Scene 17 – October 22nd
Interior Restaurant, Early Evening
I ended up continuing to shop with Kaufman – they had a decent chunk of budget left, and I took it upon myself to help them get the best deals. Plus, they had terrible taste in plaid patterns, and someone had to save them from their own fashion sense. It’s my duty as a hero, I joked when they tried to decline the offer.
After finishing a round of the thrift shops in the waterfront district, we decided to get dinner together at the Shrieking Eel, a cheap seafood place that was a lot better than its name suggested. Somehow, the topic of conversation – which had gone surprisingly smoothly after its initial awkward start – had returned to magic.
“Say, since you’re probably the best magician I actually know,” Kaufman asked as the plate of salmon we were going to share arrived, “do you mind explaining some things? I don’t know much about magic myself, so I’m a little confused about… most of it.”
“Of course!” I said happily. I loved talking about magic – it was my chief passion in life. Sure, heroism was important too, and art was great, but if I was honest with yourself, magic was what I really got up in the morning for. “Just tell me if I start to get too long-winded – I know most people aren’t as into it as I am.”
“I’ll stop you if you forget to breath,” they assured me, and I chuckled. “I guess my first question is… how exactly does it work?”
“Quite well, thank you.”
“No no, I mean how does it actually work? Like, even on a basic level, are you manipulating gravitons or plucking on fundamental strings or what?”
I nodded understandingly. “I know what you mean, Quinn, and I’m sorry to tell you that no one really knows. Magic is a mystery – if it wasn’t, we probably wouldn’t call it magic anymore. We’d call it… I don’t know… thaumaturgy, probably. Finding the thaum, a fundamental particle of magic, is the life’s work of a hell of a lot of magicians, including Arthur Peregrine himself, but no one has ever been able to.
“The most commonly accepted theory is that… well, have you heard about string theory? Lots of tiny dimensions beyond the three spacial dimensions and one for time?”
“Yeah,” they confirmed.
“Well, the theory is that magic somehow taps into those dimensions. Whether they’re so small that they’re impossible to notice or they’re so large that they’re impossible to notice, it’s possible, by arranging your mind right, to pull energy from them. Or use them to manipulate your surroundings. Like a two-dimensional creature picking up a pair of scissors and rearranging their paper however they want.”
Kaufman seems to consider this for a moment. “I may not be a physicist,” they admitted, “but I don’t think that actually makes much sense.”
“Agreed,” I said with a nod. “But that’s the most common theory.”
“I think it’s a bit more fundamental than that.”
“More fundamental that string theory? Don’t tell the string theorists that,” they joked.
I gave them a playful shove, and stole the piece of salmon that they had been going for. “Har har. No, really. I think there’s some kind of fundamental law of the universe that makes it respond to thoughts, as long as they’re the right ones.”
“Why would that be?”
“Well, you’ve heard about Arthur Peregrine’s proof of the existence of the soul, right?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’m subscribed to that periodical. Tell me?”
“This was 1962. He was able to prove that soul energy existed, on a third level of reality. It’s like…” I paused to gesture, arranging my mind to create an image hovering in midair. “Imagine that this sheet is the universe.”
Kaufman nodded. “Okay. Is this like the sheet that gravity distorts?”
“Sort of. This sheet is an empty universe,” I clarified. “No particles, no energy. Now…” With a thought, a few places on the sheet were pulled downward and twisted a little. “These are particles – they distort the universe around them, which affects nearby particles.”
“I’m with you so far.”
“Imagine an arrangement of these particles which warped space in a way that created a similar, self-sustaining warp – a new particle, where one hadn’t been before.”
“Don’t the laws of thermodynamics object to that?” they asked.
I shrugged. “It’s not actually new matter or energy – it just looks like it. Let me show you.” I set my illusory teaching aid so that the original particles were in a circle, all pulling the sheet down – in the middle, it rose up above the normal level of the sheet. “You see, particles are on a level below spacetime, in this metaphor. But the energy that makes up the soul lies above.”
Kaufman hummed to themself as they digested the idea. “So certain arrangements of particles – which, I assume, include brains?” I nodded in confirmation, and they continued, “will create soul energy. And I’m guessing that soul energy can similarly interact to affect real particles?”
“Essentially,” I agreed. “It’s a lot more complicated than that, really, but you’ve basically got it. Everyone has soul energy naturally, but magical training involves training your brain to generate more or it, as well as to get more control over it. It’s been accepted magical theory for centuries that souls were real, but because they’re on a different level of reality, it was difficult to prove.”
“How did he do it?”
“I’d need a lot more than one dinner to get you to the level you’d need to be to understand that,” I said apologetically.
“Is that an invitation?” they asked, and I found myself blushing, especially as they continued, “because you’re a great teacher, and I’d love to keep learning about this stuff.”
“Um,” I stammered, having never been as thankful for the illusions that constantly replaced my actual appearance as I was then – it made hiding my red cheeks easy. “Maybe? Like I said, I’m very busy.”
“Of course,” they said, accepting my non-answer easily. “That all makes sense to me, I have to say. Although of course I don’t really know anything about magic.” Kaufman – no, Quinn, I decided – was a lifesaver, having effortlessly steered the conversation back to magic. “I do have another question, though.”
“Shoot,” I said, still trying to get my heartrate back under control.
“Canaveral and I met the Magnificent Maxwell last week.”
“He mentioned something of the sort.”
“Well,” Quinn continued, “when he did magic, he did it by snapping his fingers, or waving his arm. But when I’ve seen you do it, you kind of…” they tried to brush their fingers together, presumably trying to replicate one of the gestures I used for my own magic and failing. “…it’s different, is the point,” they said, giving up trying to copy me.
“Well, we’re different people,” I agreed.
They groaned and leaned forward, resting their forehead on the table. I resisted the urge to run my fingers through through their hair as they complained, “Holly, come on!”
“It’s the real answer though!” I protested. “Look, souls are created by brains, which are unique, or the next best thing to it – only a few people can duplicate them flawlessly. That means that souls are unique too. So the methods of manipulating yourself to cause your soul to manipulate the world to do magic will vary from person to person!”
“Is that how Canaveral does it without even a gesture?”
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, never mind.” Quinn sat back up. “So wait, how much do souls have to do with consciousness?”
“Oh, you want consciousness,” I said dismissively. “That’s psionic territory, that’s completely different. Well, mostly,” I admitted after a moment,
They rubbed their forehead. “I feel like I’ve stumbled into a vast new world that makes absolutely no sense, even though I know all the words. Is this how people feel when I talk about biology?”
“Probably.” We shared a laugh. “Any other questions?”
“Well…” They took a moment to pay for their half of the meal, and I do the same. “You mentioned that you’re not making magical illusions, right? What are you doing, if it’s not an illusion?”
I dismissed my teaching aide as we rose and begin meandering. “This is the bit where magic and psionics overlap,” I told them. “Imagine a dog.”
“What kind is it?”
I nodded. “I was thinking of a beagle, myself.”
“Good choice, but what does that have to do with…?”
“The point is, that we both had the same prompt – a dog,” I said, “but we were thinking of different kinds of dog. Which is the weakness of an illusion.”
“I think I’m missing something here.”
“See, an illusion isn’t real,” I explained.
“Well I get that, but…”
“It’s not even interacting with particles. Light and sound? They go right through.”
“Hold on,” Quinn protested, “how do you see it? Does it make its own photons?”
I shook my head. “Remember how I said this was the overlap with psionics? Illusions are just slapped down on the psychic landscape.”
“…I’m missing something again.”
“Alright, imagine that we both look at that telephone pole there,” I said.
“Why do I have to imagine that instead of actually looking?” they asked.
I ignored their meaningless interjection. “We both look at it and think telephone pole. Our thoughts leave pressure on the psychic landscape – which is basically just the residue of everything everyone has ever thought about something – so now that telephone pole has a slightly stronger impression.”
“I think I’m with you,” Quinn said with a smirk.
“Most thoughts just blur out, but the ones that people keep having merge and become stronger,” I said. “That’s how things like tulpas and religions get started – lots of people all thinking the same thing. That’s how even blind psychics can get around – they can sense that something is thought of as a telephone pole, even without seeing it. Hell, it’s how a person can just seem like a Michael or a John or whatever. Even without being probably sensitive, most people can pick up on a strong enough psychic impression.”
“So an illusion…”
“There’s no shortcuts, with psionics,” I told them. “If you want to make lasting a psychic impression, it takes a lot of thought, a lot of people, or both. But magic can give you that shortcut. Just punch a strong enough impression of a dog somewhere, and people will actually see that dog – their brain picks up on the dog in the psychic landscape and will add one into your vision even though your eyes don’t see anything.”
“Ah!” they said in realization. “But I see a golden retriever, and you see a beagle!”
“Exactly!” I said approvingly, clapping them on the shoulder. “A real dog would have some golden retriever in its impression too, or whatever its breed is. And its behavior, and so on. Your brain will fill in anything that’s not there, yes, but each brain is different, so everyone will see those parts of an illusion differently. Remember Max? What did he look like?”
“Handsome. Short brown hair, sharp cheekbones. Strong jawline.”
I nodded. “Probably not.”
“No,” I said again. “Because I see him with curly black hair down to his shoulders and bright green eyes.”
“He wears an illusion?” they asked.
“Yeah, it’s just an impression of a handsome man,” I explained. “Whatever you think of as handsome is what you’ll see.”
Quinn thought about this for a while as we continued walking together. “Illusions sound pretty easy to see through, if you just have a partner,” they said after a while.
“Harder than you think,” I told them. “After all, how often do you compare what you think you see with other people?”
“But yeah, that’s a definite weakness. You can put more into your impression if you want to make them more consistent – say, specify the dog as being a golden retriever, and then I wouldn’t see a beagle. But the more details you give to the mental construct yourself, the more likely it will be inconsistent with what the viewers think, and then it’ll act in obviously fake ways. Plus, the more detail you use the more difficult it is.”
“I understand, mostly,” Quinn decided. “And what do you do, instead?”
“One of two methods, both of which are the hard way,” I complained. “One is that I make a mental construct and place it into the actual world as soul energy, not into the psychic landscape. It actually does affect reality as it’s supposed to – at least, for the interactions that I’ve managed to model properly, which is just photons and sound waves for now – but people’s brains don’t cover for imperfections like with illusions, so I need to really really understand how everything works in order to make it realistic. That’s what I have to do for anything that’s going to last when I’m not paying attention to it.”
“And the other?”
“I manually control whatever photons or sound waves I’m working with,” I said. “Also immensely complicated – even more so, if I’m doing anything that needs to be realistic. On the other hand, without the start-up time of creating the mental construct, it’s way faster. That way is good for lasers and shock waves and other offensive uses.”
“I can’t even imagine how much concentration and effort it must take to control individual photons like that,” Quinn said, awed. “How on earth do you do it?”
I gave them a proud smile. “I’m very good.”