full empty lane separating them. Too fast for either party to get a number plate, too fast to even get a manufacturer.
"Speaking of magic rings," Hatt says.
"Are you religious?"
"Not especially. Well... no, not in the usual sense."
"Because I spend a lot of time in India and I see a lot of Sikhs wearing that kind of bracelet." Hatt points at Garrett's wrist.
"Oh, this thing!" Garrett holds it up. It's a slim, solid band, undecorated.
"They call it a kara," Hatt says. "But I didn't think you were religious. You don't cover your head, to start with."
"No. Oh! Oh, I see why you're concerned," Garrett says.
"Because if it is a magic ring then that means you got it from one of our competitors! Ha hah!" Ed Hatt is only half-joking.
"Hah. No, it's a magnetic healing ring. It improves my circulation."
"How?" Hatt can't stop himself from blurting out the question.
"So, you know that the principle component in blood is haemoglobin? The magnetic field acts on the iron atom in the haemoglobin molecule to make it move more freely. So it reduces inflammation and improves my immune system. I have some friends who swear by them. One of them, he's worn one for the last... ooh, it would have to be sixteen years? And he's never had a serious illness. He gets a cold now and then but never for more than a day. It also speeds up the migration of calcium ions, which makes healing nervous tissue and bones quicker. You know I go surfing, you know how you can get bruised while surfing. My bruises go away just like that. I should give you some literature. It's really amazing."
...It's car crash science. Ed Hatt fights his instinct to tell Garrett that (1) a haemoglobin molecule contains four iron atoms, not one and that (2) everything else he just said is also bullshit. Hatt has no tolerance for it. It drives some kind of painful splinter into his neck, forcing him to respond with all kinds of foul invective. But there are few moments in a business relationship when directly insulting a significant investor is the best move.
Instead, Hatt changes gear and tries to respond in the same terms as Garrett. It's difficult: BS is a whole other language to him, one he can't easily speak. "So it's kind of a good luck charm?"
"It's a good luck charm," says Garrett, nodding enthusiastically.
"The next split is at the M3," Hatt says.
"That's about half an hour from now?" Garrett says.
"Nope, more like half that. We'll pass right over it, the timing point is at the middle of the carriageway."
"I'll be ready," says Garrett, waving the stopwatch.
Hatt holds his breath for a few seconds. Maybe he's successfully changed the subject.
Garrett asks, "Are you religious?"
Damn it. Ed Hatt brakes a little, a reflex action. Here he is at twice the speed limit and all the way out of his comfort zone. He measures his words. "Religion and I don't see eye-to-eye," he says. "So I stay as far away from it as possible. The whole industry is swamped with hangers-on who try to crowbar magic into whatever religion they like best. And it never fits properly, anywhere. Indulging these people is invariably a waste of everybody's time, so I just ignore it. We're stuck with the terminology, but that's only because all the terminology was hacked into stone before I got the chance to have a say. It's just bad branding. And-- so, you know that there are fundamental mathematical constants."
"And fundamental physical constants."
"Like the fine structure constant."
"And in magic, there are fundamental magical constants. Which take the form of spoken syllables."
"Everybody accepts that the universe is built on certain truths," Hatt summarises. "I just don't worship those truths. Because what's the point? What do I gain from that? The universe was built to be unscrambled. I mean, not that the universe was built. The universe wasn't built by anybody. It wasn't built to have anything done to it. But my purpose, which I picked for myself, is: get money, unscramble universe. Not in that order."
Garrett looks intently over his shoulder for a moment. He can see at least three-quarters of a mile back.
"Police?" Hatt asks, checking his mirrors.
"You mentioned scraping layers of crap off the universe," Garrett says.
Garrett says, "There's a concept in thermodynamics called negative absolute temperature. You'd think absolute zero kelvins was the lowest temperature a body could have, but it's not. It's as if the universe's temperature scale wraps around on itself at infinity. A body below absolute zero behaves as if it's hotter than any positive-temperature body. It's one of many counterintuitive artifacts of quantum mechanics. It can only happen in very unusual edge cases. But it can happen.
"Of course, the laws of physics aren't that stupid. You can't steal limitless thermal energy that way. It's just a freak of mathematics."
Hatt says nothing.
"But you can steal magic," Garrett continues. Something is happening to his tone of voice. It's not an impersonation. It's more as if he's spent his whole life affecting an impersonation of another person. Now he's finally lapsing back to his normal self. And he's speaking faster than he used to. "If you subtract all the mana out of a body in less than one-tenth of a picosecond, the mana energy density inside the body nosedives so hard that it very briefly turns negative. Which is also nominally impossible. But it works. It requires a spell unlike anything you've ever seen before. Up until now you've been using magic as the fulcrum, mediating between different forms of energy. Heat goes down, kinetic goes up. This is different. There's more energy there than any living human carries, more than every living human can use. This is what your people found."
"How do you know about that?" Hatt hisses.
"Devi and Mitra have found something very important. Ra is critically important to this. You need to keep looking in that direction. You haven't seen real magic yet."
"What are you talking about? That experiment was supposed to be carried out secretly. Only about six people in the company know it happened. It was just R&D, a shot in the dark--"
"The assembly was connected to a standard electrical transduction ring. The lightning bolt punched through two walls on its way to earth. Anil Devi was burnt along the waist and forearms, Dinesh Mitra was temporarily blinded. The fire that was started was small enough to be easily controlled. None of us know for certain what the total energy yield was, because all the instrumentation was fried by the electromagnetic pulse. Don't look at me, Ed. Don't slow down."
Hatt himself was the author of most of those words. All he can manage is, "What?"
"I said, don't slow down." Garrett grabs the steering wheel in one hand, keeping Hatt in the outside lane. This move and Garrett's latest instruction are cause for deep alarm, but for the moment Hatt complies. In his rear-view mirror, he sights a scintillating pair of headlights. The same lane. Half a mile back.
"What's happening?" he asks. "Who leaked the information? How did you find out about it? Who's following us?"
"Nobody leaked the experiment to me," Garrett says, "I leaked the spell to you. It isn't going to work forever. In fact, I doubt it'll ever work again. But there are other routes into this problem. Ra isn't just a fundamental constant, it's the most important fundamental constant there is. There is limitless energy down there and to find it, you need to find Ra. And you need... to be... subtle."
"What the fuck does any of that even mean?"
"Space magic, Ed. Kardashev one."
Their tail is gaining faster than should be possible. No flashing red and blue lights. A civilian. Hatt would dearly like to know what he's driving.
Garrett still doesn't let go of the wheel. "Outrun him," he says.
Hatt looks Garrett in the eye. "Why?"
About three-quarters of a second elapses. This is enough time for Hatt to see that Martin Garrett has no good answer prepared to give to him. Garrett, Hatt realises, is a crazy. Garrett's mind has been occupied by Hatt's enemy: paranoid schizophrenic pseudoscience.
Hatt decides that he no longer wants this man in control of his vehicle.
Garrett sees the decision flash up in Hatt's eyes. Garrett reacts faster. He pulls his side of the steering wheel down, hard.
The 911 swerves left, but there's no chance of it changing direction. The front right tyre skids for an instant, then it and its rear counterpart bite the concrete, and the left half of the car leaves the ground. The car rolls in fresh air, in high-gee centrifugal freefall. "Oh my God--" are Edward Hatt's expiring words.
It lands on its front left wheel and left headlight, tearing Garrett's door in half and driving shattered pieces of wheel well and brake disc into the passenger compartment. Garrett is crushed into his seat by crumpled bodywork. Ed Hatt is lacerated in the eyes and throat by windscreen shards, but the shock of the first impact has already broken his neck. Still rolling, the Porsche sheds a trail of broken glass, body panels and vital automotive organs. It barely takes a few seconds to come to a halt, but it seems longer. The car finishes the right way up, facing the central reservation, drooling the last of its vital fluids onto the lane markings.
There's a little while of silence.
Ed Hatt is dead. His seat's fabric is saturated scarlet. Martin Garrett sees this very clearly. He can't look away. The passenger door is almost folded double over him, crushing his head back.
Garrett spits a few words out. A narrow, powerful laser ignites, down near his right hip. With care, he slices through his seatbelt and then through strategic joints in the metalwork pinning him, leaving red-hot edges which cool rapidly. Disregarding the heat, he pushes superhumanly hard, forcing the metal tangle to bend upwards and forwards, sprinkling more window glass over his lap and the bonnet.
He slithers out onto the cold, sodium-lit asphalt and takes up a defensive position behind the battered ex-car, breathing hard. By now his privileges have been revoked, something which wouldn't happen until the engagement formally began, for fear of tipping him off. He's down to base magic, the same rules by which everybody else in the world is forced to play.
Where is he?
Over the remains of the Porsche's bonnet he spies the pursuer's car, a midnight-black Testarossa parked a long way back in the middle lane, hazard lights flashing as a warning to approaching traffic. Garrett squints, then aims a finger at the driver's seat, spot-lighting it. The car is empty.
No fully-formed word of reaction has enough time to pass through Garrett's mind. He knows what's next. He instantly spins a hundred and eighty degrees, bringing the laser back up, tightened to as narrow and intense a point as it'll go.
"Oh, you think?"
Exa blocks Garrett's arm with his own. The laser wouldn't scratch him, but he doesn't want to give Garrett even the symbolic victory of landing a single attack. Instead, a long scorch mark ignites in the asphalt beside them, throwing up carcinogenic smoke. Exa takes Garrett's laser arm and uses it as leverage to throw him over one shoulder and down on the road, face down. There's a crack: Garrett's fingers.
"Thanks for your service, Martin," Exa says, "you're fired."
"Oh, you want to do this the tedious way? For the record? That's fine." Exa is the sharp end of his organisation, and is expected to maintain some cool while deployed. But, just this once, he lets some personal anger show: "Going rogue. Revealing deep, dark secrets of the universe to people not in the Wheel Group. Exploiting a flaw in the fabric of magic. Failing to report said flaw through the proper channels. Trying to wake Ra!"
Garrett rolls over. There's nothing in his other hand: the charm is invisible, needing no supporting hardware. Nevertheless, Exa clearly sees Garrett's mana aura supplying power to it, and the metadata pouring out of the charm itself. If this one goes off, it could actually hurt Exa. It doesn't matter. The conversation is over.
With reflexes as far beyond Garrett's as Garrett's were beyond Hatt's, Exa ends him. Garrett ceases to exist, his component atoms transmuted into a thick cloud of humid ozone, which dissipates immediately. The crime scene is left totally sterile.
Exa exhales. He turns on one heel and paces smartly back towards his car, crunching glass beneath his shoes. "I think we're done," he says aloud.
"What about the scientists?" Exa's controller asks him.
"The loophole's closed," he replies. "They'll give up and move on. Hatt's death is regrettable. But I think we're done."
"Do you want to resurrect Hatt?"
He hesitates at the car door and looks back. Hatt's hunched body is still just visible in the wreckage of his car. Exa's expression is blank. In his professional opinion, it doesn't make a difference whether Hatt lives or dies. He considers tossing a coin. He reconsiders.
"I don't want to spend any mana we don't have to," he says. "It's more plausible this way."
As the first trailing cars are starting to pull up at the crash site, Exa turns his ignition. He navigates smoothly around the wreck and disappears into the distance, unidentified.
Hatt breathes in and out. Breathing in is worse. The act of inhaling gives him sharp crackling pains in his chest, neck and pelvis. Breathing out is more of a dull rasp as the same bones and organs settle back, broader in effect but not quite as intense. He concentrates on taking shallow breaths, to minimise the pain. He concentrates, also, on not moving any other part of his body, even experimentally. He can tell that a great deal of it is broken. He thinks he might have spinal damage, and dares not even open his eyes for fear of jostling his head out of position and making it worse. Speaking isn't going to happen, but he sure as hell thinks Help as loudly as he can. He listens out hard for sirens, but only hears the occasional vehicle pass in the other carriageway. Someone's coming, he knows. He hopes. He can't manage this level of pain for very long. Take it a minute at a time. Take it five seconds at a time. In. Out.
Hatt can feel something metallic touching his left wrist, but he can feel metal touching his ankles (which are broken) and his ribs (some fractured) and his right forearm (severely gouged). His wrist feels fine, but he doesn't want to know. He keeps his eyes clamped shut because there's nothing in the world that he wants to see now.
He isn't dying. Much the opposite. The metal object on his wrist is Garrett's medring, placed there as Garrett's last act before exiting the vehicle. The ring is set on minimum power, low profile, prioritising the most severe medical conditions, such as - initially - death. Its first act as Hatt's personal doctor was to reset his neck joint, a necessary prerequisite to bringing the patient back to life. Now, it has started working, very slowly, on his eyes. No human doctor in the world could heal Hatt's eyes, but by the time the ambulance arrives there'll be no evidence that they were ever damaged.
Hatt's overall recovery will not be miraculous, but certainly impressively quick. He won't be able to shake off the things Garrett said. "Good luck charm". "Speeds up healing".
Hatt is impatient. He is results-driven, with no tolerance for bull.
Vehicular manslaughter? It hardly requires a fleet of lawyers to prove that in the absence of Martin Garrett's body, he must have either (1) walked away from the crash site alive or (2) never been in the vehicle in the first place. With suitable emphasis on mitigating circumstances (clean licence, no drugs or alcohol, serious personal injury), Hatt escapes the legal proceedings with a dangerous driving conviction: a heavy fine and a multi-year ban. He hires a driver.
As for the deep, dark secrets of the universe: One year to the day after the crash, Hatt officially severs his relationship with it. He decides that idea two might as well be the truth of the matter, for all the concrete results that have come out of Garrett's dreamlike comments. The lightning bolt accident cannot be duplicated. The syllable Ra has, if anything, less significance than any other. The kara that Hatt has inherited is just a solid ring of admittedly extremely valuable rhenium with no detectable magical properties. Hatt continues to wear it, anyway. Placebo effect or not, it seems to give him energy.
He sees that there are more important things competing for this part of his life, and he lets them take his attention away. He resigns himself to never finding out what the hell really happened to Martin Garrett. He moves on to the next chapter.