"Interesting" is the term geologists use to describe Iceland, and geologically interesting places are worth paying attention to in the same way that warzones and brand new nuclear powers are. Entire cubic kilometres of lava are seen emerging from the place. Sometimes it grows new islands. Sometimes its volcanic fissures eject so much sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere that the global temperature drops significantly, crops fail across the Northern Hemisphere and millions die from famine. Iceland is the place you go to remind yourself that planet Earth is a machine: very large, continuously operating, working on a time scale too long to easily observe, towards a highly uncertain end; and to remind yourself that all the organic life that has ever existed amounts to a greasy film that has survived on the exterior of that machine thanks to furious improvisation rather than any specific dispensation.
Iceland is also one of the few places on Earth, other than on people's skin, where mana is naturally occurring. It's a geological phenomenon, arising from molten rocks with just the right combinations of rare earths stirred into them. If you travel to a suitable spot and scan the horizon through a suitable oracle, you can see luminous mana radiating off the mountains and coiling into the air, like steam off microwaved pudding. There's a research centre, a smallish clutch of temporary buildings offshot from Reykjavik University. They drill holes into volcanoes and model the natural process on computers. There's a cooperation program with the UK.
So Laura and Natalie Ferno are here, along with a collection of other people from the same year and a few staff. It's a three-hour flight to Reykjavik, practically next door, but the town of Blönflói is almost on the other side of the country, so the final leg by road takes substantially longer. It's midsummer, which means noonday temperatures peak around "brisk". When the Sun is up (21 hours per day at this time of year), it casts a clean, white light uncommon in the UK, such that the grass here really does seem greener. There are sheep and Icelandic horses and dry stone walls at the outset, but as they travel, the countryside becomes wilder and more inhospitable. Grass shortens, clinging closer to the ground until bare soil is exposed.
"This isn't me," Benj says again.
"It's just culture shock," Laura says again. She's in the passenger seat; Benj Clarke and Natalie Ferno are crammed in the back between rucksacks. Benj, by his own admission, doesn't like foreign countries. Or foreign languages. Or customs, roads, buildings or food. It's like he's attached to his birthplace with an elastic cord. The further he travels away from home, the more highly strung his nerves become. "You can get used to anything," Laura elaborates. "This is day one and you'll be here long enough to get used to it."
"This isn't what I do," says Benj.
Laura's loving the scenery. Nat's quiet as ever, indifferent as far as anybody can tell. Years ago, as kids, Laura used to try to enthuse her about interesting things (sandcastles, computers, boys). She gave up when they were around thirteen or fourteen. Nat decides what she's into, nobody else does. Trying to force her into something just makes her less inclined to pay attention.
Blönflói lands on a ragged boundary where the soil, too, is starting to run out. It's a minuscule settlement, sparsely distributed yet small enough to fit entirely into a single photograph taken from ground level. The buildings are square and painted uniform white and red and pale blue; from a distance, they look like delicate wooden models. There's one huge fjord nearby and three ridges of tall, nude black mountains, but from the middle of the town looking directly to the north, there's nothing but the Arctic Ocean, all the way to the North Pole. It's more than a thousand kilometres further south than the northernmost inhabited point on Earth, but it feels like an outpost at the end of the world.
"Do you feel anything unusual?" their driver prompts them as they arrive. His name is Þór. (Nobody got his surname.) He is sixtyish, bearded, spectacled and very bulky; half of the bulk is fat, the other half is thick woolly sweaters. "Do you feel like there's more energy in the air?"
Benj and Laura generally agree. "Yeah, I definitely feel something, sure."
"Well, you shouldn't," Þór snaps. "There've been double-blind experiments. Nobody can pick up anything at this range without equipment. Pay more attention. This is a place where we do science."
The car rumbles along in silence for a little way. He's had this discussion before, Laura thinks. With tourists.
"It's nine more kilometres to the lab and three kilometres from the lab to the nearest foldback epicentre," Þór adds. "You might as well claim you can hear birds squawking all the way up there."
There are fifteen students and staff on the trip altogether: Nat, Laura and Benj in the car, and the rest in a minibus following them. Accommodation is an informal youth hostel/guest house/cottage sort of place, a square two-storey building with a pointy red roof. A nice blonde lady of about forty-five shows them around the place and shows them the written list of rules and quirks. It has a lot of bedrooms full of bunks, a collection of showers, a big kitchen full of heavily used cookware and mismatched cutlery, and a beaten-up lounge with a big old CRT television. She disappears just as a welcoming party of three more Icelandic geophysicists arrives with a substantial container of local fish and other supplies. It's now well into the evening, UK time and there's a lot of hunger in the house so the four most resourceful and organised people in the building - students P and Andy, chemical mage Steve Aldridge and one of the Icelanders, Tómas - cook enough to feed an army. All of it gets eaten.
A few mages express concern about the shortage of alcohol in the house, head out and buy an amazing amount of beer. Nobody talks shop that evening; topics of conversation are sport, Icelandic customs and impenetrable late-night Icelandic television. Benj seizes on the beer, as it's something he can relate to. Laura drinks until she can't pronounce her True Name properly, at which point Natalie calmly redirects her to bed. The locals go home relatively early; the last of the students turn in at 2:45am, as the Sun is about to start rising again.
On day two they visit the main research building, where the establishment's second-most senior mage shows them a presentation. The subject is elementary volcanology. Spectroscopy, geology, The Local Shape Of Iceland, stratigraphy, volcanometry, geophysics, magma crystallisation, eruption types. After a short break the slides proceed seamlessly onto the topic of tools, drills, measuring equipment, vehicles and procedures. The safety section covers what to look for, what not to tread on and whom to keep in eyeshot, before abruptly ending after less than a minute. Then the magic comes into it and everybody starts paying more attention.
Exactly how the magic arises is not totally understood as yet, hence the research. The foldback points where the emanations start are kilometres deep, driven by insane magma heat and friction with the underside of unusual ultramafic rock strata. There are two major theories and a flurry of variations on those themes, some less likely than others. All the plausible ones tap into the same basic thermal equation. Research is carried out using scientific oracles, ranging from flat A4 sheets of hundreds of tiny engraved washers up to cadmium steel rings wide enough to drive trains through. The big ones are mounted on unconventional tractor-like vehicles with fat, expensive tyres.
Watching mana pour out of the interfaces and bubble upwards is informative, but what's really needed is hard chemical data, which requires dedicated deep drilling operations, which requires serious funding. More would be available if the naturally occurring mana was useful for anything. Geothermal energy is great, and thaumic turbulence modelling has come on in leaps and bounds thanks to the wealth of observations, but mana boiling out of the Earth itself doesn't belong to anybody. Sure, you can detect it, but it isn't concentrated or "collared"; it can't be used or stored by people. It certainly isn't dangerous. It's a continuously gushing oil well, except that the oil is valueless: invisible, intangible aurorae and chi-band mana particles.
In the afternoon they take their first trip up to Krallafjöll, where the magic happens. Most of the students ride in the minibus, bundled up. A few lucky ones get to ride in the mobile oracle tractor unit. The staff distribute a dozen or so monocle-sized oracles, which the students pass around, using them to study each other and the scenery. Krallafjöll is a volcanic fissure, a ridge where the local surface of the Earth has been forced upwards to breaking point, as if an axe split it from below. Lava, ash and cinders vent from the fissure, at least in theory. It's more than a hundred and fifty years since anything that could be termed an eruption took place.
The vehicles can't get far up the side of the ridge, but that's no problem. Tómas and another geophysicist, Haukur Tómasson (of no relation), use the tractor unit's two big hydraulic arms to aim the big ring directly at the core of the ridge and prime it. The ring has a huge surface area and needs specialist oracular enchantment. Haukur delivers the convoluted spells seemingly without effort or concentration. His enunciation is as sharp as anybody's and he doesn't make a single mistake. Nat and Laura are watching him alertly through a monocle as he finishes up. "Akla orotet j'lutyu j'lu astata," the last phrase which buttons the whole thing down, visibly depletes almost all of his available mana reserves. At his command, the big ring begins transducing all of the chi mana passing its mouth into visible photons, becoming a working holographic overlay of the ridge behind it. The image is hard to decipher at first, monochromatic like an X-ray image. After a moment to compose himself, Haukur adds false colour - well, additional false colours - to the picture.
"So, now we have a picture of the interior of the, the mountain," explains Tómas. "So, now we want to see clearly events that happen deep inside the mountain. So, can anybody guess how we do this?"
"Move the oracle closer," somebody suggests.
"Tune it to give a magnified image," is Nat's offer.
"How?" is Tómas' response.
"...I don't know."
"An oracle is a window. It is not a lens. If you want to lens light, you just use binoculars or a telescope." Tómas produces a pair of binoculars from a pocket. "It is a very strange feeling to use binoculars to look into the, the ground. But I, you get used to it."
"Would this approach be useful for geological surveys?" Aldridge asks. "I mean general geology, without magic being involved."
Haukur shakes his head. "You need the mana. The world is mostly pitch dark in the chi band. You just can't see anything. Maybe in ten years when detector spells get better."
"Is this kind of reaction visible in space?" Nat asks.
"Using a satellite?"
"No, not looking down. There are other places in the solar system with volcanic activity, where mana must be naturally occurring. Like Io. Couldn't you fit an oracle to the front end of a real astronomical telescope and see?" The Icelanders don't answer immediately. "Has anybody tried?"
"I don't know," says Tómas. "That's not really our department."
"Astrothaumics, Nat," Laura says, poking her in the arm. "You just invented space magic!"
Nat doesn't respond.
The oracle's vision shows an upward-pouring waterfall of mana. The real topology and composition of the ridge's interior are difficult to determine because the rocks themselves are totally absent from the picture, but the behaviour of the mana flow gives significant clues. The rock is igneous, of varying granularity. Darker areas are granite. Brighter patches of mafic rock collect the flow or perturb it into lazily coiling shapes. Here and there are small, very bright vortices and thin tubes. These are underground features of uncertain crystalline structure - something naturally similar to a magic staff. Rising mana is caught inside these features and stays bound to them for minutes or hours, in a decaying orbit or on a narrow main sequence path, before escaping and bubbling upwards.
The flow is slow, and entrancing to watch. This is Iceland the component of Earth the machine.
For their next trick, the Icelanders lay the big ring almost flat on the ground like a divining pool. The students gather around it and, kilometres below, they can see the deep foldback points where magma heat is transduced into mana and starts rising through the rock. "I definitely feel this," Benj says. The ground is warm underfoot and staring into the ring is like staring into a cauldron or furnace, so a sensation of rising heat isn't unexpected, but Benj is right-- there's enough randomised, unclaimed mana in the air that it can be felt. The output for the whole ridge must amount to megawatts, if it could be harnessed in a useful way.
But it can't. After more of the geology lecture, the ring is turned upwards towards the ridge peaks, where magic billows into the sky in spreading clouds. The process is continuous, though varying in intensity over the course of weeks depending on the "underground weather". Nobody can spell using the natural mana; it's nobody's to use and nobody's to give away. "Perhaps if planet Earth itself said a spell," says Tómas, "something terrible could happen. But it has no throat. And the shortest known fullspell is, is a hundred and fifteen syllables? Very unlikely!"
By this time everybody's been standing around in the cold for too long. The enthusiastic half of the group decide to climb to the top of the ridge, take some photographs, inspect some measurement equipment and throw some spells around. They'll walk back, it's only 30 minutes and all downhill. The rest, including Laura, Benj and Nat, take the bus and the ring tractor back to the lab where Haukur Tómasson explains the speciality magic they use for deep geological inspection. At first, Laura finds the "Blönflói Book" of pre-written spells and conjunctions fascinating, but it soon becomes clear how much of a kludge their framework is. It was built piecemeal over the course of years and has never been cleaned up. Good spells are brief without being obtuse, meaningful without being waffly; they loosely couple many independent charms together for maintainability. But the Blönflói Book spells have obfuscation, pointless repetition and spaghetti-like interconnections. In many places, perfectly normal second- or third-year results are painstakingly derived from first principles in ugly, non-standard ways. Of course, the whole thing works, for a given value of "works", and that's why it's never been fixed. But Haukur's just so proud of it all. Laura soon has to excuse herself; it's the only way to avoid saying something regrettable.
Benj joins her outside.
Laura says to him, "I wish I could say these guys were underfunded and underequipped. I mean, maybe the job they're doing and the tools they're working with are harder than they're making it sound. And there must be more difficulty to geological magic than meets the eye. And their volcanometry is really impressive, I've never seen that kind of high-fidelity measurement stuff before, the outside factors that they have to take into account to get reliable numbers are insane. But, is this where you see yourself working? I'm torn between straight-up replacing every spell they've written with something good, and running screaming and never looking back. It's the kind of mess I never want to inherit."
"This definitely isn't me," says Benj.
"That's your phrase of the week," says Laura.
"I'm sticking to it. When do we eat?"
Laura checks her watch. "Not for ever. Is the food you? Have you changed your mind?"
"The food isn't, food in general is."
"Let's work something out."
They walk down to a shop in town, buy some vegetables and some fish and bring it back up to the hostel/guest house/Magic Castle. By the time everybody else returns for their main evening meal, Laura and Benj have cooked, eaten, washed up and made a decent start on the evening's drinking.
It's nine in the evening and the Sun is still basically up when Natalie announces that she's going up Krallafjöll herself. "I'll be back by the time it gets dark."
"We'll come," says Laura. "How cold is it?" It's getting colder, but everybody brought a decent amount of gear and the sky's basically clear. "Yeah, we'll come. I'm going to go and put some layers on and then I'll definitely come with you. Gloves! Benj, is this you?"
"Sure," says Benj.
"I'm just going to look," says Natalie. "I want to think. I want to work through some numbers. It's more than a day since I meditated."
"Sure," say Benj and Laura.
"So hang back and try not to talk to me," Natalie clarifies.
"...Sure," say Benj and Laura.
On the way up that's what happens. Natalie strides ahead with her thoughts while Laura tells Benj she wishes Nick could have come. "I'll have to bring him another year. He'd love it. He'd run around a different volcano before breakfast every day. He's a nutter."
"I thought you were never coming back."
"...I did say that. Yes." Laura falls silent, now preoccupied resolving her cognitive dissonance.
Benj fills the gap as they walk by showing her his project. At the moment it's a fat, heavy molybdenum steel ring with deep engravings. It's a base unit, a highly versatile core element of many experimental spell systems. "You take a conical force field and modulate the field spell so that it moves forwards and backwards."
"You brought that on the walk to show me? Those things weigh like a kilogram each."
"I've got this bag here."
"So what does it do?"
"What do you think it does?" Benj demonstrates. "Simple triangle wave. Two hundred hertz. Ibra oniki opint five cee amag ennee. JULI-- wait. Konung konung. JUNYIA two cee a ennee."
The ring in his hands begins buzzing, a continuous low booooooooooooop.
"You've made sound!" Magic is silent, to say nothing of the fact that, until very recently, small-scale non-flat force fields were impossible. "Nat, he's made sound! He's an audiomage!"
"I hear it," Nat replies, not looking back. "And stop inventing words."
"So JUNYIA's a procedure you committed in advance?" Laura asks Benj.
"Sure. Ennee JUNYIA ixuv." The sound cuts out.
"Can I see that procedure some time?"
"When it's done."
Laura starts talking about the applications of sonic magic. She comes up with two dozen applications and limitations and areas for further research off the top of her head.
Benj has already thought of all of them. "Of course I have," he says. "I've been working on this for long enough."
"Encoding real recorded sounds into the spell is obviously impractical unless you want to sit there dictating pulse codes for a week. You need a recording device. And then you want to make something that can read the data it needs from somewhere. Reading from an electronic storage format is going to be amazingly difficult."
"You need to invent a dedicated data storage format that can be read by magic. Maybe you can use an engraved ring like a vinyl record. Maybe you can modulate mana flavours and queue the flavours up inside a Montauk battery--"
"Laura, I know."
"Okay. Then I'm just going to stop talking."
Benj spins the ring once between his palms, deactivates it and puts it back in his rucksack for the climb. The steepest part is almost a scramble, requiring hands. Natalie leads, followed by Laura and then Benj. There's still plenty of light for now. If they're still up there when the Sun sets (around eleven PM local) they'll have a problem, Laura thinks. She starts working out illumination spells.
Nat can feel her head clearing as she climbs. It's not the cold wind. It's fresh mana rising up from the rocks underfoot. It has a different "smell", she thinks, from mana produced by people. It's less... she tries to think of a better word than "icky", which displeases her. Organic?
It's a long enough climb that they reach the top panting. The Krallafjöll ridge easily commands a view of Blönflói town and a hundred times more besides. At least fifteen kilometres of Route 1 can be seen, the Ring Road that completely encircles Iceland. To the south are rolling dark mountains leading towards the country's interior. To the north are the minuscule fishing port, the fjord and then pure, steel-cold Arctic Ocean. Nat stares into the wind and thinks, lapsing into something approaching a meditation cycle. Laura takes some photographs. As for the so-called volcanic fissure itself: other than a jagged confusion of rocks in a deep, intermittent crack at the top of the ridge, there's nothing to see. Laura was half-expecting to be able to look straight down into a pit of lava. But, she remembers, the feature has been inactive for decades. Dormant as a doornail.
"Yeah, I was going to sneak out and climb this myself," says Benj, pulling his base ring out again. "But since you're here, you're here. You need to help me. Ibra oniki ennee."
"Help you with what?" Laura asks, speaking over Benj's next spell, which she almost misses. All she notices is that this time he invokes a stored spell not called JUNYIA, but QUINIO.
"I actually did solve the encoding problem," Benj explains.
The molybdenum steel ring in his hands wakes up and buzzes momentarily. Then it starts talking in a low, heavily synthesised voice. "Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO alef a ra."
"Nice," Laura says, genuinely impressed. "How'd you do it? Not that that's going to work."
"Wait for it," says Benj.
"Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra," says his speaker ring.
Laura hesitates, puzzled. "Dulaku eset. That's... You can't cast a magic spell with a voice synthesiser." Nat turns around at this point, fixing Benj with a curious eye, which he doesn't notice.
"It turns out that two things in the universe can use magic," Benj explains. "One is sentient humans. The other is magic itself."
And the base ring says, "Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra."
Laura backs away a step and almost trips on the uneven ground. "But... nobody cast that spell. Without a human mind behind it, it's just pressure waves in air. There've been dozens of experiments. Thousands. Machines can't spell. Machines can't do magic. It has to be a human being."
Suddenly standing right behind her, Nat takes her arm. "He's written a quine," she murmurs in her ear.
The ridge shakes. This would be an alarming development on flat ground, but at this altitude it's heartstopping. Benj falls, but gets back up again, laughing. Laura slips, Nat catches her. A few tens of metres along the ridge behind Benj, a substantial-sized rock formation dislodges and start rolling down the hill. With or without falling rocks, the incline is steep and rough enough to do serious damage to a rolling human; if he or she was careless or unlucky, they could easily reach the bottom of the slope dead.
Laura's mind is running flat out. This has happened to her before: a mage with skills beyond hers throws a fistful of new tricks in her face and she has to pick up the pieces. This time she's not getting left behind. Machines don't have mana resources. Machines don't have Names. Where's the energy coming from?
"Ibra oniki ra. QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra." The ring sounds as if it's double-tracked.
This time the ground beneath them jumps up a full twenty centimetres. Benj lands flat on his back and drops his ring, which rolls away down the hill. Nat and Laura are separated by the jolt, but Nat recovers fast and scrambles back to Laura. With difficulty, self-preservation has managed to override Laura's curiosity. She motions for both of them to get out of there, back down the side of the ridge to relative safety. But Nat tightens her grip on her sister's arm. She shouts, "This isn't you, Benj! So who is it?"
"I told you. I've been telling you and telling you," Benj replies, sitting up.
It's a quine, Laura thinks. She can feel that she's almost got it. It's a magic spell which casts a magic spell which casts a magic spell. Nobody's done that before.
"--QUINIO QUINIO QUINIO alef a ra." That's five.
"Why are you doing this?" Nat demands.
"He's using up naturally-occurring mana," Laura manages.
"This is about freedom," Benj shouts, clambering back towards the top of the ridge.
Laura swears she feels the wave rising like a tide--
And this time the ridge explodes, a two-dimensional curtain of lava erupting from the one-dimensional fissure above them. The explosion drives the hillside up into Laura's knees, hurling her flailing into the air.
In freefall, upside-down, she experiences a split second of perfect clarity. Over her head, the solid real world spins, completely physically disconnected from her and therefore abstract, like an expensive computer render. Under her feet is the red and black molten light show, spreading like rose petals against the deep blue sky. There must be an Olympic swimming pool of lava in the air, plus the entire side of the hill. Hi, says a vivid, primitive part of her consciousness, a hot black bullet-like node whom she's met once before. Hi.
You're going to die.
Nat cannons into her side, long hair whipped over her face. She's shouting something. And she's had her ear pierced. This, of all things, takes Laura by surprise. Nat doesn't wear jewellery; she's always said that she doesn't believe in piercings or tattoos, but there it is. A tiny engraved metal bead on a simple loop of wire through her left earlobe. A driver dot.
"--zero EPTRO zui!"
Natalie's spell engulfs both of them in a closed, six-inch forcefield duvet, a fat bubble layer coddling them like Michelin Men. They hit the hillside as a unit, bounce a little and slide a long way further, protected from the shock and friction. Krallafjöll, about a quarter of the whole mountain, is still in the air. Nat's bought them three seconds. There's no way her protective enchantment can withstand what's coming next.
"Laura, you're up!" Nat bellows. "SHIELDS!"
Laura's finally in fight mode. She dives for the shallowest possible trance state and the shortest possible spell formation. "Sedo EPTRO dulaku--"
It's the same spell, performed with the same parameters, on identical equipment. But this one has half a year of Montauk-accrued energy behind it. There's a bone chilling instant after Laura finishes enunciating the last syllable, an infinitesimal delay. Then Laura's shield inserts itself into exactly the same physical space as Natalie's and spreads across exactly the same topology. Not inside it, not outside it, but directly reinforcing it.
And then they're drowning in rock like some drown in water.