CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Bad Guys Multiply, But One Might Turn...
...and with that essay on Deep Flanking open, he got nowhere in a big hurry.
A man entered the pub, looked around, and spotted Ambros. The fellow tipped his cap—a baseball cap with some amorphous left-ish symbolism where a team logo might ordinarily be—and nodded knowingly at Ambros.
Ambros’ hackles rose immediately, and his instincts started yelling at him: ‘Cop! Cop!’
The man nodded at him again. He groaned internally: ‘Another interruption...? Well, I am in a public place.’
He reminded himself that he’d got a lot done already, in the times between interactions: ‘New Pismo says...twenty pages, approximately 8000 words. Really? Excellent!’
He looked away, but kept the man in sight peripherally. He could see the man buying a pair of whiskies, and beginning to weave among the tables in his direction. He looked over his shoulder, confirming that his bug-out route remained clear.
He heard the sound of two shot glasses hitting the table; he looked back and found the man standing in front of him, left hand on the back of the facing chair. Ambros sent a mental command to his laptop: ‘Record this encounter’. It beeped quietly, acknowledging the command.
“Ambros Rothakis? Hector Miller,” the fellow said, holding out his hand: “Friends call me ‘Heck’.”
“Mr Miller,” said Ambros, pointedly, shaking the proffered hand.
“May I sit down? I bought you a Jameson’s...” Miller pushed the shot across the table towards Ambros.
Ambros shrugged: “I’ll accept that. Sit down. Do you have some business with me?” He did not touch the glass.
“I thought you might be interested in a project I’m developing...”
Ambros waited. Silence ensued.
Miller frowned: “No interest?”
“I don’t know you, although you seem to know who I am. You know what I drink,” he gestured.
“Nothing mysterious about that. I asked the barmaid.” Miller grinned.
Ambros’ expression made his doubts plain: “Nevertheless, I have no information about your project. I confess to some suspicion about your motives.” He leaned back in the chair, so he could confirm that the New Pismo was recording. It was, in 3D mode. “Enlighten me.” He doodled a bit on the touchpad, and the machine’s primary POV turned until it included the calendar of musical acts scrawled on a whiteboard by the door. Coincidently, it gave him a view of Miller’s face, sharply focused.
“My project...it has to do with AI.”
“I am no expert on Artificial Intelligence. I have some experience with Natural Stupidity, though…” Ambros left that hanging, hoping for confirmation of his suspicions.
Miller waited for a while, staring at Ambros and trying to get a response. Ambros sat there, enduring the examination, a somewhat self-deprecating not-smile upon his face.
“We aren’t looking for expertise in AI. We are…” Miller regarded him even more closely as he finished: “...we are opposed to AI in general. Our project is about slowing or stopping the development of AI.”
“You want to prevent The Singularity, then, or perhaps at least delay it?”
After a moment more Miller said: “Yes, at least delay it.”
“How would you do it?”
Ambros laughed: “This is your project, your proposal. I have no personal stake in your ideas.”
“As yet,” said Miller.
Ambros remained silent, again. He took a miniscule sip from the whiskey his companion had provided.
“No response?” Miller asked.
Another head shake: “People have set traps for me, in the past.”
“I see.” Miller leaned back, raising his chin and appearing to see Ambros for the first time: “May I attempt to persuade you of my bona fides? My associates and I would very much like to recruit you to our…” He trailed off, and paused.
“Perhaps ‘conspiracy’ is the word you are seeking.”
“Perhaps it is.”
“Tell me something…” Ambros began, the wry SB grin starting to appear: “If I were to pretend to have an interest in this conspiracy, would you have a way for us to communicate in some less...public...forum?”
Miller took a card out of his shirt pocket: “If you were to go to this Webz-site and register the email address on the reverse of the card, we could speak privately.”
‘He took the bait,’ Ambros thought. He glanced at the card: “This is a Dark Webz address code,” he said, amused.
Ambros drew a deep breath: “I’ll consider the offer.”
Miller said: “I think…”
Ambros interrupted: “I said I’d consider the offer. Away with you, for now. I’m working on a novel, here, eh?”
Miller hesitated, only for a fraction of a second: “Very well. I’ll let you get back to it.”
“Please do.” Ambros made sure the shot glass stayed near his hand: ‘No, he’s not taking any fingerprints away with him.’
He looked at the booze, and ran the entire encounter back in his mind, like a videotape on Fast Forward. He took a slightly larger sip, satisfied that there was no way for Miller to have drugged it.
Miller weaseled through the crowd and found a spot at the bar, from which he continued to observe Ambros. Ambros touched the New Pismo and saved the recording it had just made, then began to type. He extracted a mug-shot style pair of stills from the video, and set up a search: ‘All gov’t, police, intel, and military databases, local to Interpol,’ he typed.
He stroked his beard and gazed at the ceiling, imagining a brief wait. To his surprise the machine pinged him almost immediately, and he looked at the screen.
“Huh,” he said. He pondered the info his machine had uncovered: ‘DIA, seconded to the FBI, special undercover operative, etc, blah blah. Got at least ten aliases.”
The machine pinged again. He clicked on the alert bar and saw that “Miller” was using a very sophisticated spyware program to try and invade his system. He looked up at the fellow and grinned sarcastically, then typed an order to his machine.
“Son of a…” Miller didn’t finish the exclamation, because his O-Phone was starting to smoke and sputter. Sparks flew and curses flew as well.
Alex the bartender doused the phone in water and politely escorted Miller to the door. He then approached Ambros: “That guy a friend of yours?”
“Never saw him before today,” Ambros replied: “He approached me about a business deal of some kind, though how he heard of me I’ve no idea.”
“Huh. He came to the bar and ordered ‘two Ambros specials’, like he knew you.”
“He evidently knows more about me than I like. And he told me that he’d asked for whatever I drank.”
“Huh. He’s a liar, then. I heard him order. I don’t like him, he ‘smells’ wrong.”
“I get you. He set off some alarms for me, too.”
“What about his business offer? You gonna take it?”
“Probably not. But I might lead him on for a while, till I figure out how he got his knowledge of me.”
A call came from the kitchen: “Hey Alex! Got a issue here!”
“Gotta go,” said the barman. Ambros nodded, then got back down to the nitty-gritty.
He sent a copy of the pseudo-mugshot to Zazu Johnson, anarchist maven and mentor to most of the young anarchists in the area, along with a query: ‘Do you know this mug?’ Then he set back to work on his essay on “Deep Flanking”.
To his surprise he got a message back from Johnson almost immediately. A very terse statement: “You in town?” was all it read.
‘I am, at Samuel B’s,’ he replied.
‘Please stay there, I’ll be right over.’
Ambros started to type ‘I hear you’, then paused. He mused: ‘That would be a dead giveaway to any ATL agent who read it that I was a Hellenic Commonwealth operative.’ He didn’t think they could hack his machine, but he was certain that they could hack Johnson’s.
“No,” he muttered to himself: “No, that’s not too paranoid. Maybe I haven’t been careful enough. Gotta ponder that.”
Instead he sent: “Will do” to Zaz, and went again back to his work.
Half an hour later, Zazu entered the bar and stepped up to order, pulling a wad of dollar bills out of his pocket. Ambros signed to the barman, and that worthy put Zazu’s drink on Ambros’ tab, waving off the proffered payment.
“Thanks,” said Johnson, sitting down in the chair lately occupied by Miller. His longish hair, bushy beard, and wire framed glasses made him look like a professor or a scholar---or a classic nineteenth century Anarchist gadfly. His clothes screamed ‘working class intellectual’, and that description fit: Ambros knew that Zazu worked for a local landscaper to make his living. “Where’d you get an HD photo of that Miller guy, mugshotted?”
Ambros smiled wryly: “He was sitting right there an hour ago.” He patted his New Pismo: “I used this machine to record the meeting.”
“With a Pismo?”
“It ain’t what it looks like.”
“I guess not. I’d be careful around that guy if I were you. He smells like a cop to us at the Collective.” That name had stuck to Johnson’s home, which served as a clearinghouse and meeting space for the local anti-authoritarian community.
“He is a cop.” Ambros let his amusement show.
“How do you know?”
“I hacked his personnel file.” He turned the machine around and let Johnson see the docs. Ambros watched Zazu’s face hawkishly.
“Okay,” said Johnson after a while.
“It’s not that I’m a great hacker, you know. It’s just that I have an extremely souped up machine, here. Keep that, and Miller’s identity, under your hat, okay?”
“Why not expose him?”
“I want to destroy him, not just expose him. Look, he actually has a commendation on his record, for that ‘Miami 8’ disaster. He led the group, planned the action, supplied the explosives (which were fake) and gave the order to the poor fool who pushed the button. Six people are in prison for doing what he suggested they do.”
“Yeah. Classic entrapment.”
“So I want to play him for a while. I want to find out what he’s up to—some kind of long con, I expect, of that old-fashioned entrapment sort—and what else he knows about me. If you keep quiet, I can probably get you a lot of info on what the feds know about you, and the Collective.”
After a pause, just long enough to make the statement believable, Johnson said: “Right. He’s all yours. Anything we can do to help?”
“Yes, play him from your end. Keep him at arm’s length at first, then let him think he’s winning your trust. Let him run the printer, or change diapers, or carry unimportant messages.”
“I see where you’re going. I can let that happen by itself...some of the less sophisticated members of the Collective are already leaning his way. Me and Toby and Allison can make sure he doesn’t get too deep in.”
“Yes. I hope you make him look like a real fool.”
“I hope to do that. Keep me in the loop, Zazu.”
Zazu finished his beer, and let Ambros have a half-grin, somewhat sarcastic: “Will do, Ambros.” The light glinted off the thick lenses of his spectacles as he rose to leave.
Ambros leaned back in his seat. He stared at the ceiling for a short time, and then: ”Back to work!” he muttered, emphatically. He shook his hands out and began to type…
He dropped in to Athino, intent on finding Voukli. When he finished his now-customary walk around the War Room, he checked the Information and Data Guild board by the door. That sent him to his MPS to pick up a message.
“Huh,” he said: “That was quick.” He sent a note to Voukli, and made for the Plataeo where Magistros Votos kept his booth.
He arrived at the same time Voukli did: “What’s up?” she asked.
“Picking up some boots, or so the message said.”
She raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Master Votos welcomed them very formally, with salutes and bows and respectful words. Ambros suspected that his arrival in tandem with Voukli had something to do with that.
“Try these, Spathos, I hope you will be pleased...”
Ambros sat in the chair that Votos indicated and pulled the left boot on: “Fits perfectly, of course,” he said; he thought: ‘Whoa. These are fit for a king...or a highly-placed Spathos.’ He forced himself to look at himself that way: ‘I am that highly placed, now. Best watch that it doesn’t go to my head.’ It occurred to him that Voukli would be watching for that, too.
Votos had fashioned the boots of very heavy black leather; to Ambros’ inquiry he replied: “Water buffalo, from Hindustano.” The stuff felt supple and soft; once on his foot it seemed to mold to him, subtly supporting but allowing full movement.
The top of each boot had a folded-over flap in red, and lighter weight red leather appliqués hid metal and ceramic reinforcements that braced the ankles and helped to hold the boots close. The soles were of something similar to the glue-and-shredded-rubber that he had on his Free Walkers.
Votos said: “I put an arch support into each boot, customized to your feet, as I measured them. You will feel as though you are barefoot, but the supports will offer some protection against rolling or spraining your feet and ankles.”
Ambros nodded: “Pardon me saying so, but I am not likely to wear these in combat. They strike me as dress boots, primarily.”
Votos bowed slightly: “You will use them as you wish. If you must fight in them, they will serve you well.”
“No doubt.” Ambros stood up, moving his feet and wiggling things: “Like my Free Walkers, I do indeed feel barefoot. It took some time to accustom myself to that feeling, you know? Booted but barefoot...”
They took leave of the Master Cobbler, who took possession of Ambros’ Commonwealth-issue fighting boots: “I will have my Apprentice deliver these to your locker at the Command Complex.”
“Thank you.” To Voukli he said: “Where we going?”
She shrugged: “You need to eat? We could try that place where we had lunch a while back...”
After lunch, Voukli and Ambros strolled along. They went hand-in-hand, neither one in a hurry to advance their foreplay. They talked of various light subjects. Ambros enjoyed the many views of the City that various streets allowed: at no time did they get far from the Akropolis, which always drew his eye. Even in late fall the plantings on the flanks of that hill bloomed; on the west side, among the flowers and evergreens, he could see gardeners working, carrying more soil and compost up the stairs and dispersing it to the beds and crannies where the plants flourished under their care.
Voukli had begun a story about her first days in training with Taros Stratos, her predecessor as Arrenji’s Chief Assistant; Ambros had already begun to laugh.
They turned a corner right into Regulos and some of his friends.
Tantalos said: “Come on, Reg, let’s just leave. We were leaving anyway...”
“Yeah,” said Regulos: “But now I smell something bad. Nepotism or something. Hey Rothakis, how many times you have to make her come to get each lesson?”
Ambros breathed in deeply and pulled on Voukli’s hand. He drew her into a café at the side of the plaza and asked for some tea.
Regulos trailed behind him, still needling: “Whoa, look at those boots. How does a guy like you get a sweet pair of boots like that?”
Ambros sighed. He handed Voukli a glass of tea and sipped at his own. Voukli shook her head, disbelievingly.
“C’mon, man, where’d you get the boots? That’s master class work, there!”
Ambros shrugged: “Votos offered. Who am I to refuse?”
“Master Votos? Nnngggah!...You...you slacker son of a barbarian dog!”
There followed a moment of deep silence, as everyone in the café stared at Regulos. After that moment, they all swiveled their heads to Ambros.
He leaned toward Voukli and whispered: “People in general think he went too far there, huh?”
“If you knifed him dead right now, this bunch would carry his corpse to the cemetery and drop it by the Slackers’ burial ground.”
“Uh-huh,” said Ambros, thinking hard.
His proximity to Voukli pulled Regulos back to his original theme: “Hey, citizen! How does it feel to be such a—what’s the word? I don’t recall. Someone who sells himself for money, like in barbarian Lines? There’s a word in Koine. No Hellene would do his teacher in exchange for special treatment, so we don’t have that word in Rational Hellenic.”
Ambros found himself starting to grind his teeth. He breathed deeply again. He spoke to Voukli, very quietly: “In spite of the beliefs of my Pacifist friends, there is such a thing as ‘fighting words’. You would be justified in challenging him, wouldn’t you?”
“If I weren’t Sacred Band, I would have already.”
“That’s right,” Ambros mused: “I heard that we don’t challenge very often. What, it’s not sporting?”
“That’s one way to put it,” Voukli said, grimly: “We could get out of here...”
Ambros narrowed his eyes: “I’m inclined to let this play out, this time. Kinda tired of it, you know?”
“Your call,” she replied.
Reg had called up an MPS, the Red Warrior type, significantly less powerful than Ambros’. It beeped audibly, something Ambros device had never done.
“Hey,” said Reg: “My wristy is blocked.”
Ambros had never heard anyone call an MPS a “wristy”, but it made a kind of sense. He held up his own MPS and said: “Yes. I blocked you.” He waved some handsigns at his own machine and said: “The word you are searching for is ‘Porní’—or, I suppose, pornos: a male prostitute.” He switched to American: “A whore.”
Regulos stood there steaming: “You blocked my access to the Library?”
Ambros shrugged: “But I gave you the information you were seeking. Besides, now you have true cause for a challenge. In case you really want one.”
Tantalos and another man each had one of Regulos’ arms; he pulled free and drew a heavy leather glove from his belt. He threw it at Ambros, hard.
Ambros laughed as he stood up and slipped sideways, letting the thing fly by. He snatched it out of the air as it passed.
He tossed it lightly back at Reg: “All right,” said Ambros: “You win. I’ll fight you.” He turned to Voukli: “Pray guide my steps, Magistri. I am somewhat unfamiliar with the rules of this encounter in Athino Prima.” That was an exaggeration; he’d done some study, but he wanted the whole process out in the open.
Voukli said: “I am honored to do so.” She stepped forward and gained the attention of Regulos and his buddies: “I am Magistri Voukli Comanchaeneni, Master in the Sacred Band. I am Dhefterí. Speak to me.”
Regulos was glowering: “I can’t believe you people... standing second for a barbarian.”
Voukli’s entire body relaxed, in a way that alarmed Ambros.
She said: “Would you like to challenge me, as well?”
Ambros nearly choked: ‘Will he do it? He’d have to be insane...he hasn’t much of a chance against me, Voukli would slice him up and eat him.’
Regulos glowered, and Ambros thought for a moment that he really would.
Regulos growled: “...never mind. He’s the Defender, he chooses first.”
“He does.” She turned to face Ambros, ignoring Reg: “As the challenged party, you make the first and last of three choices: time, place, and weapons. I advise you choose place, and make it the Arena. Then he has to choose one of the others, and maybe he’ll choose reedswords.”
“Why should I not choose reedswords? That would make it safer for him.”
“I advise you not to choose weapon style. As the challenger, Regulos can use your choice, whatever it is, against you in the world of public opinion, which would affect your Status in this Timeline.”
Ambros nodded: “The Arena, then.”
Voukli turned to Regulos: “The Arena; your choice. Weapons or time?”
Tantalos, Reg’s best friend, was shaking the challenger by his shoulder, hissing inaudibly in his ear. Regulos shrugged off his pal’s hand and said: “Steel. Live, sharp, steel. Arming coats and kevloid gloves.”
Tantalos groaned: “Man, that’s suicidal. C’mon Reg, I don’t want to have to bury you...”
Regulos turned around and shoved Tantalos backwards: “I haven’t asked you to bury me. Shut up!”
“Fine,” said Tantalos, and went to sit on a bench near the door. The crowd in the café watched, some worried, some amused. They all stayed well back from the confrontation, though.
Reg grinned at Voukli: “Your man have the balls to face steel, Magistri?” His sarcastic tone made it clear that he respected her Rank not at all.
Voukli ignored him, and spoke to Ambros: “You have to name a date. One way out is to name a time far in the future: ten years or so is the standard.”
“That makes it look like I’m afraid of him, though. Right?”
“Well...yes, to anyone who doesn’t know your skill level with a sword. It would also boost Reg’s Status with some people, and lower your own. It would have no effect on your Rank or position; those are determined within Sacred Band, and Regulos has no standing there.”
“Uh-huh.” Ambros pondered: “Nah, I don’t like it. I’ve dealt with bullies like this before.” He lowered his voice, as though talking to himself: “I never had to actually cut one of them...
“Still, he won’t back off until he’s physically chastised. Maybe not then, but certainly not before. So...” He spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Six days from today, at the Arena, Fourth Bell.”
Reg laughed: “Need to get your affairs in order, huh?”
“That is absurd,” said Ambros, deadpan. He turned back to the bar and asked for another cup of tea.
The man acting as barista in the café made a handsign to Tantalos. That worthy took Reg’s arm and began to lead him out of the place.
“You’ve offended everyone in here, dude. Lucky you’re standing. C’mon, Reg, you’ll get us all clobbered...” He led Regulos out into the misty rain.
Ambros sighed: “Is there any hope for that man?”
“I don’t see it.”
They moved over to a table and sat down.
Voukli changed the subject: “Let’s talk about something more interesting, endaxi? I heard from Dhiamanti that you watched her daughter’s team play at Strat-tac.” She smiled: “Team Orange.”
His mind went back to the game: “I happened upon the match.”
“What did you think of the game?”
“What, as a game? The rules of it, the...the interesting sociological aspects, or the outcome of the match?”
“Yes,” Voukli said, grinning.
“It was a hard-fought contest. Evidently.”
“Most of it happened out of sight of the crowd.”
She grinned: “It’s not set up to be a spectator sport.”
“I saw a video of the thing posted on the Kyklo, shot from one of those little flying cameras...”
“Did you watch it?”
He shook his head: “I already knew who won. The parents of the kids probably watch that stuff.”
She nodded: “And the rules?”
He laughed: “I barely know the rules. But as a test of tactical and strategic thinking, it looks pretty good. What really intrigued me was the way the kids do all of the organizing and negotiate the fine points of the rules among themselves. It’s damn clever...kids that age are nearly provisional adults here, and that game teaches a bunch of skills they will very soon need.”
He stared at her, amused: “So that leads me to wonder: how many of them figure that out, and when?”
“Doesn’t matter. Gets them out and running, gets them thinking, and even the least athletic kids get a spot on the teams. Clever kids can strategize...”
“I get it. But grownups didn’t make up this game. This is not Little League. Adults had nothing to do with it, as I understand it...kids did the whole thing, passing the ideas down from cohort to cohort since the early days of the Commonwealth.”
“So who is holding that together?”
“Who is?” She challenged him with her voice, with her eyes.
He sat there, contemplating. “It has to be...the oldest kids, the ones about to age out of the game...The ones who figure out what the game is for...”
“I think that’s not how to look at it. What is the game for?”
He nodded: “Right. The game is not for education or for its good effects.”
“It’s for itself,” she agreed: “And the kids. Not for the benefit of adults, or for its benefit to society, but for them.”
“But...” he said, a sly smile stealing over his features: “It had and has those benefits. Benefits to the kids themselves, individually, as well as to their cohort...”
“... their cohort as a whole, and to the Polis, and to the Commonwealth...”
“And the oldest kids see that, and...”
“...they always—nearly always—pull their younger siblings and cousins into the game, at the exact right time,” she finished.
“Younger kids usually want to do what the older kids are doing. So that part’s easy…” He trailed off, pondering.
“Indeed, mostly easy,” Voukli said.
“Fascinating. Fascinating, squared.” He let that sit for a minute.
She laughed: “Yes, indeed. You are quick, once one of us opens the door. Now you and I are fin...”
“Finishing each other’s sentences.” He put a fist by his ear: “I got it.”
They sat silently, each contemplating the revelation, and the closeness they felt to one another. Ambros tried to analyze that, but failed: ‘But it’s more than sex, that’s for sure.’
He knew it would haunt him, until he figured it out. He pushed the thoughts away, thinking: ‘It’ll come to me.’
People had been entering and exiting the café throughout the previous events. Ambros looked up in time to see Ambassador Harvey enter, looking more confident than the last time they’d crossed paths.
Harvey spotted them, and paused. Ambros smiled, meaning nothing by it, but Harvey approached.
“Do you mind?” he asked, pulling out a chair.
Ambros shrugged, looked at Voukli. She shrugged, and Ambros gestured for the fellow to sit.
“Ambassador Harvey, Voukli Comanchaeneni, my mentor.”
“Not your boss.”
“Well, the last time we spoke I explained...”
“Yes I know,” Harvey interrupted: “No bosses, no bossed. I like the theory, but I see things otherwise.”
Ambros chuckled: “You would.”
Harvey gazed at Voukli critically: “I see hierarchies everywhere in this City. I see multiple points of power, many different subtle coercions of one kind and another, everywhere I look.”
Voukli quirked her lips ironically: “No doubt. If that’s what you look for, that’s what you’ll see.”
“Do you deny what I am saying?”
“Not at all,” Voukli said, sarcastic; “You are missing the complexity of things, that’s all.”
“Complexity? How’s that?” Harvey seemed genuinely curious.
Ambros held out his hands, palms up. He lifted the left one: “The Commonwealth is not now, nor was it ever—except perhaps for it’s first few years—any kind of capital-A anarchist society. That’s on the one hand. On the other...”
Voukli spoke, lifting Ambros right hand with hers: “On the other hand, there are institutions and ethics that reflect a strong influence from our version of the anarchists: we call them the Egalitarians.”
“If there were political parties in the Commonwealth, and elections,” Ambros began:
“Which there emphatically are not,” Voukli interjected:
“...They’d be contested mostly between people you might call Meritocrats...” Ambros grinned, anticipating Voukli’s words:
...and those same Egalitarians...”
“Whose radical fringes call themselves Dhiafonae, or Dissenters.” Ambros smiled crookedly: “The Dissenters wear their hair in topknots, when it pleases them, and braid those topknots to indicate their relative radical-ness.”
“I took that for a fashion trend,” said Harvey: “Interesting.” He gazed speculatively at Ambros’ partly braided topknot.
Ambros’ smile got wider: “I wore a topknot for years before I ever heard of the Commonwealth, and I occasionally braided it. It’s purely a coincidence that I find myself in some agreement with the Egalitarian fringe. I’m not quite a Dissenter.”
“Maybe you do,” said Voukli: “It’s likely, though, that Ambros’ pre-Commonwealth penchant for long hair and a topknot is less of a coincidence than he thinks...”
Ambros laughed: “Oh…right. Maybe it’s a minor incidence of Sardonic Synchronicity. I can see that.” He sat there for a second or two, thoughtful.
“Anyway,” said Ambros: “In spite of multiple power centers in the Commonwealth Lines—and in part because of how many there are—no one person or faction can control the Whole, except by Logic and emotional honesty and convincing arguments before the various assemblies. Meanwhile...”
“Ordinary life goes on,” said Voukli: “And ordinary people…”
“Ah!” Harvey exclaimed: “What do you mean by ‘ordinary’?”
“When it comes to people? Just folks. Look, some people have a desire for Status, so they bust their asses to get it. Some people really enjoy doing something that other folks admire, and gain Status without thinking about it just by doing that one thing. But most people just…”
“Just what?” asked Harvey, his curiosity evident.
“They just get by,” said Ambros: “You’ve noticed, no doubt that ‘Slacker’ is a serious insult in this culture.”
Harvey nodded: “I’ve seen brawls start when someone used the word injudiciously.”
Voukli said: “We won’t get deep into the phenomenon of people who want to do nothing for the Whole, and who actively work at that. Such people are deeply disturbed, in my own view. However: no one but an actual Slacker wants to be thought of as one, right?”
“Okaaay, I suppose not.” Harvey seemed to be getting a clue.
“So a large segment of the population exists in that gray area,” said Ambros: “They have what you or I would call a ‘part-time job’, and no interest in any highly skilled work, or in science, or in the arts.”
“That part-time job gets them just enough respect to avoid the ‘Slacker’ label,” said Voukli. “If such a one occasionally answers a call for seasonal work, like planting or harvest or brewing beer, well, se will be well above the imaginary line separating Slacker from citizen.”
She continued: “The tension between Meritocrats and Egalitarians keeps things more or less even, and very much more free, for such ordinary people, than...”
“...than any artificial Constitution or arbitrary declaration of rights could ever ensure,” Ambros said: “People in this culture are free because they exercise that freedom, and help one another to do the same. And they—we—teach children that Ethic.”
“It’s the only way that people ever are free, for any length of time...beyond the moments of chaos surrounding some enormous catastrophe.” Voukli grinned: “Right?”
“I’m not so sure,” Harvey said.
“Pray tell,” said Voukli.
“In my home Line, the one you all call Objectivist Prime, people are free to produce and sell the products of their labor...or to sell their labor itself...in order to improve their positions in society.”
“It is a money economy, though,” Voukli pointed out.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Does it not create a class-based society?”
“In theory, no,” said Harvey: “In practice, somewhat, since some people are better than others at making and selling.”
“But people do inherit wealth, right?” Ambros kept his tone neutral, not wanting a shouting match.
“Well, of course...”
“How then do you prevent inherited wealth from dominating society and culture?” Voukli smiled in a friendly way.
Harvey said nothing, pondering. At length he said: “New wealth occurs. New ideas...”
Ambros nodded: “You know as well as I do that most of the Lines that have experimented with unregulated capitalism as a ruling principle have collapsed in chaos fairly soon, inside of a century, usually. Inherited wealth has been a part of those collapses. What happens when the stupid children of the rich stay rich, while the intelligent children of the poor stay poor? For generations?”
Harvey seemed to have no answer to that.
Voukli asked: “Whose idea was it to incorporate the planet, in your Line?”
“There’s nothing unObjectivist about that!”
“Nobody said there was,” said Ambros: “Except maybe the hardliners in your own government…
“How do you know about that?”
“I looked it up. We have spies everywhere, Ambassador.”
“We keep track of our enemies, and our potential enemies,” said Voukli. “Don’t bother trying to dig out the identities of our agents in your Line. That information is well-scrubbed before the reports become public in this Line.”
Harvey looked uncomfortable.
Ambros said: “I actually admired your innovation, you know: incorporating the planet as a whole. Very clever. Brilliant, really, and I would not have expected it of ideological Objectivists.”
“Why? You think we’re stupid?”
He shook his head: “If I thought you were stupid, I’d say so. I said the idea was clever, after all. I’m particularly fond of the inalienable single share of the planetary GDP, for every person on the planet. Although it’d be easy to think of that as a guaranteed minimum income, something that’s considered anathema to Objectivists in my Line.”
“It’s a very minimum income. Only a monk can live on the single share. People have to work...especially if they want to improve their lot.”
Voukli said: “Yes, and the obvious way to improve one’s lot is to purchase a second share in the planetary corporation. But a very abstemious person could live on that single share. Right?”
Voukli continued: “And hence you prevent unrest, letting poets, artists, the future innovators, and the truly lazy survive, on their inherited and inalienable share of the human patrimony.”
Harvey shrugged: “It works, for us.” He scratched at his chin whiskers, looking a little smug.
Ambros said, lowering his brows: “I just wonder: anybody ever cook those books?’
“I’m not sure what...”
“When the Gross Planetary Product crashes, as it must often do in a very nearly unregulated money economy, does the government cook the books to make sure that the minimum stipend—one share of the Planetary Gross—does not go below survival level?”
Harvey looked Ambros right in the eye: “They are not supposed to.”
“Would you know it if they did?” Voukli asked.
“Perhaps not. But I’m sure I could find out...”
“Will you?” Ambros asked.
“Now that you’ve put the mouse in my ear, I will have to. I will consider it a duty.”
“What if you discover that your government is doing that?”
Harvey frowned: “What if I do?”
Voukli’s attention remained entirely focused on the Ambassador: “What would you then do?”
Harvey looked over their shoulders, staring out into the space between: “I don’t know. I’ll have to think...” He brought his attention back to the two of them: “You people are an uncomfortable lot to be around, you know that?”
“Yes,” said Ambros. He rose, took Voukli’s hand, and the two of them left. The Ambassador watched them go, a bleak expression on his face.
“Want something else to eat?” asked Voukli.
“I could use a bit more food...”
“This way,” she said, tugging on his hand.
He followed, wondering what he would soon be eating.
She led him along a narrow alley, which dove without warning beneath the ground. They moved quickly along a tunnel no wider than the alley above, lit by L.E.D.-like lanterns and occasional adits up to street level.
A ramp brought them back to the surface, into a small agora, where a large booth sat along the open side, fronting on a main street. He wondered where he was, and his ‘positioning’ sense immediately located him.
“We’re across Odo Romea-palea from the Old Roman Agora, just south of the Library,” said Voukli, confirming his sense of place.
They joined a line of people waiting for service. He said: “Don’t see ’wealthers queue up very often...”
“This is a special case. This is the Farmer’s Guild’s fresh food emporium. The layout of the tables…”
“…makes the line most efficient,” he finished.
The line moved along quickly, with only occasional slowdowns. Ambros reached a point where he could see into the booth: “Wow...that’s a lot of fruits and vegetables.”
“Sure is. All of this comes from nearby: greenhouse stuff, mostly, this time of year.”
“Of course,” he replied: “I noticed that most of the farms visible from the walls have significant acreage under glass.”
“After the last frost in Springtime, most of the ‘glass’ goes into storage.” She made airquotes around the word glass.
“Ah. Not really glass, then?”
“Well, no. Glass is useful stuff, but it’s fragile and dangerous when it breaks. Not to mention heavy.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. What are the greenhouses made of?”
“Oh, any of a number of materials. Transparent aluminum is the most common...and has been for some centuries.”
He looked at her sidelong, snickering: “You’re not joking, are you?”
She raised her eyebrows, surprised: “No. What’s funny?”
He suppressed his laughter: “Cultural reference, my Line. It would take a while to explain it.”
“I am curious.”
“I’ll send you a link to the movie.”
The line took them along multiple buffet-style tables, where Voukli acquired a small platter and a couple sporks. They chose fruits and vegetables and pickles and relishes from the mysteriously cooled or warmed bins along the way.
“It’s clever, the way one passes each table twice as we go through here,” said Ambros: “You can pick up anything you missed on the second pass.”
By the time they exited into the street, the food nearly overflowed the plate. They strolled across the street into the Old Roman Agora, where ancient ruins stood interspersed among various modern food booths and an assortment of craft booths displaying well-made but simple goods.
‘Plenty of seats of various sorts scattered around, too,’ Ambros thought.
“Mostly second-level student work hereabouts,” said Voukli.
“I see that. Look, this is surely a student of Votos...”
They strolled over to the booth, and admired the leather and metal work visible there. The (very young) woman who stood behind the display noticed Ambros’ boots, and bowed slightly in his direction. He nodded in return, then realized that the situation recommended a slight bow in return. He turned his nod into that gesture, and RNA knowledge flooded his mind.
“Ooog,” he murmured.
Voukli grinned. “Latest RNA session?”
“So it would seem. Got the polite thing done, though.” They walked on. They chose a bench and began eating.
When they’d finished their snack, Voukli looked around: “Over there, Spathos.” She pointed.
He recognized a ‘dirty dishes’ bin, about the size of a pickup truck bed, sitting over at the other side of the Agora. He took the sporks and platter and began winding his way in that direction, among the people, booths, ruins, and other obstacles.
As he approached he saw coming toward him—very slowly—an identical bin, which seemed to float silently a few inches above the ground. People got out of the way, with alacrity; clearly the person moving the thing had little forward vision.
The operator turned the bin to the right, and he could see her: about twelve years old, wearing Laborer’s Guild tan, bright and brand new, and riding a thing that resembled a Segway combined with a forklift.
He tossed the dirty stuff into the bin just as she dropped the empty one beside it. She then maneuvered expertly from one bin to the other and back again, putting the new one in the old one’s place. She picked up the loaded one and trundled off. Over her shoulder, he could see that she had a hologram of the space directly in front of her floating over the handlebars of the scooter. On that holo, he could see folks getting out of her way.
A moment’s thought and he knew where the dishes were going: ‘To the central washing station near the Public Laundry and The Baths...’ His head filled with details about the organization of those institutions: “...details that I don’t really need at the moment...” he muttered. He banished the information back into his subconscious: ‘Fascinating stuff, though...’
Voukli met him halfway across the Agora: “Let’s follow the kopeli and her bin over to the Baths. It’s a long enough walk to let our meal settle.”
“You’re on,” he said, grinning: “Then I need to get to the Library. Stuff to do.”
“Sure. I won’t take long today anyway.”
Ambros sighed, latching the door of his Library cubicle behind him. He opened his laptop, and spoke the passwords to activate the Commonwealth tech that actually ran it. He leaned back in the chair, wondering what to do.
“The main thing is be away from people for an hour or two,” he said aloud. Truth to tell, he felt a great weariness in his heart from the stubborn reality of Regulos’ obtuseness. “Not to mention my Home Line’s descent into madness and fascism. I know that my current projects are too new to have had an effect yet. Still...We need to have an effect, and soon. And nothing I can see that I can do will speed the process.”
He flicked his fingers at the desktop machine that had led him on so many fascinating research projects in the previous few months. Its screen deployed as a hologram and lit up with a menu of his current projects.
He laughed and sent that menu away: “Let’s just surf the Kyklo,” he said, and the machine complied. It opened a huge menu, detailing all sorts of sites from hobby discussion groups to “government” sites where people of all sorts discussed (and argued) the latest actions taken by Guilds, Demes, and Polisae. He tapped randomly on one, labeled as belonging to the Road Guild.
“Huh,” he grunted: “That’s really interesting, despite the mundanity of the subject.”
He skimmed along the ‘pages’ noting the basic opinion threads: ‘Yes, no, or maybe about various building projects...demands for improvement to walking trails in the mountains, and talk about airship routes…’
He nodded, seeing how it all worked: “Nothing gets done until all of the stakeholders agree...and the opinions of villagers have the same weight as city-dwellers.” He wondered how that would work in his own Line. He shook his head: “We’d see nothing but Nimby and obstructionism, and very quickly, personal attacks on one another.”
He wondered: ‘I guess it’s just the vastly superior education that Hellenes get, almost anywhere on the planet…combined with the advantages of the moneyless economy: no one is making money on the construction, so no one has a motive to push an unpopular project or lobby against a potentially useful one.’
He scrolled through some other threads at the Road Guild site, then contemplated his next search.
He switched to a War Guild site, one where the debate concerned long-term strategy. Here he was on his own ground, and he read in a concentrated way for some time. Then he called up a secondary debate thread: ‘Let’s see how the people look in these videos…’ He studied the holo-videos of people making their cases, noting things like body language and occasional sarcasm. Then...
‘That’s radically weird, by my standards...that kid can’t be over sixteen.’ He watched and listened as the young woman revealed a detailed plan that she had worked out for a combination of underground ‘charity’ to ATL-occupied Timelines, concurrent with guerilla war and “special operations”, to be followed by all-out invasions of several Lines that currently suffered under Authoritarian rule.
He marked that video, and addressed it to Arrenji’s private cache: “Look at this”, he commented: “She’s born and raised in the tribal lands, living now in the Pacific Islands Maori Commonwealth. I know there are serious flaws in this plan, but there are elements of genius, too.” He triggered the ‘send’ button.
He switched tracks again, to a debate among members of the Pacifist Deme. He noted that they had a very strict moderator: if anyone went at the slightest tangent to the discussion, se immediately created a new thread.
‘Also,’ he mused: “whoever se is, se doesn’t tolerate arguments about each others’ logic. They go straight to another thread, almost as fast as they appear.’
He studied some of the arguments on that thread: “Wow. Pretty nit-picky. But I see why the Pacifists do their thing this way.”
He checked the time, and chose another thread to read: “Poetry Guild,” he mused: “This could be interesting.”
At length he shut down the machines, then rose and stretched: ‘I’m feeling a lot better. I should remember this...the actual philosophical infrastructure of the Commonwealth is visible on the “working” sites on the Kyklo. And it’s inspiring to see it work, too.’
He awoke, muzzy, confused. He oriented himself as quickly as he could: ‘In bed, at the Salon, Marie is here...’
He realized that his MPS had pinged him. He shook himself and touched his wrist.
After a delay, a voice buzzed in his ear: “Spathos, this is Megálos.”
“I hear you, Magistros.”
“Got a bit of an emergency going on...combat mission.”
“Whatever you need, Magistros.”
“Thank you. Get here, armored, as quick as you can.”
“I hear you. I’m on the way.”
Marie rolled over: “Whaa?” She still slept heavily, even after several Commonwealth treatments for narcolepsy.
“Got a job. Gotta go.”
He snorted: she knew as well as he did that the opposite was rather more than likely to occur. He palmed his way through the doors and into the Wayback Room, and armored and armed himself as fast as possible. His Glockoid registered as low on power, so he swapped out the power mod. He checked the ‘rifle’: still good. He hefted it, slung it, and began to run down a checklist in his mind.
He palmed his way back into the main hall and stood still.
After a moment more finishing the mental checklist, he did the necessary preliminaries and Jumped to the War Room.
Megálos had a holoscreen up and running next to his usual workstation. He was armored and armed, and his helm sat on the floor by his feet. He gestured; Ambros hurried over, ignoring the expected dizziness.
“Got a BWG team in French Imperial Six, recently conquered by L’Iriquois Imperial One. Scouts from SB and Postal Guild had located one of those damn concentration camps, and BWG went in, the usual protocol...”
Ambros snarled as he cataloged what he could see on the holo: “It was a trap. How many captured?”
“They have a dozen BWG and a couple Sacred Band. The bad guys fled into the forest,” Megálos gestured: “Looks like they are heading for the provincial capital at Arles. They don’t seem to have air support, or a chopper evac planned.”
“Obviously. That seems stupid, though.”
“I agree, but the forest is too thick there for anybody to pick them up. They have to run at least as far as the main road along the Rhone before any vehicle or aircraft could evacuate them.”
“We can’t let them get to Arles.” Ambros nodded: “What are we waiting for?”
“Couple more operatives...got ’em. Okay, you’re with me, and I hope you are ready to do some running...”
“I’m in. Let’s hit it.” Ambros could see that a team led by Arrenji had dropped in, and cut off the enemy’s bugout route from the north; Voukli and Anni were leading teams into the forest from east and west. ‘This group is probably pursuing from the south,’ he thought, as they turned and approached the landing pad.
They dropped in near the road. Megalos immediately took charge of the team that had already assembled: “We got those Lagonikae coming? Not here? Drop them here,” he said, pointing to a holographic map: “where the road and river are closest together...No, I want to move. Let the rest of them follow. Leave one carrier, let’s go, onto those trucks!”
Ambros ran towards the ‘trucks’, which bore a strong resemblance to Armored Personnel Carriers: ‘Except they float a foot above the ground and there are no wheels or tracks...’ he leapt onto the step, and into the open cargo bay. Men and women in armor similar to his were ahead and behind, and they all took seats and strapped in.
The machine took off, and they all grabbed or braced. It flew along the road, taking turns tighter than any wheeled vehicle ever could. Ambros glanced outside the truck and quickly turned away: ‘Better just not to think too much about how fast we’re going...’
Their transport slowed a little at a time; Ambros heard through his helmet radio when Megálos called for a halt.
When the machine reached a full stop his comrades jumped or vaulted from the back of the transport. He followed them, making a note to jump quicker next time.
Megálos stood talking to a stout woman in an unfamiliar uniform...Ambros turned to his RNA ‘files’ and came up empty.
The crew of the transports set up a perimeter, and several of his comrades took spots in it. Having no orders, Ambros waited as patiently as he could while Megálos and the woman spoke to one another. ‘Hurry up and wait,’ he mused.
A trio of canvas bags dropped in near the woman, and she turned and whistled. Three animals loped out of the forest and set upon them. They worked together: one held the bottom of the bag in its teeth, a second un-fastened a velcro-like zipper and the third pulled a pile of mail and plate armor out of the bag.
When all three bags lay empty, the beasts began to put the armor on. Ambros stared in amazement: their front paws had semi-opposable ‘thumbs’, and they helped one another spread their mailshirts out on the ground. One by one they nosed their way into the armor, and their buddies helped to pull it into place.
Ambros noted several things about them: ‘More wolf than dog...at least, their tails don’t curl, and they are all grey and black...bigger foreheads than any canines I’ve ever seen before, which makes sense...those helms are cool, and they fit the animals perfectly.”
The largest of the animals—‘No,’ he thought: ‘obviously they are sentients.’ The largest one ‘spoke’ to the stout woman in a language neither human nor canine, and she waved them into action. They took off, and one of them called out, in something like Hellenic: “This way! Follow!”
The remaining truck pulled up and the rest of Megálos’ command piled out, led by Ellisi. They all ran after the hounds.
The hounds led the way through the nearly impenetrable forest, ‘woofing’ occasionally to communicate with each other and the human pursuers. Ambros ducked and dodged, or threw himself completely through tall brackens and thorny shrubs, which could get no grip on his armor.
The handler led the way. Magistri Ellisi ran along near her, sometimes just behind, sometimes in front. Off to his right Ambros could see a man carrying one of those Squad Automatic Weapons that he’d encountered in his first cross-Timeline raid, months before. Megálos had taken up the rear of their formation. They streamed through the forest, about ten people wide, each column taking a different route between the closely spaced trees. The lot of them made a fair bit of noise as they crashed through the underbrush; no one seemed to care about that.
‘Speed is of the essence now,’ he thought, picking up the pace a bit more.
They stumbled into a wide pathway that wound among the trees. The canines awaited them; as soon as the lead wolf saw the first humans, he took off at a sprint, baying like a hunting dog that had treed a prey animal. One of the other armored canines waved its hands/paws in a complex series of signs, whining and woofing the while; the handler said: “Three kilo-ells ahead. Moving slowly.”
Ellisi used a series of handsigns to send flanking units out to either side and gestured at the hounds.
The two took off, baying as their comrade had, and the humans began to follow. With the pathway clear ahead of them, the doggies ran at a pace that no human could match, though they all tried their best.
Ambros found himself falling back, his wind and stamina flagging. He wound up at the rear, struggling to keep up with Megálos. He could see ahead a ways, along the path, and the land rose steadily into a series of low hills. He groaned internally, thinking of the uphill run.
They overtook the hounds; they had slowed to a walk and spoke to one another in their own tongue. The handler said: “The enemy have halted. They are aware of our pursuit, and have taken a stand near the base of one of the hills.” She gestured: “They have our people surrounded by guards and they seem ready to kill their hostages rather than let us rescue them.”
Ellisi made more handsigns, and Ambros obeyed the ones sent at him. He moved forward, silently, until he could see the scene:
The Blacks and SB soldiers stood, their hands bound behind, their helms gone. Each of them had at least one firearm pointed at ser head, and a screen of prone or kneeling fighters protected the guards. Ambros couldn’t see any easy way out.
The majority of the soldiers he could see, perhaps thirty of them all told, wore the usual WWII French-style uniforms, and their helmets wouldn’t stop any kind of bullet. Two men stamped about cursing and giving orders, one in the camouflage armor of the L’Iriquois Legions, the other in the black and tan plate of the Waffen SS from one of the Nazi Lines. Those two argued bitterly in Rational French and German; Ambros could tell that the Legion captain was arguing for continued flight.
Ellisi’s voice spoke in his ear: “The enemy has called for air support, Gray Warrior Guild will intercept.”
“I hear you,” he whispered, hearing the others each saying it.
A jet screamed by overhead, though he couldn’t see it through the tree cover. ‘So much for that intercept,’ he thought.
The forest around him erupted in flame as more than a hundred small bombs went off across the area. The scream of the fighter jet ended abruptly, in an explosion that rocked the hills over which it had flown.
The guards had fallen; all of them had hit the ground, some by their own intent, some wounded or dead. Ambros popped up from the forest floor and saw one guard aiming his pistol at someone on the ground.
He threw the longarm to his shoulder, and squeezed the button, firing three slugs. That soldier dropped where he stood. No further orders came to him, so he advanced into the clearing, moving from cover to cover on hands and knees or bent at the waist. He shot two more guards, one after he’d executed a Hellene.
Ambros cursed, turning in place, looking for targets. He rolled behind a fallen tree, shards of wood from the shattered trunk screening him from eyes on the field.
A scuffle in the underbrush his drew eyes and ears. An unhelmed Hellene wrestled there with one of the armored thugs. Ambros dropped the rifle and drew his APS.
He extended the plasma blade carefully, until he saw a gap in the Nazi’s defense. Then Ambros sent the blade right up the SS man’s ass, sending the shithead to Valhalla, or wherever. The Nazi flopped around for a short time, keening, before he expired.
Megálos came up behind Ambros and nudged him with an elbow: “With me, Spathos. We got thirty-five dead, including five of ours, and three prisoners.”
Ambros looked around, then up. Ellisi lay upon the ground, a tree branch sticking out of her thigh. He could see that she was alive, but she appeared to be sedated. Arrenji’s and Voukli’s squads arrived and promptly formed a perimeter. The two Magistriae began to walk the field.
A Commonwealth aircraft hovered directly above them.
Medics dropped in, all around the field but inside the perimeter. They gathered wounded Hellenes and did triage, then began to transport the casualties. Four of the hostages had died, and one of the pursuit party. Two Black Warriors held the Legion Captain by the arms; Arrenji slapped him hard enough to rock his head onto his shoulder, then handsigned to the Blacks to take him away. She cursed as she strode about the field. She stopped by the Hellenic dead, laid out in an orderly row away from the French. She bowed her head and wept silently. Ambros looked away, uncomfortable. Voukli caught his eye and nodded almost imperceptibly. She disengaged from the conversation she was having and approached him.
‘The smell...’ he pondered: ‘Nobody talks about the smell.’
“Damned barbarian French Air Corps dropped a cluster bomb right on their own people,” Ambros said aloud.
Voukli nodded: “That they did. Pilot didn’t survive ten seconds after that. Grays got him. But somebody gave that order.”
“Four hostages dead...”
“Three by cluster bomb. One shot by her captors.”
“Huh. Do you think,” he mused, slowly: “do you think a Legion Captain from this Line is highly enough placed to be useful as an intelligence asset?”
“Yes.” She spoke with great certainty: “If we can turn him, and turn him hard enough to be sure of him, he’d be fairly valuable.”
“Okay. Let Arrenji take a crack or two at him, then I’ll play Good Cop to her Bad. If...” he shrugged, and grinned wryly: “if the Guild will let me try to turn him.”
“You volunteered. I’d say the task is yours.”
He nodded: “I know the way into a commander’s heart, I think. That’ll be via his men’s well-being. I want to make sure to get one of the unexploded bomblets.”
“I see where you’re going. I’ll find a dud and de-fuse it.”
Megálos spoke over the radio: “Let’s pack it up, girls and boys. The enemy is re-grouping. To Alcatraz Quiet, and leave your Path unmasked so Aristogatos can erase it.”
“I hear you,” said Ambros and Voukli, as one.