An opening vignette, Threat Assessment
Think of this as a prologue for an anthology work in progress. About 2800 words.
Amexigo Vanarus thought there was always something oily about Jorn Avis. Maybe it was the sheen in his black, slicked-backed hair. Or the thin smile pulling at his waxy complexion. Or the rodent cunning in his studious eyes. Or maybe it was that he spoke like he had a terrible idea to push, that he knew it was terrible, he knew you knew it was terrible, yet he was going to spin it as if it were the most wondrous idea ever. And, despite your best efforts, you were going to buy it. “So,” Avis said from the high-backed booth as Amex collapsed his bulk across from him, “what would you say is the greatest threat to our society?”
Amex blew out a sigh as he settled onto the maroon vinyl cushion, and felt confined in the small booth of reddish-black, fake wood paneling whose high gloss threw reflections of light into his eyes. A black cup of coffee steamed between Avis’ relaxed hands on the dark, gleaming table top. Avis had a penchant for meeting potential business partners in cafés such as this. The crowd and noise mitigated his paranoia. Safety in autonomy and numbers for the man with long, secretive goals in play. Amex had been caught up is his schemes before, and here he was again. He considered the question posed to him. “Oh, I don't know. Pavona’s increasing authoritarianism, and recent crackdown on fleeing refugees? You know, if they send even as small fleet here, Mercator hasn't—”
Avis waved the dreadlocked man’s words away with a scowl. “That's nothing. The astute observer will note revolutionary conflicts happen every three to four generations in some form or manner. The people will sort that out, as they have time and time again; the Calisennes overthrew tyranny, espoused liberty, became despots, and were in turn overthrown. Then there were the internecine conflicts in the decades after, followed by ratification of the Federal Architecture that united the worlds into our Greater Pavonan Expanse, and now liberty on Pavona is once again being eroded.” He paused to lean back and slurp his coffee. “My concern is not that at all. Society gets through those troubles without the dire threat of total extermination.”
There might be something to what Avis suggested, Amex thought as he eyed-up the cafés’ drink menu and glanced at the options hovering in his sight. True, there were patterns, but causes for conflict were nuanced. Perhaps he wasn't that astute an observer. That, and he didn't care. There was money to be made in any conflict. On any side. That's how he played it. He certainly played it here on Mercator in the minor urban conflicts on the streets of Cratertown. Avis did not seem to be angling for a splash up with rivals. “Nice history lesson. Can't say that I see the relevance.” Being too early in the cycle for a stout bock, he settled on a chilled local tea and whisked away the menu.
“Merely an aside.” Avis held his mug at the edge of his pointy chin with both hands, elbows on the table, and studied Amex as if planning his next move. “But history does play into what I have to tell you.” He drank quietly and set the cup down.
“Then you'll have the advantage. I was never one for history.”
“Not to worry. I know it well,” Avis said and Amex wondered how old the man really was. He could pass between thirty and fifty Pavic years, yet he seemed to carry the wisdom of a man who had done, seen, and learned everything there was to do, see, and learn, whose dark, hard eyes watched everyone with the condescending knowledge that their struggles did not matter. Everything was for naught. No one had any control.
Except Jorn Avis.
“I hope you keep it short, and get to point,” Amex said, checking his internal clock. He didn't want to spend all his short daylight hours jawing with Avis.
Avis gave him a greasy smile. “My friend, you will need an adequate preface to understand the true scope of the endeavor we are to embark upon.” He took a moment to sip his drink.
A young boy arrived at the booth with Amex's chilled tea and a dirty face tight with nervous eagerness. The hulking man reached into his inner coat pocket and withdrew a drawstring bag, and poured several bits into the boy's small hand. The child murmured a “Thank you, Master,” in a strong Junc accent as he tucked away the bismuth bronze coins, and was about to leave when Avis stopped him.
“Hold up lad.” Avis turned his soiled gaze to Amex, “Do you play chess?”
“I've dabbled in it.”
Avis eyes brightened. “Indulge me in a game.” To the boy he said, “Fetch us a board son,” and raising his near empty cup, added, “and a full tankard.”
The boy dropped his chin in courtesy, “Right away, masters,” and hurried off.
Amex squinted at Avis as the man's eyes followed the boy into the crowd of patrons. “I agreed to meet you out morbid curiosity.” He raised the tall, thin glass to his lips and sampled the tea. Pleasant. But with a dull tang of scorched leaves. Tea drinkers knew there were no two identical brews of tea, thus different tastes were to be expected, and accepted. Advis returned his attention and Amex continued, “But I can't say I'm exactly thrilled to get involved with another of your affairs. I lost favor with the Raavencaas on that last score, favor that was four times harder to gain than to lose.”
Avis freed his swindler's grin. “Well, yes. But, thanks to your hard work, their political alliances are better suited to my needs.” He drained the last dregs of his cup. “And, as I recall, you were compensated well.”
The glass pivoted against the table in Alex’s wide hand. “So you want to hire me to bend political power to your will again?” It would cost Jorn Avis. More than it had before. The more enemies Amex garnered, the less freedom of movement he enjoyed through the many districts and enclaves of Cratertown. He would have to relocate, or pay bribes, taxes, tributes, or whatever the powers that be wanted to call the money they would extort from him. The tea seemed to have gotten bitter.
Avis shook his head. “Nothing so extravagant, but far more important.” Amex waited through the dramatic pause. “I want you to find something,” Avis said, his eyes gleaming with hope and excitement.
The service boy arrived with the insulated canister of hot coffee, and the worn box treasuring the folded chess board and pieces. “Ah, just in time,” Avis said taking the tankard and moving it to his right beside the empty cup to make space for the board. He reached a hand into his coat and pulled it out with three slips in the pincers of his two fingers. The boy took the bills with the glee of being overpaid and the fear he was being tricked, and dashed away before Avis could snatch them back. The slick man chuckled his amusement.
Avis gathered the coffee thermos in his thin, spidery hands and began spinning the top. He told Amexigo, “Set up the board—I'll be black—and I'll tell you about this threat, and how we might stop it.”
“Right,” Amex growled, setting his drink to the side and pulling the folded board from the box. He laid it flat, catching its musty odor, the checkerboard torn and ripped here and there. Collecting the pieces, he saw many of them did not belong to this set. While a few were plastic, striated from cheap printing, the others were carved stone, worn and smoothed by countless fingers, cracked and chipped, one white rook missing its castellated head. The white pieces had lost their luster, now aged dull gray, while the black ones had lost their obsidian depths, now only the heavy gray of the thunderheads outside with their persistent torrent of rain. He set them in position, wary of taking command of small white army. “You sure you want me to go first?” He had never played against Avis.
Jorn Avis smiled politely as he could and sipped his fresh hot coffee. “I grant you the advantage.” Mischief lingered in his eyes.
Amex scowled, doubting any advantage. He drained half his glass and shrugged. “Let's start.”
Amex wasted no time in advancing his king’s pawn two ranks to the center of the board.
Avis rubbed his chin in contemplation, leaning over the table. He began to explain, “It was some four thousand years ago when humanity arrived in this part of the galaxy, ferried within the generational worldships. Mind you, it wasn't humanity that designed and built those ships—”
“It was the Great Minds,” Amex interrupted. “Everyone knows that legend.”
“Yes,” Avis frowned, and sipped coffee. “The Great Minds, the machine intellects, the descendants of the first super intelligent machines created during the second technological revival on Earth. It was also they that controlled the operation of the worldships, and governed the passengers, keeping everyone busy, and quelling conflicts before they got out of hand.”
Avis moved his own king’s pawn to face off and block Amex’s. “Things were going quite splendid until the younger generation—the one that soon settled Pavona—grew tired of their machine overlords, and rebelled.” The thin man leaned back and held his coffee, watching Amex mull over the board.
“And the Great Minds left,” Amex recalled from legend, a fairy tale his mother would recite to lull him to sleep. Studying the board, he figured one move was as good as another. An aggressive stratagem wouldn't hurt. He moved his king-side knight into the space occupied by his opening move, and then leaned back to drink his tea.
Avis scratched his throat, pondering Amex’s plans on the board. “Yes, the Great Minds left our ancestors, taking with them vast knowledge.” He took a mouthful of coffee and swallowed. “Several generations after Pavona was settled, our ancestors were barely holding on to electrical production. The one worldship in orbit was a small moon they had no hope of reaching. A mere beacon of what once was. And perhaps the motivation to reinvigorate science and technology. In the last thousand years we developed powerful drives: the mysterious displacement drive—which must be like the drive the apaxan use, which fell out of use because sometimes the ships vanished, never to be seen again—the drives that warp space for superluminal travel—but take a long time to arrive anywhere—and the near instantaneous wormhole drive, which has allowed most of our ships to be designed strictly for orbital flight.”
“And this has what to with anything?”
Avis smiled with a light chuckle, and lifted his queen to land the piece along a diagonal to the edge of the board. If not for the pawn blocking her, Amex saw he would be in check. Avis said, “The point is, as powerful as our drives are, we are still putting around in a sphere eleven thousand light-years across. Roughly given.”
“Alright,” Amex said reviewing his options. He didn't think Avis would move his own queen to capture the pawn, leaving him to capture the queen with his king. It would get a piece off the board, however he would lose a move getting his king back into safety. Avis was holding his bitch in reserve. Amex would have to take her out whenever he had another chance. He pulled his other knight out from behind the rank of pawns to c3 on the chessboard. “I have no idea how big eleven thousand light years is.”
Avis mimicked the move, taking his worn-smooth queen-side knight and placing it in the same file. With a sigh he said, “You know how far Kesset is from Derelict Junction?”
“Roughly.” Derelict Junction had become a hub world to planets at the edge of the Expanse, and was the closest Expanse world to Mercator. He had heard of Kesset, out there in the deep black, alone. Couldn’t say he ever met anyone from there.
“Earth is thirty times as far. Practically the other side of the galaxy. Do you want me to flash you a map?”
The last thing Amex wanted was Avis putting things into his head. “No thanks. It's far, I get it.”
“Far enough that we have no current means to return to Earth.”
“Why would we want to?” Amex advanced a pawn to put the Black Queen in jeopardy, to force a retreat. He doubted Avis would be so stupid as to take that pawn, so that he could then take the queen with the pawn protecting his king. Would be nice though.
“We don't,” Avis admitted, and moved his queen out of immediate harm's way, a rank and file back. “As smart as we are, we aren't as smart as the Great Minds, and there are laws prohibiting the development of machine intelligence smarter than us. The Great Minds left an indelible impression in our cultural memory. The great boogeyman”—he raised his hands and shook them—“of our bedtime fairy tales. Doesn't stop anyone from looking for them, though.”
“I can well image the payoff.” Amex reached for a piece. The Black Queen was in the sight of his bishop, provided he move a pawn out of the way. Avis could sweep in and take his bishop, but at the cost to losing her Black Majesty to his own White Queen. Or rook. He didn't see Avis making that play. But he could tease the slippery bastard by jeopardizing his black pawn on the board, draw his attention away from his own queen. Amex advanced his pawn two ranks. He could lose it to Avis’ knight, but he could then take that knight with his own, probably losing the plastic piece to Avis’ pawn, but capturing that with his own queen.
Avis studied the board, drained his coffee, and poured another cup. “Yes, it would fetch a pretty penny. You know, this very planet sits between Pavona and Earth. Rumor has it, Hershanien Mercator explored this world for the explicit purpose of finding the Great Minds.” He cleared his throat. “There are, of course, many fears about finding them. If they exist, somewhere, they may be four thousand years more advanced than when they brought us out here. The rule in nature being that the smartest species rules over all.” He moved his knight and took the pawn Amex had just moved. “It's called having the strategic advantage.” He leaned back and sipped his hot brew. “Simply by virtue of being smarter than anyone else.”
“Yeah, you're crosting right.” Grinning broadly, Amex rushed his bishop to capture the black queen. He rubbed her between his thick fingers as he lifted the piece from the board and set it aside. You’re not going to get me with that bitch that easy. But Jorn Avis was not crestfallen.
Instead, he regarded Amex with a serious set to his face. “Mercator’s tomb is of grave interest to me.”
“The real one?”
“The real one,” Avis nodded. “I've been gathering information, and have come to believe he either found the Great Minds, or discovered their whereabouts. Old Herx Mercator took this knowledge to his death. Hence the decoy tombs thus found in the far reaches of this world that bears his name. I believe if we find his body, there will be enough of his weave intact enough to extract the data from its hard cache.”
“Sounds like finding the Great Minds isn't a smart thing to do, given they could be our masters. Is this what you want to do?”
“Find them yes, but for another reason.”
“What would that be?” In reply he got a ping from Avis requesting a pairing for file sharing. “Is this necessary?”
Amex surrendered and then eyed up the file ported to his fluid cache. It was a low resolution image, as if zoomed and enhanced from a small detail. There appeared to be a tight cluster of white orbs against a background of unfocused stars presented in an EM spectrum mix. “What is this?”
Avis leaned over the table. “That my friend, is a single ship, or a fleet of them, heading along the old flight path of the worldships. From Earth. If they can reach us, they no doubt will have the strategic advantage. It's imperative we find Mercator's tomb. Because if we don't have Great Minds of our own,” he lifted his knight and set it down on the chessboard’s f3 square, and the energy seemed to drain out of Amex’s face when he realized what had happened. “Then my friend, it's …
Last edited by psCargile; 16th Feb 2017 at 15:47.
Keep moving forward.