Better have an ace under the sleeve when reading this short story.
Rehuo slammed his Petawatt blaster on the Chinese rosewood table triumphantly. He had been waiting for this moment for over a hundred and fifty years. Akawa, facing the muzzle, made a grimace.
“Careful, you’ll scratch the table! This is the Ming dynasty. I think.” Then after leaning back in his chair, he added with a slight note of curiosity, “Weren’t these banned?”
“It’s from the old days. And to believe I was able to smuggle it all the way here undetected!”[…]
[…] “I detected it, by the way,” mumbled from the corner Zeno, Akawa’s old but faithful android servant. “Shut up!” roared Rehuo. The traces of emotion in the detective’s voice revealed the last remaining remnants of humanity in his artificially modified body. A body he had tortuously reshaped to prolong his life, to fuel his endless pursuit, to finally complete the mission. An old reflex made him lick his trembling cold lips. He tightened his bony grip on the blaster’s handle. “I know who you are, Akawa. I remember who you are.”
“You must’ve seen my statue then! The big one, on Earth One?”
“Even better. I saw you. Inside a spaceship, orbiting around the Cygnus X-1 black hole a century and a half ago. A ship that was the only artifact, known to us to be of alien origin. Then I saw you accelerate it, fly past my Imperial guard cruiser and run away like a little bitch! It took me a moment to find you, I admit. But I kept sniffing and digging until I put the puzzle back together and here I am now!”
Akawa didn’t respond. He looked at Zeno, then back at Rehuo. Scratched his rare white beard and then, slowly tilting to one side, still intently looking into his opponent’s eyes, let out a crackling fart.
Rehuo’s prosthetic eyeballs squeaked crisply as he rolled his eyes in exasperation. “All of this,” he continued, “This fortune, this empire. It doesn’t belong to you. Now I take it away!”
“Not the coldest. Just slightly chilled. A Cabernet Blanc would do. No, wait, Zeno, better bring a Pinot Noir. Sorry, detective, if I’m going to die today, let me at least enjoy a glass of wine. Have you tried my wine?”
“I can’t afford it.”
“Ah, then you must, man! It’s something else.”
Zeno strolled into the cellar to fetch a bottle. He felt very emotional and easily irritable lately. The doctor had said it was chronic processor overclocking. And constantly procrastinating his software updates didn’t help either.
Meanwhile the two old men kept staring at each other while their shadows pranced around on the bookshelves. The fireplace was another splendid display of eccentric affluence in Akawa’s study. Real wood was near impossible to find these days and he was burning it for fun.
“Ah, here we go!” Akawa clapped his hands as Zeno poured the first glass. “If you have a thyroid modulator installed, you might wanna tone your metabolism down so you can enjoy this more.”
Rehuo thought what the hell. He ran a quick scan for poison, nevertheless. Old habit. He tried to hide his embarrassment when realizing he couldn’t recall the last time, he had consumed a liquid through his mouth. He took a few awkward gulps and looked back at his collocutor. Akawa was slowly nodding with a big grin on his face. He must have been over two hundred by now but didn’t look a day over ninety. The magical lifestyle of the rich and powerful.
“You know, for the longest time I was wondering,” started the detective, “what was it exactly that you had found on that ship? What resource would be so valuable that it would catapult you to where you are right now…”
“Exactly! I love that thought,” interrupted Akawa, “How come this poor kid,” and he pointed at a large oil painting on the wall, presumably of his younger self, “became one of the richest men in the galaxy. Founder of Akawa Industries with factories in 156 stellar systems…”
“162,” corrected politely Zeno.
“Yes! 162. Which is even more than I previously said. You know, I once had so much money, I moved a couple of stars around in the Arches Cluster to form a heart? I was trying to impress this girl, I was dating at the time. I mean, that cluster was pretty crowded to begin with and her home planet was just in the right position…”
“Enough!” croaked Rehuo, “Like I said, I don’t care anymore. You are a thief! You stole from everyone. And you stole from me. You got away that day and I lost my job, my crew’s respect, my wife. Everything!”
“Well, hold on, you’re still technically alive. With a few adjustments on your adjustments, you might even look handsome.” Then leaning a little closer he added, “There are these sex clones from around Betelgeuse, man. I’m telling you…”
“I don’t want anything from you, Akawa. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Rehuo wasn’t angry at this point. Just tired. A realization started creeping into his mind. The realization that the temporary relief, he would feel from accomplishing what he had come here to do, would be just as inconsequential as the rest of his painful existence. Just a melting snowball of unnoticed flukes.
Meanwhile Akawa was just about to get angry. He always prided himself on being good at reading people. So ever since Rehuo walked in, he recognized the look. The look of someone who had heard countless pleas of people begging for mercy. Even though no one dared to bother Akawa anymore, he, of course, still had a few means of illegal self-defense. Artifacts from an era so primitive, civilians were still allowed to harm each other. An archaic lunacy that no one remembered anymore. So Akawa wasn’t worried. Just curious. Curious to find out what the detective wanted from him. How come he had gone through so much trouble to make it here, yet he didn’t seem to be happy now.
“Alright,” Akawa snapped his fingers and Zeno filled up the two glasses again, “I will tell you my story. And you better listen, man. Because there is no one else who knows this.”
Rehuo detected something unusual. For the first time so far, Akawa was serious. The detective took another sip. “I’m listening.”
“I always liked girls,” Akawa began, “I know it’s all relative these days, but I guess I’m old fashioned this way. There was this one called Amika. Ah. She could make a comet sweat. She made grown men turn into kids and professors into idiots. And even though I was young and stupid myself back then, I was not immune to her charm. Having a few square feet of skin per foot less, made me look not too bad either.
We were in love and on the run. But back then space travel was much more limited. So just as I was trying to sling-shoot us past Alpha Centauri A into Wolf 1061, where I had a friend waiting for us, we got caught. Did I mention Amika was married to one of the Overlords of the Spiral Arms?”
“An Overlord?” Rehuo almost dropped his glass, “But we haven’t had any overlords for almost a millennium.”
“And we haven’t had one like this guy ever! There is nothing more dangerous than a big man with tiny balls. When his goons transported us into their cruiser, I thought I’d spend some years improving my meditation skills from the inside of a prison cell. But I had no idea how much pain a wounded ego could inflict in the dark corners of space.”
He swallowed down the painful memory with a gulp and looked out through the big window onto the megapolis beneath. From this high up the glimmering lights of the city seemed to blend smoothly into the starry night sky. The top of Akawa Tower – the tallest building on the planet. The old man sometimes joked that if someone were to jump from here, they would never fall down.
“His men made me watch while they killed her. I don’t think my heart ever beat much louder after hers went quiet. Then as I was ready for my turn, I saw this bright light. I got tossed across the room. It took me a while to understand what had happened. Amika must have had an explosive device somewhere in her body that was triggered by her death. Not uncommon back in the day. It killed most of the henchmen. I helped finish the job. But since my ship was badly damaged during the pursuit, now I had to use this human coffin to escape. Some days or weeks must have passed but his men caught on to me again.
I was speeding as fast as possible but still short of reach of their rage and bloodthirst. No resource was spared. They even shot dark matter projectiles at me. At this point I was already dangerously close to Cygnus X-1. So I thought to myself, what other choice do I have? With these monsters on my back, I preferred a quick impromptu face-to-face with singularity. I set course directly for the hole.
I don’t know how long it took. I didn’t care anymore. They were closing in and I hoped and prayed they would get sucked in with me and all of their hatred. Soon I couldn’t see them anymore except for on my radar.
I couldn’t see anything for that matter, you wouldn’t believe the amount of shit circulating a spinning black hole. Like flying through a sandstorm of radioactive debris, I was headed for the eye of the hurricane. Then the screens went off and I could just feel the glow. It really looked like the light at the end of a tunnel. The ship was cracking like a cheap plastic toy in the grip of a spoiled kid.
I was deafened by the sound of the air being sucked in through the multitude of holes in the hull and some distorted explosions in the distance. I closed my eyes because they kept burning and the tears didn’t sooth anymore.
You can’t help some of these stupid instincts kicking in at these moments. Like taking in a last breath. As if I was able to preserve life in a tiny bubble in my lungs when everything around me was turning into dust. I wondered what would it feel like, being devoured by space itself? Anyhow. Then I woke up with this killing headache…”
“He said he woke up with a headache,” explained Zeno who looked baffled himself, apparently not having heard this story before.
“Yeah, I just woke up and my head, man…”
“Yeah, but what about the ship?” demanded Rehuo, simultaneously pointing at his empty glass and throwing a glance at Zeno.
“Well I was still on my ship. And in the ship at the same time. ‘The alien ship’ as you called it. Inside a hangar on board it. How that happened, I still don’t know. It must have been a coincidence. It was probably just passing by at that point. Some sort of a mechanism detected me and pulled me in. I was fine, man. Temperature, air pressure, oxygen levels, sealed against the radiation, the conditions were perfect for humans. Or something similar for that matter.”
“So, it was an accident?”
Rehuo got up and started walking around the room nervously shaking his head.
“I don’t know what happened to the bad guys or how long I was out for. But I walked around, you know? Explored a bit. There was no one else on the ship. Completely empty. But boy, was it huge!”
“Almost like a flying city. Never seen anything like it. Naturally it made sense it was never discovered being, as it were, in a stable orbit in proximity to the black hole. The event horizon was so close I could smell the spaghetti. It was also somehow powered by the radiation of Cygnus allowing it to maintain a constant speed almost close to that of light. Not quite though, so it could still boost and leave. You see, it was perfectly planned from the start by whoever left it there. An inch closer or further and none of this would have been possible.
I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the controls, but I’d never seen anything more bizarre. There were biometric elements, ultra-sonic energy conductors, chemical virtual reality simulators. There was also this weird organic device. It looked like a boiled egg and it would make you feel a little sleepy if you stared at it for too long.
I finally discovered a large spherical room in the center of the ship where its quantum computer was stored. Or should I say, it wasn’t stored because it simply couldn’t have been. It had a processor packed with pre-programmed quarks, except the values of their spins were irregular numbers! I only discovered the computer in theory. I reverse-rationalized its existence and later reverse-used it but I still can’t explain how because it was impossible.
Whoever abandoned this ship around Cygnus, left no signs behind either. Almost like they had a catholic camp on board and had to erase all the evidence. It was impossible to tell how long ago they left it there either. After I escaped, I studied some of the artefacts from the ship for years to come. The scientists, working for me estimated the ship’s age at…Well it would make no sense, they were probably wrong.”
“We could have studied it. Humanity could have. The technology this race must have possessed, must have been beyond comprehension.”
“Oh, please. It wasn’t that crazy, to be honest. I mean, think about it. Humanity keeps evolving. Remember how close you were able to get when you tried to pull me in using those, what do you call them? Space lassos?”
“Close? We were 10,000 miles away!”
“That’s not bad at all! And those cords were solid. What were they made of? Did you mine the core of a collapsed neutron star to produce them?”
Rehuo grabbed the next bottle from Zeno’s hands and lifted it to his mouth with a snarl.
“All I’m saying is, it only took you 1,000 years and you almost had me, man.”
“Wait,” Rehuo nearly choked, “you mean to tell me you were on that ship for 1,000 years?!”
“If he was that close to the black hole, the time dilation must have been severe,” explained Zeno.
“To me it was only about a week before you arrived,” explained Akawa. “I wish I had more time, but once the ship detected what was happening, it reacted and…well I suddenly had control. I guess, I have to thank you for that, otherwise I would have still been stuck there. And so, you see, I couldn’t obliterate you.”
“Obliterate me?” exclaimed Rehuo.
“Yes. That was the best solution, presented to me by the quantum computer. Maybe it took into account your future revenge, were I to take a more passive approach like, say, play hide and seek, as I ended up doing.”
They both drank for a while in silence. Zeno, for a moment, felt irrelevant again. But since a moment could last long in his algorithmic core, he decided to bring a tray of aged gouda from the kitchen, in hope of renewed purpose through outside validation.
“I must say, I am disappointed,” began again Rehuo.
“Have you met my ex-wife?”
“A thousand years old and still corny.”
The detective smiled ever so slightly. He was realizing how useless reasoning was with this tacky old crook. But he still anticipated the rest of this confession with curiosity. But with every next sip of the wine, Rehuo’s anger was releasing its grip on him.
Akawa was now almost horizontal in his large chair probably belonging to someone equally snotty millennia ago. He couldn’t help the childish pleasure pouring over his reddened face. He was a man, after all, who suckled on the attention of others his entire prolonged life.
“So, let me guess,” continued Rehuo, “You take this ship apart piece by piece and build your empire on its carcass?”
“Yeah, that would have been great. Except, I kind of crashed it.”
“Yeah, like I said I was trying to learn the controls. Then you rushed me and all that. But no, I still managed to salvage some pieces and more importantly – most of the cargo. Cheers to that!”
“Ah! Here we go!”
“Yeah, I mean listen, I was a poor man before. But imagine me now. Here I am in the far future, everyone is all futuristically rich and they don’t even have weapons anymore. So, it’s not like I can steal anything, man. But it worked out eventually.”
“Get back to the point, will you? What did you discover about the ship? Did you save this…egg thing?”
“You’ve investigated me, detective, so, tell me this. How did I start my business?”
“The hotels and casinos.”
“No, before that.”
“The asteroid restaurants?” chipped in Zeno.
“Who asked you, boy? Why don’t you go put some more wood in the fire,” and then smacking on the cheese Akawa added, “Remind me to debug you next week before you rebel completely and snap my neck.”
“Wait and see until I crash right before my license renewal…” Zeno mumbled to himself as he attended to his task in the most visibly offended way possible.
“I had many different ventures over the years,” Akawa returned to the topic, “some of them more profitable than others. But the money to invest in the first place – it all came from elsewhere. My biggest cash cow, my first and last business.
It still is so mindboggling to me. These aliens must have not been that different from us after all. I mean to come up with such an idea. Genius!”
He lifted his glass in a triumphant toast.
“It was the wine, man! That’s right. These aliens had shipped 100 million tons of the best wine in this universe to the future. Very, very slowly aging it to perfection while orbiting around that hole. Why didn’t they ever come back to get it? No idea. But it’s delicious, right? Am I right? Detective?”
Rehuo, slouched back and with his mouth ajar, stared blankly into space. Akawa heard a quiet metallic snore escape through the detective’s throat pipe.
“If I had to guess, I would say the alcohol negated his ventrolateral preoptic nucleus inhibitors,” observed Zeno, “In other words, he got really sleepy.”
“Poor thing. God knows how long he’s been awake anyway.”
Akawa got up from his chair and stumbled into his puffy hover-slippers.
“Throw some blanket over him, will you, Zeno?”
Gliding towards his master bedroom, the old man stopped at the door and turned around one last time.
“Oh, and if there’s any wine left in his glass, bring that over to my room, please.”
Bogi Beykov’s work has previously been published by the Aphelion Webzine, Scarlet Leaf Review and Alternate History Fiction.