20 April 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter Two: Buffering Conflicts




Chapter Two: Buffering Conflicts



Hermione stood in front of her Returned with her hands clasped in front of her, her face neutral.

"Welcome, everyone. And welcome especially to Charlevoix, who is joining us here for the first time." She nodded at Charlevoix and smiled, then grew serious again. "We have some important things to discuss, and I'll need your help with them.

"First of all, we're going to talk about France and what this means for everyone's safety. Where are we going from here? How can we help? We want to save lives. And that includes Cappadocia… how can we save lives there, too? We have some news on that front, in fact.

"Secondly, Narcissa Malfoy has begun attacking using Muggle weapons. She went after Nymphadora Tonks and me two days ago, as I am sure many of you heard. The bomb she used didn't hurt anyone, but that doesn't mean that the next one won't be more successful. We're all going to have to study up on these things and learn about them.

"And last of all, there will be tea and cake. Make sure you thank Hyori, who brought it for us all."

She sat down, and turned her attention to Charlevoix, who rose and stepped forward. The Returned met at the grounds of Powis Castle, on a wide stretch of grass. The only thing there was an enormous section of a fallen tree. Most of the tree had been carted away, some years ago, leaving only this part, and some thoughtful groundskeeper had sawn out a rough wedge with four turns of a chainsaw. It left a comfortable and rustic seat on which Hermione was sitting. The Returned conjured or brought their own chairs. Powis Castle rose into the sky nearby, beautiful terraced gardens surrounding it like the setting of a jewel.

Tonks had once asked why they didn't meet in the castle itself. Hermione had answered her with a proverb of real estate: you always want to buy the ugliest house in the neighborhood. The building was beautiful, and you can't see that from the inside.

Charlevoix spoke, her voice soft and touched by a French accent. She wore robes of light blue and a plain silver necklace, and she looked exactly like your aunt. It was a mysterious property she had - she even looked like the aunt of people who'd never had an aunt, or like the aunt of someone whose family was tall and Scandinavian (instead of short and brunette). It made Charlevoix something like maternal to all, while still being distant. And then there were the scars, of course. As she stood before the gathering, they were visible along her fingers - knotted tissue that still looked pink and angry. She had no fingernails.

"Thank you, Hermione." They didn't call her 'Goddess' to her face, thankfully. The whole situation had been hard enough to accept as it was. "It is my pleasure to be here, finally. I have been glad to contribute." She paused uncertainly.

"Have there been any problems back home over the Treaty for Health and Life?" Hermione prompted, helpfully. Technically, they were supposed to be operating under Robert's Rules of Order. But she'd given up on the whole 'the speaker recognizes' and 'motions' thing after it became clear that it was just a facade. While the Returned were intelligent and passionate, they ultimately deferred to her on every opinion and strategy. It was a humbling experience, and pretending otherwise was cruel and pointless.

"No," Charlevoix answered. She relaxed a little as she spoke. "There was some difficulty in obtaining enough Healer's Kits for Paris, but more were soon shipped through with Vanishing Rooms. And I have had owls from all over France to tell me that Safety Poles are already in place. More than a hundred people have been restored since the treaty was signed."

Hermione thought about that number. France had something like fourteen thousand witches and wizards, they'd calculated. It was fewer than might be expected, given France's larger population than Britain, but there were many good possible explanations for that. Harry probably already had someone investigating. One hundred people might seem like a lot in only a few days, but probably many of them were injured or critically ill. Really, this meant that something like fifty people had chosen to be restored of their own volition. And since she was usually too optimistic about these things, the real number was probably forty. She made a mental note to check and see whether or not she was correct. Calibration was important.

Charlevoix's soft French accent continued. "It has been a very good start, I think. The Ministère de la Magie was very charmed by the whole process, and by your gifts, Hermione. Ministre Isidore has been making speeches about saving lives, and about justice. He even said pas une minute de plus - not one minute more - although I do not think he meant it that way."

There were small smiles from many of the Returned. That was significant, since they were a group not given to large displays of emotion. While they were all healthy and young (of course), most of them had a hollowness behind their eyes, and joy rarely seemed to touch them.

"And… so that is where we are, I think." Charlevoix concluded. Perhaps she wanted to end on a high note.

"Thank you, Charlevoix," Hermione said. Why was it that the way Charlevoix spoke Hermione's name made it sibilant and beautiful, while Hermione's own attempt at the French witch's name sounded like she was murdering the syllables with a banjo? "This is all very good news. But while we should be happy about it, the Tower did remind yesterday that it raises our profile even further. On the next trip we make, we are going to have to be even more careful. You are helping me, and that makes you all targets."

Esther spoke up, an American witch. "And you as well, Hermione."

"I'm not worried about myself," Hermione said, smiling wryly. "Having died before, I have no intention of repeating the experience." It was actually twice, now. But that would only worry them. It was not as though they could possibly be even more protective of her, after all. "But it does bring us to Cappadocia, and some bad news. There might be more lives to save. I recently heard that there might be a Dementor-guarded prison there. Urg told me about it when he was delivering gauntlets to me, and it might explain why they rejected the treaty."

In another gathering, this might have brought about murmuring or questions. But the Returned were silent and intent. They were listening. They were human beings who had been touched by the absolute, and it had left them changed.

"Simon isn't here today. He's off investigating that rumor, along with Urg. I think we'll find out very shortly if it's true. Dementors are difficult to hide. If the rumors are true, we'll be making plans and moving very soon." Hermione glanced at Charlevoix. "Pas une minute de plus, right?"

Charlevoix nodded. The scarred fingers of her right hand flexed, and curled into a fist.

≡Ω

Not every major world event was caused by witches and wizards, no matter what pure-blood activists might assert. Unfortunately, Reg knew that those fanatics flattered themselves into thinking that Muggles were basically animals, who could never have done anything important on their own. Over the years, he'd read completely serious books arguing utter nonsense. He'd read that the evidence showed that Plato had been a wizard, since the language and ideas of free Transfiguration matched his writings (heaven forfend that wizards might have copied a Muggle's choice of terms!). He'd even read an argument that a wizard had caused the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius with a careless Tarantallegra, which was almost offensive in its absurdity (simply from a magical standpoint).

That being said, a wise man looked behind the headlines for a hidden hand. Recently, numerous American Muggle charities had found unexpected luck in fundraising. There didn't seem to be a pattern to the organizations chosen - a foundation for promoting "critical thinking," a legal society that worked to preserve the wetlands - but it had been the talk of the Muggle newspapers for months. Reg prided himself on being well-informed, so he sought out all sources of information - not just The Mercantile, The Daily Prophet, The Quibbler, and other newspapers, but even things like The New York Times, as silly as that might be. Most of it focused on the tedious minutiae and trivialities of the Muggle world, but real news often lay behind the inanity.

He explained it to Limpel as they sat in his home and waited for a portkey to be delivered. Fat, overstuffed couches and armchairs sat squat on the hardwood floors in the Hig parlor. A grizzly bear loomed in a frozen roar nearby, preserved as a statue with the perfection that only magic could achieve.

"It's a big move, Limpel. He's setting up his own power base in the Americas, using Muggles as pawns. These charities have gotten millions of Galleons in donations in a way that can't be traced." Something about 'laundry,' which hadn't really made sense. That was one problem with the Muggle news… one fact led to another and another. It took hours to completely understand any single story from their bizarre world. Hiding the origins of money as a metaphor for clothes cleaning, which they did using devices that they had in their homes, and which devices were seemingly large drums, but not musical drums… impossible. You had to cut yourself off somewhere, or else you'd be awash in useless information.

Limpel nodded. She was reclining in her large chair, arms crossed. The outline of her sharp elbows were visible through the sleeves of her robes. Her face betrayed momentary discomfiture. "Millions of Galleons? The Council's whole budget is only two millions, that's so much… no, you must have checked. All right, that's odd. But what is the advantage to this power base among Muggles? What's the point?"

"That's the rub," Reg said. He ran his hand absently over his face and chin, listening to the whisper of skin on whiskers. "It's a completely new tactic, first of all, so it's unlikely anyone else has put these pieces together. It's never been done before, and so it slipped right by everyone. I bet if we checked back in Muggle newspapers in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Bulgaria, and other places that the Tower and Goddess have taken control, we'd find the same pattern. Remember that I'm predicting that, Limpel, without having checked."

"All right," Limpel said, skeptically, her thin face pinched. "I'll remember. But even if you're right, that doesn't mean that it has anything to do with the Tower - or even that it's a bad thing. Maybe he's just being charitable."

An intelligent and perceptive person who just enjoys being contrary as a matter of personal pride is an invaluable companion, Reg had found. They were terrible at parties, where they'd corner you and argue about the exact color of dog you needed to chase away a nogtail or the precise temperature you needed to melt steel, but essential for intrigue.

"Okay, you're right. I can't prove it's the Tower. But these are huge amounts of money. From what I read, the budgets of these charities increased by tenfold or a hundredfold. The total amount, just in the Americas... it's as though…" He struggled for a moment, beetling his brow. "Just imagine how we would feel if someone donated eight million Galleons to the Westphalian Council, Limpel."

"I'm not arguing influence, Reg. You could buy my left buttock if you gave me a million Galleons. But what's the point? I feel as though you're telling me that you suspect that the Tower is recruiting an enormous army of ants. Yes, that could hypothetically be dangerous, and yes, given what we know about him it's unlikely he'll use it for good. But even the biggest army of ants is still just an army of ants, and we have a Scouring Jinx for a reason." Limpel shrugged and smirked. "The Tower doesn't seem stupid. I don't know why you think he's wasting his time on this, or what you think he expects to gain."

"Ants or not, they're still people, and they have all sorts of devices. More to the point, there's literally billions of Muggles. And just look at your reaction! Not only does this not seem plausible, it wouldn't worry you even if you knew it was happening." Reg wagged a finger at her, dark eyes intent. "Doesn't that just seem like the sort of thing he'd do? You've read the books about him, don't pretend that you haven't. The Muggle devices, the businesses, all of those things came from this same odd angle. Who else would spend this kind of money, and on idiocy like swamps?"

"Yes, Muggles don't worry me. They're people who deserve to be free, but that doesn't make them a threat. A boggart doesn't worry me, and that doesn't make it a serious threat, either. Appearing harmless usually just means you're harmless Plus, if the Tower wanted a Muggle army, then he'd be buying soldiers, not saints."

"He already has the Goddess and her damned army of ghouls. This buys him influence. These organizations are all over the Americas, and they'll be expanding offices and making purchases. It's the perfect cover for any number of other moves, like building his own bases. It's a lot easier to snatch someone from Boston if you're local."

He rose from his seat, walking to the window. "The snow is thick, Limpel." He turned back to her. "It has been for months, now. It seems harmless, as it builds with every flurry. And it's only snowflakes. Even a thousand snowflakes piled up are meaningless. Ah, but billions of them? They hide so much, and they can be so cold."

Limpel was no longer smirking, although she still seemed skeptical. "I don't quite believe it, Reg. The Muggle world of money has always seemed to be opaque to me, especially whenever you've tried to explain it. I suspect you don't know quite as much as you think. You did, after all, try to tell me about a business that pays other businesses to give them their bad loans, and somehow makes money this way. So don't be so confident you're on the trail. But I will say… it is indeed worth examining further."

There was a knock at the door. Reg walked to answer it, glancing at the Whosit Clock on the wall near the entrance. Its hands pointed to "New Visitor" and "Expected." He turned to call back to Limpel. "The portkey is here! Make yourself ready."

He opened the door. A friendly young man in cheap grey robes smiled up at him, and said, "Hello, Mr. Hig. Adams Couriers, with a delivery for you, sir. A portkey."

Reg accepted a canvas satchel from the courier, touching his wand to the man's own. There was a spark of silver between them, as the delivery was certified true and accurate. "Thank you, young man."

As Reg moved to close the door, the courier spoke up. "Have a good trip, sir! Going on vacation?"

Reg glanced back at the man and shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not. I'm going to Britain. I'm going to war."

≡Ω

If I eat this sandwich, could it end the world?

Harry sighed, and bit into the sandwich. It could, actually. That was the problem. He was an imaginative man.

By eating this sandwich, I am incrementally increasing the demand for wheat. While unlikely, it is possible that this slight increase in demand causes the price for wheat to tick up just enough that it rounds to another whole Knut or penny in some local market. Multiplied by a whole seasonal crop, that could make the difference between someone paying the rent on their fields or becoming insolvent. A small child, brilliant beyond measure, watches his family become bankrupt and becomes embittered and angry at the world. In fifteen years, he gets access to uranium by ordering thousands of smoke detectors.

Or worse:

If I threw out this sandwich, it probably would get Scourgified away by one of the aurors. We don't yet know how magic works, and it's possible that there is a finite amount of magical force being expended by the universe. The casting of that Scourgify might be the last bit of power necessary to power the mystical future machine that would prevent the total entropic heat death of the universe.

Or even worse:

I take a bit of the sandwich and start to choke. My wand is caught in its holster, and I left my pouch by the bed. No one is here right now except the aurors, and I'm far enough that they might not hear me. There would only be one place to go for help, and even the security protocol might hypothetically fail if I miscalculated...

No. Harry swallowed uncomfortably, his mouth dry now. This was ridiculous. He was positive it was ridiculous. It had to be ridiculous. He couldn't prove how, exactly, but he must know on some level that these infinitesimally small probabilities couldn't be allowed to hijack every possible decision. If he didn't know that, with some reasonable level of certainty and in his best judgment, then he would not now be eating a sandwich.

The Vow was an elegant spell. It didn't rely on some objective meaning of the terms, since there could never be such a thing as "objective meaning" when speaking of human communication. There was always différance - a gap in the bridge between intention and understanding. Even Legilimens wouldn't serve, since it was only a shallow dip into another's mind.

No, the Vow relied on his own best efforts at interpreting and fulfilling the meaning the Vow, as he understood it. It didn't even work from his conscious reasoning, but at some more fundamental level. More effectively than any of Harry's best efforts, his Unbreakable Vow let him rely on what was truly his best judgment, free of biases or heuristics. He could be fooled or mistaken or simply too stupid, but no amount of self-deception was sufficient to overcome its power. If he thought an action might end the world, he could not do it.

The unsettling thing, though, was that it apparently did not indulge itself in the contemplation of those events that had a very small likelihood but infinite disutility.

Harry had discussed this with Hermione. She had quoted Blaise Pascal, saying, "Wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all." And she had been right - it was Pascal's Wager. Logically, any known possibility of infinite sorrow outweighed all other finite considerations.

It didn't actually work out that way, though. The horde of tiny infinities had not swamped him and starved him to death.

It was even worse, though. It wasn't even necessary to fabricate fanciful and tortuous chains of events: he had killed before, and he saved countless lives. How had he changed the possible futures? How many of those possible futures now led to doom?

"I vow that I shall not by any act of mine destroy the world. I shall take no chances in not destroying the world. If my hand is forced, I may take the course of lesser destruction over greater destruction, unless it seems to me that this Vow itself leads to the world's end and the friend in whom I have confided honestly agrees that this is so. By my own free will, so shall it be."

This morning, Harry had healed a baby with spina bifida. The boy had been born with a malformation of his spine - myeloschisis. During development, part of the neural tube had been left folded and protruding. On the infant's back, just where the gentle curve at the bottom, had been a red-raw sac, greenish with infection. It had troubled him to see, for he only did the actual healing for a small percentage of the Tower's visitors. Usually, he only came by afterwards.

There had been a need, you see. There were many healing charms and potions in existence, but some diseases were too rare and unusual. They brought these unluckiest of the unlucky to the Tower. They also brought the old, in a flood that gradually lessened over time. They brought the dying, yanked from miles away by Safety Poles. The tide of injured humanity came from all over Britain and Ireland and Scotland and Wales, and as the years passed they were joined by German wounded and Italian elderly and Scandinavian sick. Soon there would be French people being brought to the Tower, being healed and restored by new and secret "special techniques" in one of the wards, and then touched by the miraculous Harry Potter. Harry Potter, who made sure to visit every single one with a kind word and a comforting hand on the shoulder.

The Tower staff had developed systems, and improved on them daily. There were specialized spells they'd developed further at the Tower, to heal through free transfiguration. It had rarely ever been done, since it was ordinarily quite fatal. There were some fixes that were possible, of course… you could, in theory, transfigure a tumor away and off, and then heal the resulting wounds through other magics. But such injuries usually had well-developed magical cures. So the cleverest and most trusted witches and wizards worked with Moody and Atul and Minerva (when she found the time) to devise a systematic way to restore the world.

And so this morning, he'd touched his wand to the baby, and had wordlessly cast the Inspection Charm. The interior of the child's body opened before his mind - a wizard's parlor trick, used to find hidden compartments in desks or some such stupidity, which they'd turned into an MRI. Harry knew the human body with profound intimacy. The ivory knobs of vertebrae, the fatty sheath of myelin, the layered bore of arteries. They all had their place, and he reshaped the child and sculpted him anew. The delicate traceries of nerves and fibres joined above and below, and the whole covered in flesh.

The mother would be grateful. She would send him something - a message, some money, a token - and treasure him in her heart, for now her child would live. And how would her life change? What would the baby do, now that he'd been granted life? Would he do something, discover something, invent something… to destroy the world?

The Vow gave him no special knowledge. He couldn't know that his choice to save lives or to end lives might not lead, in any instance, to the destruction of the world.

Harry had sworn to take no chances, quite literally. How was it that he could sit here on this stool and eat this sandwich, and not be paralyzed by the minuscule chances for disaster inherent in every action? Why could he ignore the risks, when he had sworn to ignore no risk?

Was there danger there? He was already ignoring the possibility that his positive actions could bring about the destruction of the world, if in some roundabout way. His mind had rejected the most stark interpretation of his oath. So what was the worst-case scenario? If his judgment was sufficiently compromised, on the deepest of levels, could he fool himself and the Vow?

How deeply was he really bound?

Harry chewed his sandwich, and thought.










No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.


She lives with little joy or fear.
Over the water, running near,
The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
Before her hangs a mirror clear,
Reflecting tower'd Camelot.
And as the mazy web she whirls,
She sees the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
Pass onward from Shalott.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

11 comments:

  1. Hi. I really enjoyed HPMOR and I'm already enjoying S1GN1F1CANT D1G1T5. My first language is Spanish so I apologize in advance for any typing, grammar, orthographic or spelling errors.

    HPMOR chapter 74 quote: "The Unbreakable Vow requires three participants and three sacrifices. The one who receives the Unbreakable Vow must be one who could have come to trust the Vower, but chooses instead to demand the Vow from them, and they sacrifice that possibility of trust. The one who makes the Vow must be someone who could have chosen to do what the Vow demands of them, and they sacrifice that capacity for choice. And the third wizard, the binder, permanently sacrifices a small portion of their own magic, to sustain the Vow forever." End of quote.

    If Mr. White (probably Lucius Malfoy), the Death Eater who acts as the binder, was killed by Harry Potter ¿how does the binder magic "sustains the Vow forever"?

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  2. Thank you for your question, Martin. The most common interpretation is that the magic is in some way a separate force or power, and so it can be pulled away and permanently sustain a Vow even after the user's death. It would be rather like taking the petrol from a car to burn it in a car: the car runs on petrol, but you can remove it to do other things.

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  3. Oh, I see.

    I thought about it like "a constant flow/drain of magic" from the binder. Like sustaining a transfiguration.

    Thanks! Going back to read now! xD

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  4. I couldn't just go back reading...

    I think that acting as the binder implies not just taking the petrol from the car. It's like giving a part of the fuel tank itself because the wizard can't recover all his magic until the Vow is ended (and the fuel tank's part given is recovered). It's like the car decreases its "autonomía" (spanish word for the quantity of miles or kilometers a car can travel with a single fuel tank and not refilling it).

    Anyway, the Vow stills working for the story.

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  5. Fair enough! There's lots more discussion on things just like this at our subreddit, at http://www.reddit.com/r/AiH

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  6. Why does rational!Harry give any weight to Pascal's Wager, a logical argument with holes big enough to drive a truck through?

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  7. Bri2, used as a justification for God, it is a poor argument. But the above presentation is also called "Pascal's Mugging," which acknowledges an underlying logic to the idea that any possibility of an infinite outcome should short-circuit a decision-making process that considers them.

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    Replies
    1. Alexander, I translate your work into Russian. I need your permission to publish the translation. I will be enough that you will respond with consent here. On this page.

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  8. Scotland and Wales are part of Britain and it is incredibly disconcerting for you to name them as if separate. It sounds like you're saying England is Britain which would be an absurdly basic error for a piece set on the island of Great Britain

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  9. wouldn't you also call it Kirk's Mugging? it sounds like a divide by zero error.

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