31 December 2015

Significant Digits, Bonus: Science

Significant Digits, Bonus: Science

John Snow Center for Medicine and Tower School of Doubt (The Tower)
October 3rd, 1998

“Mr. Abercrombie, Ms. Ryan.  How can I help you?” asked the dean, glancing at his wristwatch. “It must be important if you’ve come to see me during my office hours this week.”

Visiting the dean was relatively simple, but annoyingly tedious: you simply pinned a note to the front of your robes about office hours, then snapped a Safety Stick.  Few students ever bothered, especially considering how intimidating the former prodigy and current magical titan could be.  His inaugural speech to the Science Program students hadn’t been especially impressive -- a great deal of fuss about a “pale blue dot” -- but some of the new students in the Program had felt faint just from being in the Tower and in such proximity to the great man.  Craig Abercrombie and Siobhan Ryan thought this visit was necessary, however.

As usual, every team in their year of the Science Program had been given their project on Sunday.  In this instance, each trio of students was handed a small brown box containing the broken shards of a vase and a small card of information.  Craig, Siobhan, and Perry Paderau got a box full of white-glazed pieces decorated with delicate designs in blue and green.  The card had informed them that this was formerly an Art Nouveau vase created by Leon Solon, and told them that they were required to “repair the vase” without magic.  You may use magic in any way you please during the process, as long as no spell directly touches or affects the pieces of the vase.  Points will be awarded based on the completeness of the restoration, overall aesthetic effect, and creativity.

“Well, sir, it’s just got to be Muggle glue, right?” said Craig.  “Nothing else you can do.  Not much of a challenge.  We were wondering if you might talk to Professor Syracuse about it, and get him to change it a bit.”

“I suggested this assignment, actually,” said Dean of the Science Program Harry Potter-Evans-Verres.  He leaned back in his chair behind the huge wooden table, adjusting his glasses, and gestured at a pile of books at one end of the table.  Craig recognized some of the textbooks from the science program and several books on pottery styles and history, along with a handful of note-filled parchments.

There was a brief pause as the two students absorbed this information, then Siobhan spoke up.  “Sir, I’m not sure it fits with some of the other projects we’ve done.  They all needed… well, you had to think about them.  This will just be… tedious.  Gluing things together.”

“Don’t underestimate the value of patience, Ms. Ryan,” said the dean.  “Having the fortitude to do something annoying and fiddly is a key aspect of good science.”  He pushed himself back from the big table, and stood up, gesturing vaguely.  “A few rooms away is a project I’ve been working on for years, trying minor variations on the same thing over and over again to try to find the exact shielding that will work for my purposes.  And I’ll probably keep working at it tomorrow, and next week, and so on.  If you’ve decided on a way to complete your project, don’t quit just because it seems tedious.  Most worthwhile things are tedious at some point, so you should get used to tedium… as long as it’s for a good purpose, and not just busywork.”

“This is just different than Professor Syracuse’s previous assignments, that’s all,” said Siobhan.

Craig nodded in agreement, and then his face lit up.  “There was something about this sort of thing in one of our books…”
He walked over to the pile of books and notes that the dean had indicated.  He leafed through them until he found what he was looking for: a copy of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!   Craig opened it and began flipping through it, rapidly.

Some of the previous weekly projects from the Professor of Engineering had been:
  • Construct a way to view a basilisk with sufficient clarity that it could be effectively fought.  Any means allowed, Muggle or magical.  Entries included glasses with mirrors built into them, blindfolds enchanted with vitalis revelio, a purchased pair of Muggle night-vision goggles, and a simple piece of parchment inscribed with the words, “Use the Killing Curse and then view it as much as you want.”
  • Build upon last week’s work studying Muggle agriculture, and suggest a new way to improve it in a well-structured essay.  No minimum number of inches.  Answers were almost universally centered around either the use of magical creatures (interbreeding, pest control, etc.) or the production of fresh water (wide-scale weather management, enchanted saltwater filters, etc.)  The most successful team pointed out that simply using Vanishing Rooms would result in the biggest improvement to Muggle agriculture, eliminating all the problems of preservation and transportation.
  • Go to the northeast corridor, take the second stairwell, go left down the hall, and enter the eighteenth room on the left.  Once the door locks behind you, your team will have one hour to escape.  You may not use your wands.  You may bring anything else with you that you wish.  Students brought lockpicks enchanted with flawless function, battering rams transfigured to a small size, bottles of magical fire or Bundimun acid, and other things.  Most plans had needed to be altered somewhat after the door vanished.
  • This is a Muggle device known as a “mousetrap,” used in place of the Vermexous Charm.  It is missing the spring which would normally power it with mechanical energy.  Make it work.  Points will be awarded based on the effectiveness of the trap on a living mouse and creativity.  Most teams succeeded to get the trap to work, replacing the spring with twisted rope or other solutions.  The two winning teams, however, found more innovative approaches.  One team had put a lump of poisoned bait on the trap and ignored the device’s original purpose.  The other had tied the broken mousetrap to the back of a hungry kneazle.
  • Write an essay in three parts: (1) Where is an example of the Pareto Principle at work within Hogwarts?  (2)  Where can you find an example of the normal distribution in Hogwarts?  (3)  Identify a place where you would normally expect to find an example of either concept, even though it is not present.  No minimum number of inches.
  • Golden Snitches have been immobilized and hidden throughout the fifth floor.  Find any Snitch, but remember that most sensory spells will not be effective.  Do not go past the mungbeans or you will certainly become lost.  Only two teams had won.  The first had gone and purchased a new Golden Snitch in Hogsmeade, pointing out that the rules didn’t state which Snitch they needed to find.  The other had researched the history of Quidditch’s most famous cheaters and found a little-known fifteenth-century charm to divine the location of a Snitch.  It used a distinctive wand motion.  The following month, the Seeker for the Slough Sizzlers was fined a hundred Galleons and barred from competition.

After a moment of searching through the book, Craig had found the part he wanted.

“Sir, remember when Mr. Feynman goes to Brasilia and talks to them about what they do with their science education?”  Dean Potter nodded; it was one of the more famous parts of the book.  “Well, sir, Mr. Feynman says they have to choose a way because of ‘a good reason, a sensible reason; not just because other countries do.’ ”  The student tapped the spot in the book.

“Yes, Mr. Abercrombie.  But I assure you, we’re not doing this project just because other engineering classes do it this way.”  The dean smiled indulgently, and the expression paradoxically made him look very young.  He was only a few years older than them, after all.

“Yes, sir, but maybe you’re assigning this project because you’re doing the sort of thing you think that Mr. Feynman would do?” said Craig, questioningly.  He closed the book and set it back down with the rest.

Siobhan frowned, shaking her head.  “Well, I don’t know if that’s it, Craig.  I just thought...”

“It’s a good point,” said the dean, looking thoughtful.  “When I was younger, I spent quite a bit of time feeling frustrated with my teachers, and wishing I had a truly talented and creative tutor.  I wasn’t quite prepared when I got my wish.”  He fell quiet for a moment, and the students waited, a bit impatient despite their awe.  The dean was either referring to Albus Dumbledore or David Monroe, and it was a dramatic reminder of how close they were to history… but they still wanted to leave as soon as possible.

“I’ll think about it,” said the dean.  “And before I give any more suggestions to Professor Syracuse, I’ll write out some clear lesson objectives.  Cleverness isn’t a substitute for pedagogy, I suppose.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Craig and Siobhan, just slightly out of unison.  They seemed discomfited by the end of the conversation; Craig was tugging at his robes nervously and Siobhan was visibly sweating.  They left without another word.


The ensuing week was relatively normal -- or what passed for normal in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s Science Program, which was not known for its normality.  The lower-form students (in their first two years of the Program) scurried in small packs from one class to another, learning the rudiments of seven core subjects and one elective.  The upper-form students spent their time with fewer professors, studying the rudiments of a few branches of science and doing labs.  It was a ruthlessly intense program, and more than half of the students quit during their first year.

Professor Syracuse’s afternoon class on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays was a group of fourth-years.  They had a swagger about them: they’d survived three years of a course of study that was already legendary for its difficulty, surpassing even the Salem Witches’ Institute’s “Trial by Fire” graduate school of languages.  In another year, they’d be choosing independent courses of study in magical science in the School of Doubt, working with Tower or Unspeakable researchers -- or even just beginning careers, if they wanted.  They would be the third graduating class of the Science Program, and they were on top of the world.

Truth be told, the swagger in these fourth-years might explain why Professor Santo Syracuse agreed so readily to the vase project when it was suggested by Dean Potter-Evans-Verres.  Such an assignment had good prospects for teaching some arrogant teenagers a little humility.

“Sit down, sit down,” snapped Professor Syracuse.  “Paderau!  You heard me!  Sit down and be quiet!  We have no time for your nonsense -- the ladies aren’t impressed.  If you want to impress them, learn your equations.”

The boy in question stood up from where he’d been crouched between two witches and walked around their station back towards his own in the back, wearing an expression of aggrieved innocence.  He sat down between Siobhan and Craig, making as much noise as possible as he settled his elbows on the high table and his rear on the stool.  His partners exchanged a look of annoyance behind his back.

Professor Syracuse watched him intently for a moment to be sure that the admonishment had been effective, then brightened as he turned to the class as a whole.  He was a thin man of average height, and gloriously bald, with a shiny pink scalp and a mouth that twitched from side to side when he was excited.  He was often excited.

“Today we’ll spend the first hour on project presentation, and then after the break we’ll be doing more work on friction,” the professor said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation and illustration.  “We’ll try to hammer at least a few basic principles into you, so that you’re only woefully ignorant, and not completely ignorant.  It will be a rich, full day.”  He waggled his eyebrows in anticipation.  “Okay!  Get out your projects -- whatever you have, get it out, even if it’s just your notes!  You can put your binders away for now.  Do not spill your flobberworm mucus or murtlap essence, or you will be cleaning everyone’s station at the end of the afternoon.”

There was some shuffling and murmuring as people got themselves sorted, taking out whatever their team had managed to complete that week.  All six of the teams appeared to have put together something in order to repair the vase, but as everyone looked around, they saw a variety of solutions.

“What did we get done, guys?” Perry Paderau asked the other two, in a hushed voice.

“ ‘We’ didn’t get anything done… Craig and I did finish something, though,” answered Siobhan, annoyed.  She was arranging a closed box in front of herself, carefully.

“Don’t be that way, Ryan… it’s been crazy this past week,” said Perry, frowning.  “My dad wants me to come work for him when we get done this year, and so I’ve been trying to get some extra help from Professor Sprout in the evenings.”  Perry’s father grew Sopophorous beans for export.

“You didn’t do anything, you just let Siobhan and I do it, and now you’re going to take credit,” said Craig, irritably.

Perry turned to him, and spoke in a harsh whisper, “Hey, you’re not the one who’s expected to spend the rest of his life with baskets of Mooncalf dung and a pair of silver scissors, okay?  Do you know how often you need to sharpen silver scissors?”  He scowled.  “I did all the work to get us out of that room last month, when the door vanished, so have some mercy, will you?”

“This is the only time,” said Siobhan.

“Fine!” said Perry, a bit too loudly.

“Quiet over there!” said Professor Syracuse, darting his gaze at their team.  He frowned.  “Again, Paderau?  One point from Ravenclaw!”  Perry groaned and slumped forward on the table.  “Okay, first team… Jess, Raphael, Sally… what do you have?”

Two boys and a girl rose from their stools and walked awkwardly to the front table.  They set a vase down, carefully, as well as two small bowls.  The vase was small, brown, and extremely plain.

“Our solution was simple.  We had a broken vase, and we needed to make a working vase -- to ‘repair’ it.  So it seemed to us like the best thing would be to just make a new vase, rather than trying to remake the old one.”  She gestured at the table, and one of her teammates dipped his fingers into one of the small bowls, lifting out a palmful of brown powder.  “We took the pieces of the original vase and ground them down into dust.  Then we took that dust,” she gestured again, and another teammate displayed a handful of dark clay, “and we added water, turning it back into clay.  We didn’t use any magic on the pieces, before or after we ground them down.  We didn’t even use Aguamenti to create the water -- we just used the tap.”  She sounded very proud.

“Then,” she said, gesturing at the brown pot, “we made a pot, and asked a house elf to put it in the kilns for us the next time they fired something.  We got it back this morning, and here is the pot: clean and new, and in one piece.”

The professor approached the front table, frowning.  “Full marks for creativity, and I suppose this is a ‘complete restoration.’ ”  He picked up their pot, and examined it.  “I am actually surprised that this worked.  I wouldn’t have thought that you’d be able to grind it down and then just re-fire it.  The vitrification… hmm…”

Professor Syracuse drew his wand and tapped the side of the pot twice, saying, “Aparecium.”  The pot and the bowl of clay changed color -- very slightly, tinting itself just a bit pink.  The bowl of powder, on the other hand, turned red.  The professor turned to regard the trio of students, eyebrow raised.  “Oddly, very little of the invisible dye seems to have found its way into your new pot… almost as though you just mixed a little in with new clay, after discovering that your plan wouldn’t work.”

They muttered some excuses, but the professor was already waving them back to their seats.  “If you want to remedy your low score today, then I’d suggest you each write me thirteen inches on why you think your plan didn’t work, and what you should have done instead.  I’d also suggest availing yourself of the library, this time around.  If you’d done even a bit of research -- or if you’d been paying attention when we discussed ceramics -- you’d have known about why this wouldn’t work.”

Professor Syracuse turned back to the class.  “Next.”

The next two teams had simply glued the vase back together.  One of the teams had done much better than the other, and had clearly taken the time to choose a specific kind of glue and practice, while the other team’s vase had small chips missing and beaded lines of overflow dried along the seams.  It even leaned a bit to the side.

Professor Syracuse commented on patience and conscientiousness as each team presented their work.  The team that would go last watched in dismay, since it was obvious to everyone in the room that they had done the worst job -- their glue didn’t even look dry.  One of them muttered a charm under their breath, and tried to subtly position their box so that it hid her efforts to use the warming spell on her work.


The fourth team had tried hard for the “creative” and “aesthetics” points as a strategy, and had used the pieces of their broken vase as a mosaic on the outside of a different vase, breaking them into even smaller fragments and arranging them in an attractive pattern.  They held up drawings they’d copied from a book with a Quarto Quickening Quill from Queevel's, showing different examples of mosaics in art around the world, as well as a large diagram indicating the best way to fit the pieces and stick them in place.  They were a very thorough group, and the class was just lucky that they hadn’t had time to make a diorama of a Pompeiian antechamber.  They looked to be leading the class this week, easily.

“Next,” said the professor, gesturing at Craig, Siobhan, and Perry.

The three of them got up.  Siobhan carried the box with their project in it.  She set it down, stood in front of it, and took out the vase.  The white vase stood tall, and patterns of blue meshed with patterns of green on its surface.  All of the pieces had been placed neatly where they belonged, but despite this care, the seams were clearly visible.  Indeed, they gleamed with gold.  Thick lines of the metal traced the joints between each piece.  It was ostentatious, calling attention to the damage rather than trying to hide it.

Perry looked horrified.  “This looks like we went mad,” he hissed to Siobhan.

Shut up,” she whispered back, fiercely.

“We wanted to do a technique from Japan called ‘kintsugi.’  It’s a traditional Japanese craft, and part of an approach that doesn’t try to hide the history of a piece of broken ceramic, but instead make that history part of the visible story of the piece,” Craig said, sounding a bit wooden and rehearsed.  “We couldn’t find a shop that sold the sort of lacquer that would work, which comes from a special tree, so we experimented with different things -- potions and some goop from a Doxy nest and that sort of thing that we thought might work.”

“This is Skele-Grow, reduced by half,” said Siobhan, and she carefully lifted the pot and held it up.  “We added a tiny bit of bone to activate it, and dusted it with some powdered gold.  Not a lot, and it turns out to be cheaper than you’d think --”

“Because it’s very ductile, so it can be made extremely thin,” interrupted Perry, smiling as he was won over.

“...and so our receipts still only total up to about five Sickles,” finished Siobhan, after an annoyed glance at Perry.

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Professor Syracuse, looking positively delighted.  “It looks beautiful -- and it shows not just creativity, but real scholarship.  This is actually -- my goodness -- this is actually something specifically mentioned to me by the dean when we discussed this project!  He is quite a Japanophile, in fact, and we discussed the wabi-sabi aesthetic in particular!”  The professor shook his head, marveling. “I know we don’t have any books on the topic… how exactly did you learn about this technique?”

“Ah, well,” said Craig, thinking about the notes on the table in the Tower that he’d read while looking for the Feynman book.  “We remembered what you said about ‘social engineering’...  it’s easier if you start with half the solution.  So we asked around.

The top sheet had read:

Santo, one final thought on my suggested assignment for next week:

I don’t want to step on your toes, or make you feel like you have to give this.  We promised you broad discretion when Minerva first came to you about your position in Killarney, and that hasn’t changed.  This is just an idea I thought would be fun. The idea here isn’t just to make it difficult or tedious, since students will encounter enough of that without our help.  But we’re giving them only the rudiments of a scientific education here… I want to challenge them as much as possible.  I mentioned kintsugi to you as one possible solution to the project, but it’s also a metaphor for the wizarding world.  You’re a Muggleborn, and you were ostracized for relying on Muggle science for your research on mermaids and evolution, so you know what we’re up against as we try to change society.  These students are golden, but we have to make them strong... so they can hold together a broken world.



I think it goes back to my high school days. In computer class, the first assignment was to write a program to print the first 100 Fibonacci numbers. Instead, I wrote a program that would steal passwords of students. My teacher gave me an A.
-Kevin Mitnick

29 December 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Four: Directoire Exécutif

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Four: Directoire Exécutif

When we look for a guiding hand, where do we look?  Ever upwards, ever upwards!  The stars above radiate a divine influence, and it washes over everything.  It gives shape to the lesser seers and to our own wishes, and it gives magic to the flower in the field and beast in the fold.  Their unknowable will provides for the oddities of magic.  Why does a certain word have effect with a certain wand?  Upwards, ever upwards!  It is the will of the stars!  If you wish to find a pattern to the world, then you must look only upwards… ever upwards!  That is the secret of all magic.

-excerpted from Lord Runcible LeValley‘s translation of The Stars Our Destiny, by Guileford Wednesday

What possible congruence of theories or schemes could explain the many aspects of magic in the world?  It is an outright impossibility, and any attempt to square the circle must reckon with the seemingly innumerable contradictory and unfathomable aspects of the magical world.  The blanket assertion that the stars are at work is not explanation enough.

Gamp’s Law of Transfiguration, which sets limits seemingly imposed by culture and custom?  The inherent magical properties of the subjects of magizoology and herbology, where unthinking flora and fauna both defy consistent categories?  The law of sympathy that underlies many rituals or potions, drawing upon either a metaphorical intimacy or a synecdochal partiality to a power or target in order to channel the effect?  The potent accidental magic of the underaged, which seems to have no relation to any theory of practised magic, but instead dwells in a realm of will, wishes, and wild randomness?  The linguistic uniformity of high ritual and new spells alike, with onomatopoeic properties to incantations which range from the most ancient syllabaries to last week’s innovations?  Wordless or wandless magics, which rely upon a twist of thought or frame of mind to produce the intended effect -- even when that twist or frame bears not the slightest resemblance to the spoken spell?

Magic is a mystery by its very nature, and each field and aspect of study deserves its own theories -- they cannot be reconciled with each other in some grand schema.  In every age, and even in our own waning era, the only advancements have come from dedicated transfigurationists, potioneers, magizoologists, enchanters, and the like… never from the grand madness of addled “magical theoreticians.”  Magic is a gem with many facets, through which we may shine light from many directions.  But try to shine light through them all, and you produce no illumination: only confusion.  Try to combine these facets into a single face, and you produce no lens -- not even the manifold lights of Wednesday’s much-beloved stars: only fragments.

-excerpted from American Mage’s review of same


On the shores of the lake of teeth, where the black hills end, Tír inna n-Óc
May 15th, 1999
Three weeks later

Once upon a time, a city of tents and pavilions stood here, illuminated by its own small sun.  Bundiwigs and lejis would run in laughing circles before gladsome parties of elegant gaunts, while the visc let tissue-thin wings carry them in lazy loops overhead.  When their sun darkened, it would be time for the sharpening.

But all of that was in the past, and no one today remained to tell that story.  There was only the gentle whisper of tooth on tooth as the ivory waves rolled upon the shore… and a certain quiet wail hidden in the wind.

Three figures stood in the uncertain grey light, their dream-flesh composed of intricately moving shadows.

“So then,” said the first figure.  “Our American witch and her organization are gone -- years of management, wiped out by incompetence and chance.  And now the British bishop has been captured, wasting more of our time.  Entire days of our time, considering the effort spent in scrying for her location, altering her to our needs, capturing her pawns from hither and thither, and using the Touch to maintain our position.  Our situation has worsened, and the Tower remains beyond our sight or reach.  We cannot trigger the Lethe Touch and protect ourselves.  We are exposed.”

The second figure listened silently.  After the first was done speaking, it turned to regard the third creature of living shadow, inviting the conversation to continue.

“And so we need a next move, Meldh, to build on this one,” replied the third figure.  “It seems clear that the attack worked in its essentials.  The Tower was breached and its defenders defeated.  Yet there is little discussion in the British gendarmerie about changing their defenses.  There is no reason not to awaken Tineagar and send her to the attack.  We still have the wolf at Busan -- if we double the force we send, then they will succeed by main strength.  There is little risk.”

“The risk is that we would be wasting our time, enacting the same foolish plan again, and we would be risking leaving the American in their hands, as well.  She has much of your lore, Nell -- would you see it released back into the world, to strengthen and perpetuate the threat of magic?”  Meldh’s voice was strident.

“Success will mean we might eliminate the risk of exposure through Bellatrix Black, as well as the threat of the Tower, and cut off the entire threat of this new approach to magical discovery.  A few charms and Brittonic rituals are a small risk,” said Nell, dismissively.

“When your toes are at the brink, every handspan of distance counts.  What if it is the spread of the Babylonian Garden that pushes us over?” retorted Meldh.  “I do not doubt you equipped your bishop with that ritual, in addition to a pack of howling idiots.  What if the boy employs it in conjunction with the Philosopher’s Stone?  How many of him do you wish to face?”

“A direct hand is needed,” said the second figure, interjecting.  “You were correct in our last conversation, when you said as much.  We have passed the point where we can hope to deter this new regime.  By the time any further action can be taken, all the world will be united.  It is time to take control, and employ this new tool that has been readied for our use.”

This suggestion, phrased in the mildest of tones, struck the other two like a physical blow.

“You will venture forth and risk yourself?  That is... surprising,” said Meldh.

“Not myself.  You.”  said the second figure.

This prompted an even longer pause.

“I am not certain that is wise.  Putting myself beyond your sight, protection, and aid… I would be submitting myself to greater dangers than I have encountered in centuries.”

“I will enrich you with my own lore.”

“I am grateful,” said Meldh, although his tone of voice suggested otherwise.  “And yet it would be risky beyond ken.  The dangers are… formidable.  I am more accustomed to moving other pieces.  That is the sure way: observe and touch at a distance.  Until this moment, there was much to be learned even by simple correspondence games.  And then a whispered word or the gift of a bit of knowledge… that is the way to do it, I think.”  But rather than assertive, Meldh’s words were hopeful.

“You are powerful and wise, and more than capable,” offered Nell, who had been quiet during this exchange.  “And you would have all of our support.  You are the master of the Touch -- it was you who reshaped the pyromancer we employed in our first attempt to curtail the boy, and neither of us could have done it better.  If any of us must take control --” (and her tone left no doubt that it was as good as settled) “-- then it can be no other but you.”

“We cannot wait and attempt influence by less immediate means.  New devices appear every month.  They defy the very grasp of the earth.  The risk is untenable,” said the second figure.

“I understand,” said Meldh, slowly.

The second figure spoke reassuringly.  “The Mirror, late of Atlantis, proves to be the means by which the Tower has escaped us.”  Meldh and Nell both moved slightly, and had they visible faces rather than fractal shadow, surprise might have been evident there.  “It is being used in a manner that is crude but effective -- a single realm of the boy’s choosing, with passage left unspecified.  All may enter, and all are subject to its strictures… but it is another world, out of reach.  When you do this, it will be yours, along with the Stone of the Long Song.”

Nell turned sharply at this, saying, “But --”

“His,” affirmed the second figure, and Nell fell silent.

“Very well,” said Meldh.  “But we will act with completeness, then.  We have our pawns in the goblins -- rouse them.  And a secondary line within Britain.  If I am to personally intervene, then I require everything we can bring to bear.  If we succeed, I will not begrudge whatever extra time is necessary afterwards to hide our hand.”

The other two agreed, solemnly, and for some time they discussed the ways in which they would ready themselves.  Eventually, they departed the realm of nightmare-stuff.  The dark shore was once more unpeopled, and only a gaunt’s lost wail within the wind was left to suggest it had ever been otherwise.

Tír inna n-Óc endured.


John Snow Center for Medicine and Tower School of Doubt (The Tower)
The same day

“Okay then,” said Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, Dean of the Science Program at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, head of the Tower School of Doubt, key advisor to a series of expendable Ministers for Magic, chief architect behind the development of entire new fields of wizardry, and guiding hand behind the course of the world.  “I would like someone to seriously explain to me why we are calling them sfaironauts, and why I can’t change it.”

There was a series of groans from around the table.  Cedric Diggory crumpled up a wad of parchment and threw it at Harry, while Amelia Bones and Alastor Moody gave each other despairing glances.  Draco Malfoy looked annoyed,  Percy Weasley looked uncomfortable, and Luna Lovegood probably would have looked bored if she had been paying attention (she was thinking about fish).  Reg Hig didn’t react at all, only glancing up from the stack of parchments in front of him.

“I would like to discuss Bellatrix Black,” said Bones, folding her hands in front of her on the meeting room table.

Harry sighed, and appeared to resign himself.  “What about her?”

“Alastor and I agree that she cannot remain in Nurmengard.  It’s not secure enough,” Bones said, glancing over at Moody.  The handsome young man said nothing, but his roving eye -- now back where it belonged, after long hiatus -- whipped around to fix itself on the youthful Supreme Mugwump.  “It has taken fully a week and an entire dedicated staff to begin to engage her mind, and we are nowhere near the depth of penetration necessary to extract secrets or spells from her, but recent events are a different thing.  She has seen, well…”  Bones trailed off, pursing her lips.

“Her mind is nastier than a Hungarian Horntail and twice as dangerous,” said Moody, finally.  “It’s like she’s taken an Unbreakable Vow to fight all intrusions into her brain.”  He paused, and his eye spun in his head.  “Not a bad idea, actually.”

Harry shook his head.  “If you’re looking to move her somewhere more secure than Nurmengard, the obvious question is: why is there anywhere more secure than Nurmengard?  Whatever you’re doing better in that other place, do it at Nurmengard, too.”

“I maintain that we’re being short-sighted about her, Potter,” said Draco, frowning.  Cedric nodded in agreement with the blond boy, paused as though he’d realized what he was doing, and then turned his attention back to Harry.

“The ticking ‘blastbomb’ scenario?” Harry asked, rubbing his forehead.  “Look, we’ve spent years and years trying to heal people in St. Mungo’s with severe mental trauma, and so have Muggle doctors.  It’s possible there are some things that can be done to the brain that can’t be fully recovered.  If Bellatrix Black’s mind has been… well, made into some sort of maze, then it will just take a bit longer to get what we need from her.  We’re not going to tear it free and damage her, not if it could leave her beyond repair.”  He looked around the table, but too many faces were skeptical.  “If Hermione were here, or one of the Returned, they’d agree with me.  ‘Save one life,’ remember?”

“This ‘one life’ might be risking that ‘whole world,’ Potter.  You wouldn’t hesitate to kill her in battle if it was necessary to save the lives of others.  This is the same thing.  The fact that it’s just less pretty and less obvious doesn’t make it any less true,” said Draco.  “Does anyone here doubt that she is going to suddenly disappear from her holding cell, and in six months we’ll be facing her and two hundred wereknarls or whatever?”

Cedric shook his head at that and held up his hand.  “No, no, please let’s not get back into the ‘sick or evil’ discussion.  Let’s keep it on Nurmengard for a moment.”  He looked back over at Moody.  “Our people posted there have been doubled.  She has two decoys, one of whom is herself convinced she is Bellatrix Black.  And there’s probably at least two other plans in place that I don’t even know about, despite one ordinarily thinking the head of the DMLE might rate inclusion on all of that sort of thing.  And of course, beyond all that, it’s still Nurmengard: one of the most secure places in the world.  Where could you possibly move her?”

“Here,” said Moody.

“It’s --” began Draco, but Moody cut him off.

“The magics that Dumbledore left to help you build this place can’t be replicated elsewhere,” lied the head of security, smoothly.  “Dumbledore’s rituals prevent scrying and prevent intrusion -- they even make the Killing Curse as dangerous as buttermilk so long as you’re in the Tower.  But we can’t do it in other places, yet.  No place can be made as secure as the Tower.  If you’re going to insist on soft-shoeing the interrogation process, then she needs to come here.  We’ll expand -- new wing in the back.  You wanted that anyway.”

“I did.  And it will give us an opportunity to keep working with her, and maybe keep her mind intact.  I don’t know if she can become a fully-functional person at this point,” said Harry, unwilling to be turned to the new topic.  His voice was cool with anger as he continued, “but it’s possible, especially on a long enough timeline.  It’s also possible that kicking her brains apart to get inside of them is something that might have permanent consequences, no matter how long the timeline.”  He glanced over at Draco, lips tight.  “And killing is when you have no alternative.  We have an alternative, so we’re taking it.”

“And if she wasn’t alone?  How about the ‘Three?’ ” said Draco, cool as well.  “If they exist, and they’re not just an obvious bit of misinformation from one rogue American,” he continued, ignoring Hig’s abrupt attention and sharp glare, “then they might have had a hand in this.  They, and not Voldemort, might have been the source of this, ah, ‘Multi-Form Ritual.’ ”

“It wasn’t Voldemort, and so that leaves Limpel Tineagar or the Three as the likely source,” said Harry, firmly.  When Cedric gave him a skeptical look, he tapped the lightning-bolt scar on his forehead.  “I know it wasn’t him.”  Cedric nodded, acceptingly and with a hint of sympathy on his face.

“Then can we risk them intervening?  Surely we need to know about them now,” said Draco, pushing his point home by rapping the table sharply with his knuckles.

“ ‘Save one life,’ ” said Harry again, shaking his head.

“How about saving more than one, instead?” retorted Draco.  “How about saving all the lives we lose if we wait too long, or open ourselves up for another attack?  How many people were lost to the time-lock Bellatrix cast when she attacked?  How many of her werewolf soldiers are still alive and sane?”

“If you start maiming minds because it’s convenient,” said Bones, frowning, “then I begin to wonder what we’re fighting to protect.  Let’s not go down the path of the ‘greater good,’ if possible.  It has an ugly history.”  Moody again said nothing, although he clearly favoured Draco’s way of thinking.

“If we can just resolve the matter of Nurmengard, as Mr. Diggory suggested?” broke in Percy, tapping a finger on a parchment in front of him.

“Right, then,” said Harry swiftly.  “We’ll expand.  Alastor is right, we were going to do it anyway.  I’ll be glad of the greater leg-room, too.  Unless there’s an objection?”  

There was none.

“How will we do the transfer?” asked Cedric.

Moody’s eye wobbled over to point at him.  “I’ll be in touch.”

“Will Ms. Granger be assisting?  I think that would make us all feel better,” said Percy, with an apologetic glance at Cedric.

“No argument here,” agreed Cedric, with a broad smile.  “But I understand she’s at Powis for the time being.  She deserves the downtime.”

“She’s as likely as most to work out how that ritual works, and better than anyone to actually try it,” said Moody.  “So I hope she’s not just resting and scourging blood out of her sleeve.”

This was a rather more grim note than Moody had perhaps intended, and there was an awkward pause.  Draco shot him an annoyed glare, and Percy looked a little pale.

“Don’t forget,” Harry said, gently, “that her sleeve was still bloody when she began trying to heal that Bellatrix.”

“Mm,” grunted Moody.  “Shame the ritual ran its course.  If it had been permanent,” he said, and his eye whipped around to regard Harry, accusingly, “then we’d have two of them to interrogate.”

Harry ignored him.  They’d had this discussion several times already, and he expected it to become a common one (not just in the Tower, but among humanity).  What are the ethics of creating new sentient beings, when you knew they faced an uncertain or unpleasant end?

“It would be helpful to be able to send Ms. Granger to China, I think, when she has had her rest,” said Bones, interrupting Harry’s train of thought.  There was the slightest hint of judgment in her tone.  “Now that the recent conflict has been, er, resolved --” and she gave Draco an ambiguously intent glance “-- she can begin representing the Treaty once more.”

Draco smiled, and raised a finger, as if in reminder.

“The Treaty for Health and Independence,” Bones said with a heavy air.

Hig lowered the parchment he’d been reading, and turned to stare at Draco with his dark little eyes.  He let his gaze linger for a moment in warning, and then it broke into warmth and a pleasant smile.  “Health and Independence indeed… and more importantly, an end to all the unpleasantness of recent years.”  He turned his attention to Bones.  “I concur with you.  The Goddess is far and away the best envoy we could send.  I don’t think the outcome is in doubt, now that Russia, the Sawad, New Zealand, and the Caucuses are all with us -- and now that all the concessions they demanded are in place.  But don’t forget Cappadocia… they’re still out of the fold.  A bad example.  We need the best envoy to ensure that China or Thailand don’t try to forge their own way.”

“Or we could bring Cappadocia in,” suggested Draco.

“Oh good,” commented Cedric.  “I was just saying to myself, ‘I sure hope we repeat the same arguments every single time we meet, oh Merlin, am I glad we’ve gotten so much blonder around here.’ ”

Bones cut in over Cedric’s sarcasm.  “I agree with Councilor Hig.”

“Myself as well,” said Percy.

“After she takes the time she needs,” said Moody, roughly.

“Measured thrust will be easier if we use something similar to those goblins chargers,” said Luna, nodding, as though her words were somehow germane to the conversation.

The discussion hiccuped around her interjection.

“So do we wait until she feels ready, or should I go and see how she’s doing?” asked Cedric, hopefully.

“The goblins haven’t been able to come in to Material Methods for several weeks -- something political going on in Ackle, according to Urg.  Preparing for a major meeting of the Urgod Ur, I think,” said Harry, seizing on Luna’s words.  “But we can prototype something on a smaller scale in the meantime.”

Bones gave Harry a despairing look, then glanced back at Cedric.  “No, the ‘Goddess’ is diligent enough, as you well know.  She’ll be back when she’s ready.”

“Let’s pick this back up tomorrow,” said Hig, smiling indulgently and gesturing at Harry.  “Other things are pressing, clearly.”

“Harry?” said Moody, leaning forward.

“Unless Percy has something else?” said Harry, rising from his seat.

“No, sir,” said Percy.  He was smiling.  “It looks like everything is working out.”


The propaganda agents of the Tower have been toiling away in rotten old England, trying to convince you that the Walpurgis Night War was a resounding victory for the forces of meddling and the armies of colonialism.  But thankfully, they protest too much.

In reality, events since that night, when the world teetered on the brink of destruction, have proven to be far more favorable to the Independents and their British counterparts, the Honourable.  The leader of the Honourable and one of the voices of the Independence movement, Lord Draco Malfoy of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Malfoy, was only barely able to keep a smile of satisfaction off of his face when interviewed at Siegfried’s this past week.  “Virtually all of our demands have been met,” Malfoy said to this reporter over a Muggle meal of squid-ink pizza and cranberry foam, “and we are very happy with the changes to the Treaty for Health and Life.”

When asked about concessions, the handsome young nobleman was more coy.  “The negotiators for the Independents, who kindly invited me along, did have to give up some things in negotiation, of course.  I understand that Russia has reluctantly agreed to contribute their own aurors to help protect the Tower.  Thankfully, that will also let them keep a close eye on it,” said Lord Malfoy, with a twinkle in his eye.

The Honourable leader conceded that he would be ending publication of his long-running journal Unbreakable Honour, due to new responsibilities.  “I understand that the Thunderer and several of the Emirati Councils insisted on having representation within the Tower, if their people were going to be expected to cooperate.  A reasonable request.  But to my surprise, they thought my long… association with Harry Potter would make me the best person to keep an eye on things in some sort of executive capacity.”  Lord Malfoy did not appear to be unhappy at the prospect of exercising oversight on his old schoolyard rival.

A representative of the Tower has called the outcome of negotiations between the two treaty organizations an “equitable outcome.”  But the results would appear to be markedly in favor of the Independents, regardless of the spin you might be hearing.

-Excerpted from “A New Age,” by Sylvia de Kamp in American Mage.

23 December 2015

Significant Digits: Next Chapter Delayed Three Days

It occurred to me that both my family and the extraordinary editors who help make Significant Digits would probably appreciate it if I didn't try to get a chapter out on Saturday. Apparently there are several sorts of holidays -- two people's birthdays and a really short day, I guess? -- and things going on.

So the next chapter will come out on Tuesday, a few days after the scheduled time.

There is also a pretty fun bonus to follow it. It's about half-written, and it's prompted by my gratitude to all you readers and to the surprising number of people on my Patreon.

Happy holidays to everyone!

20 December 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Three: Walpurgisnacht

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Three: Walpurgisnacht

Trigger warning: violence, dismemberment, and death.


JUPITER:  Je dirais donc: “Jeune homme, allez-vous-en!  Que cherchez-vous ici?  Vous voulez faire valoir vos droits?  Eh!  vous êtes ardent et fort, vous feriez un brave capitaine dans une armée bien batailleuse, vous avez mieux à faire qu’à régner sur une ville à demi morte, une charogne de ville tourmentée par les mouches.  Les gens d’ici sont de grands pécheurs, mais voici qu’ils se sont engagés dans la voie du rachat.  Laissez-les, jeune homme, laissez-les, respectez leur douloureuse enterprise, éloignez-vous sur la pointe des pieds.  …  Et que leur donnerez-vous en échange?  Des digestions tranquilles, la paix morose des provinces et l’ennui, ah! l’ennui si quotidien du bonheur.  Bon voyage, jeune homme, bon voyage; l’ordre d’une cité et l’ordre des âmes sont instables: si vous y touchez, vous provoquerez une catastrophe.  (Le regardent dans les yeux.)  Une terrible catastrophe qui retombera sur vous.

ZEUS:  Well, I'd say something like this. “My lad, get you gone! What business have you here? Do you wish to enforce your rights? Yes, you're brave and strong and spirited. I can see you as a captain in an army of good fighters. You have better things to do than reigning over a dead-and-alive city, a carrion city plagued by flies. These people are great sinners but, as you see, they're working out their atonement. Let them be, young fellow, let them be; respect their sorrowful endeavor, and begone on tiptoe. ... What, moreover, could you give them in exchange? Good digestions, the gray monotony of provincial life, and the boredom — ah, the soul-destroying boredom — of long days of mild content. Go your way, my lad, go your way. The repose of cities and men's souls hangs on a thread; tamper with it and you bring disaster. (Looking him in the eyes.) A disaster which will recoil on you.

-Les Mouches, Jean-Paul Sartre


April 30th, 1999
John Snow Center for Medicine and Tower School of Doubt (The Tower)

Harry snapped his fingers.

To his left, through the open door back into the Establishment, he could hear several people gasp at the gesture -- those who knew the legend.  But in front of him, the two iterations of Bellatrix Black only stared at him.

“What was that, little man?  Another ultimate weapon?” asked the one on the left, her voice mocking.  Her right eye was only a torn nugget of ruined red flesh, bloody on her cheek, but it didn’t seem to bother her.

In spite of himself and in spite of everything, Harry felt a mad giggle rising.  He fought it back.

“Yes,” he said.  “Yes, you could say that.”

“The Empty Fort,” the two witches said, almost in unison.  An identical expression of contemptuous glee was spreading on each of their faces.

“Where is the Dark Lord?” asked the one on the right.  They raised their wands again, pointing them at Harry.

Muffliato,” said Harry, for some semblance of privacy, “I cut off his hands and wiped his memory and turned him into a rock.  But I was worried that wasn’t enough after it almost went wrong, and so I ripped his mind out of his body and imprisoned it in a fungus that I keep inside of a fancy box.”  He paused.  “Did you want the box?  I can have it gift-wrapped, I suppose.”

“Stalling billy dolly,” said the one on the right, sneering.  She cocked her head to the side.

“Twist a while and you’ll tell a truer tale,” said the other.  Her tongue poked out of her mouth, pinkish and crude, and licked blood from her upper lip.

From the corner of his eye, Harry could see movement.  He raised his left hand sharply, to signal whoever it was to stop.

“No, that’s the truth, actually,” he said, calmly.  “But I will trade you an even better one, if you answer a question of mine.”  He had many, actually.  What is that duplication spell?  Did Voldemort know it?  It duplicated your arm -- could it duplicate any artifact?  Is the ritual sacrifice permanent, or can you heal that eye later?

The Bellatrix on the right giggled.  “No time, billy.  Bumbling bungling billy.  I’m heavy with the milk of your death.”  Then the levity vanished from her face, suddenly and completely, and her lips tightened.  “Twist.”

Crucio,” cast the other.

And there was pain.


ORESTE:  Il y a des hommes qui naissent engagés: ils n’ont pas le choix, on les a jetés sur un chemin, au bout du chemin il y a un acte qui les attend, leur acte; ils vont, et leurs pieds nus pressent fortement la terre et s’écorchent aux cailloux.  Ça te paraît vulgaire, à toi, la joie d’aller quelque part?  Et il y en a d’autres, des silencieux, qui sentant au fond de leur cœur le poids d’images troubles et terrestres; leur vie a été changée parce que, un jour de leur enfance, à cinq ans, à sept ans… C’est bon: ce ne sont pas des hommes supérieurs.  Je savais déjà, moi, à sept ans, que j’étais exilé; les odeurs et les sons, le bruit de la pluie sur les toits, les tremblements de la lumière, je les laissais glisser le long de mon corps et tomber autour de moi; je savais ui’ils appartenaient aux autres, et que je ne pourrais jamais en faire mes souvenirs.  Car les souvenirs sont de grasses nourritures pour ceux qui possèdent les maisons, les bêtes, les domestiques et les champs.

ORESTES:  Some men are born bespoken; a certain path has been assigned them, and at its end there is something they must do, a deed allotted. So on and on they trudge, wounding their bare feet on the flints. I suppose that strikes you as vulgar—the joy of going somewhere definite. And there are others, men of few words, who bear deep down in their hearts a load of dark imaginings; men whose whole life was changed because one day in childhood, at the age of five or seven— Right; I grant you these are no great men. When I was seven, I know I had no home, no roots. I let sounds and scents, the patter of rain on housetops, the golden play of sunbeams, slip past my body and fall round me and I knew these were for others, I could never make them my memories. For memories are luxuries reserved for people who own houses, cattle, fields, and servants.

-Les Mouches, Jean-Paul Sartre


April 30th, 1993
Office of Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, Hogwarts, Scotland
Six years ago

It had been difficult to visit his parents, as always.  It wasn’t that it made him unhappy, exactly, or even that it was uncomfortable.  It was the sense of loss that bothered him, waiting in the wings.

There was always a huge amount of things to talk about.  Mum would always ask after Hermione and Draco and Minerva, although she didn’t want to hear about the “politics” or the “magical things,” but about how Minerva and Draco were coping with their losses, or about how Hermione was doing so much better these days.  She’d met Granville, Hermione’s phoenix, at Christmastime, and had been so charmed that she’d been rendered speechless.  Granville had given her a feather, and Mum kept it on her vanity mirror.

Dad had his own interests and endless suggestions.  He made spirited attempts to talk about magic, but really the possibility of reforming a society was what he always wanted to talk about, sitting down with Harry at the kitchen table for long chats.  They’d both read their Heinlein, Asimov, Gibson, Stephenson… they would sit down after dinner and debate possible routes for a future society for hours, talking until their tea was cold and the rest of the world was asleep.  How could you intelligently plan for a world of eternal youth, with no disease or poverty?  What steps did you need to take now, and in what order?  Harry had the sense that his father thought the entire thing was still a bit unreal, and that Harry might be exaggerating his own role in the world these days… but what Oxford liberal sci-fi fan could resist the opportunity to talk about the way a society should be run -- a potential Church of All Worlds, or Foundation, or Freeside, or Neo-Victorian England, depending on the choices they made?

His father had paused at one point, last night, to marvel at that.  “Do you really think you’re capable of making these decisions, son?  Do you think anyone could make them in your place?  Account for every possibility and plan out an entire civilization?”  A pause.  “Does anyone even have the right to try?”

“If I could leave it up to the wisdom of crowds and market forces, I would,” Harry had replied, staring at the kitchen table.  “I can’t, and there’s no one else to take my place.  I have my Fellowship, and I’m not going to refuse the Ring just because it seems impossible or arrogant.  I have to try.”

His father was thoughtful for a quiet moment, and then smiled.  “Does that make me Elrond?”

Harry had rolled his eyes, even as his heart answered, Yes.

But through all of his visits, Harry knew -- even if they didn’t -- that he was going to have to stop coming to visit.  Not forever -- not on the scale at which mankind would be operating soon, an unlimited life of unlimited possibility -- but for a long time.  Already, he’d been coming to visit less often.  Soon, he was going to have to ask them to come visit him, instead.  And eventually, he’d need to resign himself to letters.  He probably should already have done that for their own safety, if for no other reason.  They were risking an eternity of life and he was risking the fate of the world every time he had contact.  Harry had needed to think about the possibilities (never refuse to think about something, not even once), but he didn’t like to dwell on them.  Kidnapping, blackmail, torture… it was the fate of the world and the species in the balance.

So ever since Harry had returned to Hogwarts, massive defense force and five decoys going along for the ride, he’d been quiet.  He’d spoken to Minerva and given her word from his parents, and then gone straight up to his office through the twisting corridors and up the moving stairs, and when he got there he’d exchanged only the barest of pleasantries with Hermione while getting the Stone back from her and destroying his facsimile.  Harry hadn’t been unfriendly, but he didn’t feel like he had the emotional energy to discuss his feelings, so he’d kept some distance.  He got to work on that day’s patients as they were cleared and escorted by the aurors, and stayed quiet and polite and distant.

When Draco had gotten there, he’d taken in the look on Harry’s face at a glance, and hadn’t said much more than good morning.

The first two patients of the day had been easy enough.  The first, an older man, had needed his right arm healed from the long and painful twisting that had come from a curse in his younger days.  Certain curses were beyond the power of healing spells -- indeed, sometimes that was their whole point -- and it had been a wonderful thing to see the look on the man’s face as his pain faded away for the first time in thirty years.  The man had moved and flexed the hand that had been frozen into a claw for decades, and eventually had begun to weep.  Harry had accepted his thanks, refused his money, and sent him on his way.

The second patient was even easier: a child born with a chronic seizure disorder.  Potions could keep it in check, such as the Caesarian Draught (a potion which had nothing to do with obstetrics, Harry had discovered after one amusing misunderstanding), but that was ruinously expensive.  Even taking extraordinary care, it had been easy for Harry to repair the lesions on the child’s brain.  Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to figure out the cause; the shapes of the lesions, as best he could tell, didn’t really point to any specific pathology.  Harry had made notes and consulted a manual on differential diagnosis of atypical neural lesions, but had needed to chalk it up to hydrocephaly at the moment and put off further research until later.

He thought he’d have time to dig into it that afternoon.  The aurors were slow to vet potential patients, much to Harry’s frustration, and despite his wish to scale things up, he probably wouldn’t get to see many more than twelve patients that day.  He needed to bring on more healers and more aurors, or work out a different system.

Harry was ready when the two aurors escorted in a third patient.  It was another older man, and it looked like another easy case.  The man had terrible burn scars on the lower part of his face, covering his chin and one of his cheeks with pale, knotted tissue.  The man’s eyes were wide, staring around with obvious alarm.  It wasn’t uncommon.  Across the room, for example, Hermione was healing someone who’d come in so terrified they were outright sobbing.  It soon passed.

Well, usually it soon passed.  Harry glanced at the corner, where a short brunette woman was sitting quietly, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes vacant.  One of the rescues from Azkaban -- a French woman named Charlevoix.  She, too, had been rescued from pain, only to remain in a state of near-catatonia.  She broke out into screams if she was separated from Hermione.  They let her stay.

“Hello, sir,” Harry said.  He tried to make his voice warm, and mustered up a smile.  “Just lie down on the bed, there, if you don’t mind.  There’s nothing to worry about… you’re going to feel a lot better, very soon.”

The old man lay down without protest, gingerly reclining on the bed.  Harry sat in a chair next to it.  He lay his wand on his lap.  The man was frightened.  “Are you all right, sir?  Nervous?”

Harry glanced at the aurors who escorted the man.  One of them shrugged -- nothing to contribute.  They stood silently at the foot of the bed: an obvious presence of force.  It was just a precaution, as were the twelve other aurors in the room.  Everyone was carefully screened and had to submit to Veritaserum before they were permitted to receive healing, and before entering they were disenchanted and dispelled and everything else an auror could do.  Precaution was taken against Imperius and Confundus… even against false or locked memories.  There were traps and wards and yet more traps, and outside assault was as impossible as they could make it.

“I… I don’t… I’m sorry,” murmured the patient with a quavering voice.

“For what?” Harry asked, smiling.

“I came for… for my face and chest.  All burnt, long ago.  I’d forgotten…”

Harry made the connection.  “You’d locked away the memory of how it happened?”

“Not me.  St. Mungo’s.  They’d had to… I couldn’t... I…” The man’s face twisted, stiff flesh on his chin rippling, and he clenched his eyes shut.  Tears began to roll down his cheeks.

“I’m sorry you lost that protection,” Harry said, gently.  “We can help you with that again, if you want.  Or we can put you in touch with someone we work with… a type of special healer who helps people with problems that they can’t face and don’t want to forget.”

“The boy… my boy,” gasped the man.  Harry just sat quietly.  There was nothing he could say -- he needed to just let the man take a moment to work through whatever had happened.

“Th-- There was a fire…” said the man, haltingly.  “My fault.  I wanted… I’m Salvatore Starr, maybe you’ve… I am a pyromancer.  There is none greater in Britain.”  Harry hadn’t heard of the man, but that wasn’t that surprising.  Despite everything that had happened, he’d only learned about magic itself two years ago.  There was still a lot of common knowledge that had escaped him, and there were famous magical researchers that he’d never heard of, Chocolate Frog card or no.  Harry glanced at one of the aurors again, and the auror nodded in confirmation.

The patient raised his arms up, and hugged himself.  He turned onto his side, away from Harry.  “So many have been hurt.  I myself… There was a fire.  There was a terrible fire.  I wanted to find a barrier against all flame.  Ever since the fall of Sontag… I wanted to find a way to stop it… stop such a fire--”  The man stopped speaking, his voice strangled away into a pained squeak by his grief.

“An accident?  With your research?” Harry said, gently.  The wizarding settlement of Sontag had been burned in the second goblin rebellion of 1612.  It had been long-abandoned by that time -- making its destruction more of a threat than a real attack -- but it had still been considered a tragedy.  None of the wizards present then had been able to extinguish the magical flames the goblins had wielded against Sontag, and the incident was always described in history books with an ominous tone.

“My boy… he…”  Salvatore's shoulders shook, and he lapsed back into silence.

“Sir…you had a son, sir?” said the other auror.  He sounded surprised -- that must not have turned up in their investigation.  Usually they were so careful… so slow that I have been complaining about it.

The first auror asked,  “Are you quite sure that--”

“Not my child,” said the man, his voice thick.  “My nephew.  A Muggle.  But he was like my child.  I loved him like my child.  My boy.  My boy...”

The auror nodded slowly.  “Yes, sir.”

“I’m so sorry, sir,” said Harry.  He stood up, as quietly as he could.  “We’re going to have you back another day, I think, sir.”

Salvatore rolled back over, suddenly, and snatched at the hem of Harry’s sleeve with a desperate hand.  The aurors drew their wands so quickly that Harry barely even saw them move, but didn’t intervene.

“Wait!” said Salvatore, his voice harsh.  He slid his legs to the side and sat up on the bed, not letting go of Harry.  “You’re the Boy-Who-Lived.  You can… I know you can…”

“I can’t bring back the dead, sir.  I’m so sorry, but I can’t…”  Not yet, thought Harry, looking over at Draco, who was sitting with Hermione at the other end of the room, helping her with her patient.  But I will.  I have promises to keep.  I will.

He looked back down at the patient.  “I’m so sorry, but I can’t bring him back.  I wish I could, believe me I do, but I can’t.”

“He would stay with me, sometimes.  I had a room for him.  He loved dragons.  Always loved dragons.  I used Welsh Greens, sometimes, and he would sit behind the wards and stare for hours at them.  Big posters of dragons all over the walls.  Wanted to see a Chinese Fireball, one day,” husked Salvatore.

“I didn’t know he was in the house...  I didn’t know he was in the house… I would never have been experimenting if I’d known they were going to come early.  My sister and my boy…  The cursed fire, I thought I could stop it with my new ward.  I thought I had it.  I never would have… I didn’t know...” The man’s voice broke into a sob.  Then it cut off, and his eyes fixed themselves on Harry again, coming back from some far-off place of grief and regret.  “Bring back my boy.  I know things… I went far abroad when I was young.  I know how to do things.  I have many things.  You can have all my knowledge, everything I have.  Bring back my boy.  Bring back Davey.“

Harry shook his head again.  This had gone on long enough, and even though it seemed cruel, he needed to defuse the situation before it got out of hand.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

He raised one hand to give a signal to the aurors, but paused, staring past them at the entrance to his office, where a piece of parchment folded into an airplane had just glided into the room.  It was one of the memos they used at the Ministry of Magic, lazily propelling itself with slow flaps of papery wings.

“Bring back my boy,” said Salvatore again, more quietly.  “Please… I’m begging you.  I know you have the power.    I have much to offer.  Old rituals and ancient spells, long forgotten by all others.  I have sacrificed much to gain them -- done grim things for grim people -- but I will give them over to you.  I have been to the nave of Beatus Payens and I have been to the land of the Tuatha… I have traded power for power, to learn all I could of flame and fire.  You can have all that I know.  Every rune in my books.  Every bit of flame.  Please… you must.  I didn’t… oh Merlin… I didn’t know he was there, he was an innocent, don’t you see, I didn’t know he was there.  Bring him back.”  He steadied himself.  “You must, Harry Potter.”

The aurors were moving on their own account, and one of them came to Salvatore’s elbow.  “Master Starr,” he said, gently.  Harry pulled away from the patient.  Salvatore didn’t resist, but didn’t let go; his hand remained suspended in the air, clutching at nothing as Harry’s sleeve left his grip.

“Please, sir,” said Salvatore, but the urgency had left his voice.  It sounded flat and full of sadness.

Harry stepped towards the memo, which was sailing along sedately, and held out his hand.  The parchment plane landed on his palm.  Behind him, the auror helped Salvatore to his feet.

When Harry opened the parchment, he found that it really was a standard Ministry memo, sealed and embossed in the normal way.  But it was a very long way from home.  The seal was cracked in the middle, and the rest of the memo was creased into squares and crinkled with two parallel lines: the thing had been folded up and sent here by owl.  Harry opened it, frowning.

The top few inches of a newspaper had been pasted to the parchment: that evening’s edition of The Daily Prophet.  There was no time marking, but it was only the early afternoon -- this was a message from the future.  At least four hours, but perhaps as far as six.


Nothing more.

Why send only this?  Harry thought.  But there was no time to think it through.  When given an anonymous warning, the course was clear (or at least, seemed obvious enough to Harry): react quickly, but in an unorthodox way.  He couldn’t ignore the message, especially since it might have come from the future, but if you reacted predictably to an anonymous warning, then you were only granting your enemy the power to control you.

Harry’s thoughts moved in a flash.  First-level response, standard lockdown.  Vulnerable to specific kinds of attacks.  Obvious alternative -- evacuation -- has the same problem.  Brief message and unorthodox delivery style that bypassed other viewers… points to some betrayal or widespread attack… an owl takes twelve minutes to get here from the Ministry… an ally there, betraying a conspiracy?  Why anonymous?  Warning was sent from as far as six hours in the future… a message there, clearly.  The attack will happen within the next six hours… it will do serious damage, but since this message was sent, we have the power to mitigate or change that.  Still, though, the first question was dragging on his thoughts, demanding attention:  If you’re going to help, why send only this?  Is the future outcome -- the alternative that prompted the message -- so terrible that you don’t want it known?

“You must,” said Salvatore from behind him, raising his voice again.  Hermione and Draco were looking over in alarm, now, and the pair of aurors with their patient and the ones at the door had drawn their wands.

“Harry Potter, I demand it.  He cannot remain gone -- remain burned.”  Salvatore’s voice cracked at the last word.  “You will.”

And with a sinking feeling in his stomach, Harry realized another possible reason for the message.

Sabotage from the future.  Information cannot go any further than six hours back in time.  So right now, at this moment, we can’t go back and prevent--

“You will!” said Salvatore again, and Harry hadn’t even turned around before he felt the bloom of heat on his back.

“This is an insane thing you’re trying, boy,” Moody had said to them, last year.  “There’s too much evil and too much madness in the world.  Too much damn randomness.  You can’t account for everything.  We can test the people who visit, but any security system in any fortress is based on keeping people out.  It’s not like in the Muggle world.  A Muggle without a weapon is about as dangerous as a dog.  A powerful wizard without a wand, on the other hand, could be tasting your blood within minutes.  You can’t secure your most important assets -- you, the Stone, Voldie -- if you also need to allow open access to them.  It’s an impossible problem.”

“That just means that no one has ever been prepared or paranoid or clever enough,” Harry had replied, with far too much self-assurance.  “No problem is impossible.”

Immobinnghhh,” Harry heard one auror say, the spell cut off in a grunt of pain, an instant before he felt a sweeping force pluck his legs out from underneath him and lift him into the air, like the scooping palm of a gentle giant.  He was hurled across the room in a tumble, the world spinning around him in a confusion of red and grey, before hitting the opposite wall hard enough to drive the air out of his lungs. He found himself looking up at Hermione, Draco, and the pair of aurors that had been escorting her patient.  The aurors had jumped in front of the other two and the patient, and were already acting -- indeed, they had reacted so quickly that one of them had already raised a shield of brightly-glowing silver spheres the size of golf balls.

Salvatore barely even used incantations, and had no wand, but he had filled the air with flame, nonetheless.  In moments, it had blocked out everything from Harry’s sight but its own bright light, tumbling and toiling in the air like a living thing.  He could smell hair burning and knew that he was on fire, and he beat at his head and face, flapping at himself and trying to smother the flames, screaming.  He had a moment’s glimpse of the aurors -- they were burnt and burning, too, one of them also screaming, his face a blackened thing.  Draco tackled that one, putting his wand to her chest and trying to do something.  Hermione was already standing, her own wand raised, casting curses.  Charlevoix was cowering behind her, her arms wrapped in front of her head in an attempt to protect herself.  Hermione’s pale face was lit a hellish orange by the fire-glow.

Harry couldn’t follow the combat, couldn’t find his wand, could barely hold on to his sanity as he yanked his robes up and tried to smother the flames on his body with them, ripping them with desperate yanks until they moved freely and slamming them down again and again to try to beat out the fire.

By the time he had put out the flames, the room was already so full of smoke that he was coughing and choking.  He couldn’t find his wand, oh god where was his wand… what did he have… He jammed his hand into his pouch and tried to choke out some words, but he could only cough and hack, doubling up, and god he could barely even see, everything was just a reddish-orange haze.  What was the sign language -- he couldn’t remember, it was gone from his head -- couldn’t breathe couldn’t see…  Just thick smoke everywhere.

Harry could hear someone chanting, and if he hadn’t already been panicking, he probably would have dissolved in terror when he recognized the words.  “Az-reth.  Az-reth.  Az-reth.”  He remembered Voldemort saying that, and he remembered the thing that had come at that call.

The red-lit smoke turned scarlet.

Someone grabbed his legs, and Harry kicked at the hands, wildly.  They snatched him with incredible strength -- inhuman strength-- and he felt himself lifted bodily as he was hauled into the air.  He would have screamed again, but when he tried to draw a breath it came with the burning harshness of smoke, and he spasmed with coughing again, sucking poisonous air and choking on it.

The hands threw him, and he was flying.

He landed hard, smashing into a corner of stone, and felt a riot of pain in his ribs, made worse by his hacking and coughing.  But the air was fresher where he’d landed.  His thoughts were a confused stream -- where was he, why was he in the hall, what was happening -- but he could breathe.  He sucked in the air and the dimming world grew sharper.

Harry rolled onto his side, still gasping, and looked back at his office.  Thick black smoke was roiling inside, pouring out in a dense cloud.  He was -- oh god, his ring was missing, where was his ring where was Voldemort?

As he watched, it began to thin, and he could make out shapes within it.  Figures shouting words and casting spells, colored light tinging the smoke.  One figure stood at the center, surrounding by a bright glow of scarlet that highlighted it like a silhouette against the sun.  That broken man.  Salvatore.  His Fiendfyre was some monstrous snake, and it was burning away all the smoke in the room as it lashed out again and again.  There were five aurors still standing, protecting each other and the patient and Draco and Charlevoix.  Harry knew that more would be on the way, here within the minute.

And there was Hermione.

It was impossible to fight Fiendfyre, of course.  Nothing could beat that, not that they could imagine.  All you could do was hope to avoid it, and even that seemed impossible.  But somehow, she was doing it.  Every time it lashed out, she would leap or dodge or duck, sending another curse Salvatore’s way, forcing the creature of hellish fire to return to him.  The aurors poured on their own attacks, a blur of aggressive spellcasting that Harry could barely follow.  The very nature of the Fiendfyre consumed most curses, but even that extravagance was beginning to prove insufficient.  Salvatore was badly wounded.  Blood was pouring out of a ragged hole in his stomach, and he was missing some fingers on one hand.

Harry could hear the man screaming, over and over.  “NO!  NO!  NO!”  He screamed and threw waves of flame, beat back attacks with living fire, and flooded the room with heat and smoke.  “You can’t!” he screamed.

An instant later, a curse hit him in the chest, and he collapsed, his face lifeless.

The Fiendfyre flared up and roared with leprous flame, surging larger and larger as the control left it, and it ran free.  It grew brighter and brighter, its wide coils and thrashing head swelling.

An auror fell, obliterated to the waist by flame.  Another had already lost an arm.  Draco was screaming.  Harry could see Hermione fall, withering like a leaf in the summer heat.

Granville called.  The phoenix’s cry was piercing and pure, like the voice of a god.

Harry saw the creature for only a moment as it flashed past him, soaring with the speed and determination of an arrow.  It swept overhead with a streak of golden flame.

It never hesitated.  It flew at the Fiendfyre with a courage and joy so pure that Harry’s heart broke to see it.

Gold met scarlet.  With a sound like thunder, both vanished.  Nothing was left in their wake but stinking smoke and the echoes of a phoenix’s last call.

He felt hands on him again -- an auror, roughly pulling at his wounds and laying a wand on him..  More were racing in past her, charging towards his office.  Spells cleared the air, cleared his view.

He saw burned and dying aurors, thrashing.  Several of them still standing, staggering and injured but with wands raised high.  Draco, weeping.  He saw a green-stone ring on the floor, ignored by everyone by the purest chance.

He saw Charlevoix, her hands a tangle of charred flesh.  Cradling something.

Cradling Hermione.


ÉLECTRE:  Il fait beau.  Partout, dans la plaine, des hommes lèvant la tête et disent: “Il fait beau”, et ils sont contents.  O bourreaux de vous-mêmes, avez-vous oublié cet humble contentement du paysan qui marche sur sa terre et qui dit: “Il fait beau”?  Vous voilà les bras ballants, la tête basse, respirant à peine.  Vos morts se collent contre vous, et vous demeurez immobiles dans la crainte de les bousculer au moindre geste.  Ce serait affreux, n’est ce-pas?  si vos mains traversaient soudain une petite vapeur moite, l’âme de votre père ou de votre aïeul?  Mais regardez-moi: j’étends les bras, je m’élargis, et je m’étire comme un homme qui s’éveille, j’occupe ma place au soleil, toute ma place.  Est-ce que le ciel me tombe sur la tête?  Je danse, voyez, je danse, et je ne sense rien que le souffle du vent dans mes cheveux.  Où sont les morts?  Croyez-vous qu’ils dansent avec moi, en mesure?

ELECTRA:  The sun is shining. Everywhere down in the plains men are looking up and saying: “It's a fine day,” and they're happy. Are you so set on making yourselves wretched that you've forgotten the simple joy of the peasant who says as he walks across his fields: “It's a fine day”?  No, there you stand hanging your heads, moping and mumbling, more dead than alive. You're too terrified to lift a finger, afraid of jolting your precious ghosts if you make any movement.  That would be dreadful, wouldn't it, if your hand suddenly went through a patch of clammy mist, and it was your grandmother's ghost! Now look at me. I'm spreading out my arms freely, and I'm stretching like someone just roused from sleep. I have my place in the sunlight, my full place and to spare. And does the sky fall on my head? Now I'm dancing, see, I'm dancing, and all I feel is the wind's breath fanning my cheeks. Where are the dead? Do you think they're dancing with me, in step? 

-Les Mouches, Jean-Paul Sartre


Wearily, Harry mounted the stairs to the workroom of the Headmistress.  In his pocket were four phials of blood from Vincent Crabbe, obtained after two hours of intimidation and veiled threats.  Moody had helped, along with two aurors Moody had trained himself -- an older one named Hedley Kwannon, and one barely out of training named Nymphadora Tonks.  The glass phials, filled with the blood of Hermione’s enemy, clicked against each other as Harry climbed the stairs.

He pushed open the door.  It was silent inside.  Reddish light from the dawn illuminated the alchemical diagram on the floor: nested and interlaced circles and pentagons surrounding a central pentacle.  He’d been here once before, when he first demonstrated partial Transfiguration -- so long ago! -- and the room didn’t look to have been used since that visit.

“Mad-Eye’s not here yet.  We have to wait,” said Draco’s voice from his left.  Harry started, and stepped forward to see that the boy was sitting at the base of the circular wall, head slumped forward.

“How are you, Draco?” asked Harry, quietly.

“This was your fault,” Draco replied.

“I know.”

“No, you don’t, you stupid piece of arrogant filth,” said the Slytherin boy, but there was no anger in his voice.  It was disconcertingly flat, with nothing but weariness and sorrow -- the sorrow of someone who had been required to endure too much, too soon.  “You think that you just made a mistake.  You’d do the same thing all over again, but you’d just be sure to include one more trap.  One more level of manipulation or cleverness.  You don’t see that the entire thing is… impossible.  It’s just impossible, and you won’t see that, and Hermione just keeps listening to you, and now she’s paid for your stupidity.

“I know.”

“And even worse, this is just another reminder of why I was stupid to ever trust you -- to ever get involved in this asinine little play.  Your goals are… mad.  Insane.  But you don’t recognize that, since you don’t recognize any limits to… to… to anything.”

It was more than that, of course.  It was even more than the terrible suffering and temporary absence of Hermione, as badly as that, too, had hurt the other boy.  There was something more.

You’re worried that I can’t deliver on my promises… that you’ve placed hope in false prophecies and a false prophet.  You’re wondering if I am just a freak prodigy of Muggle science who looked really impressive in schoolyard antics, since he had a whole other world of tricks to steal, and who got lucky once… but who might just not be able to cut it in the real world.

Draco looked up at him, and the boy looked unspeakably sad -- like he’d lost something precious.

You’re worried I’ll never be able to bring your father back, after all.

“Draco, there is--”

“Shut up,” interrupted Draco, his voice hardening.  “Shut up and let’s just wait without talking.  You’re always talking, but it didn’t help her, did it?  Her phoenix burned and she burned.  And now she’s dead, again, just like she was afraid would happen.”  Draco’s eyes were red, but dry.  “She told me that… those months when she was trying to get her Patronus.  To meet your expectations.  She told me that she was terrified of dying again and that she thought that was probably the reason she couldn’t do it.  ‘I wake up screaming sometimes, Draco,’ she said.”

“Stop,” said Harry, squeezing his eyes shut.

Draco sounded more like he was scolding himself than Harry.  His words were black and bitter.  “And now she’s all burned up and dead again, and it’s your fault again.  Because you don’t understand what is possible, and you talk and you push -- oh, Merlin, it always sounds so insane when you first start talking, but by the end of the conversation it’s the rest of the world that seems insane, and how could I ever think that made sense?  How could anyone be that damned arrogant?”

Harry turned away, blindly.  His eyes burned with hot tears.  For a moment, despite all of his resolutions, he almost called on his dark side: to cool him and calm him and solve this problem.  The cold emptiness of Voldemort’s thought patterns would have been preferable to this.  Null was better than negative.

But he didn’t, because one did not abandon carefully-considered decisions during the exact sort of situation for which you had prepared them.  All he could do, instead, was sink to the stone, slick with dust under his fingers, and cry.

After a time, his shoulders stopped heaving, and his breathing slowed from great shuddering gasps into quiet evenness.  Draco had said nothing, and hadn’t moved.  When Harry pushed himself up into a sitting position, he saw through a smear of tears that the other boy was just staring at him, dully, with red-rimmed eyes.

“I…” began Harry, but he found that he didn’t have any words.  He fell silent again.

Eventually, he stood up and drew his wand.  “Scourgify,” he cast, his voice heavy.  The spell cleared away the dust.  Putting away his wand, Harry opened his pouch and reached in.  “Cauldron,” he said to it, and felt the metal lip of a small cauldron leap into his hand.  He pulled it free of the pouch, which distended to permit its passage, and set it in the center of the diagram.

Harry sat down next to it, and took the phials of blood out of his pocket.  He set them down next to the cauldron.

Draco pushed himself to his feet, and walked over.  Digging into the pocket of his robes -- still the same burned ones, had he not had a chance to change?  no, of course... he left them on for effect -- he pulled out a small bag of soft bicorn skin and dropped it down next to the other objects.  The flesh of a servant, willingly given by Odette Charlevoix.

Moody would be here soon, with a piece of bone from Hermione’s father.  He had insisted on doing this part himself, saying that he didn’t trust anyone else to invisibly infiltrate Happy Smiles Family Dentistry, stun one of the owners, extract a chip of bone while the man was unconscious, and fix any memories afterwards.  It was a thankless task, and Harry thought that some part of Moody’s insistence was probably repentance.  Moody blamed himself for the attack, almost as much as he blamed Harry.  “We weren’t paranoid enough,” he had said, bitterly.  It was as heavy an indictment as he could deliver.

They waited in silence.

Finally, Harry spoke again.  “I tried.  I tried as hard as I could.  I thought through everything and planned it out and assembled every bit of information… I counted forty-three known threats and planned for eight kinds of unknowns.  We had just… layers of security and plans.”  Draco knew most of them, of course.  He’d helped, along with Moody and Hermione and Bones.

There were fat folders, stuffed with parchments -- or had been, anyway, before the fire ate the hidden boltholes that had been serving as safes.  Dossiers on people and information on countries:  CHINA.  Overview:  Continued worries about European and British dominance in magic, may seek to strike before new regime rises.  Often isolates self and seeks to extend power over Ten Thousand, but pragmatic leadership points to a willingness to shift tactics, if seems advantageous.  Traditional value for immortality, connected to long specialization in potioneering.  Informal and formal power structures largely mirror each other; little vulnerability to factionalization but suggests opportunity to shift key functionaries and alter trajectory of entire country.  And so on.

Plans within plans, contingency upon contingency: living and adaptable Matryoshka dolls whirling in a furious dance.  A location that couldn’t be stormed by force, allies watching other allies, security measures and magical wards that could cut off the life of an attacker in moments.  And none of it had done any good when the mind of a powerful wizard had broken.  He had died, but so had others.  So had Hermione.

“It’s not your fault that you can’t do the impossible.  It’s only your fault that you try the impossible, and other people pay for it,” replied Draco.  He stared down at Harry.  “You can’t plan for everything.  The world is dark and people are vicious.  Even the good ones are vicious, and the bad ones are worse, and the crazy ones do things you couldn’t possibly predict.  You can’t control the universe, Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, you miserable, arrogant little scrub.”

Harry was silent once more, and looked away, unable to meet Draco’s gaze.  He hugged his knees.  Draco turned away, walking heavily towards the door.

There’s too much evil and too much madness in the world, Moody had said.  Too much damn randomness.

You can’t control the universe.

“I don’t accept that,” he whispered, as much for himself as for Draco.

“What?” demanded Draco, turning back around, his voice incredulous -- angry now, where he hadn’t been before.

“I don’t accept that,” Harry repeated, more loudly.  He looked up.  “I do not accept that.

“You can’t--”

Harry lurched to his feet, swaying slightly, his kneecaps popping from the sudden shift.  There was iron in his voice, now.  It wasn’t cold iron; it wasn’t the chill metal of his dark side, icy with hateful clarity.  It was iron at a white heat.  He glowed with it.

“No,” Harry said, his voice as certain as a hammerblow.

“No,” he repeated.

“No,” he said again.

“I do not accept that.  I do not accept death.  I do not accept decline.  I do not accept madness.  I do not accept randomness.  They are all part of the universe, and they are all important… but I do not -- mankind does not -- have to accept them,” said Harry.  “If you want out of this, then say so.  If you want to lead a different life, then you know I won’t begrudge you that.  I will make that happen, and that choice I once gave you will always be yours: you may choose another path and you will not hear a word of regret from me.  Your preferences are sacred.  So if you think this can’t be done… go.”  Harry’s face was grim.  “But I’m not going.”

Harry walked towards Draco until he was inches away from the other boy.  Iron was bright in his words.

“Right now, there is a little girl somewhere in the world.  She’s a small thing for her age, with big eyes.  She loves her big brother.  She wants to be just like her mother when she grows up.  But tonight, there will be an accident.  A rotten tree will collapse as the little girl climbs it, and she’ll tumble to the ground, and she’ll land badly.  And she’ll die.  And then her big eyes will be gone, and her brother will never see her again, and she’ll never grow up to be like her mother.  Everything she ever was or will be: gone and dead and buried.

“Her brother will deal with his grief, in time, and may even find solace and strength in stories about how death is necessary.  Her mother will cry and hurt, but in time it will hurt less, and she’ll focus more on her son, and eventually the loss will fade until it’s just a nagging ache in her heart -- that never quite leaves.  And the world will go on, because it’s happened every day in every way, and we have learned how to manage the loss.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  And I don’t just mean saving that little girl, or Hermione, or even your father, Draco, but every little girl and friend and father.  People die every day and they always have but I do not accept it.”

But something of Harry’s heat had communicated itself with his words, and Draco’s eyes were lit as bright as the red glow of Fiendfyre.  He seized the front of Harry’s robes, twisting his fists in them, and shoved as hard as he could.  Harry stumbled backwards, foot skidding, and only barely kept his balance.

“Do you think I want them to die, you sanctimonious idiot?  Are you even listening to me?  I’m saying that it doesn’t matter how much you want them to live, because the world is too complicated!  You’re denying the data!  You want to do things that no one has ever done, and do them all at once which no one has even dreamed of doing.  Not Dumbledore, not Salazar Slytherin, not the Peverell brothers, not even Merlin the bloody First Enchanter himself!  The greatest wizards in the history of the world only barely attempted some tiny fraction of your insane fever dream!  You want to rule the world and end death, good and fine, and you want to end poverty and sickness and make everyone equal and put goblins and other trash up on a pedestal and all that other fluffy nonsense, fine!”  Draco was shouting, now.  “But it is impossible!  It is just impossible!  To do any one of them was beyond anyone’s power, even those who tried, much less all of it at once!  And by trying to do it, you’re going to burn down this world and everyone in it, and it is just beyond arrogant and stupid to look at the world and declare that you are going to change it so much and so fast, and we are all suffering because of that!

Harry roared back at Draco, his voice larger than himself, as though it were echoing the cries of others, of legions, “I don’t give a damn if it is impossible!  I don’t give a damn if no one has ever done it or tried it or dreamed it in the history of the world!  ‘Impossible’ is a little word and a petty one -- it’s the word of small minds and small imaginations, and I reject it.”

Draco opened his mouth to say something, but Harry continued over him, shouting now, white iron in his words and eyes and heart, a white glow suffusing him as a glow from his wand waxed brighter and brighter.

“We are standing on the brink -- at the moment of crux between peril and paradise, Draco!  We are caught at the edges of two singularities, held equipoise at their event horizons, and it is terrifying, but when they offer you the Ring you don’t reject it with the word ‘impossible!’“

Draco shouted back, lunging forward to stab a finger into Harry’s chest: accusatory.  “Not everything is possible in this world!”

And Harry replied, quietly, caught with a sudden stillness as clear as the sweet ring of a tranquil bell, “Draco. There are more worlds than this one.  We’ll find one where we can save everybody."  His voice caught with emotion.  "Impossible just means you haven’t figured out how to cheat.”


JUPITER:  Pauvres gens!  Tu vas leur faire cadeau de la solitude et de la honte, tu vas arracher les étoffes dont je les avais couverts, et tu leur montreras soudain leur existence, leur obscène et fade existence, qui leur est donnée pour rien.
ORESTE:  Pourquoi leur refuserais-je le désepoir qui est en moi, puisque c’est leur lot?
JUPITER:  Qu’en feront-ils?
ORESTE:  Ce qu’ils voudront: ils sont libres, et la vie humaine commence de l’autre côté du désespoir.

ZEUS: Poor people! Your gift to them will be a sad one; of loneliness and shame. You will tear from their eyes the veils I had laid on them, and they will see their lives as they are, foul and futile, a barren boon.
ORESTES: Why, since it is their lot, should I deny them the despair I have in me?
ZEUS: What will they make of it?
ORESTES: What they choose. They're free; and human life begins on the far side of despair.

-Les Mouches, Jean-Paul Sartre


April 30th, 1999
John Snow Center for Medicine and Tower School of Doubt (The Tower)

Pain has an element of blank, and Harry suffered for some uncertain amount of time, twisting before Bellatrix Black’s Cruciatus Curse.  It was pain on another level -- beyond the sort of suffering that should have been possible with mere nerves -- a torture that transcended physicality.  His very existence was in agony.

Eventually, it stopped, and Harry found that he was lying on the floor of the corridor some distance down from where he’d begun.  They’d moved him.  He was soaked in sweat and shaking, and his throat was hoarse from screams he hadn’t even know he’d been making.

The other Bellatrix was casting spells, sealing them off from the Extension Establishment.  She cast them so quickly and so fluidly that Harry thought that she might have been able to hold off every single one of his gathered allies, striking them down one by one as they attempted the corridor.

His torturer stood over him, leering, crazed.  “Little dollies are dead.  Your stupid slut of a mudblood is dead.  I killed her.  Your aurors are dead.  And now you’re going to tell me where the Dark Lord is, or we’ll start killing everyone else.”

Harry tried to calm his panting and sobbing.  He separated it from himself, and closed his eyes.  After a moment, he opened them again, fixing them on the witch.  “I’m sorry.  I want you to know that.  What happened to you should never happen to anyone, and I am so sorry that it did.  We’re going to get you help.”

All amusement vanished from her face.  She looked bored, and contemptuous, staring at him with eyes of darkness and blood.  “There is no help, little billy.  And you have no way out.”

Harry closed his eyes again.  “I know.  I thought, maybe… I thought others could do this with me.  That maybe they could take my place if they worked together.  That I could be free.  And maybe that will happen, someday.  But sometimes a person gets lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to be put on the spot.  To be the crux of things.  And I had a friend, once -- a phoenix -- who taught me never to shy away from that.”

“You talk like my Lord,” said the other Bellatrix.  The one standing over Harry nodded, a look of fascination on her face.  The other added, “But you are a wretched little homunculus, and now you’ll learn a lesson.”

“Impossible little billy boy,” sneered the witch standing over Harry, and leaned forward, her wand pointing at his chest.  “Time time time.”

“I’m sorry, Bellatrix.  I don’t accept this,” Harry said.

She sneered, and then stopped, swaying in place.  She looked shocked.

Blood blossomed from her chest, welling through the fabric of her clothing.

Bellatrix Black gurgled.  Her remaining eye opened wide, and her mouth worked up and down, speechlessly.  She tilted her head to the side, and her face trembled.  She didn't understand.

Behind her, the Cloak of Invisibility slid to the floor, and Hermione Granger pulled her fist from Bellatrix’s back.  Blood splattered Hermione's determined face.  Bellatrix collapsed like a broken doll.

“No!” shrieked the other Bellatrix, whirling and raising her wand, but a hail of curses from behind Hermione cut her down and cut off her scream.  Stunned and bound and silenced and paralyzed, Bellatrix Black toppled over, her face still distorted in shock and fury and hatred.

“I found a way to cheat,” said Harry.

“Mr. Potter!” called Pip from the corner at the end of the corridor.  He was staggering forward, seemingly about to faint, but was supported by J.C. Kraeme.  She had his arm around her neck and was holding him up.  They trailed behind Hyori, who had her wand up and still fixed on the two Bellatrixen as she strode down the hall.  Her face was grim -- but less grim than usual.

Hermione glanced over at him and nodded as she knelt next to the witch she’d felled.  He could see her wand sticking out of her belt, but it was broken.  The last two inches were missing, exposing the raw reddish strand of dragon heartstring at the core.  Useless.

Harry winced as Hermione plunged two fingers into her own left arm, and yanked free her spare wand.  She set it to Bellatrix’s chest, and began casting, working to heal the wound she’d caused and save the life of the insane villain.

He sighed, lowering his head to the ground.  And then he just lay there, still, for a moment, and smiled.  Harry smiled in spite of everything.  Because of everything.

Out of sight, down where the north and south corridor met, he knew that the entrance to the Tower stood, unharmed.  A golden oval, bright-shining and standing with impossible solidity.

This was Harry's world, and impossible things could happen.


JUPITER:  Rentre dans la nature, fils dénaturé: connais ta faute, abhorre-la, arrache-la de toi comme une dent cariée et puante.  Ou redoute que la mer ne se retire devant toi, que les sources ne se tarissent sur ton chemin, que les pierres et les rochers ne roulent hors de ta route et que la terre ne s’effrite sous tes pas.
ORESTE:  Qu’elle s’effrite!  Que les rochers me condamnent et que les plantes se fanent sur mon passage: tout ton univers ne suffira pas à me donner tort.  Tu es le roi de Dieux, Jupiter, le roi des pierres et des étoiles, le roi des vagues de la mer.  Mais tu n’es pas le roi des hommes.
JUPITER:  Je ne suis pas ton roi, larve impudente.  Qui donc t’a créé?
ORESTE:  Toi.  Mais il ne faillait pas me créer libre.

ZEUS:  Know your sin, abhor it, and tear it from you as one tears out a rotten, noisome tooth. Or else — beware lest the very seas shrink back at your approach, springs dry up when you pass by, stones and rocks roll from your path, and the earth crumbles under your feet.
ORESTES:  Let it crumble! Let the rocks revile me, and flowers wilt at my coming. Your whole universe is not enough to prove me wrong. You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves of the sea. But you are not the king of man.
ZEUS:  Impudent spawn! So I am not your king? Who, then, made you?
ORESTES:  You. But you blundered; you should not have made me free.

-Les Mouches, Jean-Paul Sartre