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Halfway Between Albany and West Point
October kicks off with John Chu’s thrilling vision of academia and his spectacularly embattled graduate student. ~ Julian and Fran, October 1, 2023
Halfway Between Albany and West Point
by John Chu
As Moseley hurls a knife at me from the balcony that overhangs the student union’s atrium, the student is enlightened. By “student,” I mean me. Sadly, it’s not in the humble “beginner’s mind” sense like it’s supposed to be, but in the exasperated “I so want to be done with my dissertation” sense. Moseley is a student too. Mine, for my sins. I just haven’t managed to enlighten him yet. Of anything. Certainly not imitative polyphony, like I’m supposed to. He, however, is enlightening me.
Now, let me be clear. The timing isn’t great.
Sometimes the protocols for a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial of improvised anticoagulant dagger coatings need to be modified right now. A grad student just wants to beat the deadline to the IRB office with his backpack of paperwork without an undergrad trying to assassinate him. Considering the four corners of Moseley’s practical, that’s not even unreasonable. The atrium is a lousy place to assassinate someone via flying dagger, especially when passing the practical is an exit requirement.
The student union is the nexus of the university campus. Everyone cuts through the atrium. It’s an open, airy space with a lot of foot traffic. Light streams down through the glass ceiling, flooding the area with a warm glow. The folks who are not passing through are sitting at tables doing student stuff like chatting with each other, wolfing down slices of pizza, or losing themselves in a good book. At least one electrical engineering undergrad always has their electronics components spilled across a table and is busy repacking them into a tackle box. The place does not exactly scream, “I can both hide you and, at the same time, supply good sight lines to your target.”
We don’t avoid undergrads outside of classes and office hours, or at least I don’t. But you’d think undergrads would give themselves the best possible chance of passing. They can choose any time, any place, and any instructor in the college they want, although everyone invariably picks a TA. Most undergrads wait until the end of the school year. Moseley went for seven weeks into the fall semester, the atrium, and me, his Intermediate Harmony and Counterpoint TA.
Sadly, no one gets to choose when a job or an epiphany strikes. I’ve never had a realization hit while I’m telescoping time before. It’s probably not that big an epiphany, but unfolding in slow motion, it feels like it’s remaking my world. The enlightenment burbles through me like bubbles through syrup. My world doesn’t so much shatter as much as it melts. It’s hard to do much of anything. My skin wants to writhe off my body. My heart beats too quickly. My lungs quiver. It’s a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. I’m not a fan.
When I was an undergrad, my Harmony and Counterpoint prof quipped that you learned to teach over the dead bodies of your students. Coming from Professor Smith, the metaphor puzzled me for years. It’s not that he can’t kill. He can and he absolutely has. I’ve seen him move grand pianos by himself. He could kill through brute force if he had to. What I couldn’t wrap my head around was Professor Smith killing by accident as he learned to teach. His lectures are breathtaking dance pieces accompanied by spoken word pieces about music theory interspersed with the occasional harmonic progression on the piano. It’s hard to imagine him doing anything by accident. If you were dead, it’s because he wanted you dead. As Moseley releases the dagger, though, I start to understand how Professor Smith might have killed without intending to.
The knife will plunge into my chest in about a second if I let it. This is both highly irritating and deeply disappointing. Evaluating his skill at assassination by dagger is not what I want to do right now. Moseley would do better once he’s gotten this year’s set of classes under his belt. A couple of weeks ago, during one of our instrument tutorials, I explicitly told him to wait until the end of the school year before plotting to kill anyone. Nothing says he had to listen to me, obviously. Even as he learned to teach over the dead bodies of his students, Professor Smith never had this problem, I bet.
As he was learning to teach, Professor Smith’s students didn’t flop over dead in the middle of his lectures. The dying came later. Yes, his lectures demonstrated what not to do. You have to know what nonconventional voice leading, for example, sounds like so that when you do it unintentionally, you know to fix it. No one dies, however, from a lecturer simply subjecting them to, say, a badly prepared or a badly resolved augmented sixth chord. Don’t get me wrong. Resolving to the dominant via parallel fifths is tragic. When it’s unintended, the parallel fifth gives you a vague sense of unease, but it’s hardly deadly. No one assassinates a CEO or corrupt judge by playing a harmonic progression that violates the conventions of common-practice Western tonal harmony at their wedding.
Moseley’s throw is predictably excellent. This is why he is irritating, not disappointing. The throw is smooth, swift, and true. His follow-through is exactly in the path of flight. I’m not a small target. Hitting me is not actually hard for someone with even the least bit of training, but the knife will literally stab me in the heart. He’s disappointing because he let me see not just the throw, but him preparing to throw. A normal person seeing in real time would have noticed. Giving your intended a heads-up is sporting, I suppose, but bad form.
Oh Lordy, thirty-seven milliseconds ago, I might have let the knife graze me and let him pass on technical virtuosity. I might have made the knife graze him instead and let him fail on sheer stupidity of execution. Neither response is right. I’m starting to get that as my world is re-formed.
Imagine with me, if you will, newly minted Assistant Professor Smith. He’s bright, eager, fearsome, but not nearly as fearsome as he will become by the time I take from him. His body still radiates with the vibes of someone who went to grad school while he was a linebacker for some professional football team. He is ostentatiously impressive. The calm, reassuring demeanor that will one day temper his fearsome presence is still very much a work in process. His virtuosic lectures stun rather than sear themselves into memory. Students sit gripped in a low-key panic. They’re paying attention, or at least they look like it. He knows his stuff, but whether how to resolve an augmented sixth chord sticks in his students’ minds is questionable. They wonder why voice-leading even matters.
The dagger has only traveled a few feet from Moseley so far. A smile lights up his face. He knows it’s a good throw. Unfortunately, he’s still just standing there. It’s been fifty-one actual milliseconds. For an undergrad, that’s at least a few subjective seconds, if they need it to be. This is plenty of time to start leaving and he knows better than to stay. Or at least he should.
Imagine, now, some poor beleaguered grad student, sitting at her desk in the office she shares with a dozen other TAs. An Astor Piazzolla tango is playing through her noise-canceling earbuds as she is working through the pile of Intro to Rhetoric finals the professor teaching the course unceremoniously dumped on her. Some undergrad taking newly minted Assistant Professor Smith’s music theory class is crouched above the TA in the space over the tiled roof, ready to strike. If the TA knows, she hasn’t let on. The undergrad is admirably silent as she waits for the right moment. No normal person would notice her, so even though the TA has, she is not allowed to prepare.
The undergrad weaves a soft countermelody into the Piazzolla tango, changing its harmonies. The TA can’t help but notice it, but the changes are soft enough and subtle enough that a typical person might not. She doesn’t take out the earbuds even though your typical target might.
Noticing does nothing by itself to prevent any effect. Knowing that the only reason why you’re so sleepy right now is due to the modified music playing through your earbuds doesn’t actually make you any less sleepy. It’s actually incredibly annoying. Well, not in the moment, because you’re so damn sleepy. But when the effect wears off, you’re pretty testy about it.
A ceiling tile shifts. The TA can’t hear the rustle through her earbuds, but she doesn’t need to. Her off hand shoots up, catches the thrown dagger by the hilt, flicks it around, then sends it back the way it came. She does this while scribbling a comment on someone’s exam paper. Her gaze never leaves the page.
“Not incompetent, but sketchy voice leading, Jane.” The TA moves on to the next final in her pile. “Also, Piazzolla would never.”
The countermelody doesn’t create the intended harmonies. The undergrad now has a knife graze across her forearm for her troubles. Because this is a practical, that’s as bad as it gets. Well, a scratch and a poor grade. There were any number of things she did right. In real life, though, she’d be a dead body. Hers is one of the many whom Professor Smith learned to teach over.
Moseley’s dagger splits into six shards. Each one glints in the sunlight. They revolve around each other as they spiral toward me. He won’t be taught how to do this until next year. That he already has the technique mastered is probably why he thinks he’s ready for the practical now. Unfortunately for him, it’s about putting it together, not just how well someone can toss a dagger. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I do, though, and guess whose job it is to tell him.
The revelation, if not the dagger, finally hits me. My heart rate slows. My breathing smooths. My skin stops trying to crawl off my body. The sharp flash of insight telescopes into a slow surge that washes over me. It feels more significant than I know it is. Still, revelation is revelation.
Newly minted Assistant Professor Smith became tenured, full Professor Smith without his students literally dying on him. Well, at least not while they were still students. It’s a tough field. The Rhetoric TA learned something about being on the other side of these practicals. I understand where I’m going wrong with Moseley.
School is where you can mess up and it’s not fatal. You get to try again.
I rub my hands. The dagger melds back together. It drops and slides to a stop at my feet. Moseley, unaccountably, is still here and stares, jaw agape. I pointedly make eye contact with him and give my best Seriously? glare as I scoop up the dagger and stick it in my backpack.
Time returns to normal. And, finally, Moseley leaves. It’s a guilty scramble rather than a casual walk that admits nothing. Everyone in the atrium is remarkably chill. For most of them, it all happened too fast to notice.
Moseley and I will talk about this at our next instrument tutorial in three days. Hopefully, by then, I’ll know what to say to him. In any case, he didn’t hit me, I didn’t graze him, so this practical never happened. He gets another chance. And if he messes that up, so help me, I’m going to learn to teach over the dead body of at least this student.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Uncanny, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Tor.com, among other places. His translations have been published or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, The Big Book of Science Fiction, and other places. He was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Ignyte Awards; won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”; and won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette for “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You.”
“Halfway Between Albany and West Point,” © John Chu, 2023.
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