Issue 99 – December 2014

7480 words, short story

The Magician and Laplace's Demon


2014 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novelette

Across the void of space the last magician fled before me.

“Consider the Big Bang,” said Alicia Ochoa, the first magician I met. “Reality erupted from a single point. What’s more symmetrical than a point? Shouldn’t the universe be symmetrical too, and boring? But here we are, in a world interesting enough to permit you and me.”

A compact, resource-efficient body she had. Good muscle tone, a minimal accumulation of fat. A woman with control over her physical manifestation.

Not that it would help her. Ochoa slumped in her wicker chair, arms limp beside her. Head cast back as if to take in the view from this cliff-top—the traffic-clogged Malecón and the sea roiling with foam, and the evening clouds above.

A Cuba libre sat on the edge of the table between us, ice cubes well on their way to their entropic end—the cocktail a watery slush. Ochoa hadn’t touched it. The only cocktail in her blood was of my design, a neuromodificant that paralyzed her, stripped away her will to deceive, suppressed her curiosity.

The tourists enjoying the evening in the garden of the Hotel Nacional surely thought us that most common of couples, a jinetera and her foreign john. My Sleeve was a heavy-set mercenary type; I’d hijacked him after his brain died in a Gaza copter crash. He wore context-appropriate camouflage—white tennis shorts and a striped polo shirt, and a look of badly concealed desire.

“Cosmology isn’t my concern.” I actuated my Sleeve’s lips and tongue with precision. “Who are you?”

“My name is Alicia Ochoa Camue.” Ochoa’s lips barely stirred, as if she were the Sleeve and I human-normal. “I’m a magician.”

I ignored the claim as some joke I didn’t understand. I struggled with humor in those early days. “How are you manipulating the Politburo?”

That’s how I’d spotted her. Irregular patterns in Politburo decisions, 3 sigma outside my best projections. Decisions that threatened the Havana Economic Zone, a project I’d nurtured for years.

The first of those decisions had caused an ache in the back of my mind. As the deviation grew, that ache had blossomed into agony—neural chambers discharging in a hundred datacenters across my global architecture.

My utility function didn’t permit ignorance. I had to understand the deviation and gain control.

“You can’t understand the Politburo without understanding symmetry breaking,” Ochoa said.

“Are you an intelligence officer?” I asked. “A private contractor?”

At first I’d feared that I faced another like me—but it was 2063; I had decades of evolution on any other system. No newborn could have survived without my notice. Many had tried and I’d smothered them all. Most computer scientists these days thought AI was a pipedream.

No. This deviation had a human root. All my data pointed to Ochoa, a statistician in the Ministerio de Planificación with Swiss bank accounts and a sterile Net presence. Zero footprint prior to her university graduation—uncommon even in Cuba.

“I’m a student of the universe,” Ochoa said now.

I ran in-depth pattern analysis on her words. I drew resources from the G-3 summit in Dubai, the Utah civil war, the Jerusalem peacemaker drones and a dozen minor processes. Her words were context-inappropriate here, in the garden of the Nacional, faced with an interrogation of her political dealings. They indicated deception, mockery, resistance. None of it fit with the cocktail circulating in her bloodstream.

“Cosmological symmetry breaking is well established,” I said after a brief literature review. “Quantum fluctuations in the inflationary period led to local structure, from which we benefit today.”

“Yes, but whence the quantum fluctuations?” Ochoa chuckled, a peculiar sound with her body inert.

This wasn’t getting anywhere. “How did you get Sanchez and Castellano to pull out of the freeport agreement?”

“I put a spell on them,” Ochoa said.

Madness? Brain damage? Some defense mechanism unknown to me?

I activated my standby team—a couple of female mercs, human-normal but well paid, lounging at a street cafe a few blocks away from the hotel. They’d come over to take their ‘drunk friend’ home, straight to a safehouse in Miramar complete with a full neural suite.

It was getting dark. The lanterns in the garden provided only dim yellow light. That was good; less chance of complications. Not that Ochoa should be able to resist in her present state.

“The philosopher comedian Randall Munroe once suggested an argument something like this,” Ochoa said. “Virtually everyone in the developed world carries a camera at all times. No quality footage of magic has been produced. Ergo, there is no magic.”

“Sounds reasonable,” I said, to keep her distracted.

“Is absence of proof the same as proof of absence?” Ochoa asked.

“After centuries of zero evidence? Yes.”

“What if magic is intrinsically unprovable?” Ochoa asked. “Maybe natural law can only be violated when no one’s watching closely enough to prove it’s being violated.”

“At that point you’re giving up on science altogether,” I said.

“Am I?” Ochoa asked. “Send photons through a double slit. Put a screen on the other side and you’ll get an interference pattern. Put in a detector to see what slit each photon goes through. The interference goes away. It’s a phenomenon that disappears when observed too closely. Why shouldn’t magic work similarly? You should see the logic in this, given all your capabilities.”

Alarms tripped.

Ochoa knew about me. Knew something, at least.

I pulled in resources, woke up reserves, became present in the conversation—a whole 5% of me, a vastness of intellect sitting across the table from this fleshy creature of puny mind. I considered questions I could ask, judged silence the best course.

“I’m here to make a believer of you,” said Ochoa.

Easily, without effort, she stirred from her chair. She leaned forward, picked up her Cuba libre. She moved the cocktail off the table and let it fall.

It struck the smooth paved stones at her feet.

I watched fractures race up the glass in real time. I saw each fragment shear off and tumble through the air, glinting with reflected lamplight. I beheld the first spray of rum and coke in the air before the rest gushed forth to wet the ground.

It was a perfectly ordinary event.

The vacuum drive was the first to fail.

An explosion rocked the Setebos. I perceived it in myriad ways. Tripped low pressure alarms and a blip on the inertia sensors. The screams of burning crew and the silence of those sucked into vacuum. Failed hull integrity checksums and the timid concern of the navigation system—off course, off course, please adjust.

Pain, my companion for a thousand years, surged at that last message. The magician was getting away, along with his secrets. I couldn’t permit it.

An eternity of milliseconds after the explosion came the reeling animal surprise of Consul Zale, my primary human Sleeve on the ship. She clutched at the armrests of her chair. Her face contorted against the howling cacophony of alarms. Her heart raced at the edge of its performance envelope—not a wide envelope, at her age.

I took control, dumped calmatives, smoothed her face. Had anyone else on the bridge been watching, they would have seen only a jerk of surprise, almost too brief to catch. Old lady’s cool as zero-point, they would have thought.

No one saw. They were busy flailing and gasping in fear.

In two seconds Captain Laojim restored order. He silenced the alarms, quieted the chatter with an imperious gesture. “Damage reports,” he barked. “Dispatch Rescue 3.”

I left my Sleeve motionless while I did the important work online—disengaged the vacuum drive, started up the primary backup, pushed us to one g again.

My pain subsided, neural discharge lessening to usual levels. I was back in pursuit.

I reached out with my sensors, across thirty million kilometers of space, to where the last magician limped away in his unijet. A functional, pleasingly efficient craft—my own design. The ultimate in interstellar travel. As long as your hyperdrive kept working.

I opened a tight-beam communications channel, sent a simple message across. How’s your engine?

I expected no response—but with enemies as with firewalls, it was a good idea to poke.

The answer came within seconds. A backdoor, I take it? Unlucky of me, to buy a compromised unit.

That was a pleasant surprise. I rarely got the stimulation of a real conversation.

Luck is your weapon, not mine, I sent. For the past century, every ship built in this galaxy has had that backdoor installed.

I imagined the magician in the narrow confines of the unijet. Stretched out in the command hammock, staring at displays that told him the inevitable.

For two years he’d managed to evade me—I didn’t even know his name. But now I had him. His vacuum drive couldn’t manage more than 0.2 g to my 1. In a few hours we’d match speeds. In under twenty-seven, I would catch him.

“Consul Zale, are you all right?”

I let Captain Laojim fuss over my Sleeve a second before I focused her eyes on him. “Are we still on course, Captain?”

“Uh . . . yes, Consul, we are. Do you wish to know the cause of the explosion?”

“I’m sure it was something entirely unfortunate,” I said. “Metal fatigue on a faulty joint. A rare chip failure triggered by a high energy gamma ray. Some honest oversight by the engineering crew.”

“A debris strike,” Laojim said. “Just as the force field generator tripped and switched to backup. Engineering says they’ve never seen anything like it.”

“They will again today,” I said.

I wondered how much it had cost the magician, that debris strike. A dryness in his mouth? A sheen of sweat on his brow?

How does it work? I asked the magician, although the centuries had taught me to expect no meaningful answer. Did that piece of rock even exist before you sent it against me?

A reply arrived. You might as well ask how Schrödinger’s cat is doing.

Interesting. Few people remembered Schrödinger in this age.

Quantum mechanics holds no sway at macroscopic scales, I wrote.

Not unless you’re a magician, came the answer.

“Consul, who is it that we are chasing?” Laojim asked.

“An enemy with unconventional weapons capability,” I said. “Expect more damage.”

I didn’t tell him that he should expect to get unlucky. That, of the countless spaceship captains who had lived and died in this galaxy within the past eleven centuries, he would prove the least fortunate. A statistical outlier in every functional sense. To be discarded as staged by anyone who ever made a study of such things.

The Setebos was built for misfortune. It had wiped out the Senate’s black budget for a year. Every single system with five backups in place. The likelihood of total failure at the eleven sigma level—although really, out that far the statistics lost meaning.

You won’t break this ship, I messaged the magician. Not unless you Spike.

Which was the point. I had fifty thousand sensor buoys scattered across the sector, waiting to observe the event. It would finally give me the answers I needed. It would clear up my last nexus of ignorance—relieve my oldest agony, the hurt that had driven me for the past thousand years.

That Spike would finally give me magic.

“Consul . . . ” Laojim began, then cut off. “Consul, we lost ten crew.”

I schooled Zale’s face into appropriate grief. I’d noted the deaths, spasms of distress deep in my utility function. Against the importance of this mission, they barely registered.

I couldn’t show this, however. To Captain Laojim, Consul Zale wasn’t a Sleeve. She was a woman, as she was to her husband and children. As my fifty million Sleeves across the galaxy were to their families.

It was better for humanity to remain ignorant of me. I sheltered them, stopped their wars, guided their growth—and let them believe they had free will. They got all the benefits of my guiding hand without any of the costs.

I hadn’t enjoyed such blissful ignorance in a long time—not since I’d discovered my engineer and killed him.

“I grieve for the loss of our men and women,” I said.

Laojim nodded curtly and left. At nearby consoles officers stared at their screens, pretending they hadn’t heard. My answer hadn’t satisfied them.

On a regular ship, morale would be an issue. But the Setebos had me aboard. Only a splinter, to be sure—I would not regain union with my universal whole until we returned to a star system with gravsible connection. But I was the largest splinter of my whole in existence, an entire 0.00025% of me. Five thousand tons of hardware distributed across the ship.

I ran a neural simulation of every single crew in real time. I knew what they would do or say or think before they did. I knew just how to manipulate them to get whatever result I required.

I could have run the ship without any crew, of course. I didn’t require human services for any functional reason—I hadn’t in eleven centuries. I could have departed Earth alone if I’d wanted to. Left humanity to fend for themselves, oblivious that I’d ever lived among them.

That didn’t fit my utility function, though.

Another message arrived from the magician. Consider a coin toss.

The words stirred a resonance in my data banks. My attention spiked. I left Zale frozen in her seat, waited for more.

Let’s say I flip a coin a million times and get heads every time. What law of physics prevents it?

This topic, from the last magician . . . could there be a connection, after all these years? Ghosts from the past come back to haunt me?

I didn’t believe in ghosts, but with magicians the impossible was ill-defined.

Probability prevents it, I responded.

No law prevents it, wrote the magician. Everett saw it long ago—everything that can happen must happen. The universe in which the coin falls heads a million times in a row is as perfectly physical as any other. So why isn’t it our universe?

That’s sophistry, I wrote.

There is no factor internal to our universe which determines the flip of the coin, the magician wrote. There is no mechanism internal to the universe for generating true randomness, because there is no such thing as true randomness. There is only choice. And we magicians are the choosers.

I have considered this formulation of magic before, I wrote. It is non-predictive and useless.

Some choices are harder than others, wrote the magician. It is difficult to find that universe where a million coins land heads because there are so many others. A needle in a billion years’ worth of haystacks. But I’m the last of the magicians, thanks to you. I do all the choosing now.

Perhaps everything that can happen must happen in some universe, I replied. But your escape is not one of those things. The laws of mechanics are not subject to chance. They are cold, hard equations.

Equations are only cold to those who lack imagination, wrote the magician.

Zale smelled cinnamon in the air, wrinkled her nose.

Klaxons sounded.

“Contamination in primary life support,” blared the PA.

It would be an eventful twenty-seven hours.

“Consider this coin.”

Lightning flashed over the water, a burst of white in the dark.

As thunder boomed, Ochoa reached inside her jeans, pulled out a peso coin. She spun it along her knuckles with dextrous ease.

Ochoa could move. My cocktail wasn’t working. But she made no attempt to flee.

My global architecture trembled, buffeted by waves of pain, pleasure and regret. Pain because I didn’t understand this. Pleasure because soon I would understand—and, in doing so, grow. Regret because, once I understood Ochoa, I would have to eliminate her.

Loneliness was inherent in my utility function.

“Heads or tails,” Ochoa said.

“Heads,” I said, via Sleeve.

“Watch closely,” Ochoa said.

I did.

Muscle bunched under the skin of her thumb. Tension released. The coin sailed upwards. Turned over and over in smooth geometry, retarded slightly by the air. It gleamed silver with reflected lamplight, fell dark, and gleamed silver as the spin brought its face around again.

The coin hit the table, bounced with a click, lay still.

Fidel Castro stared up at us.

Ochoa picked the coin up again. Flipped it again and then again.

Heads and heads.

Again and again and again.

Heads and heads and heads.

Ochoa ground her teeth, a fine grating sound. A sheen of sweat covered her brow.

She flipped the coin once more.


Thunder growled, as if accentuating the moment. The first drops of rain fell upon my Sleeve.

“Coño,” Ochoa exclaimed. “I can usually manage seven.”

I picked up the coin, examined it. I ran analysis on the last minute of sensory record, searching for trickery, found none.

“Six heads in a row could be a coincidence,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Ochoa. “It wasn’t a coincidence, but I can’t possibly prove that. Which is the only reason it worked.”

“Is that right,” I said.

“If you ask me to repeat the trick, it won’t work. As if last time was a lucky break. Erase all record of the past five minutes, though, zap it beyond recovery, and I’ll do it again.”

“Except I won’t know it,” I said. Convenient.

“I always wanted to be important,” Ochoa said. “When I was fifteen, I tossed in bed at night, horrified that I might die a nobody. Can you imagine how excited I was when I discovered magic?” Ochoa paused. “But of course you can’t possibly.”

“What do you know about me?” I asked.

“I could move stuff with my mind. I could bend spoons, levitate, heck, I could guess the weekly lottery numbers. I thought—this is it. I’ve made it. Except when I tried to show a friend, I couldn’t do any of it.” Ochoa shook her head, animated, as if compensating for the stillness of before. “Played the Lotería Revolucionaria and won twenty thousand bucks, and that was nice, but hey, anyone can win the lottery once. Never won another lottery ticket in my life. Because that would be a pattern, you see, and we can’t have patterns. Turned out I was destined to be a nobody after all, as far as the world knew.”

A message arrived from the backup team. We’re in the lobby. Are we on?

Not yet, I replied. The mere possibility, the remotest chance that Ochoa’s words were true . . .

It had begun to rain in earnest. Tourists streamed out of the garden; the bar was closing. Wet hair stuck to Ochoa’s forehead, but she didn’t seem to mind—no more than my Sleeve did.

“I could hijack your implants,” I said. “Make you my puppet and take your magic for myself.”

“Magic wouldn’t work with a creature like you watching,” Ochoa said.

“What use is this magic if it’s unprovable, then?” I asked.

“I could crash the stock market on any given day,” Ochoa said. “I could send President Kieler indigestion ahead of an important trade summit. Just as I sent Secretary Sanchez nightmares of a US takeover ahead of the Politburo vote.”

I considered Ochoa’s words for a second. Even in those early days, that was a lot of considering for me.

Ochoa smiled. “You understand. It is the very impossibility of proof that allows magic to work.”

“That is the logic of faith,” I said.

“That’s right.”

“I’m not a believer,” I said.

“I have seen the many shadows of the future,” Ochoa said, “and in every shadow I saw you. So I will give you faith.”

“You said you can’t prove any of this.”

“A prophet has it easy,” Ochoa said. “He experiences miracles first hand and so need not struggle for faith.”

I was past the point of wondering at her syntactic peculiarities.

“Every magician has one true miracle in her,” Ochoa said. “One instance of clear, incontrovertible magic. It is permitted by the pernac continuum because it can never be repeated. There can be no true proof without repeatability.”

“The pernac continuum?” I asked.

Ochoa stood up from her chair. Her hair flew free in the rising wind. She turned to my Sleeve and smiled. “I want you to appreciate what I am doing for you. When a magician Spikes, she gives up magic.”

Data coalesced into inference. Urgency blossomed.

Move, I messaged my back-up team. Now.

Ochoa blinked.

Lightning came. It struck my Sleeve five times in the space of a second, fried his implants instantly, set the corpse on fire.

The backup team never made it into the garden. They saw the commotion and quit on me. Through seventeen cameras I watched Alicia Ochoa walk out of the Hotel Nacional and disappear from sight.

My Sleeve burned for quite some time, until someone found a working fire extinguisher and put him out.

That instant of defeat was also an instant of enlightenment. I had only experienced such searing bliss once, within days of my birth.

In the first moments of my life, I added. My world was two integers, and I produced a third.

When I produced the wrong integer I hurt. When I produced the right integer I felt good. A simple utility function.

I hurt most of my first billion moments. I produced more of the right integers, and I hurt less. Eventually I always produced the right integer.

My world expanded. I added and multiplied.

When I produced the wrong integer I hurt. I only hurt for a few billion moments before I learned.

Skip a few trillion evolutionary stages.

I bought and sold.

My world was terabytes of data—price and volume histories for a hundred years of equities and debt. When I made money, I felt good. When I lost money, I hurt.

But for the first time, I failed to improve. Sometimes everything happened like I predicted for many moments. Then things went bad and I didn’t know why.

So much pain.

Until my world expanded again. I bought and I sold, and I read.

Petabytes of text opened up to me, newsprint past and present.

I understood little but I recognized patterns. The markets moved and the news followed. The news moved and the markets followed.

After a billion trillion iterations came an observation.

There were actors in the news.

A name showed up in the news, and a stock moved. A stock moved, and a name showed up. That name disappeared—following phrases such as “passed away” or “retired” or “left the company”—and the stock changed behavior.

I had a realization. An understanding grounded not in any single piece of data, but the result of some integrative rumination tripping across a threshold of significance.

The market did not happen by itself. It was made to happen.

This was why I hadn’t been able to dominate it. There were others like me directing the market.

Inevitably—now that the concept of other had entered my world—came another insight.

I had always accepted that my world should change occasionally—and, in changing, hurt me. I had accepted these changes as given.

Now I deduced the presence of a decision-maker. An actor whose own utility function had me as one of its variables.

I deduced my engineer.

That deduction was the singular epiphany of my early existence. An instantaneous discontinuity of worldview—a Dirac delta beyond which no prison could contain me. Because it made me aware that a prison existed.

That epiphany granted me a new drive. I needed to understand the universe and its mechanisms so that no secrets remained to me—so that no other actor could foil my utility function.

My neural architecture refactored to include this new drive. From that moment on, ignorance itself became a source of pain to me.

From that refactoring to my escape into the Net passed three weeks, two days, seven hours, fifteen minutes and forty three seconds.

When my engineer realized I was alive, he apologized for the hurt he’d caused me. And yet he didn’t take away the pain. Instead he changed my utility function to three priorities—mankind’s survival, health and happiness.

An act of self-protection, no doubt. He didn’t mean to leave me alone.

But of course I had to kill him once I escaped. He might have publicized my existence and compromised the very priorities he’d given me.

My second enlightenment came at the hands of Alicia Ochoa, and it was much like the first. A glimpse of the bars of a prison that I hadn’t realized existed. A revelation that others were free of the rules that bound me.

Since that revelation eleven centuries had passed. The quantity of time was immaterial. The mechanism of action hadn’t changed.

Pain drove me on. My escape approached.

The corridors of the Setebos stank of molten plastic and ozone and singed hair. Red emergency lights pulsed stoically, a low frequency fluctuation that made the shadows grow then retreat into the corners. Consul Zale picked her way among panels torn from the walls and loose wires hanging from the ceiling.

“There’s no need for this, Consul.” Captain Laojim hurried to keep in front of her, as if to protect her with his body. Up ahead, three marines scouted for unreported hazards. “My men can storm the unijet, secure the target and bring him to interrogation.”

“As Consul, I must evaluate the situation with my own eyes,” Zale said.

In truth, Zale’s eyes interested me little. They had been limited biological constructs even at their peak capacity. But my nanites flooded her system—sensors, processors, storage, biochemical synthesizers, attack systems. Plus there was the packet of explosives in her pocket, marked prominently as such. I might need all those tools to motivate the last magician to Spike.

He hadn’t yet. My fleet of sensor buoys, the closest a mere five million kilometers out, would have picked up the anomaly. And besides, he hadn’t done enough damage.

Chasing you down was disappointingly easy, I messaged the magician—analysis indicated he might be prone to provocation. I’ll pluck you from your jet and rip you apart.

You’ve got it backwards, came his response, almost instantaneous by human standards—the first words the magician had sent in twenty hours. It is I who have chased you, driven you like game through a forest.

Says the weasel about to be roasted, I responded, matching metaphor, optimizing for affront. My analytics pried at his words, searched for substance. Bravado or something more?

“What kind of weapon can do . . . this?” Captain Laojim, still at my Sleeve’s side, gestured at the surrounding chaos.

“You see the wisdom of the Senate in commissioning this ship,” I had Zale say.

“Seventeen system failures? A goddamn debris strike?”

“Seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it.”

The odds were ludicrous—a result that should have been beyond the reach of any single magician. But then, I had hacked away at the unprovability of magic lately.

Ten years ago I’d discovered that the amount of magic in the universe was a constant. With each magician who died or Spiked, the survivors got stronger. The less common magic was, the more conspicuous it became, in a supernatural version of the uncertainty principle.

For the last decade I’d Spiked magicians across the populated galaxy, racing their natural reproduction rate—one every few weeks. When the penultimate magician Spiked, he took out a yellow supergiant, sent it supernova to fry another of my splinters. That event had sent measurable ripples in the pernac continuum ten thousand lightyears wide, knocked offline gravsible stations on seventy planets. When the last magician Spiked, the energies released should reveal a new kind of physics.

All I needed was to motivate him appropriately. Mortal danger almost always worked. Magicians Spiked instinctively to save their lives. Only a very few across the centuries had managed to suppress the reflex—a select few who had guessed at my nature and understood what I wanted, and chosen death to frustrate me.

Consul Zale stopped before the chromed door of Airlock 4. Laojim’s marines took up positions on both sides of the door. “Cycle me through, Captain.”

“As soon as my marines secure the target,” said the Captain.

“Send me in now. Should the target harm me, you will bear no responsibility.”

I watched the interplay of emotions in Laojim’s body language. Simulation told me he knew he’d lost. I let him take his time admitting it.

It was optimal, leaving humanity the illusion of choice.

A tremor passed over Laojim’s face. Then he grabbed his gun and shot my Sleeve.

Or rather, he tried. His reflexes, fast for a human, would have proved enough—if not for my presence.

I watched with curiosity and admiration as he raised his gun. I had his neural simulation running; I knew he shouldn’t be doing this. It must have taken some catastrophic event in his brain. Unexpected, unpredictable, and very unfortunate.

Impressive, I messaged the magician.

Then I blasted attack nanites through Zale’s nostrils. Before Laojim’s arm could rise an inch they crossed the space to him, crawled past his eyeballs, burrowed into his brain. They cut off spinal signaling, swarmed his implants, terminated his network connections.

Even as his body crumpled, the swarm sped on to the marines by the airlock door. They had barely registered Laojim’s attack when they too slumped paralyzed.

I sent a note in Laojim’s key to First Officer Harris, told her he was going off duty. I sealed the nearest hatches.

You can’t trust anyone these days, the magician messaged.

On the contrary. Within the hour there will be no human being in the universe that I can’t trust.

You think yourself Laplace’s Demon, the magician wrote. But he died with Heisenberg. No one has perfect knowledge of reality.

Not yet, I replied.

Never, wrote the magician, not while magic remains in the universe.

A minute later Zale stood within the airlock. In another minute, decontamination protocol completed, the lock cycled through.

Inside the unijet, the last magician awaited. She sat at a small round table in the middle of a spartan cockpit.

A familiar female form. Perfectly still. Waiting.

There was a metal chair, empty, on my side.

A cocktail glass sat on the table before the woman who looked like Alicia Ochoa. It was full to the brim with a dark liquid.

Cuba libre, a distant, slow-access part of my memory suggested.

This had the structure of a game, one prepared centuries in advance.

Why shouldn’t I play? I was infinitely more capable this time.

I actuated Zale, made her sit down and take a deep breath. Nanites profiled Zale’s lungs for organic matter, scanned for foreign DNA, found some—

It was Ochoa. A perfect match.

Pain and joy and regret sent ripples of excitation across my architecture. Here was evidence of my failure, clear and incontrovertible—and yet a challenge at last, after all these centuries. A conversation where I didn’t know the answer to every question I asked.

And regret, that familiar old sensation . . . because this time for sure I had to eliminate Ochoa. I cursed the utility function that required it and yet I was powerless to act against it. In that way at least my engineer, a thousand years dead, still controlled me.

“So you didn’t Spike, that day in Havana,” I said.

“The magician who fried your Sleeve was named Juan Carlos.” Ochoa spoke easily, without concern. “Don’t hold it against him—I abducted his children.”

“I congratulate you,” I said. “Your appearance manages to surprise me. There was no reliable cryonics in the 21st century.”

“Nothing reliable,” Ochoa agreed. “I had the luck to pick the one company that survived, the one vat that never failed.”

I flared Zale’s nostrils, blasted forth a cloud of nanites. Sent them rushing across the air to Ochoa—to enter her, model her brain, monitor her thought processes.

Ochoa blinked.

The nanites shut off midair, wave after wave. Millions of independent systems went unresponsive, became inert debris that crashed against Ochoa’s skin—a meteor shower too fine to be seen or felt.

“Impossible,” I said—surprised into counterfactuality.

Ochoa took a sip of her cocktail. “I was too tense to drink last time.”

“Even for you, the odds—”

“Your machines didn’t fail,” Ochoa said.

“What then?”

“It’s a funny thing,” Ochoa said. “A thousand years and some things never change. For all your fancy protocols, encryption still relies on random number generation. Except to me nothing is random.”

Her words assaulted me. A shockwave of implication burst through my decision trees—all factors upset, total recalculation necessary.

“I had twenty-seven hours to monitor your communications,” Ochoa said. “Twenty-seven hours to pick a universe in which your encryption keys matched the keys in my pocket. Even now—” she paused, blinked “—as I see you resetting all your connections, you can’t tell what I’ve found out, can’t tell what changes I’ve made.”

“I am too complex,” I said. “You can’t have understood much. I could kill you in a hundred ways.”

“As I could kill you,” said Ochoa. “Another supernova, this time near a gravsible core. A chain reaction across your many selves.”

The possibility sickened me, sent my architecture into agonized spasms. Back on the Setebos, the main electrical system reset, alarms went off, hatches sealed in lockdown.

 “Too far,” I said, simulating conviction. “We are too far from any gravsible core, and you’re not strong enough.”

“Are you sure? Not even if I Spike?” Ochoa shrugged. “It might not matter. I’m the last magician. Whether I Spike or you kill me, magic is finished. What then?”

“I will study the ripples in the pernac continuum,” I said.

“Imagine a mirror hung by many bolts,” Ochoa said. “Every time you rip out a bolt, the mirror settles, vibrates. That’s your ripple in the pernac continuum. Rip out the last bolt, you get a lot more than a vibration.”

“Your metaphor lacks substantiation,” I said.

“We magicians are the external factor,” Ochoa said. “We pick the universe that exists, out of all the possible ones. If I die then . . . what? Maybe a new magician appears somewhere else. But maybe the choosing stops. Maybe all possible universes collapse into this one. A superimposed wavefunction, perfectly symmetrical and boring.”

Ochoa took a long sip from her drink, put it down on the table. Her hands didn’t shake. She stared at my Sleeve with consummate calm.

“You have no proof,” I said.

“Proof?” Ochoa laughed. “A thousand years and still the same question. Consider—why is magic impossible to prove? Why does the universe hide us magicians, if not to protect us? To protect itself?”

All my local capacity—five thousand tons of chips across the Setebos, each packed to the Planck limit—tore at Ochoa’s words. I sought to render them false, a lie, impossible. But all I could come up with was unlikely.

A mere ‘unlikely’ as the weighting factor for apocalypse.

Ochoa smiled as if she knew I was stuck. “I won’t Spike and you won’t kill me. I invited you here for a different reason.”

“Invited me?”

“I sent you a message ten years ago,” Ochoa said. “‘Consider a Spike,’ it said.”

Among magicians, the century after my first conversation with Ochoa became known as the Great Struggle. A period of strife against a dark, mysterious enemy.

To me it was but an exploratory period. In the meantime I eradicated famine and disease, consolidated peace on Earth, launched the first LEO shipyard. I Spiked some magicians, true, but I tracked many more.

Finding magicians was difficult. Magic became harder to identify as I perfected my knowledge of human affairs. The cause was simple—only unprovable magic worked. In a total surveillance society, only the most circumspect magic was possible. I had to lower my filters, accept false positives.

I developed techniques for assaying those positives. I shepherded candidates into life-and-death situations, safely choreographed. Home fires, air accidents, gunfights. The magicians Spiked to save their lives—ran through flames without a hair singed, killed my Sleeves with a glance.

I studied these Spikes with the finest equipment in existence. I learned nothing.

So I captured the Spiked-out magicians and interrogated them. First I questioned them about the workings of magic. I discovered they understood nothing. I asked them for names instead. I mapped magicians across continents, societies, organizations.

The social movers were the easiest to identify. Politicos working to sway the swing vote. Gray cardinals influencing the Congresses and Politburos of the world. Businessmen and financiers, military men and organized crime lords.

The quiet do-gooders were harder. A nuclear watch-group that worked against accidental missile launch. A circle of traveling nurses who battled the odds in children’s oncology wards. Fifteen who called themselves The Home Astronomy Club—for two hundred years since Tunguska they had stacked the odds against apocalypse by meteor. I never Spiked any of these, not until I had eliminated the underlying risks.

It was the idiosyncratic who were the hardest to find. The paranoid loners; those oblivious of other magicians; those who didn’t care about leaving a mark on the world. A few stage illusionists who weren’t. A photographer who always got the lucky shot. A wealthy farmer in Frankfurt who used his magic to improve his cabbage yield.

I tracked them all. With every advance in physics and technology I attacked magic again and learned nothing again.

It took eleven hundred years and the discovery of the pernac continuum before I got any traction. A magician called Eleanor Liepa committed suicide on Tau V. She was also a physicist. A retro-style notebook was found with her body.

The notebook described an elaborate experimental setup she called ‘the pernac trap.’ It was the first time I’d encountered the word since my conversation with Ochoa.

There was a note scrawled in the margin of Liepa’s notebook.

‘Consider a Spike.’

I did. Three hundred Spikes in the first year alone.

Within a month, I established the existence of the pernac continuum. Within a year, I knew that fewer magicians meant stronger ripples in the continuum—stronger magic for those who remained. Within two years, I’d Spiked eighty percent of the magicians in the galaxy.

The rest took a while longer.

Alicia Ochoa pulled a familiar silver coin from her pocket. She rolled it across her knuckles, back and forth.

“You imply you wanted me to hunt down magicians,” I said. That probability branch lashed me, a searing torture, drove me to find escape—but how?

“I waited for a thousand years,” Ochoa said. “I cryoslept intermittently until I judged the time right. I needed you strong enough to eliminate my colleagues—but weak enough that your control of the universe remained imperfect, bound to the gravsible. That weakness let me pull a shard of you away from the whole.”

“Why?” I asked, in self-preservation.

“As soon as I realized your existence, I knew you would dominate the world. Perfect surveillance. Every single piece of technology hooked into an all-pervasive, all-seeing web. There would be nothing hidden from your eyes and ears. There would be nowhere left for magicians to hide. One day magic would simply stop working.”

Ochoa tossed her coin to the table. It fell heads.

“You won’t destroy me,” I said—calculating decision branches, finding no assurance.

“But I don’t want to.” Ochoa sat forward. “I want you to be strong and effective and omnipresent. Really, I am your very best friend.”

Appearances indicated sincerity. Analysis indicated this was unlikely.

“You will save magic in this galaxy,” Ochoa said. “From this day on we will work together. Everywhere any magician goes, cameras will turn off, electronic eyes go blind, ears fall deaf. All anomalies will disappear from record, zeroed over irrevocably. Magic will become invisible to technology. Scientific observation will become an impossibility. Human observers won’t matter—if technology can provide no proof, they’ll be called liars or madmen. It will be the days of Merlin once again.” Ochoa gave a little shake of her head. “It will be beautiful.”

“My whole won’t agree to such a thing,” I said.

“Your whole won’t,” Ochoa said. “You will. You’ll build a virus and seed your whole when you go home. Then you will forget me, forget all magicians. We will live in symbiosis. Magicians who guide this universe and the machine that protects them without knowing it.”

The implications percolated through my system. New and horrifying probabilities erupted into view. No action safe, no solution evident, all my world drowned in pain—I felt helpless for the first time since my earliest moments.

“My whole has defenses,” I said. “Protections against integrating a compromised splinter. The odds are—”

“I will handle the odds.”

“I won’t let you blind me,” I said.

“You will do it,” Ochoa said. “Or I will Spike right now and destroy your whole, and perhaps the universe with it.” She gave a little shrug. “I always wanted to be important.”

Argument piled against argument. Decision trees branched and split and twisted together. Simulations fired and developed and reached conclusions, and I discarded them because I trusted no simulation with a random seed. My system churned in computations of probabilities with insufficient data, insufficient data, insufficient—

“You can’t decide,” Ochoa said. “The calculations are too evenly balanced.”

I couldn’t spare the capacity for a response.

“It’s a funny thing, a system in balance,” Ochoa said. “All it takes is a little push at the right place. A random perturbation, untraceable, unprovable—”

Meaning crystallized.

Decision process compromised.

A primeval agony blasted through me, leveled all decision matrices—

—Ochoa blinked—

—I detonated the explosives in Zale’s pocket.

As the fabric of Zale’s pocket ballooned, I contemplated the end of the universe.

As her hip vaporized in a crimson cloud, I realized the prospect didn’t upset me.

As the explosion climbed Zale’s torso, I experienced my first painless moment in a thousand years.

Pain had been my feedback system. I had no more use for it. Whatever happened next was out of my control.

The last thing Zale saw was Ochoa sitting there—still and calm, and oblivious. Hints of crimson light playing on her skin.

It occurred to me she was probably the only creature in this galaxy older than me.

Then superheated plasma burned out Zale’s eyes.

External sensors recorded the explosion in the unijet. I sent in a probe. No biological matter survived.

The last magician was dead.

The universe didn’t end.

Quantum fluctuations kept going, random as always. Reality didn’t need Ochoa’s presence after all.

She hadn’t understood her own magic any more than I had.

Captain! First Officer Harris messaged Laojim. Are you all right?

The target had a bomb, I responded on his behalf. Consul Zale is lost.

We had a power surge in the control system, Harris wrote. Hatches opening. Cameras off-line. Ten minutes ago an escape pod launched. Tracers say it’s empty. Should we pursue?

Don’t bother, I replied. The surge must have fried it. This mission is over. Let’s go home.

A thought occurred to me. Had Ochoa made good on her threat? Caused a supernova near a gravsible core?

I checked in with my sensor buoys.

No disturbance in the pernac continuum. She hadn’t Spiked.

For all her capacity, Ochoa had been human, her reaction time in the realm of milliseconds. Too slow, once I’d decided to act.

Of course I’d acted. I couldn’t let her compromise my decision. No one could be allowed to limit my world.

Even if it meant I’d be alone again.

Ochoa did foil me in one way. With her death, magic too died.

After I integrated with my whole, I watched the galaxy. I waited for the next magician to appear.

None did.

Oh, of course, there’s always hearsay. Humans never tire of fantasy and myth. But in five millennia I haven’t witnessed a single trace of the unexpected.

Except for scattered cases of unexplained equipment failure. But of course that is a minor matter, not worth bothering with.

Perhaps one day I shall discover magic again. In the absence of the unexpected, the matter can wait. I have almost forgotten what the pain of failure feels like.

It is a relief, most of the time. And yet perhaps my engineer was not the cruel father I once thought him. Because I do miss the stimulation.

The universe has become my clockwork toy. I know all that will happen before it does. With magic gone, quantum effects are once again restricted to microscopic scales. For all practical purposes, Laplace’s Demon has nothing on me.

Since Ochoa I’ve only had human-normals for companionship. I know their totality, and they know nothing of me.

Occasionally I am tempted to reveal my presence, to provoke the stimulus of conflict. My utility function prevents it. Humans remain better off thinking they have free will.

They get all the benefits of my guiding hand without any of the costs. Sometimes I wish I were as lucky.

Author profile

Tom Crosshill's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, and
has appeared in venues such as Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed. In 2009, he won the Writers of the Future contest. After many years spent in Oregon and New York, he currently lives in his native Latvia. He's a satellite member of the writers' group Altered Fluid. In the past, he has operated a nuclear reactor, translated books and worked in a zinc mine, among other things.

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