[This is a collection of very short stories set in the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality universe.]
2 September 2012
Amy Anne Bamford hugged the Tome of Elementary Rationality to her chest like a shield. It was a poor shield, even for her slight 11-year-old frame, although it was cruelly large for a first-year textbook. But the pressure on her butterfly-filled stomach was comforting, even if the weight did make her arms ache.
She continued tentatively down the stairs, feeling a chill as strange figures passed her, brushing against her as she went. She would have said the feeling was like being passed by ghosts, except that she had actually been passed by a ghost on her way to breakfast, and had to admit that its icy chill had been entirely unlike the merely human anxiety that tugged at her sternum as the other students passed her.
Emily squeezed the book harder, and felt the unfamiliar texture of the newly-blue cuff of her newly-bought robes against her wrist, and the embossed leather of the tome on her fingers. The logician, from all accounts, sounded horrid. She turned a corner and saw the gate before her. Well, technically it was a door.
But, to be fair, it was a massive door, with an arched top, and made of ancient and implacable, brooding timber, thick as a fencepost, with a wrought-iron ring for a handle. A placard above the door, written in an ancient and foreign script Amy did not recognize, presumably began "Abandon all hope..." Amy ducked her head and entered.
She found a desk, every bit as hard and uncomfortable as the desk she had occupied at Bransum Primary School last year, but made from the same wood as the portal gate, er, door, rather than shiny metal and hard plastic. About two thirds of the way to the back of the classroom, just far enough forward to avoid suspicion of being a miscreant, but far enough back to minimize attention. How could she have ever imagined that after the lazy summer months she would find herself in Magical Britain, a place she hadn't even dreamed could exist, and that it would be so full of strange and inscrutable powers?
After enough of an interval for her to become slightly bored, but just at the peak where the boredom adds to the anxiety and does not yet diminish it, the logician's entourage arrived.
First was the sense of dread, triggered as the heavy adult footsteps first registered in Amy's subconscious. Then the progressive hush of students falling silent as the chattier ones noticed, and finally the logician's robes passed into Amy's field of view.
As the professor turned, curly locks framed a lightly wrinkled face that conveyed age, and worry and care, and more than a note of bitterness. "I am Perspicacia Foundry, the potionmistress at Hogwarts. I have been," the slightest of pauses, "selected to teach rationality to first year students. Luminusabscondance." She tapped her wand perfunctorily right, left, right. Two students, one slightly in front and to the left of Amy, and one directly in front, began to glow red. Names appeared in ornate text above their heads: Filbert Frink, and Eugenia Paltry.
"You two are not enrolled in this session. Out." Their cheeks grew red in embarassment, further intensifying the effect, and they hastily gathered their books and departed, looking at the floor. Filbert sniffed and began running, hoping to gain the exit before the tears began to fall, and only succeeding in calling more attention to himself.
"There will be no running in rationality class. Two points from," a pause, a tiny, complicated twitch of the wand, and the glows changed from red to yellow and scarlet. "Hufflepuff." Another twitch, and "-2 points" appeared in the yellow title above "Filbert Frank." Amy sank low in her seat, blushing in sympathetic shame.
"In this class we will study rationality, as mandated in the year Two Thousand Two by the Ministry of Bayes. Since they did not see fit to endow Hogwarts with a professorship to fill that role, the duty has fallen to me." Her voice was clipped, precise, as she paced in measured strides across the front of the classroom, surveying the diminutive first-year wizards.
"Per the mandate, we shall study..." another wordless movement of the wand, and text appeared in the air before Professor Foundry, too small for Amy to read. The professor continued, "...mathemagics, classical machinations, sadistics, ethical behavior and rationality. Error will not be tolerated, and fallacy will be severely punished."
"We will begin with mathemagics. Who can tell us why we study mathemagics? Yes, Miss Weasely."
A fair-skinned, freckled and bespectacled girl lowered her hand and spoke. "The leaders of Chaos Legion used it in the Battle of Hogwarts. It's one of the sacred muggle technomancies. Father says it's so powerful that only a few of the muggle nobility can use it."
"Correct. And yet we will learn it in this classroom. AlonzoEntscheidungs." A twitch of the Professor's wand, and pale blue flash above each desk startled Amy. She jumped and emitted a small "eep!" as a rather harmless looking, worn wooden box dropped onto the desk where her right elbow had been supporting her chin. It had symbols carved in it on all sides and at all angles, and a rectangular protrusion of red glass with glowing, ornamented text reading, enigmatically, "nil".
"This is Lamda's Calculator, brought to us by Lord Potter in the year two thousand four. It allows even first-year students to harness wild mathemagic energy and complete the ancient riddles that block access to the higher ranks, although it is unlikely that any of you will ever reach them. Outside of class, until you learn the Alonzo charm, you may tap the symbol on the inside cover of your textbooks with your wands to summon the Calculator to complete your assignments."
"Now children, draw your wands and do precisely as I do. Failure will result in the automatic deduction of house points."
Professor Foundry made a sweeping gesture with both hands, starting palms down above her Calculator and ending vertically toward the center of the front wall of the classroom, and a large, ethereal replica of her Lamda Calculator appeared in the air behind and above her.
Precise and deliberate, she tapped a number 8 near the glass display on her desk, as a giant ethereal wand did the same on the giant replica. Amy took her wand (9½" Palm with a silver core) and tapped the number on her Calculator. It annoyed her that her hand trembled, and she told herself that there shouldn't be anything frightening about tapping a button on a wooden calculator with a wooden stick. Then it annoyed her to realize that this was the first time she had actually been allowed to use her wand, and she certainly hoped magic wands were useful for more than pushing buttons. As she tapped it, the red "nil" on the glass disappeared, and was replaced by the word "oct" in green, quickly growing fatter and fading away quickly, to be replaced again by "nil", also green.
Even more annoyingly, and yet unsurprisingly, two of the students in the classroom had apparently failed in their first task as wizards, and "-1" now hung in green and red over their heads, respectively, below a larger "!". Professor Foundry peered peevishly at them until they tapped the appropriate symbol, and the "!" disappeared. Foundry looked to the ceiling briefly, exhaled slightly, then recomposed herself.
"Can anyone tell us what that symbol does?" Several hands went up, including Amy's, even as the thought occurred: Wait, do wizards really not know what an 8 is?
"Yes, Mr. ..."
"Potts, ma'm. It looks like an 8, but as it's the one at the top, not the one by the 7, it really means a sideways 8, which means infinity. It's about the ancient power of mathemagic to create wealth from nothing."
Amy's train of thought wobbled slightly at the unexpected bump in the tracks. Wealth from nothing? She liked math, but had never seen it create wealth. Well, now that she thought about it metaphorically, it...
"Thank you Mister Potts. That is correct. And as this is rationality class, we will prove the correctness of the answer with an example. Follow me, children, and we shall find the mathemagical sum of 4 and 4."
Professor Foundry tapped the "4" button, and a green "4" replaced "nil" on the display. She then whisked her wand right to left over the Calculator, and the "4" moved about a centimeter behind the glass, becoming slightly out of focus. She paused while the students imitated, and one of the students with a "-1" ended up with a "-2" above his head.
When the slowpokes caught up, she repeated the two gestures, and the original 4 faded back another centimeter, to be replaced by the second one.
Finally she tapped an ornate "+" symbol, and the "+" appeared on the display, only to merge with the two 4's as they moved forward, and the whole mass grew and split sideways until it formed the number "10".
"Thus we see, children, the first and most elementary mystery of mathemagics. Four plus four, when aided by magic, need not be constrained to eight, but has grown before our eyes by a full twenty-five percent."
Professor Foundry turned and faced the class, folded her right arm toward her so that the hilt of her wand rested on her shoulder, and thrust her hand forward as if she were throwing a dart at a dartboard. A fountain of parchment airplanes materialized from the tip and sailed around the classroom, unfolding themselves one per desk without a crease.
"This is your homework. You will complete the following exercises before the next class period or you will lose house points. We will do the first ten problems together."...
Later, in the Ravenclaw common room, Amy once again smoothed the parchment with her hands, although it had remained as perfectly flat as when it had unfolded itself upon her desk. The futility of even smoothing her worksheet made it harder to contain the frustration that built in her throat and, given much more provocation, would start her eyes watering. She stood up and paced away from the table, trying to think of a pretense for where she was going, in case anyone was watching. Someone was.
Valerie Anderton, a fifth year witch, was reading a paperback novel, comfortably wedged into the corner of an enormous red velvet couch, surrounded by pillows. Amy had noticed the garish cover art that made it obviously a sci-fi novel, and had been dying to ask about it, but had been too overwhelmed by the first day of classes and their difference in age to say anything.
Valerie was looking over her wire-rimmed glasses at Amy, like an actor trying to look wise while playing a professor. "You seem to be having difficulty," she said mildly, glancing at the Lamda Calculator on the ancient table.
"Nope, just..." and here Amy's brain once again betrayed her, staying obstinately silent as she groped for an excuse. The silence lengthened beyond "looking for the right word", sailed right past "polite fiction", and mercilessly, unambiguously landed on "so frustrated I'm about to cry but I don't want to admit it becauseit'snotevenworthcryingabout!" Amy managed to swallow, barely.
Valerie broke the silence, mercifully. "You grew up with muggles, I take it?"
Oh no, this was going to be far worse. Amy managed the slightest of nods.
Valerie saw Amy's apprehension at the question and continued quickly, "Then you should be aware that we can only be friends if you find Arithmancy completely and utterly absurd."
This startled Amy enough that she exhaled in a half laugh, half sob. All she could manage was "What?"
"Seriously, seven plus two equals eleven?" Valerie smiled.
Amy's brain, so recently silent, now helpfully arranged at least six sentences for her to say simultaneously, ranging from "I thought I was crazy!" to "I know!" and "What am I even doing at Hogwarts?" Realizing the futility, she merely nodded more vigorously.
Valerie said nothing, giving Amy a chance to collect her wits. She collapsed at the other end of the couch from Valerie's den and put her head in her hands. Finally she said, her voice minutely wavering, "It's just so wrong, you know? I mean, I can handle the magic food and flying books and even the ghosts. But math shouldn't be like that! I mean, I even read a story where things don't add up the way they should, and it was written by a mathematician, and the whole point was how bizarre and foreign that is. Maybe magic can make oranges out of thin air, but four plus four is still eight! Maybe you end up with four plus four plus two and you get ten, because somebody conjured up the two extra ones. But it's still four plus four plus two!"
"Did they give you the spiel about how the magic gives you extra?", Valerie asked.
"Yes! And it's just so... wrong! It feels like lying. To the universe or something!" Amy paused, then checked herself. "But I guess I'm just being..."
"Nope! Don't even start with that. Math is math, and magic doesn't change that. Let me see your textbook."
Amy pried herself out of the well of soft cushion and pulled the heavy tome from the table, a little more harshly than she would have done for an honest textbook. She timidly thrust it onto the cushion next to Valerie, still nervous about approaching the older student too closely, and retreated to the exact spot where she had been at the end of the couch.
Valerie produced her wand and leviosa'd the book open before her, flipping through the pages as if inspecting a tardy schoolchild's uniform. "Wow, this is several inches thicker than the edition I had. They just keep adding drivel to it." She waved her wand dramatically and pretentiously read aloud, "Lambda calculations are a fun and exciting privilege of the magical world! Transcending mere technology, the supernumeracy of mathemagics," and here on the parchment was an entirelygratuitous bulleted list. Valerie continued reading:
* Allows the economy of Magical Britain to grow every year!
* Explains how we can conjure water and light from nothingness!
* And brings us ever closer to understanding the deep mysteries of the Income Tax!
Amy couldn't see it from where she sat, but the attractive young wizards playing an improbably exuberant game of Wizard Chess in the stock photo on the textbook page, upon hearing Valerie's dramatic reading, stood up and applauded enthusiastically.
Valerie glanced down disapprovingly at them and twitched her wand. The book snapped shut and sailed across the room, and just before crashing into the wall, righted itself and slinked penitently back to the table where Amy's homework lay.
"Well, that's enough of that. Come on, let's go to the library and find the first edition of the Tome of Elementary Rationality. The one with assignments in Python." Valerie paused, "Er, that's not what you think. Or maybe it is."
Amy cocked her head, mouth open, but said nothing.
Valerie continued, lunging forward to escape the cushions. "Plus, I have some bad news." Valerie's novel disappeared into her mokeskin and she strode toward the door. Amy followed, still off balance.
"Four plus four really does equal ten. But not the way they told you."