Summary: Professor Dumbledore invites a brilliant young computer programmer to Hogwarts to investigate whether computers can be made to work in a magical environment.
I'm going back to Hogwarts! It's what I've wanted for more than 50 years and I didn't even know it! Officially that is.
52 years ago it was the year 2005. I was 24 years old, an extremely talented computer programmer, and very unhappy. I had just finished a lucrative contract for an aerospace company and instead of helping me celebrate my girlfriend Darlene dumped me. It seemed that Charles with a big income was an attractive figure while Charles with just a big bank account had to be avoided at all costs. I despaired at ever understanding women.
My plans for an exotic vacation in the dust, I double-checked my references, updated my resume, and made it discretely known on the web that my services were available again. E-mail from the usual suspects piled in. Would Bill ever give up? Then I got one that my spam filter almost deleted as too Nigerian:
To: Charles Hunter (firstname.lastname@example.org)
From: A. Dumbledore (email@example.com)
I have not had the pleasure of making your acquaintance but I have followed your career with considerable interest. While I sincerely regret the circumstances prompting you to seek employment so quickly after your last engagement I must admit to being pleased that I am able to present to you this offer sooner rather than later.
I have a new position on my faculty that is best described as "Research Scientist." The responsibilities are probably extremely broad by your standards for the area of investigation is to determine whether modern computers can be made to apply at all to a field to which they have, thus far, proved to be extremely resilient. Your record of solving difficult problems in a "consistently creative" manner suggests that you are the perfect candidate for this task and I solicit your presence at an interview where I will be able to explain the particulars in more detail.
I have arranged for your reply, should you be inclined to send one, to be relayed to me. Please forgive the delay but its nature is part of the issue that I would like you to address. If you indicate that you are willing to hear more then I will arrange for transportation to and from my office and accommodations, if necessary, for the duration of your visit.
Googling combinations of "Hogwarts", "Albus", and "Dumbledore" came up with absolutely nothing, as did "hogwarts.edu.uk". This was so obviously a trick that I started getting pissed off. Who sent it? One of my friends would have been a lot funnier. One of Darlene's friends would have been less clever. I didn't think Darlene sent it because it wasn't her style.
I decided to call the bluff:
To: A. Dumbledore (firstname.lastname@example.org)
From: Charles Hunter (email@example.com)
It's been a long time since I've been given a mystery to solve. I look forward to solving this one although I doubt it'll take very long. Make your arrangements. I could use some amusement.
Two days later I received:
To: Charles Hunter (firstname.lastname@example.org)
From: A. Dumbledore (email@example.com)
Splendid! Your confidence is reassuring. I have arranged for a member of my faculty to meet you at the Scottish restaurant near your apartment at 2:00pm your time tomorrow. Professor McGonagall will escort you to my office for our interview and afterwards it would be my pleasure if you would be my guest at dinner. You may return tomorrow afternoon or evening as you prefer or you may avail yourself of one of our guest accommodations for the night and return the following morning. I look forward to our meeting with great anticipation.
Scottish restaurant? Near my apartment? I sat back in admiration. I'd been outbluffed again. I lived a block away from Atlanta's famous Fast Food Alley. There wasn't an un-franchised slow-food restaurant for a mile in any direction. The nearest thing to a Scottish restaurant I knew of was the Irish pub in the middle of the city that I liked to go to for an occasional pint.
What would a Scottish restaurant serve anyway? Haggis?
I had no idea which of my friends pulled this one on me, but it worked. I felt better. I wondered when I'd find out who did it.
The next day I was reading Slashdot when my computer chimed with incoming mail:
To: Charles Hunter (firstname.lastname@example.org)
From: A. Dumbledore (email@example.com)
I fear that I have been (what I hope is) uncharacteristically erroneous in my previous communication. I have just been informed by one of my students that McDonald's is not a Scottish restaurant. I hope that my confusion has not caused you any difficulty and I still look forward to our meeting.
It was three minutes to two.
Whoever sent it was probably typing on a wireless laptop with one hand, watching my apartment building through binoculars with the other, slurping a chocolate shake, and trying to think of a yet-more-perfectly witty remark to gloat over the fact that I didn't figure out what the "Scottish restaurant" was.
I leapt through my apartment door, locked it, and bypassed the elevator in favor of running down the stairs. At least I wasn't going to give whoever it was more ammunition by being late! McDonald's was half a block down to the strip and half a block to the right. I was a little out of breath when I got there.
Standing inside was an old lady with a sour look on her face. She was holding a book and was dressed like she had just come from a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism.
She looked at me and said, "Good afternoon Mr. Hunter, I am Professor McGonagall. You are precisely on time. Please follow me. Transportation to Hogwarts has been arranged."
Then she turned and headed towards a door labeled "Employees Only." I asked, "Are we allowed to go in there?"
She replied, "We will not be inside for very long and I have taken precautions to insure that we are not noticed."
I noticed the implied answer to my question. The old lady opened the door to a small cleaning supply closet and said, "After you Mr. Hunter."
This was very weird, but I went in. She followed, shut the door, and held out the book saying, "Please hold on to this and don't be alarmed at what happens next."
I hadn't the slightest idea what was going on. I reached out and grasped the book. And then it felt like I was going over the first hill of a roller coaster! My vision faded to greenish-purple and a sudden wind was trying to blow my face off! I tried to let go of the book but couldn't! My fingers were stuck!
It seemed to go on forever and then there was a jolt as my feet hit the ground. I let go of the book and fell over onto grass. The sky seemed funny, dark, like it was evening. The air smelled fresh. I sat up and saw I was surrounded on all four sides by tall stone walls enclosing a huge courtyard.
"Welcome to Hogwarts, Mr. Hunter", said the old lady. She continued, "You undoubtedly have many questions. You may ask them of Professor Dumbledore who is waiting for you. Please follow me."
I stood up and saw towers beyond the courtyard walls. They looked too tall to be real. I was in shock but still trying to figure out what happened. Maybe the book was coated with contact LSD and I was hallucinating, or something.
I followed the old lady through a huge gate and into a huge hall lit with torches. Bunches of kids of different sizes and in black robes were wandering around. One group greeted Professor McGonagall as we went by. A smaller, merely large, hall branched off the huge hall and in that was an alcove containing a large statue of a weird animal.
The old lady faced the statue and said, "Butterbeer" and the statue started rotating! She then said, "Hurry and get on the stairs. They will take you to Professor Dumbledore's office."
I stepped onto a step and felt the stairs start to go up, like a circular escalator. At the top was a landing and beyond that was a large room with shelves all around. In the center was an old man with the longest beard I've ever seen. He looked at me like he was very happy about something and said, "Charles! Welcome! I'm delighted to meet you at last. You are at this point no doubt very confused and maybe even a little panicked. May I give you something to help?"
This sounded like an offer of beer, or something like it, and a very good idea. I replied, "Please."
The old man said, "Excellent!" and pulled out a short piece of wood, pointed it at me, and clearly declaimed, "Accepto Veritas!" There was a flash of light and suddenly I felt better.
Professor Dumbledore put the stick away and said, "That was a spell of my own devising. It makes the charmed person willing to believe things that are genuinely true, however outlandish they seem, without affecting his or her natural suspicion of things that are not true. My hope is that in situations like this it saves a great deal of time for everyone. I now hope that you do not object to my use of it?"
This seemed perfectly rational to me. I replied, "Of course not."
"Good! Please let us sit down as I anticipate some your questions. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the world's premier school of magic, although the other schools may not agree. It is my privilege to be Headmaster. Hogwarts is located in the British Isles which is why it may seem late in the day to you, you've moved several time zones in your travel. A magical device known as a Portkey, disguised, this time, as a book, brought you here. Another Portkey has been invested to return you to your home when you desire."
"As you have undoubtedly concluded by now, magic certainly does exist in the world. Human beings and people who are not human beings have been practicing magic since before the start of history as it is known to Muggles, or non-magical people. We magical folk learned long ago the wisdom of hiding our knowledge and talents from Muggles because of the fear, jealously, and greed magic creates in those incapable of wielding it."
"Of course we must have some relationship with the rest of the world. Here in England that takes the form of the government's Ministry of Magic, the Minister of which reports to Her Majesty's Prime Minister who is ideally the only Muggle who knows of it and us. In practice many Muggles know of us, most of them non-magical family members."
"It was an employee of the Ministry of Magic who entered my messages to you into the worldwide computer network and transcribed your reply. We have no computers here at Hogwarts. Computers and other modern complex Muggle devices do not function well in the presence of magic."
"However, I feel that if computers could be made to work then they might prove to be as valuable to us as they have proved to be to the Muggle world. That is the subject that I would like to see you research."
"Do you have any questions so far?"
Of course I was dumbfounded, but this explanation was consistent with everything that had just happened and I had no reason to doubt what Professor Dumbledore had said. In fact, the fact that I wasn't mentally saying, "Bullshit" every two seconds could only be explained by some kind of magic spell. QED.
"No," I replied.
"In that case I invite you to be my guest at dinner, which will commence shortly. There you can learn more about Hogwarts and meet the members of the faculty. We can discuss the particulars of my proposition afterwards."
Professor Dumbledore led me back to the spiral escalator statue staircase which rotated us back down to the large hall. Our path took us back into the huge hall and then to the base of a large staircase leading up to a balcony with great open doors. Through the doors was an immense hall a little bit like an open cathedral but with four long tables running front to back and a fifth table running back and forth on a riser in back. The aisles between the tables were crowded with robed kids, now obviously students, and who respectfully made room for Professor Dumbledore as we went by. Many of the students looked at me curiously and I heard the word "Muggle" whispered a few times.
I followed Professor Dumbledore to the high table and he motioned me to a chair on his right. He remained standing behind his chair as the students settled down and when he sat down everyone else did too. Then he stood up again and said, "There are a few announcements that I must make before dinner."
"All activity on or above the Quidditch field is canceled for tomorrow as Hagrid will be treating the ground for flesh-eating slugs."
"The magic mirror on the wall of the girl's prefect's bathroom is cracked. If the person who asked it an unanswerable question would please confide to one of the faculty what the question was then it is possible that the mirror can be repaired. The question will be held in the highest confidence and there will be no penalty assessed to the asker's house."
"My guest this evening is Mr. Charles Hunter who I hope will accept a position here at Hogwarts. Please show him the hospitality for which Hogwarts is famed."
"And now for our feature presentation."
Professor Dumbledore gestured with his arms and food appeared on the tables. He sat down and we started serving ourselves.
The plates were solid gold.
While the students were all unremarkable, some of the people at the high table were not. Hagrid is easily the biggest person I've ever seen while Professor Flitwick is the smallest. Most were professors or teachers and some of them were "house heads", whatever that meant.
They all seemed friendly except Professor Snape who looked at me like he'd just found a flesh-eating slug in his underwear drawer. Professor Dumbledore seemed to take no notice so I assumed that was just Snape's natural expression.
Professor Dumbledore was guiding me back to his office when a girl maybe 16 years old ran up to me and said excitedly, "Mr. Hunter, I am so glad you are here, the possibilities of combining computers and magic are so great! Particularly in the area of Arithmancy, in my opinion. I do hope you will take the job." She bounced up and down a few times and then ran off to rejoin some boys who were waiting for her.
"That young lady is Hermione Granger", said Professor Dumbledore. "Her parents are Muggles and she first learned of her potential as a witch when she received her invitation to attend Hogwarts four years ago. Hermione is the student who informed me of the true nature of McDonald's restaurants. Her background makes her an ideal member of the committee responsible for your presence here this evening.
"Another member of the committee is the father of Hermione's red-headed companion. Arthur Weasley is head of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Department in the Ministry of Magic. The research project we would like you to undertake is his original idea. He has been quite keen on it for many years."
We returned to Professor Dumbledore's circular office and he poured us both a small glass of what turned out to be a really good port. He said, "Many devices that Muggles take for granted do not work well in areas of concentrated magic like Hogwarts. Even small but purely mechanical devices are unreliable. Extremely complex machines like your computers do not operate here at all. Magical people do not miss the products of Muggle technology, because we have equivalents that work just as well if not better, and most have no interest in them. A few of us, however, wonder what might result if the strengths of our two societies were combined. It would not be productive for one of our wizards to approach one of your universities with such a question, but it is possible for a wizard of technology to come here. And here you are."
"I suggest an initial period of six months. If after that you and the committee decide that the task is insurmountable then we shall call the experiment a failure and be the wiser for it. Otherwise the duration of your stay can extend for as long as you think it productive."
"You will be given accommodations in the professor's tower and access to classes, faculty, the library, and laboratory facilities. Magical transportation for visits back to the United States can be arranged with some advance notice. Your compensation will be that of a Full Professor which is two bags of Galleons a week. Payment in Muggle currency will be arranged through the Ministry of Magic. I do not pay close attention to such details, but I gather that the exchange rate of Galleons to English or American currency is extremely favorable."
"The project, as I see it, has two parts. First is to make a computer work reliably in a magical environment. Second is to apply the power of the computer to a magical problem."
"I anticipate a more or less lengthy period on your part learning what you can about magic. Fortunately there is no better place than Hogwarts for learning about magic!"
"You will be required to keep your new knowledge and any results of your research a secret from the Muggle world. It is my understanding that secrecy clauses are common in the area of Muggle technology and I hope that this one is not disagreeable to you."
"Do you have any questions?"
I took another sip of the fine port. I had only one question, which was, "When can I start?"
The answer was ASAP. I told Professor Dumbledore it would take a few days for me to arrange for an extended absence. I had to do some stuff in my apartment, hold the mail, provide for bills to be paid, tell people I'd be away, etc. Professor Dumbledore gave me a phone number at some technology-capable part of the Ministry of Magic that I could give out in case I needed to be reached in an emergency. I also had to pack a lot of books because, until I got something working, there was no Internet access at Hogwarts. I'd never been deprived of the Internet before. I wondered what it was like. I was bringing my notebook computer and some other stuff despite Professor Dumbledore's assurance that it wouldn't work at Hogwarts and that whatever equipment I needed could be ordered and delivered.
Professor Dumbledore's charm must have worn off. I couldn't believe that my notebook wouldn't work.
The Portkey magic that transported me from Atlanta to England and back wasn't appropriate for large amounts of baggage and required a wizard escort to carry a Muggle. The day after I got back from Hogwarts a courier delivered some first-class round-trip open-return Atlanta-to-London British Air tickets, a FedEx account number and a delivery address for my stuff, a British visa that looked almost entirely hand-written, and a note saying that I'd be met at the airport.
I'd never flown first-class before. The service is great and the drinks are free!
I wasn't feeling so good when I arrived at the Heathrow International Airport and I certainly wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition, in the guise of British Customs and Immigration, to greet me upon arrival.
The Inquisition wasn't impressed. Hung-over jet-lagged young single male first-class passengers with hardly any luggage apparently fit some kind of profile. I could smell the machine oil they were using in the next room to lubricate locks, handcuffs, and shackles in preparation for my trip to Inquisition Headquarters, after a thorough strip search, of course. Then I found the visa. The Inquisition's eyes narrowed and then widened as it was examined.
Would I please remain seated where I was for a few minutes?
My Inquisitor (Mr. Hyde) and document left the room. I overheard the muffled half of a phone conversation. A courteous Immigration Officer (Dr. Jekyll) and the magic (not really, I think) visa returned. Thank you for your cooperation. So sorry for the inconvenience. Can I be of any assistance? Very good sir. This way please sir.
I was escorted back to the concourse.
I started to adopt the lurching, eyes-scanning, zombie gait of someone who was told they were going to be met, but not where or by whom, when a tall skinny young man with a really bad complexion jumped out and stuck his face into mine.
"Oy! 'Oo Mister Hunter?"
"Yes? I'm Charles Hunter?"
"Wot took 'oo so long? Come on! The bus's waitin'!"
He tried to grab my notebook case but I wouldn't let go. He shook his head, gestured at me to follow, and ran down some stairs under a "Ground Transportation" sign. I ran after him.
We ran past limos. We ran past taxis. We ran past vans. We ran up to the place where old buses go to die, except some of these were still moving around and belching smoke.
"Won't be long now! 'Ere she comes!"
Something really big and really fast came up and stopped dead right in front of us. A door opened and the kid jumped in.
"Get a move on!"
I stepped aboard, the door shut, and I fell over a bed as the bus lurched forward.
The kid said, "Welcome to the Knight Bus. We've been chartered to take 'oo to King's Cross. Someone'll meet 'oo there I suppose. Won't be long now."
The bus was going at, I estimate, a thousand miles an hour. It was like being stuck inside a Formula One video game with an old man at the wheel.
Thirty seconds later I slammed into the pole I was trying to hold on to.
"King's Cross," announced the kid, "We 'ope oo've enjoyed ridin' with us. Please step off smartly."
I staggered off the bus and watched it speed off and disappear in a fraction of a second.
I turned around again. A tall man with a kindly face and thinning hair was addressing me.
He broke out into a delighted smile, grabbed my hand, and started pumping it.
"Arthur Weasley. I'm so pleased to meet you. I'm here to see that you get to platform nine and three-quarters. Do you have any luggage?" he asked.
"No, just my backpack and computer." I said, nudging the case in his direction.
His eyes got bright. "A computer! Do you really? Can I see it?"
This was a bit awkward to do on a sidewalk but if this was the Arthur Weasley of the research committee and originator of my project I thought I'd better not make a fuss.
"Uh, sure." I replied.
I squatted down, put the computer case on one knee, unzipped it, opened it up, pulled apart the velcro strap, took out the notebook, flipped the case shut, put the computer on top, unlatched it, zipped up the case enough so that it would stay shut, grabbed the notebook, put the case on the sidewalk, stood up, opened up the computer, and displayed it to Mr. Weasley, who was enthralled.
"Marvelous," he said with an awe-like tone, lightly brushing the keyboard with his fingertips. "So tell me, what do all of these little buttons do?"
I was trying to think how to answer that question when something chimed. Mr. Weasley took a watch out of his pocket and exclaimed, "Good Lord, is that the time? We should be getting along Mr. Hunter! The train waits for no man!"
I stuffed the computer back into its case and followed Mr. Weasley through the station. Most of the way down platform nine he stopped and said, "Just follow me" and disappeared!
I looked around and, seeing no one, took a few steps back to look around better. Did Mr. Weasley fall into one of the tracks? I headed toward the nearest.
"Where are you going? Platform nine and three-quarters is this way!" said Mr. Weasley.
I turned around.
"Where did you go?" I asked.
He looked uncertain for a second and then brightened and said, "Ah, silly me. You're a Muggle. The gate to platform nine and three-quarters is charmed so that Muggles don't notice it, or people passing through it. I could show you how to see it for yourself but we're short on time. Better let me lead you."
He held out his hand. After a pause I took it and he grasped my hand firmly. Then he bolted straight towards a brick arch support we were near. He walked right into it! And pulled me after! Everything was dark for a moment and then I was on the platform again but now there was an old-fashioned steam engine steaming on the track.
"Your train." said Mr. Weasley as he handed me something. "Here's your ticket. You'll be met at Hogsmeade. I look forward to seeing you and your computer again at Hogwarts, Mr. Hunter, but now I must return to the Ministry." We shook hands and he turned and disappeared into the brick wall.
Compared to the Knight Bus the old-fashioned train seemed positively ordinary. I got on and walked right into an empty compartment. I didn't see any other passengers. I wondered what Hogsmeade was, how long the ride was to it was, and how many more times I'd be met before I finally got to Hogwarts.
Several scenic but uneventful hours later the train slowed down and came to a station with signs proclaiming it to be Hogsmeade. I got off, looked around, and immediately spotted Hagrid, the only man ever barred from professional football for being too big.
"Ah, Mr. Hunter. Did yeh 'av a good trip? I'm 'ere to see yeh and yer things off to Hogwarts," he said.
"Please call me Charles," I replied. "I hope from your appearance that I'm getting close?"
"Jus' a couple more miles, Charles! I fetched some carriages," he answered.
Before this I didn't know that "horseless carriage" was a literal term. Hagrid loaded up one with my FedEx'ed boxes, which were mysteriously in the train's baggage car, and I climbed into the other.
"I'll not be comin' with yeh Charles," said Hagrid, "I'm goin' back in t'town and then I'll make me own way home. Someone'll meet yeh at Hogwarts."
The horseless carriages started moving and guided themselves up the road. I was hoping that Professor Dumbledore would be the next person I saw, or, if not him, someone else with his bottle of port, and some crackers and cheese. It had been a long time since that last thin mint on the British Air 747. There was a snack trolley on the train but I'm afraid I embarrassed myself trying to take advantage of it. The lady running it didn't recognize anything I had in my wallet.
I watched the towers of Hogwarts get bigger and then they disappeared behind the mountain as the road looped around. Then the whole thing appeared. "Majestic castle complex" is an accurate but inadequate description. To get it right would take a book.
The carriages stopped at what seemed like an appropriate front door for a castle, but it might have been the servant's entrance for all I knew. Professor Dumbledore, port, and crackers and cheese were all conspicuous by their absence. Conspicuous by its presence was a small figure dressed in a 100% clashing outfit. The huge eyes, long nose, and bat-like ears were merely a background to its plaids, stripes, and colors.
It spoke. "Charles Hunter! I is Dobby! Professor Dumbledore told Dobby to greet Charles Hunter and show Charles Hunter to his rooms! Professor Dumbledore told Dobby to tell Charles Hunter that Professor Dumbledore is sorry that Professor Dumbledore is not here himself to greet Charles Hunter! Dobby is to come here to greet Charles Hunter instead! If Charles Hunter wants anything then Dobby will get it for him! Dobby is here to see that Charles Hunter is greeted properly!"
I took the liberty of opening the carriage door and climbing out all by myself while Dobby was explaining this.
I interrupted, "Thank you Dobby. Please call me Charles."
"Oh no! Dobby must speak properly to such an important person as Charles Hunter! Dobby mustn't think that he can behave above his station!"
I interrupted again, "Thank you Dobby. Now that I'm here, where should I go?"
"Dobby is to take Charles Hunter to his rooms and see that Charles Hunter is comfortable after his journey! Dobby is to see that Charles Hunter's things are taken to his rooms! Dobby is to tell Charles Hunter that Dobby will take Charles Hunter to the Great Hall for dinner!"
I interrupted yet again, "Thank you Dobby, shall we go?"
"Charles Hunter and Dobby will go!"
Dobby led me through the doors, down a hall, down another hall, and to the inside of one of the towers. Stone stairs with no obvious means of support connected the floors. As I watched one of the stairs disengaged from its upper landing and swung around and joined a different landing! Dobby chattered the entire time we climbed stairs:
"Charles Hunter's rooms are in the faculty tower! Students will not be bothering Charles Hunter here! The stairs move but Charles Hunter will soon figure out his way around! Until then Dobby will show Charles Hunter the way! Here are Charles Hunter's rooms!"
Dobby stopped before a door and after a pause I opened it. Inside was a large comfortable room brightly lit with candles. A fireplace held a cheery-looking fire, even though it wasn't cold. Call this the "living room". Through a door was another large comfortable room also brightly lit. Call this the "family room". Then there was the "dining room", the "study", the "library", the "dressing room", a large bedroom, a luxurious bathroom, and numerous closets. The living room alone was bigger than my entire apartment in Atlanta.
I was beginning to think that Hogwarts is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
My cardboard boxes, empty and collapsed, were neatly piled on a shelf in a closet. My clothes were impeccably arranged in the dressing room. My books were on the shelves in the library. My equipment was on tables in the study.
I hastily inspected the equipment. I couldn't have done a better job unpacking it myself. I was afraid to ask, "How did my stuff get here so fast?"
"Professor Dumbledore told Dobby to see to Charles Hunter's belongings! Charles Hunter's things were brought here and unpacked while Dobby was bringing Charles Hunter to his rooms! Professor Dumbledore told Dobby to see that Charles Hunter was made as comfortable as possible! Is there anything more that Dobby can do for Charles Hunter?"
I pounced on the implied pause after a question to inject, "Well, yes Dobby, there is something you can do for me. Is there somewhere where I could get a snack before dinner? I'm a few time zones out of sync and I think I missed lunch."
Dobby started jumping up and down excitedly. "Professor Dumbledore told Dobby that Charles Hunter would be wanting food! Dobby listened to Professor Dumbledore and made arrangements! Dobby will now take Charles Hunter to his snack!"
Instead of guiding me down a maze of twisty moving staircases, all alike, to a cafeteria, Dobby led me back to the dining room. A previously empty table near a window with an incredible view now supported a bottle of port, a carafe of water, a pot of coffee, two crystalline glasses: large and small; a cup and saucer, and a large silver tray with cream and sugar, two kinds of crackers, three kinds of cheese, some kind of pate, grapes, and a selection of cut vegetables and a creamy dip.
I said, "Dobby, I don't know how you do it, but you are magnificent. I am honored that Professor Dumbledore asked his most valuable assistant to look after me."
Dobby got even more excited, "Oh no sir! Dobby is but a house elf! But Dobby is so happy that Charles Hunter is pleased! Is there anything more that Dobby can do for Charles Hunter?"
"Thank you Dobby, but not right now. I'm going to eat most of this spread you've arranged and then rest for a bit. I will need someone to take me to dinner however."
"Dobby will go back to the kitchens and then return to guide Charles Hunter to dinner! Thank you Charles Hunter for giving Dobby the privilege of being of service!"
Dobby scurried out the door. It shut behind him. By itself.
I filled the larger of the two glasses with port and took a few rude gulps. I quickly sampled all the food, poured a cup of coffee and drank it, grabbed my computer, and took it and the glass of port to the study.
The computer wouldn't boot. Sometimes it got far enough to report a memory error, but usually it froze before that. The digital voltmeter wouldn't even turn on. My old HP calculator would only display "Error" in seven-segment characters.
My digital watch was flashing 12:00. This didn't look good.
Port in hand, I took a slower survey of my "rooms". The four-post bed was easily big enough for company. Did Professor Dumbledore anticipate me bringing a girlfriend to visit? I thought his first e-mail, stored on a computer that now won't boot, implied he somehow knew of my recent inadequacy in that department. If I was going to work here I'd have to keep the windows covered. The view was going to be distracting. I kept on looking for power outlets and not finding them.
I sat down on the bed and then stretched out. I can't sleep sitting up and the day's travels had me totally wiped. A little rest felt like a really good idea.
"Sir? It is time for Dobby to take Charles Hunter to dinner, sir! Wake up sir!"
There are worse ways to be awakened than by an enthusiastic house elf, but not many. At least he wasn't jumping up and down on my chest
"Thank you, Dobby. Give me a minute."
I got up, went to the bathroom, and splashed some water on my face. The handy towel was warm and extremely thick.
"Let's go!" I announced.
Dobby led me down some stairs. I paid closer attention this time. Every floor had one or two "floating" flights of stairs leading up or down to the adjacent floors. The stairs moved horizontally but they didn't move vertically – they always went up or down to the same floor. Only the tops of the stairs changed position so if you were heading down it didn't matter if the stairs started to move while you were on them, you'd reach the bottom regardless. If you were going up there was a chance that the stairway would move before you got to the top, but then the worst that could happen was that you'd have to walk around the inside face of the tower once you got on your floor.
My rooms were on the third floor, opposite a large tapestry of an heraldic shield quartered with a lion, an eagle, a rodent that might be a badger, and a snake. I was pretty sure I could find them again, once I got to the right tower.
Dobby led me through a hall that joined the huge hall I recognized from my previous visit. The stairs to leading up to the immense (Great) hall were still there.
"Shall Dobby return after dinner to lead Charles Hunter back to his rooms?"
"Thank you, Dobby, but I think I can manage to make my own way back."
"If Charles Hunter needs anything at all then he can just ask for Dobby and Dobby will come as soon as he can!"
Dobby danced off and disappeared around a corner.
"Ah, Charles. I'm pleased to see you again," said Professor Dumbledore from behind. I swiveled around. "I trust that your travel was not too burdensome and your arrival agreeable? I took the liberty of arranging your trip in such a way as to maximize your exposure to the Wizarding world outside of Hogwarts. You must remember during your time here that, despite its comforts, Hogwarts is not the center of the universe."
I replied, "The trip was certainly an education. My arrival was very agreeable. Dobby was extremely helpful."
"Yes, Dobby is indeed a treasure. I have assigned him the job of your personal assistant until such a time as you decide that you no longer need his direct services. He will, of course, always provide your house services."
This dinner was a repeat of the first except this time I was seated between Hagrid and Madam Pince the librarian, and the announcement was that I had accepted the job. I asked Madam Pince if I might visit the library the next day and she brusquely replied that the library was open to all, but seemed quietly pleased at my solicitousness.
My studies began with "Hogwarts, A History" and a spell book used by first year Hogwarts students. The former was fascinating; the latter was largely useless because it was about how to perform simple spells, not how or why they worked. But I did get an idea of what very simple magic could do.
Madam Pince suggested "Theories of Magic" which was a compilation of essays by famous wizards and witches. There was very little hard information in it. Most of it was philosophical ruminations over the fact that magical folk could do magic and that Muggles couldn't. One witch actually did an experiment and tried very hard to teach a Muggle (her husband) to do a simple spell. It didn't work.
"Spell Formulation," an advanced textbook, provided the first clues. It abstracted a typical magical operation into parts and then analyzed each part. According to this book common magic was an effect caused by a wizard through the use of a spoken incantation, a mental state created by concentration or imagery, and usually a wand. The incantation often had some association to the effect of the spell in the wizard's native language, but really was just a sequence of syllables, the pronunciation and intonation of which were critical. It was very Kabalistic. Creating a new spell seemed to be a process of using some hazy guidelines for guessing at syllables and a mental state and then repeatedly trying it out, slightly different each time, until something happened. It seemed to be more of a craft than an art or science, and was dangerous as sometimes a new spell did something completely unexpected.
It was Hermione Granger who led me to material on the effects of magic on technology. She also spent a lot of time in the library, sometimes with her friends, and came over once to ask me how it was going.
"Oh, that's all part of Muggle Studies," she said when I told her what I was looking for. "Wizards have been studying Muggles forever. Most of the rules against using magic out in the world are because of the effects spells have on Muggle machines. Muggles depend on their machines so much that magical side effects could seriously hurt them."
Hermione gave me a list of books on Muggle Studies and I started reading the one that looked most introductory as a small personal joke. After all, what did I know about Muggles?
Very little, apparently.
It seems that the growing technology of the late 17th century acted like a widely distributed magic sensor and was the direct cause of the witch-burning hysteria of the time. People who had until then been regarded as good neighbors were (correctly) identified as the source of mysteriously stopped clocks, fallen-off carriage wheels, snarls in weaving machines, lamps going out, blocked organ pipes, and pricks of spinning needles. There seemed to be no way to shield magical operations to prevent the technological side effects. The problems of that era led to the partition of Wizarding and Muggle societies.
I needed to get an idea of the extent of the side effect problem. I built a "magic detector" circuit consisting of a nine-volt battery, a clock chip, a four-bit binary counter, and some LEDs on a breadboard. Of course I couldn't test it in my study at Hogwarts but I could rewire or repair it anywhere if necessary. I hoped this simple circuit would be less sensitive to magic than any of the other electronic equipment I had and be able to tell me if there was some kind of "distortion field" that got weaker the farther away it extended from a source of sustained magic like Hogwarts.
Maps of the area showed that the fastest way to get as far away from Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, and the Forbidden Forest (Which I'd been advised, in the strongest possible terms, to avoid.) was to take a path around the lake and then climb the mountain on the other side. So I prepared for a day trip.
Dobby brought me some sandwiches and a canteen of pumpkin juice, which is something of a staple here at Hogwarts. I almost drove Dobby to tears explaining to him that he couldn't accompany me. I didn't know if there was anything intrinsically magical about house elves and the whole point of this exercise was to try to get as far away from magic as possible. For the same reason I couldn't carry any of the lights or charms that the prudent magical hiker would bring.
I took off just before dawn and got to the top of the mountain in the early afternoon. I expected the return trip downhill to take much less time. The view at the top was spectacular. Hogwarts looked like a fairy-tale castle in the distance. The LEDs on my magic detector started blinking about three quarters of the way to the top of the mountain, at the tree line, but my satellite telephone, for which I had great hope, still wouldn't turn on, even at the top.
Just over the peak on the other side was a ledge and a chair-high rock presiding over the next valley, which appeared to be uninhabited. All that was missing was a sign saying, "Sit here for rest and refreshment." I sat down and the satellite phone started beeping.
I looked at it. It was showing 100% signal strength. I got up and walked back to the peak and the phone's LCD went blank. I took it back to the ledge and it turned on again.
A bit of experimentation showed that the mountain peak wasn't preventing magical side effects from reaching the phone, the mountain peak was preventing magical side effects from reaching me. If I stood so that I could see the smallest sliver of Hogwarts' valley over the peak then the phone wouldn't work, even if, from the phone's perspective lower down, Hogwarts was hidden. A step back and down then the phone worked fine.
I now had a theory of how magic works. I wondered how Greg Egan would take the news if I wrote him.
I sat down on the rock again, rested and refreshed myself, and called my parents and some friends. Everyone was going slightly nuts that I had been out-of-touch for so long. (It had only been a week.) I assured them I was fine, that my latest job was secret and that I couldn't talk about it, that it was going well (as of the last few minutes anyway), and that I'd try to arrange for some kind of e-mail access.
There was a spring to my step and a song in my heart when I started the return trip, which was good because I took a wrong turn and ended walking almost to Hogsmeade before realizing my mistake. It was rather late at night when I got back to Hogwarts.
Dobby was waiting at the entrance and looked like he had passed through "worried" and had been enjoying "frantic" for some time. He insisted on bringing me (or making appear instantly, when I was otherwise occupied) a full dinner in my rooms. After eating I was torn between excitement and exhaustion and couldn't decide whether to go to the library or the bedroom. The bedroom was closer.
The next morning I went to see Professor Dumbledore. I had been given the password "Butterbeer." If the statue that guarded Professor Dumbledore's office responded to it then I was welcome to be carried up. I hadn't tried it yet.
"Butterbeer," I announced.
The statue started moving and I climbed on. Professor Dumbledore was behind his desk.
"Please come in Charles," he said. "Do sit down. How are things going? Are you becoming accustomed to Hogwarts? I have heard that you have hardly stirred from the library since your arrival. Your diligence is exemplary but the six-month period I suggested was to determine whether you think the project is feasible, not to complete it."
I replied, "It's been my experience that projects like this never have room for leisure. Either things happen as quick as they can or a big problem stops everything in its tracks for too long a time. Six months sounds generous right now but I have no idea of the problems I face. If I were to take it easy I would certainly regret it later if my answer to the feasibility question was, 'I'm still working on it.'"
"Very well then. Has your study thus far indicated anything to you?"
"Yes. I performed an experiment yesterday that leads me to believe that I may have a theory of the underlying structure and causes of magic. With it I hope to derive a means for counteracting the strange effects that magic has on mechanical and electrical devices."
Professor Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. He said, "That is certainly a rigorous approach to the feasibility question. Is this news why you came to see me?"
I replied, "Not directly. It is likely that in the near future I will need assistance in performing some experiments of a magical nature. I don't know how that might be arranged or if it is even possible. But the reason I came to see you now is that my family and friends are unhappy that I'm so completely out of touch. I was wondering how you sent and received e-mail and if I could take advantage of the same service."
"How do you know that your family and friends are unhappy?"
"I talked to them yesterday on my satellite phone."
Professor Dumbledore's eyes changed. I couldn't tell what he was thinking. He said, "What technology is this?"
I explained how satellite telephones work and about my hike yesterday.
"So tell me Charles, when your radio telephone transmits to a satellite, is the operator of that satellite able to determine the position of your telephone on the earth?"
"Not accurately, no. But they can probably calculate a position to within a few square miles. In fact, now that I think about it, for a satellite phone to receive calls they would have to be making that calculation continuously while the phone is turned on."
Professor Dumbledore sat back. "This is alarming news. Great effort has been expended to insure that Muggles cannot discern the location of Hogwarts. That the satellite telephone system can do so easily is something of a revelation."
"Well, at least it's not as accurate as a GPS receiver."
"And what is 'GPS'?"
"A satellite system designed specifically to tell location."
There was a pause.
"Did you bring one of these 'GPS receivers' with you to Hogwarts?"
"No, it didn't occur to me."
"Thank goodness for small favors. Charles, I must ask you to refrain from using your satellite telephone again while you are here until I can inform the Ministry of Magic of this news and receive guidance from them. Are you willing to explain to them what you just explained to me, should it be necessary?"
"Thank you Charles. This brings us neatly to your question. My messages to you were sent by owl post to the Ministry of Magic where they were entered into the worldwide computer network. Your reply came to me by the inverse route. I offer you the use of this service in lieu of your satellite telephone."
"I hope you will not be surprised to learn that owls do not take direction from Muggles. If you give your letters to Dobby then I will see that they are included in Hogwarts' regular dispatches to the Ministry of Magic. Will you be able to provide the Ministry with the means for them to access the worldwide computer network on your behalf?"
"Splendid. Is there anything else? Any other technological breaches of Hogwarts' security to report?"
"No sir, I don't think so, but now I have another question. Do you want regular written reports of my progress? Or lack thereof?"
"I do not believe that will be necessary at this time. Should you indicate that you have something of substance to report then I will convene a meeting of the project committee and you can present your findings to the members in person."
I stood up. "Thank you, Professor Dumbledore," I said. "Now that I have a line of inquiry I'm eager to get to the library and pursue it."
"Do not forget the other resources available to you here at Hogwarts. The library may contain the knowledge of ages, but the faculty and classrooms embody living knowledge. Magic cannot be learned from books alone."
"Yes, sir. I suspect that during the second phase of this project my chair at the library will make distressing creaking noises as it cools off, and that the faculty will hide when they see me in the halls, to avoid additional pestering."
"The sign of an effective student. Good day, Charles."
"Good day, Professor Dumbledore."
Greg Egan wrote a book of fiction entitled "Quarantine" exploring the idea that it was the advanced neurology of peoples' brains that caused the collapse of the quantum-mechanical probability wave during the act of observation. He went on to speculate that the brain could learn to manage this collapse in order to bring about a desired result.
That magic was some kind of huge quantum-mechanical effect had been one of my hypotheses all along but it became my working hypothesis yesterday when it became clear that whatever it was that was interfering with my satellite phone somehow depended on me, an observer.
Muggles cannot perform magic, but wizards and witches can. Perhaps there's something about the neural anatomy of witches and wizards, a mutation of some sort, that gives them this ability. According to my reading magical ability runs in families but also spontaneously appears in the children of Muggles. I wondered if Wizard families ever produced non-magical children, and if so, what happened to them.
Maybe there was a spell to insure that that wouldn't happen.
This theory gave me a few avenues of attack. Magic was the creation of an absurdly improbable event. Perhaps extremely intense observation could nullify magic or its side effects. Could a wizard perform magic in a very large crowd of Muggles? Another possibility was separating magic from its side effects. Perhaps the gross effect of causing an object to instantly appear out of nothing caused "probability ripples," or something, that jinxed mundane mechanical devices, and these "probability ripples" could be somehow blocked or filtered.
I needed to learn more before I could even conceive of an experiment, so I returned to the library and read the other Muggle Studies textbooks on Hermione's list.
I could find no records of magic being invoked while a large number of Muggles watched closely. Perhaps a wizard could go to the Superbowl, strip off his clothes, run out onto the field, and try to apparate away before he was caught? Even if it worked, or didn't work, I couldn't think of how to apply the result to making a computer work at Hogwarts. Maintaining a stadium full of irate people plucked from their homes in shifts to watch me program a computer just didn't seem practical.
The old experiments to contain magic side effects focused on a kind of magic circle that had the property of weakly attenuating magic. Magic performed inside a very large number of concentric circles of this type did cause fewer odd events outside the barrier, and this discovery was used to protect certain sites where old rituals were traditionally performed. But the effort required to create an effective number of circles was immense and the shielding wasn't perfect in any event so it wasn't practical to apply to the entire Wizarding world.
But perhaps a computer would work inside such a barrier. I could find no mention of the reverse experiment.
Perhaps it was time to start pestering the faculty.
At dinner that evening I asked Hagrid who he thought would be best to approach on the subject of magic circles.
"Why Professor Flitwick, o'course! 'E's taught t'course ever since I'ken remember!" Then privately, "Much o'Hogwarts' protection was devised by Professor Flitwick, and Professor Dumbledore, o'course. For those that ken see 'em, Hogwarts is little but a mish-mash of magic circles keep'n evilness and Muggles away, beggin' yer pardon, Charles."
Professor Flitwick was charmed, so to speak, when I suggested my experiment. He thought it would make an excellent field exercise for his sixth year class and suggested we try it two days hence, pending Professor Dumbledore's approval. The delay was so that Professor Flitwick could give his class a quick revision on the circle spell and the history behind it.
I spent the time learning how to write with a quill. The few pens I brought to Hogwarts seemed to have dried up, or something, and the replacements I got, from the school's equivalent of the office supply closet, I would have used to play Indian when I was a boy.
My first attempts left more parchment covered with ink than otherwise, to the considerable amusement of the students nearby me in the Great Hall. Eventually one of them came to my rescue and explained that I was dipping the quill too deep into the inkbottle and overloading it. I came to learn the fine balance between too much ink and too little, and eventually was able to write my parents and friends some legible letters that I gave to Dobby, along with the e-mail server name, username, and password that would let the Ministry of Magic access my e-mail account.
I hoped that the people at the Ministry of Magic knew the difference between real e-mail and spam and wouldn't transcribe every Viagra offer that had accumulated for the past several weeks!
On the appointed day and hour Dobby led me to a field outside Hogwarts' walls where we met Professor Flitwick and his class. I was introduced as the originator of the day's exercise and was asked to stand in the center of a circle defined by five stones. I brought with me my magic detector circuit, my calculator, and my satellite phone. I turned on the three devices and announced my readiness. Professor Flitwick divided his students into five groups, one at each stone, and lined them up. At his command the student at one stone cast a circle spell and then moved to the back of that corner's line. The student at the clockwise stone then cast the same spell and moved to the back of her line. Same for the next stone, and the next.
I kept count of the number of spells on a piece of parchment. After 403 spells the magic-detector circuit started working. After 1192 spells the calculator showed "0.00" instead of "Error". After 2349 spells the satellite phone displayed an error message, which was an improvement over the blank screen.
About one and a half hours had elapsed. I called out, "Professor Flitwick! I don't think there will be another significant effect for another three hours at least, if at all. The data I have is sufficient for my calculations. I leave it to you to decide whether to continue or stop the experiment."
Professor Flitwick stopped the spell casting and gathered his students around him for a brief lecture while I picked up my equipment and walked out of the circle. All the machines stopped dead at the boundary. Professor Flitwick instructed the students to enter the circle one by one and try a simple spell to levitate a feather that lay outside the circle. None of them could.
The students looked tired and annoyed but Professor Flitwick was excited with the day's experiment. He thanked me for suggesting it and assured me that I could call on him again if need be.
I had some work to do. First I wanted to estimate the number of circles required to allow a computer to work. I already knew it would be an impossibly large number. I also wanted to return to the circle a few times to see if I could get an idea of how long the effect would last.
At the Great Hall I used up gallons of ink with calculations. Simple arithmetic that a calculator could do instantly took many minutes with quill and parchment. I had to estimate the relative complexities of my magic detector, the calculator, the satellite phone, and a capable computer; fit the numbers I had for the first three devices into a few likely equation forms, and project the number of circles it would take for the computer to operate. After the first five minutes I made a note to ask the Ministry of Magic to try to buy me an old slide rule on eBay.
The answer turned out to be anywhere from 2.6 million to 39.2 million circles. Also, the effect decayed at the rate of about 400 circles a day. It was time to come up with plan B.
I wrote a summary of the experiment and results and gave it to Dobby to deliver to Professor Dumbledore. I wondered if there was some kind of Xerox spell he used to make copies of hand written documents, or maybe he had a witch secretary who did stuff like that for him.
I had an idea while waiting for something to happen in the magic circle. What I was being asked to do was a lot like a military project I once worked on, the details of which I still cannot talk about, but it involved shielding. Perhaps there was a way to deflect magical radiation instead of absorbing it. Did wizards and witches ever fight with magic? Maybe there was a defensive spell I could adapt.
Madam Pince produced a whole series of textbooks on Defense Against the Dark Arts and some historical books on magical battles. The defensive spells I read about seemed divided into two types: immediate short-acting spells to ward off or modify an incoming curse, and long-term shielding spells to protect a broader area from specific offensiveness.
There appears to be an inverse relationship between the space-time volume of the protection provided by a spell and the range of magic against which the spell was effective. Certain high-power defensive dueling spells can deflect practically anything but expansive shielding spells can only target a single kind of nastiness.
I didn't find anything that affected magic itself. The spells to nullify a sorcerer's powers all work by physically or mentally disabling the sorcerer. There are counter-curses that can eventually remove any kind of spell but getting a computer to work in a magical environment by systematically removing all the magic probably wasn't what Professor Dumbledore had in mind.
I checked out a book on the Goblin Rebellions and returned to my rooms late where a fine dinner was waiting. I made a mental note to find out what was a good present for house elves. Dobby and his kin are literally miraculous. I wined and dined and then took my glass over to the comfortable chair next to the pleasant fireplace to continue reading about a seemingly never-ending series of skirmishes and the magic used to prosecute them.
Too much wine and too many pages later I went to bed and had a vivid dream (Wine always does that to me.) that I was the human wizard in charge of a sortie behind enemy lines. My men and I had charms of stealth and deodorant and we wore invisibility cloaks on our mission to raid a Goblin rebel commander's cave for documents, maps, and other intelligence. We were discovered when we tripped a booby-spell that made our skin glow. The invisibility cloaks bent outside light around us but let inside light out. The fight went badly and I was cornered by some Goblins when I woke up.
It didn't take me long to figure out what my subconscious was trying to tell me. How do invisibility cloaks work? Could the same principle be applied to magical radiation instead of electromagnetic radiation?
This time Madam Pince couldn't help. The library did have a booklet on the theory and construction of invisibility cloaks, but it was in the restricted section. Not that it was dangerous, as most of the restricted books were, but because it contained commercial trade secrets. The witch who invented the invisibility cloak, and who was making a good living making and selling them, was a Hogwarts graduate and agreed to Professor Dumbledore's request to archive a copy of her notes at the library, provided that it was only released with her permission. Madam Pince suggested that I ask Professor Dumbledore.
I wrote Professor Dumbledore a brief note explaining my idea and gave it Dobby who seemed to always be there right when I needed him. Then I had Dobby escort me on an eclectic tour of Hogwarts and Hogwarts' grounds. I had to start thinking ahead to the other phases of this project in case I solved the shielding problem. I particularly wanted to see any nearby waterfalls, the clock mechanism in the bell tower, and any outbuildings like stables, sheds, or small cottages.
One of the cottages Dobby took me to had Hagrid outside feeding pumpkins to something that looked like a large furry walrus. Hagrid was delighted to see us, invited us to pet the "shagworm," as he called it, and invited us in for a drink. Hagrid and I had ale, his mug was a lot bigger than mine, and after some cajoling Dobby accepted a mug of pumpkin juice. Hagrid and I then had a really good time trying to explain to each other our respective jobs. In addition to "Game Keeper" Hagrid is also Hogwarts' "Keeper of Keys and Grounds" and responsible for the inspection and maintenance of much of Hogwarts' magical defenses.
I had a harder time explaining to Hagrid what a computer programmer does. The simile that a computer is like a really stupid animal that can be trained to do really complex tricks, step by step, didn't work. Hagrid said that any animal that could do complex tricks couldn't be stupid, by definition. I finally said that while Muggles have no real magic, certain Muggles have the talent of making certain machines do magic-like things by composing very long complex spells called "programs." Hagrid looked very satisfied with this. "Hogwarts is the greatest school in the Wizardin' world", he said. "O'course Dumbledore would want t'learn about this strange form o'Muggle magic. Always keen on new things is Dumbledore. Finest man ever to walk the face o'the earth."
When I returned to my rooms there was a note on the table from Professor Dumbledore authorizing Madam Pince to let me look at the book on invisibility cloaks, provided that it didn't leave the library. I immediately took the note to the library, got the book, and settled down into my usual chair.
I was not surprised to discover that invisibility cloaks are complex and require a lot of spells to make, but the invisibility mechanism is fairly straightforward. A mundane cloak is infused with several layers of two light-affecting spells: one that bends light towards the surface of the spell and one that bends light away from it. The result of alternate layers of these spells is sort of a light conduit that captures light striking the cloak, guides the light to the other side, and emits it. The complex parts come from turning the effect on and off so that the cloak is visible when no one is wearing it, and letting the person inside see out.
I realized that I never did any reading about magic circles. I had jumped from the Muggle Studies book to Professor Flitwick without any research in-between. I knew about a magic circle that weakly deflected magic. Maybe there was one that weakly attracted it?
Madame Pince immediately produced the standard work on the subject: "Going Around in Magic Circles" by Professor Flitwick! I scanned it and found a chapter that mentioned the magic attenuating circle and its sibling, the magic intensifying circle. Both are very weak and have little practical utility. The spells are identical except that two syllables are transposed in the incantation.
I was wary of approaching Professor Flitwick again so soon, but I wrote him a letter explaining my recent research, the proposed experiment, and asking him for his assistance again at his convenience. His reply was immediate and my equipment and I were outside on the grounds the next day.
First Professor Flitwick had his class practice a circle-banishing spell to remove any lingering traces of old spells from the circle site. Then we repeated the first experiment with the difference of alternating magic attenuating and enhancing spells.
My magic detector started working on the twelfth spell. My calculator started working on the 20th and the satellite phone beeped on the 22nd showing a full signal but a weak battery. I quickly turned it off.
"Professor Flitwick? I think it works!" I yelled.
Professor Flitwick then did a series of experiments. Magic performed outside the circle had no effect on anything inside. Magic invoked inside the circle seemed unaffected; the test feather could be levitated on both sides. My calculator and magic detector both glitched when magic was performed inside the circle but immediately recovered when it stopped. Magic also seemed unaffected when acting across the circle. We had just created a magical invisibility cloak.
Professor Flitwick was ecstatic. He explained to his students that their textbook on magic circles was now obsolete. He had to write another chapter. He asked me to co-author a paper to be published in a magical research journal. He dismissed the class so he could get started immediately.
I was in the frustrating position of having to wait in order to see whether this new circle would degrade like the first one. Professor Flitwick thought it wouldn't. His theory was that the first circle dissipated from the inside out as the interior circles lost power because the exterior circles shielded them. The new circle would be self-maintaining because it continuously circulated background magic through the layers.
Whatever the reason, Professor Flitwick was right. The effect of the circle didn't seem to degrade with time.
I went to see Professor Dumbledore.
"Congratulations Charles," he said when I entered his office. "Professor Flitwick informed me of your discovery. I haven't seen him so excited in years."
"Thank you, sir. He wants to write a paper. That's a small part of why I came to see you."
"Professor Flitwick suggested that he and I co-author the paper, which is quite an honor, but I'd rather my name be left out, if possible. I'm already too pestered in the Muggle world by people wanting me to do stuff for them. I'd rather not have the Wizarding world start pestering me too, present company excepted, of course."
Professor Dumbledore grinned at this.
"Perhaps you do not fully understand the significance of your discovery. A shield that renders a space undetectable and unalterable by magic is unprecedented. Many learned wizards have stipulated that such a thing is impossible."
"All the more reason for me to want to disassociate myself from it then."
Professor Dumbledore stared at me briefly.
"Very well. If you have difficulty persuading Professor Flitwick then you may refer him to me. But you said this was a small matter."
"Yes. I've been thinking about how this project could move forward but I need some guidance on what's possible."
I then explained my ideas. I thought that an array of solar panels could provide enough electricity to charge a battery bank capable of powering a high-end notebook computer and some other equipment. Solar panels and batteries might even work in Hogwarts' magical environment but if not, they could be protected with a shield circle.
Alternative sources of power were the big clock in the clock tower and a stream that fed the lake. The first had the disadvantage of being inside Hogwarts and the second was a considerable distance away. A small gasoline generator would work but it would be noisy and getting a continuous supply of fuel would be an issue.
Much of Hogwarts' physical structure appeared to be magically maintained and I thought that introducing a shield circle within it might be a bad idea. I wondered if the research budget would cover the construction of a small structure on the grounds to house the computer and its infrastructure. This would have the advantage of giving me access to the sky because I wanted to set up satellite telephone and Internet access, with the approval of the Ministry of Magic, of course. The cottage would have to be self-supporting without any magical assistance.
But I was faced with a chicken-and-the-egg problem. With Muggle communications I could easily research and order everything required to have Muggle communications. I wondered if I could take a trip to London to do this instead of trying to direct it remotely from Hogwarts.
Finally I asked if this was an appropriate time to call a meeting of the research committee.
Professor Dumbledore took all this in and then said, "This is extraordinary. I do not understand half of what you just said. Irrationally this makes me feel inclined to trust you more, not that I have any doubts in the first place."
"I had always envisioned that you would have to make a trip or two to the Muggle world. Transportation can be arranged. I am assured that in Muggle terms the budget for this project is quite enormous so you should have no difficulty purchasing anything that you require."
"Hogwarts is indeed partly supported by magic. I also would not care to experiment by creating a shielding circle within the walls. Construction of a small outside laboratory will commence immediately. I gather that a location with a clear view of the southern horizon would be best."
"You will have to discuss your proposal for satellite communications with the Ministry of Magic during your visit. Although I have the authority to make a decision, I fear I lack the understanding to make a good decision in that matter."
"It will take a day or two to make arrangements. Although you are making progress at a wildly unanticipated rate, I do not see the need to convene a meeting of the research committee at this time. If the members are not already aware of your discovery of the shielding circle then they certainly will become aware of it shortly, and a trip to London was expected."
"Is there anything more, Charles?"
"No sir. Thank you very much," I replied.
"It is I who should be thanking you Charles."
A few days later Professor Flitwick activated a Portkey and transported me to a storage room in an expensive hotel in downtown London where I immediately felt underdressed. I'd been given a reservation number. I checked in and was told I had a message, which read, "Equipment and documentation for satellite Internet access has been ordered." There was also a credit card and a delivery address (the same delivery address I'd been given before). Professor Dumbledore told me to e-mail him when I wanted to come back to Hogwarts.
I spent the next few days on the web researching stand-alone photovoltaic power systems and ordering parts and tools. I felt like I was setting up an outpost on the edge of the frontier. I was going a little crazy ordering spare parts when I realized that if this worked I'd have Internet access and could order more stuff anytime I wanted.
I estimated the power requirements and then configured a solar panel and battery system several times bigger. Figuring that other people would want to access the Internet, I bought four high-end notebook computers, a network switch, and a low-power inkjet printer. I bought the best quality everything I could find. I was setting up a school's only computer center and I didn't want there to be problems after I left.
Finally I e-mailed Professor Dumbledore a list of everything I ordered, including approximate dimensions, weights, and delivery times; and said that my business in London was complete. The next morning I got an e-mail back telling me to be near the supply closet that noon. I spent the morning shopping for a pair of outrageous socks for Dobby, a gift I was told he'd appreciate.
On the stroke of twelve the supply closet door cracked open and Professor Flitwick peered out. I went inside and he magicked me back to Hogwarts where he shyly presented me with a copy of the "Journal of Magical Research" containing his article on shield circles, the discovery of which he described as an unexpected result of an ongoing Hogwarts research project.
Magical journals are different. The diagrams are animated.
I went to school while the cottage was being constructed. Like a grad student looking for a thesis subject, I had to find a magical area to which a computer could be usefully applied. I attended classes trying to find a problem.
There were certain procedures that a computer could do easily. Computers have been doing horoscope calculations for years. Pretty much all of Arithmancy could be automated. But I suspected that the predictions of a computer-generated horoscope would be as meaningless at Hogwarts as they are in the Muggle world. I suspected that it required magic ability to cast a real horoscope.
I couldn't find anything to automate in the fields of magical plants and animals. Ditto for the more "magic" courses like Charms, Transformation, and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Muggle Studies was informative – for the students. I spent an entire class answering questions. I only got away by promising to hold a tour of the computer cottage when it was complete.
There was nothing I could do for History of Magic and various magical social studies courses. Then I went to a Potions class.
I saved Potions for last because Professor Snape turned me down when I asked if I could sit in on one of his classes. I finally had to appeal to Professor Dumbledore to get permission. Like in Divination, I doubted that a potion concocted by a computer-controlled robot would have any potency, but there was a lot of hard data in the formulas: ingredients, preparation, and mixing; sequences, results, and effects. I had to do some more research but my intuition said that if I entered enough of this information into some kind of database I could write a program to distill something from it, perhaps discover new potions. I think I had found my research topic.
I was in the Great Hall studying a first years' potions book when Dobby approached.
"Charles Hunter! Your things have arrived! What should Dobby do?" he asked.
"Can it all be taken to the cottage?"
"Dobby will do that, Charles Hunter!"
Dobby ran off but I wanted to drop off the book and my notes to my rooms first.
The tables, chairs, and shelves had been set up when I got to the cottage. Books and tools were on the shelves. One table had the four computers on it, another table had the networking equipment and printer, and a third had some stuff I didn't recognize but included a small dish antenna. Batteries were neatly lined up in a row along one wall next to coils of wire. Outside on stands were the solar panels and the mounting system.
"Dobby is so ashamed Charles Hunter! Dobby is not knowing what many of these new things are! Dobby cannot do his job properly!"
"Relax Dobby, the whole point of my visit is to bring these new things here. No one knows what they are yet and you'll be the first to learn. You've done an excellent job getting the stuff out. Now all I have to do it put it all together."
Actually Dobby ended up putting most of it together. I'd explain what I was intending to do next, like wiring up the solar panel array, go into the cottage to get a wrench, and return to find it all done. I never caught Dobby doing anything with supernatural speed. I wondered if his form of magic depended on no one observing.
Dobby never made a mistake either.
One thing Dobby didn't do was raise the solar panel array to the mount. The instructions recommended having four or five people on ladders. I had one. Hagrid picked up the array effortlessly and held it up while I bolted it down.
It turned out that photovoltaic panels do not work well in the presence of magic. The output voltage and current fluctuated for no apparent reason in steady sunlight. I discussed the matter with Professor Flitwick who by then had worked out everything there was to know about shield circles. His recommendation was to cast one large circle around both the solar panels and the cottage instead of two smaller circles around the two objects. It was trickier to cast a large circle but he thought the benefit of containing the entire system was worth the extra effort. Besides, he had a whole class of students to do the actual work.
So one sunshiny afternoon Professor Flitwick led his class out for my benefit for the third time. First they had to determine the circumference of the circle and lay out five markers. Apparently there's no specific magical reason for five markers, it's just that four is sometimes too few to get an idea of where the border is. Then the class divided into groups and lined up behind the stones. Spell casting commenced and lasted less than a minute. Inside the voltage and current readings stabilized and the batteries started charging. Success!
It was when I was setting up the computers and getting the damnedest series of malfunctions that I realized that house elves are inherently magical and had to ask Dobby to leave. That was hard on both of us but there was nothing else to do. I assured Dobby that I would still need his assistance outside the cottage and he assured me that my welfare was still his foremost priority, but I knew I'd be seeing a lot less of him now that my real job, programming, was about to start and I'd be spending most of my time in the cottage.
I wanted the cottage to be open to the students and faculty but could not risk having a magical creature or object coming in after the computers were up and running. The only solution I could think of was to put a fence and gate around the shield circle. In front of the gate would be a "security checkpoint" consisting of a shed or gazebo containing a smaller electronic set-up with a solar panel, battery, and computer; surrounded by its own shield circle, fence and gates. Visitors would have to enter through the gazebo. If the computer stayed up in their presence they would be welcome to come into the cottage. If the computer flaked out then they would have to divest themselves of whatever magical objects they had on their persons before continuing.
This was more expense, which Professor Dumbledore approved, and time, for the fence and gazebo to be built and the additional parts to arrive. Until then I was the only one allowed near the cottage, which was good because I had some serious work to do and didn't want any distractions. I brought in some introductory potions books and started typing in formulas while trying to see how they could be expressed mathematically. The dataset I eventually developed was expressed as a large sparse matrix that needed to be solved iteratively to handle certain nonlinearities. I trained a neural network on the results. Then I hoped that if I fed the neural network some parameters, like a combination of ingredients, it would produce a formula that used the ingredients with an optimal chance of having a significant result.
A week later I was still refining the way I encoded formulas into numbers. The fences and gazebo were complete and I had my first visitors: Hermione and her friends Ron, the son of the Arthur Weasley, and another boy who was introduced as Harry Potter. This gave me an opportunity I'd been hoping for.
"So you're the famous Harry Potter!" I exclaimed.
This didn't get me the reaction I expected. Instead of surprised and curious Harry looked resigned. Oh well. All I could do was to forge on.
"I'm delighted to meet you," I continued. "Dobby's told me about how you freed him from an evil indenture," I pretended to check a note, "273 times as of yesterday evening. I was hoping I'd have the chance to thank you for making it possible for me to have such an invaluable assistant."
That won me a grin. I wondered why the first part of the joke bombed so badly.
Hermione and Harry were familiar with computers and were more interested in the solar panels and satellite transceiver. Ron wasn't familiar with any of it and the more I (and Hermione) tried to explain the more perplexed he got. He got quite worried that the "Artificial moons that Muggles use to talk to each other" would mean more astrology homework in Divination. I suggested that Ron try playing a racecar game that I thought would be a good first exposure to computers for Wizarding folk and discovered that young wizards are as easily hooked onto computer gaming as young Muggles. Hermione and Harry had to practically drag him out of the cottage.
The programming project wasn't going well. I was trying to encode the qualities of different aspects of potion making into columns of a huge numerical table but after running the data through my analysis program the results weren't very good. The error terms were big enough to render the result terms meaningless. Then I discovered a bug that led me to try something I thought I'd try later in the project. At one point I had accidentally added a blank column to each set of ingredient columns. In the output table the blank columns were filled in with numbers that were largely consistent across formulas. For example in all the potions that called for powdered lizard gizzard the numbers in the empty columns for that ingredient were similar, meaning that P.L.G. had a quality that I couldn't quantify but the program could. The overall results were much better too.
I added empty columns one-at-a-time to all the ingredients, ran the analysis each time, and looked at the results. The best results were with four empty columns per ingredient. The error terms didn't change much after four. But more importantly the error terms were now small enough for me to try making predictions.
I had two prediction programs. The first program randomly selected ingredients and processing steps and ran the data through the analysis module to predict the result of the would-be potion. If the error terms were comparable to the potions in the database, meaning a high probability of a meaningful result, the formula was saved. Otherwise it was thrown out and the next randomly selected formula would be tested.
The second program randomly selected a result and ran it through the analysis module backwards to produce a formula. Again, if the error terms were comparable to real potions, I saved the formula.
I ran both programs simultaneously on two computers for an entire day, testing several million combinations, sorted the results by the error terms (lower being better) and realized at the end of it that all I had were lists of numbers. I quickly wrote a program to render the formulas into English, ran it on the best ten, and printed the results. It was time to descend into the dungeon and face the angry presence within.
Why Professor Snape located his laboratory in a dungeon is beyond me. The other labs I'd seen all seemed to be in bright and cheery locations. It was like Snape was trying to cultivate a reputation as Master of the Dark Arts.
Once again I had to appeal to Professor Dumbledore to get an appointment to see Professor Snape. I rehearsed my lines on the way. I decided I'd better keep it brief. Snape obviously didn't want to see me at all and would certainly not care about the details of what I've been doing.
I knocked on Snape's office door.
I went in. Professor Snape was behind his desk.
"Thank you for seeing me Professor. I'll try to keep this brief. These potions are the first result of my research project. I would value your opinion of them."
I handed over the printouts. He scanned them quickly.
"These are all elementary potions suitable for second or third year students except for this," he separated one sheet, "which is nonsense."
He continued, "Headmaster Dumbledore apparently thinks my time is best spent on trivialities. I see that I am correct in my opinion that this pet project of his is a waste of time. I hope you will not trouble me further."
I was in a state of shock. My program worked! I'd expected a much more ambiguous result.
I replied, "Sir. Please tell me. Why is that potion nonsense?"
The potion in question was one to turn frogs pink.
"All of the potions that change the color of amphibians were exhaustively cataloged hundreds of years ago. This is not one of them."
"Sir, I'm sorry to have bothered you with such elementary material. I promised I'd write a report to Professor Dumbledore on the results this meeting, which I agree are conclusive. But not the way you think, Snape! However my report would be indisputable if this potion were tested. I cannot prepare potions. I respectfully request if you could arrange to have this potion prepared and tested. Perhaps you could get a student to do it."
Professor Snape gave me his signature look, like his job would be really great if it weren't for the students and other irritants around, particularly the one in front of him right now. He looked at the formula again.
"This is trivial. If it means putting a stop to this foolishness immediately then it is worth it to me to prepare it myself."
Snape stood up and went over to a shelf and selected some ingredients. He went over to a lab bench and lit a fire under a cauldron. He measured the ingredients and added them to the cauldron one at a time. Then he took the cauldron off the fire. He went to a back room and returned with a frog in a cage. He got an eyedropper and filled it with some yellow liquid from the cauldron. He let three drops fall on the frog, which promptly turned magenta.
Snape stared at the frog and then, without saying anything, went back to his office and returned with a book. He leafed through it, found a section, and scanned several pages. He snapped the book shut.
"What agreement do you have with the Headmaster regarding the publication of any discoveries that might come out of your project?"
"I asked Professor Dumbledore that my name not become known to the Wizarding world. Professor Flitwick published the article about shield circles. Since my project is in the area of potions and I am personally incapable of preparing them, as Hogwarts Potions Professor I would think that the disposition of any discoveries I might stumble upon would be entirely up to you."
Professor Snape looked at me again but this time there was less contempt in his expression. I continued, "In retrospect I shouldn't have brought you so many trivial potions and for that I apologize. There is a certain amount I can do about it but I'm afraid one of the weak points of my project is recognizing when a potion is already known. I am certain that with more work I can produce a list of more substantial results. At that time I hope that I can arrange to have you review it."
Snape replied, "I will consider the matter."
I wrote Professor Dumbledore a note to explain the progress I'd made and then set to work adding more known potions into the database. I ran the prediction programs again after encoding all the potions in the second through fourth years' Potions textbooks and gave Professor Snape the results. He recognized about half of the generated potions and had an upper year Potions class test the others. About 75% of those did approximately what the program predicted.
Professor Snape asked me how many predictions could the program produce? I think he was aiming to publish something grander than a mere article in the "Journal of Magical Research." I explained the cutoff thresholds I used to separate the predictions – the lower the threshold the more predictions but the lower the quality. I also explained that I wasn't done encoding known potions into the database. Snape then ordered me to reduce the threshold and get him as many predictions as possible. He was going to devote the remainder of the upper years' term to Potions Research, an activity previously not amendable to mass production. He told me I was welcome to his private Potions library and left me with an impression that he expected me to check out every single book. He then dismissed me to get on with it. I'm not sure, but I think he might have been happy. Fortunately he didn't smile. I didn't think the world was ready for that. I knew I wasn't.
There began to be a small but constant series of visitors to the computer cabin. Most were students who wanted to use e-mail or the satellite telephone to contact Muggle relatives. I hosted some lectures for the Muggle Studies classes and demonstrated the equipment. This led to a brief burst of students who wanted their pictures taken with the video camera and printed on the color printer. These "Muggle pictures" were popular and curious because they didn't move.
One day some boys in Slytherin colors came in and looked around.
"Do you have any questions?" I asked them.
One of the boys, a tall blond one, replied, "I can't imagine what Dumbledore thinks he's accomplishing by doing this. It's like he's ashamed of being a wizard and is trying to pull us all down to the level of Muggles. I don't understand why the Ministry of Magic is putting up with it."
I replied, "I think the project was largely the Ministry's idea. I know that there are at least a few people in the Ministry of Magic who deal with computers. I surmise they chose Hogwarts to host the project because of the library. Whoever was to do the project would need something like Hogwarts' library."
I continued, "To be honest, I don't think Professor Dumbledore thought there was much of a chance of this project producing anything useful. He seemed surprised at the little progress I've reported so far."
The boy replied, "I would not call a new way of shielding Muggles from magic 'progress'. It's the kind of spell that should be suppressed. Only a mudblood would invent something like that and think that it's good."
"Thank you!" I replied.
The boy looked at me contemptuously. "Don't you know what a mudblood is?" He asked.
"Yes, do you?" I replied. Then before he could answer I continued, "A mudblood is a witch or wizard with Muggle parents. It's usually not a nice word but in this case I thank you for it because I'm not magical at all. To be called a mudblood by even a student wizard is a great compliment."
Watching the boy's face as he got more and more angry was priceless. The kid literally couldn't speak for a few moments. Then he croaked, "If you're so interested in magic then here's a little gem my father taught me." He took his wand from under his cloak, pointed it at the computer tables, and shouted, "Buggery!"
There was a flash of green light from the wand and the computers' screens blacked out. The kid put his wand away and said, "I think you won't be making any more 'progress' for awhile." The other two boys sniggered at this. The blond boy continued, "There's nothing to see here now," and led the others out, taking care to give a good jab to the black screen of the computer in the gateway gazebo.
I was glad I made a backup to my Internet server that morning! I went to my rooms to get the magic detector circuit and, while it worked in the computer cabin, nothing digital that was in the cabin during the spell worked at all. The solar panels and batteries seemed OK but it was hard to tell because the digital voltmeter didn't work.
I got out a quill and some parchment, made a blotchy list of the broken equipment, and went to see Professor Dumbledore to explain what had happened. He seemed more amused than annoyed and said he would have the list sent to the Ministry of Magic by owl post to have replacements ordered. The subject of what has going to happen to the blond boy didn't come up. I assumed that it was none of my business.
A few days later when Hagrid brought over the replacement computers he told me that when Professor Snape heard the story he gave the blond boy an entire month of detention and deducted 200 points from Slytherin, Snape's own house!
I was getting bored and annoyed. The potions database contained every formula that was in Professor Snape's library. Snape's upper year class was running out of new potions to test. Snape, concerned that he could publish an unprecedented number of new potions but not explain precisely how he got them, asked how the program worked. I showed him a printout of part of the database, explained how meaning was encoded in the columns, and he started studying and classifying the database and came up with a manual procedure to categorize and develop potions. His goal was to publish some supplementary volumes to "The Compleat Potions Compendyum" explaining his new technique and emphasizing the evident incompleatness of the previous work.
Usually I take my leave from a project as soon as I'm certain that all the hard problems are solved and the project can go into production. This time it looked like production would be over before the evaluation period was up!
The program was fully fleshed-out with a sleek GUI and a context-sensitive help system. I was working on the documentation. You could ask the program to devise a potion based on any combination of criteria in the database. Of course oddball requests didn't usually work. I thought that maybe the system could be installed in a Wizarding hospital. Type in a list of symptoms and get a potion formula out. I made a note to be sure to document the possibility that the potion might cause the symptoms instead of cure them.
I needed an example for the documentation. One of the criteria in the database was a rough estimate of "value" that was seeded by typing in the prices from a commercial potions catalog I found in Professor Snape's library. For the example I asked the program to calculate the potion with the maximum "value" and got the usual laundry list of possibilities. The top item of the list was much more "valuable" than the others however. The formula was also unusually long. I ran the program to render it into English and spent some time regarding it. Some of the steps and ingredients were still numbers, which meant that they hadn't yet appeared in any of the formulas I'd already given to Snape, or else he would have figured out what they were and there'd be English translations for them. This hadn't happened in awhile and I thought that Snape would be interested. I got out some parchment and wrote a note:
This is a potion that the computer created as part of one of my tests. The criterion was to maximize "value" which is one of the ill-defined qualities. As with most extreme tests this potion is probably useless and I would not normally bring it to your attention but it has some unusual attributes including some ingredients and steps currently not known to the database.
The base ingredients are sulfur and mercury. I cannot figure out what the effect is supposed to be, it appears to be some sort of energy transformation.
As I said the totality of the potion is probably useless but if you can identify any of the unknown steps or ingredients then I would like to enter them into the database.
I went out to the gazebo and rang the bell that would summon Dobby, who appeared shortly. I gave him the note and printout and asked him to bring the documents to Professor Snape. I wished I had something more interesting for Dobby to do than courier service, but he always seemed positively delighted to do anything at all.
I went back inside and started an Internet backup. It had just finished when the screen went blank. I saw in the reflection there was someone behind me. I turned around and saw Dobby!
"Dobby? What are you doing here? You know your magic affects the computers!"
"Charles Hunter must follow Dobby! Professor Dumbledore says Dobby is to bring Charles Hunter to his office immediately! Professor Dumbledore says there is no time to waste! Charles Hunter must follow Dobby now!"
Dobby had grabbed my hand and was trying to pull me out. I let him lead me to the gazebo.
"Charles Hunter must close his eyes! Charles Hunter mustn't see! Dobby will bring Charles Hunter to Professor Dumbledore by the way of the elves!"
"But…" I tried to say.
"Professor Dumbledore says there is no time to waste! Charles Hunter must close his eyes! Charles Hunter must follow Dobby now!"
I shut my eyes and felt Dobby tug on my hand again. I had a wave of dizziness and my ears popped like the air pressure dropped suddenly.
"Charles Hunter can open his eyes now!" said Dobby.
I did so. We were outside the door of Professor Dumbledore's office.
"Come in!" announced Professor Dumbledore.
I opened the door and went inside. Professor Dumbledore was sitting behind his desk but stood up as I approached. Professor Snape was already standing in front.
"Charles, when we first met I asked you to trust me with my Acceptance Charm. You graciously did so. I must ask you to trust me once more. You have inadvertently discovered something incredibly marvelous but something that, at this time, is also supremely dangerous. The entire world could be threatened."
"What…?" I tried to say.
"Part of what I ask you to trust me with is the answer to your question. Not only is it dangerous for you to know what you accomplished, it is also dangerous for you, or anyone, to know that what you did can be accomplished."
Professor Dumbledore gestured to a silvery-blue glowing bowl on his desk.
"This is a pensieve, one of the devices Wizards use in the stead of your computers. It holds memories. At this time you have memories that place you, and everyone, in great danger. I propose to draw out these memories and store them in the pensieve. Then, when the time of danger is past and it is safe to do so, they can be restored to you. I understand that this is very sudden and peculiar, but I cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of the situation."
"Also, this is the time when I must tell you how delighted I am to have made your acquaintance and how astounded I am at your myriad accomplishments."
Professor Dumbledore then looked over at Professor Snape who, after a beat, said, "Thank you Mr. Hunter. Your work, and the disposition thereof, is appreciated."
Not fair! I finally get a gesture of appreciation from Professor Snape and now they want to take it away! Oddly, the idea of the pensieve didn't bother me. If anyone but Professor Dumbledore had proposed it I'd have resisted violently but I had a weird faith in Dumbledore.
It occurred to me that the Professors were saying good-bye. I wondered how long the "time of danger" would be. I wondered if I'd ever find out.
"Uh, OK," I replied.
Professor Dumbledore came around the desk to stand next to me. He took out his wand and touched it to my temple.
I woke up in a small but comfortably appointed room with city noises outside the window. I was wearing pajamas and my bag and computer were on a nearby table. A clock said it was 9:12am. How did I get here? The last thing I remembered was waiting for the airport immigration officer to come back to tell me that I was to be arrested for having a comically counterfeit visa. Maybe they slipped me a Mickey, interrogated me under drugs, and this is when I'm to be blackmailed into undertaking a dangerous mission for the British Secret Service! Maybe I've watched too many James Bond movies.
The side table had a button and a note that said, "Please ring when you awaken." I pressed the button. About a minute later a man dressed like a doctor came in.
"Mr. Hunter? I am Dr. Greene. You're in London in a Ministry of Defense medical facility. You were brought here unconscious yesterday afternoon with authorization papers saying you are suffering from a mysterious case of amnesia."
"We took the liberty of running some preliminary tests while you were asleep and cannot find any obvious physical damage. How do you feel? What do you remember?"
I told him I felt fine and recounted my last memory. I was shocked to find out that weeks had passed since then.
Dr. Greene continued, "The papers authorizing your admittance suggest that, unless we find some reason otherwise, you can be discharged at any time. Now that you're awake I'd like to run a few more tests, if you approve, just to be thorough. They won't take long."
I said I didn't mind. Dr. Greene called for a nurse who showed up with a wheelchair. I was wheeled out to an examining room and had lights shined in my eyes, my knees tapped, and my brain MRI'ed. Everything seemed fine. I wanted a copy of the MRI images and was told that all documents produced by the Ministry of Defense were classified and copies were not available to foreign nationals.
As we returned to the room Dr. Greene said, "I recommend that you stay with us for a few days but that's entirely up to you. Your effects include a packet that I was given to understand you should examine. I'll leave you for now. Ring if you need anything."
The packet was on the table with my bag and computer. It contained my passport, the visa, my return ticket, a thick wad of Pounds Sterling, a card with the name, address, and phone number of an Atlanta bank and what looked like an account number and password, another card with the name, address, and phone number of a London hotel and what looked like a reservation number, and a letter written in an elegant hand on old-fashioned paper. The letter read:
Something very unexpected has occurred. Your work for us was progressing in a most gratifying manner when you were suddenly afflicted with amnesia! I arranged for you to be transported to a discreet hospital in London where you are presumably reading this note.
I will reveal to you that the amnesia is a distant side effect of the work you did for us. It was completely unanticipated but if you were to begin the work anew I am certain that the amnesia would recur.
I regret that the silver lining of this misfortune is entirely one sided – the security of the project is considerably enhanced if you do not remember any of it. I understand completely if you find this extremely unsatisfying.
I have reason to believe that your affliction is not a symptom of any physical or mental illness or deficiency. Your admission to the hospital is precautionary only. I asked that it be made clear to you that you're free to leave it at any time. A reservation has been made for you in a London hotel and you should have been supplied with sufficient funds for a well deserved holiday should you be so inclined.
Without your presence the project you worked on cannot continue but the results you achieved during your brief tenure were literally astonishing. Your earnings, a performance bonus, and an additional sum in acknowledgement of your affliction have been transferred to a bank in your home city of Atlanta. The requisite information should have been supplied to you along with this note.
I also wish to say that it was a great pleasure to meet you and an honor to have you work for us. It is my sincere hope that sometime in the future we may meet again.
Most sincerely yours,
This made me realize that, while I remembered flying to London, I didn't remember who I was supposed to see or what I was supposed to do when I got here. Apparently I met this Dumbledore but weren't the e-mails I got from him supposed to arrange a meeting with him or a member of his staff? I didn't recall anything coming of them.
The selective amnesia seemed suspicious, as did Dumbledore's assurance as to my continued health and the fact that I ended up in a military hospital. What the hell was the project about?
I decided I wanted to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible. I was surely under observation. Act normal! Act normal! Should I stay in London for a bit or go home? The hotel probably had an arrangement with Dumbledore but he'd probably be able to find me no matter where I went. Yes, I was being paranoid, but was I being paranoid enough?
I ransacked my bag for some clothes, dressed, shouldered the bag and computer, pressed the buzzer button, and walked out into the hall towards a nurse's station. Dr. Greene was there. I told him I was leaving immediately. Instead of arguing, or telling me I had several hours of paperwork to fill out, he gave me his card, just in case, and escorted me to the entrance. Thirty seconds later I almost killed myself crossing the street. They drive on the wrong side of the road here.
A taxi took me to Dumbledore's hotel where I immediately felt underdressed. I checked in anyway. The last few weeks of e-mail in my computer's Sent folder was the bland stuff I send when I'm traveling on a contract and can't talk about what I'm doing. The Inbox showed that nothing major had happened during the weeks I couldn't remember. I e-mailed a few people to tell them that the project was over and that I was going to stay in London for a few days and do the tourist thing.
Then I called the Bank of Atlanta.
"Bank of Atlanta."
"Hello, my name is Charles Hunter. I'd like to check the balance of my account."
"Certainly sir, what is the account number?"
I read it off the card.
"Thank you sir. For security purposes I require a password before I can access your account."
I read it off the card.
"Thank you sir. Just a moment."
I heard keyclicks in the background.
"One moment sir while I transfer you."
There was a pause.
"Good afternoon Mr. Hunter! I am Jesse McTwain, Vice President of Financial Management Services. How are you today?"
"Fine, thank you. I called to check the balance of my account."
"Of course Mr. Hunter! The wire transfer from the British Lottery was completed yesterday. Congratulations on your winnings! After the foreign exchange and wire transfer fees your account stands at $4,227,329.02."
This time I was the one to pause, and McTwain seized the opportunity to continue,
"It's very fortunate that the tax treaty between the U.S. and England makes income of this type tax free, but you can't count on your luck continuing like that Mr. Hunter! Without a sound investment strategy taxes, fees, and inflation could whittle a windfall like this down to nothing before you know it! Our Premier Financial Management Services Department has already devised a well-balanced portfolio that will maximize income, growth, and security while minimizing…"
I interrupted, "Thank you Mr. McTwain. I'm still in London. I'll be in touch when I get back."
That was 52 years ago. The rest of my life, up to now, you can read about in any of several biographies. When I returned to Atlanta I ditched my old apartment in disgust and bought a run-down mansion and renovated it. This helped renew my relationship with Darlene and eventually we were married. Under the name "Hunter Utility" I got into the venture capital racket with a twist – almost every venture I backed was a winner.
In ten years I was wealthier than Bill Gates at his peak. The assets of Hunter Utility are currently 0.12% of the entire world. It could have been bigger. I've spent the last 30 years trying to trim it down.
I was in the Atlanta office waiting for an appointment. My secretaries over the years have always had standing orders in the case of a communication with certain peculiar attributes. Finally one arrived.
"Mr. Hunter, Ms. Chalklin is here."
"Thank you Sally, send her in."
An attractive and healthy-looking woman of maybe 60 came in. She was wearing long robes.
"Welcome Ms. Chalklin. Please sit down. What can I do for you?"
"Mr. Hunter, some 50 years ago you were briefly part of a development project in England. You had to leave prematurely because you developed amnesia. Do you recall any of this?"
"Yes, of course. I don't recall anything about the project but I remember being in London. My earnings from that venture became the seed money for Hunter Utility."
"Yes Mr. Hunter. Well, this is going to sound very strange and I hope you do not take offence. The amnesia you experienced was not an accident. It was deliberately induced, with your permission, to protect a great secret that you inadvertently uncovered during your work."
She continued, "The amnesia can be reversed, your memories can be restored. I came here with the means to do so, if you're interested."
I asked, "Are you from Hogwarts?" Her eyes got wide, which was the reaction I was looking for.
I grinned and continued, "I still have the e-mails and the note that Headmaster Albus Dumbledore of Hogwarts sent me. Those names are all I know about it."
She smiled slightly and replied, "I was at Hogwarts while you were there. I'm only peripherally associated with Hogwarts now. I could tell you about it but you could remember it yourself.
"OK, I agree. So what happens next?"
She reached into a pocket, took out a small cup with a lid, and put it on my desk. She removed the lid. The inside was glowing whitish-blue.
"This is a pensieve, a container for memories. The glowing material is your memory of your time at Hogwarts. I could try to explain how it works right now but it would be much easier after you have your memory back."
She produced a straight wooden stick from her robes and continued, "I propose to gather the memories from the pensieve with this tool and then tap your forehead. This will restore them. You may be momentarily disoriented."
I stood up and came around to the front of my desk.
She scooped the glowing stuff from the cup with the stick, from which it hung down like a snake, and then tapped my temple. Everything came back as if it had happened yesterday.
"Snape is a difficult man," I summarized, and then continued, "So what incredibly dangerous thing did I discover? Professor Dumbledore never said."
"The formula for the Sorcerer's Stone."
"Lead into gold? That Sorcerer's Stone?"
"Is that the formula I asked Dobby to show to Professor Snape?"
"What's so dangerous about it?"
"In addition to elemental transmutation the Sorcerer's Stone can be used to create the Elixir of Life. At that time there was a powerful Dark Wizard who would have stopped at nothing to get the Sorcerer's Stone and the Elixir of Life. The only existing Stone had been destroyed so the Dark Wizard wouldn't get it. Knowledge of the formula died with the wizard who discovered it. The Sorcerer's Stone is rediscovered only every several hundred years or so. Professor Dumbledore thought that the danger posed by the Stone was gone. Then you show up and, not even knowing what you had found, rediscover it again in a few weeks! Professor Dumbledore was torn in two. He would have done anything to keep you at Hogwarts if there was a way to do it safely, but he couldn't think of one. The future of the entire world was at stake. So he took your memories and destroyed your work."
"And the world is safe now?"
"Yes, actually it's been safe for some time. Knowledge of the near rediscovery of the Sorcerer's Stone was given to the Department of Mysteries which, being preoccupied with the matter of the Dark Wizard, didn't do anything about it for many years. There was also a backlash within the Ministry about the subject of computers. Professor Dumbledore was criticized for championing your project because of the danger, as if anyone could have been foreseen anything so unlikely! Some of us in the Ministry wanted to restart the project in a more controlled environment but most wanted to have nothing more to do with Muggle technology. The Ministry is very conservative. It took a generation for opinion to change. Then we hired other computer engineers to try to reproduce your work but none of them succeeded."
"There was a bigger backlash against you personally. Some in the Ministry thought Professor Dumbledore was too lenient by saving your memories to a pensieve. They thought your memory should have been permanently modified or that you should have been imprisoned. Others were outraged that Professor Dumbledore destroyed your equipment and the formula. Then you became so rich and powerful that people started criticizing Professor Dumbledore all over again because of the greatness they thought you would have brought to the Wizarding world had you stayed with us. By the time it was possible for the Ministry to approach you you were effectively unapproachable."
"So why approach me now?"
"You don't appear to be as busy as you used to be. You're keeping a much lower profile. You're known for taking sabbaticals and disappearing for several months. Statistically you're due for another sabbatical. In the Ministry another generation has passed. The events of 50 years ago are taught in history classes. What was terrifying back then is viewed as interesting and quaint today, and you played a small and curious part. There's a renewed interest in computers. No one else has been able to do anything practical with them.
"What's your role in this?"
"I work for the Department of Mysteries of the Ministry of Magic. I was in Professor Flitwick's class at Hogwarts when you invented the Shield Circle. I helped cast the first one. Do you remember me?"
I looked at her closely, "I'm sorry, I'm afraid not."
"Some of us older girls were trying to attract your attention you know."
"No, I didn't know."
She smiled, "Obviously. Well, our tenuous connection won me the assignment to ask if you'd be interested in coming back to Hogwarts for a time. You'd be a Visiting Professor. The History of Magic, Potions, and Muggle Studies teachers are all clamoring for you to come back and give some lectures. You'd also be asked to talk about business and finance. Some leaders in the Goblin community have been pestering the Ministry about that. There's also talk of starting a Department of Computational Magic, assuming there's someone who can make it work."
She smiled again, "The pay is two bags of Galleons a week. Want to earn a little cash on the side?" She asked the world's wealthiest man.
I smiled back.
I'm going back to Hogwarts! It's what I've wanted for more than 50 years and I didn't even know it!
Officially that is. Unofficially is a whole different story.
I stayed in the London hotel for a few days and played tourist after I woke up in the military hospital. The hotel had wireless Internet access and from there I was able to log into my server. I wasn't surprised to see that it had been actively maintained during the time I couldn't remember but I was surprised to see a new directory with the last activity on the day before I woke up. In it was a complete backup of some kind of database analysis system that was obviously my handiwork. Mr. Dumbledore may have had good contacts with the Ministry of Defense but his security procedures sucked.
I downloaded, compiled, and ran the program on my notebook. Potions? Magic potions? This was bizarre!
I flew home and started Hunter Utility, which was an instant success. I was besieged with applications for funding, conducted hundreds of interviews, and selected the projects I thought most promising. Most venture capital firms have one profitable investment for every ten money losers. My ratio was the other way around. I couldn't tell why I chose some projects over others, some just seemed better to me. If a project ran into a technical snag I was always able to come up with a solution. I couldn't do any wrong.
It was weird. It was unsettling. It was like being in a story. I took the first of my famous sabbaticals to think about it and then came back and built a private laboratory.
I was testing potions. It took a long time to make one work. Getting ingredients was one difficulty, getting the proper mindset was another. But one day I put three drops on a frog and it turned pink.
I had worked out very nearly everything by the time of Ms. Chalklin's appointment. I had agents in the Wizarding world, a network I developed initially to get potions supplies. I knew about the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts although I didn't try to go to those places. During my sabbaticals I've been to the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley. I have an account at The Gringotts Wizarding Bank. I was even at the Quidditch World Cup when Brazil spanked the U.S. My restored memory just filled in the fine detail.
During my first meeting with Professor Dumbledore he placed an Acceptance Charm on me to ease the shock of my introduction to the Wizarding world. The Acceptance charm biases one's beliefs towards things that are true while not affecting one's intelligent suspicion of things that are not true. The short-term effect was perfect for Professor Dumbledore's purposes, but there's a long-term effect too.
Professor Dumbledore didn't undo the charm when I left Hogwarts.
The Acceptance Charm acts like a Maxwell's Demon for the mind. Maxwell's Demon is an imaginary creature created by physicists as an example of something that reverses entropy. Typically Maxwell's Demon is a force field that lets warm air molecules through but bounces back cold ones. Inside the force field things stay warm, even in the winter. You can create one with magic.
Someone under the power of an Acceptance Charm begins to develop perfect intuition. All he or she needs to do is think creatively. The good ideas are "accepted" while the bad ones are rejected. Further contemplation of the good ideas makes them better. After awhile one can't do any wrong.
This explains my success at Hogwarts. I was good but I wasn't that good, and even at Hogwarts it was beginning to bother me.
And it goes even farther than that.
The Acceptance Charm is a one-way street. An active mind can't help but to get better and better. The process of creative thinking is optimized. The operation of the mind is optimized. After awhile the brain's neural structure itself is optimized.
Magic happens when a person with a certain neural structure selects one of the infinite possibilities available in the next collapse of quantum phase space. I can do that now. I am a wizard and a powerful one, maybe the most powerful. Most wizards are born, not made.
I arranged to meet Ms. Chalklin again in London and then called my pilot and my London office to arrange a visit, which would be followed by a sabbatical. Then I went to my office safe and removed two items I wanted to bring. One was a wand. I don't really need a wand anymore but I'm sentimental about this one. It's the only one that I've made that I felt really liked me. (11 inches, sugar maple, no decoration, with a hair from the Lake Champlain monster.)
The other item was the Sorcerer's Stone. It took years to make. Wouldn't the Ministry of Magic get its panties in a twist if it found out about this! But I'm not telling. It's my estimation that both the Wizarding and Muggle worlds would collapse if it became known that Muggles could become wizards. So my next visit to the Wizarding world will be as a Muggle. It should be very entertaining.
I'm going back to Hogwarts! I wonder if Dobby is still there?