OT: A Box of Worms

on April 14, 2013 in Other Tales


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The workshop was a bright, evenly lit by a magical light that emanated equally from every space within its field, casting virtually no shadows. The place was clean in the sense that it was free of dirty or rubbish, with not so much as a torn fragment of a wrapper or a crumpled scrap of paper in evidence. It was far from tidy, though… one of those spaces where only the owner could possibly find anything, though at the moment even he found the task of figuring out where he’d last placed his rod of force modulation beyond him.

He was distracted from the task of trying to locate it on a desk piled with similar tools and also spent components and discarded parts that were at least vaguely rod-like in description by a sudden tap on the glass behind him. He whirled around, but of course the floor-to-ceiling window was completely opaque. It could have been blacked or mirrored in one direction only, but in truth he’d had it installed more to block out the outside world and its distractions than he had to preserve his privacy while he worked.

(This was a good thing, because as it happened he’d forgotten to blank the outside on this day.)

Muttering the mildest curses the dwarvish language made possible, he tottered over to the glass and waved a hand to make the portion where the tapping again came from translucent.

“Hail, son of Eddas,” an elven woman in the sharp suit said.

“Hail yourself, Acantha,” he replied, trying and not quite succeeding to inject a sour note into it. “This glass is soundproofed.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Are you going to let me in?”

“Is there any chance you’d go away if I didn’t?”

“The moment you asked,” she said.

He sighed, and then traced a complicated sequence of runes in the air. The glass wall turned misty, and Acantha stepped through.

“You know this style of enchantment has a fatal security flaw in it, don’t you?” she said.

“And that is?”

“Elves exist,” she said.

“And they wonder why we’re so paranoid,” he said.

“It’s been too long, Thomas.”

“It’s might have been approaching such a point, yes,” he agreed. “What brings you to town?”

“Oh, I’ve been here,” she said. “Well, not in town, but nearby. One of my old apprentices is a professor at the university, but he’s attending to a situation. I’ve been meaning to drop in since I arrived, but I haven’t been able to find an excuse.”

“One never needs an excuse to drop in on an old friend,” Thomas said. “Why are you here?”

“I saw the boxes,” she said.

“Everyone’s so interested in the boxes,” he said. “Well, I admit they’re interesting. Recognized my handiwork, did you?”

“There aren’t many dwarves who work in wood,” she said.

“Nonsense,” he said. “It’s one of the hallmarks of Clan Feuerstein. We’re known for our woodworks.”

“Oh? And how many of your clanmates work at I.R. Automatics?” she said. “On that note, I’ve always wondered why a company that doesn’t make golems would be named ‘Automatics’.”

“That’s funny… I’ve always thought of you as the literary type.”

“It depends on the literature,” she said.

“Think classic magic fiction,” he said.

“As a genre, it’s hardly been around long enough to have developed any classics,” she said. “Or to be called literature.”

“Yeah, well, to us poor, doomed mortals, it seems a bit older,” he said. “To humans, even more so… it’s what really inspired so many of them to pursue careers in advanced thaumatology or applied enchantments. That’s the whole reason places like this exist, why there’s so much interest in the THETA fields nowadays. I’m sorry, I meant…”

“Thaumatology, enchantment, transmutation, and alchemy,” Acantha said.

“I wasn’t sure you’d know the acronym.”

“It’s my field, too,” Acantha said. “I’ve been an applied enchanter since before the designation existed. Just because I’m not familiar with the culture that launched my human colleagues on their career trajectories doesn’t mean I’m a stranger to the culture they’ve created on impact.”

“That’s an evocative metaphor.”

“Well, the ‘poor, doomed mortals’ have certainly made a splash, I can’t deny that,” she said. “I never stopped to think about anything in particular providing you with inspiration… the conventional thinking is that the shorter a race lives, the more desperate they will be to achieve something lasting before they die. Though the corollary to that says that the more desperate one is to achieve something of lasting importance, the more short-sighted one will be in the pursuit of that goal.”

“Does that mean you disapprove of my work?”

“I think it’s a marvel,” she said. “That’s my professional opinion, by the way, since I was asked to examine it by the university. I just worry about the implications.”

“What implications?” he asked. “The illusonary duplicates are clearly identified by their discoloration, they can’t last more than thirty minutes, they won’t do anything that the originals wouldn’t do, and they can’t inflict any real harm. It’s actually a safety device, when you come to the point.”

“Two points of correction,” she said. “They don’t last more than thirty minutes, because there’s an arbitrary duration woven into it. The box’s operator can increase that time limit without altering the enchantment, and even though it doesn’t have the power to sustain a phantasm for more than an hour or two at most, a model could easily be made that relies on power from a supplemental source, such as the energy reserves or life force of the original subject. And second, an illusion can be made to kill.”

“Great mountains, do you think someone’s going to sneak into the university at night and re-enchant the thing with a phantasmal killer?” Thomas said. “It doesn’t seem likely to me.”

“No, but someone could duplicate your design with very few changes to do so.”

“But what would be the point? The whole reason the thing exists is to allow for safe sparring.”

“That’s the reason you made it,” she said. “But anything that is created may be put to other uses. The point of your… sparring box… is to protect the person who is fighting the illusionary opponent. But what if someone used it to protect the person being duplicated?”

“To what end, though? If the original subject isn’t actually fighting, they’ll learn nothing from the experience.”

“Outside a university, the goal of fighting is rarely to learn,” she said.

“You think people will use this to make phantom soldiers?”

“Phantom armies,” she said. “One person… one elite soldier with exceptional attributes and the best training… could be duplicated multiple times, replacing a dozen or two dozen soldiers of lesser caliber, who could be deployed with no risk of loss and no consequences. Warfare by remote proxy.”

“That sounds like a fine enough thing to me,” he said. “I’ve never been one for the whole glory of dying in battle thing… there are too many things I want to make first. Anyway, there isn’t much war these days, if you haven’t noticed. If we can fight future ones with mockeries, then maybe we can see a truly civil war.”

“That would only be the case if all sides had equal access to a very expensive and complicated magical device,” Acantha said. “Otherwise, rules of engagement will change or be ignored entirely to employ force more readily, in accordance with the decreased risks that come with deployment. War will become uglier, not more palatable… save maybe to the citizens who no longer face the kinds of sacrifices war usually demands of an aggressor nation.”

“What war, though? There isn’t any.”

“There will be… by removing the mortal cost of war, it becomes too attractive to mortal combatants.”

“This is a plausible enough scenario, but it seems like a bit of a plunge to assume that’s going to happen. Where would anyone even get the idea? I assume you’re not going to go around suggesting it to the great powers of the world.”

“Of course not,” Acantha said. “But it seems inevitable that if the device catches on, someone will see the potential… and once the imp is out of the bottle, it cannot be coaxed back in. You have to take the long view about these things. You’re the one who taught me that.”

“Then why do you presume to teach it to me?” Thomas said.

“I just want you to take it under advisement,” Acantha said. “Let it stop here. Don’t make any more of those boxes.”

“I’m afraid that’s not up to me… that was work for hire,” he said. “It’s going to pay for our new ethereal exploration wing. I believe the rights lay with the university, who was technically the client. At any rate, it isn’t like I came up with the idea or devised the theory. If I refused to participate in making any more, it would make very little difference. As you said, the imp’s out of the bottle now.”

“I suppose it is,” she said. “Well, it is a marvelous piece of work… I hope its legacy is a peaceful one in your lifetime. I dread to think of where this path may lead, but I dread more still to imagine it tarnishing your good name.”

“It won’t be my name that’s tarnished,” he said. “Not that its name is all that pleasant… the woman who commissioned it insisted on calling it Project Gottmörder, for reasons known only to herself… don’t ask me why, I had as little to do with her as possible.”

“She seems like she can be an unpleasant person.”

“Oh, she can be more than unpleasant, but she has enough dwarven blood in her to set my beard on end if I was around her too long,” he said. “I did ask her about the name, because all the humans on the team asked me about it. She said that it wouldn’t be funny if she had to explain the joke. The gentlemen in gray robes who showed up to search our workshops didn’t think it was funny, but they also didn’t explain what it meant to them.”

“Not black robes, then?”

“No, but while they said they were with the IBF, I’d bet my father’s axe they were Law,” he said.

“Why’s that?”

“Just a feeling,” he said. “They wouldn’t say what they were looking for, but they seemed disappointed… or at least confused. They took copies of everything but didn’t tell us anything, and they never apologized. I tell you, as much as I think you’re blowing things out of proportion, this was a strange job and I’m glad to be done with it.”

“So the government already has schema relating to the boxes, then,” Acantha said.

“I suppose, but they seemed more interesting in putting a lid on dangerous bottles than uncorking them.”

“Or maybe they just wanted to be the ones doing the decanting…”


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61 Responses to “OT: A Box of Worms”

  1. Anne says:

    Yipe! Never trust the government with more power!

    Current score: 1
  2. fman0801 says:

    A member of clan flint works in wood, at least on the God Killer.

    I think I get the joke to, Acantha wasn’t the only one to see the potential of this device.

    Ook!

    Current score: 1
  3. zeel says:

    Gottmörder. . . Her real(ish?) name right?

    Figures that would get Law uptight.

    Current score: 1
  4. Julian Morrison says:

    I called it. Thousand Agent Smith battles. Only with Callahan as Smith (OhPun called that part) and herself freed from the limitations of worrying about survival. Yowza. That would be a weapon of mass destruction indeed.

    Current score: 0
    • Anne says:

      And if Mercie got a hold of it? BRRRR!

      Current score: 0
    • Ducky says:

      Callahan wouldn’t let herself be copied.

      Current score: 0
      • sdfasdf says:

        even if she felt like hunting herself for sport?

        Current score: 0
        • TheTurnipKing says:

          Callahan doesn’t strike me as the sporting kind.

          Current score: 0
    • Moridain says:

      I don’t think reality could handle two Callahans at the same time.

      Current score: 0
  5. Not her, the other girl says:

    “Project Gottmörder” = Project God Killer.

    AE, I think I love you. You’ve been on a roll with writing exactly what I didn’t know I was hoping for.

    Current score: 0
  6. Zathras IX says:

    Cunning linguistics:
    “Feuerstein” is a tired old Dwarvish
    Name meaning “Firestone”

    Current score: 0
    • Gruhl says:

      A stein could also be a really big mug, commonly used for beer. A mug of fire… But that would probably make for less fun poetry.

      Current score: 0
    • Readaholic says:

      Firestone – makes me think of flint, making a spark that falls onto tinder.
      Unfortunately, I started calling it Flintstone.
      Wilmaaaa!

      Ok, back on topic – scary as it is to think of Callahan creating an army of her to take down Khersis’s opportunistic brother, there’s an even scarier possibility – The Man. Here’s hoping Law have taken that into account, and turned those boxes into a Man trap. Possibly one that turns him into a mouse, which is then eaten by Embries in cat form. Demons may be able to come back from the infernal regions, or the grave, but I don’t think they can come back from the digestive system.

      Current score: 0
      • Pratchett Fan says:

        I think you’re thinking of Vampires here… they have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.

        Current score: 0
      • Morten says:

        Feuerstein is German for flint. Flint and steel = fire.

        Current score: 0
        • Readaholic says:

          So he IS a Flintstone! Bring on the dinosaur jokes!

          Current score: 0
  7. Joshua says:

    Typo: “was a bright” in the first sentence should probably be “was bright”.

    “free of dirty” should probably be “free of dirt”.

    “It’s might have been” probably should be “It might have been”?

    This is an incredibly thoughtful story. Wow! How do scientists know when it’s time to stop before it’s too late? How do we deal with the consequences of technology like this? I was prepared to take it as just another bit of the story about Mack in Callahan’s class.

    Current score: 0
    • Gruhl says:

      The idea of stopping before it is too late is, if not silly, then probably contrary to the scientists nature.
      A scientist, a good one, exist to discover the world and all its various wondrous aspects. There are things in the world that can be used to kill. Especially when refined. But it is not the scientist that kills…except for the rare Mengele-type.
      It is the one using an aspect of the world to end the life of his fellow beings. And it is his fellow beings responsibility to see to it that he does not murder, not the scientists responsibility to make sure potential murderers never hear about the things that can be used for harm.

      Current score: 2
      • R says:

        There is no need to imagine. It has been done. It’s being used.

        Or, what do you think those drones in Pakistan are? The CIA is trampling over the State Department, because they can order drone strikes without any pilots getting into danger. Except to the pilots’ mental health.

        And now Iran says they have drones. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s just a matter of time before someone we don’t like has the capability to use drones, too.

        Current score: 0
    • Zergonapal says:

      We weigh the benefits and costs on a palladium scale of course.

      Current score: 1
    • x says:

      Typo/grammar:
      “One person… one elite soldier with exceptional attributes and the best training… could be duplicated multiple times, replacing a dozen or two dozen soldiers of lesser caliber, who could be deployed with no risk of loss and no consequences.”

      I read the “who” in “who could be deployed” as referring to “soldiers of lesser caliber”, while it seems that the intented meaning is to talk about deploying the duplicates instead.

      Current score: 0
    • AvalonAwoken says:

      Consider this: a world where scientists have created a doomsday weapon, but kept the secret to themselves (possibly having learned from the travesty of giving nuclear power to foolish greedy politicians) would be indistinguishable from a world without such a weapon. To everyone not privy to the conspiracy, that is. Conspiracy theories are hokum in general, but one that is defined by especially intelligent folk keeping a dangerous secret for their own protection is one that would be difficult to debunk.

      Current score: 0
      • pedestrian says:

        If a doomsday weapon is successfully kept secret, it is essentially useless. The point of such a weapon is to terrify everybody to the negotiating table.
        Get your popcorn and watch “Dr. Strangelove”, again.

        Political power is public, conspiracy’s that aspire to power will eventually have to reveal themselves. Don’t go shooting at other people unless yourself is willing to become a target.

        Current score: 0
        • sanityoptional says:

          But that is the point. The scientists are working on something, realize that it has immense deadly power, and so decide to keep it from any government. The death of all humanity should not be used as a poker chip.

          The point would not be to obtain power, it would be to keep humanity safe.

          Current score: 0
      • Ryzndmon says:

        Are you refering to Tesla’s Deathray?

        Current score: 1
    • Luke Licens says:

      Yet another typo:

      ““Hail, son of Eddas,” an elven woman in the sharp suit said.”

      reads very oddly. ‘the elven woman in the sharp suit/an elven woman in a sharp suit’ scan better, though I’m not sure anything is ‘technically’ wrong.

      Current score: 0
  8. Zergonapal says:

    If phantasmal armies is bad then the cure is worse. Because the cure would be anti-magic ordnance which could be potentially toxic to a magic saturated ecosystem and possibly even create permanent dead zones.

    Current score: 0
  9. Xone says:

    I suppose whether phantom armies are viable depends on the sort of power requirements the boxes need to make the duplicates work for an extended period of time. Also, I imagine there might be some limitations that keep it from duplicating god-level individuals (since if it can do that it just becomes too powerful). Maybe the amount of power required to run the duplicates should scale with the ability of the person being duplicated? Who knows.. just seems too powerful as is to not be immediately confiscated and banned, with everyone associated with the thing being made to disappear by Law.

    Current score: 0
  10. Sami says:

    I’m imagining a lot of good could be done with this too though. Think cloning a thousand habitat for humanity volunteers.

    Current score: 0
  11. Amelia says:

    Oh dear.

    And you identify the duplicates by colour.
    What colour, I wonder?

    Current score: 0
    • N'ville says:

      Octarene springs to mind, or is it octerene, a long time since I last saw the correct spelling, however those who know the colour of magic will understand.

      Current score: 1
      • Jane says:

        Octarine. A sort of greenish-yellow purple.

        Current score: 1
    • Burnsidhe says:

      Red. And Blue. Probably.

      Current score: 0
    • Mad Scientist says:

      Why, we’ve already seen that in the last main installment.

      Red vs Blue. 😀

      Current score: 0
    • Amelia says:

      I was thinking red or orange.
      You know, sort of flamey colours.

      Current score: 0
  12. Maahes0 says:

    Oh. Oh no. This part scares me even more now: “they won’t do anything that the originals wouldn’t do”

    What happens if it hones in on the more demony side of Mack?

    Current score: 0
    • Brenda A. says:

      On the other hand, when Mack mocked the Pitchfork way back when, it didn’t include the infernal aspect – just the magic and the physical weapon.

      Current score: 0
  13. Erianaiel says:

    Son of Eddas of Clan Feuerstein (let’s call him Hail) just invented the magical equivalent of Drone Warfare …

    Current score: 0
    • ty says:

      Hail?
      Isn’t his name Thomas Son of Eddas?
      Or, er, Thomas Eddas-son?

      Bwahahaha! That took me far too long to get!

      Current score: 3
  14. pedestrian says:

    To reiterate, is the AI programmer malicious or just sloppy?

    And I like the image of Our Mack drinking from a mug of fire.
    Hot toddies were heated up using a red-hot metal poker kept in the burning wood of a fireplace or Franklin stove. Sometimes the hot boxes used to heat cannon shot by army and navy artillery, were used for safety reasons.

    Current score: 0
  15. Ducky says:

    Hm. Drones. Everyone check out the real-world political debate surrounding drones and drone warfare, now that we’re thinking about it – there’s a gazillion opinions that show up on the first page of Google.

    Current score: 0
  16. Trystia Indraea Olyphis Farrower says:

    So… does Tesla have a MUverse doppleganger too?

    Regardless, I’m not entirely sure Callahan is likely to have had only a couple plans for these. Sure, she may think it would be handy to have an entire army of Jillians in order to take on a few more deities, and sure, the mere existence of this sort of magitech will likely destabilize the political balance of the world and foment the wars she so loves participating in, but surely we can think of plenty of other reasons she’d want these boxes to exist, right? I mean, we’re still pretty sure she’s teaching fighting to increase the chances of someone giving her half a challenge in a fight, right?

    Current score: 0
    • Burnsidhe says:

      Well.. she’s always said she’d like to kill off a few students every semester a new class comes in, to encourage the others. Now she can, without actually killing them.

      Current score: 0
    • Potatohead says:

      Thomas, Son of Eddass.

      Thomas Eddass-son.

      How did I not catch that at first? 🙂

      Current score: 1
  17. hoppy says:

    I got the impression that the mockeries were like waldos so that they did what their originals did when fighting the corresponding mockery. Duplicating mind or intelligence seems way to complicated to me and projecting linked phantasm that follows the originals actions seems so much easier, although there might be some synchronization problems. Then you get into psychology of the Mockeries, some will go all berserk and some would just sit there.

    Current score: 0
  18. Blargrarg says:

    Why did I think one of the rules of magic was that magic was discreet? Like a fireball spell can’t be scaled down to light a cigarette, it only does fireballs, you’d need a new different spell to do matches and for the same reasons no matter how much juice you’d pump into it the match spell wouldn’t let you throw a fireball. and no matter how much you cast “light a match” you won’t be any more likely to learn fireball than any other spell. matches provides no insight to fireball and fireball no insight into developing or casting magicmatches…like I had the impression the magic classes ex elementism one were more to teach the mindset of spells rather than building blocks for them

    Because if that was the case in muverse then the mocbox could only be used as first presented unless you wanted to build something else from the ground up. So that must not be how it works here and I’m thinking of something else.

    Current score: 1
  19. Dani says:

    Did Callahan have to communicate in writing because of the Dwarf gender-incompatibility problem or because of government interference of because she herself wanted to keep people from thinking too hard about why she really wanted this box?

    And did she have a hard time conveying what she wanted because it was complicated, or because she couldn’t safely explain what she actually *wanted*?

    I’d guess that what she really wants is illegal – unless she succeeds.

    Current score: 0
    • Stonefoot says:

      Well, she said that she wasn’t allowed to communicate except in writing. My first thought was that some ‘unfortunate incident’ occurred during a previous face to face discussion, but on further thought it seems more likely that the University (and/or other authorities) want to know exactly what she’s asking for. So they want to avoid a written specification [with spoken additions] such as ‘it should have a half-hour time limit that can easily be reduced [or just turned off]’ or ‘a power limit of such-and-such [and a way to get around that]’.

      Current score: 0
      • Seajewel says:

        Ah I read that as an unfortunate incident in the past as it seems to be a recent development. Impatient Callahan is impatient.

        Current score: 0
    • Daemion says:

      Perhaps it’s because she’s quarter dwarf and female, while the enchanter belongs to a male dwarven clan?

      Current score: 3
  20. pedestrian says:

    If “Necessity is the mother of useful inventions.”

    Then “Desperation is the evil-stepmother-inventor of cataclysmic
    level weaponry.”

    Current score: 0
  21. Robert says:

    Seriously none of you commenters picked up on the fact that this story was biting social commentary about a technology that already exists in the real world and is possibly already having the effects described? Predator drones anyone? Man, I hope this was just a case of being so obvious nobody felt the need to mention it before me.

    Current score: 0
  22. pedestrian says:

    Throughout history, many political leaders become enamored with the concept of small, commando/sturmtruppen style assault, elite units,{SWAT}. These are often confused by Hollywood and politicians with Special Forces, whose main objective is to liaison and train local militia.

    The reason politico’s love these is first to dodge the unavoidable fact that real war consumes real human beings. And when your voters, in your district, start seeing the casualty lists of all the men lost from their families, friends, neighbors. Well, the first objective of holding political office is to get re-elected. The second major lust politicians have for these small, elite units is that per man, they are more expensive while seemingly a lot cheaper overall then huge armies.

    But! The problem is, these units are only effective on a very limited, localized tactical operation. And from an objective historical viewpoint achieve very limited tactical goals. With a very high rate of failure in terms of overall strategic war goals.

    Strategic success by small elite units, that actually positively influenced the outcome of a war are few and far between. The assault on Fort Eben-Emael being one of the exceptions that earned Nazi Germany a sweeping victory on the Western Front.

    Once the war broadened to global mass conflict it proved to be yet another waste of resources and manpower that distracted from the really important battles between massive armies, backed by total mobilization of national resources. The ultimate failure of the U-boats and the Luftwaffe and Kamikaze are other examples that Grant and Sherman were right, Lee and Stuart were wrong.

    You go to war, you go all out, with everything you got, without hesitation or mercy. You devastate your enemy and force unconditional surrender upon the survivors.

    Or, you do not go to war at all!

    Current score: 1
  23. Potatohead says:

    So with what we learned about the Doppleganger Paradox in the new chapter, could you still make an army of copies? Or would the copies register each other as dopplegangers, even if they didn’t imprint on the original?

    Current score: 0
    • Daemion says:

      Both characters in this chapter are experienced enchanters. They should be aware of the paradox and all the ways to circumvent it.
      While I think it’s likely that identical copies would register as dopplegangers to each other there is always the option to make each new copy visually distinctive, for example by imprinting a number on them. Think football jerseys. 😉
      Even if that isn’t enough, you have at least a dozen different colors to chose from, probably enough to form a squad. You can have as many of those squads in action at the same time as your magic energy allows, as long as they don’t operate in the same area.

      All this speculation is moot if the mock copies simply just copy the movement of the original… the next chapter will tell us what happened in the fights of Mack vs. Nae.

      Current score: 0
  24. anon y mouse says:

    “I suppose, but they seemed more interesting in putting a lid on dangerous bottles than uncorking them.” – interested in?

    Current score: 0
  25. Hollowgolem says:

    Arther C. Clarke-approved, methinks. Stories like this show the true power of fantasy as a genre. Very well-done.

    Current score: 0
  26. Computer Mad Scientist says:

    I can’t help but think that the idea of the mockbox making war cheaper in lives would tempt governments to war more is among Jillian’s motivations.

    Current score: 0
  27. “THETA” might be an in-world analogue for our “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Nice.

    Current score: 0
  28. sengachi says:

    One Callahan killed a god. A couple dozen with no reason to fear death? Project God Killer indeed. Me thinks Callahan may be intending to wage war on the gods soon.

    Current score: 0
    • Ryzndmon says:

      Or maybe, it is an allusion to her special skills students finally being allowed to cut totally loose, and at the same time feel the levels of hurt that only they can dish out. “Slay the God of Pain.”

      Current score: 0