Rajesh Vidyasagar has begun to decelerate.
He takes the lift to Hatt's floor, which is normal for visitors to Hatt's floor given what floor Hatt's is, but then when he reaches the ante-room where Sally works he leans on the chair for support as he lowers himself into it. He politely refuses Sally's offer of tea. When it's time for the meeting, he leans on the chair again to get up. He politely refuses Sally's offer of assistance.
He's losing weight. He leans for support on the door handle to Hatt's office.
"Hi. Have a seat."
Ed Hatt knows Vidyasagar far better. He stays behind his desk, and lets Vidyasagar seat himself.
"I don't come up here very often," Vidyasagar smiles.
"I should have come to you," Hatt says apologetically. He knows the walk from Vidyasagar's office to this one is long and lengthening. "How are you? How's the family?"
"How's the view?" Vidyasagar asks, nodding at the window behind Hatt.
Hatt keeps the blinds permanently closed. "It's crap," he says.
Down in reception and in the rest of the customer-facing half of the Group, the walls are covered with pictures of historic aircraft and spaceships, some in flight, some on pads, classic aerospace photography. Mixed with the photographs are huge murals of spaceports and experimental jets and ships: concept art; Hatt's concepts of what he wants to build. But it's the third quarter of 1988 and that vision's not built yet, and he won't open the blinds until he's going to see something worth seeing.
Also, the Sun glares on his computer screen, but that's less poetic.
"Rajesh, I'm moving you to a new role. It's a role we've created for you. Director of Special Projects. It's more money, and less responsibility. Actually, it would be essentially ceremonial."
Vidyasagar does not visibly react to this. "Why?"
"Because we think you've done everything we can ask you to do for this company. No," Hatt corrects himself. "Not 'we'. 'We' is the board. Let me say this personally. I think you've done everything I can ask you to do for my company. I thank you personally for your years of service and your immeasurable contributions to the magical sciences. I thank you and I want you to stop."
"Why not fire me? It's the same thing."
Hatt laughs. "Sure. Fire the father of the first age of magic. Just from a P.R. standpoint--"
"Why do you want me to retire from science?"
"...Because you're seventy-five, Rajesh. It's time."
"I know how old I am, Edward. It's as obvious to me as it is to anybody. My brain isn't going yet. I still have my eyes. I can still type."
There's a long, deep pause.
Hatt gives up. "Your current line of research is not valuable to us. To me."
"My current line of research--"
"I don't care."
Vidyasagar works on a long rein. He has a lab and a small staff on the site, a separate block with good equipment, but without much real need for equipment. His work is way out on the theoretical edge of magic. The gap in focus between his work and Hatt Group's work at large has constantly increased as years have gone by. From Hatt's perspective, the day has long passed when Vidyasagar's little business unit might as well be a totally unrelated spinoff organisation. There's no harmonious link from there to here, no synergy, no connection to modern practical aerospace, barely any concrete experiments, no viable results. Meanwhile, there's a kilometre-tall stack of advanced practical work that Hatt wants demolishing, and Vidyasagar is holding on to valuable brains and skills.
Hatt says, "I've been tolerant. I've been indulgent to the tune of serious money. I've shown due respect. But Hatt Group is not a scientific research institution. The groundwork is down now. Pure theory is of no value to me. I have shit to do."
And he studies Vidyasagar's reaction and, like always, gets nothing.
Vidyasagar has an iceberg cool about him. He's always had it. It's not that he's an emotionless automaton; he has feelings and opinions as strong as anybody else's. It's more as if his emotions happen at some heavily shielded core, where the worst effects are never allowed to reach the surface. His sons have both inherited the trait. Vidyasagars, by design, can never melt down.
Vidyasagar says this: "What is magic?"
"...I'm not sure what you're asking."
"What is magic?" Vidyasagar asks simply.
"What is gravity?" Hatt asks rhetorically. "What is electromagnetism? It's the way the world works."
"I don't care!" Hatt replies, exasperated. Vidyasagar has evidently jumped off the metaphysical deep end.
"On the day we first met and spoke," says Vidyasagar, "what did I say to you?"
"You said a lot of things."
"You asked me what magic is," Vidyasagar says. "Do you remember what I said in response?"
"You said to me..." Hatt descends into his records. He actually remembers the conversation extremely clearly, although a minute passes as the old data drags itself out of storage. "You said, 'One says the correct words, and thinks the correct thoughts at the same time. Then, a physical effect occurs.' And then I said to you, 'That's it?' And you said to me, 'As far as we can tell, that's it.'"
"And you bought that?"
Hatt blinks. "...'Bought'? It happened right in front of me. It's consistent, it's reproducible. I've done it myself, I've done magic. I-- we have made a huge amount of money out of its reproducibility. It bought me."
"The real universe in which we live is an examination," Vidyasagar explains. "And then time runs out and you leave the room and-- how many marks did you get? You don't get to find out. Let me ask you another question. What is the biological component of magic?"
Now Hatt sees where this is going.
Both he and Vidyasagar know full well that there are unsolved problems in all areas of science. In magic, the unsolved problems are so famous and obvious and intractable as to be named and numbered. The Biology Problem, the Conservation Problem, the Listener Problem. One, Two, Three.
Hatt says, "I don't know--" but Vidyasagar appears determined to speak his piece:
"What process in the human body produces it? What part of the human brain channels and distributes it? How is it that humans have this capability, but no other known species has it? How is it that we have this capability, fully evolved, yet have never demonstrated it before 1972?"
"I don't know," Hatt says. "Nobody knows. I admit it. Nobody in the world knows."
"We generate mana. Mana: magical energy. It evaporates up from our skin in clouds. We have auras, clearly visible with appropriate oracles. This is a distinct form of energy from chemical energy or kinetic energy. We can track the movements of all five classes of mana particle. We are living generators and the amount of mana we generate is more, far more, than any of us ingest as food. Where does the energy come from?"
Hatt's struggling for the vocabulary. "Magic is on the flip side of quantum mechanics. It exists in this dark zone, it's not subject to the conservation laws that we understand."
"That's not an answer," Vidyasagar says. "That's the absence of an answer. That's a confession of defeat. You are not a scientist."
"I don't take that as an insult," Hatt says.
"And I don't mean it as one."
"Maybe it's geological," says Hatt. "The geothermal mana exchange doesn't violate the conservation laws as far as we can tell. Maybe there's a connection there that nobody can detect yet."
"'Maybe.' 'Maybe.' 'Maybe.' Answers. Who is listening? Magic words must be spoken aloud. Why?" Vidyasagar gestures around the room. "Why? To whom?"
"And that's basically the biological question again," says Hatt. "It's part of the mental model of magic. It's a mantra, it triggers a process in the mind--"
"A guess," Vidyasagar says. "That was always a guess. There's no evidence."
There's a pause.
Vidyasagar says this: "Why can't we answer these questions?
"We've attacked them and attacked them. I have, and so have many others. For decades. They are basic questions. We should be past them. But we aren't."
Hatt tries to read Vidyasagar. "And this... frightens you?"
"This doesn't frighten me," says Vidyasagar. "Not knowing things doesn't frighten me. As long as I've been alive, the number of things I don't know has only ever grown. And you're the same, in your way. What frightens me is the very notion of giving up on knowing. Because this is important."
"I'm not... I'm not giving up on knowing," Hatt says. "Really. I really think we'll work it all out one day."
"So do I," says Vidyasagar, sitting up straight. "And I'm not giving up on knowing either. Thank you for the offer of the role of Director of Special Projects, but I'm afraid I can't accept it. I shall resign instead."
"You'll retire?" Hatt shows significant relief. This works even better for him - it's equally face-saving and it'll save him a big chunk of money.
"No," says Vidyasagar. "I won't retire. I'll resign."
Hatt works this out. "And... keep working? You're going to go and find another job?"
"Certainly." Vidyasagar smiles. "I doubt it would be difficult, as 'father of the first age of magic'. I believe I have at least another ten years of work ahead of me and I intend to use all of my allotted time. What is it you said just now? After pure theory being of no value to you?"
Some are desperately in love with magic, latching onto it as the defining feature of their universe.
Meanwhile, there's Alan Minter. He is forty, stubbly and weighty. He doesn't define himself as a mage, or even as an engineer; in fact, if somebody asked him straight, "How do you define yourself?" he'd laugh the question off as slightly ridiculous. Magic is a thing he does to live. He likes it well enough because it's challenging and stable and it gives his wife and kids some financial security. His is a boat which would rather not be rocked.
It's 1998 and Minter's worked at Hatt Group since the mid-Eighties. He's been unable to avoid gradually acquiring managerial responsibility for a few tiers of people. He manages these people well, by being fundamentally incapable of perceiving or putting up with nonsense.
Yes, Alan Minter is a little bit boring. (Because that's what you want in your new all-magical avionics systems: unpredictability.)
"Alan!" Edward Hatt shouts at him one day. "I want to look into using Tanako's world for demos."
Minter stops mid-stride, just about to push open the door to the men's room. "What?"
Hatt is at the other end of the corridor, headed in a totally different direction. He has coffee in one hand and an open laptop computer in the other; he is between two meetings. "Customer demos," he shouts, not coming any closer. "Can you get some people together and look into it? Monday okay?"
Hatt gives him an awkward, coffee-encumbered thumbs-up and mouths "You got it" and disappears.
Minter digests this. Many years ago, in the eleven-month gap between graduation and joining Hatt, Minter worked at a comically badly-run magic startup. The company's business model was cryptic at best; perhaps it was thought that if enough talented mages were gathered in one room, some sort of critical mass would be reached and money would start condensing out of the aether. In the absence of any consistent managerial direction, Minter spent most of that time studying the commercial possibilities of T-world. He became a very narrow expert. Then he came to his senses, bailed out of the company, took an actual job and forgot about the entire thing.
Never be the expert, Minter tells himself. He must have mentioned it to Hatt by accident. Or mentioned it to somebody else who mentioned it to Hatt.
It's mid-afternoon on Thursday, but Minter has the mother of all interlock tests to oversee on Friday and he knows his people are too busy. So it's a solo weekend job. He digs around in his private email for a while, seeing if he can find remnants of his old work. There are shreds.
Edward Hatt is either one level or two levels above Minter in the Group hierarchy, depending on how you look at it. Alan Minter doesn't actually like him very much. Not many people do.
Now this is a meeting in a dull meeting room with white boards and a projector and a Powerpoint presentation. Hatt Group has two kinds of meeting room. Rooms of the first kind have actually had money spent on them. They are cool, spacious, windowed and air-conditioned. There are big, expensive chairs with headrests and lumbar support. Those rooms are for visitors.
Minter wishes he was in one of those rooms, because this room is for internal meetings only and it is the opposite of all of those things.
Hatt arrives fifteen minutes late, carrying the same laptop and what might as well be the same coffee. He opens the door with an impressively agile manoeuvre which involves hooking one foot under the handle.
"Right," Hatt says, before he has sat down. This is Minter's cue to begin.
Minter looks at the presentation that he has spent the weekend assembling and immediately loses faith in it. Too many words. Three entire slides setting up what Tanako's world is? Clip art? There's nobody in the room but qualified mages. Skip. Skip. Skip. Hell with it. Minter closes the computer and just speaks.
"There were a few seconds there when T-world stood a chance of being the next revolution in popular entertainment media," he explains. "T-world is cold and hostile most of the time, but if you dream lucidly you can throw your own creations over it. Once you're at that point, it's better than a 3D movie. You get sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. You can even directly trigger emotional responses. The problem is that what you can do in T-world is limited only by what you can imagine."
Minter stops talking for a second and lets Hatt think about this last statement.
Hatt responds, "Well, shit."
"Yeah. In the same way that a magic spell only works as long as the mage carries total comprehension of all of its complexity in his head, the illusion that you can deliver has to be realised in its entirety by you. On the spot. In real time. We can throw all the graphic and sound designers we like at the scenario, but you'll have to learn and reproduce all of it mechanically.
"It's not as bad as it could be. T-world is a dream, which changes the rules from other kinds of media. We can cheat. A lot. There's only one direction which a person can look in, which is forwards. And a person can only pay attention to a few things at a time. If you can direct someone's attention confidently, you can direct their attention narrowly, which reduces the amount of stuff which you need to 'render' at any given time. This might be true even if there are multiple people in the group that you carry with you."
"Like a card trick," Hatt says.
"I suppose. Do you do any conjuring?"
Hatt shakes his head. On the other hand, he likes the idea of wowing people. He could find the time to learn.
Minter goes on. "The next factor is safety. A regular T-world trance, such as you or I have every two to seven weeks or whatever, draws almost no mana. But to bring other people with you, you're looking at real money. Days or weeks of saved 'wages'. And meanwhile, the physical danger of T-world is directly linked to the local thaumic flux density. So there's a balancing act. The more people you bring, the greater the danger."
"What's the safe upper limit?" Hatt asks.
Minter is an aerospace engineer. His definition of 'safe' is concrete and numerical. "Right now, the safe upper limit is not to do it at all," he says.
Hatt is also an aerospace engineer. He correctly interprets Minter's statement to mean that there is no data available at this time. "Do you want to take a guess?"
"You mentioned taking multiple people just now."
"Hypothetically. Tests are needed."
Minter continues. "Con three. T-world is a nightmare. It's a recurring nightmare and over time it fills up with an invasive biological grinding noise and horrible monsters which chase you until you wake up. This is not something you can get away from. There is a grace period. You'd need to end the scene before you came to the end of that grace period. Otherwise, you're exposing customers to an out-of-control horror movie."
"How much time are we talking about?"
"Dream time and real time aren't exactly the same thing," Minter says.
"So you're going to go and find that out too."
"But it probably needs to be short. Like a few minutes."
Minter doesn't comment.
"So it's a teaser trailer," Hatt concludes.
"I suppose so," says Minter.
Hatt pushes his seat out a bit. He feels the need to pace, but doesn't have room. "This is okay. That's tight, but I can definitely work with it. Was that the whole list?"
"So the main piece of bad news here is that I'm going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting myself."
"Yes. It's a tough collection of spells. And you'll have to put most of them together yourself. Unless you want to get somebody else to handle that part for you."
"No, no. It's my demo. I need to be the one who delivers it. Especially given what you're saying about safe carrying capacities."
"I'm going to crunch some numbers," Minter says.
Hatt nods again. "I'm still thinking out loud here. Even if we can push that number higher, I want to do the demo. Because that's impressive to people. If I'm at the top, CEO position, and I can show people some gee-whizz wizardry, nothing up my sleeve, that's going to leave a strong impression. It hints at what everybody else in the organisation is really capable of. You professional mages, I mean. Everybody who doesn't sit in an office all day. This is like... it's a performance, I like it. What would I actually need to do? Am I memorising a script or something?"
"You need a mental picture," Minter explains. "Some scenery, some personalities, some lines. Actually, you need a scene."
"Actually, I need a vision."
Hatt claps. "That's it! We're sitting here surrounded by concept art! It's hanging right there in reception. I can show them the spaceport."
Minter can't help snorting at this. Hatt glares at him.
"I'm sorry," says Minter. "You do a lot of business flying, right?"
"You fly alone? First class? Yeah." Minter smiles broadly. "Airports haven't been cool since the Fifties, and spaceports are going to be even worse. When I'm in an airport, I have three kids and my other half. To us, an airport means screaming kids, crowds, queues, lost baggage, cramped seats and delays, delays, delays. All the concept art in the world isn't going to shake off that association. For the love of God, don't show them the spaceport. At least, not the interior."
Hatt and Minter deliver the last line together: "Show them the spaceships."
Anil Devi is one of the fastest-moving minds Ed Hatt has ever worked with. Devi treats conversations as optimisation problems. He assumes everybody involved possesses all the knowledge he does and thinks as fast as he does, and then proceeds to skip two out of every three sentences because the rest is so obvious that it doesn't need to be said. His magic work is the same: intermediate stages of spell construction, which others would insist on having a big explicit written plan for, he will wave away as trivial because he can improvise them in the moment. Every mage has a distinct style and Devi will cheerfully steal pieces of that style from every mage he meets. He is a packrat for shortcuts. His spells are baffling spaghetti.
All of this makes him hard to work with. Mere procedure and best practice are anchors around his neck. Meanwhile, any kind of engineering not involving magic in some way - of which Hatt Group does a great deal - bores him stiff. Managing him is a juggling act. But then, managing any collection of one or more people is a juggling act.
He phones Hatt directly from D12A and says, "So, I don't know what the flux was in Ferno's farewell stunt but there's definitely been a conservation violation. You should pull in a biotech lab because I've got no idea what this thing is. I can give you some phone numbers."
"The good news is you've got around a hundred and fifty gigs left in your battery. 'Aliasing' was a good keyword but the technique is probably basically brain surgery, it'll take me a little while to hack out. End of the year? She had a head start, clearly. I'd love to meet this mythical parent of hers. So anyway, this Christmas you're looking at some rainy day money."
"'Rainy day money'," says Hatt, blankly.
"And it reeks down here!" Devi adds. "You should have punched up the priority on this, I had to get a mask, you have no clue."
"I'm sorry, who is this?"
Devi gears down. "Anil. Anil Devi. Three-and-a-half weeks ago you asked me to cover the fallout from Laura Ferno's 'leaving do'. Right?"
"Yeah. Yes, I remember. Wait, you're just doing this now?"
"I've had the 4100-series closeout," says Devi, "and you gave me the clearance but you didn't say there was a corpse involved and then the two-factor thing happened, so, yeah."
"There's a corpse involved?"
"What did you think it was, chopped liver? Actually, there is a certain resemblance."
"What what was? Where are you?"
"I'm in D12A," Devi says, "and my friend, it is a horror show down here. T plus three-and-a-half weeks and oh my bloody god."
"Are you saying there's a dead body in there?"
Devi inhales, stops, exhales puzzledly, inhales again, "Yes, I'm saying that my name is Anil Devi, and I'm saying that I'm in D12A and I'm saying that there's been a dead body in here for the last three-and-a-half weeks."
Devi glances at it. "I would say it's extremely doubtful that it's anybody's in particular."
"But it's human?"
"I did not, and would not, say that."
"I'm coming down."
D12A is still itself: a tall, square, fluorescent-lit room with a thirteen-metre D occupying most of its floor space. In one corner is a rack of safety equipment (fire extinguishers, Montauk rings, telephone) and a short flight of stairs leading up to the door. Spread around the circle are the various Hatt Group-owned magical artifacts that Laura Ferno was using for her ill-advised spell. There is also the small music stand that she was using for her notes. The notes themselves, she took with her, along with her staff and other own equipment.
This much is exactly as Hatt remembers it ought to be.
"I escorted her out of the room," he recalls. "I swiped us both out and locked the door behind me. I fired her, and a few minutes after that I told you to come down and try to piece together her bilge mana spell."
"And then I ignored you for most of a month," says Devi.
"I didn't see this. I wasn't even looking for this. Half of the lights weren't turned on. You understand."
Lying at one node on the edge of the D is a dead thing.
Its skin colour is probably comparable with Caucasian, but the thing is almost completely coated with dried blood, and certainly is not human. It's gangly and long: if it stood up straight, it would be more than two metres tall. It is emaciated. Its highly visible bone structure is all wrong: its knees and elbows are backwards and instead of hands or feet it has four large fingertips with torn nails. Its spine bifurcates halfway up its back, and it has a row of closed eyes running up between its shoulders. Its head lacks all orifices but a lipless hole where a mouth would usually go, with two rows of sharp metal scalpels for teeth. Meanwhile, its six sets of ribs are actually jawbones; each pair parts individually to reveal one of five mouths, complete with conventional teeth and a tongue.
Devi shows Hatt the details. Both Devi and Hatt wear face masks and latex gloves.
The horror's cause of death is uncertain. It looks as if every one of its joints is dislocated, but it could be meant to look like that. It's even less certain whether it was ever technically alive.
D12A is filled with the stench of decay.
Devi summarises, "It's something out of a nightmare. I mean, a specific one. One guess whose."
"She actually did it," Hatt says, standing up from a difficult crouch. "She brought a real object back from Tanako's world. If all the mana she spent had been piped into a perfect energy/matter exchanger, the most she could get out was two point four milligrams. This is something else."
Hatt has that chill again. The rules of his universe are expanding. And he's right there at the beginning. The thing in front of him is terrifying, but the feeling is good.
Devi says nothing.
"You mentioned phone numbers?" Hatt says to Devi. "Pick a discreet one."
"And send them some samples for testing," Devi says. "You got it."
"Have you got enough equipment down here to set up a refrigeration spell?"
Devi nods. The ground underneath them is a working D-class with a nested E. It would be difficult to pick a better location.
Hatt takes his gloves off. "And once you've done that, find Laura Ferno."