This is a story set in the Metamor Keep 2000 (MK2K) universe, an extrapolation of the world of Metamor Keep into the modern era. The gods have fallen to earth, Metamor City is a towering metropolis of half-mile-high buildings, and strange beings struggle to live peaceably alongside humans in a world where magic and technology are united. And then there are the creatures who aren't interested in peace...

Go here for more information on the setting.

[tsat home] [#48] [stories]

Divide By Zero
by Raven Blackmane
©2006 Raven Blackmane -- all rights reserved

Friday, June 4th, 2000 CR.

The hardest thing about giving a public defense of a doctoral dissertation isn't the fact that you have to condense four to six years of your life into a fifty-minute presentation. It isn't even the fact that you have to then give that presentation to a crowded room full of people.

No. The hardest thing about a public presentation is getting the audience to take it seriously. At least it is when I give one.

My name is Halcyone Karmenos. My Whalish father insists that's supposed to be pronounced 'hal-see-uh-nee', but most people give up after the third try and just call me Hallie. This is only the beginning of my curse. In addition to a nickname that makes me sound like a cheerleader, my father also gifted me with curly, glossy black hair that grows so fast that any sort of sensible, businesslike haircut is practically impossible to maintain. To make matters worse, my mother -- a first-generation half-Elf whose human mother was of Irombi extraction -- gave me a gene set that left me tall and slender, with skin the color of burnished bronze and facial features that make it impossible to disguise my 25% Elvish ancestry.

Let's just picture this, then: A mixed audience of scientists, students and even some reporters, at least two-thirds of them male, comes to the University of Pyralis to see the presentation of a new model for the physics of magical fields, one with profound implications for science, philosophy and religion. All of the conclusions of this study hang on a set of mathematical equations that 95% of them are not remotely prepared to comprehend. And into this environment steps the presenter: A young, slim, statuesque, exotic-looking beauty by the name of "Hallie".

I've heard philosophers say that the Universe is the fragmented essence of the Maker trying to understand Herself. If that's true, then clearly I must be the embodiment of Her masochistic tendencies. Or possibly Her sense of irony. Or both.

The bedroom door opened behind me. "How's it coming, Hal? We need to leave pretty soon."

Sophie, my flatmate. I turned away from the mirror and spun my chair around to look at her, gesturing down at my tan business suit, white blouse and brown flats. "You tell me."

She grimaced. "The undertaker showed up half an hour ago. I had to tell him it was a false alarm."

I snorted and turned back to fixing a few loose strands of my hair. "Perfect," I said, with a note of deliberate satisfaction.

Sophie sighed. "I just don't get you, Hallie. This is your big day! There're gonna be five hundred people in that room with their eyes on you, and it's like you're set on making yourself as boring and stuffy as possible."

"Pretty much."

She made an exasperated noise. Sophie is a graduate student, like I am. Like me, she is female and young and reportedly attractive to those of a gynosexual bent. That, however, is where the similarities end. Where I am 182 centimeters tall -- taller than many men -- she's only about 165, just barely average. Where I am lean and fairly flat-chested, she is buxom and wide-hipped. I am dark; she has the pale skin and frizzy red hair of her Sathmoran ancestors. And where my beauty makes it difficult for me to be taken seriously in the hard sciences, hers is a great asset to her in her chosen field of sociology -- specifically, the science of attraction and sexual behavior. Apparently a lot of people enjoy being studied by good-looking, energetic redheads who are also unabashed and enthusiastic participants in their own research. I know, I was just as astonished as I'm sure you are.

"You're insane, you know that?" Sophie said, though without much rancor. "If you had loosened up a little you could have had every guy in the university eating out of your hand years ago. And some of the women, too."

I believed her. Sophie would know, judging by some of her 'research subjects' who came in for a nightcap and stayed for breakfast. I wouldn't say she was undiscriminating, but her tastes were... diverse, to say the least. It had taken some effort on my part to persuade her that I wasn't on the menu.

"No time," I said, watching my own lips curl into a smirk as I hair-sprayed another rebel strand into submission. "I'll leave the socializing to you sociologists, thank you very much. Math and physics are infinitely more comprehensible than the average human."

Sophie chuckled, coming up behind me and leaning down to check her own appearance in the mirror. She brushed a loose strand of hair out of her face and tucked it behind one ear. "Maybe," she said, grinning impishly and lowering her mouth to my ear. Even with me sitting down, it didn't take much lowering. "But they won't keep you warm at night, either."

I met her gaze in the mirror and raised an eyebrow. "If it becomes a problem, I'll buy a heating pad."

Sophie clucked her tongue, gave me an expression that said You're hopeless, and began helping me tame my hair into a position that nature had clearly never intended. "I still think you should have worn a dress ... or at least left your hair down. These curls would be gorgeous with just a little mousse and conditioner."

"You're missing the point, Sophie," I said, trying to be patient. I really did appreciate her help, and I'd need it if I was going to get to the lecture hall in time to go over my notes. "This isn't Sathmore, and this isn't sociology. Hard science in Pyralis is an old boys' club inside an old boys' club. Any softness, any sex appeal at all, will be perceived as weak and unprofessional."

She snorted at that. "I'd like the see the guy who tries to tell you you're weak."

"I'd rather not provoke an incident in the first place," I said tiredly. "Particularly since some of these men could offer me jobs in the future." After a couple of minutes, she set down the hair-spray and stepped back, nodding. I turned my head this way and that. "That looks pretty good, I think. Thanks for the help."

She patted my shoulder. "No problem. Now let's move; I've already got your stuff out in the skimmer. Don't worry, I've mapped a route that's well clear of the funeral home, so there won't be any misunderstandings."

I growled, swatting at her, but she ducked and ran off, giggling like a madwoman. Shaking my head, I stood, adjusted my suit jacket, and followed after her.

If I hadn't known what was coming, the sight of the audience might have intimidated me. More than five hundred people filled the largest auditorium at the College of Natural Sciences -- an insanely large number for a student's defense, but word had leaked out about the topic of my study and a great number of students and teachers from other departments were making an appearance for the talk. Reportedly some of the philosophy and theology professors had made attendance mandatory for their students, and obviously the manology department was out in full force as well. Forewarned, however, is forearmed. I'd taught introductory sections of physics and calculus to classes this size, and I quickly adjusted to the thought of giving my talk to such a large crowd. Even the presence of reporters did little to disturb me; I knew my research backwards and forwards, and could easily counter any question their limited imaginations could devise. If anything, I hoped I would not have to embarrass them by exposing their naiveté to such a broad audience.

At the appointed time my advisor, Dr. Pietro Galvanni, came forward to introduce me. He was a short, pudgy little man, with the tanned skin, dark hair, thick beard and aquiline nose typical of a native Pyralian. He was going bald on top, as his hair migrated to more southerly climes such as his ears, nose and back. His belly hung out over his belt buckle and he walked with his feet turned out like a duck's. A comic impersonator could have been exceptionally cruel to him without even trying very hard.

He was also the single most brilliant man I had ever met, an astonishingly good scientist and an incisive critical thinker. He had recognized the value of my research ideas when few others could even understand the math involved, much less the implications. His own magnificent career was the sole reason I had braved the patriarchal climate of Pyralis and chosen to come here, rather than someplace like Metamor City, Elvquelin or Marigund where my gender would not be an immediate strike against me. Pietro did not share his countrymen's usual prejudices and, while our relationship had had its rocky periods, it was founded in mutual respect.

The audience fell silent, and Pietro briefly outlined how I had become his student and the ways in which I had distinguished myself during my five years under his tutelage. "And now," he concluded, "it is my great pleasure to introduce Halcyone Karmenos as she presents her dissertation: A unified model of the Space-Time-Æther matrix and its effects on thaumatogenic fields. Hallie?"

I took the microphone, and as I did so the lights dimmed and my presentation came to life on the projector behind me. Without hesitation I slipped into the talk I'd rehearsed a half-dozen times in the last week, discussing material that after five years was so familiar to me that I could have related it in my sleep. This was the easy part; my manuscript had already been vetted and approved by the committee, and my knowledge of the field had been thoroughly tested in my written and oral examinations. This final talk was a mere formality, a way to share with the student body the fruits of my research. There was no challenge these people could put to me that I hadn't already overcome.

For the sake of the audience, then, I kept things as simple as possible: The Universe consists of the dimensions of physical space, both in the Prima Materia and in the outlying planes; time, which is shared by all spatial dimensions; and the pseudospatial dimensions of the Æther. All substance within reality is composed of a combination of matter, energy, and mana, any of which can be interconverted with the others under the proper conditions. Mana passes back and forth between the physical planes and the Æther, drawn by interactions of matter, energy, and the conscious manipulation of observers. Like leptons and quarks, thaumatons -- the fundamental particles of mana -- exist in different fundamental forms, called aspects, of which there are six; their names, given in accordance with tradition, are Earth, Fire, Air, Water, Life, and Death. In 'raw' mana, as in white light, all aspects are present in roughly equal proportions. Certain events on the physical planes, however, can cause thaumatons of one aspect to condense at a focal point; a forest fire, for instance, concentrates the aspects of Fire and Death while reducing the affinity of that site for Water and Life. When conscious manipulation is applied to mana, it can be set into motion in a thaumatogenic field, producing what humans call magic: The manipulation of matter and energy through the agency of a substance that is at once both and neither.

All of this was simply a reiteration of Manology 101, of course. With this groundwork laid, I briefly described the history of investigation of the relationship between space-time and the Æther, and the difficulties that had been faced in constructing a unified model of these two components of reality. The question of how mana moved into and out of the physical world, and why matter and energy could not penetrate the Æther, was a problem that had vexed theoretical physicists for decades. This led directly into Pietro's work in the field -- and thence into my own, which was to be the final, triumphant integration of past research into a unified, testable model of the Space-Time-Æther matrix.

Now it was time for the mathematics, and I knew that I must be brief and direct. I put up the equations on the projected display, one at a time, describing in general terms the meaning and implications of each. Of the five hundred people in the room, fewer than ten could truly understand the math involved, so I left the equations floating in one corner of the display and moved on to the graphical diagrams of the model in action. Even if most of those present couldn't understand why the model worked, they could at least see what it looked like in action. I walked them through the tests I'd performed against data collected by past researchers, and explained how the resulting meta-analysis showed that the model conformed well to those data. In a limited fashion, I had even been able to use the model to successfully predict the behavior of mana in a controlled experiment, which was a major coup: It's one thing to develop an observational model, and quite another to successfully test it under laboratory conditions. The applied physicists and manologists were showing a great deal more interest now, and I had to suppress a triumphant smile. Stay professional; stay in control. Animated, but not manic. Confident, but not smug. Balance, balance, balance.

I scanned over the crowd, or as much of them as I could see in the dim light. Good; no more than a tenth of them had nodded off or glazed over during the technical bits. With the model established and tested, I could now move on into the practical implications: If mana behaves in this way, what constraints does this impose on the creation and behavior of magical fields? I set forth a few examples of its effects that were modest but interesting; upper limits on the size of illusion fields, or the circumstances under which ritual sacrifice causes a net gain of mana (through concentrating the Death aspect in greater quantities than the Life aspect is lost). I shamelessly employed full-color images and video in these examples in order to capture the flagging interest of the students and laypeople in the crowd.

Then, with everyone fully engaged, I dropped the bombshell.

"By far the most interesting implication of this model, however," I said, "is its effect on divination magic. While divinatory fields can create a passage through the Æther between two points in space-time, Equation Six shows that information can only flow through this link from one point on the time axis to a point further forward along the time axis. Attempting to send information backward along the time axis results in a null value here in the denominator -- which, as any algebra student can tell you, means that the equation is undefined.

"In other words, while it is possible to use divinatory fields to perceive the past, through augury, or the present, through scrying, they cannot be used to perceive the future. This means that what we call prophecy, the ability to relate events before they happen, is physically and magically impossible."

I paused and let the implications sink in for a moment before going on. A quiet susurration flowed through the room as I saw dozens of heads turning to whisper to their neighbors. Most of the crowd probably didn't even hear my concluding summary; as I did when I first saw the results, they were likely considering how much of mortal history had been shaped, even manipulated, through the words of seers and prophets. Kingdoms and empires had risen and fallen, innocents slaughtered and tyrants spared, entire lifetimes spent in pondering the meanings of cryptic riddles and poems -- all of it for nothing. The future was a book we could not open, that no one ever had opened, not even the creatures that had once called themselves gods and still walked among us like giants, as if their insight gave them the right to rule over us. If the gods had ever 'seen' anything, it was only the shadowy outcome of their own manipulations, like a chess master who plays against a novice and predicts the game ten moves ahead -- his only power is that he is, at all times, in control of the game.

The question-and-answer session ran twenty minutes over the allotted time, but I was more than happy to stay and answer the inquiries. Most of them I had been expecting, in one form or another -- people wanting explanations for how this or that prophecy or revelation had come true in the past. In most cases the answer was easy: The prophecy in question had been given by a servant of one of the gods, and was not a true vision of the future but simply a statement of what the gods intended to do. Now that the Pantheon had fallen to earth, mere shadows of their former glory, we could rest secure in the knowledge that mortals were free of this sort of manipulation.

One history student brought up the prophecies of Mad Felix of Lee, which I had also expected. Felix and his descendents, the Felikaush, had shaped much of the seventh and eighth centuries with their vague and rambling prognostications. I pointed out that the very fact that people had been aware of these prophecies and tried to make them come true invalidated them as impartial records of future events -- and, besides, the language of the prophecies was so ambiguous that any number of events could have been interpreted as fulfilling them. Even today there were many aspects of Lee's prophecies that no historical event had fulfilled completely.

"So," drawled a reporter for the campus paper, "are you saying that every supposed prophet in history has been a charlatan? A liar? Are they just making these things up as they go?"

"Not at all," I said quickly. "Many of them were certainly connecting to something outside themselves. They may have seen events that had occurred in the distant past, or in a far-off country. History does tend to repeat itself, after all, and a vague description of wars, alliances and betrayals could easily be applied to many different times and circumstances. And of course, as I said before, some of them were receiving messages from the Pantheon themselves. There is no doubt that many of these people possessed genuine magic or psionic abilities; they simply weren't seeing what they thought they were seeing."

After that I fielded a few technical questions from the other scientists in the room, until finally Pietro stood up and announced that we must clear the auditorium for the next class. People began filing out, and a few members of my dissertation committee came up to congratulate me.

"Extraordinary work, Hallie," said Dr. Marielle Winters, a white-haired Silvaan woman from Metamor City whom I had brought in as an outside expert on divination magic. She shook my hand firmly, her large black eyes sparkling. "You'll make the cover of Manology with this, mark my words."

"Thank you," I said, feeling genuinely honored. "I couldn't have done it without you."

She smirked. "Nonsense. I was merely the technical support; you were the one with the vision ... though perhaps we should choose a different turn of phrase," she added, and we both laughed.

I said good-bye to Dr. Winters and the rest of my committee and began putting away my notes and equipment. As I was preparing to shut down the projector I noticed a man standing at the front of the room, gazing up at the equations that were still floating in the upper left-hand corner. He was pale-skinned and about my height, with a neatly-trimmed goatee and short tousled hair that faded from a medium brown at the roots to blonde at the tips. I couldn't guess his age; he could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty-five. He was dressed in a pale green business suit, which would have to be oppressively hot in the Pyralian summer heat, but it was as neat and crisp as if he had just taken it off the rack -- a minor cleanliness enchantment, no doubt. He was perfectly still as he looked up at the equations, head cocked slightly to one side. Only his eyes roved back and forth, studying the display with intense interest.

I stopped what I was doing and went over to him. "I'm sorry," I said, "but I'm afraid I have to turn this off now. The next class will be coming in any minute."

He turned his head to look at me, a quick and almost bird-like gesture. "Ah! Yes, of course. My apologies," he said, smiling at me. His voice was bright and strong, like a stage performer or the lead tenor in an opera. He stuck out his hand and shook mine vigorously. "Congratulations. It was a most entertaining presentation."

I raised an eyebrow at his choice of words. "Entertaining, eh?" I said. "Should I assume, then, that I didn't put you to sleep during the technical parts?"

"Oh, goodness, no!" he laughed merrily. "It was all very clever, very clever indeed. I applaud you. You're going to cause quite a stir in the field, make no mistake." He glanced up at the equations again and his smile went crooked. He turned back and looked straight at me, and I saw that his eyes were the same color as his suit. They twinkled knowingly. "Of course you realize the model is incomplete. What you've written here, it doesn't actually work."

I felt my smile grow tight. It doesn't actually work. I had been told the same thing many times over the years, and had never failed to prove myself. "Oh?" I asked, trying to be polite. "And why is that?"

Just then the doors at the back of the hall opened. A rush of students began pouring in to the auditorium. The man in the green suit grinned and leaned forward conspiratorially to whisper in my ear. "Because griffins can't fly upside-down," he said.

I pulled back and looked at him, dumbstruck. He winked, gave a small two-fingered salute with his right hand, then spun on his heel and left without another word.

I found it difficult to concentrate that weekend, and even more difficult to relax. Even in the midst of the post-defense celebration with my friends and lab-mates, my mind kept turning back to the stranger in the green suit.

Clearly the man was insane. Griffins can't fly upside-down? What sort of an answer was that? As for the model being incomplete, that was almost a tautology: Models are incomplete by their very nature -- they break down the complex realities of the universe into something that can be understood, analyzed, and to a certain extent predicted. There was no rational reason to believe that the man had any idea what he was talking about.

Still, my subconscious couldn't leave it alone. There was something about the way he said it, the way he looked at me -- a kind of private knowledge, as if the whole thing were a joke and he already knew the punchline. A philosopher or theologian who was trying to discredit me would have been angry, or at least combative; he'd just seemed ... amused. And griffins? Most people who took issue with my model disputed its implications for divination magic. What did a griffin's flight capabilities have to do with it? I spent an hour going over my manuscript on Saturday night, but I couldn't see anything that might have triggered the man's comment.

On Sunday I went surfing with Sophie and some of her friends -- one of my few social pastimes -- hoping to take my mind off of the stranger and his words. After wiping out for the fifth time, I had to conclude that it wasn't working.

"You'd better pay more attention to what you're doing, Hal," Sophie said, as I dragged my board and my bruised body ignominiously back to shore. "You're gonna really get yourself hurt if you aren't more careful."

"I know, I know," I said, nodding wearily. I let out a long sigh, then winced as my ribs ached. "Apparently it isn't my day. Maybe I'll take off the wetsuit and just lay in the sun for a while."

She put a hand on my arm, looking up at me with serious eyes. "Hey. You all right?"

I shook my head. "I don't know." I paused. "I don't suppose you have any friends who know anything about griffins."

She cocked her head quizzically. "Griffins?"

"Griffins. Specifically, how they fly."

She wrinkled her brow thoughtfully. "Magic, I think. Something about them being too big for their wings?"

I snorted. "Yes, I already knew that much. I was hoping for something a little more specific."

She set down her board and leaned on it for a moment, her eyes distant. "There was this guy I dated once," she said slowly. "He was a wizard who worked on -- what do you call it? Miracle-working magic, like walking on water or feather-falling?"

"Thaumaturgy," I supplied.

"Right, that's it. Anyway, he was doing his journeyman research on flight magic. Maybe he knows something about griffins. I'll give you his number when we get back."

"Fantastic!" I said, grinning. "Thanks so much, Sophie."

She shrugged. "No prob." She gave me another odd look. "What's this about, anyway?"

A gull swooped overhead, keening as it flew out to sea. I watched as it circled and banked over the waves, searching for its next meal. "I'm not sure yet, myself," I admitted. "Maybe nothing."

I thought about the stranger, his knowing smile and glittering eyes. Or maybe not.

That evening I talked to Sophie's wizard friend, Stephen. He couldn't tell me much about griffins that I didn't already know -- his studies had focused on flight magic for humans -- but he was able to point me to Dr. Uriel Kapler, a biothaumatologist at the University of Marigund. Dr. Kapler had built his career around studying the natural magical fields generated by some kinds of living creatures, and he had a long and successful working relationship with the griffins of the Sylvan Mountains.

"That's correct," he said, speaking to me by phone the following day. "Griffins can execute brief barrel rolls, and can even perform a loop if they first enter a steep dive to gain the necessary airspeed. But actually flying upside-down? No, impossible. Their thaumatogenic fields can only generate lift on the ventral side of the body."

"Would it be possible to send me copies of your findings?" I asked.

"Certainly, I'll forward them to you this afternoon. Send me the data on your model, as well; I'd like to have a look at it."

We compared notes over the next several days, as we took my theoretical model and examined how it could be applied to Dr. Kapler's observations of griffins in flight. It took some time to put my equations into a form that would admit processing of his data, but by Friday we had come to one inescapable conclusion.

"It doesn't work," I said, staring in astonishment at the pages of calculations in front of me.

"Looks that way," Kapler agreed. "If our calculations are correct, your model predicts that griffins should be able to vector that lift-field in any direction. They should be able to fly upside-down. Unfortunately, that just doesn't fit the empirical reality."

"How could he even have seen this?" I murmured, shaking my head. "How did we not see this?"

"Don't beat yourself up too much over it," Kapler advised. "It's a very ambitious model, and from what I can tell it does seem to be very successful at predicting some kinds of thaumatogenic field behavior. It's not necessarily wrong, it's just incomplete."

Incomplete. The word rang through my head like a gunshot as the eyes of the stranger looked back at me from my own thoughts. "Dr. Kapler, there was a man at my talk who pointed this problem out to me. Somehow he saw it in the basic equations I sent you -- just saw it, without spending a week on it like we have." I described the man in the green suit. "Does he sound like anyone in your field? Someone you might have met at a conference somewhere?"

"I'm not sure," Kapler admitted. "He doesn't sound familiar, but without a photograph I couldn't say. Whoever he is, though, he obviously knows something. If I were you, I'd try to find him; if he saw the problem that easily, maybe he has some ideas on how to fix it."

I nodded, though I knew he couldn't see me over the phone. "Good idea. Thanks again for your help, Dr. Kapler."

"My pleasure. Good luck, Dr. Karmenos."

I felt odd as I turned off the handset. Doctor Karmenos. Technically, the title was mine by right; I had completed all the requirements and been approved by my committee and the dean of the College of Natural Sciences. But it didn't feel like I'd actually earned it yet. There was a hole, a deep and significant hole, that ran right through the center of my work. Pietro and I had stuck our necks out by opening up my defense lecture to a broad audience, and the news of my project and its implications for the idea of prophecy was already spreading all over town. If my model contained this flaw, what else might be wrong with it? If I published the research without first plugging the holes in the model, Pietro and I both ran the risk of sullying our professional reputations.

I looked down at the papers again and set my jaw. I will find you, mystery man, I thought grimly. And then we'll find out how much you really know.

To gentleman in green suit, re. our talk on 4-Jun: Analysis shows you were correct. Wish to know more. Req. to meet via netlink, 15-Jun, 18:00, UoP VR domain, Thaumaton Café. Pls send reply to to confirm or reschedule.

The message ran for three days in the personal ad sections of the campus newspaper and both city papers, as well as on the open message boards in the university's WorldNet domain. On Tuesday morning a message came to the address I had specified, stating simply: I shall attend. The sending address was listed as Well, given my own decision to use an anonymous mailbox, I could hardly blame him for doing so.

Still, I felt distinctly uncomfortable as I put on my spelljack headset and tapped in to the university's VR systems. There was no rational reason to be worried; the Thaumaton Café was familiar ground for me, a popular watering hole for physics and manology majors, and a virtual meeting was about as safe as one could ask for. If the situation turned unpleasant, I could simply jack out. Even so, there was something about the idea of meeting with the man that made the hairs on my neck stand on end. The way he had just seen the flaw in my model was unsettling. I was almost afraid of what else I might find out if he agreed to help me.

With an effort of will, I deliberately pushed those fears aside, dismissing them. Intellectual cowardice was unbecoming in a scientist. I would find out what this man knew, and if he actually had any solutions for me or was simply skilled in identifying the problem.

He was already waiting for me as my virtual self entered the café. He'd taken a seat at a small table near the back and was nursing a hot beverage of some kind, which he raised in salute as he saw me. I ordered a coffee from the barista and carried it over to sit across from him. I sniffed it and took a sip, then raised my eyebrows in surprise. It was excellent; rich and dark, with accents of chocolate and cinnamon. They had clearly upgraded the sensory input modules since the last time I had been here.

I set down my cup and extended a hand across the table, which he shook. "Thank you for meeting with me," I said.

"Oh, my pleasure," he said, showing me a smile. It was rather charming, actually, not the manic grin I had seen on him the first time we had met. "How can I be of assistance?"

"I was hoping you could tell me, actually," I admitted. "That flaw you saw in my model, about the griffins -- it was astonishing. It took me a week to examine it, and I had to contact an expert in the field, but you were right: The model doesn't fit the empirical data. It wasn't even close." I took another sip of coffee and shook my head. "The trouble is, I can't see where I went wrong. I've been going over the equations for days; the math all works."

He shrugged, taking a drink from his own mug. "Mathematics can be correct and still be wrong," he said. "I can show you the math for a null-dimensional non-space, or a five-sided cube, and it will all be right -- and still be wrong. The question is whether the underlying axioms I'm using fit with the reality."

I nodded slowly. He had a point; the history of physics was filled with incomplete models of reality, which predicted the behavior of the world very well in certain limited cases but fell apart in areas where their underlying assumptions did not apply. The laws of mechanics were like that -- one could use them to predict the motion of a rubber ball, but not a neutron, even though both were composed of matter and carried a neutral charge.

"All right," I said. "So you're saying that there is something wrong with one of the model's axioms."

"Maybe," he said, his green eyes sparkling again. "Or maybe the griffins are just underestimating themselves. Either way, wouldn't you like to know?"

"Definitely," I agreed. "I'd like to have you take a closer look at my work; perhaps you can see where I've gone wrong."

"I'd prefer if I can teach you to see it," he said easily. "You're the one who has to write the paper, after all."

I nodded, taking his point. "When would you like to start?"

He checked his watch, a golden monstrosity with at least six smaller dials set into the face of a larger one. I doubted that anything like it existed outside of the virtual world. "I have some other business to attend to tonight, and a few preparations to make. Let's say tomorrow morning, ten o'clock, in your office?"

"Fair enough," I agreed. "It's still my office for a little while longer; Pietro's next student hasn't arrived yet."

"Excellent!" he said, rising to his feet. "Until then, Dr. Karmenos..."

"Wait," I said, putting a hand on his arm. An electric, tingling sensation ran through me, almost making me gasp. Apparently there was something wrong with the café's interaction module -- it must have happened when they installed the new sensory systems. He paused, waiting patiently while I recovered from the odd sensation.

"You ... you never told me who you are," I said at last, looking up into his merry green eyes.

He chuckled, reached behind my ear and produced a business card -- a nice bit of sleight of hand, even in virtual. He dropped it into my open palm, and I looked down to read it:

Septimus Octoginta
Cultural Gadfly
Scholar Without Portfolio

"Septimus Octoginta?" I raised my eyebrows at the obvious pseudonym. "Seventh Eighty, in Old Suielman?"

"Please, call me Septimus." He winked, and then I got it.

"Oh, hells. It's a riddle, isn't it? Seven letters, and their numerical values add up to eighty?" His grin got even broader, and I couldn't help but laugh. "I thought mathematicians stopped playing that game two or three hundred years ago."

Septimus shrugged. "What can I say? I've always had a certain affection for the classics. Good day, Dr. Karmenos." He paused, then snapped his fingers as if he had just remembered something. "Oh, yes!" he said, his expression abruptly becoming serious. He leaned forward over the table, his voice low and urgent. "This may seem somewhat strange, and I do hope you won't take it the wrong way, but it's very important that you answer me honestly: What size are your pants?"

I blinked. "What?"

"Your pants, Dr. Karmenos! What size are they?"

"Um, Eleven-Tall, why?"

"You'll see tomorrow. Watch out for puddles." He straightened up and tipped me that two-fingered salute again. Then he jacked out, his avatar dissolving into green sparkles of light that floated out in all directions and slowly faded away. Cute.

I shook my head, feeling disoriented all over again. Watch out for puddles? Another riddle, I supposed; the man seemed to take a perverse delight in them. I fingered the card thoughtfully for a minute, then slipped it into a pocket so it would be stored in my own computer along with my avatar. I could work out his riddles later; the important thing was that he had agreed to help me. I would learn whatever I could from this 'Septimus', no matter how annoying his little games might be.

Wednesday, June 16th.

I woke up feeling refreshed, energized, and glad to be alive. I couldn't remember the last time I'd slept so well. I pulled open all the shutters and blinds in the apartment, filling the rooms with warm golden sunlight, then sang to myself in the shower. As I came back out into my room, the towel wrapped around me, I paused in front of my full-length mirror.

It had been a long time since I had really looked at myself with anything but a clinical eye. I let the towel fall to the floor and decided that had been an oversight. I raised my arms and turned this way and that, thoughtfully admiring how the beams of sunlight fell across my lean frame, running my fingers through my glossy black curls. I ran my hands down the length of my body and smiled, feeling an odd but welcome flush of pleasure and pride. Sophie was right: it was a shame to hide this under layers of heavy fabric. Maybe now that I'd jumped through all of the hoops to get my doctorate I could afford to enjoy myself a little. Still smiling, I picked up my towel and went to get dressed.

In keeping with my sunny mood, I went with a pale yellow camisole coupled with my usual jeans and sneakers. (The business suit only comes out when I have someone to impress; graduate students can't afford many dry-cleaning bills.) The sleeveless garment showed off my rich brown skin, and it would also help to keep me cooler in the summer heat. The front of the cami was cut low -- it would have shown some cleavage, if I'd had any to speak of. It was more revealing than what I'd usually wear to the office, but today was a good day and I was feeling a little adventurous.

Sophie hadn't come home the night before -- not all that unusual, but it did mean that I'd have to catch the bus up to campus since she was the one with the skimmer. No matter; the sun was shining, last night's rain had taken the edge off of the heat, and I would thoroughly enjoy the three-block walk down to the bus stop.

Our flat was in the city proper, about a kilometer off of a strip of small shops and second-story apartments that formed a sort of 'downtown' for the surrounding neighborhoods. Morning rush hour had come and gone, but tourists were thick on the ground this time of year and the streets were full of skimmers, groundcars and people as I walked down to the bus stop. I looked out at the teeming crowds -- the uni students on break and the lovers on holiday, men walking their dogs and women pushing their children in strollers -- and it all seemed inexpressibly wonderful. I smiled at people as they passed and walked with my head held high.

A little too high, as it happened; as I neared the bus stop, a passing groundcar struck a nearby puddle and sent a spray of mud all over my jeans. I stood there, frozen in shock that turned quickly to rage as the man drove off without even an apology. My positive attitude evaporated like morning mist.

"What the hell!?" I exclaimed, to no one in particular. I looked down at my mud-soaked pants and cursed again under my breath. They weren't even remotely salvageable; there was no way I could go in to the office like this. Dammit, I was going to miss my appointment with Septimus!

"Doctor Karmenos!"

I looked up sharply and was surprised to see that the bus had pulled up to the stop. Right above me, peering out of one of the last two windows on the bus, was Septimus.

I stared at him for a moment, stupidly.

"Are you coming?" he asked, gesturing toward the doors at the front of the bus.

"I--" I stopped, then gestured helplessly down at my pants. "I have to go home and change."

The bus chimed a warning that it was about to depart. "No time!" he called. Reaching down beside him, he hefted a bag from one of the small downtown garment shops and waved it in front of me. "Get on, quickly!" he said.

I was already moving before I could even think of saying no. I caught the door just before it closed, and my legs made their way to the back of the bus without any conscious direction on my part. Septimus had saved a seat for me alongside his own. He was wearing green again, but he'd replaced the suit with a short-sleeved buttoned shirt and jeans, which made him look like any of a thousand other tourists -- well, okay, like a particularly charming and good-looking tourist. His eyes danced as he saw me come up and sit down beside him.

"I told you to watch out for puddles," he said, passing the shopping bag over to me. I looked inside and found a pair of jeans -- size Eleven-Tall -- and a cute pair of ruby-red sandals. I turned to face him, my jaw hanging open again, and he winked and smiled again.

"How did you know?" I asked, unable to say much of anything else.

He shrugged. "There are two answers to that question: The acceptable answer, and the other answer. The acceptable answer might say that I knew last night's forecast called for heavy rains followed by clear skies this morning. It would go on to assume that I knew your friend Sophie's proclivities, and that you would likely be forced to take the bus this morning to make our ten o'clock appointment. I knew where the bus stop was, and that the heavy traffic of the tourist season would make it likely that whatever pants you wore upon leaving the apartment would be soiled by the time you reached the university."

I laughed. "That's the 'acceptable' answer? It makes you sound like a stalker."

He waggled his eyebrows. "Or just brilliantly insightful and generally well-informed."

"Or that," I agreed, laughing again. I could feel my cheery mood of this morning slowly making its way back to me. "So what's the other answer?"

He gave a look of mock surprise. "Why, that I saw it all in a vision, of course. But we both know that's impossible."

I snorted and shook my head. "All right, fine. However you did it, thank you. I've been looking forward to our meeting, and I'd hate to have missed it because of a puddle. I can't wait to get started."

"You already have," he said.

Upon our arrival at the university I changed clothes, stuck the dirty ones in a plastic garbage bag, then led Septimus up to the tiny office that I shared with two other grad students. Neither of them were there at the moment -- classes were out and most students were at the beach or home visiting their families -- so I stole one of their chairs and sat down alongside Septimus as we powered up the computer terminal. He found a hard-copy printout of my dissertation on my desk and began leafing through it, occasionally murmuring something under his breath.

"Will it trouble you if I write on this?" he asked after a moment, looking up.

I leaned over and peered at the cover. "No, go ahead. That's just a proofreading copy; I've already submitted the official ones to the college for binding."

He was already busily jotting notes in the margins. "Given what you discovered about griffins," he said absently, "you might want to ask to submit an addendum."

"It's not the dissertation that worries me, " I said, bringing up the mathematics program I'd used to build my model. "Those are allowed to be imperfect. The real trouble is the paper we're writing for Manology. Can you imagine if it were published with flaws like the one you found, after the way I talked up the implications? We'd be a laughingstock in the community."

He gave me an unexpectedly sharp look. "What is more important to you?" he asked. "Your reputation, or the pursuit of truth? I must warn you: I have been in the truth-seeking business for a long time, and it has done nothing to improve my reputation."

I shifted uncomfortably, feeling a blush settle into my cheeks. "Well, of course I want to follow the evidence where it takes us. I don't want to have a good-looking paper just to have a good looking paper. I want to know how things work."

He nodded. "And are you willing to risk your reputation for this? Are you willing to ask impertinent questions and accept uncomfortable answers?"

I nodded, feeling a little more confident now. "If that's where the evidence leads us, then yes."

His eyes grew distant, staring off into some point in space behind me. "So you are," he murmured. Then suddenly he was back, smiling that handsome smile and engaging me with those startling eyes. "Very good," he said. "Let's begin by examining the theoretical underpinnings of your model."

The process took hours. Beginning with the overview I had given in my talk, I now showed Septimus all of the ugly details of developing the model that went unseen by the general audience. He rarely spoke except to ask questions, seeking clarification on some minor point or asking me to explain the rationale behind this or that assumption that I had used in the model. He absorbed everything with remarkable speed, and in many places he saw where I was going well before I got there. The complex mathematics that caused many scientists' heads to spin were absolutely no hindrance to him.

"You haven't said much," I noted, as the clock approached five in the afternoon. I'd finally said all that I could think to say about the model, and he had run out of questions. "You must have seen flaws in what I told you, because they're obviously there. How come you haven't pointed them out to me?"

He stroked his beard for a moment, thoughtfully, then raised his hand between us as if he were holding something. "I see the flaws in the results," he said after a moment. "I see the ways in which this or that prediction fails to conform to what I know to be true of reality. But those flaws are not the problem. I see the logic that leads you to those flawed conclusions, and the logic is not the problem, either. What I have been doing here today is following the lines of logic from those flawed conclusions back to the flawed thinking that created them." He leaned forward and closed his hand into a fist, looking at me seriously. "You see the world through a certain lens, one that is shaped by your upbringing. Although quantum mechanics decrees that the universe is intrinsically disordered and unpredictable, you have never truly accepted that; indeed, the whole of your career could be viewed as an attempt to divorce uncertainty from existence. You assume that the universe is mechanical, that time is linear, that cause follows effect, that reality is deterministic. Everything is explicable and rational, given time and patience. Truth is nothing more or less than the systematic interpretation of facts. If you could catalog every variable, account for every component of a system, everything could be predicted and explained. Randomness is an illusion caused by ignorance of some or all of the forces in play. Does all of that sound right?"

I nodded, frowning slightly.

He leaned closer, now holding up both of his fists in front of him. "That is the lens you live with," he said, softly but fervently. His eyes drew me in and held my gaze like a vise. "The lens that focuses you, and focuses your perceptions of the world around you. It is the lens of absolute order. But like any lens, it is limited -- and as your model has shown you, it is flawed." He spread his hands, open-palmed, on either side of my face, blocking my view of anything but the eyes that were right in front of me. "You want to know the truth, but you are wearing blinders," he said. "Before you can find knowledge, you must first learn how to see."

With that, he put his hands over my eyes, the fingertips touching my eyelids. There was a sudden surge of power, an electric, tingling sensation that drove me back in my chair and made stars dance in front of my eyes. I felt no pain, but it seemed as if all of my senses had been suddenly amplified: air currents danced along my skin, sweat made rivers of ice down my back, and I could smell the must and leather of old books on the shelf across the room. I could also smell him, the scent of masculinity, damped down to civilized levels through hygiene and deodorant, but now strong and heady around me. Even worse, I could smell my own arousal as my body began to respond to the nearness of his presence, the memory of his touch.

I looked at him in astonishment, remembering the first time I had touched him in virtual. That hadn't been a faulty programming module. That was him.

"What did you do to me?" I asked, my voice sounding small and timid in my ears.

He rose to his feet. "I have but planted a seed," he said. "A small potentiality that will grow, or wither, as you see fit. Or perhaps I have done nothing but water the seed that lay dormant inside you. Regardless, a choice is before you now. I will teach you what I know, if you will allow yourself to see it. If you allow this seed to grow, it will grow up through the very center of your beautiful, orderly lens, until its flaws become chasms before your eyes. It will shatter your illusions, until it is quite impossible for you to see the world as you do now. Such is the cost of knowledge." He bowed to me. "Consider whether you are willing to pay it, for I shall expect your answer when next we meet." He turned to go.

"Wh--" I started, but the words fell away into an empty rush of air. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tried again. "When will that be?" I asked.

He paused, his hand on the doorknob. "That is entirely up to you," he said. "Sleep on it. Think about it. Then call me when you are ready."

He left. I sat there for a long time in silence, staring at nothing, listening to the echoes of his footsteps, breathing in the memory of his scent.

I lay awake for hours that night, thinking hard. The heightened perceptions of earlier had gradually faded, but I felt like there was something there that hadn't been there before -- or maybe something that had been there that I had never learned to notice. I almost felt that, if I tried, I could reach inside my mind and touch the thing that waited there, could unfold it and use it to... do something. Get back the intense sensory input I had experienced earlier, perhaps, but on some level I knew it was more than that. I wouldn't know exactly what it was until I tried to use it, though, and that frightened me. I felt like a child sitting alone in a dark room with an electric torch in her hands, afraid to turn it on because she can feel something moving around out there: unable to move, unable to see, and afraid to use the power in her hands for fear that it would reveal something more terrible than the darkness. The room might not be the beautiful place she always assumed it was, with colorful wallpaper and toys stacked in neat rows for her to play with. It might, in fact, be a cave, and the things she heard moving out there might be monsters waiting to eat her.

Septimus had told me that my neat, orderly view of the universe was wrong -- or he had strongly implied it, in any case. He'd named the core axioms of my life and dismissed them as illusions. What could that mean? Obviously rational thinking was valuable -- look at the advances that society had made in the last thousand years because of rational inquiry. Science, especially the scientific study of magic and physics, had given us cities that touched the sky, ships and cars that flew, trains that rode on air, medicine that doubled the human lifespan. Clearly our ideas weren't entirely wrong.

But maybe... maybe they were incomplete. Valuable, yes, but only for limited applications, like the laws of mechanics. Like my model.

If that was so, then... what was under the surface? Could I bear finding out, if the truth was as shattering as Septimus implied?

I turned over and looked up at the ceiling. A better question: Could I bear it if I never found out?

The thought came back to me again: Intellectual cowardice is unbecoming in a scientist. Once, it had been a tool that had allowed me to cut away any constructs of faith or superstition that might get in the way of my work. It was the slogan that had sustained me when I discovered that prophecy was impossible and the beliefs that had shaped our world were an illusion. It was my rallying cry in the face of opposition from the philosophers and seers and True Believers who held firmly to the belief that the future was revealed in divine revelations and the ramblings of prophets.

Now it was calling me to take a step of faith myself -- to open myself up to something I didn't understand, something that, according to the man who did understand it, would cost me dearly. It was calling me to turn on the light and face whatever it was that awaited me.

"I am not a coward," I told the ceiling.

I closed my eyes, reached out, and touched the thing that waited inside of me.

And slowly, hesitantly, I opened it.

Thursday, June 17th.

Morning again!

I practically leap out of bed, my arms and legs tingling with life. I feel sunshine dancing across my skin, hear birds singing in the trees outside, feel the carpeting squish between my toes. The world is alive, and I feel like singing -- so I do!

I strip off my clothes, wrap my towel around me, and head for the shower with a spring in my step. The warm water runs over my skin like a lover's hands, sensual and comforting. The lather of soap tingles everywhere it touches, then washes away and leaves me feeling like a woman reborn. I dry off, comb out my hair, and open the door, when a heavenly scent fills my nose: Coffee!

Grinning, I practically dance my way out to the kitchen and pull out a mug. I pass Sophie on the way, as she stands in front of the stove tending a skillet of scrambled eggs, dressed in her kimono and with her hair wrapped up in a towel. I pay her little heed as I grab the pot and pour out the blessed black beverage, then raise the cup to my nose and breathe. I follow that up with a slurp, then savor the rich, nutty flavor of it as it runs over my tongue and down my throat.

"Sweet Maker," I say, the words coming out like a prayer. "You surely know how make a cup of coffee, Soph."

Sophie doesn't say anything in response, though she does make a noise -- sort of a cute little squeak. I smile. "Now, Sophie," I chide her, turning slowly around, "when someone pays you a compliment, you say --"

"Holy daughter of god," Sophie whispers. I turn around and see that she's staring at me, eyes wide.

I cock my head and laugh at her expression. "No, I..." She's still staring. Huh. That's kind of silly of her. "What's up, Sophie?"

Her eyes go down the length of my body, then back up to my face. I follow her gaze down.

Oh, I see -- looks like I left my towel in the bathroom. I take a moment to decide whether I'm embarrassed about that.

...Huh. Apparently not. But then, why should I be?

I look back up at Sophie. She's still staring, and now her lower lip is quivering a little. I can hear her heart beating faster, her breathing getting deeper. I raise my eyebrows at her. "What, this?" I say, gesturing down at my nude body. "What's the problem? You've made a career out of enjoying the human body for the good of science." I take a sip of my coffee and then look back at her, grinning wickedly over the edge of the cup. "You are enjoying it, aren't you?" I ask, teasingly.

Sophie makes a little whimpering noise and drops her spatula. I laugh and take my cup of coffee with me as I go back to my room to get dressed.

Which really isn't as much fun as walking around naked. Meh -- boring, boring, boring, all boring. My closet looks like it was stocked by an accountant, all dark blue or black or gray or white or brown. Even the yellow cami I wore yesterday looks washed out. Even my underwear is boring!

"I really need to get some new clothes," I say, pouting.

Just then the doorbell rings. "I'll get it!" Sophie shouts. She sounds a little too eager -- heh. Maybe she's afraid I'm going to answer the door naked. That could be funny.

The door opens, then shuts few seconds later. I hear Sophie padding over to my door in her bare feet, the slap of flesh against tile followed by the squish, squish, squish of the carpet. She knocks, hesitantly. "Um, Hallie? You've got a package..."

A package for me? I didn't order anything. Hey, a surprise!

I go over and yank open the door. Sophie's standing there, fidgeting, staring off to her left, holding a huge cardboard box out straight in front of her. Her pale, freckled skin is blushing everywhere I can see it.

She's just too adorable. I take the package and set it aside. "Thanks!" I say, then lean forward and plant a kiss on the cheek she has turned toward me. Her blush changes to a color more like a boiled lobster, as I turn my back and carry the box back to my bed. I don't bother shutting the door again; if she decides she wants to watch, why would I stop her?

I tear open the box and pull aside the packaging to find -- "Oh, yes!"

Colors! Brilliant, vibrant colors spilling out everywhere, luscious hues of red and pink and orange and purple and green and yellow. Halters, camisoles, bikinis, short-shorts, miniskirts, sarongs, silk blouses as sheer as pantyhose, sexy lingerie in a dozen varieties, and an assortment of hats, scarves, even a few colorful pairs of sandals and shoes. I drink in the sight of it, grab handfuls of fabric and rub it over my skin, and love every bit of it.

I look at the packing receipt and laugh out loud. There's a message printed there:


I thought you might have need of these.
If so, consider them a gift.
If not, return them and I will pay all expenses.
I look forward to our next meeting.


"Clever, clever man," I say fondly, letting the receipt fall to the floor. "It's perfect. Absolutely perfect."

"Holy shit!"

I look back over my shoulder and see that curiosity has gotten the better of Sophie: she's standing in the doorway and staring at my box full of treasures. (Heh. Staring at my box.) I pull out a couple of garments and hold them up in front of me. "What do ya think?" I ask, grinning.

She looks around at everything I've pulled out and shakes her head. "I think it must have cost a fortune. Gods, Hallie, can you afford this?"

"Apparently so." I hand her the packing slip and then start trying to pick out some underwear. I decide on some lacy white bottoms with a high cut that shows off my legs. I don't really need a bra, so I put on a swirly-patterned orange and yellow blouse made of that light, silky peek-a-boo material. Ha! Wait 'til they see that at the office...

"Hallie, how long have you known this guy?" Sophie sounds uncharacteristically serious.

"Longer than you knew that guy you brought home last Friday," I say. Maybe that's mean, but I say it playfully, letting her know I'm not ragging on her.

She's quiet for a few seconds, and I start looking around in the box for some bottoms to go with the blouse.

"Okay, granted," she says at last. "But he didn't buy me a thousand marks' worth of clothes, either. Gods, how does he even know your size?"

I shrug. "He asked. I told him. Good thing, too, or I wouldn't have had any pants to wear yesterday." I briefly entertain the image of showing up at the lab in my skivvies. Heh. No, that would just be impractical. I pick out a pair of shorts and pull them on, then model them in front of the mirror. It's a good look.

"Hal, this guy knows way too much about you." Poor Sophie, she sounds so distraught. "Listen to me! I study this stuff for a living, remember? He's showing all the signs of an unhealthy sexual fixation. Watching you, figuring out your schedule, showing up in odd places, buying you expensive and erotic gifts when you've just met -- he hasn't even told you his name!"

"Sure he has," I say, trying to decide on a pair of sandals. "It's a riddle. I haven't worked it out yet, but his name's in there."

"You're not listening, damn it!" Gods, Sophie's really upset now. I look over at her and see that her face is flushed again, this time with anger. She's gripping that packing slip in her hand like she wants to choke the life out of something.

I put down the sandals and sit down on the edge of the bed, looking at her closely. "You're really worried about me," I say quietly.

"Of course I'm worried!" she says, shaking the fist holding the packing slip. "I l- you're my friend," she adds, suddenly getting quieter. "My best friend. The one who kept me from getting too stupid or too crazy. And now you're acting all weird, and running around naked, and laughing like you're drunk, and getting boxes of skimpy clothes from this guy you just met and --"

"Hey," I say, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Take it easy. C'mon, sit down." She sits down next to me, and I put my arm around her. She's actually trembling a little. Great Maker, I never knew she cared so much... "Listen. I hear what you're saying. I really do. But this isn't just some freak trying to get in my pants. Septimus knows things, things I don't understand how he could know. He can just... intuit things that would take me days or weeks to figure out. He's offered to help me figure out the flaws in my research, and I can tell he's brilliant enough to do it. I need his help."

"Serial killers are almost always men of very high intelligence," Sophie says, her voice subdued.

"Be that as it may," I allowed, "I don't think he's a serial killer. I think he's a mathematical genius with a little bit of magical talent who's looking for someone who's willing to listen to what he has to say."

"Magical talent?" She sounds almost too afraid to ask.

"He did something yesterday before he left," I explain. "Put his hands over my eyes, and there was this -- this surge of energy. It amplified all of my senses -- like I'd had cotton balls stuffed in my ears and nose and mouth, and plastic wrap all over my skin, and I finally got rid of it."

"That sounds like a drug, Hallie."

"It wasn't. It faded after a while -- turned into this thing that sort of settled in the back of my mind -- but when I reached for it again last night, it all came back to me. It's still with me. I'm not high on drugs, Sophie -- I'm high on oxygen. On life! I feel like I've been asleep my whole life and finally woke up." I shake my head. "There isn't any drug that can do that."

"That doesn't sound like a simple spell, either," Sophie says, not sounding very reassured. "It would take a lot of power to permanently boost all your senses like that."

"I'm not sure if he did 'boost' them," I say slowly. "I think maybe... maybe this is something that was always inside of me, only I didn't know it. Like a muscle I didn't know how to use, until he woke it up."

We're both quiet for a while, mulling that over.

"Look," I say. "If you don't trust him around me, come with me today and play chaperone. See what he's like for yourself." I pull her closer to me, in sort of a sideways hug. "I'd enjoy having the company."

She hesitates for a moment. "All right," she says at last. "But if I see anything that looks like danger, I'm pulling you out of there. If I say go, we go. Fair?"

I take one of her hands in my free hand and squeeze it. "Fair. Now, let's get ready to go. I still need to call and let him know we're coming."

Septimus is waiting for us when we arrive. He's wearing a tightly-fitted green t-shirt that shows off his abs. He's got really nice abs. And nice biceps. And nice everything else. It's not overdone; he doesn't look like a body-builder, just a guy who takes really good care of himself. And somehow he still manages to look as suave and poised as he did in the suit. Sophie tries not to look impressed, but I can see her eyeing him as I make the introductions.

"Septimus, this is my roommate, Sophie Gallagher," I say.

"Ah, Miss Gallagher!" Septimus says, bowing deeply. He takes her hand and kisses it, an absurdly old-fashioned gesture that he pulls off amazingly well. "A pleasure to meet you, my dear. Have you come to learn, as well?"

"I've come to watch," she says politely. "I don't know how much I'll actually learn from it. Math makes my ears bleed."

Septimus laughs at that. "Is that so? Very well, I shall endeavor to keep our work today as un-technical as possible." He turns to me. "Hallie, dear, have you been using what I gave you? Apart from the clothes, I mean -- and you do look ravishing in them, I must say."

I blush and smile at the compliment. "Yes, I have. It was a little overwhelming at first, but I'm starting to get used to it."

"Excellent!" he says, clapping his hands once. "You must be comfortable with a heightened awareness of your present surroundings before you can take the next step."

"Which is what, exactly?" Sophie asks.

Septimus pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket, dangles it over his open palm, shakes it twice, then pulls it aside to reveal a little plant, twelve or fourteen centimeters tall, sitting in a tiny pot full of soil. I clap for him, but Sophie just raises her eyebrows.

"That's your mystery of the universe? Stage magic?"

"What? Oh, no, no, Miss Gallagher," he says, chuckling. "This is just the raw material. We're going to look at real magic today." He looks up at me, questioningly. "Assuming, that is, that you have access to a thaumatometer?"

"Of course -- it's in the lab. C'mon, Sophie."

I lead the way to our laboratory, unlock it and let us all inside. We keep the technical equipment in here, for those occasions when we stop theorizing and modeling long enough to actually measure something. Septimus spots the big, black machine along the far wall, hits the switch to power it up, and puts the plant inside the test chamber.

"What is this thing?" Sophie asks, as Septimus adjusts the settings and waits for the machine to finish warming up.

"A thaumatometer," I tell her. "A device for detecting mana and looking at magical fields."

She frowns. "Haven't wizards been doing that for centuries without a machine?"

"Yes," I say, chuckling, "but I'm not a wizard, and neither is Pietro. Besides, a thaumatometer lets you make recordings, or magnify the image, or do other things that a wizard can't do. Makes it easier to tell what you're looking at."

"Precisely," says Septimus, stepping back from the machine and nodding. "A wondrous invention, and perfect for our purposes today. Now then, take a look at the view screen here." He gestures at the display, where a swirling pattern of colored lights surrounds a white outline of the plant against a field of black. "You can see the different colors, yes, Miss Gallagher? Those are the different aspects of mana that are present."

She nods. "I figured. I assume green means Life?"

"Right," I say. "And blue is Water, yellow is Air, orange is Earth, red is Fire, and purple is Death."

"And black," Septimus concludes, "is the Void, where mana has left the world and nothing has yet filled its place. You will see that the chamber is magically insulated from the outside, allowing us to see more clearly what happens within the chamber."

"All right," she says, nodding. "I'm with you so far. What's the plant for?"

He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a book of matches. "A demonstration," he declares, "to determine if Hallie is ready to see what I will show her."

With a series of keystrokes at the control pad he magnifies the display, focusing in on a single leaf on one of the uppermost branches of the little plant. The swirling colors become clearer and better-defined, forming visible currents and eddies whose movements can be tracked. Life-aspected mana runs through the leaf wherever photosynthesis is happening, then follows the newly-made sugars into the veins and down the stalk of the plant to the roots. At the same time, Water-aspected mana travels up the stalk along with the water from the damp soil, finally passing out of the tiny openings on the bottom of the leaf and scattering into the air as the water evaporates. Air-aspected mana floats around the chamber in lazy circles, as diffuse and scattered as the air molecules themselves.

"I am going to set fire to the tip of this leaf," Septimus says. "I want you to watch closely, Hallie, and tell me what happens as the leaf burns."

I frowned, puzzled. "I can tell you right now what's going to happen," I said.

"I'm sure you can," Septimus agrees. "But humor me."

Shrugging, I go over to the display and fiddle with the focus a bit. "Okay, ready."

Septimus strikes the match, then uses a pair of cold-iron pincers to lower it into the chamber. Instantly the display begins to show red, while the blue currents drain out of sight. Faint yellow wisps swirl around a bright spot of red, like a school of fish reacting to a shark passing among them. As the fire touches the leaf a jagged purple line begins to advance across its surface, erasing the green as it passes and leaving red in its wake. The burned leaf turns to ash, and the red gives way to orange, as raw carbon soot falls to the floor of the chamber.

Septimus puts out the fire and turns to me. "What did you see?" he asks.

I shrug. "The fire generated Death-mana when it touched the leaf. The Life-mana burned away, leaving Fire and Earth -- heat and ashes."

"Ahh," he says, raising a finger. "But where did the Life-mana go when the fire touched it?"

"Back into the Æther, presumably. Some of it was pulled back into the plant in response to the trauma, but most of it went back where it came from."

"And where did the Death-mana come from? There was little or no Death-mana present until the fire touched the living plant."

"Same place: it was pulled out of the Æther in response to the death of the plant cells."

He nods, as if he expected that answer, and paces back and forth a few steps. Then he abruptly changes course and walks back over to me, looking me right in the eyes from a decimeter away.

"What you have just described is what you infer must have happened given your assumptions of how mana behaves," he says, speaking in a clipped, rapid tone. "You are looking at the behavior of the thaumatogenic fields as a whole and mapping them against your preconceived notions. You are not looking at the thaumatons themselves."

I back away a step, hesitant. What is he talking about? "You can't see thaumatons," I say, carefully. "At best, we can see the traces they leave behind, but for that you'd need a billion-mark accelerator."

He reaches out and puts his hands to either side of my face again, like blinders. He holds them there for a long moment, looking me in the eye to see if I get his meaning. I do.

"You can see more than that," he says, sotto voce. "But you must choose to do it. Put away your assumptions and See!"

He pulls back his hands and backs away. Sophie looks back and forth between us but says nothing.

I take a deep breath and let it out. "All right," I say. Rewinding the recording, I adjust it for maximum magnification and play it back at one-tenth speed. As the line of purple Death-mana begins to crawl onto the display, I open up all my senses and look, as hard as I can, at a single point on the screen where the fire is passing over.

In that instant, my perception changes.

    death          air
            fire           void
  life                air
    air  (fire) (life)      death
      (death)(void)(earth)  fire
 life     (water)(air)
         fire         death     air
    water        life
              life       fire
   life                      void
         earth        life

The barrage of impressions hits me suddenly, all at once, a flood of information that my mind scarcely knows how to process. I reel backwards and feel Sophie's arms behind me, catching me and keeping me from falling.

"Hallie!" she cries, panic edging her voice. "Oh, gods, Hallie!?"

"I'm all right," I say quickly, putting a hand down on a table to steady myself. "I'm okay."

"What did you do to her?" demands Sophie.

"Nothing at all," says Septimus, unconcerned. "She has merely Seen something. Haven't you, Hallie?"

I nod. "It was just a flash there, for a second -- but I Saw the thaumatons. A whole cloud of them! They were doing something, interacting with each other." I frown. "And there was something going on in the middle of it, some kind of pattern..." I shake my head. "Like several kinds of thaumatons were in the exact same place, at the same moment... which is impossible, I think. I couldn't make sense of it."

"Yes," Septimus says, slowly. "Yes, that is indeed the point of interest. Rewind it again. Look carefully at that point, at the heart of the reaction."

"Hallie?" Sophie says, squeezing my hand. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to."

I take another breath and straighten. "Yes, I do have to. Because I want to know. I want to see what happens." I walk back over to the machine and rewind the recording again. As I focus, my vision opens up again and I see the individual thaumatons in their different aspects. I focus on the one in the center, a Life thaumaton sitting where the line of fire is about to sweep over it, and I watch carefully.

                      smoke.       the 
                      the       with
                      with       away
                      rises       curls                      plant.
                      and        and                      the
                       Air   Fire                     into
                          into              withdrawing
 The Life thaumaton CHANGES or avoids it BY
                          into              returning
                     Earth  Death                   to
                       as         as                   the
                       it            the                   Æther.
                     follows            structure             
                       the                 of
                      ashes                   cellular
                       into            life                  A
                       the                     falls        H     O
                       soil.                into          C     S.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath, thinking back over what I just Saw. "It changed," I say, wonderingly. "The thaumaton changed."

"So, what?" Sophie asks from somewhere behind me. "Is that unusual?"

"Unusual? It's impossible -- or at least it's supposed to be! It's like a quark changing from an Up to a Bottom. It doesn't happen..." I shake my head again. "Except that it does. I saw it become Air, or Earth, or Fire, or..." Something clicks into place, a realization of what I had been looking at. "No. Not or. And. One particle, six different paths -- and it took all of them." I look over at Septimus.

He nods, open approval in his expression. "Yes, Hallie. It took all of them. Every possibility; every path."


"How do you think?"

I look over at the display and move it back to just after the moment of transition. Where the Life thaumaton was -- and then where everything was -- an instant later, only a single Death thaumaton remained in its place.

"Every path taken, but we only see one result," I say slowly. "It's not just a transition state, is it? Where the thaumaton hovers between forms for an instant."

"It is that, but it is not just that," Septimus agrees. "All paths are taken."

I think on it, puzzling over the possibilities. An idea creeps in from the back of my mind, one that was put forth by some radical particle physicists a few years ago. What was it that they said? "Time is not an arrow, but an ever-spreading branch," I murmured.

"Huh?" Sophie asked.

"Time. We know it's linear. You do A, it leads to B and then to C. Cause and effect, input and output. But when the same input can cause multiple outputs, if B leads to either C or D and the outcome is truly random... then reality splits the difference. Both of them happen, but in different timelines. I never believed it, because I didn't believe there was such a thing as true randomness. But now..."

"Now you See the truth," Septimus says. "There is another axis running perpendicular to time: The axis of probability. Choices are made, chances occur, and time splits to encompass all possibilities." He leans down in front of me and spreads his hand in front of my face. "You have learned how to See the paths not taken, the choices that led to other timelines. If you so desire, you can even See the paths that are yet to be taken... and choose the ones you wish to follow."

My legs feel weak. Slowly, I sit back on the edge of the table, feeling the implications of it all.

"Is this real?" I ask, softly. "Or am I going crazy?"

Septimus chuckles. "Quite possibly both. It is real; whether it conforms to the consensus-reality of others is another matter entirely."

I can't decide how I feel about that. Not yet, anyway. My mind grabs hold of another thought. "If this is true... then there must be billions of new timelines branching off every second, driven by random reactions like the one I just saw. It's complete chaos. How can the ordered universe that we see come out of that?"

Septimus shrugs. "Perhaps it is like a crystal forming in a salt solution; chaos collapses into order because it is more stable, less energetic. Perhaps many of those timelines merge again with their neighbors, so that only the significant changes last." He smirks. "Or perhaps we perceive a world of order because it is only in those timelines where order does persist, that we can still survive to wonder about it."

"Whoa," Sophie says under her breath. I look over at her and quietly echo the feeling.

Then I turn back and look up at Septimus. He's standing there with his hands clasped behind his back, looking mildly satisfied, like a professor who's just finished his lecture.

"This is really going to screw with my model," I say.

His face splits into a grin. "My work here is done," he says.

On our way out of the building we run into Pietro. He's just coming back from one of his bike rides around campus and is looking sweaty, tired and ridiculous in his silver-and-red compression shorts.

"Hallie!" he calls -- okay, wheezes -- as he waves to me in greeting. "I was just looking over your manuscript for the Manology paper. I'll send you the edits this afternoon."

"You might want to hold off on that, Pietro," I say, grinning. "I've just discovered something amazing that could change a lot of our conclusions. Give me a few days and I'll work up a revised copy."

He chuckles, shaking his head. "Doctor Hallie Karmenos, the perfectionist. All right, it can wait a little while. Hello, Sophie."

"Hey, Dr. Galvanni," Sophie says, giving a little wave.

Pietro looks over at Septimus, his expression curious. "And who's this?" he asks, coming up to extend a hand.

                                  who just showed me that everything I believed was wrong..."
"Oh," I say, "this is MY friend Septimus; he's in town visiting and wanted to see the lab..."
                                  isn't he the hottest guy you've ever seen?..."

I pause, blink, and realize I have half a second to choose. I can See enough of the streams ahead to play it safe.

"-- my friend Septimus; he's in town visiting and wanted to see the lab."

"How do you do, sir?" Septimus says, offering his hand. Pietro shakes it good-naturedly.

"Pleased to meet you, Septimus," he says. "Are you Pyralian, then, or is that a WorldNet alias?"

"Oh, I've lived here and just about everywhere, at one time or another," Septimus says casually.

"Well, you came back at the right time, then. It's a gorgeous day out there." He turns to me and nods his head toward the exit, smirking. "So get out there and enjoy it. Give yourself some down time before you jump back into revisions. Life is about more than the numbers, Hallie."

I laugh, then pull him into an impulsive hug. "Believe me, I know it," I say, giving him a peck on the cheek.

He pulls back, looking pleasantly surprised. He looks down at my outfit, the sheer fabric of the blouse outlining the bare curves underneath it, then looks back up at me with an odd, lopsided grin, like he's just finally noticed what I was -- and wasn't -- wearing.

He raises his eyebrows. "You'd better get out of here before the dean sees you," he says, then gives me a pat on the arm and continues down the hall pushing his bicycle.

"He's a sweet little man," Sophie says fondly, after we're out of earshot.

"I daresay he likes you," says Septimus, looking at me out of the corner of his eye.

I snort at that. "I don't need to see the future to know all the ways that could go wrong. Besides," I add, reaching up and running a hand slowly down his strong, muscular arm, "he's really not my type."

We spend the rest of the afternoon the only way you should spend a summer afternoon in Pyralis: Down by the beach. I exchange my skimpy outfit for an even skimpier bikini and a gorgeous multicolored sarong; Sophie, finally looking relaxed, pulls a similar outfit from her own wardrobe. Septimus just takes off his shirt, and that's decoration enough. We could have gone surfing again, but then we'd have been covered from the neck down in wetsuits, and how much fun is that? Instead we lay out on beach towels and play in the surf and flirt with the other attractive young people who've come down to the water to play.

"So," I ask Sophie, when Septimus wanders off to buy drinks from a beverage stand, "what do you think of him?"

She smiles, lazily. "I think I owe you an apology," she says. "He's really sweet. A gentleman."

"And hot," I supply, impishly.

A giggle. "And hot," she agrees. "There's something... I don't know, off about him. Something weird. But I don't think it's really a bad thing."

"Hallie!" I turn and see him coming back over the dunes at a jog, balancing three bottles between his two arms. "Hallie!" he calls out again. "It's extraordinary! The ghosts are upset because they're naked! Someone's poking holes in their shower curtains! The kangaroo was right!"

I exchange a bemused look with Sophie.

"Like I said, something weird," she says.

"Very weird," I agree, looking back at him and smiling fondly. "But hey, nobody's perfect."

Septimus bids us goodnight at the door of our apartment.

"Are you sure you don't want to come in?" I ask. "Have a drink, stay for a while?" Or stay for breakfast?, I think but don't say.

"Alas, I cannot tonight," he says, taking my hand and kissing it. "I have urgent business to which I must attend. I fear I may be forced to fly to Metamor City this very evening."

I trade shocked expressions with Sophie. "Metamor City? Great Maker, that's halfway across the continent! A-are you coming back?"

"I am," he assures me, putting his hand on my shoulder. "I shall be gone for perhaps two weeks -- three, at the most. Time enough for you to tend to your paper, certainly; I have no doubt now that you can See what must be done."

I bow my head and nod, reluctantly. Gently, he takes me in his arms, then lowers his mouth to my ear. "One great revelation remains for you," he whispers. "Look for it. When you See it, you will understand the work that awaits us." Then he looks at me with those eyes -- so deep, so green, so captivating -- and kisses me, lightly, on the lips.

There is no surge of power; he has already given me what he has to give. The rest is up to me.

We part, and he turns and bows to Sophie. "Good night, Miss Gallagher."

She fidgets. "Hey. Don't I get a kiss?" she asks, then laughs nervously.

Septimus stoops down and looks into her eyes, his expression serious. "You might," he says, after a moment. "But not just now. Hallie is well on the way down her path, and you are just beginning yours. But you come from different places, and your journey will not be the same."

She looks crestfallen. "Sure, okay."

He bows again to her, very deeply, then backs away and bows once more to me. "Good night, to both of you. I shall see you soon." And with that he turns and walks off into the night.

Sophie opens the door to the apartment and goes inside. I stay on the porch and watch him go.

Sophie is sitting on the couch when I come in; hunched over, staring blankly at the coffee table. I sit down next to her.

"You okay, Soph?"

She shrugs one shoulder. " 'S'funny," she says, her tone hollow. "I've been with a lot of people. And I've been turned down by a lot of other people," she adds, laughing a little. It doesn't last. "But it's been a long time since I've felt that bad about being rejected. I don't even know why it bothers me, but it does. And no offense, Hal, but usually, between the two of us..." She stops and shakes her head. "I'm sorry. There's no way I can finish that sentence that isn't gonna sound bitter and jealous. And that's not fair to you." She looks over and puts her hand on my arm. "I'm sorry. You're a good friend. You deserve better than that."

I reach out and touch my hand to her face, a strange feeling welling up inside me. "So do you," I say, softly.

I look into her face for a long moment.

                and get to my feet. "I should get to bed," I say gently...
Then I give her a warm, sisterly hug. "You're a good friend, too, Sophie..."
                behind her head and lean in close. "You wanted a kiss?" I whisper...

I blink, smile, and choose.

Sophie stares back at me, her face bare centimeters from mine. Her body is trembling; I can hear her quickening pulse, smell her growing arousal.

"Dammit, Hallie," she whispers, her eyes locked to mine. "Don't you dare kiss me unless you mean it."

I smile again, lean forward, and kiss her. There is an electric, tingling sensation, a sense of power flowing out of me and touching a place deep inside her. Our lips part as she gasps, her whole body shuddering beneath me. We look into each other's eyes again for a long, long moment.

And then I spend the rest of the night proving to her that I mean it.

Sunday, June 27th.

The next ten days were
a time of wondrous
discovery, as Sophie and
I grew in intimacy and
learned to use the gifts
that had been awakened
inside of us. To my
surprise, Septimus's
absence was actually a
blessing, since it gave
us time to explore the
new dimensions of our
relationship without the
constant distraction of
his presence...

"Oh gods!" Sophie cried
one night, as we made
love in her bed (which
was the wider of the
two, for obvious reasons).
At first I thought I had
simply brought her to
her peak, but then she
cried out, "I can see
it! I can feel it! Oh,
gods, Hallie, it's like
you said! It's like
waking up inside!" Her
words sent a thrill
through me, because I
knew that the gift I had
given her was real and
it had unfolded itself
at last...
I sit in my chair,
looking up at the ceiling,
watching as time flows
around me, out of the past
and through the eternal
present into the uncertain
future. It is more than
memories or dreams, but
not quite like being in
several places at once.
Now is always with us,
for it is the only point
at which the choices
can be made.

I do not understand all of
what I see; much of it is
out of context, indistinct,
or only lasts for a moment.
But it is enough for me to
see that something is very
wrong in the world, and
those who wield the power
do not yet realize its
magnitude or its importance.
Someone must warn them.
It is a terrible irony;
even those who believe in
prophecies have forgotten
the ones that matter.
They think that only the
few, the gifted, can see
the way we see. I know now
that anyone can be shown
the way, with practice...
We will stand on the deck
of a skyship, watching as
it nears the massive towers
of Metamor City...

I will hold my firstborn son
in my arms, smiling down at
the face that looks so much
like his father's...

Shadows will stir in the
spaces between worlds,
as the barriers weaken
and crack. Someone
will knock on the walls,
annoying the neighbors,
things that should not be
on our side of the wall.
Trying to make them upset
enough to... what..?

Guns, guns, guns. Boys with
loud and nasty toys...

Diversions and distractions...

A circle of hearts, many
yet one. Focused inward;
survival; protection; they
must be turned outward,
to see what is beyond
themselves. They could
see the truth; could even
help save the world,
if they care enough to try...
We have
a lot of
work to do.

Sophie's door opens, and a young man comes out with a slightly dazed expression on his face. He looks over at me, sitting at the dining room table in my underwear with a bowl of cereal perched in one hand and a portable computer on the table in front of me. I wave with my free hand and smile at him.

"Good morning, Ciro," I say. "Did you and Sophie have a good time last night?"

His dazed look morphs into a sort of half-baked grin. "Man!" he says, shaking his head in amazement. "She is something else. I don't know what she did to me, but..." He gestures vaguely with one hand. "It's like, everything's so totally intense, like my whole head is just wired, you know?" He lets out a laugh. "It's like this one time, me and my friend jacked into this VR domain, right? And someone had, like, turned up the sensitivity way high, so if you, like, had a can of beer, it would wipe you out like you did a bunch of shots. Or, like, this girl grabbed Rico's dick, and he just, like, exploded and passed out." He thinks about it and then laughs again. "Okay, it's not bad like that, right, it actually feels pretty cool, but it's just... intense. And I can still, like, feel it in there, in my head. Totally arc, huh?"

"Way arc," I agree, grinning. "And you haven't seen the half of what it can do yet, trust me. Stay open to it and see where it takes you."

"Cert," he says, nodding. He comes a few steps closer and looks over at my computer, covered with the complex equations and parameters of my model. I think he decides that he'd rather not ask, because after a few seconds he turns and looks at the clock.

"Well," he says. "I guess I'd better go get in the shower, right? Summer session starts tomorrow, and I gotta go pick up my books."

"Have fun." I turn back to the computer and continue looking over my revisions, one last examination to make sure I didn't miss anything. The math got a lot more complicated when I factored in the probability axis and accounted for chaotic fluctuations in aspect at the thaumatonic level, but it was nothing I couldn't handle. I'm feeling good about the results, even if they are going to shake things up even more than my first version.

The revised model shows the theory behind what Sophie and I already discovered in practice: not only is it possible to see the future, but you hardly need any magic at all in order to do it. The same Life-mana that we generate naturally, just by living and thinking, can be attuned to receive thaumatons traveling backward through the timestream. Anyone can do this; it's just a matter of getting your mind to stop being a slave to linear time, and what we usually call 'rational' thinking. This is the big revelation Septimus told me about, the one that changes everything. Since Sophie and I figured it out, we've made it our mission to show as many people as we can, however we can.

I finish my read-through, nod in satisfaction when I reach the end, then send it off to Pietro to review. Then I put the terminal into sleep mode, stand up, stretch, and look at the clock. It's a little after nine on a Sunday morning; Ciro may have places to be, but I don't. Smiling, I head for Sophie's room, shucking off my underwear as I go.

She's curled up on her side amidst tangled sheets, still fast asleep. Her frizzy red hair is spread out all over the pillow, and her face wears a peaceful, contented expression. The rest of her wears nothing at all. Gods, is she ever beautiful. The room is filled with the mingled scents of sweat, patchouli and sex; I open up my senses to experience them more fully, and I feel my own body begin to respond. I shut the door behind me and climb into bed, nestling in behind her in 'spoons' position.

She stirs slightly as my nude body presses up against hers, but she does not wake. I wrap my arm around her and nuzzle up against her neck, planting light kisses on her freckled shoulders. My hand cups her breast, traces fingers around her nipple, then runs over her belly and down to the soft ginger patch between her legs. She lets out a soft murr of pleasure, and I continue my tender ministrations as I raise one leg and wrap it over her own.

I love being with her like this -- this relaxed, gentle intimacy in the early hours of the morning. It's a new thing for both of us, really. Ever since we got together, Sophie's attitudes about sex have been changing. Oh, she's still just as enthusiastic about it, and she still brings plenty of her 'subjects' home with her. But it's not just fun and games anymore, not since she discovered that she can pass on the Sight through love-making. She's more purposeful about sex now, more reverent; it matters now, in a way that it didn't before. Best of all, she's more willing to be vulnerable, more willing to open her heart as well as her legs ... and never moreso than when she's with me. If there's any part of the Maker out there who's still conscious enough to hear my prayers, I thank Her for that more than anything else in this world.

After another minute or two Sophie awakens, and before saying anything she turns over and finds my lips with her own. We wrap our arms around each other and our legs re-entwine of their own accord. Sophie runs her thigh deliberately back and forth between my legs, inflaming my own passion as my enhanced sense of touch amplifies the sensation. My hold on her tightens and I kiss her harder, then lower my head to suck hungrily at the nipples of her soft, full, beautiful breasts.

"Mmm," she purrs happily, running her fingers through my hair. "I thought it must be you. But I wasn't sure if this was now, or then -- or maybe tomorrow."

My mouth releases its hold on her teat with a pop, and I smile up at her. "Yesterday, today, and forever," I say, coming up for another kiss. Then I shift position and thrust my hips, bringing my sex into contact with hers and making her gasp with the sensation. "Now fuck me silly, gorgeous."

She's all too willing to comply. Some time later, as we lay wrapped in each other's arms, Sophie's head on my shoulder, I ask, "So... how did things work out with Ciro?"

She makes a noncommittal sound. "I'm not sure yet. He's open to the idea that there's more to the world than what we see, but I don't know if he has the drive to really see it through. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets scared the first time he really Sees and then backs away from it."

"I guess that wouldn't surprise me, either," I agree. "Still, if we're really going to change the world, it's going to take all kinds. All we can do is make the offer."

"Yeah." She giggles. "It's like proselytizing, except we aren't really trying to get them to join anything. More like they're part of this big, sleeping flock of sheep that's penned up inside a cave, and we're dragging 'em out to the entrance and showing 'em the sun."

"Ooh, good analogy." I pause, then plant a kiss on her forehead. "Though I wonder what it says that you're taking these sheep to bed with you. I mean, I've heard what they say about Sathmorans, but..."

She sputters in outrage, then flips over and silences me with a kiss. I let myself be silenced, and after a moment she lifts her head and gives me a mock-scolding look. "You just worry about teaching the ones you can reach through their heads. You're the physicist, that's your department. I'll worry about the ones we have to show by dealing with their --"

"Other heads," I finish, grinning wickedly.

She laughs in spite of herself. "Or hearts," she says, "or whatever. This is like a holy mission, Hal; we can't get stuck on just one technique."

I reach up and brush her cheek tenderly. "I love you," I say. It just feels like the right time to say it.

Then my mind catches up with what she just said.

Holy Mission
Nine Heavens
Nine Hells
Nine Ædra
Nine Dædra

"Holy shit!"

She looks down at me, startled. "What?"

"You, Sophie --" I reach up and kiss her hard on the mouth "-- are an absolute genius!"

She gives me a happy but confused smile. "Coming from you, Hallie, that means a lot. But why?"

"A holy mission!" I repeat excitedly. "Holy mission, holy number -- that's the secret to the riddle! I know who Septimus is!"

Wednesday, June 30th.

Pietro looks up                   (with) disappointment
 and lets the papers fall           (submit my) 

 onto his desk.                   thunk!
                                      (stone in the pool)
                                 ripples       waves 

"Hallie," he says,              hallie     hallie     (hallelujah)
                            (halcyon = kingfisher)
                                              nesting bird
                                       tranquil        peaceful
                                           building a home

"what am I supposed to
do with this?"                     do do do do, do wah
                                 do your duty
                                               do what you do
                                       (like you know what you're doing)
He gestures at the
 manuscript                    woman-uscript?  woman, you script!
in front of him.                                   (you write)
                                                 (you SO right)
                                                       (for me, SO-phie)
"Not only have you
completely reversed our
conclusions,                      conclusions? nothing concludes
                                                nothing ends
                                             nothing dies
                                              but is born again
                                            from CHAOS
                                      the world renewed in fire
but you seem to have
invented a completely new
discipline of mathematics                (mathemagical!)
in order to describe this
new model.                           i could be a model if i wanted to
                                        (long legs)
                                              (look good on the runway)
                                                         as you can
                                                                  (to me)
Assuming it even works, it
will take months to find
someone else who can even                   even                equal
understand what you've done                          balanced
well enough to confirm the                   ordered         complexity
validity of these equations.                    reality is fractal
                                                        (and fracturing)
                                                 crystalline order
                                                  perfect and
As for your broader                                            so
conclusions..."  He sighs, and                                  crystal
shakes his head.                             headed for    in the
                                                     a break

"I don't see                               don't see
any historical evidence to                     no
suggest that prophetic                       (and that's the problem)

ability is as widespread as                 wide-spread, we were
                                              (last night)     me and Sophie
you suggest."                          suggest you open up
                                         (your eyes)        (but you won't)

He holds up his hands, palms
outward. "I'm not saying that
you're wrong,                              (but you think so)
                                                      (hope so)
                                                        (NEED to be so)
but we can't go to the reviewers
with something like this unless                less (we tell them)
                                                     the happier they'll be
                                                   merry merry blindness

you can build up the foundation          foundation
of your argument first with the              of the world
people who will be able to                        will crumble
examine it properly.                                   unless...?  (indeterminate)

Look,                                       i am but you aren't

let's go with the earlier                  early stages         (birth pains?)
                                        signs and portents
                                                     of the coming storm

draft                                  draft           army
                                                           on the horizon
and submit it to Manology like
we planned. If you aren't
comfortable with our earlier                 comfortable lies
conclusions about divinatory                    always feel better
fields, then we can take that                  than truths
part out and focus on the areas
where we were able to test the
model empirically.                         empirical          empire
                                         imperial                 (of metamor)
                                           impertinent                    more
                                             impervious?              trouble
                                                 NO                 ahead

But I think it would be best
if you pursue this revised                   revision    re-vision
model only after we've established                    (see again)

the more limited version                     limited perspective
in the literature                                  first person        (old books)
                                                       first people   (holy books)
                                                    garden of paradise
                                                  man and woman
                                                            surrounded by perfection
                                                         perfect order
                                            entropy held back          (by what?)
                                               by nine stars          (jewels?)
                                           of unearthly power      (swords of flame)
and shown that it stands up                      stand outside
to the test                                                     man fails the test
of peer review."                                         (peers into what he shouldn't)
                                                       bringing doom   (order cracks)
                                                              doom     (stars lost)
                                                           doom        (seas rise)
                                                         doom          (chaos reigns)
                                                  stars endure    (scattered) (hidden)
                                               (to be found?)   (for world's end?)
                                        (to perfect the world?)   (or destroy it?)

                                             oh, is he
"Hallie?"                                           done talking now?

"Do what you think is best," I say, pulling my focus back to now. "You have my earlier draft on file. Make whatever changes you think we should make, and then we can submit it. I need to focus on the work ahead of me."

He nods, slowly. "All right," he says. "If I may make a suggestion, though?"

I nod.

"Take a break," he says, pleadingly. "Go on vacation. Forget about the work for a little while. I've seen mathematicians before who got so deep into what they were doing that they got wrapped up in their own heads. Mathematics is powerful, but not everything it can describe is actually real. Sometimes people forget that, and they drive themselves crazy chasing numbers that have nothing to do with the world we live in." He reaches up and takes my hand. "Don't let that happen to you. Take some time to connect with the world again -- to step back and see things as they are, not just as what the equations say they are."

I smile and squeeze his hand. "As it happens, that's just what I had in mind."

Sophie and the one who calls himself Septimus are waiting for me down the hall.

"Any luck?" Sophie asks, not looking optimistic. I shake my head, confirming her suspicions.

"Nothing," I say, glumly. "Even when I touched him, nothing happened. He can't accept it. He can't open up to it."

"Most people never will," says our mentor. "I have been teaching men for thousands of years, and few have ever had the strength to listen."

I come to his arms, embracing him and smiling. "Well, that's your problem, Lord Klepnos," I say, teasingly. "You've spent all your time working with men. You should have tried talking to women sooner."

He raises his eyebrows, looking surprised but delighted. "You solved my riddle, then!"

"I should have seen it sooner," I say, running a hand fondly across his chest. "The letters in 'Klepnos' only add up to seventy-two -- but that's written as eight-zero, in base nine. And I recall that the binary form of seventy-two is hidden in your telephone number, which should have been a dead giveaway if I'd been paying more attention."

The trickster-god whom men have called the Master of Madness and Folly chuckles and puts his hands on my shoulders. "Now, now, Hallie. The sighted must not belittle those who are blind, even if they are the same person in two different times. What matters is that I have taught you to See, and you have had the courage to do so..." He reaches out to Sophie and gathers her to us. "And you, in turn, have taught others. I am unspeakably proud of both of you."

"And we," says Sophie, "are ready to get a move on."

"We're coming with you," I add. "Wherever the work takes us."

He smiles. "And can you See where that will be?" he asks.

"Some of it," Sophie says, her expression going distant. "I can see towers -- Metamor City, I think. We'll have work to do there, before long." She frowns. "And apparently I'm going to give mouth-to-mouth to a duck."

"Right," I agree, peering ahead and catching snippets of the same timeline. "But not until the layer cake catches fire."

Klepnos grins broadly. "Sounds like a grand old time," he says. "Now let's get going, shall we? We have to get to the wharf before the octopi go home for the day."

We head out with him, arm in arm, both of us knowing exactly what he means.

It's obvious, really. All you need is to change your perspective...

[tsat home] [#48] [stories]