25Snakes and a Train

Jason, Roland, and Curtis squeezed themselves and their luggage into a Gyeedian maglev car. It was, at that moment, 4:06 PM on February 16th, 2004. The voyage of the "Argo", which was supposed to have lasted about two Gregorian weeks, had instead taken a day over three—not that anybody was particularly surprised.

"…you can always change the expression into rational-exponent form, so it's easier to work with." Roland was saying to Curtis as the three of them sat down. The car was otherwise empty: it was a vacation day of the week, so the train had few riders. "And then, when you're finished, you can split the fraction into a integral exponent and an integral root index, to make the expression look more sensible."

"Oh, I get it." said Curtis.

"Uh, Roland?" said Jason. "There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about."

"Yes, what is it?" said Roland.

"Whoa, is that that Terran language you speak?" Curtis asked of Jason.

"Yeah." said Jason in Common. To Roland, in his native tongue, he said "Well, I'm afraid this might sound inane, considering the reaction I got from the prince here when I asked him, but here goes: why aren't there any female mages?"

Roland smiled wryly. "Ah, Jason, I think there's some things you'll never understand."

Jason's eyes bugged out. "What?"

"The thing is, if you don't already know the answer to that question… well, it's something that ought to be intuitive, if you know anything about sexual dimorphism."

"Well, I think I do, but it ain't. What does anatomy have to do with spellcasting?"

"No, Jason, it's not the anatomical differences that are important here; it's the subtler ones."

Jason made an annoyed sound. "Look, Roland, you're expecting me to pick up on something, but I'm obviously not getting it. Please, just spell it out, like you've done with every other question I've asked."

"All right, all right, I'm sorry. It can be hard to keep all the strange, contradictory mores of the United States in mind." For a moment, he stared out the window, into the darkness of the tunnel. "Males and females are very different beings—not only on a gross biological level, but also on a slightly less obvious psychological level."

"Oh?" said Jason. He recalled how Beatrix had called Roland a misogynist, according to the adventurer.

"Yes. Among the differences is how men and women make decisions. To be specific, men are slow and deliberate: they take the positions they do after careful analysis. Women, conversely, are capricious, malleable, apt to flutter from one idea to another as a butterfly visits flowers. This particular instance of sexual dimorphism is pertinent to wizardry because spellcasting entails great power, and as you know, with great power comes great responsibility. Now, just think if someone who was easily moved, someone who wasn't really capable of such responsibility, could cast spells. Can you imagine the madness that would result? I fear to. Thus, women cannot learn magic, at least in Gyeeds and other civilized nations."

Now the usual roles were reversed: Roland was calm, and Jason was struggling to control his anger. "It's not quite clear" said the latter, choosing to play along at least for the moment, "whether you mean that it's physically impossible for women to cast spells, or that it's illegal for them to do so."

"The latter, sadly." said Roland. "There are some women who learn spellcasting through channels of ill repute, and there are even some nations that allow women to become wizards. Female spellcasters are generally called witches, hence the use of the Common word for 'witch' as a generic insult."

Jason thought of saying more—of loudly denouncing the assumptions Roland made—but he felt that it would be utterly useless, and so fell silent instead.

"Do you understand now?" said Roland, aware that something was wrong but ignorant of what it was.

"Yeah, I think so."

Roland looked at Jason for a few more seconds, then turned to Curtis, who'd been paying no attention to the conversation (not that he could understand it), and picked up where they'd left off in their discussion of mathematics. Jason slumped in his seat and sighed.

He'd been trying to ignore this theme for a while, half-hoping that the many clues he'd noticed were misleading him. Now, it was all too obvious. Roland, along with Gyeedian society in general, was sexist. Really sexist. Well, it could be worse—Jason remembered reading an article purportedly from a 1950s American women's magazine that had said "a good wife always knows her place"—but all told, it was pretty bad.

Jason was gripped with the urge to fight this sexism—if not to become some kind of activist, then at least to challenge Roland's beliefs. Then the pessimistic side of his mind reminded him how hopeless either endeavor would be. He hadn't really noticed this problem for so long because it was invisible; it wasn't talked about. Sexism was so thoroughly ingrained into the Gyeedian zeitgeist that it was taken for granted. There were feminists in Gyeeds, but all they'd done was grant women suffrage to put the city a bit more in line with the rest of the modern world. If they now planned on breaking through the glass ceiling, they were being awfully quiet about it. In short, trying to overcome sexism in Gyeeds would be like—well, very much like trying to overcome ageism in the United States. It would be hard to argue for an issue when most people didn't even recognize it as an issue.

It was funny, come to think of it, how nicely Gyeeds treated children. Gyeedian children weren't second-class citizens or sub-humans; they had all the rights of adults, and also a few more, by reason of the handicap of their physical form and (in many cases) financial and emotional dependence on adults. The Common equivalent to the word "minor", when used in reference to children, was widely considered demeaning and offensive, whereas in the Terran West it was the proper term. Jason had to admit that on the whole, Gyeeds was a much more pleasant place to be a kid—a male kid, at least—than his country of birth.

Well, Jason supposed, the fact that the distribution of bigotry was so arbitrary was a testament to the arbitrary nature of bigotry itself.

"…that I was 'naturally magically inept'." Jason was saying to Curtis.

"Wow. That stinks."

Roland was about to say something, but he was cut short by Jason. The boy hurriedly motioned to the other two to shut up and stay still. He tapped his nose meaningfully: he had smelled something suspicious.

The party was in a hallway in Roland's apartment building, just a few steps away from the adventurer's home. Jason tiptoed over to the door and ran his nose along its side, its lock, and its bottom edge. "There are three men in there." he whispered to Roland and Curtis, walking back to them. "They never opened the door, but somehow, they got in. One's near the couch, another's near the kitchen counter, and the third's in your bedroom, Roland. They're not budging an inch, so they're probably hiding. And, there's some other smell which they've each got an instance of; I haven't smelled it before, so I don't know what it is."

"They must have looked in through the window and teleported inside." said Roland. "Now, they hope to ambush us."

"They must be Jacob Triskin's lackeys!" Jason hissed. "Can you two handle them?"

Roland looked at Curtis, who had been paying attention. "Can you hold your own in combat?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Excellent." said Roland. "All right, what you need to know is that these men are most likely armed with Piercers… do you know what those are?" Curtis nodded. "Good. So, you can use Projectile Shields, but don't rely on them to protect you; fight aggressively." He concisely described the pertinent parts of the apartment's layout. "So, open the goozack, run into my room, and take care of that fellow as quickly as possible, then come back to help me with the other two. With luck, we'll be able to dispatch them all before they've even registered our presence."

"I'll just stay back here." said Jason.

Roland smiled. "A wise plan."

After a bit more strategizing, Roland slowly unlocked the door, as quietly as possible. Then, Roland teleported inside at the same moment that Curtis threw open the door. Jason watched from afar as Curtis ran into Roland's room and Roland conjured two Projectile Shields. Two men popped out of hiding and opened fire, with Piercers. Roland quickly struck back with some of the strongest spells he could muster. One gunner was instantly knocked out by a strong bolt of electricity; the other was set on fire and writhed about for a moment until Roland killed him with more lightning.

The man in Roland's room screamed. Roland rushed in there, ignoring the fact that his couch was on fire for the moment. A few seconds later, he shouted and ran back into the living room, though he didn't look seriously alarmed. He then turned his attention to the fire, casting a spell over it. A perfect sphere of liquid water appeared in the air and fell down on the flames, extinguishing them. Roland frowned at the large black mark that was left behind.

Curtis sauntered out of the bedroom with—Jason involuntarily squeaked with terror—a huge emerald cobra wrapped around his arms, and a proud smile on his face. The snake had its hood extended, though it wasn't hostile towards Curtis. It looked around the room, its long, forked tongue darting in and out of its mouth.

"Get rid of that." Roland snapped.

"Man, you're no fun." said Curtis. He said a word of power and the serpent disappeared in a flash of green light.

"All clear." Roland called to Jason.

Jason cautiously walked into the apartment, closing the door behind him. "Where did that snake come from?"

"I made it." said Curtis. "Wasn't it awesome?"

"Er…"

"You've got to be crazy to make creatures in a fight like that." said Roland. "Why didn't you just use a conventional combat spell?"

"It was a great fight for monsters!" Curtis declared. "That guy was hiding in a little space, so I just made a snake and threw it at him. Then I stunned him while he was busy with it."

"Why didn't it bite you?" asked Jason.

"'Cause it was my monster."

"Created creatures only attack those whom the caster wishes them to." Roland explained.

"Actually, why don't mages just use that stunning spell all the time?" said Jason. "It seems like a more elegant and humane way to take enemies down than…" He looked at the corpses. "Electrocuting them or burning them to death."

"It is," said Roland, "but it has a prohibitively short range, which keeps it from being very useful in combat."

"Oh."

"Hey!" someone shouted from the hallway. "What was all that ruckus about?"

Jason paused for a moment, then opened the door and poked his head out. A suited woman was standing just outside another apartment, looking at him critically. "Sorry, ma'am," said Jason, "we're just, uh, having a little party. We just came back from Dojum, y'see."

"I heard gunshots!"

"Yeah, I keep telling Roland to turn the TV down. Now he'll listen, hopefully. We'll be quieter."

The stranger didn't look entirely satisfied by this explanation, but, apparently deciding she'd accept it for now, she went back into her home.

Jason shut the door. "Hey, I never knew I could lie that well. Pretty good, eh, Roland?"

"It was decent. You should avoid using stalling words like 'uh', since they're often enough to tip people off."

"Yes, as you can see, Curtis," said Jason, "we have a professional liar right here: a politician!" Curtis laughed.

"That joke really isn't funny after you've heard it the first five hundred times." Roland said bitterly. "Now, Jason, can you identify that unknown scent?"

"Oh yeah, that." He sniffed around and eventually found himself at the rifle of the man who Roland had knocked out. "It's the smell of a firearm." He looked at Roland and Curtis. They seemed unsure of what to do now, just as Jason was. "But seriously, guys: what're we gonna do with the bodies?"

"I can dispose of corpses with relative ease." said Roland. "Curtis, did your snake manage to bite that man?"

"Yeah, a few times."

"He's most likely doomed to die, then."

"Doomed to die?" said Jason. "If we get him to a hospital, quickly, then they can save him, right?"

"And precisely how would we go about getting him to a hospital?" said Roland.

"Er… uh… good point. Dang, another pointless death!"

"Pointless? He was trying to kill us, remember?"

"Yeah, yeah." Jason grumbled.