Indistinguishable From Magic

– Indistinguishable From Magic –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

Ay, he has traveled whither
A wingèd pilot steered his bark
Through the portals of the dark,
Past hoary Mimir’s well and tree,
Across the unknown sea.

He knows, perchance, how spirits fare,
What shapes the angels wear,
What is their guise and speech
In those lands beyond our reach

— Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908)

Table of Contents so far

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1. Midnight at the Museum

“Why, Madame Investigator, isn’t it rather late to pay a call?  I did not hear you land..”

The Curator stood on the stoop of the groundskeeper’s cottage, blinking in the light of the porch lamp.  He was trying hard to look unruffled.  I noticed that he remembered to pitch his voice with a quiver.

“I walked.  Nice night for it, don’t you think?” (And the sound of an engine would have given you warning enough to put on your make-up or whatever it is you do.) “You really must join me.”


“I do insist.”

He didn’t ask me any more questions as we walked through the gardens and grape-arbors surrounding the Museum of Xenotechnology.  He gave me a curious glance when the marines in power armor at the gate just waved us through. No  doubt he was wondering how far in advance I had planned this little walk; even to approach the Museum requires an hour of prior notice to the security A.I.

“I though your investigation was closed,” he said.  He paused on the stairs leading to the main doors.

“Maybe you can help me with the post-script,” I said.  “One or two unanswered questions.”  I stood with my fists in deep in my jacket pockets, shoulders hunched against the chill night-air.  I had not let him get out of my sight to go get a coat or anything; he must’ve been colder than I was.  But he didn’t seem in any big hurry to move.

Maybe that was because there was a cluster of lights around the Doric pediment above the Museum doors.

“Is this an official request?” he asked slowly.

“Do you want me to make this official, Mr. Curator?  As it is, I’m just asking you out for a stroll.”

That decided him, or something did.  He stepped into the light.  The wrinkles around his eyes and mouth had somehow vanished; and I could see his gray hair had black roots.

The marines at the main door signed us in, put our badges through the reader, fingerprinted and retina-scanned us, and so on and so forth.  Then we were through the x-ray machine and through the scrubber and then we were inside.

“Shall we ‘stroll’ back to the scene of the accident, miss?”

“That’s a good place to start.”

His shoes did not make any noise on the marble floor.  My heels clattered and echoed. (I hate wearing high heels, but I hate being short even more.  One of life’s little trade-offs.)

Some of the bays to the left and right were opened, doors thicker than bank vault doors swung flush against the wainscoting.  Within, under thick panels of leaded glass or energy-proof acrylic, were the Magic Things.

I saw one that looked like a pyramid of crystal spheres, glowing with lambent pastels.  Another (smaller than I thought it would be) looked like interwoven spirals of metal, writhing and folding, slowing dancing, like some fantastic sea-plant swaying in the waves.

He saw my gaze. “Artifact 63.  We’ve been recording the motions for seven decades now, and only just now is a team at USC getting accurate predictions on the curvatures and angles its forms.  Based on Dr. Shimada’s new theory of transformational multidimensional geometry.  It’s a giant step forward.”

“Does anyone know what it does?”

“Of course not.  The first curator put the objects whose functions we could guess at the far end of each wing.  The closer to the center you go, the less knowledge and theory we have.  In the very middle, of course, is the Enigma.  Artifact Zero.”

“I know.  I wrote my graduate thesis on it.”

We had reached the central rotunda.  He gestured left and right, pointing to the wide pillared archways leading to the other wings.

“That way are the recoveries from the Dis expedition; this way are the two Phlegethon expeditions; The entire East Wing is devoted to artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the Naglfar Object.”

“Object?  You agree with Zmeyevich’s theory that it is not a starship?”

“No one knows.”

I was absorbed, for the moment, with a view of Artifact Zero.  A wide parabolic dish of unknown glassy substance was centered in the rotunda like a fountain.  At the focus, over head, hovered a black sphere I could have fit in my palm.  Not many instruments were able penetrate the invisible fields of force around it; but special microscopic cameras had detected the spiral structures of billions of miniature galactic clusters grouped irregularly near its heart.  It also radiated radio-noise and extremely low frequency microwaves.

I said: “I guess it would be a lot easier if we found a living world someday.”

“Perhaps civilizations are more fragile than people suppose.  Sometimes, things break when you try to engineer them without knowing how they operate.  Look; there is my death gallery.”

All the bays opening up into the rotunda itself were opened.   Inside, each held scattered bits of wreckage, broken crystals, irregular shards of blackened metal, shapes half-melted or half-disassembled.

He paused, staring at me.  Waiting to see if I caught on.

I said, “Most of those artifacts we had good theories on — we thought we had good theories — before the step of invasive examination was decided upon.  Shouldn’t they be further down the hall?”

“They belong here now.  Once the farmer cuts open the goose to find out how the golden eggs are laid, the dead goose goes from being something he might have understood to something he will never understand.”  His eyes glittered.  He straightened up and pointed, forgetting, for the moment, to keep his old man’s posture. “That’s where I’m going to put the remains of Artifact 14, the one your Dr. Van Rausch destroyed.”

The aliens who made Artifact 14 were at least two levels above us on the Reinhardt Scale, possessing the ability to reorder subatomic strata, and extending the half-life of artificial transuranic elements so that they were inert, as stable as lead.  But apparently Dr. Van Rausch’s incisions into Artifact 14 had disrupted whatever process or internal organization keeping those nucleonic forces balanced.

All I said was, “As soon as Dr. Van Rausch is out of the hospital, it is more than likely that his team will continue the reverse engineering on Artifact 14.  Two of the flanges radiating from the central crystal are still intact.”

He turned and looked me in the eye. “Unless your report recommends against it.”

“Why should I?  These are not things meant for us just to fall down in awe and worship.  We have to try to figure out how they work.”

He snorted and turned away.  I saw him gazing sadly at the black sphere, the inexplicable miniature universe at the center of the rotunda.

I said, “Maybe I’d reconsider if you tell me why you shot Dr. Van Rausch.”

*** *** ***

2. Rash and Final Action

For a moment I was sure he was going to talk.

But then, all he said was: “Me?  How could I have shot anyone, Madame Investigator?  The security cameras show I was at my desk in my office, a floor below and hundreds of feet away from Dr. Van Rausch, when that mysterious energy discharge went off.  I was watching Dr. Van Rausch’s operation, along with the rest of the world.  Until the cameras burned out.”

“Is that the way you want to play it?”

He put a politely bewildered look on his face — an I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, ma’am look.

“Let’s go upstairs,” I said.

A broad semicircular staircase climbed the rotunda to the next level.  Artifact 14 was one bay away from the far end of the West Wing.

He talked as we walked.  By now, he had remembered to stoop, and, in the indirect lighting here, I could easily have believed he was the old man his birth-records said he was.

“People have no idea how precious or how hopeless this Museum is.  You’ve heard the analogy.  Land a 1939 Merkulov ramjet at Kitty Hawk North Carolina in 1903 intact and show it to the Wright Brothers.  What could they make of it?

“The ramjets would not operate under any conditions the Wrights could reproduce in their wind tunnel. The wing configuration would be inadequate for subsonic speeds, and, if it were a stealth aircraft, the wing structures themselves would be unstable, incomprehensible, just plain wrong.

“Maybe they could figure out how to turn on the pilot’s radio; but if they took it apart, they would neither have the theory to understand nor the industrial tools to reproduce that transistor.

“And this is only a technology gap of thirty or forty years; less than one life-span. Now imagine a gap of one hundred years, or a thousand … or a hundred thousand.

“Even this analogy is misleading,” he continued. “And far too generous.  What would a deaf race think about a violin?  Or a blind one, of a sundial?  And we may be deaf and blind in ways we do not even dream.”

Maybe I’d heard a little bit too much of this kind of talk in my career.  “So what are you saying? Give in? Don’t even try to investigate?  Should we just post a sign: ‘Magic, do not touch’?!  Is that your idea?”

He frowned at me; and some wrinkles around his eyes appeared. (Not the ones he had drawn on before.  These were new ones.  Anger lines.)  But his voice was calm and cold. “Do you know the difference between a scientist and a magician?  The witch-doctor always pretends he knows what is going on even when he does not.  Perhaps he fools himself when he fools his audience.

“And when his mumbo-jumbo fails to operate, he never questions his theory, he just continues blindly, and finds some ad hoc explanation to blame for his failures.

“Now, Dr. Van Rausch predicts that the secrets of these artifacts can be discovered by radical invasive engineering, exploratory surgery.  The observations do not bear out his predictions.  Who is the magician, madame, he or I?”

He had stopped before bay Number 14, which was open, but I kept walking to the doors of Number 13, the last bay on the hall.

“Open it,” I said.

Only now did he begin to look uncertain. “Why– why– what do you mean…?”

“Open it.  Or should I tell my suspicions to the Oversight Committee, and come back here with a subpoena?”

The door had a palm-lock and a pass-word, but finally the pistons hissed and the massive door swung grandly open.

Inside was Artifact #13, in a cubical glass case.  It was a blunt spiral cylinder, sea-shell-like, with a curving set of rings at one end, perhaps a handle comfortable for a cluster of tentacles to grasp.

I stepped over and looked.  There was a spot of discoloration on the side of the leaded glass facing Bay #14; and an even fainter spot on the wall.  I took a Geiger counter from my purse and ran the reader head across the glass at that spot.  It chattered and clicked.  It had been ionized by the passage of the beam.

But the case had not been opened or disturbed.  Nor was the discharge-end of the device pointed toward Bay #14.

I put the counter back into my purse. “How did you do it?”

Perhaps his mouth was dry.  He licked his lips and tried to swallow.  A haunted look in his eye made him seem, momentarily, as old as he pretended.

He said in a whisper: “Artifact 88 can read minds.  Or, at least, react to visual thoughts.  When you visualize the geometric shapes embedded near the top of the plinth, there are energy flows through the lower finlike structures.  As best I can discover, Artifact 88 controls the movements of Artifacts 9a and 9b and Artifact 102, and… this one.”

“You made it turn and point and shoot?”

“It levitates.  I would show you, but I don’t dare exhaust the charge — if there are charges.  A bronze-age warrior with a revolver only has a magic weapon for six shots.”

“And which one is the fountain of youth?”

“I should have left when I first started growing younger…”

“Maybe you should have.  But you wanted to stay and protect the Museum, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know which one it is.  I don’t know which experiments done in which order may or may not have activated some of the Artifacts in ways we cannot detect.  It may be a combination of several influences or actions from several of the Artifacts.  It may have been Number 14.  I don’t know.”  Now he straightened and looked at me, a hard, challenging look in his eye.

“What do you think the reaction would be if the public found out?  The fountain of youth is hidden somewhere here.  Do you think they would wait, patiently, as we slowly figured out these machines one slow decade at a time, or do you think they would follow Dr. Van Rausch?”

I shook my head. “I just work for the administration.  Its not my decision.”

“It is now.”

“Aren’t you going to levitate the magic gun and threaten me?”

“And give you an excuse so you don’t have to make this decision?  Don’t be silly.”

“Don’t get all high and mighty on me, Mr. Curator!  You’re just a criminal who has been caught.  You found a nice side-effect of publicly-owned national treasures; and you shot a respected scientist in the leg to keep your secret to yourself.  I’m just going to do my duty.”

“And where does the higher duty lie?”

“It’s not my job to protect the things in this Museum!”

“It is now.  Here are the keys and the passwords.  Watch over the place while I’m gone.  It is very precious.  And thank you for giving me the push I needed to do something I’ve never had the courage to do.  Perhaps you are right in one respect; perhaps sometimes rash and final action is called-for.  Good-bye.”

He unclipped his control box from his belt and tossed it to me, along with the key-ring clattering with his code-keys.

And I just stood there with a dumb look on my face while he walked out of the bay.

It took me a moment to collect my wits.  Where the heck did he think he was walking off to?  I hadn’t decided whether he was under arrest yet or not!

But I had the control box in my hand: it took my only a moment to order the doors locked.

Later, I found out he wasn’t in the museum.  Nor had he gone out by the doors.  The marine guards helped me search, but did not find him.

The ring of security cameras watching the central rotunda held film which showed him approaching the enigma at the center, and look up at it.  A comparison of the instrument readings in Bay 88, showed that Artifact 88, the mind-reading machine, had a burst of activity at that same time.  The cameras showed the tiny universe swell and open like a gate.  The picture is blurred, but he seemed to be smiling when he stepped into it.

And I still haven’t told anyone.  Maybe it can wait.

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Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!