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Magic Rules Zero Through Four

Sue Burke lives in Chicago these days, back in the Midwest where she grew up. After working in journalism for a few decades, she branched out into fiction, poetry, and translation. Her perfect day would be to write, read, cook, eat, and sleep; all the rest is optional. Her next novel, Immunity Index, will be released by Tor on May 4, 2021. More details about Sue her books are at SueBurke.site.
Rule 0. Magic works. But few people believe in it.
A half-dozen students awaited their teacher in a secluded garden. The sorcerer, they thought, would be an elderly man with a long white beard and wise, sad eyes. Instead, a carefree young woman strolled in, wearing a fashionable hoop skirt, bell sleeves, and corseted waist. She hummed as she sat on a wicker bench.
Years later, you labor in the War Department in utter secrecy. If anyone asks, you manage a special procurement research project, which your coworkers believe is a cover for espionage. You never correct them.
Rule 1. The forces of the world will work in accord with magic. But they must be persuaded or beguiled.
"Magic is a matter of will." Her voice warbled like birdsong. "Human beings are endowed with an enormous force of will. We live for our plans and desires." The way she said desires made the entire class fall in love, or at least lust. Then she showed how she did that.
You're not a spy, but your country has excellent spies. The enemy hopes to change the course of the war with an invasion. You know exactly when and at which section of the coast.
Rule 2. The past and present cannot be changed. But the future can, and the further into the future, the more easily it can be changed.
She pointed to a nearby rosebush with impossible, sky-blue flowers. "Two years ago, I introduced the sky to the rosebush and let them see each other's beauty. A love charm today can alter the course of a dynasty." She waved her hand, and a tiny cloud condensed around her wiggling fingertips. "A major storm? Oh, it might take weeks to convince the right tempestas."
You spend sleepless days and nights negotiating with kobolds, flirting with undines, and chanting to the volcano goddess Pele's forgotten Atlantic Ocean cousin.
Rule 3. Every part of reality in the past, present, and future is connected; thus, one change can affect many things. But all those connections must be understood.
She suddenly grew grim. "I have much to learn about the causes of famines. I also made a series of sad errors regarding Napoleon Bonaparte."
Your troops, vastly outnumbered, clear civilians from a coastline and send cannonballs and bombs to slow the onslaught, but the enemy establishes a beachhead. At the right moment, the ocean floor snaps and a tsunami races toward shore. Your soldiers withdraw just in time, and the enemy is ravaged.
Rule 4. Rarely can accurate predictions be made about the future. But the future must be considered at every move.
"I have lived for two hundred forty-seven years," she said, "and experience has taught many hard lessons."
You fear that sooner or later, the enemy will begin at zero.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 19th, 2021


My favorite words are "but" and "what if." One day I thought about the way that the laws of thermodynamics begin with zero. What if magic had rules that started with zero, too? Our understanding of thermodynamics gives us great powers, but what powers would the rules of magic give us? This story offers one answer, but what if there are better answers?

- Sue Burke
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