Chapter 165: Expert OpinionsAlexandraErin on July 12, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Feelings Are Mutual
That afternoon, fighting class did end with the bell, as Coach Callahan had promised. The last thing she had Pala do before she dismissed her oversized TA was move the red box from its side of the divided room to put it next to the blue one.
“I guess that will save some walking back and forth, if I need to compare them?” I said. “Though, if they have identical enchantments, I’m not sure why I couldn’t just work on one.”
“Right, and the wonk that the school of enchantment is sending over could work on the other one,” the coach said. “In another room, with no one to see what she’s doing.”
“What, you think the school would send someone to mess with them, or sabotage a test somehow?” I said. “From what you said before, the university’s invested in making the idea work.”
“I’ve pretty much guaranteed that the university’s going to be on the side of the boxes working,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean people working for the university won’t have their own agendas… and I can smell one all over this chick. Don’t know what it is, but I know it’s there. You’re going to need to keep an eye on her.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be keeping an eye on me?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure the boxes aren’t supposed to be used without supervision, and there’s only so much I’ll be able to poking at them from the outside.”
“I got shit to do,” she said. “Plus, elves make my sword itch, so I’m bugging out before she gets here… that’s the official reason I’m putting the boxes together. She’s going to be your babysitter. So, this is me leaving.”
I had no complaints about not having Coach Callahan hovering around me while I played with her new toy, especially since I could only think of one person who fit the bill for the special guest expert… granted, I didn’t know everybody associated with the MU college of enchantment, and arguably anybody in a university teaching position could be described as a wonk… but I was pretty sure there weren’t any female elves among the enchantment faculty, which meant I’d be spending the after session working alongside my favorite substitute teacher instead of fighting for my virtual life against phantom opponents.
Sure enough, within minutes of the coach’s departure, Acantha glided in. She’d traded her elven-tailored business suit for white sleeveless robes. Between that and her hair being up in a bun, I might not have recognized her if I hadn’t been expecting her.
“Ms. Mackenzie,” she said. “I find myself both impressed and disappointed to find you here.”
“You don’t approve of Coach Callahan?” I asked. There wasn’t much surprise in my voice, and even less hurt. However much more I might respect her, I couldn’t say that I liked her, and I didn’t expect anyone else to… especially when it was obvious that it was mutual.
“Approve? I suspect her of being a serial killer,” she said. “Well, several serial killers. But I have been emphatically informed that she’s a member of the faculty in good standing and is not currently wanted by the Imperium for the commission of any crime, and thus I can do nothing more than keep my own guard up around her. More to the point, my disappointment is not in your association with her but your association with these.”
She gestured to the pair of boxes.
“So, you are against their use,” I said. She was being forthright about her bias, so I didn’t see any point in beating around the bush. It was my turn to be disappointed… I wasn’t sure I could be an effective advocate for the new mockboxes if it meant arguing against my favorite teacher. I did think they were cool, but I wasn’t nearly as invested in them or in keeping Coach Callahan happy as I was in Acantha’s good opinion of me.
If I couldn’t get an A in this one class, it would affect my GPA, but Acantha’s good will could help the course of my career, academic and otherwise.
‘“I’m broadly opposed to the existence of these devices, but must nevertheless contend with the fact that they exist,” Acantha said. “A classroom teaching aid is one of the more innocuous of their potential uses, so you may provisionally classify me as not implacably skeptical about their place in the school.”
She meant to be tough but fair, in other words… assuming she was a fair judge of her own mind, I thought I could work with that.
“Have you examined them before?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. She laid a finger on the red box and traced the inlaid wood pattern on the door. It was abstract curlicues, but organic enough to slightly resemble vines. “A friend of mine even let me look at a prospectus that contained an inventory of the enchantments used… though not the manner in which they were woven together. You have used them yourself?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And seen them in use.”
“Do you feel anything in the process?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I can feel the magic, but only when I’m actively detecting it, and only in the normal way. There’s nothing intrusive about it… no pain, no discomfort.”
“What about something more… existential?” she asked.
“You mean, do I feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that there’s a perfect duplicate of me standing in front of me?” I asked.
“My concerns include but are not limited to the doppelganger effect, yes,” she said.
“No,” I said. “The color change seems trivial, but it’s enough… there’s no feedback at all, at least on my end. I couldn’t say for sure what the duplicates feel, but there’s no sign that they’re angsting at all over their existence. I mean, any more than a given original person may be at the time they’re created. It might help that we don’t spend any time standing around… maybe if they were allowed to sit down and think for half an hour about the meaning and nature of existence it would be different, but somehow I don’t think so. Actually… that’s kind of the weird thing.”
“A duplicate of me is supposed to act just like me,” I said. “But I think my reactions would be different if I came out of a box, saw that my skin was slightly luminous and discolored, and knew it meant that the memories in my head were copies and I would cease to exist soon. The duplicates know that they’re duplicates… they know what color they’re supposed to be and what the colors mean. I just feel like if I were in my duplicate’s shoes… and in a very real way, I am… I would be reacting more to that knowledge. The fact that they don’t makes it seem like they aren’t as exactly like us as they’re supposed to be.”
“An interesting paradox, but it is, in fact, the opposite case,” Acantha said.
“What do you mean?”
“Illusion is not numbered among my specialties,” she said, “but in the past week, I have endeavored to give myself something of a ‘crash course’ in mockeries and phantasms. Do you know why illusionary objects are so much more popular than physical duplicates, Ms. Mackenzie? For applications beyond mock combat, I mean.”
“There’s the lowered energy cost,” I said. “And the lack of a material requirement… or additional energy to create the material… helps. The finite duration can be a feature, if you don’t want the duplicate to stick around. And then there’s the complexity problem.”
“Yes, the complexity problem,” she said. “It is relatively simple to use magic or automata to fabricate a simple object from raw materials, natural or conjured. Increasing the complexity of the object increases the complexity of the operation in a manner similar to making such an object by hand. When attempting to conjure a complete, finished product from the proverbial thin air, any degree of complexity or specificity increases the energy costs and the complexity of the magical workings by an exponential degree… hence why we still prefer to prepare our meals, despite the widespread existence of spells to create food. A spell that conjures food defined no more specifically than ‘suitable for this person to eat’ is relatively simple. A spell to summon a pepperoni pizza on thick crust with extra cheese would be difficult and costly out of proportion with its usefulness. Thus, the noble profession of pizza delivery boy is in no danger of being rendered obsolete by conjured pizza.”
“And a phantasmal pizza wouldn’t sustain you,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “The consumer would feel pleasantly satiated… or possibly unpleasantly full… up until the duration of the phantasm expired, at which point all its effects… including any burned mouths or grease stains… would vanish. Hmm. One moment.”
She snapped her fingers, and a memo pad and pen appeared floating in the air in front of her. I could dimly perceive the wispy outline of a vaporous, semi-humanoid figure holding them.
“Memo: research phantasmal alcohol, divided keg or bottle as mockbox,” she said. The pen began to move rapidly. “Including practicality, prior art, legal issues as compared to ever-full tankards and similar. Execute. End memo.”
The pen moved only a little bit past the point she’d finished speaking, but only a little bit.
“You have a spectral assistant,” I said.
“Yes, such things are fairly indispensable in my line of work,” she said. “My true line of work, I mean… you will not see me making use of it in the classroom, as that might be distracting. I must ask you not to discuss what you’ve just heard with anyone. It may be that nothing will come of it, but if it is practical then it could be worth quite a bit to the right buyer.”
“You didn’t need to let me hear it,” I reminded her.
“I trust you’re pointing that out to indicate that you’ve realized the level of trust I deliberately placed in you,” she said. “Ideas come and go, but knowing if one’s trust is founded can be worth quite a bit, too.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said.
“I trust you won’t,” she said. “To return to our prior subject, fabricating or conjuring a real item runs into the problem of complexity. Creating an illusion from whole cloth… producing an image of an imaginary person or object out of one’s head, for instance… also runs into this problem. To produce an original image requires the same kind of creativity and artistic talent that it would take to paint or draw it, adapted across a different medium… and yet, even the least creative illusionist can create a convincing illusionary duplicate of another person’s face, at the same level of detail that this face possesses in the original. Do you know why?”
“Illusion’s not really my area of expertise, either,” I admitted.
“You know, I thought it might not be,” she said. “There was a bit of a scramble when the university’s request reached Dean Mitchell. Apparently, no one in the department is particularly well-versed with illusions.”
“It’s not the hardest of magic arts,” I said.
“A common sentiment,” she said. “One I’m guilty of as well. But magic is magic, even if it is illusory. Tell me, if you don’t know why it’s easier to copy than to create, why do you think it would be?”
“If I had to guess… I mean, infer from what I know… I’d say it’s because the illusionist is somehow copying the properties of the original’s appearance. That’s not possible when you’re creating an original image, but if you’re copying something that’s right there…”
“That is more or less the case, but it’s even simpler than that,” she said. “There’s a single quality that is possessed by illusionary duplicates of all stripes. Call it… likeness. Or sameness. When you pull a mocked weapon out of a standard mockbox, it seems to possess all the qualities of the original, but only by virtue of possessing this one singular quality of identicalness.”
“But mocked weapons have individual properties,” I said. “I know… I’ve enhanced them on the fly.”
“Viewed one way, they do,” she said. “Because the original does. They wouldn’t be just alike if they didn’t. Viewed from the other perspective, they possess only one quality, that of being alike… the look on your face is understandable, Ms. Mackenzie. This property was not uncontroversial when it was discovered, but it forms the basis of the whole field of phantasmal mockery.”
“Well, you’re the one who’s been studying the subject, so I’ll take your word for it,” I said.
“Believe me, I spent some time grappling with this, and even spoke with a few of the professors of illusion,” she said. “And believe me also when I say that the illusion department is not easy to find. But this brings me to my point: the duplicate of a living being created by a mockbox also possesses this quality of sameness, and these boxes use that quality to impose what you might call a safety precaution onto the duplicates. Absent any external imposition, they will default to the behavior of the original. A phantasm that is just like you but blue will not act like someone who knows that they are a blue phantasm doomed to expire, even if they do in fact know those things.”
“That actually explains a few things,” I said, thinking about the eerie mirror match that had resulted from our first attempt to use the boxes in class. “But… it seems to me like this might possibly increase the odds of the doppelganger problem cropping up, despite the color difference.”
“Oh? I can see where you are coming from, but I hardly thi… no, on second thought, I am inclined to agree,” she said. “Admittedly, it isn’t a classic doppelganger situation… the mockery is still differently colored and is aware of that difference on one level, but can only act on that difference in a limited fashion. In my opinion, it would be unwise to allow a phantasmal duplicate of a person to persist indefinitely, or even for very long.”
“So far, they haven’t tended to last very long,” I said. “Even if they weren’t eliminated, class doesn’t last forever.”
“And the upper limit on the items’ duration is only a few hours to begin with… though I can well imagine that interested parties will be looking for ways to extend that in the next model,” she said. “In the interest of embracing safety over sorrow, I intend to emphasize the importance of a limited duration in my final report and I would urge you to do the same. Even if the duplicates cannot affect the physical world in more than a transitory fashion, the psychological damage to the original from being caught in a potential doppelganger situation could be considerable.”
“Would it affect the original, though?” I said. “If we’re talking about myself and a mocked me, I will know the copy is a copy and I will be acting on that knowledge without anything overriding or interfering with it.
“Who can say?” she said. “But this is all just so much speculation… I think if we’re really going to get down to it, we need to start duplicating.”
“No argument from me,” I said. “So… who’s going first, you or me?”
“Ms. Mackenzie, there are two boxes,” she said. “Why in the world would we need to take turns?”