They found Linus and Isaac sitting at the table, staring at their beers.
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"Hate to disrupt this stirring conversation," Liam said. "Isaac. Ready to go?"
"Then we're off." He waved to Sandra and headed toward the front of the pub. Isaac trailed behind, struggling into his coat.
"We going back for your car?"
"No. We can walk from here."
"Ah. This is another Gate, right?"
"Yeh," Liam said.
"But not the one we came through."
They walked in silence for a few minutes, past tall storefronts with jutting second-story windows. Above them, electrical cables snaked in every direction, forming a thin net that cast strange shadows on the cobblestones.
"I've got a question," Isaac said.
"Of course you have."
"Stop me if I'm being dense. A Gate is a thing of magic, right?"
Liam made a face. "Yeh..."
"And what you did in Penniford, that was magic, yes?"
"If you like."
"Does that mean yes?"
"It's complicated, Isaac."
"Help me out, then. What the hell is magic, exactly?"
"Now I know you had this at the College..."
It was Isaac's turn to make a face. "Yes-"
"All magic," the instructor said. "Comes from the intersection between Imagination and Will. This alchemical marriage- the gold of Will mingled with the silver of Imagination, is reflected again and again in form and myth, even unto the 'spiral staircase' pattern of consciousness evolution. Without Will, the Imagination would run in aimless, directionless loops, lost in its circles, going nowhere. Without Imagination, Will would rush headlong toward a straight-line, end-of-the-journey mentality, and smash itself against the wall of itself. Together, these elements form a gestalt, a holographic whole greater than its' constituents, whose shape is recapitulated in the shape of our own DNA. This information is even more compelling when applied to the perception of both Matter and Consciousness as being the same thing, only differentiated by the processing of our senses, which unfold it into a temporal-physical matrix. If this is true, then Consciousness has looked on Consciousness and made Matter, and everything is the result of magic, the Universe being pulled into existence by its bootstraps. However-"
"-but that doesn't mean I understood it."
"Fair enough. I don't know that I do either, but the version I follow runs like this: You know how to boil water, right?"
"So suppose you lived somewhere without any water. I know, I know, just bear with me. I'm being metaphorical. So you'd never seen water before. Then one day you come across it. Interesting stuff, this. You share the information with your friends, and they muck around a bit with this water stuff, too. Now, since you're a non-water-using race- don't ask, I don't know- you could spend your whole life playing with water, and never figure out how to boil it, or even notice that it can be boiled. All the same, the water had the properly of being able to boil that whole time, right?"
"I think I follow you."
"Good. So if no one knew how to boil water except you, would that make it magic when you boiled it?"
"Right. Crowley said it best, the old bastard: By doing certain things, certain results follow. He goes on from there to warn his students about taking anything that happens as objective 'reality'. Too bad he didn't take his own bloody advice."
They turned down a wide thoroughfare lined with trees. Battered stone statues, some of them half-decayed, stood at intervals along the path. Leaves swirled around Isaac's feet in miniature whirlwinds, cascading into the air as though touched by unseen forces.
"You make it sound like a science," Isaac said.
"It is a science. Or at least, it follows the same lines. Science- the kind of science you're thinking of- likes to draw boxes around things and say: 'Everything in here is real, everything else can piss off'. It latches onto anything it wants to study and instantly forgets anything it doesn't. Not very scientific, really."
"So magic is just a kind of science we don't understand yet?"
"Enh." Liam made a face. "That's a bit like saying a computer is just a kind of abacus we don't understand yet, but it'll do for going on with. It's a fractal pattern, right? The more you look, the more there is to see. The further you pull back, the more of it there is."
"I don't follow."
"That's all right. You will do, eventually. Probably. Just to the left, here."
They turned down a narrow alley lined on both sides with two and three-story buildings. Isaac cast a glance up at the darkened windows and felt a momentary chill, as though he were being watched.
"Just through here," Liam said, and pointed at a narrow red door. He fished in the pocket of his coat and took out a ring of keys. "Can never remember which of these it is."
"You know," Isaac said. "I just thought of something.
"Shall I call the medics?"
"Nothing. Go on."
"Well, I-" Isaac paused. "Oh. The medics. Ha. Well, I just noticed that I'm not jumping around in time anymore."
"Your internal timeline must have resolved itself."
"What does that even mean?"
"I don't know, do I? It's just something I've heard Bishop say. Here we are." He inserted a battered silver key into the lock and turned it. The door opened, groaning on old hinges, to show a narrow staircase leading up to a second-floor landing.
Isaac felt a moment of claustrophobia. "You're sure this is the Gate you wanted?"
"Yes. The other Gate probably helped you, come to think of it."
"With your internal timeline."
They started up the stairs, their voices echoing back tinny and flat in the low-ceilinged space.
"Really?" Isaac said. "Because it felt like taking a bucketfull of mescaline and then doing that thing we used to do as kids, where you held your palms to your neck until you passed out." He put his hands to his neck to demonstrate.
Liam looked back down the stairs at him. "Have you ever taken mescaline?"
"Um. No. Just guessing."
"Right. Know what electroconvulsive therapy is?"
"Is that the-?" Isaac mimed putting electrodes to either side of his head. "Where they shock you?"
"Induced convulsions, right. Used in psychiatric treatment. Helps with depression, mania, a few other things. No one knows why. But-" He held up a finger. "When you get past all the scholarly nonsense, consensus seems to be that it hits the 'Reset' button on your brain. Follow me?"
"Wait, and this is what happened to me when-?"
"No. Well, not exactly. A bit more metaphorically, like."
Isaac was silent for a long moment. He climbed the rest of the stairs and joined Liam on the landing. "I'm not sure I like the idea that I shocked the shit out of my brain, Liam."
Liam grinned. "Welcome to the madhouse. We're all Bozos on this bus."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.