Laura Ferno And The Bomb

The sheep are flustered for a very short space of time after the machine explodes into being nearby. Sheep don't really have the capability to understand how astounding it is for four-hundred-metre lozenge-shaped building/machines to just pop out of thin air, drop onto the ground and sit there. Yes, the substantial resulting shockwave sent through the Earth is cause for momentary alarm. But depending on the sheep it's either a long way away, or up close, and either way behaving like any other building, just sitting there doing nothing, and it doesn't look or move like a wolf from any angle, so they keep grazing.

The people of Milford Haven, of course, go mental.

And within a few hours all the police people and special forces and special investigators and secret people in the United Kingdom are descending upon the inexplicable artifact.


"So what is your actual job, if you don't mind me asking?" asks the special investigator who has been sent to collect Laura Ferno and bring her to the site.

"Well, on my income tax forms, I am a self-employed magical engineering consultant. I also write books and give lectures on the subject of magical engineering. And I do engineering research which I sometimes get paid for and sometimes do on my own time. So, yeah, I'd call myself a freelance magical scientist. Or a mage."

"And you're, what the best mage in the world or something like that? I mean whenever something weird and/or magic happens, like this, and they need an opinion you're the one they get on the news. And anything you say about magic gets made into a headline, just like Stephen Hawking."


"Is that 'yeah' as in 'yeah, I'm the best mage in the world'?"

"It's not a competition. It's not like we have trials." Although, Laura Ferno files that idea away for future reference. "We're all involved in science. Science is a process. It's not a... a kingmaker. Even though it looks like that. But... yeah."

"Yeah you're the best mage in the world?"

Ferno grins wider than she knows she should, and nods.

"So how do you get to be that good at magic, though?"

This old question.

"Almost everything I know about magic I was taught by my granny, who basically raised me, because my parents were killed in a car accident when I was very small. My granny knew everything. I mean, a lot of magic is just really difficult equations, and not just difficult to remember but even harder to even derive, and she just had them written down in a little notebook like it was nothing, no working, just instinct, like Ramanujan. And she taught me all the words and all the signs and I've just built off that since I was old enough to write. If she was still alive she'd be the second best mage in the world. I am no great intellect. Basically I have natural memory for magic words and I got lucky. And people are catching up.

"As for how my granny got to be so good at magic and didn't tell anybody, I don't know."

"I was gonna say. 'Cause magic's a pretty recent thing in the grand scheme of things. I mean there was, what, plastics, and then there were microchips and now there's magic. I think they're looking for something to come after the Information Age. And this is it."


The next discussion is between Ferno and the head Special Bureau investigator (a Mr. Phillips) and two other senior officials, and takes place on top of the enormous inexplicable artifact.

"But there isn't any such thing as magical teleportation, especially not a construction as big as this all in one go and especially especially not without any kind of receiving equipment!" claims Ferno. "The largest thing anybody has ever teleported, and I must stress that the word 'teleported' is used in the very loosest and most sensationalist and inaccurate sense, was a pair of electrons. And that was thirty years ago. And there's not been a lot of progress. Teleportation isn't a meaningful word in the context of modern physics, any more than 'warp drive' is, or... or 'laser blaster'. It's logically inconsistent with the real world."

"We have about eight hundred eye witnesses who saw the thing pop out of thin air. Do you have a better explanation?" asks one of the officials.

"Right now I'd say 'I have no explanation' is a better explanation than 'teleportation'. At least 'I have no explanation' is technically correct. And we're absolutely sure it wasn't dropped out of the sky somehow? Or... 'cloaked'?"

"And 'cloaked' is more meaningful than 'teleported'?" asks the second official.

Ferno glares at her. "Fractionally."

"We've got video," says Phillips. "The thing appeared about four metres above the ground and dropped on it from that height."

"And what is it?"

"Other than impossible to open, we don't know," says the first official. "There's one obvious door, a huge hatch at the southwest tip, but the entire structure is magically sealed."

"The construction looks human," says Ferno. And it does. It looks like... a human organ, perhaps a brain or a liver or a heart, or perhaps a big cluster of organs stuffed together inside a gigantic cigar-shaped sack, except instead of being made of pulsing meat it's just made of metal. Big pipes and containers and pipes and valves and joints and plumbing and boilers and no visible exhausts. It's like a human organ, four hundred metres long, and made from the components of an industrial sulphuric acid factory being balled up in something's enormous fist. It's like a flying saucer or the Rama cylinder from "Rama" or the Starship Enterprise, except with the sleek outer shell stripped away and all the ugly guts exposed. And it's rumbling. It has been since it arrived.


Cracking open the magical seal would be a week and a half of work for any combination of lesser engineers, magical or otherwise, but Laura Ferno finds that her two-metre magic staff (substantially taller than she is once, like a pool cue, it has been screwed together properly) is perfectly suited to solving this problem. Within thirty minutes, she projects a precisely-guided pulse of kinetic energy through the field, dislodging the internal vanadium-steel component which is casting the seal, and causing it to collapse. Then the first of what turns out to be seven doors grinds open and she and the special forces can start moving into it.

"It's a human construction," one of the men announces, encountering English signage and Roman/Arabic alphanumeric serial codes on the components in the first brief stretch of corridor, which appears to lead down the main axis of the enormous cigar-machine. Ferno concurs with this assessment.

"What time is it?" she asks, as they creep through the interior of the machine.

"Eleven thirty-one hours," someone eventually responds.

"If you were... excuse me. Thinking out loud." Ferno pulls out the radio and repeats for the benefit of everybody outside: "If you were trying to figure out what time it was, and you didn't have a clock, what would you do?"

"I don't even know what you're talking about," says Phillips.

"I'm not sure I do, either," says Ferno. "I'm just thinking about the choice of landing site. A huge flat ready-made field on the outskirts of a small industrial town, plenty of room on every side, and the thing didn't roll or slide at all once it arrived. Prime location. And at the right angle, too. I mean, if this was built on some other side of the Earth, the angle would be wrong. But it arrived horizontal. Near as, anyway."

"What are you saying?" the weary voice on the radio asks.

"Have we taken into account the possibility that thing thing might just be an enormous ticking time bomb?"

"Yes, Dr. Ferno," says the weary voice on the radio. "That's why Milford Haven was being evacuated when you arrived, remember?"

"A ticking time bomb with a useful corridor providing easy access to the inner components. Mr. Phillips, can you find out for me whether there are any plans for this site? Any building work planned, any planning permission granted?"

"I'll look into it."

The second door is similar to the first but the seal is predicated on a completely different set of principles mainly involving binding strength, causing the components of the door to all lock together incredibly tightly and making them close to immobile. Ferno finds the construction of the lock amusingly elegant. It could be defeated with brute force, but she sits cross-legged doing calculations on a notepad for thirty-five minutes while the men stand alertly with their rifles and flashlights, figures out the right answer first time, and opens the door with a two-syllable word. The instantaneous and complete success makes her smile with satisfaction. This is fun!

She gets up and goes through first and the door slams shut behind her. The men with guns are all on the far side. "Oh, shit." A quick scan with the magic-sensitive tattoo on her right index finger reveals that the new seal is completely mechanical and has no clear magical components. It's also, as she knows already, about two inches thick and made from solid titanium. Not even remotely easily magickable, and the radio can't get a signal through.

Then the alarms start flashing. And the enormous glowing arrows on every surface illuminate themselves, pointing deeper into the machine. "Oh, shit!"

She runs in the way suggested.

It's not a time bomb. It's a trap. A ludicrously involved and complex trap. The sophisticated magical locks which only she could break are the clue. Whoever put this thing here was after her, or at least a sufficiently powerful mage or collection of mages. Is this the part when the self-destruct sequence initiates, or the part where the nuke at the core of the machine just fires without warning, or the part where the walls start closing in?

Door three. "Listen to this message carefully. It can be repeated by pressing the blue button next to any hatchway, but you have a limited amount of time and repeating this message multiple times is likely to constitute a dangerous waste of this time. We need your help, Laura Ferno."


And this is years earlier:

"Don't take this the wrong way but you are her spitting image," says the nurse at the home. "Plus fifty years, obviously. But you look just like her. From the back, I mean. I thought you were her for a moment."

"I know," says the younger Laura Ferno. She's got the same hair as her grandmother. The same colour and natural style. The same facial structure. Give or take fifty years. Or even forty, or even thirty-- Grandma has that kind of face which will look like it does for probably another quarter-century if she makes it that far. "Distinguished".

The way you deal with an Alzheimer's patient is ask them not what year it is but who the Prime Minister is. And now Rachel Ferno is saying "Adrian Willingham", whom nobody in the home has heard of.

"Granny, how are you? It's me, Laura."

"I'm fine," says Rachel Ferno. "Thank you very much for asking. How are you, Laura?"

"I'm... I'm doing good," says Laura Ferno. "I tell you this every time I come to visit, but every day I use things that you taught me. And all of this jewellery that you gave me. It's so useful. I don't know how you know all this stuff or where you got it from."

"Well, if there's one thing you need to be, it's self-reliant."

"But I learned everything from you! Not just magic, the way you handle the world and deal with people and always think ahead. I don't know who I'd be without you."

"Well, I hope you know who you are now."

Laura holds her grandmother's hand and smiles. "And you always said that life was going to be big and difficult and there were going to be big challenges ahead, and--"

"Oh, you'll be ready for that, I hope."

"And... Yes. I suppose I will be."

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Discussion (11)

2010-11-29 23:26:23 by qntm:

2041 words. Running total is 53388 words.

This is based on two major concepts. One was "Magic nuke" and the other I can't reveal until the second part is written and posted tomorrow. Can you figure out the mystery? All the clues are there this time (mostly)! Stay tuned!

2010-11-30 00:24:39 by Paul:

Ooh a mystery!
I conjecture that Laura travelled back in time after a lifetime of magic learning and taught herself everything under the pretense of being her own grandmother.
I have no clue about the machine or about her motive for timetravelling.

2010-11-30 00:26:30 by Jake:

Ha! Got it! (I think.) *Looks around*

"Hey, it *is* [-Paradox Averted-]. I can't believe that worked."

Guys, seriously. You really should read the next part. It's really awesome and has [-Paradox Averted-]. I mean, what a twist!

I like how this story echoes A.Y.Z., but truly takes its own path, creating a memorable story all of its own.

Oh, right. Here's the other half of my quote:

*... indistinguishable from magic*

(...dammit Paul)

2010-11-30 00:52:07 by Paul:

More wild guessing: The machine is a cryogenics device designed to freeze Laura for a certain timeperiod. It was send from the future where she is needed, the old Laura in the future can't help as she has Alzheimers.
Or perhaps it was designed to just trap Laura to prevent her from doing something which old Laura has regretted very much.

2010-11-30 02:36:31 by LabrynianRebel:

That's humanity, always sticking our noses into things.

2010-11-30 03:38:58 by Snowyowl:

I just got a message from tomorrow saying that this is a time-travel piece. I don't know what the "magic nuke" is for, other than being a time machine, but I look forward to finding out.

2010-11-30 05:06:36 by Sgeo:

I think time-travel is such an obvious guess that it can't be right. But if it's a bad guess, then it is right again. But then.... AAAAAAAAAA!

2010-11-30 13:51:19 by JoetheRat:

I'm starting to really enjoy the Laura Ferno stories - particularly in the shorter format.

It's like the Lord Darcy stories (Too Many Magicians, etc.) only focusing on the mage, written as an Asimov-style mystery with Heinlein pushing the engineering.

2010-11-30 17:59:26 by Val:

Just some random and maybe stupid thoughts:
- While not likely, we can still assume the builders are not human. If they've done enough research to know Laura, and it's a trap, they could use human and western symbols to make the disguise better.
- Let's assume no time travel, at least no causality-violating one is involved. "They" need someone at a certain time in the near future someone with very strong magical capabilities. They search for someone with good genetic/biological/whatever makeup (midichlorians, ahem) capture Laura as a baby, make a clone, artificially age her a couple of decades, and create a grandma out of the clone, just to teach her.
- If the builders are in a desperate time crisis, why take the time and construct that elaborate trap if they could manage to contact Laura even sooner and in a more simple way. Maybe fear of her refusing the quest? If they have the technological capabilities to create and "drop in" that thing, they could have gathered enough knowledge about Laura to capture her unaware, and without exposing themselves to the rest of the world. So exposing themselves can have a goal, maybe warn humanity about an impending doomsday scenario, while making sure Laura realizes they are not just bluffing?
- No matter how little time they have left, I'm sure they were preparing that thing for quite some time. There has to be an important reason why they only activated it now, in such a short time window that even the repetition of a few minutes of audio message can dangerously limit their available time.
- Wherever there's magic which works by speaking phrases, I always think about it being artificial, created and maintained by someone or something. And by artificial I mean much more artificial than God creating and maintaining the laws of physics. There has to be a system actively monitoring the mages and somehow produce the effects if a correct "password" is uttered, and this system was installed either by humans, or other beings in (or not too much above) the 3+1 dimensional universe.

2010-11-30 18:56:34 by LabrynianRebel:

Or magic is just will power, like in the shuttle story, simply believing that a certain phrase will create a fireball in midair will create it, not the phrase itself. So technically you could do anything, but you have to be taught that a certain design or a certain strange word is the cause and fully 100% believe it is the cause or else it does nothing. Maybe her grandmother (or clone, whatever) just made all those words and symbols and whatnot up but couldn't use them herself because she knows she just made them up, so she has to teach her grand daughter (or clone) them and she'll actually believe in them and therefore they will work for her.

Man, I thought too much into this.

2014-08-19 14:50:48 by mutecebu:

Huh! I had wondered for a while if Rachel Ferno in Ra was somehow a time-displaced Laura or Natalie.