Strangers in Strange Lands: Episode 11

Fennik finds himself in a bit of a bind. He's committed to taking his student to the Society for Ancient Culture summer conference in Nivet, but getting someone to take over his lectures for a few days has turned out to be more problematic than expected.

Fennik thought he could get one of his unemployed recently-graduated students to cover for him but it turned out that one had joined a monastery with vows of silence, and the other had taken a job as a lighthouse keeper.

Fennik next planned to get one of the two junior, untenured faculty members to take his lectures, but they are both teaching other classes at the same time.

Fennik is reluctant to let any of his other grad students do it, since he doesn't feel they are competent to impart the wisdom of the ages yet.

Fennik heads to the Humanities Faculty lounge for a coffee.

Delekar is, all unsuspecting, in the faculty lounge, drinking a peaceful cup of coffee in the blessedly student-free atmosphere.

Delekar's hair has grown grey, then white, in service to the school, and many of his current students consider him semi-fossilized. His grad students, on the other hand, have reason to be wary of his ability to see through almost any excuse.

Fennik opens the door and enters. Fortunately none of the faculty members with whom he is feuding are present, nor is the departmental bore. He pours himself a coffee.

Delekar looks up.

Delekar is very good at playing the academic game, but no one is perfect, and Fennik has been keeping his upcoming trip very, very quiet. He therefore makes the mistake of meeting Fennik's eyes in a collegial fashion.

Fennik's eyes light up.

Fennik: Good afternoon, Del. How are things in the Ancient graphic novels world?

Fennik doesn't regard graphic novels as real literature, but Delekar has made a long career of it.

Delekar: Well enough. The archaeology department sent me over some interesting inscriptions the other day. We're still trying to make sense of them. And your courtship novels?

Fennik waves that away.

Fennik: Oh, that was just in support of Willa. She graduated in the spring. I'm still doing technological influences on literary motifs and tropes.

Delekar: Ah, yes. Any weeping machines, yet? Or cats that talk?

Fennik: No, no weeping. I'd say most of the machine metaphors are more masculine in character. All those pistons and such.

Delekar: Well, perhaps.

Fennik sits in a comfortable chair across from his colleague.

Delekar: Although the Ancients did also leave us pictures of feminine machines, complete with mammary glands.

Fennik thinks this is just the sort of vulgar material one would find in a graphic novel.

Delekar: And peculiarly modified people, as well, with mechanical elements.

Fennik: They did have remarkable prosthetics.

Delekar: While it's doubtful that these represent actual constructions, it does show how easily the Ancients personified their machines.

Fennik: True. Perhaps we could do something together on that topic some time.

Fennik figures it never hurts to have a few cross-disciplinary papers, especially if the other author is a Name in his field.

Fennik: So what did the archaeologists send over?

Delekar: It was actually a bit outside my main interest, but they didn't have anybody else whose expertise was more germane.

Fennik: Mm?

Delekar: It's a drawing, with two men standing in front of a blackboard. An academic setting of some sort, one assumes. There are two blocks of equations, and text in the middle: "Then mirac occurs". I believe it might be a shorthand description of some technological process, but it isn't one I recognize.

Fennik: Perhaps the physicists or mathematicians might make something of it.

Delekar: Perhaps, although the student I assigned to search for references to this "mirac" process didn't find anything.

Fennik: I suppose we might know it by another name, or perhaps it's a lost art.

Delekar: Yes. There are so many of those. The Simes destroyed so much, when they pulled apart civilization.

Delekar was raised in a pre-Unity age, and has never paid much attention to matters outside of his campus.

Fennik: Yes. But we're slowly regaining it. Perhaps we can avoid our ancestors' mistakes while we're at it, too.

Delekar: Well, let's hope we don't manage to avoid all their benefits, as well.

Fennik: Indeed.

Delekar takes another sip of his coffee, a gesture known to all his acquaintances as signaling a long pontification.

Fennik figures he better head Delekar off with a change in subject, or he'll be here all afternoon.

Fennik: Say, Del, do you know anybody who could cover a few lectures for me the week of the 23rd?

Delekar: The 23rd? Are you taking a few days of personal leave?

Delekar knows full well that none of the usual events are taking place that week.

Fennik thinks it would be tempting to use that as an excuse, but Delekar would then pressure him for details, and if he were evasive, he'd make some up and the whole department would be full of rumors by the time he got back.

Fennik: No, one of my grad students will be presenting a poster at a conference. It will be her first time, and she's a bit flighty, so I thought I'd go along and show her the ropes, so to speak.

Fennik laughs.

Fennik: Of course, we're not really in loco parentis, but I feel some responsibility, a young girl, alone, like that.

Delekar: A conference? But the Ancient Studies conference isn't for another six weeks.

Delekar momentarily wonders if it was rescheduled while he wasn't looking, and he's therefore late with his abstract.

Fennik: Oh, this is just a small one. A chance for her to get her feet wet, without much effect if she commits some gaffe.

Delekar: Really? Where is it? I can't recall hearing about such an event.

Delekar looks ~~ interested ~~

Fennik: It's some little group called the Society for Ancient Culture. Takes place in some small town called Arreven, near Niddlevale, if I recall correctly.

Delekar: Arreven? That's a strange name.

Fennik doesn't think it's any stranger than Niddlevale.

Delekar: I don't recall hearing about a town of that name. Or a group called the Society for Ancient Culture, for that matter. Don't tell me you're blooding your student on some group of amateur bauble hunters?

Fennik: No, it seems to be a respectable group of academics. Farfel, from Eastern, is presenting a paper there this time.

Delekar: "Seems to be"? Why don't you know? Who are these people, anyway?

Delekar looks at Fennik with ~~ open skepticism ~~, and a glint in his gossip's eye that suggests he'll look up the answer himself if Fennik doesn't give.

Fennik has more sense than to let Delekar put him on the defensive.

Fennik: I can dig out the announcement for you if really need to know. But do you know who could cover my lectures for me for a few days? There'd be two in Introduction to Ancient Literature, and one in Theory of Literary Interpretation. I'll just reschedule my graduate seminars.

Pistareen decides he's had about enough of this conversation.

Pistareen: Fennik, you're not going to get anything out of him if you don't tell him, you know.

Delekar's eyes glint anew at this proof that his suspicions are justified.

Pistareen is chronically fed up with the way the members of the "scholarly" departments behave.

Delekar gives Fennik a "are you going to tell me, or is he?" Look.

Fennik: What's to tell? It's a little academic conference in a small town. The sponsors pick a different area of Ancient Studies each year, and this year it's literature.

Pistareen: I don't know this Society for Ancient Culture, but Arreven is where Ugilinose was born.

Fennik wonders why anyone would care where the departmental secretary was born.

Delekar: Uglinose? Which student is that, Pistareen?

Pistareen looks up at the heavens, or at least the ceiling of the lounge.

Pistareen: You hear that, God?

Delekar is rather sweet on the departmental secretary, and has therefore been left out of the loop.

Pistareen: Not Uglinose. Ugilinose. The great Ugilinose. Only the most famous shiltpron player of our generation. But of course you scholars never heard of any musicians more recent than Bru Springeen, or whatever his name was!

Delekar: ....Shiltpron player? Isn't that some kind of Sime instrument?

Pistareen plasters on a silly grin and nods his head like a woodpecker.

Fennik retains a mildly interested look, hoping Pistareen won't go much further with this. Fat chance, given it's Pistareen.

Delekar hasn't taken any math since his long-ago undergraduate days, but he can still add two and two, in this case Pistareen's coy hints and a Sime musician.

Pistareen: Sime instrument, right. Only playable by Simes. Simes live in Sime Territory.

Delekar: You mean this Arreven place is in Simeland?!!

Pistareen raps on his head with his fist while making a clicking noise with his tongue.

Pistareen: At last, God. He gets it at last.

Fennik retains a calm and dignified appearance. If he were as good with his nager, he could be a Donor.

Delekar: Jon, I know it's traditional to let your students get their feet wet in situations where mistakes won't matter, but still. You can't be serious.

Fennik: She's quite eager to go to this conference. She suggested it herself. There's getting to be more cross-border collaboration, so it might be useful to her in the future. We all read those journals from Frihill House, after all. Have for years.

Delekar: Well, yes, but Frihill House is half Gen, right? The universities there are still mostly Sime, I expect. And certainly the town will have lots of Simes in it. Do you think that's wise, to take a student into a situation like that?

Fennik shrugs.

Fennik: We've had Sime scholars visit here. They aren't ravening monsters. I'm sure we'll be all right.

Fennik hopes so.

Delekar has, fortunately for Fennik, no interest whatsoever in traveling to Sime Territory, and so he has no idea what conditions apply.

Pistareen: Of course you will. I go over the border every summer, you know.

Delekar: You do? Whatever for?

Pistareen: You think I make a living on an adjunct's salary? I tour, of course. Bringing Gen music to the Simes.

Delekar: They must be desperate for entertainment.

Fennik thinks that some of the Music Department's recent hires are quite detrimental to the er, tone, of the Humanities Faculty. Pistareen, for example.

Delekar agrees, but then he's always considered the bagpipes to be an instrument of torture.

Fennik: I believe there are government grants for er, "cultural ambassadors", Del, so it wouldn't matter if the audiences are small.

Pistareen: Small, he says, God. Small. Can he get grants from both Territory governments, and collect a paying audience? Hardly.

Fennik wonders just how depraved the Simes are, to pay good money to watch Pistareen jump around a stage playing bagpipes. Perhaps, as Delekar says, they're desperately bored.

Delekar shares the common grudge of all academics in obscure disciplines towards those in more interesting fields who can actually describe their work at parties and NOT clear the room in no time flat.

Fennik has a sudden chill - perhaps the Simes really are sadists and attend in order to zlin their fellow audience members suffering.

Pistareen: Not to mention the very nice little stipend you get at the border for something you'll never even miss. Eh, Fennik?

Fennik: I suppose so.

Delekar: Eh? What's that?

Delekar looks ~~ interested ~~

Pistareen closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

Pistareen: [sweetly] Well, Delekar, the Simes don't exactly want any of us traipsing around Sime Territory looking like a house afire. So they ask us nicely to donate at the border. And being such nice and ethical fellows, they insist on paying for it, too. I'm sure Fennik here can use it.

Delekar looks at Fennik in ~~ disbelief ~~

Fennik is independently wealthy, but would never consider pointing that out to Pistareen.

Delekar: Surely he's joking!

Pistareen: Nope, I ain't smoking and I ain't joking.

Fennik: No, that's the usual practice. It is possible to get waivers, of course, but it's regarded as uncivil to go about with a full tank, so to speak.

Pistareen: Waivers, God. Little Fennik thinks he can get waivers for himself and his protege. Is he a politician? Or a politician's relative, perhaps? I doubt it, God.

Fennik smiles at Delekar, who knows about Fennik's close connection to Senator Tsibola.

Pistareen: After all, Your Mightiness, if I don't get a waiver, and I'm an ambassador -- a cultural ambassador, maybe, but still an ambassador -- why should he?

Fennik: My student is already a regular donor.

Delekar: The flighty one, you said? Surely the waivers aren't as hard as that to come by?

Fennik: I thought you said you needed the money, Pistareen.

Pistareen: Did I say I wanted a waiver, God? No, I did not! I said I couldn't get one. But does he listen to me, God? He does not! But perhaps it's a good thing his student has some experience and can help little Fennik here know what to expect.

Delekar is ~~ scandalized ~~, which is to say, avidly interested in something he knows is a) none of his business and b) socially unacceptable to know about.

Delekar: It must be dreadful.

Pistareen: God, the iggerance of the elder generation is appalling, simply appalling. How can you let them be so ---

Pistareen breaks off abruptly.

Pistareen: No, indeed, Delekar. None of us Gen Territory Gens feels a thing. If you can hold still for five minutes and not panic, you can donate. Nothing to it.

Pistareen thinks that donation is a lot less stressful than stage fright, but of course he's not about to say so.

Fennik: So I hear from my student.

Delekar: I've always assumed that was just government propaganda. After all, the treaties say they have to convince a minimum of citizens to do it. These are the same people who tell us that yearly health checkups are "simple and painless".

Delekar suffers from a common ailment among older men that is particularly difficult and painful to assess.

Pistareen: Nope. Cross my heart and hope to die, you can't feel anything a-tall.

Pistareen: [superior] And as for health checkups, if you should happen to have anything a little bit the matter with you, they generally take care of it on the spot. It doesn't do to go walking into Sime Territory radiating pain, you know.

Fennik refrains from making a jab at Pistareen about saving money on medical bills by going to channels.

Delekar doubts even Simes can do anything about not being thirty any more. If they could, their government officials wouldn't be so young.

Delekar: Huh. I don't think that would be worth letting a Sime smear his tentacles all over me, painful or not.

Pistareen tsk-tsks.

Pistareen: All over him, he says. All over him. A little wiggle on his lower arms, and he thinks the Sime is going to be all over him. But unfortunately for you, Delekar, Sime channels are virtually incapable of anything but a vigorous, if intermittent, heterosexuality.

Delekar doesn't dignify that dig with a response.

Fennik: So, Del, do you think you might be able to take my lectures for me? I can owe you a few for next semester.

Delekar: Well, if you're really serious about this trip, I suppose I could. But truly, no one would blame you if you let this student of yours go on her adventure alone. There are limits to a mentor's duty, you know.

Delekar draws that limit short of the Sime border, himself.

Fennik makes an ambiguous gesture, for Delekar to read into it what he will.

Pistareen: Oh, let me give the lectures! I'm sure I could handle a lecture in Ancient Pornography and two in Artsy-Fartsy Deconstructionism. Pleeeease? Pleeeeeeeease?

Fennik: Thanks, Del. Can I get you more coffee?

Pistareen puts out his hands in a gesture of supplication.

Fennik ignores Pistareen, hoping he'll go away now that he's served his purpose of distracting Delekar from noticing Fennik's evasiveness.

Pistareen: God, why won't he let me talk to his students? Is he afraaaaaid they might actually get used to enjoying lectures?

Delekar: You're welcome, Jon. You can brief me on the lecture material you want me to cover.

Pistareen: [openly jeering now] It had better be brief, little Fennik, or Delekar here will be falling asleep half-way through.

Fennik: I'll give you my outlines. It's all very straightforward.

Delekar has decided that on second thought, he doesn't want to know for sure whether Fennik plans to donate, or has been able to get his brother-in-law to produce a waiver.

Delekar thinks the bit of mystery about that detail will make the story much more interesting. He may give boring lectures, but his skill with gossip is considerably better.

Pistareen isn't planning to tell anyone anything. Just knowing what's happening is more than enough for him.

Fennik is rather pleased that he managed to get away with the ambiguity even if the fact that he's going in-T came out of the bag. It would have shortly anyway, given Janeen's total lack of reluctance to talk about it.

Fennik figures the important thing is that Fridda's survival as a Sime doesn't become common knowledge, or get back to Ruthven through someone else.

Pistareen wonders whether there's some ulterior motive in Fennik's desire to go in-T rather than just sending his student on the train with his best wishes. Maybe he'll find out someday.

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