In Which Things Get Fishy

I cast a nervous look around the room to see where Professor Stone was, and saw him engrossed in conversation at a round table on the other side of the room. Twyla was keeping a better lid on her volume than I might have in her position… whatever position that might have been… but I didn’t want to get a reputation for being disruptive, or using free class time to have personal discussions.

The other students at my table seemed to have the same thoughts, as they were bunching up a bit around the other side.

“What exactly happened?” I asked Twyla.

“What do you think happened?” she replied. “That was a nice trick you pulled.”

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“I would be, too,” she said.

“What exactly did I do?”

“Send me to talk to Professor Bohd,” she said.

“Look, Professor Bohd might not be the nicest person in the world, but the thing about her is that she gives everyone a fair shake,” I said.

“Fairness?” Twyla said. “Is that what you call it?”

“I don’t know, I have no idea what ‘it’ is,” I said. “I swear, it’s like I’m talking to… someone else.”

I’d been about to say “Sooni”, but I’d remembered at the last moment that the volatile and differently-perceptive fox girl was also in the class with us. Even the mention of her name was sure to bring her clomping over in our direction and that would be the worst possible thing for anyone trying to avoid a scene. Sooni’s whole life was made up of scenes, and she got mad when the other actors didn’t follow the script.

“Well… go talk to someone else, then,” Twyla said.

She said that like she was throwing out a scathing insult. I could tell she was seriously ticked from the way her face was turning purple, but she really wasn’t equipped for expressing it. The problem was, she wasn’t expressing much of anything.

“You came to me,” I reminded her. “Twice, in fact.”

“I came to you for help… I almost thought better of it, the first time. I wish I had.”

It would have been really easy for me to just be indignant back at her and then we could each walk away thinking we were utterly justified in believing the other one had been completely out of line, but there had obviously been some sort of misunderstanding. Maybe we’d never be friends, but it seemed worth the effort to sort out what had actually happened if I could.

“And I wanted to help you,” I said. “I thought I was helping you, I mean. I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but maybe if you tell me what happened I can actually do something. I like to think Professor Bohd is sort of a friend…”

“So of course you’d take her side.”

Now it really was like talking to Sooni. Sooni didn’t have any kind of a handle on her emotions, as far as I could tell because she had parents who indulged her and just let her scream her head off whenever she got upset. I couldn’t really see Twyla in that situation, especially as she’d obviously grown up in a conservative religious household.

I had the somewhat uncomfortable thought that maybe her rising temper was related to whatever had caused the fire manifestations… anger did have an elemental correlation there. Maybe it was time to disengage, if I couldn’t find a way to bring the temperature down… I didn’t want to be responsible for a flare-up like the one Twyla’d had in the cafeteria.

“Is everything alright here, ladies?” Professor Stone said, suddenly directly behind us.

I froze. I think Twyla did, too. This would have been a great time for one of us to giggle and say, “Oh, yes, we’re just sharing our thoughts on… something actually relevant to the assignment.” I’d had truthfulness ingrained into me by my grandmother, and I doubted Twyla was any more facile of a liar than I was.

“Take a few moments to sort out a better time or place to have this discussion,” the professor said. He didn’t say it particularly sternly, but with the genuine jolliness that had inflected everything else I’d heard him say missing, it felt like a lecture. “And then find someone else to discuss your projects with, if you need to.”

“Not necessary, thank you,” Twyla said, and she turned to leave.

“Are you sure?” the professor said. “You may find yourself less distracted for the remainder…”

“I won’t be distracted all,” she said. “If you’ll please excuse me, I would like to get back to work.”

Professor Stone gave me a look that I thought might have been apologetic, then turned and wandered away himself. Suddenly very self-conscious, I looked back down at the drawing I’d started. The old “everybody is looking at me” feeling was back, the one that existed as much in the pit of my stomach as in my head. It wasn’t as bad as it had been once upon a time, but it was something I’d never be overjoyed to feel.

I did my best to put it out of my mind and focus on the assignment. I didn’t want to write off my attempts to reconcile with Twyla as a failure, but there was nothing more I could do at the moment. I could probably catch up to her in the halls after class easily enough. I wouldn’t force the issue or chase after her if she really didn’t want to talk to me, but I suspected… or hoped… that after having more than an hour of enforced separation she’d cool down a bit.

Fire nature aside, she just didn’t seem like the hot-headed type.

“So what was that about?” the girl sitting closest to me asked quietly after a minute or so had passed.

“A private thing,” I said. “Not mine.”

“I get you,” she said. “What’s up with the horns? Is she part ogre?”

“No,” I said. “Ogres don’t have horns.”

“Don’t they? I always pictured them that way.”

“There’s a half-ogre who’s a star player on the Skirmish team,” I said, turning my head to look at her.

She wrinkled her nose. I couldn’t do that, but I had an immediate soft spot for anyone who could, because Amaranth did it a lot. I had to admit she was on the cute side. Her skin was white and tanned, and her hair an unnatural orange… it didn’t look dyed, so it was probably a glam job. Not that this was surprising in a G&D class. Indeed, it wasn’t the most surprising feature of her hairstyle.

Her hair was up in a sort of spiky curve that must have taken an impressive amount of alteration to sustain, if it wasn’t glamour, too… it looked like the individual strands were less rigid than hair spray would have made them, but way more so than hair would ordinarily have been. It added about five inches of height to her silhouette. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but she obviously wore it without any particular concern for what any random person might think.

“Not a fan?” I said.

“I don’t really pay a lot of attention to it,” she said. That was generally a safer move, socially, than admitting you didn’t like Skirmish. I guess she didn’t know how expressive her face was.

“I can’t stand it,” I said.

“Neither can I,” she said, her face lighting up. “I love stone soldiers, though.”

“Oh,” I said, trying to keep my face a bit less transparent than hers.

“I mean, I play a little, I don’t know if ‘love’ is the right word…”

“I have a lot of friends who play,” I said.

“Oh, of course,” she said. “You would, I suppose… the whole game started in Harlowe, right?”

“It started in a kobold warren, but yeah, I guess you might say it surfaced there,” I said. “Um, so I guess it’d be pointless to introduce myself. Does this mean you’ve heard the story of my triumph over the dark lord, or whatever?”

“Is that your idea of a joke?”

“No, but it’s somebody’s idea of one,” I said. Steff’s one-woman campaign to keep my notoriety alive during my sophomore year had included some rather colorful embellishments.

“Mack, everyone knows who you are,” she said. “Heck, I’ve seen you naked.”

I resisted the impulse to ask her when. The fact that were too many possible occasions for me to call them all to mind was sure to bring a flush to my cheeks.

“Oh, you don’t have to blush,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing college was made for. I’m Nicki, by the way.”

“I’m… well, you know,” I said. “Though actually, I’ve found that not everyone does know me. Even people who were here last year. I don’t like to assume… in fact, I’d kind of rather believe that most people don’t.”

“Huh,” she said. “Seems like everyone I know does.”

“I guess it’s just a matter of different social circles… like when everyone you know listens to the same music or reads the same books,” I said.

“Or listens to the same gossip,” she said. “Yeah, I get you.”

“Did you do your own hair?” I asked her, with the sudden and somewhat frightening realization that this was small talk and I was making it and it was going pretty much okay.

“Oh, this?” she said. She gave her head a toss, and her hair kind of shifted over. “Yeah. It’s actually not supposed to be quite that high… I was going to sort of fold it over so it has like a flip in the middle and hangs down over one eye? But I did a big spell last night and I ran out of energy this morning. I had enough to undo it or leave it like this… I decided to be bold. So what are you working on?”

“TV,” I said.

“I picked a mirror,” she said. “I’m glad I did, it’s not hard to see how to make an ugly square mirror classier without hurting its functions.”

“If it’s supposed to be for public use, though, any ornamentation might just encourage vandalism or theft,” I said. “They don’t make public mirrors plain and flat and square because some marketing person decided people like boring stuff. You have to remember that.”

“Good point,” she said. “It could be a plain mirror that shows fancy scrollwork all around the edges when it’s not in use, though.”

She giggled.

“What?” I said.

“Just a random thought,” she said. “I was just thinking about different uses for illusions behind the glass, and I had this image of a public mirror out on the side of a building somewhere and it’s showing fish swimming by. That’s probably a bit too… whimsical. Though that kind of eye-catching animation might open advertising possibilities.”

“Yeah,” I said, though the mention of fish had sparked something in me.

“We should probably get back to work,” she said. “Don’t want Stone coming down on you twice in one class, do we?”

“Seriously,” I said. I couldn’t help thinking that it was only when the subject shifted from ourselves to our assignments that she said this, but it was still pretty much idle chit-chat either way.

Though it had been helpful idle chit-chat, because I now had an idea. A television that wasn’t in use was basically a box. The newer and more expensive ones had space-saving enchantments, but that aside, a television just took up space when it wasn’t showing anything. You couldn’t keep anything in it because it would be in the way of the images when you wanted to watch it. What about a TV that turned into an illusionary aquarium?

I’d seen “virtual fireplaces” incorporated into TVs, but they seemed to be mostly seasonal in their appeal… and one designed to look like a fireplace would have limited marketability, because it would have to be more or less installed where a fireplace would go. An aquarium, on the other hand, was movable… it might sit on any table or stand or cabinet. A TV designed to provide the visual effects of an aquarium could go anywhere an aquarium might go.

My brain was off and running on the idea of TVs that unobtrusively passed themselves off as other things when not being watched. Like, the really thin wall-mounted kind that were becoming popular could be virtual windows, showing far off-scenes… or linked to proper divination enchantments, the view from an actual window if one happened to be placed there. Though that would be complicated, and would probably require some carefully woven limitations to make sure they only worked when placed against an exterior wall. Otherwise they’d be a voyeur’s dream.

That was getting ahead of myself, though. One of the advantages of the aquarium idea was that like the fireplace, it wouldn’t even take much modification to a TV’s basic enchantments. Another one was that it would allow me to incorporate the kind of aesthetic flourishesI knew Stone liked. The outside of the set could be all sleek and black and modern, but I could design the illusionary elements to show the sort of classical flourishes I knew he enjoyed.

The only question was if I had the artistic talent to pull that off. The answer to that question was no, no I did not. I knew people who did. Steff in particular was a great artist, but I wasn’t sure if that was acceptable… it would still be my design, and this wasn’t exactly an art class. I looked up and tried to catch Professor Stone’s attention for a few seconds before I gave up and just strolled over to him.

“Excuse me, Professor?” I said. “I was wondering… I have some ideas that I’m not sure I’d be able to, you know, bring them to life. I’m not exactly an artist.”

“Ah, well… your design drawings don’t have to be freehand,” he said. “This might be a good time to acquaint yourself with the OAR suites available on the crystal balls.”

“OAR?” I repeated.

“Orb Assisted Rendering,” he said. “It’s all very intuitive… all point-and-think.”

“I’ll try that,” I said. “But I actually had an artist in mind, and I wanted to know what the guidelines on that were.”

“Well, Ms., er…”

“Mackenzie,” I supplied. “Ms. Mackenzie.”

“Well, Ms. Mackenzie, I really doubt your skills are so bad that you can’t accurately convey an idea, which is all you really need for this assignment. A sketch will suffice.”

“I have a specific aesthetic in mind, and I don’t think my sketch would sell it,” I said.

“Well, selling counts,” he said. “As long as you turn in your own sketches… OAR-generated or otherwise… and I can see that the ideas are yours, you may turn in any supplemental material you feel is necessary to help clarify your intent. Does that make sense to you?”

“Yes,” I said.

With that in mind, I returned to my seat and spent the rest of the class period trying to sketch a TV set that could look enough like an aquarium while not being distracting when it was in use as a TV, and the imaginary layout it would display. I tried using the crystal ball set into the table for this task, and found the OAR functions that Professor Stone had told me about were better… at least for someone with no experience… at designing the straight lines of the TV itself than they were at producing images of the decorative furnishings I wanted inside.

I could use the orb’s normal image-generating abilities to produce approximations of those that were better than what I could do by hand, and I decided to use that as a back-up if Steff said no. She had a much different opinion of her drawing abilities than I did.

By the time class ended, I’d produced what I hoped was a decent enough beginning: I had an autoscribed image of my fishtank TV, and I’d used a pencil to sketch in the interior. Central to the design scheme was a treasure chest exactly like the one I pictured when I thought of the old TV in Harlowe Hall, the one that had been accidentally destroyed when Sooni attacked me and that Professor Stone had expressed so much admiration over in the previous class. I was banking on Steff having a good memory of what it looked like, though as she’d never lived on that floor that was far from a sure thing.

I’d also completely spaced on my plan on catching up with Twyla after class, only remembering after I stepped out of the classroom. I couldn’t spot her anywhere in the hallway, so I stopped and glanced back to see if she hadn’t left yet.

As it turned out, she had.

Nicki hadn’t, though… at least, not until the moment I turned around and smacked my head right into her chin.

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27 Responses to “Chapter 30: Think Tank”

  1. Burnsidhe says:

    “I won’t be distracted all” Should probably be “I won’t be distracted at all.”

    Apart from that, it’s an interesting chapter. Fish in a TV.

    I do wonder what Nicki will end up being, to Mack and Amaranth.

    Current score: 0
  2. Matarael says:

    Along with wondering what’s going to happen with Nicki, I also cant help but wonder how she’s going to react to Mack borrowing her fish idea, and selling it as her own.

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    • peter says:

      Hah! I thought the same thing, about 3 minutes later

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    • Zergonapal says:

      I think it will work out, after all Nikki’s initial idea was just a whimsical springboard to more serious ideas about advertisement. Though its a wonder advertising execs havn’t already done that because looking for opportunities is their default mode.
      Also its not like Mack was hiding it, she was working on it right next to Nikki.

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      • Brenda says:

        She said it was too whimsical for the particular item she had in mind, and she seems nice enough, so hopefully she won’t mind Mack expanding on the idea with a different item.

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  3. peter says:

    i loved Niki’s idea of having the public mirrors show fish swimming by. I wish Mack would’ve acknowledged the inspiration she got form Nikki in some way.

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  4. Anthony says:

    Argh! No explanation whatsoever as to what happened with Bohd and Twyla? “You know what you did” is a legitimate trope with an honorable pedigree, but it’s supposed to be there for buliding dramatic tension. Using it to keep the *audience* in the dark is just plain cruel!

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    • Brenda says:

      Are you saying it didn’t produce dramatic tension here? 😀

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    • Tigger says:

      Who would the dramatic tension be for, if not the audience?

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  5. Brenda says:

    Okay, if this were me, I would look up Twyla in the student directory and send her an email. I mean a-mail. Whatever.

    Subject: What happened?

    “Dear Twyla,

    I’m sorry something went wrong with Professor Bohd. I recommended her because she really helped me to understand and control my fire affinities. I honestly didn’t mean to cause any trouble. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to fix things.”

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    • Not her, the other girl says:

      Maybe someone else will think of that and suggest it, but I doubt Mackensie has enough CHA to think of it on her own. Good e-mail/a-mail though.

      Current score: 1
  6. Riotllama says:

    aHHH Mack! Tell her you ran with the fish idea! Tell her! She’s cool, I don’t want her to end up hating you.

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  7. Helen Rees says:

    typo alert

    The fact that were too many possible occasions for me to

    I think should be ‘The fact that there were…’

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  8. readaholic says:

    Heh, interesting conversation between two socially inept people on an unexpectedly difficult topic.
    And now it appears that Mack is going to invent screensavers. I’ve got to wonder if Nicki is going to plagiarize Mack’s design and call it her own, or get annoyed that Mack is using her idea, or will they collaborate?

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  9. Greenwood Goat says:

    Can I be the first to mention that “the haunted fishtank” has long been a euphemism for television? >:=)>

    And to point out the missing space here:

    …the kind of aesthetic flourishesI knew Stone liked.

    Yep, looks like Twyla had a bad meeting with Bohd. Nothing divulged as to what went wrong yet, so the prognosticative well remains drawn dry. Oh, well. Mack is sure to run Twyla down at some point.

    Anyway the chapter ends with new character Nicki probably seeing stars – Mack’s physically invulnerable head will be very hard. Hopefully, Sooni won’t still be hanging around to throw in her manga-derived tuppence on defeat and/or misadventure meaning friendship…

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    • Brenda says:

      Oh, thank you for explaining about “the haunted fishtank”! Now of course I’m picturing a literally haunted fishtank, with little ghost fish spooking the live fish… They startle so easily, you know!

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      • Lunaroki says:

        Then the live fish get so spooked they jump out of the tank and die on the floor and come back as still more ghost fish swimming around the tank scaring the ones that remain alive until all the fish are ghosts!

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      • Zukira Phaera says:

        Glass fish always make me think of ghosts.

        Growing up, my grandmother had one of those bulky boxy cabinet style TVs. When it finally died we had it converted into a large fish tank stand, taking the glass out of the front, doing some minor modifications on it and setting a tank large enough to have the tank glass completely fill the space where the screen had been into the box.

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  10. MegaBuster says:

    A young kherisian lady who believes demon bloods are inherently evil…

    Kinda reminds me of a person who talked to my father in law (a Jewish person)She started off the conversation by saying how she did not resent the man for being a “Christ killer”, and who then got upset because he treated her “coldly”.

    Current score: 0
    • Brenda says:

      Except that Twyla doesn’t seem to have a problem with Mack’s heritage. At least she hasn’t had the sort of reaction that she seems to be still under the effects of here! And Bohd has less demon blood than Mack.

      Bohd may have said something to set Twyla off, but I doubt it was the mere fact of her demon heritage.

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      • Ducky says:

        Maybe Twyla has something against djinni, or if we’re all still thinking Twyla’s at least part dragon, maybe Bohd has something against dragons? Although I can’t see Bohd expressing that towards a student.

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  11. Zathras IX says:

    In which Mackenzie
    Comes up with the idea
    For the screensaver

    Current score: 1
  12. Sapphite says:

    Love the update – two great conversations, and double the tension we started with!

    Mack’s head isn’t any harder for being invulnerable, but I don’t know who will take the brunt end of that collision. I do think Nicki will finally introduce Mack to the building as they walk out.

    As for Twyla & Boyd… maybe Boyd asked to try some of her hair? 🙂 Although I don’t recall her being that discerning with it.

    Current score: 0
  13. Hasufin says:

    Wild, out-there idea… but we don’t know the limits of glamour, do we? We know that it’s easier for some people than others, and it can be pretty realistic at times.

    What if that wasn’t actually Twyla? What if someone else, like Sooni, wanted to know what Mack told Twyla and pretended to be Twyla, using the old “you know what you did” to try to get Mack to tell her.

    Not that I can figure out who would do this. I only mention Sooni because Mack described the conversation as “like talking to Sooni”, but there’s no reason to think Sooni would be involved; Amaranth, Ian, and Steff all know, too. So, it’s just an out there idea, but I wonder.

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  14. anon y mouse says:

    “The fact that were too many possible occasions for me to call them all to mind was sure to bring a flush to my cheeks.” – The fact that there were, or the fact was there were, maybe?

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  15. Bilbo says:

    So… if they don’t have screensavers, maybe they don’t have videogames yet either.

    I can see Mack mentioning this to Ian, and next semester the first Magic Mirror video game in Mu debuts:

    Flying Toasters with little helicopter blades, that you shoot down with machine guns. And of course, a hound dog pops up, snickering, when you miss.

    Now, for a name for the business. For some reason, “Industrial Light and Magic” comes to mind.

    Just enough to hint at Mack’s fascination with tech toys, but with a staid, responsible hook at the end.

    Current score: 1
  16. Khazidhea says:

    “incorporate the kind of aesthetic flourishesI knew Stone liked.”
    Missing a space between flourishes and I

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