Chapter 61 Hat

        The guesthouse was small, family-run, built on three floors just inside the city wall. There was no dining room, but across the street stood a friendly-looking restaurant, so Roween suggested they ate there.
        Inside, it was panelled with dark wood, glowing in the light of oil lamps. The air was rich with the smells of meat and sauces, intermingling with a smoky sweetness. There were other people already seated, locals eating out; the storm in the east had stayed there. Diners noticed Conley as she entered, her tall, confident manner singling her from the otherwise dim cosiness of their surroundings.
        Roween chose a table beside the window because, paradoxi- cally, it afforded more privacy than the other, more central position they were offered. The blind was drawn, shutting out the darkness of the street, but she could still peek behind it, steal ten-second segments from the lives of passers-by.
        "Those men, they're looking at you," noted Conley, behind her menu.
        "They're looking at you, Con, not me," Roween answered, knowing she was taking bait.
        Conley quickly glanced to the wall-side table. "No, Ro, it's not me, it's you, one of them is - no, don't turn round, he'll see you!"
        She frowned. "What if he does? He'll get a better view of my eyes, that's what he wants..." She faced him, glared her best glare. He laughed, self-conscious, returned to his meal, his conversation.
        "You shouldn't have done that," Conley reproached her, "he probably had a fancy for you, you've put him off now."
        Roween sighed, picked up her menu again. "When men look at you, Con, it's because they're filled with desire. When they look at me, it's merely freak-watching."
        "Don't be silly, Ro! Sometimes, I think you're as bad as I am, always running yourself down. You're not unattractive; Lord Sennary liked you."
        Ba-dumph. "Lord Sennary?" Oh, more bait, foolish girl. "No he didn't, Con, you know he didn't. You're the one he has his," pause, "eyes on. I'm just a convenience, a means by which he can wheedle himself into your affections."
        "You really think so?"
        Yes, she's fishing alright. "Course I think so, he dropped me like a child discards a boring toy, soon as you appeared. There's a fire in him when you're around, don't say you haven't noticed, I know you have."
        Conley pursed her lips, coyly. "Well, he is titled, and he's the right age..."
        "To say nothing of his build, his smile, his voice, his," pause again, she didn't mean to, "eyes."
        "He hasn't really shown me any attention, though, too shy, more so than I expected. He acts close, but he's distant. I'd like to meet him again when all this is over, get to know him a bit better, find out what he's really like."
        "Maybe he has a girlfriend already? He knows how to use those fine looks, that innocent air of boyish charm - he probably has several..."
        Conley missed the sarcasm, pondered. "No, I don't think so, he's too straight, he'd have said something when I, you know, when I, well..."
        "Yes, I know." Life, it's difficult enough having you drooling over him at all, never mind harping on to me about it.
        "I wonder, when I get back home, how I can just bump into him again, see how he feels about me, maybe give him a little help." She giggled.
        Make it sound unromantic. "He'll be at his farm, I expect, helping out. They'll flood within days when their weather returns to normal." Why isn't there ever a waiter when you want one?
        "His farm? I thought he had a castle?"
        She raised her menu, waved it a bit to summon attention. "Castle Whiting, yes, in Davia, I think he lets it to pay off his father's debts, some company or other that does weekend deer-hunts. I don't really remember."
        A short, dumpy-looking woman breezed out from behind a door, her slightly grubby apron the only evidence that she was what the menu referred to as "prompt, efficient service". Roween breathed deeply. Relief!

* * *

        "Magic," said Roween, "is frightening. Can we agree on that?"
        Conley waved her fork, swallowed. "No. Some of the uses to which magic is put are frightening, but magic itself isn't."
        Roween jerked back her head, closed her eyes. This is going to be impossible! She leaned forward again. "Very well, Con, I'll argue within your frame. Some of the uses to which magic is put are frightening. Others are complete, undiluted evil."
        "I wouldn't go as far as to say that."
        "Porett is working on a magic-borne plague which will completely eradicate the Lowlanders and the Elets. You tell me that isn't evil?"
        She nodded. "I concede. If he really can cut it, it's evil."
        "He can, I've figured out how. He sets a matrix on someone, and propagates it to other people nearby. The original matrix decays, feeding off matter, cancelling it with magic." Her voice felt hard. "It'll throw off waves of heat, too, probably kill the victims long before mass loss does. That won't stop the spell, though, it'll keep on going, it doesn't care, eventually it'll gobble up the whole body, no mess, everything left nice and tidy." She laughed, bitterly.
        "He sets a matrix? You mean a focal matrix? But how can he make it decay? Focal matrices are either not there, or everywhere for all time, coexisting with matter harmlessly."
        "That's the normal, everyday working view of things, yes, but you can bind two matrices together in what the theoreticians call matrix- space. Once you've done that, you can then bring them closer until they resonate. When they do, you slowly move them apart again, thereby adjusting the phase, so they have to pull something in just to keep stable. With no other matrices bound to them, they'll take matter. I haven't yet worked how he does the contagion, I'm not topside on meta-matrix operations."
        Conley laughed, stabbed at a carrot. "You sound it to me, Ro!"
        "No," she sipped at her mineral water, "I didn't bother taking it any further once I realised it was pointless. When you think deeply about matrices, you begin to wonder where the foundations lie. Everything seems to be built on top of everything else, with nothing at the bottom to prop it all up. You have the real world, supposedly overlaid by matrices in the matrix-space world, with that world in turn overlaid by meta-matrices, and that one by meta-meta-matrices, so on forever. But there's nothing causal to link them together, no real reason why it should be that way, it's just a handy way of looking at things to explain how spells work."
        Conley was staring at her intently, and it hit her she'd said too much.
        "Go on, Ro, this is interesting."
        More water. "No, Con, that's enough for now, let's get back to magic use." Give her no time to interrupt. "The whole science is advancing so quickly that new spells are coming up before people know how to deal with them. Sooner or later, there's going to be an accident of gigantic proportions. Porett will cook a counter-plague that will prevent his creation from spreading indiscriminately, but who's to say that in twenty years time some bored undergrad isn't going to stumble across the same idea and let loose an epidemic before anyone has a matching cure? What about the spells we haven't discovered yet, that turn the atmosphere to steam for twenty minutes, or redirect the rays of the sun? Or the feedback explosions that destroy entire cities? It's getting out of hand - no, it's got out of hand."
        Conley was chewing, slowly.
        "All this is possible within the theory that you believe describes how magic works. From my standpoint, it's worse. I know you don't give it any credit, but spells, gestures, they're just a structure imposed by us from the outside to explain something much deeper. Magic doesn't function that way at all. Someone - you, I hope - is going to have absolute power, total. Do you understand what that means? Your every whim, every desire, can be made true, whether it adheres to existing laws of the universe or not, like in dreams." Conley flinched. "You'll be able to do anything, literally, even if it's speculative, `make this creature behave in a way which will interest me'. It sounds seductive, doesn't it? It's not, though, it's meaningless, it makes everything meaningless. Unless you relinquish it, you may as well sit under six happy shots for the rest of your life."
        Conley spoke, quietly. "Magic can be used in despicable ways, yes, but it can also be used for good. It could be modified, it could - "
        "No, no Con, it has to go. The mechanism which drives it has to be constrained, you can't turn some watered-down version of magic into a physical law."
        "You said I could do anything."
        "You get what you will for."
        "So if I will for spells to work only up to two K gestures in length?"
        "Can you be sure there aren't any offensive spells below that cut-off?"
        "I could will there to be no offensive spells at all."
        "But according to you, it's people who make magic good or bad - almost any spell can be used for evil, given appropriate circumstances"
        "So I just say that no spell can be used for evil."
        Roween shook her head. "Evil from whose point of view? Porett might not think his plague is evil! Yet some religious types already say that any interference with nature at all is completely wrong."
        "From my point of view."
        "But that will change, Con, unless you want to remain invariant, never adapting, never having new experiences. What if someone wants to do something for fun which is basically evil, like it maybe kills someone, but overall it's for the greater good, saving the lives of thousands? Evil at what level?"
        "I'd have to think about it."
        Roween dropped her shoulders, gripped her knife, outsized in her small fist. "Con, that's the problem, you'll always have to think about it. Whatever you want to do, there'll invariably be details you hadn't considered, and when you look at those there'll arise yet more."
        She frowned. "What if I wrapped that up as part of what I willed for? If I said I wanted the details all handled too, as if I'd thought them through?"
        "I don't know, it may be that you couldn't think them through, they might be never ending, moving away as fast as you approach them. Life knows what would happen then, probably magic would stop - I'd hope that if you thought about it long enough, that's the conclusion you'd eventually reach anyway."
        "What if I decreed that I could think them through, and that magic wouldn't stop?"
        Roween looked upwards in despair. "How would I know, Con? It sounds like it would mean you were willing a change in your thinking processes. If you try and stop that from happening, there'll be some other ambiguity you hadn't thought of, you're working from within an enclosed system, you can't get out, it surrounds you whatever you do. The only way to break free is to smash the whole edifice."
        Conley smiled. "Why am I arguing? I know you're right. But before I turn off magic for eternity, however I'm to do it, I may exercise my omnipotent powers just a teensy little bit."
        Roween breathed out, long, for the moment resigned. "How teensy a little bit?"
        "One immortality, two resurrections, and a small gift for someone I care about." She picked up a glass tablepot, what looked like grey pepper inside it. "Is this some kind of seasoning?"
        "It's a mushroom taste-enhancer, makes you more sensitive to flavouring, gives you a warm, tipsy-smiley feeling."
        Conley put it down.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif61.htm