245: Balanced Coverage

on June 25, 2008 in Book 9

In Which Nobody Likes A Smart Ass

Ten-fifteen came around and it was time for thaumatology. If it had been any other subject, I probably would’ve zoned out completely. I was looking forward to a night of dancing with Ian, followed by a night of fine dining with Steff, and a night of shrill screaming and batshit insanity with Sooni.

I was actually booked solid with dates three nights in a row. I was looking forward to two out of three of these, and they were with people who were looking forward to them, too.

I was just too much of a nerd to ignore a thaumatology lecture, though.

We spent the period on the second principle of balance. As Professor Goldman explained, the precise formulation of this principle varied depending on who you asked, but many thaumatologists referred to it as the “no fair cheating” principle… especially those who’d been asked by department heads not to refer to it as the “nobody likes a smart ass” principle in class.

“It’s perhaps most commonly called the ‘principle of equivalency’,” he admitted. “The canonical example of this principle is traveling a very long distance, such as a thousand miles. Assuming no obstacles, even terrain, and that you can walk at a steady pace of five miles an hour indefinitely, this would take you two hundred hours and you would be a very impressive specimen living in a very boring plane.

“Assuming you don’t want to spend all that time, there are various ways you can cut corners to save time. You can ride a horse, for instance. If you are more magically inclined, though, you can use a spell of teleportation to shift your location directly, you can get involved with trickery involving hopping through dimensions and traveling a shorter distance then hopping back, you can fly through various means and contrivances… but no matter how you choose to do it, there are limits.

“A spell which provides self-directed levitation is perhaps the safest and most reliable means of transport. You will yourself up, you will yourself forward, you will yourself to turn or move to the side, and it happens. You simply move at up to a set velocity with very little delay in accelerating, stopping, or changing directions. A crash is next to impossible, and even if you are distracted or temporarily incapacitated, you’ll simply hover there… at least until the spell wears off. It’s very handy… however, while often faster than walking, a spell like this is rarely much faster than a galloping horse and requires tremendous amounts of power to sustain over long distances.

“A spell which gives some form of powered flight is likely to give you a much higher top speed for the same expenditure of power. However, you now have to deal with accelerating and deccelerating, forward momentum, turning, keeping level to the horizon, and all sorts of other fun things. A moment’s lapse of concentration can have you skimming the treetops or plowing into the ground. If you try traveling for, say, a thousand miles in that fashion, the odds of having an accident stack up considerably.

“Some of these factors can be mitigated by enchanting the spells into a device, but the expenditure in time, energy, and expensive components is considerable.

“Teleporting in its most basic form, simply shifting something from one location to another, is relatively complex even when it involves moving something a foot to the left. The amount of energy required and the chance for mishap increases with the magnitude of change effected, so while in one sense teleporting a thousand miles is instantaneous, you might as well have flown the distance in the time it can take for you to arrange it.

“There are people… archwizards and the like… who can zip around the continent on a fairly casual basis, but in the amount of time they’ve spent honing their abilities to that level, they might have walked anywhere in the world twenty times over.

“The various forms of cross-dimensional transit vary in terms of precision, time and energy required, chance of failure, and incidental hazards, but speaking very broadly: it all comes out in the wash. Their differing features might make one better for some situations than another, but you’re not going to find one that lets you blip out of existence here and safely and reliably reappear somewhere on the coast, no more drained than if you’d just lit up a room.

“Not that people don’t try. Some of the most interesting entries in the annals of weird mystical misfires have come from people trying to find some way to completely circumvent the inherent difficulties of overland travel. Research into enchanting a free-standing permanent dimensional gate, for instance, is completely banned within the Imperium, due to the nasty history of demon incursions which have resulted from it in the past.

“This is the principle of equivalency in action. There may be many magical routes to the same goal, but you’re not going to find one super secret special way of doing it that’s a whole lot better than the others, on the balance. You might find a way that avoids a problem that’s particularly pressing in one context, but it will most likely prove to have problems of its own.

“And if it doesn’t? That’s when you need to be very afraid. Remember on Monday, when I mentioned the difference between prescriptive and descriptive? Here’s where things start to get a little bit muddy. Remember how I didn’t call this the ‘nobody likes a smart ass’ principle? Here’s why.

“Every once in a great long while, somebody thinks they’ve found a solution to one of the great dilemmas in life. They’ve worked out a combination of spells or exploitable phenomena which should, it seems, grant instantaneous travel, or limitless power, or food for the whole world, or infinite wealth. They try it on a small scale, or in a version with limited applications, or as a one-time thing, and it seems to work… so then they try it again, full speed ahead and damn the ballistae.

“If they are very, very lucky, their miracle process will simply refuse to work. If they’re slightly less lucky, they’ll watch their work be destroyed and maybe walk away with a permanent disfigurement and a story to tell.

“If they are very, very unlucky… well, this is where a lot of the unique undead, cursed artifacts, and tainted lands come from. This is how magical abominations are created. People who reach too far, too fast.

“For the quiz on Friday, I’m going to give you some examples of different types of spells being used for similar purposes, and you’re going to have to list the factors which make them equivalent. We’ll go over some more examples, and talk about the ways in which innovative enchanters and wizards can tiptoe right up to the line and be fairly confident they’re not stepping over it. The nutshell version is: don’t be arrogant. Nobody likes a smart ass.”

The class remained one of my favorites. It was large enough that it seemed like it should have been impossible for there to be any real personal interaction between the students and the teacher, but Professor Goldman managed to make it feel as though his lecture was a conversation. He’d probably said the exact same things dozens of times before to other classes, but it sounded fresh and off-the-cuff.

I tried checking in with Ian at lunch time, but got no answer. Well, that wasn’t too surprising. At first, it was just Amaranth, Steff, Two, and I, but then Dee came and joined us. It was obvious that she was upset. She didn’t have a tray or any food, her lips were drawn thin, her hands were trembling, and maybe most tellingly, as soon as she sat down, all of our silverware bent in half.

“Is… uh… something wrong, Dee?” Amaranth asked, calmly straightening out her salad fork.

“Not only did I sleep through half of my first class,” Dee said, “but I found a copy of today’s Gazetteer had been slid under my door while I slumbered.”

“Oh, did they print your letter?” Amaranth asked. It was the same thing I was thinking, though she was very nonchalant about it. My mind was trying to come up with the worst things they could have done. Other than taking parts of it out of context or editing it to make it seem like she said something she hadn’t, I couldn’t come up with anything that would account for Dee’s spoon-bending rage.

“They did,” Dee said bitterly. “Inset on the front page, as part of an article with a banner proclaiming ‘Political Correctness Gone Berserk’. Apparently the idea that I be accorded basic respect is such an extraordinary proposition as to be worthy of a front page editorial about how even the ‘noble campus newspaper’, which is supposedly ‘the advance guard and last bastion of free speech’, must live in fear of the unreasonable demands of ‘small groups with loud voices’.”

“How does this garbage keep ending up on the front page?” I asked.

“Well, being a daily newspaper, they probably have a hard time coming up with cover stories,” Amaranth said. “That doesn’t really excuse anything, but it might explain it?”

“Yeah, the screaming headlines started about halfway through last year,” Steff said. “Nobody was reading the damned thing, because they’d fill it up with a whole lot of stuff that nobody cared about. Minutes of the senate meetings, results from Bingo Night… stuff like that.”

“I care about Bingo Night,” Two said.

“We know you do, sweetie,” Amaranth said.

“I don’t know how you can say that nobody cares about Bingo Night when I care about it,” Two said. “My friend Hazel does, too. She wants to be a caller.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, Two,” Steff said. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“That’s okay, I forgive you.”

“Well, anyway, they did a poll to see why nobody was reading and people said it was boring, so they started slapping up whatever struck them as interesting on the front page,” Steff said. “I don’t think it was quite what you’d call ‘tabloid-style’, but there was a lot of bitching about whatever bugged the editors, you know? Since hardly anybody started paying attention, though, they got away with it.”

“How do you know about that?” I asked. “Were you paying attention?”

“Not on purpose,” Steff said. “I was banging a scribal communications major and she wouldn’t shut up about it, how they were ruining the paper.”

“What are you going to do, Dee?” I asked.

“At the moment, I am far too angry to do anything,” Dee said. “I am instead weighing my options, which is why I came here instead of going back to the office or seeking out a crystal ball. It seems likely that another attempt to get my point across in writing will only provide another opportunity for my words to be misused and misconstrued.”

“How did they get a whole article out of one letter?” I asked.

“The actual subject of the article was an alleged ‘onslaught’ of backlash they received as a result of the article on Monday,” Dee said. “They held my concern up as an example of how even, and I quote, ‘the most trivial aspects of an article about life in Harlowe Hall are to be pulled apart and made grist for the mill of political correctness’. My request that they write my name according to the accepted conventions of my people was said to be ‘demanding special treatment’. My suggestion that a failure to respect the diverse cultures which are present on the campus might result in a breakdown of normal functioning was deemed ‘vague threats of chaos and disorder’.”

“Oh, shit,” I said, a horrible thought running through my head. “My lawyer sent them a letter to get them to lay off of me. I wonder if that was the rest of the ‘onslaught’?”

“That was just last night, though,” Amaranth said. “Would they have had time to come up with a whole new front page first thing in the morning?”

“I only gave them my letter early last evening,” Dee said. “And the whole article seemed to have been rather hastily contrived.”

“It really wouldn’t surprise me if the lawyer thing did have something to do with it,” Steff said. “Freedom of the scribes is serious business, you know. They don’t have the balls to go against a lawyer, but they can’t let it pass, so they just get pissy as hell. Last year, they spent a month labeling everything else—including the new vendor in the food court—a travesty of justice after they were told to lay off the buffing scandal.”

“I’m sorry, Dee,” I said. “I didn’t mean to get them all stirred up against you.”

“You should not apologize for protecting your own interests,” Dee said. “In any event, I think it is clear in retrospect that they never intended to give my concerns a fair hearing. You may have simply added fuel to the fire.” She rose to her feet and gathered her cloak about her. She had the folds of it wrapped so tightly she might have been wearing a dress. “I believe I shall head to the newspaper office immediately, while the lunch hour is still upon us. It seems more likely that I will find somebody there to speak with now than if I waited until the cessation of classes.”

“Why don’t you try explaining to them how worried you were about your mother?” Amaranth said. “Let them know how far you are from home, and how that affects you. Maybe if they understood why it was so upsetting, they might be more inclined to see things from your point of view?”

“Yes. I suppose that is possible,” Dee said. She relaxed a little bit as she considered this.

“Oh, and maybe instead of demanding to speak to an editor, you could ask if a reporter would like to hear your point of view?” Amaranth added. “That way, instead of coming across as telling somebody how to do their job, you’re giving them a chance to actually do it.”

“That suggestion is not without merit,” Dee said. “I suppose I should give them a chance to descend to my level before I lose my temper.”

“If they’re still a pack of assholes after you give them that chance, though, give them hell,” Steff said. “We’ll all be behind you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely.”

“Do you not think it would be wiser to stay out of others’ battles while you are fighting your own?” Dee asked me.

“She asked her lawyer and he said it should be fine,” Amaranth said. “Anyway, you gave yourself sunburn coming out to support Mack. I don’t see how we could do any less.”

“I… thank you,” Dee said. She bowed very low, and held the bow. I think she might have actually been blushing, though it had mostly faded by the time she straightened up. “In any event, if it should come to that extremity again, I think I will be making my vigil indoors. Goodbye, my friends, and wish me luck.”

“Goodbye, Dee!” Two said. “Good luck!”

“Good luck,” Amaranth said.

Dee swept away. As soon as she was out of the lunch room, though, Steff started snickering and then burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, more than a little annoyed.

“Sorry, mental image,” Steff said. “It’s just, she might want to think twice about taking off her clothes inside the newspaper office.”


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7 Responses to “245: Balanced Coverage”

  1. pedestrian says:

    Nature does not appreciate smart asses.
    That’s why there are so many stupid asses.
    And they all seem to be running for the
    GOP presidential nomination.

    Current score: 2
  2. Konso says:

    Funny how when Amaranth reins in Mack’s attitude it’s a travesty, but when she sensibly tempers Dee’s wrath no one comments….

    Current score: 0
    • Grant says:

      It is fun to notice that sort of thing. I am glad Amaranth helped calm Dee down before she rushed off tho. Personally I fell for Dee a long time ago, and I have been pleased seeing more of her lately. I am eager to see where this storyline takes her.

      I also feel the urge to admit a strange empathy towards Sooni. I think I like the way she is unfiltered with her emotions. Whenever she feels something, she expresses it immediately and powerfully, and then it is done. A powerful string of natural disasters. Flash floods, lightning strikes, heat waves, then suddenly smooth sailing on calm waters for an unmeasurable length of time- itself unnerving for the inevitable and unpredictable manner in which it comes to an end.

      What was I doing here? I need to keep reading.

      Current score: 1
  3. Jechtael says:

    Dear Two: Please check out and read a book called “Hyperbole and You: How To Recognize Slight Exaggerations” from the school library. Love, ~J.

    I bet Amaranth would like a smart ass. Mother Khaele has probably already covered that base, though.

    I’m wondering if this chapter is foreshadowing toward someone (Mackenzie?) asking “too many questions” in the presence of (or directly to) Sara and Tara.

    Current score: 2
  4. Anon says:

    Let us all take a moment to offer thanks to the creator of the story for making Mackenzie a huge nerd. If she weren’t, we might be getting more plot shit instead of this fascinating explanation of the principles guiding the magical mechanics of the setting.

    Current score: 4