(Quick explanation of this — I’m writing a novel, trying to do the whole thing as quickly as possible in first draft, and I’m not going to worry too much about beautifying the language or anything of that nature until I do the second draft. This draft’s all about getting the plot and structure down. I have a lot more of the book written than I’ve posted as yet, and I’m hoping to get the first draft finished within a fortnight. Any editorial-type suggestions, or volunteers to read over the first draft before I rework and publish, will be gratefully accepted).
So, before we continue, I’d better give you a quick primer as to the way things work, with the multiple worlds and whatnot, because the story gets messy later and you won’t want to have to keep counting on your fingers.
First, magic is real. I know that goes against everything you’ve been taught since you were three, but it’s true. The problem is, it breaks all the rules that society is set up for. Not just little rules, like driving on the left-hand side or closing early on Sundays, but bigger rules. Like conservation of energy, and the second law of thermodynamics. Derek, our resident computer nerd, had once told me it was like dividing by zero — you can get any answer out that you want if you do that somewhere in maths, apparently, but it just makes computers break. In the same way, according to Derek, magic lets you get anything you want as an individual, but it breaks society.
Luckily for us, there’s very little magic in this universe — we’re not really set up for it, which is why we can have the kind of society we do. I’m a Class Thirty-Nine mage, and that’s about as powerful as anyone from our universe gets. To give you some perspective, Class Zero is the most powerful, Class Two is roughly as powerful as the God of the Bible, and Class Thirty-Nine gives me the ability to cure veruccas without using cream. So long as I have prior permission from the Ministry, am doing it in pursuit of my duties as a law-enforcement officer, and have filled out the paperwork in quadruplicate and filed it three months in advance. Magic at even that low a level is considered rather more dangerous than nuclear weapons.
However, there are a bunch of other universes out there, not all of them as sensible as our own. No-one knows for sure exactly how many there are, but there are only three of them that matter to any great extent.
The Misty Worlds are, from what we can tell, quite pleasant. They’re called The Misty Worlds not because they’re actually misty, as such, but as a sort of corruption of ‘mystery’ — we can’t actually find out much about them, no matter what kind of spells we use, and what we do know is like looking at them through a thick mist. When we deport magic-users who’ve managed to cross the borders, they all seem to want to go to the Misty Worlds. The problem is that no-one from our world has ever managed to go over there and come back alive . Not because they kill them — as far as we can tell, the people of the Misty Worlds are a fairly decent sort — but because they live on a different time-scale to ours. One second here is a decade over there, and everyone we’d sent over had died of old age before we’d been able to re-cast the portal spells and get them back.
Faraway And Longago is a different matter. We’ve had quite a lot of trade with them for many years, even though they run to the same timescale as the Misty Worlds, but apparently they’re not the nicest place to live. They’re something of a cosmic backwater, really, all living off one potato a week and singing bleak folk songs about how their grandfather died, and most of the immigrants we got, up until recently, came from there. When we got them, we just chucked them straight through to the Misty Worlds, which is where they really wanted to go anyway, but they’d occasionally be useful in trading some magical object or other for some piece of technological junk that they don’t have yet over there, like a pocket calculator or something.
I say that until recently we mostly got our immigrants from Faraway And Longago, but that was before the current Queen Of The Fae took charge in Fairyland.
In some ways, Fairyland is the world most like ours, and the one we’d been able to do most business with in the past, but the new Queen had changed that. In every generation in Fairyland are born a Hero and a Villain, whose battle defines the age, and one of them always becomes the King or Queen on the death of the previous monarch. Almost always, the Hero won — not only does Fairyland run on a kind of story logic, rather than the rules that apply elsewhere, but also it’s quite hard for you to get much of an upswell of popular support if your political speeches consist of “I shall raise an evil army and crush all that is good beneath my iron heel! I shall become absolute master of this domain, and all who do not please me will know the true meaning of pain!”
But for some reason, the Queen had managed to take over almost without a fight from the Hero of her generation, and had been quite the bloodiest dictator ever to rule Fairyland since. We’d been getting massive waves of refugees from her land ending up in ours, and no matter how much we sympathised with them, there was nothing we could do except send them over to one of the other magical lands.
And that had caused the Goblin Wars. The goblin population of Fairyland had defected en masse to the Misty Worlds, about five years ago, and had taken with them the secret of making Fairy Gold. This had caused a minor skirmish between the Misty Worlds and Faraway And Longago, as what little economy Faraway And Longago had was destabilised by a sudden influx of cash from the newly-rich Misty Worlds, but the Queen had used this as an excuse to invade both universes, claiming she wanted to protect the expatriate goblin community, and the war had been going on for three years now, without any sign of ending. We had remained studiously neutral, even after the Queen had sent agents in to try to provoke us, but the war was heating up. Enough damage done to the substrate of the realities, and we’d be just as dead as everyone else.
Now, one final thing you need to know before we get back to the story proper, and that’s how these peace talks were going to work. I’d got the details in an email from the CI, and it was as complicated as you’d imagine.
Firstly, the whole town had to be surrounded by nine anti-magic wards — one ward from each of the three realms, because they didn’t trust each other, and then each realm was also going to cast a ward to moderate each of the other two realms’ wards, in case they’d slipped anything funny in there. Theoretically, this should mean that there was no possible way to perform any unsanctioned magic in the town. In practice, it just meant that anyone who was going to do anything was going to be sneaky about it.
Then, each delegation had to be housed as far away from the others as was humanly possible. There was no way to arrange hotels for that many entities at such short notice, so we had to actually put three hotels slightly out of phase with the rest of the world, and have the delegates occupy them in odd-numbered seconds, while the regular customers occupied them in the even-numbered ones. A quick phase-shift bubble around each should stop anyone noticing anything.
And then the town itself had to be put out of phase with the rest of the world. If we’d kept regular time, we’d have had two of the delegations going back to their own worlds to find it was six million years or more later. Now, admittedly, magical folk are a long-lived bunch (some of them literally live a billion years in their own time) but that would still be a bit of a jolt. So the whole town had to be encased in Slow Time, which is no fun for anyone. Remember the worst jet-lag you’ve ever had? Now imagine you’d been shifted not a few hours, but an entire week, and that the whole rest of the town was feeling just as bad.
And the conference centre itself, of course, had to be guarded against not just the normal terrorist activity, but against magical dissidents. One goblin with a grudge and a genie, and we’d have precisely the kind of escalation this was meant to avoid.
One lucky aspect — and the reason why England had been chosen for the conference — was that we didn’t have to worry about translators. For some reason no-one has ever been able to figure out, while all the realms, and all the different species within them, have their own languages (Faerie sounds a little bit like Welsh, while Goblin sounds for all the world like someone with a stutter speaking Norwegian), they can all speak English. They don’t call it English — it’s “Man’s tongue” or “the language of the valleys” or something else, depending on where they’re from — but English, like humanity, exists in all three of the major powers.
So at least I didn’t have to deal with learning another language, just with being responsible for the safety of one of the most important people in the multiverse, while my personal timeline was out of sync with the rest of the world, during a peace conference which was almost certainly going to be under attack by terrorists from four different universes, and which would lead to the destruction of all that existed if I wasn’t careful.
Still, at least I wasn’t Charlie, so I could be grateful for small mercies. While I was worrying about the security measures for the peace conference, Charlie was starting his first day at school. We’d prepared a background for him — dad had gone to work in Australia for a year, so he was staying with his uncle, who had the same name as him. Charlie was to be metamorphed when he was at school, and keep his normal face the rest of the time.
Now, when I talk about what happened to Charlie, I’m mostly going from his own reports of what happened, along with a few witness statements that were taken later on. And I’m not saying Charlie’s a liar, as such, but he does talk enough bullshit that you could take a couple of his sentences and not need any fertiliser for your allotment for the rest of the year, you know what I mean?
So, on Charlie’s first day at school, he was late. Charlie’s always late, it’s congenital with him. So he ran in and started looking round frantically for which building he was meant to be in. As he was looking, a tall, thin man with a long nose and a comb-over came up to him.
“Why aren’t you in class?” he said, looking over his glasses at Charlie.
“Sorry sir…it’s my first day here, and I’m not sure where I should be going.”
“Ah. What year are you in?”
“Year ten, sir.”
“Hmm… Form teacher?”
“Mister Dawson, sir.”
“Right, come with me.”
He strode away briskly, his long legs covering an immense amount of ground with what seemed minimal effort, leaving Charlie scurrying after him. After going up three flights of stairs and down two corridors they arrived at their destination, and the tall man gave a cursory knock on the door, then entered without waiting for permission.
Inside, a short, ineffectual-looking man was taking the register in front of a group of bored-looking kids. He looked across at Charlie and the tall man.
“Can I help you, Mister Simpson?”
“I found this outside. It says it belongs to you.” The class laughed, and Charlie knew that this Mr. Simpson was going to be one of those teachers who delighted in making children’s life a misery. He had to stand up to him.
“I belong to myself, actually.”
“Not during school hours, you don’t. Now sit down and shut up.”
That hadn’t gone as well as Charlie had hoped. He found an empty desk, sat down and cast an eye over the rest of the class. A few big lads who’d presumably been kept down a year, all at the back, a nerdy-looking kid with glasses sat on his own near the front, and most of the rest of the class the usual nondescript mix of spots and bad personal hygiene you’d expect from a classroom full of fifteen-year-olds.
Mr. Simpson left, closing the door behind him, and the teacher at the front, who Charlie assumed must be Mr. Dawson, picked up the register again.
“Now, now that that little excitement is over, perhaps we can start the register again? Abrams?”
Charlie looked round, and noticed one of the girls, sat a couple of rows away from him, trying to catch his eye. He looked over and she winked at him, and he smiled before realising with horror that she fancied him. He blushed and looked away, but then realised the whole class were staring at him.
“That was the third time I called your name. Stop gawping at Davies and pay attention. I shall mark down ‘present in body, if not in spirit’, shall I? Curtis?”
And with the obsequious fake laughter of the children in his class echoing in his ears, we’ll draw a veil across Charlie’s school career for the moment.