Neither of them mentioned the tower, despite its waiting, ever-
watchful, background presence. Instead, they wandered along the Elet road
a little way, past a couple of livestock smallholdings, then off down a
hedge-sided pathway that led them between fallow fields before fading into
forest. Away from people.
It was late afternoon when they climbed a bank beside the track, sat down on the dry, fallen leaves from the sycamore canopy. They'd expected to be gone awhile, so Roween had swiftly packed some bread and cheese. They weren't hungry just yet, but Conley opened her flask, took a sip, passed it to Roween.
"Quiet here," she noted, approvingly.
"There's birds," replied Roween, handing back the water. Conley screwed its cap on, set it down.
"And us." She took a leather thong from around her wrist, twisted it twice, tied back her hair. "I'm sorry."
"I forgive you."
The low, Autumn sun filtered through the emptying branches, glowing the browns and bronzes, gilding Conley. A squirrel bounced out in front of them, peering, inquisitive. Slowly, Roween reached into her bag for a pinch of bread, but it cocked its head and was gone, flowing off across the path and up a tree on the other side. She laughed. "Magical."
Roween leant back. "Magical, in its ancient sense, `wondrous'. Not to be explained, just to be appreciated, accepted for what it is."
"You're a romantic, Ro..."
She sighed. "Things alter so quickly, Con. Nothing's ever like how you remember it any more. Even twenty years from now, will these woods still be here? These trees still standing?"
Conley ruffled up some leaves with her hand, listened to the rustling. "You're the one who wants to change everything..."
A feeler again. This time, perhaps? "Magic, yes, well I'm not the only one guilty of that. You only came with me so you could figure a way to make spells last longer."
Conley was staring at the squirrel, still visible in its resting place, busying itself before hibernation. "I'd forgotten."
She told herself she'd have done it soon anyway, begun the lead-in; she wasn't letting it get to her. But, she knew, she was lying to herself... "I hadn't forgotten, though. I was thinking about it the other day, somehow got on to errors instead. That's one of the things about you, Con, makes you special: you don't cock your spells."
"Not that again, please..." Shaking her head; it no longer hurt. "Most people have maybe one percent chance of miscasting per hundred gestures. For 5K gestures, that's about two chances in five of muffing it. Professionals can expect to make it to 5K nine times out of ten. Uninterrupted, that is, reading from a list."
"You're talking misgestures? Going for a fingers and not locking? Or do you mean making a legal gesture, but in the wrong place?"
"Both. I've seen figures, there was a paper on it at a workshop held at Baron Esseren's - three years ago? The gist is, people lose concentration, and that can lead to mistakes. Only the very best can gesture without goofing. You, you're like Anya Kryslod at his keyboard, he'd play twenty or thirty thousand notes in an hour and not hit a single dud."
"It comes with practice, you get a feel for the patterns." She loosened the knot in her hair, lowered it a mite.
Roween cleared her throat with a cough, startled something over to the right somewhere. "I've thought of a way to get spells error-free, well, pretty much so. No mistakes when you cast them, anyway - maybe when you first make them."
"Make them?" Puzzled, "Before they're cast? What, like prefabricate them you mean?"
"Yes, a bit, same as that held-gesture trick except you can keep it up indefinitely. I was mulling over meta-matrices, and it just came to me."
She fumbled inside her bag, produced a folded sheet of paper.
"You were planning this..."
Roween raised her eyebrows. "I often carry paper with me!"
Conley didn't seem impressed. "Ro, I know you well enough now to tell when you're scheming..."
She blushed, deep, quickly. Don't let her suspect, redirect it. She smiled. "Well, I thought, if the opportunity arose..."
Conley snatched the sheet, grinning, opened it. "It's blank."
"At the moment; I have to explain things first. Or, rather, you do." She swallowed air, readied herself. "How does magic work?"
"Uh? How's it work? At what level?" She noticed she still had the paper, held it out; Roween took it back.
"First principles?" She sighed. "Why do you want me to tell you what you already know?"
"Because although I'm personally well acquainted with the theory, I don't know what your interpretation of it is. If you give me a quick summary, I'll be better able to slot in this new bit I want to try on you."
Conley frowned, raised an eyebrow.
"No, it'll help me, really," Roween added, nodding, enthusiastic.
Conley remained unconvinced. "I suppose, maybe, if you insist... But stop me when I'm boring you." She leaned forward, rested her chin on her hands, collected her thoughts. "Well the basic idea is that everything that exists, every `physical presence', is made up of matter and energy. There's a force known as the `matter-energy force'; it determines whether a given physical presence is matter or energy, and what particular form it takes."
Roween smiled. "I didn't intend quite so `first' first principles!"
"I'll skip to the main theory, then." She finger-flicked at her cheek, like her hair was falling in front of her face. Just an insect. "Well, by tweaking the matter-energy force associated with a physical presence, you can change the very nature of that presence, even turning matter to energy and energy to matter. Because everything physical is made up of matter and energy, it follows that you can make anything into anything else. In practice, though, you're limited in the number of ways you can pull a matrix without shattering it or losing control."
Roween looked up. "By `matrix', you mean an aligned matter- energy force."
"A focal matrix, yes, you know perfectly well."
"Alright, I was just checking we had the same vocabulary, sorry; you have to remember I never attended lectures, I got everything from books. Go on."
Apologies... "Yes, well, so to create a light-prime, you poke a matrix to flip a presence from matter to light. A dark-prime flips energy into air. Basic transmutations involve both: to strengthen a bridge strut, you switch matter to energy, then back to a slightly different, tougher type of matter of a similar density. All spells involve such changes, to some degree."
"Question is, though, what's the mechanism by which you can fiddle with a matrix to make it do all these things?"
"I'm coming to that, Ro, give me a chance..." She felt herself scowling, countered instantly, probably didn't want the furrows. "The reason it's called `macro physics' is because it turns out that you can set up configurations of physical presences which induce resonance within the matter-energy matrices of other, nearby presences, and subsequently they align. We use gestures to do it, because the human hand seems to be ideally constructed for forming attractor positions that cause orientational changes in the matter-energy force. It's possible, of course, that there may be other ways of achieving similar effects - sound, for example, which is how they appear to work it in Chaien. Nothing's been proved, though."
"Maybe light, too?"
"Hypothetical, no-one's been able to verify it one way or the other. Worth investigating - there are several groups researching the area." She paused, half-closed her eyes, slyly. "This error-free casting method, it wouldn't involve light bouncing off special symbols drawn on a piece of paper, would it?"
Roween nearly giggled, held back. "I said earlier that this `just came' to me, Con, but I hardly think the necessary runes for what you're proposing would have done that! It would take a lifetime of experimentation to find them! No, no, you carry on, I'll wait until I can vision where my idea best slips in." She smiled, almost coyly.
They hadn't seen anyone else in the forest since they'd entered it, over three hours ago. What they were hoping for, of course, to be alone. Must be that local folk rarely came this way. So why not? Wrong time of day? Bandits, maybe? Bears? Or perhaps it just didn't lead anywhere significant.
Conley continued her lecture, warily. "So, of the various alternative means of affecting the matter-energy force, gesturing is undoubtedly the one most developed. There are five basic positions: fingers, point, palm, wrist and fist." She demonstrated each one as she named it, clapping at the end to break any spell lead-in. "There are others, but they always decompose into one of the five. This one," she flicked a clenched wave, "is a palm fist. Takes longer to execute than the straight pair, but that's invariably the case for compounds. The only really useful segmental gesture is the focus," she made one. "Quicker to do point fingers palm, but you can hold it for..." She sat up straight, quickly, shook her head, cracking a smile. "Of course, that's where you got the idea."
The idea? What - "Oh, for held gestures? In a way, yes, I suppose. I was aware gestures had to be maintained for a minimum length of time, but I also knew there was no maximum since people sometimes have to hold a focus for hours, especially in surgery. Even atomic gestures need to be held for longer when they're being used to manipulate a link- distant matrix, or a large collection of matrices like for working on the weather and so on. The shortest necessary holding time depends on how long it takes to induce the required bearing change in the target."
Conley rocked her head, side to side. "To some extent, yes, but the manner in which a gesture is formed can make a difference. When I go to a wrist from a palm, see," she shook a leaf from her hand, showed what she meant, "I pull back on the knuckles, and I bend the fingers only at the first and second joints. That thrusts forward the wrist, and I can break the gesture off quicker, go on to the next one. It's that pushing forward," she did it again, exaggerating, "that swings in the matrix, I can sort of visualise it in my mind, swirling it round in the wake of the forward-moving wrist."
"That's very interesting," Roween was clearly impressed. "I've never really had the chance to observe your hands closely during casting - it's hard enough just following the content when you flick a sequence, let alone grasping the intricacies of your technique." Her voice was genuine admiration. "So the way you form a gesture can accelerate the matrix alignment?" Conley shrugged. "That's smart!"
"Well of course it can, Ro, otherwise people would be able to make clay models of preformed hands and use them to store the last gesture of a spell, breaking it or something to release the magic. However, even miniatures take so long to construct that they have no influence on any matter-energy forces. I know some feasibility studies were made into artificial gesturing, but I don't think they ever came to anything."
"Perhaps," suggested Roween, "they haven't been trying the right approach? What are the main functions of the gestures in a spell?"
"Functions? I don't understand. You mean what the primitive segments do?" Roween nodded, Conley considered. "Well, a few are notational, just there to glue the other segments together for the proof. Others are to maintain a matrix which is either being worked on or which is being kept ready for later. There are some that prime physical presences ready to form a matrix." She rubbed her cheek. "That's it. The rest, the majority, are going towards moulding matrices in the right direction, ready to take effect when the final gesture is made."
"There are locking gestures, too, though, so you can pick up a matrix that you've previously given a signature. Since the oriented matter- energy forces extend away from a point indefinitely, you - "
"Yes, Ro," mild annoyance. "So I forgot catch-and-throw segments. Why ask, if you know it all anyway?"
"Well there seems to be this natural assumption that a matrix can be stable, and yet the concept is never really utilised. If you tag something, the tagging-matrix stays in place, obediently, forever. You can read it off from anywhere, because every matrix is omnipresent. Same with focus fixes, same with artefacts, they're fine left alone, no need to maintain them. Thing is, though, there don't seem to be any segments that explicitly freeze matrices in place. It just sort of happens, as part of the general outcome of a spell."
"True," admitted Conley, "I know of no gesture sequence that actually says `now imbue this with magic'. That's to be expected, though. Magic works by changing a matrix so much that its associated physical presence has to transmute to comply with it. Now if there was a segment that all it did was write the matrix into the presence, how would it work? Only by itself changing the matrix, so you'd end up with this different matrix fixed in place, not the one you wanted." She tongued her top lip. "No, there's not even the machinery for it. Modifying a matrix will only lead to action by or on the physical presence, it can't make the matrix itself do anything other than change orientation. It couldn't stabilise it unless the presence was also stable."
"The relationship is two-way, though," countered Roween, cautiously. "Changing the matrix changes the physical presence, yes, but changing the presence - destroying it is the best example - can also change the matrix. Maybe you could distort the presence in such a way that it could hold in place for later use a matrix that encapsulated a partially-finished spell?"
She was gazing, fixed, just beyond her feet. "I doubt that conjecture, Ro: you can have several different matrices representing the same physical object, it's not a one-on-one mapping. Matrices are fine- grain, presences are coarse." She threw aside an arm, condescendingly. "What am I talking about? Of course you can't steady a matrix in an arbitrary position! It's the matrix/presence pair that has to be stable, not just the matrix on its own. If you wrote it into the presence and it didn't prove, the whole lot would go up!"
"Well, that point about holding isn't strictly true, is it? If you were casting a spell that was close to the edge, like it was red by one gesture, and you deferred release of its penultimate gesture, then the spell up to that point might be colourless, and only the final red would make it stable. However, the matrix can still be maintained for as long as you keep up that gesture."
"Can it? I wouldn't want to try..."
"Course it can. It's like you said, the proving takes place when the spell is cast. If it's still in the process of being cast, or if you clap it out before the end, then it doesn't matter a jot whether it proves or not."
Conley shuffled. "I see what you're suggesting, yes, but I'm not convinced. Spells can turn colourless and backfire on you even when you don't think you've finished casting."
"I don't believe that's true, Con, no. For a spell to eat you, you have to finish it somehow. Maybe you fluff a gesture, maybe you delay too long before forming the next one, whatever, it definitely needs some end- point. Once it's got one, the matrix will stop wobbling, and impose itself on its physical presence. If you're out of luck, the matter you were working on will flash to energy, or the energy will whoosh to gas, and you'll fry in the resulting explosion."
Conley stared out across the track, towards the sunset. Roween watched her, waited. Finally, she clicked back to the world. "You may be right, Ro. I can't think of any documented case studies that don't have at least something you could construe as marking spell termination."
She hunched her shoulders. "So you accept, then, that for as long as a gesture can be held, the spell is still viable, and all the work done on the matrix up to that stage isn't lost."
"I... I suppose so. It sounds like it must be wrong, but just now I don't see exactly why it is."
You will, Con. "Good. Now, this is the idea I had. Obviously, you can't expect anyone to hold a gesture forever, but the trouble is that other than gestures we know of no scientifically rigorous means of modifying matrices, so it's like we have to use them, no other choice. However, suppose we found a theoretically sound way not of actually modifying a matrix, just of locking it in place for a time. It could then be picked up, and the spell continued from this save point, hours, days later."
Conley had worked her way over to the glooming tree that was shading them, rested her back against its gnarly, lichenous trunk. She said nothing - why bother? Roween clearly had the answer anyway, knew she was bursting to give it.
"You name the matrix!" Triumphant.
The suggestion was just so simplistically ridiculous that Conley couldn't resist reacting. "You name it?" She laughed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"What I said, you give it a name, write it down with your free hand. You then drop the gesture. So long as you don't damage what you've written, and no gross physical changes affect the spell's target, you can later scrub out the name and carry on the sequence from the next gesture. If you time it right, it'll work fine. If you're too slow, or you rip the name by accident when you're unprepared, it'll close the sequence and there'll be some feedback."
Conley gazed in disbelief at Roween's smiling face. "That, Ro, is the most cockeyed idea I ever heard!"
She acted slighted. "What's wrong with it, Con?"
"What's wrong with it? Where to start? Nothing's right with it! It has no basis whatsoever in macro physics. Giving a matrix a name and writing that name down doesn't set up any kind of link with the matter- energy force behind the shape of that particular matrix. It's just letters on a sheet of paper."
"Yes, well I told you I'd have to slide it in to your view of things. There is a connection, and a very powerful one, but it's not at the immediate matrix/presence level." She knelt, excitedly, so her hands could give form to her words. "Say you set up another matrix with a centre just the right distance away from that of the first one, causing them to resonate together."
She nodded. "Bindings give you a way of affecting the constitution of the matrix, rather than the constitution of the physical presence that supplies the matrix. Such a method is a meta-matrix operation, and its functional domain is what we know as `matrix space'. However, you can also set up other meta-matrix operations, with subjects adjacent in matrix space to this one, and thus you get a meta-matrix space, which meta-meta-matrices work on. You can continue right up through the levels, indefinitely."
"Forgive me for interrupting, but what bearing if any does this have on your naming suggestion? Meta-matrices aren't something I really feel comfortable with - I went for Sequence Composition in my second year, dropped Functional Analysis for it."
"Oh," she seized her chance, "now that's a pity, because it's what's at the limit of the spaces that actually concerns me - where it tops out. You see, a matrix can be regarded as encoding its physical presence. Modifying the matrix changes it so it no longer reflects the current state of its associated presence, but it doesn't immediately alter that presence; only when your spell is completed does the matrix decode itself, causing its physical presence to adjust appropriately so as to match. A matrix is an implicit representation, and when casting is finished it becomes explicit, which is effected by redefining its physical presence. Follow so far?"
"Go on." She reached for the flask of water, kept her eyes on Roween.
"Now, matrices which - through binding - operate on other matrices can likewise be regarded as encoding those other matrices, and therefore, in a sense, of encoding their physical presences, too. So it continues, meta-meta-matrices encoding the meta-matrices they work on, and yet higher matrices encoding them. But what do you get at the very top?" She paused, for suspense rather than reply. "I'll tell you: one matrix that encodes every matrix below it in the hierarchy, which is to say all other matrices - which in turn is to say all physical presences."
Conley was drinking, but was immersed in thought. She wiped her mouth. "I'm no expert, Ro, it's out of my field. However, without some way of showing that higher levels contain guaranteed fewer entities than lower ones, it seems to me that there might just as well be an infinite number of matrices at the top - if `being at the top' actually means anything anyway."
Roween took the flask. "Ah, but that is the case, yes, upper levels do gradually diminish, the higher they are. I've read the proof, but I don't offhand recall it. Not sure I understood it anyway." Lies, bluff it. She swigged at the water. Warm.
"Well, let's assume you're right about this limit matrix: how does it tie in with the naming stuff?"
"One matrix, ever-present, is an encoding of all other matrices. To get to the particular matrix we want, we just need a key, some way of remembering it. Because the key is a presence, and will have its own matrix - undirected, but still there - that'll end up being wound through the matrix tree up into the limit matrix, altering it ever-so-slightly to some fearfully minute extent. Now, knowing that, when we restart the spell we can index straight into the appropriate encoded matrix, and carry on casting from there."
Conley sighed, smiled, half-hearted. "This is way over me, Ro, I'm getting lost. I just can't visualise it, all this talk of matrices, meta- matrices, infinite hierarchies..."
"But you do believe me, don't you?"
She added worry to her expression. "It's not that I don't, it's just I'll understand it when I see some evidence. Hot, Ro, I know you're queen of the theoreticians, but this is in my stratosphere. I'm tired, we've had a long afternoon, I don't want to work, I need to relax, come to terms with some things. Can't you just show me what it is you mean?"
Long afternoon? I haven't started! She closed her eyes, slow, steadied herself. "It'll be easiest, yes." She picked up the paper again, brushed off the leaf-dust. "Give me up to the final wrist of a 23 light- prime, and hold it." Conley obliged, languidly. Roween passed her the pen. "Think of a name."
"Roween," she said, "after you..."
Roween sighed. "Write it down." She rested the paper on her lap. Conley's left-handed script was surprisingly readable, much better than Roween could have managed. Of course. "Now, drop the wrist."
Conley paused a moment longer, then broke off, clapped.
Roween held up the sheet. "No need to do that, Con - the matrix is frozen now, it won't blow on you."
"No harm in being careful, is there?"
"None at all, indeed it might help, show you that even after a clean break the accumulated gestures have still been saved."
"Let's see it work, then. What do I do?"
Roween took out her knife, passed it to Conley, laid the paper on the ground. "When you're ready, stab the writing. That'll put you in the same place as if you'd just dropped the wrist. Flick out the last gesture straight away after."
Conley eyed her, sceptically. "Is it alright if I remake the wrist and unhold it at the same time as I skewer the paper? It'll help the timing."
"Fine by me, shouldn't cause any difference."
Conley knelt, faced Roween, prepared herself. She rested the point of the blade on ROWEEN's W, gliding her right hand into a wrist gesture. Ready, she took a deep breath, nodded twice to get the rhythm, then cut into the paper and threw a palm.
Immediately, there was a flare of light.
"See?" asked Roween.
Birds in the branches above were taking flight, their warning calls wakening the lazing woodlands. Conley dropped her arm, gaped at Roween. "Hot, Ro, I don't believe it!"
You do, Con, that's the whole point! "Why would I lie to you? I knew it would work."
Conley was in a state approximating confusion. "You could tell? Could you smell the matrix?"
Roween grinned, embarrassed. "No, Con, I can't detect matrices. There's a reason, I'll tell you later if you remind me. I smelled the light-prime, though; so long as they're not too bright, and I'm not the target, they're - " Abrupt. How to describe the sensation?
"I, hot, Ro! My head's spinning! If I gave this to Porett, he'd skew my salary sideways by a couple of zeroes! It's a whole new industry you have here!"
"Not quite, no." She folded to her feet, stood up. "It's getting dusk, best if we go back now, we can eat on the way. See if you can cut how it works."
She made sure Conley returned the dagger before they left.
21st January 1999: isif65.htm