It's midsummer of 1993, and Rajesh Vidyasagar is eighty-and-a-half years old, and it's time.
It happens almost too fast to follow. Although hardly sprightly, and still noticeably decelerating, Rajesh is coherent and inventive up until the tail end of August of that year. He attends a physics conference in California, speaks well, fields fewer questions than usual; at dinner after the lectures, he collapses. In the hospital, it's discovered that he had a heart attack. The conference has another day to go, but Rajesh exits early, flying back to Calcutta against stern medical advice. His wife Sharmila meets him at the airport. Rajesh is just climbing the steps of his home when the second attack incapacitates him.
He spends his final three days at home, with Sharmila at his side, and a lamp, and a mantra to focus on. He doesn't feel the need for the mantra, because his last two decades have left his mind swimming in significant syllables. His mantra is his name, which is
aum, which he bound to himself by accident and never changed, and which almost no other mage in the world uses, out of respect.
His children arrive by degrees. Most don't have far to come, still living in or near Calcutta. None of them or Rajesh's more distant descendants have followed him into thaumic physics. Most of them have no conception of magic beyond a weird and ethereal new branch of physics, an obscure undergraduate degree topic. They've never seen it at work in their practical lives, except perhaps in edge cases - advanced supercooled medical scanners, recent-model container ship engines. They certainly never witnessed magic when it started, when it barely existed.
Rajesh remembers feeling as if he'd been dropped into a foggy freefall, reaching in any direction to try to make physical contact with this maniacal and unjustifiable new science. He remembers catching hold of tiny coherent, testable fragments and cobbling them together into crumbly bricks, and then slowly climbing onto the pile, and hoisting others up and gradually pushing them higher. That was how it started.
And none of the family realises it, but magic has significantly altered the shape of this decade's industry away from its baseline. The manufacture of sulphuric acid - one of the most important industrial commodity chemicals - is fifteen percent cheaper. Aluminium, previously shockingly expensive to electrolyse, has a whole new process. Refrigerated transportation is changing, as is electric lighting. Every year there are four new half-viable processes for magic-based power plants, and those are just the ones which make international news. And all of those are just the developments that are mature enough to have become commercial. The cutting edge of research is somewhere else entirely.
And what's next? Now Rajesh is halfway up the metaphor and the clouds are clearing above him. There's more that he doesn't know yet, and there always has been, and that has never scared him, but he's finally hit the point in his life where he can't go and find it out. He knows where his research needs to be directed, but he's physically incapable. Rajesh can feel exhaustion and pain hardening under his skin. He can feel the pathways in his mind starting to slow, a wrinkled biochemical system hitting the end of its operational lifespan.
Sharmila and others bustle around him, steering him through ritual. He will almost certainly never be able to write again. He tries to read others' papers, but the information passes through his brain undigested. A compact disc recording of the thousand names of Vishnu plays, on repeat.
People arrive and people leave. The doctor examines Rajesh and draws conclusions, then the gap finally opens up when he should be left to rest, and then someone lets this gawker through.
Rajesh is in his garden, seated in his wheelchair beneath the cypress tree, amid too-long grass and Sharmila's alien blue orchids. He is staring at nothing, doing nothing. The visitor steps out from the house carefully, slightly too tall to pass through the back door without stooping a little. Then, the steps down into the greenery take him by surprise.
The visitor's beard is dark and extremely short; he looks around sixty but, if Rajesh was able to spare the thought, he'd notice that he moves like a man of twenty, wearing the extra forty years like a suit. He wears a bangle on one wrist, what looks like a Sikh kara, but he doesn't cover his head. He spends a moment admiring the garden, then approaches Rajesh.
"Rajesh," he says, "my name's Vikramaditya Kannan. I met your father."
Rajesh raises an eyebrow, but says nothing.
The man casts around and discovers a garden chair nearby. He carries it over to Rajesh and sits carefully, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees.
"I met your father," he says again. "A very long time ago, obviously, shortly before he died. This would have been during the 'dead year' of '72 to '73. After he'd discovered the very first magic spell, the empty spell
uum, but before you picked up the thread.
"At the time I was part of a group called the Wheel, and I still am. We've been... very deeply invested in the development of magic, since its earliest beginnings. Unfortunately, we have regulations relating to external contact with active research mages, which means that I'm not here as a representative of the Wheel today. Strictly speaking, I'm not here at all. The rest of them don't know I've come here. I'll probably get away with it, too, because I'm not a significant... ah, 'spoke'. But I am a sentimental one."
Rajesh's attention is beginning to wander, partly because his concentration span is diminishing but mostly because Kannan has failed to say anything important in his first sixty words.
Kannan says, "What I'm saying is that what I'm saying isn't an official message from the Wheel. I'm saying that these are my words and opinions. What I'm saying is... that I believe we owe you an apology."
"It's no secret that you've always had misgivings about magic. You've often spoken about it in your books and lectures. I've been following your progress, and from my perspective you seem to have gone through phases. There was a period in the late Seventies when you were actively hostile to magic, as if the whole field was your adversary, and forcing yourself to understand it was the only way you could hurt it. And then in the Eighties you swung towards mellow acceptance, but then - in my opinion it was exactly the time you stopped working with Ed Hatt - you swung back to the 'old' fiery Doc Vidyasagar..."
"I know who I am," Rajesh says. "I know who I've been."
"But at no point did you ever seem happy to be who you were, or to study what you studied. And honestly, we were never one hundred percent happy about it either. If you mix up a world of people you'll find forests and forests of likely candidates. We weren't going to steer particular people in particular directions, but we'd have preferred someone younger. Someone younger than you, less cynical, wouldn't have had the negative experience you had. Magic... You feel as if the whole universe is playing a practical joke on humanity."
Rajesh shakes his head, partly acknowledging the practical joke and partly in an attempt to sort Kannan's statements into sense. "What are you saying?"
"We owe you an apology because you've spent the last twenty years of your life labouring to uncover a falsehood. For your whole life, you've distrusted magic and worked to discover what it really is. Do you want to know what magic really is? And why you really can trust it?"
"You--" Rajesh begins, and stops. A pair of vivid green parakeets takes off into the sky, briefly catching his attention. Kannan is obviously feeling the direct sunlight, but there isn't enough room for him to join Rajesh in the shade. It won't be a problem for too long. There's angry-looking cloud cover coming in.
"Well, go ahead," Rajesh says, tiredly. "Amaze me. What is magic?"
Kannan smiles and launches into his explanation. He gestures with his hands to illustrate his points. "It works like this. The whole world is soaked in tiny invisible listeners. Large, smart molecules, essentially. You wouldn't find them if you looked for them, they're instructed to elude detection, and most are invisible. When you cast a spell, or when a magical machine is built and started, or when the world's geology moves in the correct way, the listeners take note of what's happening and they deliver the correct response, simulating the field equations of magic. Your field equations! Vidyasagar's Third Incomplete Field Equation, and the others. They subtract heat energy, or add kinetic, or stir the electromagnetic fields just the right amount. Chi particles, for example, simply don't exist; but the whole world behaves as if they do, and that's what matters. In one way, magic's not real. But in another way, it's real."
Rajesh looks over his spectacles at Kannan. "And you say you tried that story on my father?"
"Yes, but... no," Kannan says. "He wasn't receptive."
"And why do you think that was?"
Kannan says nothing.
"Every quantum physicist," Rajesh says, "and every mage, because every mage is a quantum physicist, deals with people like you. I have dealt with people like you for my whole life, since years before magic was discovered. And so did my father, for all of his life. Addled, misinformed fools. Cultists! From people like you, I've heard every 'simple' explanation for magic there is. I've certainly heard that one before.
"I understand why you want, and need, the universe to be simple, to be 'just so'. But it simply isn't. Stop thinking you know what 'quantum' means. Magic isn't a miraculous healing field, it doesn't bind living creatures to one another. Crack a book open, one that isn't aiming to pander. The answers are complicated. We will find every explanation eventually. As for me, I will uncover the truth on my own terms. The proper way. Or, more likely, I will not. Sharmila!"
At "miraculous healing field" Kannan unconsciously clutches his kara. "You're frightened of the truth," he says. "You're frightened of making a fool of yourself. Again."
Rajesh shakes his head. "You've already made a fool of both of us."
Sharmila appears from inside the house. She is five years younger than Rajesh, only seventy-five, but equally sharp. She gives Kannan a venomous look, then steps aside, showing him the door.
Kannan stands, still holding his kara with his other hand, face wrecked with disappointment and frustration. "I'm trying to help you."
"We will get to the truth, the whole of it," Rajesh tells him. "Count on it."
Kannan presses his lips together, and he blinks for a long moment, lowering his head and internalising Rajesh's words. When he opens his eyes again, his expression shifts, away from deep disappointment and into something relatively peaceful. He nods to Rajesh, bowing very slightly. He leaves, following Sharmila out the way he came in.
Rajesh Vidyasagar dies two days later, on 31st August 1993. The cause of death is an acute myocardial infarction, his third heart attack.