20 April 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter One: Frontloading Mysteries



Chapter One: Frontloading Mysteries



Ninety percent of everything was terrible. This was also true for people: ninety percent of them were dumb.

Reg Hig contemplated this unhappy fact as he stared at a copy of the Daily Prophet. The headline read, UNITY APPROACHES. Underneath, a smiling duo of clear importance were dipping their heads in identical bows before a dozen witches and wizards in trailing robes. The Tower and the Goddess, adding another country to their growing global hegemony.

It was tempting to crumple the paper in one angry fist, or perhaps to burn it into theatrical ashes. But he intended to scrutinize the lead story carefully, and he was certainly not going to buy a second copy of this propaganda sheet. The Daily Prophet had been a mouthpiece of the British ruling class since the time of his grandfather, and it was no different these days, now that a new Dark Lord and Lady had taken control.

It was almost comical the way each new Dark Lord followed the same playbook. The first step was to eliminate the main opposition, through assassination or spellcraft. The second step was to stack the local Thing (in Britain, it was the Wizengamot) with their followers. The third step was to take control of the leading newspaper. And last of all, almost as an afterthought, they would take over the local Ministry of Magic.

Still, Reg thought, it certainly made sense to use a tried-and-true method. History showed the wisdom. At the height of the Reign of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Sulla the Fortunate marched on Rome and took power by force, wresting it from the Optimates in the name of the Muggle masses. He ruled with absolute power. Forty years later, a successor did the same thing, championing the Muggle cause in the Senate and seizing power by force. Twenty years after that… well, you get the picture.

All else equal, a winning move would stay a winning move... until and unless you changed the rules. That's why the third successor of Sulla the Fortunate had quietly murdered all of his opposition, and had launched centuries of tyranny. Augustus Caesar had decided to change the rules, and he had done so with admirable effectiveness.

Reg stood from his desk chair, walking to the fireplace. He stamped his foot on a bright-green bellows at the fireplace entrance, barely breaking stride as he stepped into the flare of green flame and said, "Westphalian Council."

There was a brief moment as he walked from the travel room into the council chamber itself. For obvious reasons of security, the Floo network was not connected directly to a place of such power and discretion as the Westphalian Council's meeting chamber, or with the offices of any of the councilors.

Walking into the chamber, through a shower of Thieves' Downfall, Reg saw that there was only one other councilor present, sitting behind one of the tiny desks. Limpel Tineagar was a gangly woman, and she always looked a trifle silly folded up on the little chairs of the meeting chamber. As she leaned forward to peer at a parchment, her limbs seem to be too long and thin. Limpel resembled nothing so much as a robed spider.

"Reg," she said warmly, "how are you this morning?"

"Very well," he replied, walking down the tiers until he was on the level below her. He was almost a foot shorter than her, and if he had tried to take advantage of a rare opportunity to loom over someone by standing next to her, it would have seemed ridiculous to them both. Power should not be obvious.

"I assume you've heard of the French capitulation?" she asked, her tone less cheerful. "The cowards fall, one by one."

"That is why I am here," he said. "We must call a meeting, and we must discuss what the Americas will do. Inaction is no longer an option - not with Thing after Thing formally agreeing to the darkest of rituals! If we wait much longer, then it will be too late."

"A preview of your speech?" Limpel asked, her mouth twisting with amusement. She was a cynic, and had no native passion in her. "You rouse me with your stirring words."

Reg frowned slightly, and leaned forward, putting his hands on her desk and looking at her with frank directness. He was not an intimidating man, he knew. Short and ill-favored, he had a broad face with a plum nose and dark eyes. The dense black stubble around his mouth was irregular and resistant to every razor and charm. He was not charismatic and he was not scary.

But he was very persuasive.

"It's no joke, Limpel. Blocking the international statute only delayed Britain for a few years. Europe has now agreed to the Tower's demands almost as a whole, saving only the brave Cappadocians. France has already begun putting in place the necessary procedures to comply with the treaty. Thus far, it's only the harmless things - Healer's Kits and all that - but it won't be too much longer before Safety Poles are set up in Quiberon, Beauxbatons, Aix-en-Provence, and throughout Paris! Brainwashing available at the touch of a finger!"

Reg lifted a finger in the air.

"One Thing stands in the way: our council. We've been fighting this Atlantean nonsense for centuries, and we're about to lose for good. History will mark down this council as the one that failed… unless we take a stand.

"I don't know if you've ever noticed that, in an emergency, people in a crowd are slow to help. Someone gets hit by a Quaffle and falls into the stands, and everyone just stands back and looks shocked. No one in the crowd feels responsible - they're just watching. But when there's only one bystander, that person knows that it's on them. They have to intervene. And that's us, now. That's the Westphalian Council. We've spent years fighting for the rights of nonhumans and Muggles! We sent dozens to fight Grindelwald, and after Boston, we sent dozens to fight Voldemort. We're the only ally of the goblins that hasn't already sold their souls to this new Dark Lord.

"It's us. We're it. And if we fail, then that's the end of everything. Goblins in chains, Muggles start dying by the millions, and Westphalian Council becomes one more footnote at the bottom of the page, reading, 'Also destroyed in 1999 was the Westphalian Council, a once-important American wizarding union."

Limpel's smirk had left her face, and she was solemn. "You're right, of course. Sorry."

"No need for apologies, Limpel," Reg said, shaking his head and leaning back. "Just give me your word that you're with me. The next Dark Lord has risen, and we need to stop him. There is no one else… we are the battle line, here in this council."

She was nodding now, her mouth tight.

"So this isn't a speech, Limpel, but a request," he said, looking her in the eye and speaking with the earnestness of an honest man. "Will you help me stop Harry Potter-Evans-Verres, before he destroys the world as we know it?"

≡Ω

"You smile too much, 'Harry,' " Hermione Granger said to Nymphadora Tonks, lightly. "For anyone who knows the real fellow, it's a dead giveaway. You should spend more time looking serious or thoughtful. Alastor says that it's important to put yourself in the right mood, and so when he's being Harry he just pretends everyone else in the room is a child. He says Harry acts that way anyway, and it helps him be the right kind of condescending."

"Mad-Eye Moody says the meanest things I've ever heard anyone say about someone that they love like a son," Tonks said. She was running her finger up and down the lightning-bolt scar on her forehead. "It would be cute if it wasn't exactly as creepy as everything else Mad-Eye does."

Hermione shrugged. "I think it's sweet, really."

She pushed through the swinging wooden door as they exited Prestidigitation and Practicals. They were already being stared at, the moment they stepped out into Diagon Alley but that was okay. That was useful.

Hermione and Tonks-as-Harry made a beeline for the Safety Pole that had been fixed in Diagon Alley nearly two years ago. Their pace slowed as word spread. The Goddess was well-known and often out in public, but the Tower rarely ever left Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. To see him, you normally had to be either incredibly important or incredibly ill.

Harry was essentially in prison, Hermione reflected, as she gingerly moved through the crowd. He was trapped in his rooms at Hogwarts, forced to send magical doppelgangers to major events. If an official envoy insisted on meeting him in person, and that encounter seemed likely to require Harry's unique gifts, then that envoy simply had to come visit. As it turned out, this was better for everyone, on all counts. Harry was still not known for his social skills. There were other benefits, too. For example, the arrangement made it impossible for anyone to pressure a fake-Harry into an on-the-spot decision.

Ordinarily, Harry himself might have been the one to point out the advantages of being forced to confer and consider on any major decisions - of being pre-committed to that deliberation. It was right out of Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict, after all (page 30, her mind automatically supplied).

But Harry couldn't actually understand the whole concept, as she'd discovered when she'd tried to talk to him about it. Once he'd gotten important enough, he'd simply stopped wanting to leave the safety of Hogwarts. His Unbreakable Vow wouldn't permit him to "take any chances" with the destruction of the world, and at some point he had begun to consider that there was a small chance his presence might be necessary to save it. It was a very small chance, but it was a chance. He was too unique, perhaps - the single point of failure in too many possible systems. Hermione knew that this was why he did so much teaching. She had never felt the same constraint, though, despite her similar Vow. Was that humility on her part… or realism?

"Unbreakable Vows," Harry had said, when she had tried to encourage him to grapple with the situation, "are very effective. They don't work like genies in stories - I'm bound by the terms of the vow as it was meant, I think, in a way that makes me do my best with it. So while I understand what you're saying in the abstract, I don't want to want to leave Hogwarts or evade the Vow. Sorry."

It was sad. He was his own jailer.

Automatically, Hermione was smiling radiantly and giving small nods to people. At this point, basic public relations were on autopilot for her. It was easy. Her beauty helped. Maturity would probably have evened out her features anyway, but she also got a teensy-weensy bit of help from the dark ritual that had infused her with the unearthly magnificence of a unicorn. Plus, she'd been a world-renowned hero for several years now. As the old adage (and Sunshine Army slogan) had it, "Practice makes perfect."

"Thank heavens for you," a young woman said, reaching out to touch Hermione's arm. The woman looked to be something like thirty, but she stood with self-conscious straightness. She was probably one of the healed. Hermione nodded at her graciously, and eased by.

The prickling sensation in her arm began a moment later.

She glanced down, and saw a streak of something granular and colorless. Hermione's head whipped around, and she scanned for the young woman. Gone in the crowd. The prickling had already become a burning, and she even thought she could smell smoke. Some of the people nearby, already pressing close (which is how this happened, she thought) were backing away, their wands coming to hand and fear coming to their faces.

Hermione ripped the sleeve off of her robe, and scraped some of the substance off her skin. As she did so, she heard Tonks-as-Harry casting spells, waving her wand and calling, "Protego Totalum! Evanesco! Cave Inicum!" But there didn't seem to be any further immediate danger, and now the surface of Hermione's arm and robe were both burning with an oily black smoke. Even scarier: it didn't hurt that badly.

She plucked out her own wand, and spared a moment for the Fresh-Air Charm; a mint-scented breeze ruffled up around her and swept away the smoke. Keep the crowd safe. And she had to keep them safe from their own panic. She knew she was just being silly, and that she was buying into her own hype, and that wizards were essentially immune to crowd crushing (there weren't ever enough gathered in one place outside of a Quidditch arena, first of all, and wizards were naturally tough), but she couldn't help herself: she hunched over her arm and raised her wand to her throat. "Sonorus! Everyone, don't worry!" Her amplified voice was clear and strong, and accompanied by a reassuring smile. "Stay calm." Your arm is burning, and you can't really be seriously worried about them. On the other hand, they don't regenerate and we have an image to maintain.  "Everything is all right." It's a powder, not acid, and it doesn't smell like Faux Floo. Is this a distraction? She glanced around. Tonks was next to her, wand raised, glancing back and forth from her to the crowd. The gathered wizards and witches were either frozen in place or backing away, with a few taking a cue from her freshening charm to put on Bubblehead Charms. No one was taking advantage of the disturbance to attack.

Almost too late, she saw the black knapsack lying on the ground at her feet.

"Waddiwassi!" The knapsack rocketed up into the air as Hermione cast the spell on it. It was an incredibly easy and quick spell to cast, a light tripping of syllables from the lips to the back of the mouth. Twice as fast as depulso and eight times as fast as wingardium leviosa - Hermione didn't know why anyone would use anything else.

With a cracking boom that sounded much like a thunderbolt, the backpack detonated.

Tonks-as-Harry turned to Hermione, even as the boom echoed around them and people were screaming, and hissed one angry word. "Malfoy."

≡Ω

Percy Weasley was maybe the best government employee imaginable, Harry Potter-Evans-Verres thought to himself. He watched the young man admiringly as Percy described the new accords reached within the International Magical Trading Standards Body. One could always find witches and wizards with the necessary competence and leadership, but it was so rare to find someone with actual perspective - someone who knew that unexciting things like standards for cauldron thickness really and truly mattered, and that a three percent increase in the cauldron failure rate meant thousands of Galleons in lost wealth (and perhaps even actual loss of life, if some poor potion brewer couldn't make it to a Safety Pole).

These attributes are why Percy was effectively in charge of the Ministry of Magic from his position as Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic. He didn't think about outcomes in terms of narratives or story. He thought about them in more absolute terms: so many Galleons saved, people saved, options saved. Even better, Harry thought, Percy was absolutely loyal.

"...moved more quickly," the young man was saying, solemnly. "These larger Vanishing Cabinets - we're calling them Vanishing Rooms - do present a serious security risk, though. And there's a risk of splinching, with such a volume, if anyone is inside when the shipment goes through. You were absolutely right, though… we can move a thousand times as much now. It actually brings up an interesting problem. Apparently we're shipping out more than we're shipping in. It all comes down to…"

Reflexively, Harry considered if his appreciation of Percy's loyalty was a Voldemort thought, tuning Percy's report on trade deficits out of mind for a moment. Was it wrong to consider personal loyalty to himself as an inherently valuable trait in an ally? Perhaps it was, he thought. It was not consistent with how he valued his other lieutenants. Amelia or Mad-Eye would turn against him quickly if they thought he was corrupt or evil, and that was good. While obstacles in general wouldn't do him much good, experience had often shown that he tended to underestimate his own biases. Capable allies who could be relied upon to defy him, if needed, were invaluable.

Harry went to work, mentally, picking apart the thought and turning the instinct to his own use. In his youth, he had treated his mental simulation of Voldemort (his "dark side," he remembered with amusement) as a closed programming loop that would accept input ("This is my problem.") and output an answer ("Try killing everyone in your way, maybe?"). That answer would sometimes need to be rejected or modified in the fact of contrary ethical guidelines, of course, but at its core, he had treated the Voldemort thought-patterns as an opaque sort of special reasoning.

That had been silly, and the huge disadvantages had become obvious after a year spent clumsily clomping around the intricate plans of two geniuses. He had acted with the absolute self-assurance and total obliviousness of a first-year psychology student, and it was only thanks to the advantage of actually knowing the future that one of those geniuses had managed to succeed in saving the world (almost despite Harry's best ignorant efforts).

So, he had spent some time integrating the Voldemort simulation into his own psyche, and now routinely examined his thinking to critically assess his success. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, after all, and he would have been a fool to ignore Amelia's concerns ("Young man, if there is a Voldemort in your head, then you can either crush it into submission or we can carve it out. The choice is yours.") Harry glanced down at the ring on his finger, an unadorned metal band.

Harry returned his full attention to Percy, hoping nothing important had been said in the meantime and feeling a little shabby about having let his thoughts wander. Fortunately, much of the report had been for the benefit of others. Harry had already studied sufficient economics, but much of his council was still learning the essentials. The education was necessary, since economics were a weapon and a tool of state.

"...so this is actually to our advantage, and we may be able to use it as leverage." Percy concluded. He glanced around the room for questions, then settled his rawboned frame back into his chair. He was a striking young man, tall and thin with the vivid red Weasley hair and freckles. He had once been balding and bespectacled, but Harry had taken care of that.

"Thank you," Harry said, smiling. "It's always good to have another tool to use, should we need it." Truth be told, it probably was never going to be useful. It was hard to even say that a trade deficit was a bad thing for anyone involved, and that was especially true with an economy nearly decoupled from labor. But it might be a propaganda point, to be brought up in a negotiation or something.

"Now let us turn to the next item on the agenda," he said, glancing down at the parchment. "Amelia, you had Ms. Bogdanova and Ms. Covenant meet with their respective Muggle equivalents in the Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency? How did that go?" Ilya Bogdanov and Tilly Covenant were in charge of the Office for the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and Protective Objects.

"Not very well, Harry," Amelia Bones said, rising from her seat in turn. She was a plain-looking young woman, with a square jaw and chestnut hair pulled back into a tight bun. She looked (unsurprisingly) much like Susan Bones, her niece. "Bogdanova didn't give it a chance, and came to me to tell me that it was, and I quote, 'a tragic mistake to think that Muggles should be in charge of any part of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.' She specifically mentioned that the Muggles had proposed that anyone who tests magical devices should be blinded." Amelia leaned forward and glared at Harry. "I told you that this would happen, Harry."

Harry sighed. He'd thought they were further along than this. "The Muggles didn't mean that the testers should be literally blind. A blind study is ju-"

"A blind study is a study where the examiners keep themselves ignorant of the origin of what they're measuring, yes I know," Amelia interrupted, curtly. "You know that and I know that but these witches weren't looking for knowledge. They were just looking for an excuse not to change their minds."

"Yes… 'most people would rather die than think, and many do.'" Harry quoted. "But Amelia, we can't just fire the heads of every office, just because they're not working with us as smoothly as we'd like.". They'd had this argument before. Harry thought it was better to have the dozens of recalcitrant officials dragging their heels on the inside, rather than agitating on the outside. All the real troublemakers might have been decapitated in a single night, long ago, but that didn't mean it would be a good idea to give some of wizarding Britain's most prominent witches and wizards a direct reason to oppose the new regime. Amelia would have none of it, though.

"We don't have to fire them all. But we fired Shacklebolt, to make an example, and it wasn't enough. How about we just demote some of this dead weight, instead."

"And get around the Peter Principle? Hm." Harry paused for a moment. "You have a point there, actually. Table this now, maybe, and we'll work out the possibilities?"

Amelia nodded, just as the door burst open. Hermione and Tonks strode into the meeting room, clothes still damp from rapidly evaporating Thieves' Downfall. Tonks looked furious, and as her hair lengthened into her typical shoulder-length, multicolored long locks, it framed a iron scowl. Something had gone wrong, it would seem.

Like all rooms in the Tower, the meeting room was an uneven quadrangle. It was an odd side-effect of the most important aspect of their security protocol, which required the entire Tower complex to be shaped as one giant triangle. It was strange, but it did mean that entrances could be particularly dramatic, which was useful for negotiations. The very shape of the room pointed everyone's attention at the narrow wall, where the open door framed an irritated Hermione Granger.

≡Ω

"Hello, everyone. Sorry for the rude entrance," she said. She glanced around at the group, which collectively represented most of the power of magical Britain, not to mention the greater part of Europe. Her eye paused for a second on Charlevoix, one of her Returned and a witch who had been instrumental in the recent French agreement. The excitable woman was almost out of her seat in alarm, scarred hands clenched on her chair. Hermione's glance communicated peace, and Charlevoix's face softened. Hermione turned to Harry, who had risen and was waiting patiently for her to speak.

"Harry," she said. "Malfoy just blew up a bomb in the middle of Diagon Alley. No one was hurt, but dozens could have been injured or killed. I know you have a plan, but that couldn't have been part of it. What is going on?"

She watched as he absorbed this information. Harry looked slightly surprised for a moment, and then his mouth pursed, and then his face relaxed.

"A Muggle device that casts Deprimo," murmured Percy Weasley to the rest of the table. Amelia Bones already seemed to know, as did a few others (like the Muggle Liaison), but most had seemed uncomprehending. There was quiet murmuring in response.

"Was any property destroyed?" Harry asked, seriously.

"No," she said.

"Thanks to Hermione," Tonks said indignantly, from her spot behind the Goddess.

"No one was hurt and no property destroyed… was it a very small bomb? No, you took care of it. Did you put it into a pouch with an Undetectable Extension Charm, or something?" He looked thoughtful.

She shook her head. "No. Wait, would that even work?"

They both paused for a second to consider it, but he was the first to shake his head. "Not really, I don't think… although it might contain the blast and direct its force out of the opening of the pouch." He made a note on the margin of the parchment in front of him - an agenda to their meeting, she thought. "We should look into that."

"Especially now that Malfoy's started using bombs," Hermione said, archly. "Harry, you look like you understand what's going on, and that you're not worried. That makes me worried. This is a new level, and it could have killed a lot of people. But you don't seem to be taking it seriously. Just what is going on?"

Harry shook his head, reaching up to tuck a lock of his hair back behind his ear. She had noticed that he usually tied it back these days, but he'd left it loose this morning. Also, he was wearing Muggle clothes - a three-piece grey suit, with a blue silk tie. It looked rather well on his short and spare frame, but he tended to favor wizard's robes, these days. Were these subtle signs of distress at his imprisonment? Maybe he - or his subconscious - was feeling the effects of the long confinement. She set the thought aside for later consideration.

"We're at war, Hermione. You know that." At least Harry no longer looked so sure of himself, although it was probably only because he was worried about her. "They're going to keep ramping things up until they get a reaction, or until we capitulate on something."

Cedric Diggory spoke up from the end of the table, his voice kind but firm. "And that doesn't worry you, Harry?" The young Chief Auror looked skeptical.

"There's a plan. We're on track - two new Unspeakables arrived with reports just today, and there are new breakthroughs." Harry looked around the room. No one looked reassured. "I know I've been saying that for a long time-"

"For years," Tonks interrupted. She sounded frustrated.

"-I've been saying that for years, yes." Harry smoothly continued. "But you have to trust me on this. We can beat Malfoy and the whole faction… it will happen." His eyes moved from face to face, asking their trust. "There's a plan. It has been extremely complicated and unbelievably secret, but very soon now we will beat Narcissa, once and for all."

≡Ω

Sometime later, a young man with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead sat down with a sigh on a small wooden stool. He was alone, and this room was private, admissible only to him. He could slump wearily without worrying about his posture. No one could see.

In front of him, on another wooden stool identical to his own, was a small black box. It was smooth and shiny, marred only by the pair of small hinges and the ornate lock that held its lid on. He stared at the box sightlessly for a while as he thought, letting his eyes glaze over and his mind wander.

Harry sat like that for a long time. Eventually, he blinked rapidly and returned to himself. He spoke to the box, quietly.

"I'd like to talk. But I won't let you out."








And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus’ thought
And cry in Plato’s teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Translunar Paradise.
-- W.B. Yeats

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