The Self-Reliant Heroine

Door four is another purely mechanical job. Ferno makes a few preliminary attempts to create a thermal lance with her bracelets but the door barely heats up, while the air in the highly enclosed corridor quickly becomes a furnace. She has no protective clothing. It's impossible to continue. Kinetic pulses from reconfigured bracelet adapters are equally ineffective. The giant machine reverberates with an ominous DOOM on each impact, rocking a little, but the door itself stays immobile. Reluctantly, Ferno opens up the touch-sensitive control screen and reads the problem on it. It's a very long and complex question which presents a very large hypothetical scenario and at first glance appears to have three or four possible solutions. An ordinary magical engineering exam would require her to write out the solution on paper, including all her working, but this time around she merely has to cast the spell for real using whatever equipment is on her person. Which is a substantial amount of equipment, counting the satchel full of Stuff, including laptop primed for advanced spot calculations, close to Batman-utility-belt levels, but not a full complement by a long shot. She has to improvise, with a magic circle drawn in Sharpie using her staff to plot the radius accurately. And it takes three or four attempts because several of the possible solutions are dead ends-- if read more carefully, the problem contains details which negate those solutions.

Every time she got stuck on her work in school, and even in university, and put her hand up and asked a question, the eternal response was always "Have you read the question?"

A cubic green lightning bolt and the door clicks and unlocks. Despite everything, including being completely cut off from communication with the outside world, Ferno cackles.

At the next door the computerised voice explains a very simple problem which was encountered very early in the days of magical engineering and is currently unsolved, and tells her she has three hours to solve it.

"That's the Hennering Conjecture. I can't do that. People have spent years trying to crack it. I can't do that."

"Sure you can."

"Okay. Once more. Who am I speaking to? Is this an artificial construct or a real person?"

"This is an artificial construct."

"I've figured out that this whole machine comes from the future."


"That's why it's arrived here, on this site out of the whole world, because this is where the time machine is eventually going to be built. I can't imagine how much energy it would take to project something this gigantic any distance backwards in time, but it would definitely take a lot of space and this is the prime location. And it hasn't been proven conclusively impossible, so I believe that more than I believe anything about teleportation or cloaking. And this whole series of challenges is basically a filter designed to let only me through, provided I'm smart enough. Or, as you claimed, kill me."

"The stakes are as follows:"

"I know what the stakes are. You don't have to bargain with me for that! You've shown me what happens if I don't come to the future but why kill me if I can't do it? Hand on heart, it's going to be sixty years before somebody as good as I am gets this far in the puzzles. This is some Indiana Jones crap. We'll nuke this thing to pieces if we have to and you won't have any return vehicle. I could nuke this thing right now. It'd kill me and this whole thing would be over."

The voice restarts with the basic principles of the Hennering Conjecture. Ferno is getting tired and her water bottle is empty. She discards it, and starts working.

There is a big blinking clock on the wall showing how much time is left. After a while she retreats to the far end of the corridor and faces away from it, sat cross-legged at her computer, pulling up resources from cache (no internet) and trying to crack the Conjecture. Yes, hundreds of people have tried to crack it. And they have failed. But she hasn't. Which means her only chance is if she knows something they don't. Her only chance is if there are results that she knows that nobody else has tried applying to it. So she pulls up her academic archive and looks for things which sunk into obscurity and notes she never developed far enough to publish. She actually moves into hard research mode and derives two unrelated nontrivial results right there in the maw of the trap. And she connects her work together. From past to present and a few inches into the future.

If the trap had arrived six months ago she would have died inside it. But she gets it. It's like light dawning and she doesn't even get a firm grip on the solution before trying it out. She looks up and around and speaks a few syllables. They are enough for the clock to pause at eleven minutes and one second remaining. But the door doesn't open. She hurriedly fishes out a jar of incredibly expensive metallic dust and pour half of it, delicately, in a very small circle on the ground. Then she concentrates and says the same syllables again. And again, in a few more combinations. And one of the combinations is the right one.

"James Hennering's going to enjoy that one," she says, collecting all her equipment and hurrying through. Apparently, if time runs out, poison gas will be released.

The next room is huge and circular and it is instantly clear that it is encircled by a heavy cadmium/tungsten/iron Montauk Draining Ring, which is a charging device whose major function is to drain magical potential out of the environment it encloses. It doesn't suppress magical discharges so much as slurp them up and store them, like a vacuum cleaner. In other words, actual useful magic here is impossible. This is a significant point because there's a robot in the centre of the room and it is unfolding like a man-sized black feathery scorpion and now arrowing forwards like a flechette--

During the whole two seconds at her disposal, eighteen hundred milliseconds of which are spent watching the robot unfold and only two hundred milliseconds of which cover the robot's movement towards her, Laura Ferno remembers with a start that her grandmother, the late, great, Rachel Ferno, taught her everything she needed to know to get through every door up to the last one. And Granny struggled towards the end of her life with a problem equivalent to the Hennering Conjecture but was hospitalised and then institutionalised towards the end of her work and it was never completed. Granny died years and years ago and the loss almost killed her but she learned to rely on herself and the things which her Granny taught her which would never die. And Laura Ferno distinctly remembers never being taught non-magical combat. Or counter-robotic combat. Or any kind of combat.

And Laura Ferno remembers that behind the fun and the adrenaline-driven exhiliration of success and discovery under intense pressure, behind the bizarre Crystal Maze traps and the maniacal, implacable controlling computer system, there is a time machine.

She drops her satchel and swings her staff down. With or without magic, it's a two-metre rod of metal with weight behind it. Admittedly, it is only made of aluminium, which she chose for the lighter, more portable weight, and because she never expected to do physical combat with a machine. Steel would have been a better choice.

The robot dodges the swipe and swipes at her itself, with a fist. A fist? It moves too fast to completely dodge. Ferno's evasive manoeuvre is poorly-judged and she loses her footing and lands on her tailbone. BUMP. She instinctively kicks for the buzzing, black feathery thing's groin (it's humanoid) and this inexplicably holds it up. Then she tries another swipe with the staff, which it blocks. And then, as fast as a thunderbolt, she's flat on her back and there is a laser being shone into her eyeball. And a knife-tip behind it. For both eyeballs. Two knife-tips, two lasers. Two laser-guided knives, stopped a millimetre above her eyeballs. And the robot is poised behind it, holding the knives. If it could move that fast and with that much precision, there was no point in the foreplay. It could have killed her in an eyeblink. Through an eyeblink. "Holy shit," she says.

"You're dead," says the computer. "Twice."

And then the world goes black, because it's past midnight at her destination.


She falls for a second or two, falling ten or fifteen metres, and lands in a big duvet-like gobbet of what she can't see in the dark but which looks, when illuminated, like greenish-black snot. The stuff evaporates in a matter of seconds leaving her lying flat on her back, surrounded by her gear, in field of sleeping sheep.

If you had to find out what time and date it was, what would you do? She fumbles around for her satchel, and pulls out a torch. Then she locates her phone in one of the pockets. No 3G signal, but there is basic cellular connectivity, and because she's out in the open, there's GPS. Not too far in the past, thank God. A few minutes' hackery and she knows what time the GPS satellites think it is, and they're accurate to nanoseconds, which is good enough.

The speaking clock, idiot, says her brain after she has finished congratulating herself on this clever piece of improvisational time-determination.

A nested pair of time machines, Ferno thinks. Like Matrioshka dolls. A city-sized structure to send the first machine back. And the first machine was big enough to contain a second machine which was itself big enough to send back me and the cushion. Back to now.

Laura Ferno's phone starts ringing and she answers it.


"Can I speak to Rachel Ferno, please?"

"I... this... this is she."

"You're the mother of Daniel Ferno, is that correct?"


"I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this. There's been a car accident. Mr. Ferno is dead. It was just a few hours ago. You were listed as his next of kin."

Laura pauses. She waits for long enough to give the impression that she is surprised and shocked. Then, she tries to think what she is supposed to ask next. "What about his wife?"

"I'm afraid she also died in the crash."

One. Two. Three. "And his baby, what about little Laura?"

"Laura is fine. But she has nobody to take care of her, right now."


Granny never taught me to fight robots. I relied my whole life on what she taught me. I was never vulnerable as long as I remembered what Granny taught me! And it was all me! Call that 'self-reliance'?

Because she never got past the previous door. She never fought the robot. She "died" at the Hennering Conjecture.

Well, that'll change.

Discussion (26)

2010-11-30 23:29:51 by qntm:

The working title/concept for this one was "Her Own Adoptive Grandmother". 1847 words. Grand total is 55235 words. Thank you, and good night.

2010-11-30 23:55:54 by Jake:

Hm... I wonder if we can use that... This kinda looks like All You Zombies, but is a little more straightforward. Let me tell you a little story as my time machine warms up: "Trickery and forethought, with a little bit of cleverness " *ZAP*

2010-11-30 23:57:36 by ejl:

So "she" (or one of the versions of her) is launched back into time to train another version of herself each time she fails one of the tests in the machine, and each time she has to teach the new baby-version of herself how to survive the test she just "died" (failed) at. Ah-ha. Presumably the end-result of this process is a super-mage who is capable of inventing time-travel for the benefit of the people in the future? Oh and it was a great story, too!

2010-11-30 23:59:45 by BenFriesen:

I really liked this one, and the previous one, even if the conclusion was fairly obvious. It's really begging for a third in this series though, so that we know what's behind the seventh door. Still, the magic stories are among my favorites from NaNoWriMo.

2010-12-01 00:33:35 by YarKramer:

Yeah, that part of the twist was kind of obvious (mostly in hindsight). But then, it wasn't really about *that* part of the twist, was it? I've come up with my own vocabulary for this kind of temporal nonsense (meta-time, subjective/objective), but I still haven't come up the best way to describe this particular form of "keep changing the past until you 'get it right.'" Maybe a coil, or a spring -- it loops "horizontally" through ordinary time, but each loop takes it further along "vertically" through meta-time. It is unlikely to be a meta-temporal loop, because it is exceedingly difficult to see how it could end up back where it started. One question's bugging me, though: what happens to the original Rachel Ferno? And if there is no original Rachel Ferno besides Laura, where did Daniel come from, if Rachel didn't exist until right after Daniel's death?

2010-12-01 01:46:32 by JeremyBowers:

YarKramer: It's a saw wave.

2010-12-01 02:33:42 by Snowyowl:

Interesting. So where did the time machine come from? Who discovered time travel? And couldn't they just give Laura the time machine's blueprints instead of going through all these obstacles? Or at least tell her what the obstacles would be, so she can prepare for them? I want to know more! This is such a good story!

2010-12-01 02:57:40 by Lucas:

So how did they have Laura's phone number instead of the real Rachel's? Was there even a real Rachel, and if so how did Laura take over being her? How would they even have a mobile phone number that long ago (if this is roughly present-day)? Love the idea. Still reading your stuff after three years, it's got some amazing ideas. Don't give it up :) I'm sure someone would publish it. How is she going to win against the robot? O_O Why didn't she explain it to herself? Why does this thing exist anyway?

2010-12-01 04:09:00 by dankuck:

I'm gonna guess that Laura did not invent the time machine. Otherwise everything would have been solved. I suspect she's being groomed by some outside force. Based on the causality demonstrated, if she had been the inventor of the time machine, she would have solved everything at once. This is like Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch mixed with Heinlein's All You Zombies that Jake mentioned. Actually Heinlein's By His Bootstraps is more like this, but just mentioning it gives away the (totally obvious) twist ending. For the mobile phone issue, I can only guess that someone else came to the past to set the phone company's records to point the phone number at her SIM card ID, or, maybe she just "inherited" her "grandmother's" phone number when she died (for real). And yes, I wonder what happened to her real grandmother.

2010-12-01 04:55:47 by sunburstbasser:

Is time travel one of your favorite literary devices? You seem quite fond of using it in various ways. If you do another longer story or set of short stories, I'd love to see more Laura Ferno. Cool character, and your version of magic is very interesting.

2010-12-01 07:05:43 by Artanis:

As stated, please continue this story (or at least this universe). I presume to speak for everyone here when I say we enjoy reading them. Magitek is one of my favorite tropes, essentially being the love-child of my two most favorite genres. :P

2010-12-01 09:17:20 by Gruntbuggly:

Cool! And I like that the details of the whole time travel thing are not fully explained. Let's see if I have figured it out. Somebody in the future decides they need the help of a ridiculously awesome super-genius mage, more powerful and well trained than any who has ever lived. They can't train such a person in their own time-- probably just because there's a shortage of super-geniuses. So they invent a time machine and go looking in the past. Throughout all of the history they can reach, there never was a mage who lived up to their standards. But there was one Laura Ferno, who at least had the necessary natural smarts and magic talent. All she lacked was a whole lot of training. So, the unknown future people set up this time-trap machine, and catch the original adult Laura just inside the first door. She's sent back in time to be caregiver to her child self. Maybe the future people have to kill off real grandma first; or maybe there never was a real grandma, and original Laura was raised in an orphanage or something. Whatever. This is where the feedback loop starts. Grandma-Laura teaches child-Laura everything she knows, and then child-Laura grows up and learns even more, becoming an even smarter Grandma for the next iteration of herself. What we're seeing now may be iteration five, because Laura has gotten past the fifth door. But it's possible that the number is much, much higher. Eventually one of two things will happen. Either she becomes as good as the future people want her to be, and passes all the trap's challenges; or else she becomes better than they expect, and takes some path that doesn't get her stuck in their trap in the first place. (Or simple chaos takes effect and she dies in a traffic accident before growing up.) Whichever happens, the cycle stops, so there's a limit to how many times she goes back and how smart Grandma gets. I like this story a lot. Most time-travel stories that include loops just have them come around infinitely (or "once," depending on your frame of reference). It's a rare plot which has a time loop that runs a finite multiple of iterations.

2010-12-01 15:05:33 by dankuck:

@Gruntbuggly, you found the solution to the next problem I was gonna mention, that there might be an infinite loop if she really can't live up to one of the challenges. There still might be, but the chances are lower in light of traffic accidents. Traffic accidents: life's power failures. But they must have been desparate to even risk an infinite loop. I wonder what their motivation was. Some fate worse than never existing.

2010-12-01 16:01:19 by Vladimir:

Why didn't the grandma just tell Laura to not get in the machine in the first place? Is she that curious?

2010-12-01 16:53:51 by pozorvlak:

YarKramer: I think the standard term is "Peggy Sue cycle". See

2010-12-01 17:20:42 by Snowyowl:

I wouldn't call TvTropes lingo "standard terms". See

2010-12-01 17:23:25 by Snowyowl:

I looked again, and it seems TVTropes has a specific term for this sort of repeated-loop scenario.

2010-12-01 18:01:03 by ejl:

If you do decide to continue this story, could we have a couple of prequels too? -- just to satisfy our need for fun little stories about using this "magic" in modern technological situations (kind of like that space shuttle-related one).

2010-12-02 21:17:38 by Val:

@Vladimir: Why doesn't she advise her younger self (or younger clone or whoever) to not enter the machine: "I know what the stakes are. You don't have to bargain with me for that! You've shown me what happens if I don't come to the future". She knows for sure that it is very important to complete the task. Remember the last episode? The machine explained the situation to Laura, just us readers didn't (yet) got the full text of it.

2010-12-04 09:49:44 by Naleh:

This also explains why they built the elaborate machine and then said there was a time limit. The time limit didn't necessarily apply to the builders - instead, it's how fast they think she needs to be able to pass in before she'll be good enough to go to the future. I quite liked this story, and this series as a whole. I hope you'll revisit it.

2010-12-08 01:21:48 by YarKramer:

@pozorvlak and Snowyowl: Okay, I should've known that there was a TVTropes article on the subject, but I prefer to use terms which 1. make sense to people who don't know the plot of "Groundhog Day" or "Peggy Sue Got Married," and 2. at least *sound* technical. ;)

2012-01-29 02:49:57 by Freddled:

The problem with the outcome the future-people were hoping for is that it isn't self-consistent. In their goal, the final iteration of Laura is superawesome arch-mage enough to pass all their tests, and remembers being taught it by someone she recently learned is herself. She then goes on to not teach it. Rather like the classic paradox, only instead of murdering her grandmother, she refrains from impersonating her grandmother. This is not a problem if you assume multiple universes, like in "Be Here Now." Then you have a Laura Ferno N universes down the line who was taught by a Laura N-1 universes down. But then, from the perspective of the people who sent the machine back, there is no help coming. If their idea is to summon help for themselves, it would fail. Try working out the timeline from Laura's perspective assuming one universe and you'll see that it doesn't work. If there is one timeline, the most likely outcome is that Laura realizes this and to avoid a paradox has to teach her younger self the same extent of knowledge that she remembers learning.* Whoever sent for her help would realize that their plan didn't work as soon as the time the inner machine would have arrived passes and she fails to materialize. Hopefully they have a plan B. Basically, Laura will be unable to help whoever asked for her help. She may be able to help an alternate-universe version of them under that interpretation of the time travel, but the people who sent the original trap will have no help from her and may or may not have realized that before sending it. See the Novikov Self-consistency Principle for more information. *(And probably eventually fakes her own death to avoid actually dying and/or leaves the solution to the Hennering Conjecture plus whatever else she does in a safe deposit box somewhere saying "do not open until time X." But that isn't really relevant here.)

2014-08-19 16:19:05 by mutecebu:

Nice! I figured out that she was Grandma, but I did not see the "many propagations of Lauras" coming. Man, I agree that this is a great place to end the short story, but I'd love to read more!

2016-06-16 15:25:17 by Eragon:

Sam! Please write more in this series! The fuzzier magic rules seem like a lot of fun, possibly as a parallel universe to "Ra," maybe even the story of one of the digital humans!

2020-11-23 03:15:36 by Tim:

Ah, so *that's* how you get to be the best mage in the world. :-)

2020-11-23 15:31:22 by Tim:

For anyone from the US who is confused about the "speaking clock" -- that's apparently the UK version of the Time and Temperature phone number, only it's just the time.

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