Meditation is part of the workload of a professional mage. No employer wants to pay for its people to spend ten percent of the working day dozing off in the lotus position in quiet, well-lit, boringly-painted rooms which could be better used for office space; nor, despite appearances, is "dozing off" what happens in there. Meditation is mental exercise: heavily structured, exhausting, time-consuming, headache-inducing even under perfect circumstances and one hundred percent necessary. A mage whose brain is not properly aligned with the work is a mage unable to work.
Laura is one of fifteen in Meditation 1 at Hatt Group that Monday morning, and has been sat down for barely two minutes when she has the revelation.
It's a bad thing for a mage to have revelations while meditating. This is not a religious pursuit, and the achievement of enlightenment is not the aim of the game. Unbidden, distracting thoughts are a sign of a wandering mind, which is the exact opposite of what's supposed to be happening. Laura does what she's supposed to do, suppressing the enormous and life-re-routing fact which has flared up in her forebrain, filing it away for later. She hurriedly starts her meditation cycle over, flattening her mental processes out again in the prescribed way. After another three minutes, an automated chime rings, signalling everybody in the room to move on to the second stage in the fifty-minute cycle. Laura imagines a magnifying glass, held to give perfect focus. She is back on track.
She isn't. There are too many dots connecting up.
There was no final spell.
There are fourteen other mages in the room, all men, of almost uniformly scattered ages between twenty and sixty-five. Laura's mind is reeling and she can't lock it down. She fights the instinct to bolt outside and find a white board and scrawl calculations. She needs to triple-check the Atlantis telemetry and, if at all possible, she needs to ingest something which'll warp her brain sufficiently to force herself through the damned dream again. But she can't move from her spot. It's eight oh five in the morning and everybody in the room has work to do. Everybody in the room is working. You don't break a mage's meditation. It's like sticking a tree branch through a bicycle's spokes.
Laura is off track. She's not going to be able to think about anything else. Above her head, she conceives the Atlantis orbiter, upside-down, its nose pointed directly at her forehead. Above the orbiter and its tank she imagines green numbers on a cosmic seven-segment display. Minutes and seconds and decimal places. The decimals are rolling up and up. Five seventeen point nine nine. Five eighteen point zero zero.
Laura believed that her incessantly repeating dream sequence cut out at the instant that the Atlantis External Tank exploded, five minutes and eighteen point nine seconds into the mission. She believed this because the mission timer was visible from her usual perspective in the seat of Mission Specialist Elaine Barry, and "00:00:05:18" was the last visible numerical readout before she woke up. She believed this despite always waking up without feeling the final explosion. She believed this despite never dreaming - or at least never remembering dreaming - the slightest foreshock of the vehicle's breakup.
But what if she was wrong?
What if she felt no foreshock because the dream ended a split second earlier? Eighteen point one, say.
So why would that happen?
Laura moves into hypothesis. By comparison with her regularly scheduled lucid session, this is a blobby child's watercolour, but coherent enough to link up the knowns. It would have happened incredibly quickly. When Rachel Ferno's shielding collapsed, she - along with Atlantis - was fifteen miles above the Atlantic Ocean and moving at Mach 1.41. Unprotected sudden exposure to moving air at such a speed was like being hit by a crowbar, and instantly fatal. Her body was blasted into the wake behind the vehicle's trio of shattered main engines, then pulled upward into the opaque stream of liquid oxygen and hydrogen pouring out into the vehicle's contrail. When the tank detonated, at T+5:18.9, she was atomised.
Rachel Ferno is dead. This is not part of any dream. This is a real thing which Laura now knows must have happened. These are knowns which Laura has known the whole time. The real, serious question is what took her so long to put the picture together.
There was no final spell. There wasn't supposed to be a final spell. She'd already done what she needed to do.
The dream doesn't end because of the explosion. It ends because Mum ran out of mana.
That was the plan.
The chime chimes for stage three. In stage three, Laura works out her next six months.
Edward Hatt's alarm clock drives him out of bed like a lightning bolt. He hits it within the space of one beep, fast enough that his wife doesn't even twitch. He's a ludicrous man, one of those individuals with the ability to live without obvious sleep, with more interest in getting to work and making things happen than in honest human things like staying in bed and hibernating until noon. Elapsed time until he's out of the house is in the ten-minute range. He'll shower and change once he's cycled to work and he'll have breakfast after a few hours of work, if he actually remembers to eat.
At this time of year his journey coincides with dawn. Even with gear, his fingers and ears are brittle with cold by the time he gets to the site. He's at work before there's anybody on reception. He eschews coffee. He gets the whole organisation to himself for a little while. He enjoys this.
Once in his office, Hatt has two hours, plus or minus, of relatively undisturbed silence. He has a substantial stack of files in his In tray and a substantial backlog of electronic mail. Minor distractions, signature jobs and one-off questions can wait until he has five minutes free between one meeting room and the next. He filters for what he calls the big fish: periodic production reports, financial performance analysis, short-, medium- and long-term strategy, international news with a direct or indirect bearing on supply chains. He selects for everything with substance to it. He spends the two hours, plus or minus, processing data without a break.
The first shudder which passes through his office is mild enough that he doesn't consciously pick up on it. When his assistant arrives, just before nine, she knocks and enters and tells him (as she does every work day) that the canteen is open and that he should probably eat something. This fact, as it does most work days, registers as "small fish" and fails to connect. She then adds, "Did you feel that just now?"
Hatt doesn't look up. "Feel what?"
"A couple of minutes ago. I swear the whole place moved a little. I was coming up the stairs and they shook so hard I almost dropped my coffee."
"Probably equipment being moved down in the factory," says Hatt, barely caring. "An early delivery. I pray they didn't drop something expensive."
"It was a big one. I almost spilled my coffee," repeats his assistant, whose name is Sally.
"You can drop as much coffee as you like as long as you're paying for it."
"I will indeed as long as you're the one who pays the cleaners to clean it up."
Hatt gives her a look which says "I am no longer paying attention to this conversation" - this is, in fact, the first time he's looked up at all - and immediately resumes reading. Outside, the rising Sun is blasting mist off the scenery. The view from Hatt's office is the best in the building but still little better than "boring": mostly runway, surrounded by flat green fields and the occasional tree and canal. The greenery is turning brown over the course of October. The view is best at this time of day, with blue sky and red sky ruffling and blending out to the east. But in the years since he built and then moved into this office, Edward Hatt has never once bothered to watch the sunrise. He keeps the Venetian blinds closed. Mainly, that's because the sunlight reflects off his computer monitor into his eyes. But another reason is that he rather prefers the view he invented.
The building shakes again.
Sally looks in.
"Phone Chris Wester and find out what's the hell's going on."
"I think he's on holiday."
"Well, phone the duty manufacturing floor manager's phone and ask whoever answers."
Sally leans through again, with a phone muffled against her shoulder, and says, "He says he just opened the shop up and it's nothing to do with what they're doing."
"Who is that?"
Hatt does not care why it is that Sally thought, incorrectly, that Chris Wester was on holiday. "Chris," he shouts at Sally, "where's the noise coming from, relative to you?"
Sally goes to relay the question, but the man on the other end of the phone is already answering. "Underground," she reports.
"Fucking work it out, one of you?" Hatt pleads.
Sally goes back to the phone. "Yeah, I think he's just trying to work," she says. "Can you get someone to check the basement circles or something? Okay? And call me back. Great. Thanks."
Hatt closes the door. Sally goes back to her own work. Another few light tremors pass, at intervals of a few minutes each.
A little before nine, nobody has called Sally back. The Big One makes her entire desk jump and does indeed spill what's left of her coffee. Sally has barely reacted before Hatt emerges from his office at a furious stride. "Someone's pulling my company down," he says as he passes.
"You've got your first thing in fifteen minutes," Sally says.
Hatt hears her, but doesn't acknowledge her. He already knows, and is inclined to skip it. Bigger fish.
The most prominent feature of Hatt Group, when viewed from above, is the runway. The second most prominent is the manufacturing floor, which is bigger than the rest of the site's buildings combined, and large enough to have nominal buildings of its own inside it. After that, in descending order of size, are the car parks, office blocks and loading bays. Then come the circles.
"Circle" is the least precise name. Different elements of the magical engineering community, depending on regional preference and source textbook, refer to them as pitches, gyms, circles, grids and mandalas. They are flat concrete expanses with dense, multicoloured geometric outlines painted on the ground and robust weather-resistant components sunk into intersections between the lines. Sometimes, instead of concrete, they are surfaced with asphalt or astroturf. Rarely, as long as it's flattened and manicured to the level of a professional cricket pitch, actual grass is used. The line patterns guide the placement of magical and mechanical equipment for the purposes of spells, enchantment operations, hardware tests, maintenance and, weather permitting, sports.
The answer to any question about magic is almost always "it depends" and the reasoning behind the geometry of a magic circle is no exception. The very earliest circles resembled traditional Hindu Rangoli patterns and were laid down in India in the Seventies and early Eighties, long before numbers had been crunched and the actual necessary dimensional symmetries had been derived. Some of those, including the first one ever built by the Vidyasagar enclave, are still maintained, for historical and aesthetic value and occasional special demonstrations. But actual science got in the way of free-floating experimentation and creative freedom. Not much time passed before most of the interesting questions about pattern effectiveness were resolved to enough decimal places to end the discussion. New circles - those used for real-world magic with any kind of serious purpose - now invariably conform to the standards specified in ISO 31300, the "flower book", whose latest version lists eight basic designs of increasing scale and a hundred and five specialist variants. The designs, made entirely from circular arcs and straight lines, are dense, heavily interconnected and heavily annotated. Installation precision is a significant factor.
Between Hatt Group buildings there are three C-class circles. Laid along the middle of the runway, big enough to test a rocket engine, is a full-sized, rarely-used A-2X. Inside the manufacturing floor are more circles, some of which are routinely blocked by machinery or stock, and therefore unusable. And there are three underground.
The Hatt Group basement is rarely seen by customers and has a distinct "backstage" atmosphere to it. Fewer of the walls are painted, more of the pipe work is exposed. The fluorescent lighting is brighter to make up for the lack of natural light. Meditation 1 and Meditation 2 are down here. So are rooms D10A, D11A and D12A: private D-class circles. It's the third of these which Chris Wester and the site's security manager Adrian Middleton can't get into.
"Of course you can't get in," says Hatt when he arrives behind them. "I'm the only one who has access."
"Try it," suggests Middleton. He has a laptop computer plugged into the D12A electronic locking mechanism.
Hatt pulls his ID card from his belt and waves it at the contactless reader. The three of them are rewarded with a red light and an irritable bleep.
"You're already in there," Wester explains. "Adrian pulled up the logs a few minutes ago. You went in there late last night, there's been no activity since."
"I didn't," says Hatt.
"The system thinks you did," says Wester.
"Somebody stole your card," says Middleton, working on the laptop.
"This is my card," says Hatt.
"Nope," says Middleton. He turns his screen around, showing them both the last line in the log, the failed entry attempt from fifteen seconds ago.
Hatt says, "Fucking adds up."
"She's a known problem?" Middleton asks.
"She's fired," says Hatt. A moment's examination of the ID card in his hand reveals that there is sticker laid over its front face, trimmed to size and displaying his name and photograph. He would have noticed the alteration if he'd paid the slightest attention. But he doesn't pay the slightest attention to unimportant things as long as they work. He doesn't notice the card and most of the time he doesn't need the card. It's part of the wallpaper of his life, like his contact lenses and shoelaces and the rhenium kara he wears on one wrist.
"She switched them," Middleton surmises. "It was too difficult to make a fake one, so she dolled up hers and gave it to you. When was the last time you used access permissions which she wouldn't have?"
Hatt shakes his head. He doesn't remember.
"Then she could have had it for days without you knowing," Middleton says.
Another rumble shakes the floor. The epicentre is definitely inside D12A, and it's a rumble, not a shiver, not a shudder.
"What's in there, anyway?" Wester asks.
"A magic circle," Middleton says. "Says it right there on the door."
"I know that," says Wester. "But what makes it special? Why can only Ed get into it? What else is in there?"
"Can you get this open?" Hatt asks the security manager, ignoring Wester.
"Can you prove you're Ed Hatt?" Middleton asks.
"I'm Ed Hatt, Adrian. Look at me."
Adrian Middleton says, "If somebody other than you used that tactic to try to convince me that they were them, and it worked, you'd sack me too. I don't care if this is a test or not."
Hatt glares at him. "I own everything within eyeshot of here, including you."
"Prove it," says Middleton, meeting Hatt's glare with a glare of his own which says, This is what you pay me for.
Hatt breaks. Middleton is right. "Alright. What do you need?"
Middleton crouches and brings up an application on his computer. "You can come with me to use the fingerprint machine in the security room behind reception. Or you can remember the password you gave me the day we set the system up." He shows Hatt the laptop screen. There's a password field.
"We should have gone two-factor," Hatt mutters as he takes the laptop and types a very long phrase.
"Agreed. I'll set something up once this is over," says Middleton.
The door clicks.
Wester pulls it open.
Picture a high, dark room. Only a quarter of the lights are on.
The only person Hatt will allow in is Hatt. He makes it clear to the other two that the fumbling with key cards and the illicit access don't change that policy. He enters alone, closing the door behind him and descending a short flight of stairs to the lowered floor.
A D-class circle is thirteen metres in diameter, mainly hexagonal, with an E-class circle nested at its centre and symmetrical embellishments spreading to what is conventionally called the "north". Laura Ferno is standing at the south pole of the figure, her staff held out in front of her oriented from west to east, at head height. Magical artifacts ranging in size from a two-metre-tall Chandra brancher to pea-sized driver dots are placed at points around the circle. In front of her and to one side, playing no magical part in the proceedings, is a music stand with a few sheets of written notes. Dangling by a lanyard from one corner of the stand is an ID card with Laura's name and photo on it.
"Ar'un ar'ath il chuthi tra anh ha al luia kun kuan phal lif lithua ar'lath dulaku. Pan sulat'th chath esseli TSUAA TSUAA."
The room is uncomfortably hot, even with the air conditioning pulling its weight. It is quiet aside from Laura's voice. A non-mage would be forgiven for thinking that nothing is happening. The room contains an almost entirely magical machine under construction, but the flux connecting the components together is invisible and inaudible.
Hatt's not a full-time mage and it only takes a week or two of inactivity to lose one's edge, so the spell he uses to activate his monocle-sized pocket oracle is too simple to show significant detail or colour-coding. Holding it to his right eye, he sees mana flowing around the circle like iron filings following exotic magnetic flux lines. Most of the flux is at ankle level, but where it reaches the brancher at the eastern corner, the lines arc upwards and spread out across the ceiling. Some of the arcs descend again into other components, very much like electricity into dodgem car motors. The rest are being collated into yantras: mid-level dynamic spell components built from luminous mana. There are seven or eight of them gently orbiting in the ceiling, of which two or three are incomplete. While Hatt watches, Laura binds two of the stacks together, annealing their exposed interfaces and binding a word to the combination.
There's a thin flux line running up one wall and across the ceiling. And suspended over the centre of the entire assembly, bathing the room in high-energy mana, is a point of light too bright for Hatt to look at.
Laura is casting a very intensive, very complex, almost purely magical spell. From the volume of completed work visible, Hatt estimates that she has been speaking for seven to nine hours.
Laura should have seen him out of the corner of her eye by now, but she hasn't reacted to his presence. Hatt goes to the panel on the wall nearest the door, alongside the fire extinguishers, and takes a Montauk ring down from its hooks. He takes a step towards Laura and stops because the room has suddenly changed.
There's glass underfoot now. The walls and ceiling have become black glass as well, hexagonally tiled. The room has tripled in all of its dimensions. The air has dropped sharply in temperature. The magic circle, once flat underfoot, is rippling like a sea. There's a faint hiss of magic being spent. Laura's in the same position, holding her staff out horizontally, but her music stand is gone. And above her, barely visible outside of chance refractions of light, is a ghost. It is a human figure, upside-down and curled into a strange half-crouch. It is hanging on to one end of Laura's staff with one hand. The ghost is almost colourless and almost translucent, but blobs of colour are blooming inside it like paint dripping into water.
Edward Hatt considers his options. He turns and looks at the door, now a long way behind him. He looks back at Laura Ferno. And he takes a step away from her, back towards the door.
Now he's broken it. The walls and ceiling are gone entirely and it's even colder than it was before. The mountainous glass landscape of Kazuya Tanako's world spreads in every direction, starting with a deep vertical drop just a step in front of him, forcing him to stop walking. The door has receded a full kilometre, to the top of the next mountain. All Hatt can see of it now is the small neon green "EXIT" sign glowing above it.
When he turns back to face Laura, the magic circle is gone. Ahead of them both is a black mountain, a genuine two-trillion-tonne Everest of glass thrusting upwards out of the world's crust and all the way into the Death Zone, if Tanako's world has such a thing. Laura still holds her staff, but is now using it as a walking stick. She is carrying a woman over her shoulders in a fireman's carry, bent under her weight. The path ahead of Laura, winding along the side of the mountain and up a ridge to its peak, is almost vertical, and kilometres long.
Hatt doesn't want to move again for fear of changing the scenario for something worse. "Laura," he calls out.
Laura turns and regards him for a long moment. Hatt doesn't recognise the face of the woman she is carrying.
"Will you help me?" Laura asks him.
"Who is that?"
"...I thought you said your mother was dead."
"Nobody is dead," says Laura, "as long as we remember them."
"The way out is over here. You need to come back with me."
"No," says Laura. "It isn't. Look again. The way out is on the other side of this mountain."
"There isn't enough mana in the world to get you over that mountain," says Hatt.
Laura says nothing. Hatt wonders how close to awake she is, and whether he's even conversing with a conscious person at this level. Somewhere on one of these planes, Laura Ferno's mind is running flat out, building her answer. But the mountaineering metaphor's too simple, with too simple an answer. Just endurance and strength.
Hatt adds, "And you're taking my building apart."
"Will you help me?" Laura asks him.
Laura says nothing for another long moment, expressionless. Then she turns and continues walking.
Hatt reaches a conclusion. He clutches the Montauk ring and runs for Laura, through shells of metaphor. Gravity upends and the environment reconfigures over him like a tactile hologram. He ignores them and concentrates on putting one foot in front of the other. A safe, being cracked from the inside. A leashed bird of prey, picking frustratedly away at the knot of leather straps tied around its feet. A living dream as big as a continent, trying to end itself. The final dream, when Hatt reaches Ferno, is smaller than all the rest and so cold on Hatt's skin that it feels like being bitten. Laura's mother is lying on the floor now, and Laura stands over her, guarding her with her staff held in a defensive position, bojutsu style. All three of them are at the end of a low, cramped, dimly-lit steel room. A shipping container?
Laura isn't guarding her mother from Hatt. Her attention is fixed on something behind him. Hatt looks. It is an emaciated, stinking, vertically elongated human, with one too many faces and wearing nothing but thick layers of blood. Its eye sockets have no eyeballs. Its fingers are too long. It gawps, showing teeth like scalpels, and smashes Hatt in the jaw, hard enough to hurl him over Laura and Rachel, back against the far wall of the container. The steel is thick enough that there's more of a bonk than a clang. Hatt's dropped Montauk ring clatters and spins to a stop on the floor next to his head.
It's at this point that Hatt realises that the ring was warm. The rest of his skin is frozen, almost to the point of cracking as he moves, and the walls are like dry, sticky ice, but his right hand, in which he was holding the ring, is still lukewarm. This is because inside the ring, none of this is happening.
Laura attacks the monster, smashing it in the head twice, hard enough to shatter its skull on the first blow and scatter kidney-like organs across the floor on the second. Headless, it still tries to thrash its way towards Rachel Ferno, until Laura lands on top of the thing's torso and snaps its arms using her staff and the principles of leverage. She breaks its chest open.
Hatt struggles upright, his nose and fractured humerus healing rapidly. From his perspective, the observable universe amounts to just a few hundred cubic feet. Beyond the tiny red circle of light, there's steel in every direction except one. In that last direction, the other half of the container is thick darkness, out of which two more identical blood-things are already striding. Laura launches into them, but even as she does, a third appears behind them. Hatt can't see the far end of the container. There might not be one. There might be infinitely many more blood-things lined up in the dark. It's unwinnable. It is the darkest, inescapable corner of the nightmare.
Hatt realises that Rachel Ferno's eyes are open. She's staring at him.
"Magic doesn't work here!" Laura cries, not looking back. She wants Hatt to help out, engaging the monsters physically. The nightmare is already so crowded with burst carcasses that it's hard for her to manoeuvre without slipping over. Her staff is too long: its far end clanks against the wall or ceiling. She tries to unscrew a piece of it to make it shorter, but she can't do it and fight at the same time. Another two waves and they'll both be dead for real. "Ed, help me! I'm trying to save her life!"
Hatt rubs the kara on his wrist. He flips his Montauk ring up with one toe and catches it. He takes a step forward over Ferno's mother's body, and drops the ring smartly over Laura's head. And he takes his True Name back.
"Eilo fib thalath dulaku. STOP."
Laura fights him. She pushes Hatt away with a well-practiced flick of the bo, which Hatt simply rolls with, allowing himself to be thrown, sprawling. Laura pulls the ring back over her head, but it's too late. Tanako's nested world has completely switched off. Mana flux has stopped. The abstract yantras in the ceiling crumble and dissolve. The room is back.
Flat on his back, Hatt stares up at the distributor lodged in the ceiling, now disabled and spinning down like the rest of the equipment in the room. "Are you done?" he asks aloud, and looks between his toes at Laura.
Laura is bright red with anger and frustration. She breaks her staff into two pieces and holds them in one hand while gathering her paperwork from the music stand. She takes the mislabelled ID card and throws it at Hatt's chest. "This is yours."
No spell is clean. The amount of thaumic energy - mana - put into a spell is never the amount of useful work done by the spell. There is waste heat. And there is waste mana.
High-energy spells have been cast by mages on the Hatt Group site for more than a decade. The total amount of waste mana produced amounts to hundreds of gigajoules. The waste mana is undetectable. Theory and simple arithmetic show that it must exist, and that it must obey the same laws as all other mana, but it is mageless. It is, therefore, useless.
Installed below D12A, sealed in cement because there was no reason not to, is a bilge: a battery of two-metre Montauk rings. Montauk rings drain free mana out of the environment. Hatt had no way to prove that the battery was collecting anything, let alone to retrieve the collected mana in a usable, mage-owned form. But he lived in quiet scientific hope. He started his stockpile in preparation for a possible future in which it would be worth something. His private reserve.
Laura Ferno broke into it and drained ninety percent of it using a mind-breakingly convoluted True Name aliasing technique which only she, her sister and her mother knew was possible.
That wasn't even the hardest part.
Adrian Middleton's opinion is that Ferno should be removed from the site immediately, and everything else worked out later. Hatt overrules him. He dismisses Wester and brings Middleton and Ferno to his office. Middleton stands in the corner, observing.
Laura sits upright in the middle, with her knees together. Defensive body language. No ID pass.
Hatt starts with: "You have the bizarre dreams."
"Like many mages, you end up in Tanako's world quite often. You know how to go there and come back."
"You see things there."
"Often, you see your late mother."
"Today, you were trying to bring her back from the dream. You were trying to bring her back to life."
Laura says, "Kazuya Tanako's world is real."
"It's not," says Hatt.
"No. No. It's not a dream. It's not a shared dream. It's not a common dream state that mages share. It's a place where we can go. It's real. It behaves like another universe. If you put enough magic in one place, you can go there. My mum's there. The last thing she did before she died was to burn enough mana to burn those final events into the... the glass recording. It worked like a signal flare. It was a recovery beacon intended for me in the future. And if you put enough magic in one place, you can bring things back."
Hatt says, "All of that is groundless, if well-worded, metaphor."
"You showed it to me! You showed me that you can bring things back from Tanako's world--"
Hatt produces the forged boarding pass.
It's the same one. He produces it from thin air, without one word of magic. "It was sleight of hand. I was bamboozling you with unbelievable scenes to get you on my side. I don't pull the trick for everybody, but I did it for you. Watch my fingers. One... two. One, two. Do you see?"
Laura can't speak. Hatt hands the boarding pass to her, then opens a drawer and, from a thick pile of miscellaneous paperwork, retrieves a flat sheet of twenty more identical passes. They're just the same, waiting to be sliced up.
He continues, "You can't bring physical objects back from a dream. You can't walk home from a dream."
Staring at the boarding pass, Laura says, "But you can. I've done it."
Embarrassed, for lack of anywhere else to look, Ed Hatt pulls the blinds open and looks out of his window.
There's nothing he deems worth looking at. The sunny weather earlier that morning was a false start. Fat grey rainclouds are now moving in from every significant direction. It's shaping up to be a really miserable day. He closes his eyes momentarily, imagining his preferred panorama. "You know a great deal which nobody else in the company knows," he says. "Including a lot which, possibly, nobody else in the world knows. Like how you got the bilge mana to actually work for you. I'd love to know how you did that."
Laura says nothing.
"But you're also a security risk. And you're not doing the same job as the rest of us. We're working on magic-based spaceflight. You're working on something totally other. So--"
"My mother can tell us--"
"So we'll just have to crack the bilge mana problem ourselves. And the other problems. Because it's not worth it."
"I can still do this," says Laura. "I know what I need to do now. I need the Ra codes."
"What do you know about Ra?" Hatt asks.
He immediately realises his mistake. He's given something away by not measuring his words properly. Laura spots the completely new expression that momentarily crosses Hatt's face before he can control himself. Was it alarm? For an instant, Laura considers the possibility that Ra is a deep secret of Hatt's, which she's not supposed to know anything about.
No, it was amazement. Ra is a mystery which Hatt's been pursuing for some time. Just like she has.
Laura says, carefully, "What do you need to know about Ra?"
Hatt replies, "I need to know what you know."
A pause. Laura says, "Am I fired?"
"You were fired twenty minutes ago."
"That doesn't answer my question. Am I fired right now?"
Hatt glances at Adrian Middleton, who, in the corner of Laura's eye, shrugs. "You know my position," he says.
Hatt chews for a moment. Eventually, he gives Middleton a reluctant, curt nod.
Middleton opens the office door, and holds it for Laura to go through first.
She leaves, working out the rest as she goes.