The entity possessing Nick Laughon sits in the easy chair. It sits easily.
Laura remains standing, arms folded. Laura's been watching it carefully. There's a thing that the-thing-that-isn't-Nick hasn't done. It hasn't displayed any unfamiliarity with its surroundings. Right after being "woken up", the thing that isn't Nick got up, took a leak, put some clothes on. Now it slouches in a very Nick-like position, enviably comfortable, feet up, with a big glass of water. It moves like Nick. It? He?
Laura has waited long enough. "Explain."
"I am Kazuya Tanako. My True Name was
There it is. It's beautiful to her, like light dawning. "...Of course you are. Of course! That makes sense. You died in Tanako's world. Your world! The place we named after you after you'd died there. You didn't call it that, obviously. You called it something else."
"'The glass place', 'the glass dream', 'pattern one', 'black marble', lots of different things," Tanako explains. "Now, my question to you is, what else do you know?"
"You... you were one of the most talented young mages of your generation. And magic is at most two generations old, which puts you into the top twenty of all time. God. You were-- you weren't magic's Mozart but you were almost our Jimi Hendrix." Tanako laughs at this. "You were the first person to lead a team investigation of Tanako's-- of the glass. The experiment in which you died... involved lying down at the reflux core of a powered Dehlavi lightning apparatus, then being placed into an induced coma. A REM trip to the glass world usually lasts minutes of real time. Your intention was to stay there for at least an hour. You wanted to... try to work your way towards a point of lucidity, where it would be possible to start gathering real observations. I remember now. You wore a freaky sensor helmet thing, which covered your whole head and face.
"You had a stroke. You died in the glass place. But you didn't die. It looked like you died, but you didn't. So what really happened?"
"I just want to clear some things up before we continue," Tanako says. "Am I still the only person to have died there?"
"As far as anybody knows, yes," Laura says. "Sleep science research slowed way down after the accident. We have libraries of safety guidelines now. I know this better than most. I've had that stuff dropped on me from a great height."
"I know. Thaumic Engineering Safety Part III. You complained about it for weeks."
"...Of course. You were Benj Clarke."
"Indeed. And secondly: I tried to blow up a fair chunk of northern Iceland. While you were standing on it. What made you think it was safe to bring me back?"
"You can't do anything without hardware," says Laura. She holds her right fist up -- she has two rings on her middle finger as well as some wrist bracelets. Her improvised self-defence spells have been radically redeveloped in recent years, and if Tanako has inherited as much from Nick as Laura thinks, he knows this.
His English is excellent. Because it's clearly Nick's English.
"Very well," says Tanako.
I was the first child of the magic generation. On The Theory Of The Coaxial Production Of The ζ And ι Fields happened when I was eleven, which means magic was starting to hit its stride as a practical science just as I was getting my teeth into trigonometry. As a kid, I could see nothing but magic around me. It was like an open secret world, as if I was walking through this garden of invisible patterns.
Magic was magnetism plus five dimensions, plus ten million points of street cred. I knew it was cool because nobody I knew knew anything about it. Nobody in my family, none of my friends, none of my teachers. Eventually I found an electronics teacher, Mr. Yamada. He still knew nothing, but he was as interested as I was, so he threw some journal articles my way and helped me understand them, even though he could barely understand them himself. I cast for the first time when I was fourteen. I don't know if that's still the record. I knew then that I had been born a mage.
My early work... well, turned out to be my only work. I developed the EMμ flatfold. I put vocabulary and syntax discovery onto a footing firmer than trial and error. I dipped into hardware for long enough to build five completely custom tools, four of which became global standards. And reams of papers, some of them just off-the-wall free-association built around one good equation. I was lucky. I had opportunities. I was surrounded by the furiously intelligent.
No science had ever exploded into being in the same way that magic did. Never before had something so radically new and totally unexplored been stumbled upon by a human civilisation so primed with experience and technology to go to work on it. It was like discovering a brand new empty Earth. You can't even imagine those glory days. Everything worked. Every line of research struck solid gold. There were no dead ends to find if you tried. Every year, what we knew doubled and what we didn't know tripled.
It would be impossible to say who had the glass dream first. People don't discuss their dreams. I mean, it happens, but not statistically frequently relative to the dreams themselves. Especially not among physicists. I think it's because dreams are not scientific. They're almost the opposite of scientific. Sleep is the place where rational people are able to leave the phone off the hook, figuratively speaking. We have the phrase, 'sleep on it', but who'd think something relevant or important would come directly out of the unconscious?
So it would be impossible to say who had the dream first, but I think it had to have begun in '88 or '89. In the Nineties we hit critical mass; it became a noticed phenomenon in at least three different labs simultaneously. It was clear that there was a structure inside magical theory that everybody was seeing. Glass underfoot and freezing air and a three-armed Milky Way overhead. Clear to everybody except me. I'd never seen it, which was a data point in itself.
The notion caught my attention because it was the first hint of magical science finally circling back towards the biological. In the lines between what people said, I thought I could see a faint connection between the glass and the way that humans are able to conduct magic. Symbols and signs.
Mohit Dehlavi and I pulled some neuroscientists together. The operation was half laboratory research project, half exploration mission. The glass place has more than one entrance. Sleep is one. But if there's a powerful spell, you can slip into it accidentally. The stronger the spell, the harder it is to resist the flip. And so we built a machine to take someone there. A drop capsule into the unconscious. I wasn't the only subject. But, as you say, I was the last.
At first I tried mapping the landscape.
I was always dropped in a different location. There were ridges, ravines, dried glass river beds full of clear ovoid marbles. Through no amount of "browsing" could I ever find the same location twice. Mapping had to start over every time. It wasn't possible to be methodical that way. I took to celestial navigation.
The galaxy rotates over time, like a starfish. But its centre is fixed. So that was my reference point. On most excursions I took that point as my North Star, and headed south. If the glass had positive curvature, eventually I'd have to hit the south pole. At the very least, I would see some new sky on the way.
The world was far too big to walk across, so I dreamt of scramjets.
You can't measure time there, or distance, so I don't know how far I travelled. Call it a light year. I think I'd managed to persuade myself that the horizon ahead was lightening. It could have been my imagination.
There was a dark structure on the horizon. It was an incredible distance off when I spotted it, and it was so gigantic that I misjudged my approach and overshot it while trying to rendezvous. I can't draw for love nor money so I'm just going to have to list some things that it looked like: an egg built of bricks with its tip pointed down; some kind of rosebud about ten percent of the way into flowering; a big fat beetle with greebles and tendrils. Giger meets Mandelbrot. It was as big as Manhattan and black as ink.
The local landscape was mesas and ravines and impossible stacked rocks, like a Road Runner cartoon. The artifact didn't touch the ground at any point, but the idea that it should fall, or even that it could fall, didn't even occur to me. I landed my jet on top of it, where there was a kind of pad. Then I was inside it, and it didn't occur to me that I hadn't consciously decided to go inside.
The hall contained all of planet Earth. An observation walkway overlooked it from about the Tropic of Cancer. The Earth was a dark grey rock, presented at one-to-one scale. The walkway was quite short; I made a complete circuit in a few seconds.
The Earth was illuminated with red points of activity. At first I read it as geothermal activity: portions of the mid-Atlantic rift, huge arcs of Pacific rim, the Himalayas. Then I spotted points in India and Europe and North America, clustered around population centres. And on a hunch I looked for Kyoto, and there was a clear flare. I looked closer, and although there was no detail beyond bedrock, it was clearly me, asleep inside Dehlavi's lightning machine.
The room, I discovered, was hypercylindrical. It was a four-dimensional tube with a spherical cross-section. The observation walkway led not in two directions, but three: left, right and kata. I took a step kata. The Earth rolled west a few degrees. I kept moving in the same direction and the planet rolled back and back. When I headed ana again it rolled forward until I reached the "top" of the tower and couldn't go any further. As I moved ana and kata, the patterns of mana usage pulsed like blood vessels. I realised that I was exploring a projection of a long recording, a synthesis of historical mana usage across the whole planet.
As I stepped further into the past, the flare in Kyoto blanked out. I watched closely as I continued kata and I saw other spells setting up and winding down, and I remembered the words and the names and the mages associated with those spells. Many of them were me or Dehlavi or other mages I knew. I looked west, to Germany and France and the UK, and saw research spells in private laboratories, and industrial magic folding down and shutting off - because I was watching the recording in reverse, and what was really happening was that the industrial usage of magic was spreading. It was like injecting barium into a human's bloodstream and watching it spread using a radiation scanner. It suddenly occurred to me that it was almost like taking off for the Moon, and then looking back at the world through a full-colour Kanditz oracle.
And that's when I realised the real truth. What is an oracle? How does it work? We know that by Vidyasagar's Third Incomplete Field Equation, all magic usage yields waste. There's an experimental disagreement between what was predicted by the second revision of that equation and what was observed and ultimately modelled by the third. The χ field models that disagreement. Chi mana is the waste, the stuff that escapes the system.
Ki no luokotomamba nuolo a la ra pemba kastela! Non-interacting. When you think of chi particles you should think of neutrinos with attached metadata. If you built a machine large enough, you could watch it all!
This was it. This was the view, the core, the locus of magical usage. I was at the centre of an artificial/virtual/magical/real hypermachine, apparently buried in the collective unconscious minds of all students of magic, a surveillance device, a machine designed to do nothing but, like a seismograph, watch and record and present its results, cold figures like moths pinned to boards.
I rotated the image in some fifth direction and the dark Earth turned green. There were no seismic records now. Now I really was looking at a population graph. I could detect no distinction. The Earth alone was like some polished commercial Granny Smith apple, totally unblemished, with pinpricks of neon lemon green crawling over it like mould, some of them actually visibly crawling - travelling by plane. I say mould, but it looked good. It looked like productivity at work. It felt like a picture of success and prosperity. The sensation was strange. The map was a map of mages. All possible mages, even the untrained. So: all humans. Europe and India, the American coasts. There were names!
Thaumic power output is one of those insane unsolved biological questions. Maybe even unsolvable. Some of us are strong, some are weak. It depends on your height, your health, how much sleep you've had, what you've eaten. Probably, a big whack of it comes directly out of your genotype. Most people never even try magic and never find out what kind of power they put out. They never find their wattage. Even among those capable of being tested, the quantification is so tedious and expensive, and the difference between the top and bottom performers is so minor, that it's hardly ever worth bothering.
And here I was, looking at hard statistics for everybody in the world. I looked closely at Kyoto again, comparing myself with Dehlavi. Hah.
I spun the Earth a little further and it went dark again. The plan showed cyan Montauk storage data. With the greatest concentration, of course, in the little plant in Montauk, New York, the old "Other Battery Park". The rest in heavy research installations, and the rest of the rest in mages' toolboxes and on their hips.
Another click, like the dial on a thermostat, and I was looking at a cloudy white density map. This one had slight clustering at population centres, but plenty of density in totally uninhabited parts of the world too. I was able to roll the altitude up and down. I started at sea level, but as I tore layers of planetary structure away I saw the same pale fuzz all the way in to the deepest core. I even found that the cloud extended out into space.
And more, and more. More colours. Primary, secondary, and then those impossible colours which you can only see by hot-wiring your photoreceptors. There were maps I couldn't read. Earths I couldn't interpret. Data, metadata.
I grabbed the rungs and slid further kata, back in time. As I went back, the use of magic worldwide flickered and dimmed out. I found a way to cut geological magic out of the picture, leaving only human usage. I rolled back until I was looking at what I knew had to be India in what I knew had to be the middle of the height of the Northern Hemisphere's summer of 1972. I watched for the spark and then zeroed in on it and what I saw - although there was, of course, no photographic data - was a tiny flicker of a man who had True Name
aum and who had cast the tiny and inconsequential spell that we now call
And then I crept slowly further kata.
I saw what looked like ancient nuclear tests. I couldn't say when. They happened across Siberia and Africa and the Australian desert. Most of them, though, were in the oceans.
You understand: this was magical activity happening before magic was discovered. Something long hypothesised, frequently claimed as fact in wild conspiracy theories, and eternally, categorically debunked.
I wanted to go back further in time, to try to find out just when these anomalies began. But there was no time scale that I could make sense of. It was just: left, right, forward, back. So instead I chose a flare at random and dived in.
I woke up under lukewarm salt water, with my lungs bursting. My eyes were shut and I kept them shut instinctively but they stung like hell anyway. I kicked towards the surface but there was some metallic clamp thing hanging onto my right wrist, holding me down. I panicked for a second but it turned out that the arm was bringing me to the surface anyway. We both broke through and I managed to gulp down some air. Mostly air.
I was in the Pacific. I hope that narrows it down for you, because I couldn't for the life of me quote a latitude or a longitude. I was being pulled out of the water by a robotic submarine. It was an orange lozenge about the size of a motorbike, with cameras all over and articulated grabbing arms. I managed to twist my wrist free, and fell back into the water while the sub was lifted back into the boat. A life ring landed in the water next to me and I grabbed it.
The boat was hardly larger than the submersible it was carrying. The crew seemed to be one person. His look wasn't oceanographer or professional diver. It was retired, teenaged, dotcom billionaire. Flapping white shirt, Armani shades, a wristwatch the size of a brick. He was bald; he had the skull for it. He moved like the boat was his yacht and this was his holiday cruise.
Now, imagine you're holding a baseball made of perfect, solid gold. Imagine there's a fat explosive charge in the middle of the ball, and it goes off. The gold blasts out and backwards, covering your fingers like a gauntlet and spreading back across most of your forearm. Imagine curly formations of gold flaring back from your knuckles and your wrist bones. It looks like you've grabbed hold of the explosion itself. This is what I had wrapped around my right hand.
I realised that the robotic submarine must have brought the gauntlet up from somewhere on the ocean floor. I had appeared with my arm inside the gauntlet thing while it was in the sub's grip. There was no risk of me being pulled under by its weight; the gauntlet barely weighed anything. Gold rolls out to microns thick, and that was what it felt like. It felt like it was fitting itself to my fingerprints.
So there I was, hanging on to the life ring, wearing a piece of treasure that this boy clearly gone to great trouble and expense to dredge up from the bottom of the Pacific. Obviously it was incredibly valuable; obviously, he was going to want to take it off me somehow. I hoped that it wouldn't involve hacking my arm off. I tried to see if I could take it off myself, but it wouldn't budge. The fit was too tight.
The boy asked me what my name was. I told him, "Kazuya Tanako."
A second passed and I'd swear he was listening to somebody talking to him. He said to me, "That doesn't make a lick of sense. Your best match isn't born yet. How did you get here?"
I didn't say anything, partly because I felt like it was the only valuable chip of information I had, and partly because I was barely sure I believed it myself.
He asked me again, "How did you get here?"
I asked him, "What's your name?"
He said his name was Alexander Watson. He said nothing else for a long while. It was clear that he was trying to work out what to do. I asked if I could come aboard. That seemed to snap him out of it. He pulled me in using the line attached to the life ring, and then lifted me up out of the water and onto the deck, pretty much one-handed. He sat me down on a bench on the deck. "It's okay," he said, "Let's see what we can do about that arm."
I felt like he was giving it a medical examination. Eventually something in his mind went ding and he seemed to relax. "It's just a replay," he said. "My good friends at the old Cassandra Complex are reporting the mother of all data loss events."
I said, "I don't know what that means."
Watson said - this was all a little muddled, it never felt as if any of his sentences followed logically from the earlier ones - "So you found the listening station, not bad. I'm not worried about it. Reality's been notified. And, you know, we get some flexibility from now until the end of time. We can enjoy the sandbox while waiting to die."
I said, "I don't know what that means, either."
He said, "Still... better safe than sorry."
He took hold of my arm with both hands and started injecting magic into it. I didn't realise what was happening at first, because he didn't say any magic words. But pretty soon, there was enough magic pouring out of him that it hurt my brain to be sitting there. I was practically blinded.
He stopped and took a step back, as if waiting for something to happen. Then the gauntlet imploded. It imploded to a brilliant red spark and then the spark evaporated into ash. It took most of my arm with it, everything from the shoulder down.
I can't describe the pain.
The implosion sprayed gore and crushed bone fragments over me and Watson and most of the deck. I fell, with more blood gushing out of my shoulder. Watson just stood there, watching. I blacked out in three seconds. I was probably dead from blood loss in another sixty.
Laura has long since sat down.
"You were murdered," she says.
"I was killed in my sleep," Tanako says, with a half-grin. He was smiling all the way through the last part of the story. Laura, who has no fondness for black comedy, found it deeply disconcerting.
"Let me get this right," she continues. "If you're remembering what this Watson guy said correctly... You found your way into a holodeck-quality recording. The personality in the recording - the snapshot personality of 'Alexander Watson' - realised what was happening, recognised you as an intruder, went off-script and killed you. After that, playback ended and he would have 'died' too, the same way a film's characters die when the film ends."
Tanako nods in agreement. "Go on."
"I have many questions. To begin with, I want to know what was supposed to happen. You dived into the memory of a huge magical event, but then disrupted that event by being there."
"I don't think I did," Tanako says. "I think Watson wanted to destroy the artifact, and that's what he did. Remember, it took about a megaton of magic to do."
"You're suggesting that he pulled that thing up from the bottom of the ocean because he didn't think it was safe where it was? It was made of solid gold, Kazuya, it had to be worth something. Who knows what kind of hoard it was part of? You know what, this is ridiculous. I'm assuming that there was a real event at all, which you can't prove, and that this listening station thing is real for any level of 'real', and that pre-magic history isn't what any of us think--"
"It only takes a few grams," Tanako explains, and holds his right hand out.
The gauntlet instantiates, unrolling in an eyeblink from the speck of gold held between his thumb and forefinger.
Laura comes within a hair's breadth of reflexively blowing Tanako's head off. She stumbles back into the far corner of the room, aiming her entire self-defence array back at Tanako. She manages to bite down on her tongue before the triggering syllable leaps out of her mouth.
The gauntlet is too beautiful for this world. Its tendrils wave like flower petals, like slow-moving licks of flame. Laura can barely look away from it. Tanako sits easily - his feet up, the water glass empty on the table beside him.
"What is that? What is it? Tell me!"
Tanako smiles benevolently. "It has no name. In fact, I think naming it would remove a great deal of its power. It's a labour-saving device; it saves mages from having to comprehend infinity. It allows magic to do magic. It allows spells to cast spells which cast spells.
"I used this on Krallafjöll, when I was Benj Clarke."
Laura's arm wobbles fractionally. "Recursion."
"More like... recursion's ugly big brother."
"...You cast a spell without full comprehension. I remember now. You cast a spell without having to keep the whole thing in your head at once. You found a machine-- which-- Oh my God. You found the Holy Grail. You're Prometheus, you stole a miracle from a dream. Twice!"
"No. You did."
Tanako flexes his arm and fingers. He has absolute freedom of movement. The gauntlet might as well be made of mist and spider silk. Its gold flows and curls around Tanako, like deep, turbulent magic.
Laura says, "We could build anything."
"You see why someone would want to destroy it," Tanako concludes.
"It works. It really works." Laura slumps back against the wall and shuts down her defensive spells. She shakes her head, still not able to look away. "This changes everything. It changes everything."
"You must have more questions," Tanako says, after it becomes clear that Laura has forgotten how to speak.
"I do," says Laura, "I do. I'll get to them. Just give me a minute. For this moment, this is all I want."