Indistinguishable from magic


He's waiting around the corner for her as she comes out of her office a little after 12:30pm. He sees her lock the door behind her and head along the corridor for the stairwell.

She's coming for the corner, he can see her approaching as he goes to head her off. He makes the same pace towards the corner and tries to match her footsteps, walking quietly, so that she won't realise he's approaching. The timing is perfect but his hands are sweating. He doesn't like this one bit.

They reach the corner at the exact same moment, it's too late for either of them to stop---"Sorry!"---and that's when he walks through her.

Seph Baird turns around with something approaching sick horror on her face, skin crawling like she just walked through a thick mass of spiderwebs.

"Sorry," he replies, holding his hands out apologetically. "I'm Mitch. We spoke on the phone? You're seeing me in about an hour? I came down early." He bows forward very slightly. He is shorter than she is, dark-haired, middle-aged, and wears a dark leather jacket and a plain black t-shirt with an ornate design promoting some tired 70s metal band. Skulls and thorns. A full and respectable beard. "You must be Josephine Baird, the physicist?"

"I'm a quantum statistician, it's not quite the same thing," manages Seph, clutching her bag protectively in front of her. Mitch puts his hands in his pockets and waits patiently as Seph takes a few breaths and says "Okay" a few times.

"Okay. Well... now I bet I've got your attention."

"You just walked through me."

"Yes," says Mitch. "I can walk through stuff. And myself." He passes his wrists through each other.

"Don't-- don't do that," says Seph, "it could be bad for you."

"Could it, this is what I need to know. Is this bad for me? Is it fatal?"

"Have you spoken to a doctor?"

"Would that help?"

Seph concedes this point.


The cafeteria at the hub of the Mathematical Sciences Centre is spacious but busy. Quite a lot of advanced mathematics is going on at nearby lounge chairs. Mitch goes to the hot food queue; Seph opts for tea. They grab a small square table-for-two in the middle of the room.

"Alright," says Mitch, sitting down with his tray. "Simple stuff first. Two glasses." He picks one up and, very slowly, as Seph squints intently, wedges it through the other one at a diagonal angle, then puts them down, interlocked.

Seph picks the new artifact up and turns it over in her hands for some time. She tries to wiggle them apart and fails. They'd break if she pulled harder. "So this isn't a magic trick?"

Mitch takes them out of her hands and pulls them apart. He puts them down on the table next to each other, then slides them together, so the circular rims of the glasses overlap to make an old-fashioned binocular-lens shape. Seph inspects this too. He takes some cutlery and casually waves it through his hands and fingers, then embeds a few forks through the table. Underneath, individual tines can be seen protruding. The table appears to be undamaged. It stays undamaged when Mitch pulls everything out again.

"This started about a week ago. I was eating breakfast one morning and it was almost like I remembered how to do it, as if I'd forgotten it years ago. It took me a long time to summon the nerve to try it out, and... well, as we've established, what good would a doctor be? I decided to try to find a scientist... my brother said you were a tutor of a friend of his."

"Have you shown anybody?"

"Nobody who believed their eyes," says Mitch. "I mean, who would? I'm not going public. I've seen what's happening with that... what's her name? Forever surrounded by paparazzi, massive scientific media storm... She's so out of it she doesn't even know it's happening, lucky for her. Not so good for me. Hell, I haven't even stolen anything yet."

Hungry, Mitch starts eating, and discovers one forkful too late that what he thought was well-done steak is, in fact, liver. Seph sips her tea and sits and thinks in silence for a long time. She pulls a small notebook out of her bag and scribbles a few things.

"Okay, that's very well," says Seph. "I mean... yes. This would... cause a storm. Are you planning to? Steal anything, I mean?"

Mitch shrugs. "They'd never be able to catch me."

"You've got to sleep some time. Presumably you stay solid when you're asleep. You don't start drifting through things?"

"It takes conscious effort to phase. And I can't breathe while phased."

"Well, then. Several ideas spring to mind. But like you say, we're getting ahead of ourselves."

"I also have X-ray vision," Mitch says, poking the food down.

That completely derails Seph's train of thought. "What?"

"I can see through stuff. I can see inside people and things. Up to a distance, I mean. My eyes aren't perfect."

"That's not possible. Not with regular X-rays. This world is completely dark in the X-ray spectrum, there's nothing you should be able to detect unless-- oh hell, you're not bathing us all in high-energy X-radiation are you?"

"It just looks like colour! Regular colours. Not just metals and bones, either. I see everything."

"In colour? In proper 3D? You see the right colours for what things should be? Don't look at me like that!" She closes her arms up in front of her.

"I'm trying not to! Look, I seem to have acquired a set of powers which-- which are open to abuse, but I've read the odd comic book. Great responsibility et cetera. Anyway, I can't just look at the skin below the clothes. I can't just peel away layers like that. It's a focus depth thing. And people just look red on the interior. Icky red and other nasty colours. Watching blood circulate isn't fun, it's horrific."

"You see this with your actual eyes? Your eyeballs focus light emanating from organs and objects which are hidden completely in darkness? Is that what you're saying, Mitchell?"

"I haven't thought about it like that!"

Seph sits back and stares at the ceiling. "So you have two completely different, completely unrelated superpowers, is that right? This is insane. This is... major." She thinks for a very long while, lips moving. Mitch finishes his vegetables and puts the rest of his food aside.

Seph doodles. She thinks about her timetable. Her PhD's ahead of schedule. "Other than all of that," she says eventually, "you are still physically human?"

"As far as I know."

"Then we're going to have to experiment on you."

Next: Paper universe

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Discussion (8)

2008-04-26 05:05:30 by artanis:

I highly recommend reading Flatland and Sphereland if you have a bit of trouble visualizing universes with different numbers of spacial dimensions. Or even if you don't.

You can probably find them at the local library, or you can buy it on (they've been published in a kinda dual-book thing.)

2008-07-18 17:30:49 by Paradoxia:

Ah, I see what you're saying. He **REDACTED**

2008-07-18 17:59:56 by qntm:

Paradoxia, I edited your comment because it gives away plot details from later in the story.

2008-07-20 15:59:34 by Paradoxia:

Ok, I apologize. I shall not give away plot details in future.

2009-01-28 14:10:38 by Anon:

The powers don't seem all that much different to me. The reason he can see through objects is that his eyes are picking up light that phases through the objects accordingly. Or something.

2014-07-09 20:58:24 by bluediamond:

Yeah, the two superpowers seem to be to be exactly the same thing too. I'm very surprised that Seph doesn't get it.

2016-03-14 18:33:04 by qntm:

Discussing plot details is okay, but if a later chapter has implications for an earlier chapter, then please discuss below the later chapter, not the earlier one. :)

2017-07-25 23:46:23 by stellHex:

Hmm. The obvious conclusion is that he can travel a very short distance along the, er, w axis. I guess he sees via...light reflected off himself, then off something else 4d? or maybe a 4d light source is simply following him?

That also explains why "intangible" stuff is still visible, but why do things that stop being intangible inside other things become interlocked? Shouldn't it cause a physi-chemical explosion? or, OH. The bits that are still occupying the same 3d space are forced to remain intangible, but the rest "settles" back to w=0.