09 January 2016

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Five: Mascon

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Five: Mascon

300 miles above the Earth
May 16th, 1999

“Pocket is away,” Basil Horton said into the radio.  He folded the controls to the waldo back into the wall, and the sturdy little arm, moved by the Protean Charm to mimic the movement of the controls, collapsed against the outside of the ship, out of sight beneath the viewport.  He watched the satellite, freed of the waldo’s grip, float away.  “Floating free of the ship -- I don’t see any problems.”

He waited for a response, squinting at the Muggle device, irritably.  There was none.  Scowling, Basil got to his knees in the small space between the pilot’s seat and the wall, pushed down by the ship’s inverted floating charm, and tapped the bulky black radio box.  Probably waited until now to give up the ghost.  Would be typical.  Everything works fine until the very moment it becomes important.

He tapped the microphone on the headset again, and repeated the message.  There was still no response… just the quiet crackles or hissing.  At least it had electricity, and the speaker still seemed to be working.  Basil cursed the very name of Marconi and got back to his feet, stooping significantly.  He was a big man with an athletic build, even if he’d gotten a bit soft around the middle in recent years, and he couldn’t stand comfortably in the ship without rapping his head against the smooth goblin-silver ceiling.

The entire ship was ridiculous, really… just a big silver ball.  When that Ronnie Weasley boy had taken the first trip up, everyone had been all agog about “making history” and claptrap like that.  The ginger idiot had the biggest, stupidest grin that Basil had ever seen when he got into the ship, and called out some Russian word before they closed the hatch -- sounded like “Poor yeah cally” or some nonsense.

Should he get out the spare, or the repair kit?  He could fix the damn thing, he knew… it was one of seventeen Muggle devices that they’d trained him to repair (sitting in a desk in some miserable little Muggle classroom like a wandless nitwit).  Maybe something was wrong on the RCP’s end, instead.

Basil tugged gently at the lead coming out of the back of the radio, to see if it had come loose on either end.  The gobbos had needed to bore a small hole through the surface of the sphere, so that the Tower could slap an antenna along the outside, after discovering that the ship became more and more radio-impenetrable by the day.  Had that lead gotten loose outside, or had one of the seals fouled it up somehow?  Could the seals strangle off the flow of the signal, somehow?  Basil considered.  He didn’t think so.

Annoyed, he turned and peered out the viewport.  The brown satchel of the pocket world was visible, securely fixed to a Mitsubishi platform and surrounded by the white plastic Leaf spheres that protected the electronic sensors, thrusters, and other Muggle components.  It seemed to be unharmed, but it also wasn’t adjusting its attitude or showing any other signs that the staff at the RCP had taken control.  They didn’t seem to have heard him; they were still waiting to hear that the pocket was clear.

Maybe the radio had died -- killed by a nearby enchantment or his own spells?  There should have been enough Leaf inside the casing to protect it, absorbing ambient magic and preventing the accompanying electromagnetic interference, but the ship had been put into orbit with the Vanishing Cabinet on the Monroe, their first satellite… that could have been too much magic for the radio to endure.

Basil thought about the Tower’s words when they’d been talking about possible equipment failures and the necessary redundancies.  “My father always says that firm percussive maintenance is part of any good troubleshooting toolkit,” the young man had said -- speaking in that way he had, both patronizing and making an annoying show of being considerate.  Hard to believe that everyone in the Ministry fell all over themselves to try to please the kid… in Basil’s opinion, Potter had just been lucky in his friends.  He was riding back-broom after the Goddess, holding onto her coat-tails.  Someday soon, she’d take over, and Potter would be put in his place.

“Basil?  Are you clear of the pocket?  We have its camera, now, but we don’t see you,” buzzed the radio, and not even the crackle of static could hide the sweetness of Dolores Umbridge’s voice.  Basil smiled, then leaned over and gave the radio a single good thump with the palm of his hand.  It squealed and fell completely silent.  Bugger.

He took another glance out at the pocket world, which was floating further and further away, and then sighed heavily.  Merlin’s nose, there’s nothing for it but to get to it… Muggle junk.  Basil opened the supply kit and found the pouch labeled “A6,” and began the process of getting out the backup radio (bulkier with even more Lovegood Leaf to shield its components) and connecting it to the antenna lead.  He should have enough time to try broadcasting.  If it didn’t work, he’d use the Vanishing Cabinet and a Quotes Quill, however clunky that solution might be.  He wished the bubblers had enough range that they could just use them, or that they’d hurry up in the Vision Verge and get some other magical solution.

After almost fifteen minutes of laborious fiddling, Basil shoved the broken radio into the pouch and grabbed the headset of the new one, turning the frequency knob until the display showed the correct number.  “Hullo… Dolores, am I transmitting?”

“Basil!” said Umbridge.  “We were worried,” she cooed.  “Everything all right?”  He could picture her as she spoke, that curvy beauty.  Basil grinned.

“Fine, fine.  Pocket is away and I’m well clear.  Bit of trouble with this Muggle junk, but I’ve sorted it out,” he said into the radio.

“Well done, Basil,” Umbridge said, sounding a bit tinny over the radio -- but still sweet.  “We’re getting a good connection with the pocket.  Keep an eye on it, wouldn’t you?”

Basil shifted around the pilot’s seat and sat down in it, radio still in hand.  He rested his free palm on one of his guidance sticks.  “Of course, madame.”  He willed the stick to move -- as though he were flying a broomstick, funny enough -- and the ship shifted slightly so that he had a clear view of the satellite.

He watched as one and then another of the thrusters fired in short bursts, and the satchel-carrying satellite, with its completely mental marriage of Muggle and magical materiel, moved gradually… presumably, finding a stable orbit.

The radio crackled.  “Everything looks good on our end.  How is it up there?  Are you receiving still?”

“Five by five,” Basil replied with a touch of irony, and smiled as Umbridge tittered.  “Yes, everything looks good.”  He watched as the satellite slowly spun in place, and settled back a little into his seat.

The whole thing was truly remarkable, he had to admit.  He never would have dreamed of this sort of thing when he was a younger man -- it was more than impossible, it was inconceivable -- beyond what he could have imagined.  But these days… well, everything was speeding up and there were new ideas and new devices every week, it seemed.  Anything seemed possible in a world where Muggles could fly beyond the end of the air.  Basil and most everyone else might poke fun at the antics of the Muggles and their crude, fragile world… but they’d lain down there in the mud and looked up at the stars, and reached for them.  It was inspiring, really.

After the satellite was safely in orbit, floating precisely where it should be, according to its onboard sensors and the tracking data they were collecting in the increasingly well-staffed RCP, Basil stayed in position for some time.  He stared out at the steady dots of light that were scattered in the black like glittering alchemist’s sand.

Basil knew the plans -- what they wanted to do.  What the Tower wanted.  He wanted to send wizards out there… out among those stars.

It had started small -- sending up the Monroe with its onboard Vanishing Cabinet, and sending the goblin-silver ship through that Cabinet, carrying a Weasley, for a test run of twelve minutes.  Half of the onboard equipment had failed and one of the seams on the viewscreen had leaked, but Weasley had come through it unharmed.  He’d made another trip three days later with new equipment shielded against ambient magic.  Basil went out the next week, and by now between the two of them they had nearly twenty hours of flight-time.

And now they had the pocket world -- the “slicebox world,” as some called it -- in orbit as well.  After testing its stability, they’d be bringing out the airlock chamber in pieces from the Monroe and locking it on outside of that brown satchel.  They’d pump the vast chamber full of air and put some of the more useful Transfiguration wards in place as a safeguard.  Then they’d slap a high-powered, long-term, upside-down Floating Charm on the whole giant cavern to float everything towards the “ground,” just like the ship Basil was in.  It would be its own little world.

There would be a lot of testing, of course.  Basil was friendly with one of the gobbos -- good bloke, even if he was a Puddlemere supporter -- who had told him that the Tower already had some of the people in Material Methods working on a way to transport huge amounts of soil and water.  There were even some specific sites in mind, such as some wetlands in the American South.  Of course, even after they filled the big thing with dirt and water and whatever, it would still be experimental.  Basil supposed they’d leave rats and flies in the pocket world for a good month before even beginning human testing, and the first planned permanent residents would be acromantulas.

But the trajectory was clear.  Wizards in pocket worlds, out in space.

Basil sat there for a long time, and watched the stars.


John Snow Center for Medicine and Tower School of Doubt (The Tower)
May 16th, 1999

“Trade?” asked Harry, leaning forward on the stool.  He reached over and moved the microphone away from the shiny black box.  The box flickered with a pulse of reddish light as he did so.

Voldemort fell silent, the bland male voice going quiet for a few beats.  Any pause was a message -- surely Voldemort had already considered whether he’d be willing to trade more information, and what questions he might ask in return.  A pause this long was very nearly a shout -- a strong reminder that the voice in the box had leverage.  Harry smiled.

“Yes,” came the answer, eventually.

“You discovered the Chamber of Secrets of Salazar Slytherin.  I’d like to hear about that… whatever you could share.”  I’ll cast a wide net, first.

“Very well.  In exchange, I would like to know more about your Tower,” replied Voldemort.

“Vetoed,” Harry said immediately.  He didn’t need to think about it: he’d set some hard rules about what information he was willing to trade, and some things fell entirely out of the range of acceptable discussion.  And this was spectacularly dangerous information.

Harry remembered.

“Tell me what you can do.”  No answer.

“Tell me what you are.”  No answer.

“Help.”  No answer.

“Root.”  No answer.  In fairness, that one had been rather a longshot.

“Noitilov.”  And with that -- at that word, which really should have been obvious, since why have any backwards-meaning runes on the device at all, honestly it didn’t provide any security and just looked silly, you just needed to spent thirty seconds with a microcasette recorder to figure it out -- the Mirror changed.  The image of Harry and the Hogwarts room behind him vanished.  In its place, the Mirror displayed question.

Not the word “question,” or a symbol like a question mark, or really any other visual communication.  Instead, the very idea of questioning was reflected in the Mirror.  This was obviously sheer semantic nonsense since an amorphous concept had no physical reality that could be represented with light, and Harry thought it was ridiculously silly.  Obnoxiously, it continued to be true.

Harry considered what he would ask of the Mirror.

“Show me the world where the phoenixes came from.”  He could try to verify some of the information he already had about the Mirror, and maybe discover more about how it worked.

Nothing happened.  Still only: question.

“Show me my extrapolated volition.”  Nothing.

“Show me my coherent extrapolated volition.”  Nothing.

“Noitilov detalo partxe tnere hoc.”  Nothing.

Different attempts at pronunciation also had no result.

There was only the question, staring back at him.  What question?  What was it asking?  Voldemort had said that the Mirror was supposed to possess morality -- didn’t that imply intelligence?  Or that it consulted some external intelligent to make moral assessments of a person or situation or request?  Could every possibility have been programmed into it ahead of time?  Or did it borrow intelligence or morality from the viewer somehow?

What was it asking?

Did it want to know what he wanted?

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again.  He stared intently at the Mirror and said, his voice fervent with desire, and spoke his will.

“Sorry,” Harry said again, returning to the present.  “Can’t do it.”

Within the Tower, the Killing Curse had no power to take life.  Here, the human spirit clung to the flesh more tenaciously than anywhere else.  It was a plane of life and possibility, accidentally discovered -- or accidentally created -- during those hesitant experiments with the Mirror, years ago.  That secret was beyond price.

It didn’t matter that Voldemort was stuck in the box.  There was not even the slightest reason to risk it, and the rules of their trading game stated that Harry had absolute veto power.

“More about this box, at least --”

“Vetoed,” Harry said again, interrupting.

This was easier.  Harry simply didn’t know much about the box.  Neither did the Unspeakables.  It was clearly an item of significant power, and bore every mark of being goblin-made, but the only information that the Department of Mystery had on record was that it was intended to be an unbreachable prison.  Tentative investigation, carefully done to avoid piquing anyone’s notice, had turned up more than a few possibilities for the box… but no definitive answer.

Those would both obviously be off-limits, Harry thought.  Next will come a slightly more subtle question, which I will feel more obliged to answer.  But that didn’t serve.  No, it would be another level further.

“All right, then,” said Voldemort.  There was a tone of resignation in the voice -- he had been getting more and more adept with using the magically-generated speech to convey emotion or emphasis.  “Tell me about Ms. Granger, then.  What have the effects of the Gattai Ritual been on her?”

Harry could see no reason to avoid this question.  It seemed harmless, and was certainly something that Voldemort would be genuinely curious about.

“Vetoed,” he said.  Just because he couldn’t spot the plot at work, or understand what Voldemort might gain, didn’t mean he had to agree to the first mysterious step.

“Tell me about some new person, someone interesting,” replied Voldemort, almost immediately.  There was an odd warble to his last word.  Harry supposed it was the artificial voice’s version of “irritation.”

“All right,” said Harry.  He felt confident he could make a harmless selection.

“You have already seen the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets -- the hidden door had a mural of Salazar fighting a jötunn.  We took a different passage, one of many that Salazar wove through Hogwarts and required the castle to maintain, but had we continued down the first path, we would have come to the Chamber proper.  It is a large stone vault in a plain style, rather like the Tower of Mendoza, lit by a green light.  I assume we would also have found the bones of a basilisk, fallen and defanged where I left it, but at the time that I first discovered the Chamber, the basilisk was very much alive and dwelling within a ludicrous statue of Salazar Slytherin himself.  It ignored me, and did not look upon me, and would not speak to me despite my commands in Parseltongue.”  Voldemort paused.  “I was a young man, then, and not as rich in lore, but I had wits enough to recognize the telltale shape of the statue’s joints, and magic enough to know the minor enchantment which gave mobility to the design.  All of the statues in Hogwarts have the same purpose.  I could see the expected next step.

“When animated, the statue attempted to engage me in an old game of gestures which had been popular for many centuries in Salazar’s time.  It is a game of symbols with a vocabulary of hand-signs, combining them in sequences of three, and one attempts to back one’s opponent into a position where they can take no action.  It is forgotten today by all except the most learned.

“I was poor and unpracticed at the game, knowing about it only from hoary scrolls, and I swiftly lost.  The basilisk ignored me when I commanded it to assist me, replying that it had ears only for victory.  I played the game again with the statue, which moved its stone limbs with flawless strategy.

“Some hours later, I was finally able to win by playing the Pestle, the Dragon, and the Worm.  The statue of Salazar bowed to me and returned to its former posture -- arms crossed, intending to be imposing.  Only then would the basilisk speak to me, asking me to produce something called the ‘writ of the blood,’ in preparation for the second trial.”  There was another pause from the box, accompanied by a buzz.  Harry had heard this imitation of a sigh before.  “I admit that I lost my temper, then, and acted out of turn.  I cast the Killing Curse thrice in succession, deliberately missing the basilisk each time, and I made some sort of speech -- the bold words of an ignorant boy, threatening and demanding in Parseltongue.

“This, too, was within the expectations of Salazar Slytherin, it would seem, for the basilisk hissed its laughter and asked me what I would know of it.”

“You destroyed the basilisk, so you must have been satisfied that you’d learned everything it could teach you,” Harry said.  “How did that work?”

“It was a matter of some months, Mr. Potter.  An intellectual game between the basilisk and myself.  It was compelled to cooperate with me, but was also driven to continually assess my motives, worthiness, and will… this meant that it did not merely spill its secrets.  It required things of me… further trials, and it would accept no bluffs.  It was a… harrowing time.  And I think that is all I will speak of it, for now.”

Harry didn’t press the issue, yet, by asking about specific spells or rituals.  That treasure trove still existed, and had incredible value, but there was no reason to press the issue.  And as far as Harry could verify, the story was true.  He’d been to the Chamber of Secrets, and found only a statue and a skeleton.

“Tell me of an interesting person, then, Mr. Potter,” said Voldemort.

Harry considered who would qualify as interesting while still being harmless.  “All right.  There is a young man named Lawrence Bradwian whom I met a few months ago.  He has a prophecy about him, supposedly… he is said to be fated to ‘bring down a great house.’  You’d think this would result in him being shunned by everyone else with noble blood, but instead he seems to be quite popular.  He’s a Slytherin, but almost seems a Gryffindor… rescuing a half-giant from persecution, breaking up a Euphoric ring, and accidentally helping me recover an artifact.”  One of your oldest Horcruxes, which we then destroyed, along with dozens of others we’ve found by tracing the paths of the invisible links between them with the most sensitive magic detector ever created, Harry thought, remembering the device Luna’s team had created.  “He even badly assaulted a classmate and framed him for an attack on the Tower, with the goal of becoming… I don’t know, my protege or favorite?  He’s a Silver Slytherin, so I think he was more misguided than anything.”

“And I expect you did not expel him or arrange for his removal, ensuring no large disruptions in the political scene?  Instead, did you take him aside for a gentle scolding?” asked Voldemort.

“Well,” said Harry, “rather more than that.  But yes, I arranged for him to learn what real intrigue and danger and fear are like.  I never put him in any real danger, but I think the experience might have been enough to actually change his mind.  That’s harder to do than one might think.”

Like when you tried with me.

“I recall.  Be careful you are not being overconfident.”

Harry shook his head.  “He’s back in his normal student role, and one of the Silver Slytherin mentors -- a Tower auror -- is keeping an eye on him.”

“It is a disturbing thing to hear how little you have learned from your own story, Mr. Potter.  Do you not think that someone in a position of power should perhaps be wary of an adventurous and precocious young man with a prophesied role in great events?  Does that not, perhaps, call anything to mind?”

“The thought had occurred to me,” Harry said.  He felt a moment of sadness… Voldemort should be speaking in the acid tones of a sarcastic Professor Quirrell for this moment of mocking pedagogy.  He paused, then asked in a natural tone, “Willing to do another trade?  I’d like to hear about the Resurrection Stone, if you’re willing to discuss it.”

It was tempting to add a diversionary turn of phrase, such as “wherever it may be” or “if I ever got ahold of it,” or the like.  But in the absence of body language and nonverbal cues, Harry had to be even more careful about his phrasing to avoid revealing to Voldemort that they’d already captured the Resurrection Stone, along with Bellatrix Black.

He had plans, and had uncovered some of the designs and powers of the Resurrection Stone -- including some truly surprising things about the Peverell “brothers,” but that didn’t mean verification wouldn’t be useful.

“No… I think not, Mr. Potter,” replied the bland voice of Voldemort.  “I know you have grand designs, and I do not object to many of them.  But I will not help you in that, I think.”

“Okay, Professor,” said Harry, already deep in thought over his next possible question. “But let’s talk about something else.  Let’s talk about some theories of magic.  I have been doing some reading of both old and new ideas… tell me about how this theory sounds.”


Powis Castle, Wales
May 16th, 1999

“So tell me honestly, Simon: how do you think we stand, right now?  There are no big threats on the horizon, and no reason not to take every bit of necessary time to make sure they’re okay,” Hermione said.  “We can let the world wait until they’re feeling better.”

“Esther is quiet.  She doesn’t say much... it’s like before.  Tonks is… I don’t know,” said Simon.  His voice sounded flat and tired, and the hollowness of his eyes was more pronounced.  These had been rough weeks for everyone.

Hermione turned to Nikitas Seyhan, who was sitting quietly at the table with them.  The young man had been here at Powis for months, and seemed to regard it as his natural home… certainly he appeared to have no desire to ever return back to Cappadocia.  His twelve years in Göreme had wiped out most of his memories of his old life anyway.  He had learned some decent English, received a new face, and grown close to his caretakers here… the people like Jessie and Simon who had looked after him, in the time since his liberation.  He’d Returned, and he looked likely to stay.

“Nikitas?  What do you think?” she asked him, gently.

He looked surprised that she’d ask, and after a moment began to appear almost panicked.

“It’s okay, dear,” Hermione said with her best reassurance, smiling.  She leaned forward to put a hand on his shoulder, patting him softly.  “Just take a moment and think.  Esther, Hyori, and Tonks all went through a lot on Walpurgisnacht.  You know them.  How do you think they are doing?”

“Hyori,” Nikitas said, awkwardly, “only ever just one word.”

“That’s normal,” said Simon.

Nikitas hesitated, then went on.  “Esther does not talk.  Before, she talked much more.”  He paused again.  “Tonks…”  He trailed off, frowning, and finally made a pained face and shrugged, discomfited.

“It’s okay,” Hermione repeated, warmly.  She turned back to Simon.  “We take as long as we need.  Get in touch with St. Mungo’s… let’s get some outside help.  This is different from dementation.”


Khecheopalri Village, West Sikkim, India
May 16th, 1999

The mountains of Sikkim lie far to the north in India, in a region balkanized by the vagaries of history and war.  They are cold and high and proud, counting the mighty peak of Kangchenjunga among their number.  One of these mountains cradles the lakeside village of Khecheopalri, twenty miles away from the nearest sizable town.  It is a small village, with perhaps two dozen buildings and eighty residents.  Few Muggle tourists ever visit, except to see the holy lake -- said to be a footprint left by Lord Shiva -- and the last time a wizard came to stay was during the eighteenth century.

Even at this time of year, it is cold in Khecheopalri.  When an older man left the small village temple, he traced his fingers on the surface of the bell, and found it unpleasantly cold.  He pulled an old shawl closer around his shoulders, and walked off down the path away from the temple, slowly.

After some time, he reached his home.  It appeared as modest as its neighbors -- two rooms and a garden.  A small pile of broken and discarded chhang gourds lay in one corner of the garden.  The man entered the building, nodding a hello to one of his neighbors, Dorji, who was outside, trying to enjoy the warm sunshine, sheltered from the wind behind her low garden wall as she wrapped momos.

After some time, the man emerged.  He went to the small wall that separated his garden from Dorji’s, and addressed her politely in Sikkimese Tibetan.

“Dorji-la, I am going away on a small trip to Siliguri.  I may be gone some time.  I wonder if I could ask you to tend to my garden, in my absence?”

Dorji was already nodding and waving in agreement before he even finished speaking.  “Yes, yes.  Not a problem.  We have been neighbors since I was young, and my garden and yours are one.  But you go away so seldom!  I hope there is no tragedy, umdze.”

“No, no tragedy.  Just a small matter of a property to which I must attend,” said the man, smiling.  “It is not a happy journey, and full of risk, but that is life.”

“I hope that you have good results, umdze,” Dorji said, smiling and placing another momo on the growing pile.

“Thank you.  I hope so myself, as well,” the man agreed, nodding solemnly.

“Let us play a game of shatranj when you return… it has been too long since you schooled me in my ignorance, umdze,” she said, and returned her attention to her cooking.

“I would enjoy that,” said the man.  He returned inside of his home, to make preparations for leaving.


“And were we not saying long ago that the soul when using the body as an instrument of  perception, that is to say, when using the sense of sight or hearing or some other sense (for the meaning of perceiving through the body is perceiving through the senses)—were we not saying that the soul too is then dragged by the body into the region of the changeable, and wanders and is confused; the world spins round her, and she is like a drunkard, when she touches change?”

“Very true.”

“But when returning into herself she reflects, then she passes into the other world, the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives, when she is by herself and is not let or hindered; then she ceases from her erring ways, and being in communion with the unchanging is unchanging. And this state of the soul is called wisdom?”

“That is well and truly said, Socrates,” he replied.

- Phaedo, Plato

No comments:

Post a Comment