Chapter 193: The Shape of Things to ComeAlexandra Erin on December 12, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 6: Career Counseling, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Acantha Pitches While Mackenzie Catches On
“The funny thing about the future is that we always know that it’s coming, but we’re almost always surprised when it gets here,” Acantha said. “We know that it’s going to follow naturally from the present, but we usually have no idea what shape it’s going to take. Micah, what’s your plan for your life, after you graduate?”
The boy she’d addressed, a dark-haired, light-skinned human, hid a look like a frightened rabbit and then said, “…well, I’d always planned to make it big in personal communications. Pocket mirrors are going to be huge.”
“How so?” Acantha asked.
“Well… for one thing they’ve been getting smaller,” he said.
“Sophia?” Acantha said, turning her attention to the elfmaid. “What are your plans?”
“I just want to be comfortable,” she said. “My ancestors are alternately misers and spendthrifts… it has long been clear to me that I cannot depend on the family coffers for more than survival, so I must have my own income.”
“Those are all admirable goals,” Acantha said. “But that’s all they are: goals. Not plans. Not strategies. It’s the difference between knowing your destination and knowing the route to get there.”
“How detailed do you expect anyone’s plans to be?” Memphis asked. “We’re just college students.”
“You aree college students,” Acantha said. “But just? That’s up to you. As college students… and for you and Sophia, middlings… you’re in a sort of limbo. The world is not yet making many demands of you, but it’s also furnishing you with few obvious opportunities. Many young people in your position will drift through the protected shoals of their college years… and flounder when they hit the open waters of adulthood. Some of you will do more than that.”
“And you want to help us be ready when we graduate?” Memphis asked.
There was a pushy edge to his voice… and maybe that was what pushed him over the edge and onto the masculine side of the line in my mind. It probably wasn’t the best way to guess someone’s gender… actually, guessing at all was probably the problem, but my mind expected gender to be there and had a hard time categorizing someone without it.
Either Acantha had been taking spine-buffing potions since her first days in the classroom or she’d been ready for this, because she didn’t seem to be bothered by Memphis’s repeated challenges.
“I won’t be here when you graduate,” she said. “I won’t be here next year. I want to find out what you’re ready for now. You’ve probably heard ‘carpe diem’ a hundred times, and thought it was about missed chances and wasted time… but even people who’ve decided to seize the day can get caught up in assuming that the day that comes tomorrow will be much the same as the one that came today. Unknown. Unknowable. When you reach it, parts of it will be familiar and predictable, but you’ll never guess which ones. The key is to make plans for the present.”
“So we just forget about the future?” Andreas asked, frowning slightly. “That doesn’t sound very sound.”
“Don’t forget about it,” she said. “But figure out where you’ll be in the long-term by seeing where you are in the short-term. You’ll never guess what the weather might be like a year from now, but you can look at the sky and figure out if you should be packing a picnic basket or an umbrella.”
“What if the only reason you’re walking at all is to have a picnic?” Memphis asked.
“Then you really don’t want to go out on the rainy day at all, do you?” Acantha said. “I’m not saying to forget about your goals. You’ll rarely find a situation that only presents a single opportunity. Just pay attention to the situation you’re in, so you know what those opportunities are. Then you can pick the one that gets you closer to your goal.”
As business advice went, it was… very general. Acantha sounded more like a life coach or motivational speaker than an industry insider. If this was all she had to offer, I felt like I could safely miss the rest of her salons without any regrets.
But I doubted she would go on much longer than this… it felt like she was still baiting the hook
“Look… you are all promising students of enchantment,” she said. “I’m not talking about your grades, which I don’t actually know. You all have shown a particular mix of talent, curiosity, and ambition that I associate with success. Some of you have some family background or practical experience, but you’re all at the very beginning of your careers… and none of you seem to know they’ve begun. You can go on drifting, or you can take stock of your situation and do something about it.”
“This is free advice?” Sophia asked, sounding amused. I was pretty sure I understood the joke. Obviously Acantha wanted something.
“Freely given, free for the taking,” Acantha said. “I do have more to offer…”
Here came the hook.
“…and if anyone is interested in taking me up on it, I think we’ll all find ourselves better off for it,” Acantha said. “I know some of you are accustomed to viewing reality as strictly transactional, with every interaction having a winner and a loser, but it really is possible for every participant in a deal to come out ahead, if it’s good.”
“No such thing as a free lunch,” Andreas said.
“The wisdom of dwarves… forgive me, Andreas, no offense intended,” Acantha said. “The clans are experts at amassing wealth, but they do very little to create it… as it happens, there are several such things as a free lunch. Even the classic free sandwich promotion… yes, the cost of the sandwich must be paid somewhere, but if it didn’t generate more profit for the company than they’re losing, they wouldn’t do it, would they? And the consumers get their sandwiches. That’s a free lunch. Preventive healing and diagnostic divination that removes the need for costlier treatments down the line? That’s a free lunch. Business deals where entities that have complementary needs and resources each give up things they have little use for in exchange for something they can use to produce great wealth? That’s a free lunch. I paid for tonight’s catering out of my pocket at no cost to you, and if even one of you listens to what I have to say then when the dust settles it will be at a net gain to me. That’s a free lunch.”
“More like free hors d’oeuvres, to be technical about it,” Andreas muttered.
“This all sounds like another unpaid intern scheme,” Memphis said. “Do you know how many unpaid internships I’ve worked already?”
“And what do you have to show for them?” Acantha said.
“Nothing,” he said. “Less than nothing. Experience!”
“You’re more right than you know,” she said. “I can tell you from my personal experience that in, say, ten years, the business is going to have very little in common with how it was when you did your last internship. I got into the business the long way around. Applied enchantment as we know it was not a thing when I started out. A lot of enchanters older than myself… and there are a lot of enchanters older than myself, even human ones… were too firmly rooted in the way things had always been done and were left behind in the shift. Even those who get in on the ground floor… whatever that may be at the moment… still have to fight to keep up. When I talk about not being able to know the shape of the future… an innovative field like applied enchantment can make the problem worse, because every advance that is made changes the future, and increases the rate of change.”
“But the people making the advances…” one of the human girls said, slowly. “If they can steer the changes, they can choose what shape the future takes. Right?”
“Yes,” Acantha said. “To a degree, we can… all it takes is a lot of vision and a bit of nerve. Don’t make the mistake of thinking anyone can control the big picture, but we can certainly shape things to our advantage, if we’re careful and lucky.”
“Any plan that relies on luck is a gamble,” Andreas said.
“Yes, which is why you generally choose endeavors whose success will benefit you whether your long-term plans come to fruition or not,” Acantha said. “For instance, the price of quicksilver is always going up… so if Micah invested in quicksilver with the thought that he could use it in his mirror business… or that the price would climb even faster if his big innovation increased the demand for mirrors and he could sell it… well, it would still be a sound investment even if the big innovation went bust. That’s one very simplistic example, of course, but you get the idea.”
“I don’t think you brought us here to bankroll Micah’s magic mirrors,” Sophia said.
“No… not necessarily,” Acantha said. “To tell you the truth, my plans are much more short-term than that. In fact, I only have the first step laid out firmly.” I was sure that was a lie, even though it was in keeping with the philosophy she’d been expounding. “Since I don’t know what we’ll have to work with, it would be a mistake to get invested in a particular course of action. That first step… well, the first half of that step… was to bring us all together. The rest is deciding what we should do.”
“You mean you brought us here and you don’t even have a plan?” Sophia asked. She sounded genuinely disgusted at the idea, but Acantha was completely unshaken. I had to wonder if she’d brought the elves… and maybe to a lesser extent, Andreas… in knowing that they wouldn’t feel cowed by not having any idea what was going on. Their skepticism seemed like a decent substitute for having a shill in the audience, ready to ask questions that would keep her monologue moving while making it sound like a dialogue. All with the advantage of not looking fake.
I wondered when I’d become so cynical myself… but I supposed it was around the time I decided to give a known a liar a fair hearing.
“No, I don’t have a plan,” Acantha said. “I do, however, have an idea. And before you ask, Memphis, it doesn’t involve anyone working for free. There won’t be wages, but there will be profits… that’s as certain as anything in business can be. Remember, I’m not in the habit of gambling, either. Those who want to work towards those profits will receive an equal share of them, so we all get paid at the same time… or none of us do.”
“What is this idea?” one of the human boys… a compact, thoughtful looking guy with dark skin and hazel eyes asked.
“Well, you just heard it,” Acantha said. “As I said, I didn’t know what I’d have to work with… and I don’t want to dictate our activities to the rest of the group. The idea is that we come together, we form a… project, you might call it. Think of it as something like an internship, for entrepreneurs. Aside from your share in the profits our shared endeavor generates, you will gain valuable real experience, both with hands-on enchanting and with the business side of things.”
“You really expect to come up with and implement a marketable idea from scratch in the semester you’ll be here?” someone asked. To my surprise, it was me.
“A small group like this can be fairly nimble,” she said. “I expect that we can come up with a product fairly quickly. I don’t know if we’ll be able to bring it to market by the time my commitment here is up, but I expect we can have the ball rolling… and after that, well, I choose how I spend my time.”
“And helping a bunch of college students with a homebrew business project is the most profitable use of that time?” I asked.
“Maybe not in money,” she said. “But… I have a lot of time, and there are other forms of profit. Let me be blunt: I won’t be casting my lot with you because I think we’ll come up with something that will be the next best thing. I’m casting my lot with you because I think you all could be the next big thing. Why not? Someone has to be. Why not you? Why not us? But we can talk about that next time… for now, I just want everyone to get to know each other a little better. Find out what we’re interested in, what we have to offer each other… we can spitball some ideas next time.”
I could almost believe her pitch… she wasn’t hiding her own self-interest, and the whole thing fit with the ideas she’d expounded on both in private and with this group.
The part that was hard to believe was that she didn’t already know what she wanted to do with the group, if we agreed to throw in with her. She was just too sure that we would come up with something that could actually be implemented and marketed. I supposed there was an outside chance that might possibly happen if she turned us loose to brainstorm, but it didn’t seem likely.
Even if there was a potential payoff waiting for us, it seemed more likely that it was essentially an internship… she had something she wanted to do, but it needed more hands and energy pools than she had. Maybe it would have been inconvenient to act on it while she was playing teacher, or maybe this was her way of getting it done without having to pitch the idea to anyone who had the resources to hire workers.
The thing was, as sure as I was that I was seeing through her scheme… I was almost sure that there was more to it than that. There almost had to be.
The worse thing was… none of this made me feel any less conflicted about her.