The Astronaut’s Lament

Three mages stood in the center of the crowded stadium. Fentwick hadn’t wanted to watch even before it became a big media spectacle. The plan had been to do the casting on a tarmac with some bleachers around it, but instead they were at the Grand Central Arena, where games of blankball normally took place. Instead of a small group of technicians, with perhaps some of their friends and family, there were literally thousands of people, most of them cheering and screaming while the mages and support team went through a series of complex checks before actually casting the spell. He had no idea what it was the spectators thought was going to happen here. When the spell was cast, the mages would simply vanish with little fanfare.

Fentwick’s role in it was done. He wasn’t a mage, didn’t have the Talent, but he was proud to be among the top spell writers in the entire world. There was nothing for him to do now. Though he could run through the whole procedure blindfolded (all of the spells being cast in sequence by the ground crews, all the couplings and subspells that needed to be cast as groundwork) he would have been just as useful and half as anxious watching from home. Clara had insisted though, and so Fentwick sat in his seat next to the other movers and shakers on the project.

There were nearly two dozen all-seeing eyes hovering between the first and second shielding layers, each one dynamically linked to millions if not billions of watchers. Fentwick was sure that at any given time he’d be in view of a substantial fraction of them, and equally sure that none of the viewers would care or even know who he was. Yet somehow, being observed still produced a nervous knot in his stomach. Fentwick had written a substantial fraction of the primary teleportation spell, and directed the others in writing their own parts of it. This was Fentwick’s performance as much as the three mages, but he knew he would only be acknowledged if there was a failure. He could imagine the commentators pulling up a recording of his face falling, replaying it over and over again for their viewers while discussing his faults in detail.

With ten seconds left, he wanted to run away and bury his head between his legs until someone told him one way or another that it was over. The ground crew had cleared the area, ten layers of shielding were up, and the three mages acted in perfect synchronization. That was the result of a particularly brilliant subspell which Fentwick had invented and which would surely make the company gobs of money when it was monetized. When there were five seconds left, their tongues took on the speedshape, and they spoke faster than a person ever could, a single monolithic spell that Fentwick had crafted during a series of eighty-hour workweeks. Their speech was under the power of the kemberstones now, and nothing could stop the spell  from finishing.

In the last second before the spell was finished, the shields bent outward under some invisible pressure. By all accounts that should have been impossible. Then the three mages exploded in a shower of flesh and blood, their liquefied remains splattering the insides of the many shields.

Fentwick bolted.

He hadn’t been able to escape, of course.

Now he stared at a screen, trying to keep his mind off the eyes of everyone else in the silent conference room. They were all staring at him, and he could feel it.

“Well?” asked Clara frostily.

She had been the one to grab him from the corridor, gripping him painfully around the waist with a giant, invisible hand, nearly choking the life from him as she delivered a long, loud stream of invective. It was clear that the blame had to fall on someone, and he was the obvious choice. She’d left her mood macros running, giving her veins an unearthly red glow and projecting phantom horns from her head. It was a frivolous use of the Talent, to give physical form to your feelings, but Clara was management, and management seemed to revel in frivolous displays.

It had only been a half hour since then. They sat in a large room off the side of the stadium. The spell writers had their screens pulled up, and the management watched them intently, sometimes talking amongst themselves, sometimes ducking into the other room to see how the global conversation was taking shape. Clara wasn’t talking to anyone. She had brought a chair right next to his, and stared at him while he tried to work.

Half an hour was nothing. If Fentwick could figure out what the problem had been in half an hour, he would deserve to be executed. They didn’t do that anymore, or at least hadn’t in several decades, but Fentwick had put in hundreds, maybe thousands of hours on this project, had run a whole suite of QA, had made other people run QA, and worked with a team of a dozen other people and if they could figure out in a half hour why they’d just killed three men, then he well and truly deserved to have Clara point a lightning bolt his way and pop his head like a grape.

“Well?” she asked again, louder, as though he just hadn’t heard her.

“It should have worked,” he said weakly, for what felt like the fifth or sixth time.

“Then why the fuck didn’t it!” screamed Clara, her face close to his, breath hot against his skin.

Fentwick turned to the side and puked.

After a week had passed, and the investigation had hit roadblock after roadblock, help was called in. Fentwick barely slept a wink in that entire time, chewing on kola root to stay awake. The ground crew had been cleared of suspicion early on, the castings checked and rechecked, the visuals from the all-seeing eyes played over and over. There was no way fault could lay with the three mages who had lost their lives, not only because of how disastrous that would be to a company whose stock was in tailspin, but because there was simply nothing that they could have done. Mages didn’t really cast spells anymore, they cast through a kemberstone or something similar, all skill and imagination removed by the powerful suites of rote spellwork crafted by spell writers. The mages had their duties on the other side of teleportation. Mostly, they had just been square jaws and broad shoulders that looked good on camera.

That left Fentwick, the architect of the spell.

His eyes were bleary, and the spell was losing its meaning to him. He’d stepped through every line of it, like a scholar trying too hard at coming up with an original thesis statement on some long-combed over work. Clara was saying something, and Fentwick only slowly looked up. Standing in front of him was a mountain of a man, with a long grey beard and unfashionable pleated trousers.

“Who?” Fentwick asked, having missed most of the introduction.

“Gavin Tanse,” said the man with a wide grin, holding out his hand. Fentwick took it, too tired to feel stunned. Gavin Tanse, the man who invented spell-writing nearly from whole cloth, whose system of glyphs and sigils had allowed mages to increase efficiency a thousandfold, who had made obscene amounts of money and disappeared from the world stage more than ten years ago. Gavin Tanse, that Gavin Tanse, was standing in Fentwick’s workshop. He was the man who had essentially cemented the tradition of people without the Talent working on writing spells.

Gavin was a genius. Fentwick was smart, perhaps one of the most accomplished spell-writers of his generation, but Gavin had put the whole puzzle together back when there was no hint that there were even any puzzle pieces. Gavin was two or maybe even three times older than Fentwick was, but it didn’t show at all in how he moved about. He made expansive hand gestures and laughed loud and hard at the slightest provocation. His personality filled the room.

After two days of working together, after Fentwick had actually gotten some sleep, Gavin had found the answer. The solution was arcane, and even after going through it three times Fentwick wasn’t sure he understood it. Mercifully, Gavin offered to do the talking.

“It can’t be done,” he announced to the collected managers, mages, and executives.

“What do you mean it can’t be done?” asked Clara. “We sent probes, we sent animals, we tested it thoroughly. It can be done.”

“No,” replied Gavin firmly. “It can’t be done. Not with anyone who has the Talent. Mana generates at a constant rate, and slowly fills a mage. You’re violating light speed with the spell, but it still counts as a full year from the standpoint of mana generation. A whole year of mana, released all at once, and that gets you a sizable explosion at either end, though I take it you haven’t confirmed that at the destination site. I built the original protocols for teleportation from the basest blocks of reality up, so when I tell you that it’s impossible, I mean it, full stop. No way around it.”

Fentwick braced for shouting and screaming of the kind that was usually directed at him, but instead they were low murmurs among the gathered crowd of managers. For a long time, no one spoke to either of them. Clara looked worried, and whispered to the woman next to her.

Finally, Clara stood up. “We have sunk millions of dollars into this project. The prize for reaching Tau Ceti is the only way to recoup costs. The Heshler Group opted for light-speed limited travel, and will arrive in three months. Are you now telling us that we are going to lose to them?”

“You must not have been listening to me,” said Gavin with a smile. “I said that it can’t be done by anyone who has the Talent. The problem comes from mana accumulation within the mage. To fix the problem, we simply send someone without the Talent.”

The room burst with voices all at once, until Clara cast a quick spell macro that snapped silence down over the room. Her voice was pure as crystal in the still air.

“How long will it take to make the change?” she asked.

“Two months at eighty percent confidence,” replied Gavin.

“Do it,” she said.

Fentwick went over the spell, again and again. Modern spells were written in layers, and for his entire life, Fentwick had only dealt with the highest of the layers. The lower layers were there, and Fentwick had a passing knowledge of them, but no serious spell writers actually dealt with them. A single sentence at the highest layer translated into a series of hundreds of unintelligible glyphs at the lowest layer, and that in turn translated in a mage’s speech. Few of those with the Talent even knew the mage’s speech anymore; instead, they carried their kemberstones, laden with prewritten spells, and used them through an interface that would twist their tongues into uncomfortable shapes for them, as quick as could be.

While Gavin concentrated on making the change to their teleportation spell, Fentwick dove into the lower layers, looking through the libraries of glyphs that the higher layers depended on. They were a week away from the second launch when he finally decided to talk with Gavin about what he’d found.

“You lied to them,” said Fentwick. He tried to make it an accusation, but it came out like a question instead.

“In what way?” asked Gavin, not looking away from his screen. They were the only ones in the office, with no risk of being overheard.

“You made up all that stuff about mana accumulation and discharge,” said Fentwick. “I’ve been looking through the lower layers, the stuff you wrote decades ago, and inside the teleportation protocols well, at first I thought that you’d made an error in your summation, but the more I looked at it, the more I saw it wasn’t just a mistake. It was deliberate. It’s hidden, hidden deeper than anyone would ever care to look, but it’s there. I found it. The protocols themselves cause the problem. You knew that. You could have fixed it in a handful of days, but … but you were the one who put it there in the first place. It’s an exponential function, one that doesn’t do anything when a person teleports around a planet or even a solar system, but one that’s lethal over light-years.”

“And?” asked Gavin, not seeming all that concerned.

“You killed three men,” said Fentwick. “But I can’t understand why.”

Gavin turned to look at him. “Do you know why those with the Talent are almost never spell writers?” he asked.

“No,” said Fentwick. “They just don’t like it as much, I suppose.” He was having trouble seeing where this was going.

“It’s not that,” said Gavin. “They have the Talent, and that opens them up to an enormous amount of opportunity. Most go directly into a field where they can focus on the use of magic, to better leverage their skills. Writing spells, in contrast, is something that can leverage your brain, and there’s no real benefit to having the Talent, save perhaps the ability to test your own spells which can be lethal to a cocksure spell writer with the Talent who’s just starting out. The Talent gives you this power, the power to build, to create, to perform, and it would seem a waste to spend your life on something that the Talent doesn’t benefit at all.”

“You’re going to answer my question?” asked Fentwick.

“We live in a stratified society,” said Gavin. “Those with the Talent are at the top, paid handsomely for their use of magic, or born into money made by parents and grandparents that used the Talent. Clara isn’t in charge because she has some special aptitude for management, she’s in charge because of an accident of her birth.

“And that’s how the society would remain, those with the Talent on top, and those without on the bottom, save for the fact that we can teleport across the vastness of space, and they cannot.”

Fentwick rubbed at his forehead. “But that’s not true.”

“It is so far as anyone but you or I know,” said Gavin. “This was the plan, decades ago. Eventually we would crowd the earth, and look to the stars. Spaceships are all well and good, but teleportation is more attractive by a wide margin. They would try to send mages, of course, and they would find that it fails. A savant might have been able to figure it out, to reach down into the depths of things written long ago and see what I had done, to peer past the obfuscation I’d put in place, but who would that savant be but another man living beneath the oppression of the Talented?”

“You want my silence,” said Fentwick. He felt sad and hollow.

“Think of it,” said Gavin. “It will be people like you and I that set up colonies on other planets, circling other stars. The Talented can have the earth. They can cloister themselves here and reap the rewards of our mining and farming, but the world of exploration, or expansion, that will belong to our people.”

“You’re talking about a revolution,” said Fentwick.

Gavin nodded. “A slow one, one that will be generations in the making.”

“And if they find your treachery?” asked Fentwick. “If someone else is motivated to see through your deceptions?”

“Then they’ll hang me,” said Gavin with a shrug. “And it will have still been worth it.” He turned back to his screen. “There’s a reason you came to me alone, instead of holding a meeting with Clara. You know that. If you’re going to turn me in, I only ask that you do it quickly. I think we both know what your decision will be though.”

The second launch was less ostentatious than the first, and done on a tarmac that the company had rented out. Fentwick had wanted to avoid it just as much as he’d wanted to avoid the first one, but for different reasons. Clara had insisted, with venom in her voice.

Three men stood inside a circle, and three mages stood outside it. The men had spells cast on them already, the better to survive the adverse conditions. A second spell, the reverse of the first, would be used to pull them back after they’d collected the samples and planted the company’s flag. The Heshler Group would arrive in two weeks, and find that the prize had already been won by a group of men for whom interstellar travel had been a day trip instead of a matter of three long years stuck in a cramped metal can. Gavin was certain that teleportation would be made the dominant mode of travel in the coming centuries.

The spell went off without a hitch, and the three men vanished. Fentwick let out a breath he’d been holding in. There was muted cheering among the spectators.

Gavin had laid out a dream of escape, of normal humans once again becoming the dominant form of life, but Fentwick wasn’t so sure. He’d burned his notes and done everything he could think of to give himself plausible deniability, just in case the treachery ever came to light.

In the deep core of his being, he felt a glimmer of hope.

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5 thoughts on “The Astronaut’s Lament”

  1. I love this. It very much reminds me of the opinions of kernel developers. At the basest level, the person who writes the code is the one who determines what it does- and if they say it’s not possible, well, who would know better, except for someone skilled enough to investigate themselves?

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