Short Story: “Magical Advantage”

There may be more reasons that you know of to not hold your tongue.

“Magical Advantage”
by P. Orin Zack

“We can’t allow them to do it,” the caped woman persisted, “we just can’t. Regardless of whether the royal spokesman’s ludicrous explanation is true, the destruction of Klinburn Tower was our only chance to break the cycle of repression. If you rebuild it for them… if the clique that bulldozed our constitution just replace their mile-high throne room with another just like it, we’ll never get the chance to regain control of our country, much less our lives. There’s too much at stake.”

It had been only three days since unseen hands had weakened the structure of the old tower, three days since it had mysteriously collapsed into a pile of rubble. Murmurs of a popular revolt had swept the country even as the massive dust clouds snaked their poisonous way through the streets of the capitol, but the press ignored them. The potent bribe of access to the royal suites was a more powerful intoxicant than the lure of being the first, and perhaps the only publication, to break a news story about a possible threat to the fledgling M’burto Dynasty.

Farber Gladstone, the ruling family’s chief architect, rebuffed his visitor’s desperate plea with an icy glare. “Surely, Magis Dorwyn, the location of the Emperor’s new chambers can be of no importance to people who wish only to see it brought down. I would have thought that its very existence would be more an affront to your party’s wishes than where it was.”

Secrecy was of prime importance to Ikawa M’Burto, which was why many of his principal advisors publicly appeared to be solely engaged in the mundane matters of conventional business activities. The man in whose dim office the Magis now stood was not generally known to be Chief Architect, but he had not dissuaded her from that understanding when she explained her presence.

“In that, Mr. Gladstone, you are very much mistaken,” she said. “And I would have thought that an architect of your standing would understand that there’s more to a building than the materials used to build it. The ancients chose their building sites with as much precision as they used to craft their carefully designed geometric forms. Shape has power, Mr. Gladstone. A well-designed building generates more than just profits for the builder and adulation from the press. It causes those who enter it to behave in proscribed ways, to speak and move in ways that reflect that power and amplify it. Any prelate in M’Burto’s favored house of worship will tell you as much.”

“I never should have agreed to speak with you,” he said tightly. Breaking eye contact and drawing a long breath, he planted his palms near the edge of his desk and rose to his feet. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have other business to attend to. This meeting is over.”

Magis Dorwyn pursed her lips, but thought better of pressing the matter. It was sufficient to have confirmed that neither the architect nor his masters had an inkling of exactly why the location of the ruling family’s new formal chambers was even an issue. Planting that thought about the effects of geometry would likely keep Gladstone too busy designing manipulative staging for his masters’ august chamber to realize there might be an altogether deeper explanation for her opposition to its location.

By the following week, amid first-hand journals from people involved in the massive clean-up operation, stories started appearing about the building’s immanent replacement. The overly dry reports of the under-funded investigation into the cause of the collapse were quickly relegated to the business pages, and the destruction began to be spun as a fortuitous bit of unplanned urban renewal. Meanwhile, the public’s attention was diverted from examining the official explanation by a continuing stream of photo-essays portraying the luxurious commercial and residential spaces that would soon become available on the lower floors of the tower being designed to thrust the government’s new home skyward.

Arranging meetings of the kind that Magis Dorwyn was on her way to had become a kind of game ever since Ikawa M’Burto displaced the constitutionally mandated presumption of innocence upon being anointed emperor by congress. The first act M’Burto performed in his new role was the elimination of that body. Flagrant violations of the new anti-privacy laws were not treated lightly. But then, the people charged with enforcing that law didn’t realize they weren’t dealing with amateurs. Before government prosecutors could charge anyone with attempted privacy, they first had to discover that something was being done in private, and the world’s magic-users had learned how to deal with prying ages ago.

A heated argument was underway when she opened the door of the second-floor walk-up that had been randomly selected to host this evening’s meeting.

“—consistent with what they think are the laws of physics?” the man blocking her way rumbled.

The Magis recognized former senator Engmar Thule, whose broad back was to the door, by his unmistakable voice. His impassioned oratory had echoed through the senate hallways on many occasions.

“It won’t matter,” Aliya Gibb said, her wide-eyed expression belying the forced calm in her voice. “They’re too busy spinning explanations that serve their agenda to worry about consistency.”

The couple who lived in the dingy flat they had chosen would be unexpectedly delayed at whatever activity they were engaged with, and any neighbors who thought they saw or heard something unusual would forget they had an instant later.

Magis Dorwyn cleared her throat, and drew up beside them. “Are you two at this again?”
Thule crossed his arms, stressing the deep blue fabric of his jacket, and nodded subtly in greeting. “Have you learned anything that might help to put this issue to rest?”

“I may have. Chief Architect Gladstone presented his design for Klinburn II to the InfraGuard Council a few hours ago. As I understand it, the building contracts being offered all contain a very curious provision. Threats were incorporated into the insurance guarantees each of the firms were induced to sign. The risk of failure is to be borne by all of the companies as a group, so they have a strong incentive to police one another and to present a unified front in any financial matters, because none of them can be cast as a scapegoat without dragging the rest down as well. They’re so concerned about watching each other’s backs that minor details like the building itself will be lost in the noise. Physics is no longer of any interest to them. All the corporate jackals care about is protecting their piece of the juicy royal pie.”

“In that case, how do we proceed?”

Aliya glanced uneasily at him, and inched closer to Magis Dorwyn. “We don’t have many options,” she said. “Once M’Burto resumes ruling from that height, he’ll regain magical advantage. The few nanoseconds difference that gravitational dilation gives him is enough to skew the reality matrix. For all the blather they spread about ‘leveling the playing field’, their inflated sense of importance does just the opposite as far as directing the flow of reality. The only choices I can see are finding an even higher building, or setting up a temple on the summit of Mount Ghent.”

“Unfortunately, neither one is really feasible. Acquiring space atop a taller building would be interpreted as a political ploy challenging the emperor’s preeminence. Magical advantage isn’t the only reason for seeking a higher quarters. And Mount Ghent is too far and too isolated to yield the same effect.”

“Surely,” Thule said, “you’re not suggesting we just give up. Not after the risk our supporters took in distorting the Van der Waals forces in the support structure of Klinburn Tower. Several of the people involved in that effort still haven’t recovered.”

“Certainly not,” she said defensively. “But a conventional solution to this problem doesn’t appear to be possible.”

“Which leaves…?”

Magis Dorwyn frowned. “Something I’m not comfortable with. Do you remember the practice visualization we have beginners use to create a non-corporeal sanctuary for themselves?”

“Sure. They imagine taking a walk in the woods, or a beach or somewhere comforting, and then find an empty temple, fairy-circle or amphitheater to adopt. What about it?”

“It seems to me that we could realize a virtual sanctuary higher than Klinburn II by maintaining a continuous community visualization of a space that all of the participants have the same image of.”

Aliya stared right through her for a moment. “A virtual sanctuary?” she said, just over a whisper.

“That’s right. After all, we are talking about magical work.” Magis Dorwyn turned to look at Thule. “Engmar, didn’t you once consecrate the senate chambers with an imaginary wand?”

He nodded. “Sure, but that doesn’t mean it had any validity for my colleagues. You’re talking about imagining a place strongly enough for someone else to spend time in it. That’s a different matter entirely.”

“You’re right. After all, you were the only person there who knew what you were doing that day. But what if every member of the party, all thirty-eight of you, had been reinforcing your imagery. What if all of you had agreed to imagine your wand in exactly the same way? How real would it have been then?”

“So you think it could work.”

“I do. But it would take intense coordination. We’d have to arrange for the people on imagery duty to be able to focus on maintaining the location without being noticed, and without exposing the rest of the network. With the new anti-privacy laws, that’s not going to be easy.”

Aliya glanced at the heavily curtained window. “Just how complex is this going to be? Would we need a second set of people to deflect attention away from the group that’s visualizing our floating sanctuary? How many people are we talking about?”

“All of us,” Magis Dorwyn said after a breath. “Just like it takes all of the people who think they benefit from what’s been happening to keep imagining this decaying world. There are more of them than there are of us, so we need a way to amplify our collective power. A frontal assault, like we did in taking down Klinburn Tower, only sets them back, it doesn’t defeat them. That’s why we need to do this, why we need to establish a stronghold that lets us insert our collective will into the matrix that bare instant before theirs. We can move this world, we can change it, make it better, heal the damage that’s been done to it, but in order to do that we need to build this castle in the air. We have the leverage. What we need is a place to stand.”

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack

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