The new government, of which I was very proud to be a part, had only been in power a month when I was sent down to Rochdale to investigate MAGIC. As Minister of Defence with the portfolio for defence procurement I was going through the figures for the last financial year, doing my best to tally up outgoing expenditure with the various ongoing military hardware projects. My brief was to bring about a four and a half percent cut during the course of the next five years, so I was on the look out for anything that might have been considered unduly costly or extravagant. The fact that the previous four incumbents of my position had been tasked with something similar made this a somewhat exacting task. Defence spending had already been cut to the bone by previous administrations, so it was hard to find any immediate candidate for the axe that didn’t risk rendering the nation militarily impotent. It was at this point, one rainy Tuesday afternoon, that Douglas Rossiter, my aide came into my office with a slender folder and an expression of satisfaction spread across his broad features.
“What have we got, then?” I asked as he slid the folder across the desk to me.
“Maybe the answer to your prayers,” he said, looking unbearably smug.
The text and the coloured strip at the top of the folder indicated that it was pulled from the R&D section and the title underneath said simply “MAGIC”.
“You won’t even find it on the system,” said Douglas perching himself on the edge of the desk in a manner that he knew that I hated but was powerless to prevent. He was at school with me, you see, was pretty obviously cleverer than me and was a personal protégé of the Prime Minister, to boot. Aide or not he was simply using me as a stepping stone to future greatness. My only hope was that complacency and over-confidence might bring him down before such a thing could come to pass.
“Hard copy only,” he added, swinging his leg. “What do you make of that? Weird, I’d say.”
“Rather unconventional,” I agreed, cautiously.
“Weirder still when you take a look at the figures,” grunted Douglas. “You’ll freak.”
I looked. I freaked. Holding up the slender printout and staring at it, I was left wondering if I had imagined a couple of zeroes here or there.
“No way,” I said, at last, incredulously. “That’s got to be nearly five percent of the whole R&D budget!”
“Five point two,” said Douglas with a wry grin.
“So what do these guys actually do?”
“Search me,” said Douglas with a shrug. “That’s the whole point. It says here something about Amphibious Operations. Apart from that it doesn’t go much beyond general vague bureaucrat-speak. I can’t find anyone in the ministry who seems to have a clue about what they’re doing down there.”
“Well,” I said. “We certainly can’t let them go on spending the public’s money at this rate without some kind of accountability. The PM has been banging on about that all last week. He’ll throw a fit if he finds out we’re spending this much money without having a clue what it’s going on. Could be gold plated toilet seats for the Admiralty for all we know.”
“Hmmm,” Douglas drummed his fingers pensively on the desk. “What say we put this to the PM, then? I bet he’d like us to make them a surprise visit.”
And so it was that Douglas and I turned up in Rochdale on another rainy afternoon, a week later, in search of MAGIC. Cutting edge research companies generally plied their trade out of smart new facilities in science parks on the outskirts of Oxford, or some such place, so it was a little surprising to be journeying to a city in the north of the country with an undistinguished recent record with regard to scientific enterprise of any kind. Our official car turned off the motorway and was soon navigating its way through a large and labyrinthine industrial estate. Apart from a few car body shops and a steel stockholder, this was occupied mostly by abandoned warehouses and empty plots full of semi-demolished buildings. Here and there, large signs promised exciting development opportunities at very moderate cost.
It was even more surprising when our car pulled up outside a large Victorian mill building on the fringe of the estate, a huge red brick cuboid with a steep pitched slate roof and a lofty chimney at one end. Row after row of blank windows gazed out over a car park partly occupied by a derelict bus and a vast pool of water where the drainage had proved inadequate to cope with the sustained and torrential downpours of recent days. A shopping trolley, turned on its side, occupied the parking space next to ours, amidst a slew of soggy litter and pallid fast food remnants.
“Certainly low key,” said Douglas, glancing around as we made our way towards the entrance. “I guess they don’t wish to attract attention to themselves…now rats, that’s a different issue.”
We were met at reception by Doctor Loveday, the director of what he described as the institute. Doctor Loveday was exceptionally tall, with the slightly the stooping posture of those who must always look down to interact with those around them. Given that he had only three hours notice of arrival it was only natural that he should he seem a little flustered, tapping a biro rhythmically on his upper lip as we signed ourselves in and were issued with the obligatory temporary ID cards on lanyards.
“What’s MAGIC stand for, then?” I asked, indicating the company logo above the reception desk whilst Douglas signed his name. “Military And General Intelligence Collation was our best guess on the way down.”
“Oh, that’s not an acronym,” said Loveday, with a nervous laugh, leading us off along a corridor. “That’s actually what we do. Hiding in plain sight, you see.”
“Right, so you’re kind of magic, at what you do, yeah?” I tried, after having exchanged a wondering frown with Douglas.
“No, no, you don’t understand me,” clucked Loveday in exasperation. “I mean, we actually do magic, that’s what I’m saying.”
“Huh!” said Douglas. “Why would you actually say that? You’d have to be actually certifiable.”
“I’ll introduce you to Alistair Downing,” said our host, ignoring this, knocking briskly on and then opening a door on the left side of the corridor. “Professor Downing, I should say. He’s our Director of Operations.
We were ushered through into a large office to meet a small man in a white lab coat. If any film director had been searching for a likely candidate to cast as a mad scientist, this was their man. His bald pate was surrounded on three sides by a fringe of unruly white hair and his movements were anxious, bird-like, as though mental hyper-activity spilled over into a variety of physical tics and twitches.
“So pleased to meet you,” he said, with apparently genuine enthusiasm, pumping my hand vigorously.
“Yes,” said Loveday, looking as though he was unable to share these sentiments. “These gentlemen would like to be shown what we do here.”
“Would they?” said Downing, with a smile, taking off his glasses and polishing them on the lapel of his lab coat. “Would they indeed?”
“Yes,” agreed Loveday “And we do need to be completely candid.”
“We do? Oh. We do. Well…” Downing replaced his glasses and rubbed his hands together. “What do you know already?”
“Nothing, much,” I said. “Except that Doctor Loveday here would have us believe that you do magic. But perhaps that’s his little joke,” I added.
“No, not at all.” Downing shook his head. “We actually, genuinely do do magic.”
“Oh, so that’s all cleared up, then,” said Douglas heavily. “I suppose we can get off back to London then. The PM will be much relieved.”
“I’m sure these gentlemen would appreciate a tour of the facilities,” offered Loveday, his face colouring up very satisfactorily.”And perhaps a demonstration of some of the projects we’ve been working on.”
“I can show you one now,” said the Professor, crossing to his desk and reaching into his draw. He produced a pack of cards and drew them out, shuffling them with no great expertise.
“I trust you’re not about to show me a card trick,” I said, incredulously.
“No, wait. I beg you,” said Downing, placing on his head a helmet like affair with a cluster of what might have been sensors showing under the lower edge and a great many wires. Having made various adjustments to this, he fanned out the cards and held them up face side towards me.
“Choose a card,” he said. “Any card, and give it a tap.”
“Are you serious? I mean really?” Nevertheless, with a sigh, I gave the seven of clubs a tap.
The Professor gave the cards another thorough shuffle and then reached into his pocket to bring out a small wand, one that might have been borrowed from a child’s conjuring set. He proceeded to give the pack of cards a sharp rap and then beamed triumphantly as the seven of clubs rose purposefully up to disclose itself to me.
“There!” he said. “Was that your card?”
Douglas and I laughed for a while. It seemed the sanest response in the circumstances. After a minute or so the humour ebbed away and was replaced by the consciousness that we were in the presence of lunatics and lunatics spending public money with reckless abandon.
“Have you seriously brought us in here to show us conjuring tricks?” I asked, wiping a tear from my eye. “I trust you’re not going to tell me that the nation has paid hundreds of millions of pounds so that you guys can do conjuring tricks. It’d be funny if it wasn’t my business to put a stop to this kind of thing. I mean what are you going to do next, start pulling rabbits out of hats?”
There was a tense pause and then Loveday pressed an intercom button on the desk. “Tell Mr Dawson that we won’t be requiring him,” he said, enigmatically.
“But Mr Aitken, that was not conjuring,” said the Professor, regarding me earnestly, eyes wide with sincerity. “I am not able to do conjuring. I lack manual dexterity. I have no sleight of hand. That actually was magic. It’s what we do here; what we have been working on these last four years.”
“I think we’d better go back to basics,” said Loveday, with a sigh. “Tell the story from the beginning, yes?”
“This had better be good,” I said. “I mean, really, really good.”
The tour began in a promising manner, at least in the sense that it was possible to see how a large chunk of resources had been devoted to expenditure on technology. We were conducted to a large space that occupied most of the basement area, extending upwards to the first storey, with raised viewing galleries on two sides. Looking down from this viewpoint we were able to see a huge machine of some sort, roughly doughnut shaped, serviced by a number of white-coated technicians. A great many wires and cables snaked around the machine, held in place by a number of complex box-like structures of uncertain function.
“Look familiar?” asked Loveday, leaning on the hand rail.
“I suppose it does, a bit,” I conceded. “I saw something like it on TV, where was it now?…”
“I can tell you exactly where,” supplied our guide with a smile. “CERN in Geneva. That would have been their LHC, Large Hadron Collider. It’s a torus. A doughnut shaped container in which a plasma can be created. Ours is a cut down version of theirs. We call it the Small Hadron Collider.”
“I see,” said Douglas. “And what does it do, exactly?”
“Well, it smashes atoms together, just like theirs,” said Downing.
“And that advances the cause of the nation’s defence in what way?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s all to do with sub-atomic physics,” continued Downing. “This isn’t generally known of course, but when the chaps at CERN were smashing atoms together with ever increasing force…”
“In search of the Higgs Boson,” I said, with a self-congratulatory nod and a glance at Douglas.
“Indeed…They discovered that in addition to the usual flavours of quarks and other sub-atomic particles released by the collision, there was a new one they hadn’t ever seen before. The detection equipment hadn’t previously been calibrated in a way that would have picked it up, you see.”
“Uh huh,” I said, wondering where he was going with this. “Do go on.”
“The exciting thing is that these particles, we call them pixyons… are persistent.” he continued.
“They don’t decay within a fraction of a second, like other sub-atomic particles,” added Loveday. “So they can be harvested and stored.”
“And they are created in much less powerful collisions than are required to find Higgs,” said the Professor, gesturing at the machine below us. “So the torus can be much smaller. We collect pixyons and store them for later use.”
“Pixyons? Like pixie dust, yeah?” ventured Douglas. “I think I see where you’re going with this.”
“Exactly,” said Professor Downing, finger raised. “That’s why we named them thus. Pixyons allow us to interfere with the laws of Physics as we presently understand them. Pixyons allow us to do magic.”
“Do they…” I said slowly, conveying a degree of scepticism, I should think.
“Perhaps you’d care to show us some of the practical applications of this, er… magic,” suggested Douglas.
“Yes, of course,” said Loveday, leading us out of the machine hall. “We’re well beyond the theoretical stage now and we’ve done extensive research both into the properties of the pixyons themselves and into their possible uses. Interestingly we found that the path of least resistance led us towards phenomena that have traditionally been used by popular entertainers.”
“What, like conjuring tricks?” I asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“Indeed. We found that card tricks, the production of various livestock from the sleeves of garments, phenomena involving bags and boxes, all these were particularly susceptible to intervention using our new tools. The investigation was not without dangers, as you can imagine. In fact there was a fatality in the early days…”
“Miss Braithwaite,” said Douglas, frowning. “I think I read about that in the file. Industrial accident, wasn’t it? There wasn’t a great deal of detail.”
“Sawn in two, I’m afraid,” said the Doctor, stretching his mouth wide in an attitude that combined apology and exasperation. “Calibration problems combined with interference from the metallic content of the sequins in her costume, you see. All sorted now, though.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” I said, appalled. “And what of the military applications of this brilliant new science of yours? I trust the army isn’t proposing to entertain the enemy to death?”
“It’s a very curious fact that the fairy tales we grew up with seem to have carried with them an instinctive understanding of what is actually possible with magic,” said Downing, showing us into another room, this one containing a number of wall cabinets and showcases. “We had anticipated that explosive power, perhaps with coloured smoke or sparks, might be a useful property to explore but quickly found that the physical transformation of matter was a more productive avenue in that respect.”
“Meaning…” I said, waving a hand encouragingly.
“Bear with me on that for a moment,” he said, stopping in front of a tall, glass-fronted wall cabinet. “We have undertaken a number of field trials with special forces in Afghanistan, you see.”
“In order to evaluate the equipment we have been developing,” added Loveday.
“And this is it?” I asked goggling incredulously at the contents of the cabinet. “You’re asking me to believe that the SAS actually went into combat wearing… this?” I flapped my hand weakly in the general direction of the offending items.
“That’s a pointy hat,” said Douglas, with his usual skill in picking out the obvious. “And what’s that, some kind of camo robe.”
“Not a hat,” said Downing, shaking his head vigorously. “Military grade kevlar, that is and the robe, well, we call that an extended length sand poncho.”
“You can call it what you like,” I snapped. “It still looks like a robe. And what kind of soldier is going to war wearing a pointy helmet? He’d be laughed off the battlefield.”
“Hang on a minute,” said Douglas, peering closely to an caption underneath the equipment. “What’s this say? WIZARD?” He turned an accusative gaze upon Loveday, who smiled awkwardly.
“That one actually is an acronym,” he said. “And it’s not even ours. That’s your own department’s acronym for Weapons Innovation Application of Research and Development”, he said. “I suppose someone though it would be funny.”
“And what about this then?” said Douglas, moving on to read the caption underneath. “Amphibious Operations. What’s all that then? Not scope for a lot of amphibious warfare in Afghanistan I should thought, lacking a coast and all that”
“You must let me explain,” said Downing, flapping his hands anxiously. “The poncho is made from a newly developed fabric that generates electricity for the wearer’s equipment when heated or flexed. That’s why it’s a quite, er…voluminous. I accept that the shape of the helmet is unconventional but it results from a great deal of trial and error as well as intense theoretical effort. It has to be that shape because the initiator it contains at its tip needs to be placed at a distance of thirty four centimetres from the central cortex of the wearer’s brain to achieve maximum effect. The stream of pixyons emitted by the initiator react with the wearer’s thought processes to create an impulse that can be directed to a weapon system.”
“A weapon system,” I said wearily. “I suppose you’re going to show me a wand next.”
“We call it a focussed beam effect projector.”
“I bet you do,” said Douglas. “But it’s a wand.”
“Yes,” conceded Downing. “If you like.”
“Let’s have a look at it then,” I said, thinking that things could hardly become any more surreal. I was wrong.
Professor Downing brought a box down from a shelf and produced a slender metallic cylinder, tapering towards one end. It looked like a wand for the twenty first century but a wand nevertheless.
“Hmm. Battery compartment, “ I said, turning it over in my hand. “I’m guessing it takes AAs.”
“No indeed,” said Downing. “This is where we install a clip of six manna charges. Manna is a highly concentrated store of pixyons that enables the magic effect to occur. It is discharged when the user’s thoughts are ordered correctly, usually assisted by the utterance of an incantation.”
“So you say a spell,” tried Douglas, scratching his head. “And then sparks fly out of the thin end and someone drops dead. Is that how it works?”
“No, no, no,” said Loveday, shaking his head vigorously. “It does not kill people it transforms them.”
“Transforms them into what, exactly,” I asked.
“Into toads,” said Loveday, with satisfaction. “Toads.”
“Rightttt,” said Douglas and I in unison.
“And I suppose you’ve got some video evidence of this to show us?” I suggested.
“Of course,” said Downing cheerily. “Step this way.”
Life is full of surprises and unknown quantities but I had not imagined for a moment, when rising that morning, that I should spend part of the afternoon watching grainy video of creatures in cages being magically transformed into other creatures. It seemed that the wand in question transformed creatures specifically into amphibians; frogs, newts and toads.
“Hence the description amphibious operations,” explained Loveday, a gleam of satisfaction in his eye.
The video evidence, if you could call it evidence, demonstrated that small creatures were transformed into newts. Creatures of moderate size were transformed into frogs. We watched, with interest, as a number of baboons and a chimpanzee changed shape instantaneously, accompanied by flying sparks and a puff of smoke.
“There was always going to be a problem with human trials, of course,” admitted Loveday. “Which is why we had no alternative but test the equipment under field conditions. We soon discovered that creatures weighing more than a hundred and thirty two pounds… human beings, in normal circumstances, are transformed into toads.”
“Okayyy,” I said slowly, doing my best to keep a grip on reality. “So you guys have been turning the Taliban into toads.”
“Not us,” said Loveday, hands raised in horror. “Indeed not. We are scientists. As I say, special forces operating under conditions of extreme secrecy in the South of Afghanistan have been conducting the field trials on our behalf.”
“Fine,” I said. “And would you say that the trial has been a success?”
Now it was Loveday’s and Downing’s turn to exchange awkward glances.
“Not entirely,” conceded Loveday. “There was the blue on blue incident.”
“I see,” said Douglas. “So you’re saying that one of our soldiers turned another one of our soldiers into…”
“Into a toad, yes,” admitted Loveday with a shrug and a pained expression. “It was the heat of combat, you know, the fog of war. A terrible accident.”
“The frog of war,” I said and immediately regretted it, as three pairs of eyes turned baleful gazes upon me.
“But this device has proved effective against the Taliban?” pressed Douglas. “Is that the situation?”
“Within certain limits,” conceded Downing. “The transformation certainly occurs but under combat conditions the toads created are man-sized and extremely aggressive. We’re not sure why.”
“And they are able to explode themselves with incredible force,” added Loveday, looking even more downcast.
“So now we have Taliban suicide toads,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t know about you Douglas, but I think I’ve seen enough. This is all completely crazy. I don’t know how you expect to fool us with all this fake video nonsense and these incredible tall stories. I don’t buy it, I really don’t. And I’ll tell you something else; the nation won’t buy it either.”
I suppose the gradually accumulating weight of incredulity and exasperation I had been feeling finally outgrew my capacity to contain it. I felt colour rise to my cheeks, my voice rising in pitch and volume as I told Doctor Loveday exactly what I thought of his ludicrous institute.
“But you mustn’t! You can’t!” said Downing, wringing his hands miserably.”We’re so close to getting it right.”
“I absolutely must and I absolutely can,” I told him, tight lipped. “We’re pulling the plug on this nonsense as soon as I get back to London.”
“Are you now? Are you really? We’ll see about that,” said Loveday grimly.
I can type reasonably well, now that I have learned to adjust to the adaptations that have been made to my keyboard. Likewise I have become accustomed to using a low desk rather less than eighteen inches tall, after a variety of chairs proved inappropriate to my new needs. Despite my recommendations, MAGIC remains open and continues to be in receipt of public funds. I suppose I have become, by my very existence, its most convincing advocate. As ever, there are those who object to my policies and my working methods but if my enemies call me a toad in parliament, I have to acknowledge that they are doing no more than speaking the literal truth.