Back in their room, growing late. Roween was lounging on the
bed, just finished packing for tomorrow's journey, the atlas of Elet propped
up beside her. Apart from what filtered in from the streets outside, the only
light came from a small tallow lamp, positioned by Roween on a rickety
bedside table. Running low, weaving, it cast giant, waving shadows onto
the wall, umbral projections of mythical, magical forms.
Conley was out in the yard, experimenting with spellsaving, away from the gaze of all-seeing Roween. She said it was to shield her sorcery from dispelling blasts, but they both knew the real reason: fear of feeling foolish.
Roween looked up from the pages. Would it be tonight? Was she herself ready? Yesterday with the youths had been a shock, horror- awful, had showed her the ease with which death or madness might choose to descend. She closed the book, rolled to her feet to replace it with the rest of their gear. As she stood, she glimpsed her image in the window, rendered to distortion by the lead-lined panes. Thin, emaciated, drawn. Was this really her? Wrecked on the rocks of reflection? Ragged hair, rough-tanned skin, sleepless eyes. She looked away. Even now, she always noticed her eyes...
Just as she lay down the atlas, Conley opened the door, slowly. She saw Roween, loosened up. "Thought you might have been asleep," commented.
"How'd it go? Learn anything?"
"Fine, no problems, I have a better idea of it all now." She sat, her side of the bed. "Only one or two things I don't yet understand, I'll think about them in the morning." She pulled off her boots.
"Nothing serious, then..."
"Not really, something happens and I don't see why it should."
"Want to show me?"
She fell back on the pillow. "We're out of paper."
"Use names from here," Roween picked up the atlas again, tore out a sheet, some islands. "Underline one when you want to make it an index."
"If you say," weary, don't even ask if it'll work. "It happens with multi-step saves." She leaned across, took the bookleaf. "If I do the first ten gestures and save them," she whisked through, "followed by the next twelve," flicked out effortlessly, "I can stab the one, stab the other, throw the palm, and - " burst of light.
Conley's gestures cast grotesque shades behind her, to Roween's mind like lumbering gargoyles, frozen in a dance for a fleeting instant, an embrace.
"Now watch what happens this time. I'll start with the twelve ... and then do the ten." She completed the chore, pointed her dirk on the second name she'd chosen. "I was thinking there'd maybe be a market for partial spells, where you could sell people difficult or tedious gesture sequences, and they could slot them ready-made into their own designs." She pricked a name, pricked another, released the palm, popped the light. Roween blinked. "It works, too," continued Conley, "but it shouldn't. I'd been doing it quite happily for half an hour before I realised."
Innocent. "Well clearly it's behaving like you expected. Why is that worrying you?"
"Although I unsaved the two segments such that the gestures they stored would be released in the correct order for the spell, I actually created the second one before the first. Now you say that this naming trick fixes matrices, but I don't see how there was even a matrix there when I stored the spell's second stage. The first segment sets up the matrix that the second one uses, yet at the time I made those second-segment gestures the first-stage matrix didn't exist. Those gestures were therefore meaningless, they couldn't manipulate anything. Yet, still, when it came to casting the spell, if I unsaved them in the right order I nevertheless got the flash. So why is that?"
Roween wavered. Tell her? "Maybe segments are commutative?"
"They're not. If I unsave them in reverse order, the spell doesn't work - even if they were originally saved correctly."
"You swapped the segments? But that could have done anything! It might have blown!"
"No chance of that, same colour count, it still proves."
Roween blushed, hurried. Oops! "So, what do you think happens?"
Conley shrugged, screwed up the map. "Seems to imply time shifting! Maybe this naming business encodes the physical world, but maybe the world is completely deterministic. Maybe that means that the present configuration of physical presences also sort of encodes all future states of the world." She tossed the ball of paper into a corner. "Maybe it's all rot."
Now? Now! "Bull's-eye, Con!" She clapped, once. "It's nonsense, I made it up. That whole waffle of meta-matrix limits, it's rubbish, no basis in fact whatsoever."
A groan, long one. "Great. Well thanks, Ro, so I just wasted an entire evening..."
"You didn't, Con, I concocted it for a reason. It only worked because you believed it would. It didn't contradict anything you knew, and it meshed with your view of the world, and no-one else except for me had ever considered it, so whether it worked or not was down to whether you believed it would or not. The theory came from me, and you ascribe me with a profound knowledge of magic, have complete faith in what I say on the subject, so why shouldn't it work?"
Conley's face was fixed with the same, strangled `is she mad?' expression that Roween had first witnessed in a cave, south of the Rodya, out of the rain. It was the firelight that brought it back, the soft glow of a weak flame, playing on Conley's smooth features.
"It's time, Con, time for you to know."
No protests, she sensed that Roween meant it, instantly erased her trivial anger, overwrote it with attentiveness, intense, immediate. "I'm ready."
Roween looked up at the ceiling, grouped her thoughts, smoky darkness filling her vision. Ready. But am I? She bit her lip, began. "I've rehearsed this so many times, Con, but I still doubt I'll say it right. Forget all you were ever taught about magic. It just doesn't work that way. There's no matter-energy force, there are no matrices, gestures are irrelevant, proofs inconsequential. Scrap it from your memory. I'm going to tell you how things really are, only not with the depth of study that's been lavished on macro physics or anything: I don't know how or why it works, just that it does."
Conley fumbled in her pocket, then groped at the bed, looked around. "I ought to be taking notes..."
"It's not hard, don't worry, just listen. The whole massive structure built on the bedrock of macro physics, it's all an invention, created incrementally in an ongoing effort to describe and codify the way magic supposedly behaves in the world. The Academy has it wrong, Con. All that's needed to make something happen is for someone to believe that what they're doing will make it happen. That's it, the essence."
Conley paused. Serious. "There's no more?"
"Before people got organised, there were too many counter- beliefs to be overcome. Historically, the change began with macro physics, when a few pioneering scientists proposed the basic theory concerning the matter-energy force. It seemed reasonable, the principles it provided looked much the same as those for any other self-contained set of physical laws, and it explained some previously non-understood natural phenomena. More people came along, extended the idea, made their own hypotheses, and because they fitted in with what folk generally accepted anyway, albeit superstitiously, the notion of ordered magic gradually gained a hold. Finally, the validity of the theory as a usable model was verified by using it predictively, assessing what effects it admitted and attempting to cause these to occur. So eventually such a large number of people believed it, took it as a law of nature, that for all practical purposes it became one."
Conley was shivering, edgy.
"There are sceptics, of course, who don't accept it, but their opinions are swallowed by those of the majority. Other, compatible systems do exist, though. In Chaien, they have a sacrifice-based religion, believing that gods grant them `favours' - spells, to us. The Inquans have a healing magic, all to do with the symbolic breaking of clay dolls made to resemble the patients. The Messenger's antimagic came the same way: his followers believed that their prayers to him tapped his godly energies so much that any magic cast at him was instantly absorbed and channelled into answering their devotions - thus, as a side-effect, making him effectively immune from magic. People accepted this suggestion so readily and in such numbers that eventually he actually did become proof against spells."
"I don't understand. If, as you say, all magic is founded in the collective beliefs of people, but those beliefs themselves do not intrinsically accept this view of how magic works, isn't that contradictory? If enough people believe that their way truly describes how magic works, then by your argument magic will change itself so that it really does work that way." Her voice was quivering, excitement? Fear?
"I think I'm over-using the word `believe'. Look on it as cause and effect. If you do something which you categorically believe will cause a certain effect, then the true magic will give you that effect - I call this the `belief/cause/effect rule'. The magic-systems that people have built up, such as our macro physics, only serve to provide frameworks in which to ground the beliefs that performing certain actions will cause given events to occur. It wasn't the Followers' belief that the Messenger was magic-proof which made him so, it was their belief that praying to him drained him of magic for answering their prayers, that's what did it. So long as enough people prayed, convinced that by doing so any magic cast at him would incidentally be sucked out before it took effect, that's indeed what happened."
"I think I see, yes," still trembling, shadowlight rippling her hair. "So this afternoon, the naming thing, what happened?"
"Ah, yes. I added a little to the theory, that's all. Found how you viewed things, where the limits of your knowledge were, and stitched in my new piece. It was consistent with what you believed, and also with what everyone else who accepts the doctrine of macro physics believes. Since there were no opposing ideas, and because a way of storing gestures is something people have been actively seeking for years, it wasn't going to fail on those grounds. Only two people knew what was supposed to happen, and we both had complete conviction it would work."
"I'm not sure I did." She sat on her leg, fidgeted.
"You did, Con. You didn't understand it - that's not surprising, it was trash - but you believed it. Different things."
"But what about the two-stage saves? I don't believe that stuff should work, it goes against what I know to be true." Heartbeat. "Knew to be true."
"You went off extending the theory on your own. You expected the saves to stick for segments isolated from their contexts, so they did. Only later did you realise that they shouldn't have behaved like that, but by then you'd already seen them work, so you figured instead that your knowledge must be incomplete, and that there had to be another explanation. If you'd given the matter some thought before you attempted anything, and had concluded that order-independent segments wouldn't cut, you'd have been right, they wouldn't have. See?"
"I follow your argument, yes." She looked so sad. "Hard to accept it, though, very hard. I'll try... You're asking a lot, that's all." She smiled, almost guiltily.
Roween panged for her. How much she'd come on since they'd first met - shed her instability, learnt to ride her anxieties. She was trying to be open-minded, to understand something that chafed against all she'd ever been taught, wasn't upset that at present she didn't, only that she was letting down her friend. Roween just wanted to squeeze her, tight.
"One thing, Ro. There must be dozens of people every day who try to advance some aspect of magic theory in one way or another. They probably have much better-formed ideas about what they're doing than I did, and yet how many succeed? Hardly any, I'd have thought. Some of their theories even have the force of logic behind them - Gamtan's papers on perpetual motion are the obvious example - but they still don't make good."
"That's right, but you had unfair help. I, too, believed that when you tried yours, it would work."
Conley twitched, glanced at the door and back. "Two people make all the difference?"
Roween chuckled. "No, Con, it just vindicates my feelings about true magic, proves me right." Her smile dropped. "Proves me right, yes..." She looked down at her hands, curled into fists, opened them, flexed her fingers. "You see, Con, my belief has something extra. Normal experimenting mages, they work within some rule-based system of magic that comes with a whole apparatus of its own for casting spells. They believe that making the right gestures, or killing the sheep, whatever, it'll cause some effect to occur. True magic obliges them. However, they don't know that's what happens, they're convinced their own `magic' is doing it. Me, I know they're wrong, I know exactly why the spell is really working. Not only am I using the belief/cause/effect rule, I know I'm using it, it's the raw concept that governs all pseudo-magics - but I'm applying it stand- alone. Because of that, it doesn't matter how many counter-beliefs oppose me, they're irrelevant, they'll only block spells that are using false causal rules. Spells that I believe in, they employ the real thing. This afternoon, you cast probably the first genuinely true magic spell ever. If my understanding of true magic had been wrong, it wouldn't have worked..."
"Then why haven't you cast anything yourself?"
Roween hung her head, still analysing her hands. "That's the tragedy, Con, I can't. I can't manage simultaneously both the belief part and the cause part of the belief/cause/effect rule. If I try a spell," she began a 23 light-prime, "I know it won't work because I know it's using an invalid mechanism." She was slow, awkward, making the gestures. When she finished, nothing happened. "The only rule of magic I truly believe, as an absolute rather than by proxy, is the belief/cause/effect rule itself. My problem then is initiating a cause."
"I see why you can't use gestures, but not why you can't use something else."
"Well I could use gestures, I suppose - any trigger will do, so long as I've linked it firmly with the effect I wish to produce. But it's not as easy to do as it sounds. Say I decided to cause a flash of light when I snapped my fingers." She snapped them. "See? Nothing. I believed it would happen only if I believed it would happen. How do I break out of that loop? It regresses forever."
Conley screwed up her eyes for a moment, framing the problem. She opened them again and sparked into talk. "Let me paraphrase that, see if I follow. You want to cast some spell, call it S. To do so, you need to tie it to some `trigger' event, call it T. Because S is a spell, there's no way it could happen naturally, so, without true magic, T would never actually cause S. Therefore, true magic is required, which means your belief/cause/effect rule applies. This says that if you believe that T will cause S, then T really will cause S. Therefore, if you want T to cause S, you first have to convince yourself that T will cause S. Now whereas other people may have what they think are perfectly sound reasons for believing that T will cause S, you know that they're wrong, and that in truth the only way that you could actually get T to cause S is by using true magic. That means re-application of the B/C/E rule, which requires that its premise be true. Unfortunately, its premise is that you believe that T causes S, which is exactly what you were trying to use the rule to establish. It's a circularity." She laughed. "Once you figured out the rule, you couldn't use it!"
"Perpetual doubt, yes. The only way to escape is to give myself some other reason for believing T causes S. I look on the problem as one of initiating action. Think of an athlete entered for the high jump. He's standing at the beginning of the run-up, and he has decided he's going to jump, but that's not good enough to do the jump, though, is it? He actually has to move. What links the intention and desire of doing the high jump with the physical actions necessary for its accomplishment? We can all do it for movement: the would-be jumper knows what to do, he isn't going to stand there all day waiting to do it, psyching himself ready but never actually setting off. It is like that with spell casting for me, though. I know that all I have to do is accept that the trigger will indeed cause the spell, but how do I go about that? I don't have direct control over my faculties to believe, I can't will disbelief; I have to persuade myself, proceeding from what I already accept. There's no button I can press to make myself believe anything defined within a closed system, it's an act of faith. I'm waiting to make my jump, but unlike the athlete I can't connect the desire to jump with the execution of that desire."
"It must be possible to give yourself some focus to concentrate your mind. There are martial arts experts in Talia who can break planks barehanded without using magic, they let out a yell just as they're doing it. They've trained themselves, the yell is a key that they use to unlock their reserves, release all their energy at once. They couldn't do it without the yell. You should be able to try something similar. Coach yourself, I don't mean by yelling, more like working within a narrow frame of reference." She rolled her eyes, choosing a line of argument.
"I don't think that would be useful, I'd rather - "
"Forget about making yourself believe it, go for the throat!" Had she even heard the interruption? "Just assume you'll believe it, and plan for the trigger instead. Set yourself some target, a future event you can figure to make happen. Say to yourself that when you see such-and-such, that's your trigger, and this is what will occur as a result. Make the trigger difficult to achieve, so you'll have to think about it more, go into detail, through all the options, take time. All the while, keep assuring yourself that whatever it is you want to happen really will happen when the trigger cuts in. Now it might be days, it might be weeks, but eventually it'll sort of seep in, and you'll have yourself a conditioned reaction. When that trigger finally does come, you'll have it automatic in your head, you won't even have to think about beliefs, you'll just know the effect will occur. And, according to your B/C/E rule, it will." She stopped, eager for approval.
Roween was red-faced. "Don't you think it might be easier, now we've come all this way, if we just have you cast the spell?"
Conley's cheek fluttered. "So at last you trust me, then?"
"I always trusted you, Con. The problem was, you didn't trust yourself."
She clicked her teeth, nervously. "I'm still not against magic. You know that, don't you?"
"It's a simple choice. You destroy magic, or magic destroys all of us. This talk of yours, resurrections and immortality, you know it'll evaporate when the moment comes. There's no half-way, it's everything or nothing."
"Perhaps. I guess so, in my heart."
"I know. You can be supercilious at times, Con, but when it really matters, you do the right thing."
"Thanks, that - that means a lot to me." She brushed an eye.
Roween looked away. "Don't get sentimental, Con, please. There's still a lot of work to be done. You won't be able to use true magic until you have the spell-kill reflex."
"I won't?" Conley sniffed. "Why's that?"
"Try it. Snap your fingers and flash me a light-prime." Conley obliged, but their room remained in half-light. "The only incontrovertible evidence you'll ever have that what I've been saying is really true is when you can sense magic yourself. Perception is proof. Then you'll know. As it is, there are little doubts, niggling suspicions. You can probably still cast normal spells."
Conley's eyes glazed wide in sudden panic. She motioned swiftly through twenty-three gestures, and sank back in relief when the brief flit of light bleached the walls.
Roween smiled. "Because you have the ability to cast spells ingrained in you, all you'll need to do once you get the reflex is decide what it is you want, pick a sequence of gestures - those for a light-prime, say - and then flick them out. You cast spells so quickly that your subconscious mind will reflexively accept the link between the trigger spell and the desired effect, so the magic just has to fly. That's why I chose you to do this, Con. You're the fastest spellbinder anyone's ever heard of."
"Chose me?" She looked away, distance. "So you did... And here was me thinking it was because you wanted revenge for my plagiarising your thesis..."
Roween realised in time that it was a joke, laughed, didn't embarrass herself with a pseudo-indignant reply. "Helpful coincidence."
"Something I don't understand, Ro. Won't you magic-quash this last spell I'm supposed to cast? Distance from me won't help you avoid doing so, because magic will disappear from everywhere. And your reflex outranked the Messenger's antimagic."
It's all covered. "The Messenger's defence was itself effectively a spell, I told you that. My reflex isn't a spell, it kills spells - if it was a spell, it would kill itself, right?" She paused. "Maybe. Anyway, it could easily wipe out the Messenger's magic-proofing, because that was supported by false beliefs. Consequently, when I pulsed the chamber his shield was blasted aside just like any other normal spell would have been. Now this spell you're going to cast, the `last spell' as you call it, it may smell bad, or it may smell good, but as it's going to perform the same basic function as my reflex does (despite undermining it), I strongly suspect it'll smell absolutely divine - if, that is, it smells at all. Since it'll pull at the very way true magic works, though, I don't expect my reflex - or yours - will even get a chance to cut in, it'll be rendered obsolete before it can spark."
Conley flopped back onto the bed, stared up at the protracted shadows on the ceiling. "You've thought about this a great deal, haven't you Ro?"
"All the time, Con." All the time.
21st January 1999: isif67.htm