Friday, January 25, 2013

Twenty-Seventh Beginning: Small Gods

(With warm thoughts of Terry Pratchett)

It must be nice to be an atheist, thought Benjen. Every important family and business needed an atheist. If an atheist had anything on the ball, they were set for life.  Even total dipshits were pretty much guaranteed a livelihood, like the dipshit that Benjen was waiting for now.

Benjen tried to tell herself that she was over-reacting again. Townies just didn't have the reverence for punctuality that academics did. It wasn't necessarily an insult, deliberate or otherwise. She raised her baton to signal for another ale.

She had all the equipment she needed to get started, even though this was supposed to be a preliminary meeting to discuss terms and scope. If they came to terms, she wanted the option to get started. Or rather, she might have admitted if pressed, and if not feeling too defensive, she couldn't stand the thought that an opportunity to advance her studies might present itself to find her unprepared to move forward.  She was behind enough as it was.

She had hated the last few months of spinning her wheels, but you just didn't make big decisions without an atheist in the room, no matter what her more religious or impatient relatives said. That was a good way to become a pawn or, worse, find your life pulled randomly into a contorted and uncomfortable shape.  Leaf in the Wind be damned.

The seminary had atheists on call, of course, and students were allotted a certain number of free hours with them. But Benjen had used up all of hers and still didn't have an approved doctoral thesis topic.

Her fingers whitened around the handle of her alecup as she kept her eyes away from the door. This was an off-orchard diner, but there were plenty of students and staff who ate here. Signaling that she was waiting for someone who was making her wait would be too humiliating to bear, no matter how anxious or, yes, angry she was over this possibly aborted appointment. Atheist or not, townie or not, who did this jerk think he was.

Out of the corner of her eye, Benjen saw a couple of servers moving quickly, followed by the sound of the welcome chime by the hearth. She relaxed. She tightened. Was it really possible to do both at once?

She looked deliberately at her ale. It might be a coincidence. Yes, the diner's Larry-Hest rang the welcome chime whenever a guest entered. And, yes, it wouldn't ring for an atheist. And, further yes, servers would ring the chime by hand if they noticed . . . .

"Master Benjen?"

The relief at not being forgotten and the self-congratulations at being right warred with dread at now having to explain her sorry needs and a habitual surge of self-loathing at being so far behind where she was expected to be and at the ineptitude and vacillation that she was sure was the cause of her problems.

"Yes." Her voice was too quick and too high pitched. "Yes, please sit and be at ease."  Better. She signaled for ale for her guest.

"Sorry to be late. My relief on my last shift was late."

"Ah. Infuriating. Or. Well. It would be in academic rows."

"It wasn't fun. But i could understand that . . . But you aren't paying for off-topic chat."

The ale arrived. The atheist gave it a perfunctory sip and set it back. She was a middle aged woman with spreading hips and a bit of a paunch. She would have looked like a weary tender of teenagers if she hadn't been dressed in . . .what? Workpants, a long sleeved sports top, and what looked like a watchman's hooded shirt with the sleeves and hood hacked off.  And those would be a granny's knitting gloves if they weren't in a courtesan's purple, silver, and black - striped like party gear, no less.
"Unless that would help ease into things."  The atheist's eyes were tired, but patient.  "My name is Dee, by the way.  My cognomen, rather.  From the appointment slip I couldn't tell if you'd been given the name and I'm comfortable with the cog."
"Yes.  That would be easier for an atheist, wouldn't it?  Rather . . . " Benjen blushed.
Dee smiled.  "Yes.  Most people don't think that through."  She seemed pleased with the comment, rather than insulted.  The academy atheists had been prickly about any reference to the repercussions of their status.

"So.  Dee, then."

"And you're Master Benjen.  That's the proper address, right?"

"Just Scholar, really." Dee's eyes raised in question. "You don't have to finish a Master's thesis to petition for a Doctorate."

"But you have to have done the classes and other preliminaries, right?"

A nod.

"Would it be . . . improper to call you Master Benjen?"

"No. Not at all. But there are implications to that and I don't want to claim more than my due."

Dee sipped.  "Are the implications positive?"


"Shows an assumption that you'll succeed?"

A blush.  "Yes."

"Master Benjen it is, then.  A sign that I'll do my job properly and you'll find the proper thesis."

"Ah.  I handn't thought of that aspect."

"Well, I imagine you've focused on other aspects a lot lately.  Law of Inertia and all."

"My adviser gave me your card and number."

"But not my name."


"Wise, I suppose.  No need to invite interferences."

"Yes."  Benjen didn't know where to begin.  She thought of taking a casual quaff of ale, but her stomach rebelled.

Dee slid her drink to the side and fiddled a finger through the arc of condensate it left on the table.

"Again, sorry to be late.  I was at the hospital."

Ben blinked.  That could be a death watch.  Atheists weren't paid for those.  Those were mandatory.  She felt a pang.  Dee didn't look resentful.

"I was spelling a friend.  She was late getting back because she overslept.  And she overslept because she put off calling for support for too long. . . "

Dee made chopping movements on the edge of the table, one for each point, her hand moving from in front of her to further to the side with each iteration.  When she stopped speaking points, her hand kept going, implying unspoken previous causes until she ran out of table and made a dismissive forget-about-it wave, implying that sometimes there was no point in trying to assign blame because it was prior causes all the way down.

"Ah." Probably best to refrain from saying that that was a very atheist attitude.  That people uncomfortable with an infinite regress would slip a god in at some point. 

"So.  Have you pledged yourself to a god, yet?"

"No!"  Slower.  "No, that didn't seem wise until I had a topic underway.  We have household gods, of course, and  my town has its infrastructure gods. . . "  Ben made her own series of chops, in the air, about chest high.  "And, of course the academy has its grove gods."

"Yes.  If you'd asked me to meet you there, I wouldn't have accepted the appointment.  I knew I'd be tired and wading through all that contradictory belief would have been more than I'd arrange to do to myself."

"I, uh, asked around."  Ben didn't want to take credit for other people's knowledge.  That just wasn't done.

"Good."  Total approval.  "And you need a seminary thesis?"

"Yes.  I know that a lot of people think that studying gods is improper and needlessly compounds academic difficulty."

"Pfft."  The handwave was totally dismissive.  "If gods exist then it's imperative to know as much as possible about them."

"And you don't think that each god's clergy is best able to reveal the truth about them?"

"Gods, no!  Self-interest aside, there's the inherent push-me/pull-you dynamic between worshipped and worshippers.  There's competition between worshippers.  And there's my Aunt Janna who describes herself as perfectly laid back."

"I take it she isn't?"

"Well, according to her it's proof of how uncooperative and thoughtless and slovenly the rest of us are that we can upset even someone as relaxed and tolernt as her."


"Ah, indeed."

"I've wondered about my own self-perceptiveness lately."


Bite the bullet.  "I've had three previous thesis topics fail to get approval."

"Ah. Did you bring them?"

"Yes."  Benjen laid a hand on one of the short piles of paper on the table.

"I'll probably need breakfast, then."

How to broach this without sounding like a fool or a miser.  "I don't know how much . . . "

Dee made another dismissive flap.  "For something this big, the first meeting is free.  I won't know the scope of my involvement if I don't have the background.  Is that the first one?"


"A copy?"


"And I can write on it?"

A frown.  "I don't see why not."

Both of Dee's hands made give, give, give waves.  "Fork ofer and flag me some porridge."

"Porridge was cheap enough.  Some diners didn't charge atheists for the first ale.  Proof that the taste wasn't divinely enhanced and was, therefore, unlikely to decline if someone flubbed their rites or Someone got their divine nose out of joint for reasons real or imagined.  There were hundreds of small gods doing small enhancements in hundreds of ways, and they were all insecure and erratic.

Benjen slid the notes from and about her first thesis over.  It had been her first real failure and in many ways she was still recovering from it.  Dee flipped through them, giving no page more than a few seconds.

"Oh, gods.  You had Johanssen?"

Blink.  "Yes."  Doctor Johanssen was one of the most popular professors in the grove.  Even non-seminary students tried to get accepted on his walks.

"Spineless git."  Benjen's throat tried to decide whether to contract or release.  She had a flash of thought that it was when the veins in the brain did this that people got migraines.  A filp in her stomach reminded her that nausea and vomiting often accompanied migraines.


"Did you have pre-approval from a director or assistant director?"


"Did you have a committment from enough other professors to form your thesis committee before you asked The Big J to take you on?"


"I hate to say this.  But this thesis was doomed.  I can explain the politics later.  But this poor piece of scholarship was destined to be stabbed as many times as it took to kill it."

Benjen was too stunned to speak.

"Are you likely to get angry and start throwing things or screaming?  Cause I'd appreciate it if the answer was no."

"No.  No, I don't get . . . that is, I've heard that anger can turn inward. . . but you wouldn't be interested . . . that is. . . well. . . No."

"Good.  Tell yourself that you can be angry later.  My take on anger is that it's a secondary emotion whose purpose is territorial.  Buy me a drink some slow afternoon when I'm well rested and we can talk about it.  Which you will do because you deserve to be angry about this.  Just not now.

We'll also discuss grove politics later.  But right now we're going to talk about the meat of your first thesis and I'll ask you a lot of questions and some of them will seem to be tangential at best.  Just remember that I have some experience with this and the task here is to get you a thesis topic that will get you the best regarded doctorate with the least amount of additional pain."


"Yup.  If you've gone through a Johanssen miscarriage and you're still in there plugging, you've paid your dues."