“I’m sorry,” Rory said, holding up one hand, as if in school. “A what again?”
“Calculator,” Eitan repeated. “A machine used on ancient Earth for advanced mathematics.”
“Like an arithmometer?”
“Only in the same sense the Errant is like a weather buoy,” Eitan told Rory. “But look.” With a rattling of cutlery, he shoved aside the plates he’d emptied and leaned his left arm on the table while his right hand pointed to the device. “On the Earth-made calculator, these keys allowed the user to perform advanced computations, not only multiplication or divisions but also statistics, probabilities, exponential functions.”
“And I bet that would be impressive if I understood what half of it means.”
“It means,” John said to Jagati as Eitan straightened, “we have a problem.”
“Why?” Her glare shifted to the captain’s. “Because knowledge is power and power corrupts?”
“I’ve always thought that was bollocks,” Rory said, cracking his neck. “Three days,” he reminded everyone as they turned their glares in his direction. “Three days hunched over a tri-level Kairos.”
“We get it,” Jagati said. “You’re a miracle worker. A genius. A god among dodgers.”
“I was na’ asking for—”
“We have a problem,” John cut in, bringing them back on point, “because this kind of tech is outlawed.”
“But Apian Law only forbids advanced tech,” Jagati said. “Computers, artificial intelligence, programmable weaponry. It doesn’t say a thing about fancy adding machines.”
Eitan looked up to see her glaring at the machine, arms crossed over her chest. Next to her, Rory wore his trademark expression of fascination while his fingers twitched at his side. As if, Eitan thought, they itched to get a hold of the calculator and learn what it could do—and then crack it open to see how it did it.
Both viewpoints were equally dangerous, as neither took into account what they were looking at.
“Believe me,” he said to them, with a short nod towards John, “this is precisely what the Apian laws speak of. These buttons?” He pointed to three that read HEX, OCT and BIN in turn. “These represent three numerical systems the Earthers used to create computer code. Primitive, compared to what our ancestors had available to engineer and colonize Fortune, but…” He withdrew his hand and looked at John. “You are right to be concerned. If anything, you are not worried enough. The mere knowledge of such a device is forbidden. I don’t care to imagine what might befall anyone the Keepers found in possession of an operating model.” He glanced at Rory. “A stint in the Barrens would be the soft option.”
“Which begs the question,” John drew Eitan’s attention back, “given those prohibitions, how did you come to see these designs in the first place?”
“I—” He paused, rubbed at his beard with the stump, and said, “I learned about them at university.”
“Chandrasekhar offers a course on illegal tech?” Jagati’s skepticism was impossible to miss.
“Trudeau required a term on the ethics of Earth technologies,” John told her.
“As did Chandrasekhar.” Eitan nodded. “But this was something different.”
“Different how?” Jagati asked.
“During my fourth term I became involved with a group with technocrist leanings. They were interested in expanding on the university’s teachings, as they believed Fortune’s children deserved full access to Earth’s technological legacy.”
“And?” Jagati prompted when he hesitated.
“These students were in contact with an underground archivist who had in his possession the design specifications of several Earth-made devices.”
“Such as the specs for an ancient Earth calculator,” Rory suggested, taking up Jagati’s forgotten mug and draining the dregs of her tea, then making a face because it had long ago gone cold.
“Such as,” Eitan agreed, turning his eyes down to the calculator.
“So,” Rory began, setting down the empty mug, “what do we—”
“Toss it,” Jagati said, cutting him off. “Dump it in the Oracle and forget we ever saw the smogging thing.”
“We can’t,” John said, then looked at her. “We can’t. Even if the Keepers didn’t catch us illegally dumping, too many people already know about this, and they know we have it. We can’t just toss the thing without painting a target on our backs.”
“Great,” she said with an ill-tempered shrug. “Just smogging great.”
“It’s nae all bad,” Rory said. “I mean t’say, as long as it’s here, can we not take it out for a spin?”
“Not a chance.”
“Are you crystal mad?”
“There’s no need t’get snippy.” Beset from all three sides, Rory removed his hand from where it had been about to flip the power toggle. “It might not even work.”
“How would you know one way or the other?” Jagati asked.
“I’ve a head for maths, myself,” Rory said. “With Eitan’s help, I’m betting we could determine if it were operating to spec.”
“No doubt we could,” Eitan said. “But I am with Jagati in this. We should destroy the device. Now. Before we set down in Nike.”
“If we destroy it we won’t be able to set down in Nike,” John said. “Or anywhere else. Sameen hired us—”
“Sameen set us up to retrieve contraband tech,” Jagati tossed in. “To my mind, that means we owe her dick.”
“And there will be other jobs,” Eitan added, bolstered by Jagati’s support. “Fortune is large. Larger now the war is over.”
“Not large enough to outrun a bad rep,” John countered. “And when word gets out the Errant doesn’t deliver? We were scraping the bottom of the hive before this. What happens when the jobs dry out altogether?”
Eitan’s head was shaking. “It would be worth the risk.”
“Worth our lives?” John asked. “Sameen isn’t the only player involved. Tariq is also out there, and he’s proven more than willing to kill for that machine.”
“There are worse things than death,” Eitan said, his fist clenching.
“Yes,” John agreed, “there are. Watching others die needlessly comes to mind.”
“Boys.” Jagati moved to stand between the John and Eitan. “You’re both a queen’s dream, so why don’t we all step back and take a breath before Rory gets hurt.”
“And not that I don’t agree with you, because I do.” Jagati turned to face Eitan. “But isn’t this a pretty extreme reaction, given your interest in the tech back in the day?”
He looked at her. “Back in the day I was young and arrogant enough to believe Fortune could be trusted with Earth’s knowledge. Suppose the calculator works as intended,” he added, glancing at the others. “Would the users be satisfied exploring Euclidean geometries? Would they delve into the possibilities of base 60 maths or attempt to map the route of infection of Midasian Fever? Or would Sameen, or Tariq, or whoever Tariq meant to sell it to use the device as the jumping point for the next technological advance? And what, do you suppose, that next advance might be? Programmable detonators? Guidance systems for airborne missiles? Earth had all of those, and more. What would the Midasian boffins turn their minds to, do you think? Because if we allow this machine into the world, I promise we will find out.”
“All of which, I’ll grant, is a valid point,” Rory said as the other two digested the argument, “but it also assumes this particular calculator is the prototype. We’ve no way of knowing, do we, how many of these wee mechanicals have been built?”
“I wish that made me feel better,” Jagati said.
“And even if it is the only one,” John picked up Rory’s argument, “the draco’s effectively out of the shell. Someone has already built this thing, and could easily build themselves another.”
“Not easily.” Eitan shook his head. “You have no idea what went into this—”
“I would if you’d let me open it.”
“—the manufacture of the processors alone would be next to impossible,” he overrode Rory’s comment.
“What’s a proc—”
“Even for someone with the design specs?” John ignored Jagati’s poke to the shoulder as he cut her off.
“Even so,” Eitan confirmed. “Because those specs were created based on records from Earth, designed for Earth manufacturing, Earth-made supplies, and Earth power sources. Meaning the someone who made this calculator had to retro-kit the internal workings to suit what is available on Fortune now.”
“And do it without anyone knowing it was being done,” Rory added, with more admiration than Eitan was comfortable with.
“Would that be hard?” Jagati asked. “The keeping the work a secret bit, I mean.”
“Try ordering a coil of fine-extruded copper,” Rory said, running a hand through his already tousled hair. “It’s easier t’buy a full crate of crysto-plas cartridges for your shooter.”
Again, silence fell as all four stared at the seemingly innocuous device.
“What we need is more intel,” John finally spoke.
“And I tell you, there is not any amount of intel significant enough to justify keeping this machine intact.”
“And while your opinion is valued, I am still the captain of this airship, and that means it is on me to decide how this issue is dealt with. Unless you’ve changed your mind about my abilities in the past fifteen minutes?”
The tension, which had eased momentarily, stretched anew.
Had there been anything, the slightest hint of weakness in the other man, Eitan would have followed through on the tacit challenge, but John remained steady, the epitome of ballast to his mercurial crew, so, after a moment in which it seemed no one dared breathe, he let his head dip in acceptance.
“Very well,” John replied, showing neither relief nor pride—an enviable quality in a leader, to Eitan’s mind.
John then looked at Rory, who shrugged his acquiescence, and at Jagati, who waved her hands in brief surrender.
“So,” she asked, “how do we play this?”
John looked around the table. “As I was saying, we can’t make a firm decision without more information, and, at present, there is only one person I know of able to provide it.”
“You are going to keep the meeting with Sameen,” Eitan guessed.
“You mean we are,” Jagati told John, firmly. “No way you’re meeting this broad without backup.”
“That may be wise,” he said, to her visible surprise, then looked at Rory. “Meanwhile I know you were planning to check in with Jinna, but—”
“But you’ll be wanting me to stay behind and watch the ‘ship.”
“Not at all. But I was hoping you’d be so kind as to post a package on your way to see her?”
Rory’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “A package?”
“Did you forget someone’s birthday?” Jagati asked.
“No,” John said to Jagati, “and yes,” he told Rory.
“And what’s to be in this package?”
“It doesn’t matter,” John said. “All that matters is that the package itself is about that size,” he said, and nodded at the open box.
“That? What? Ahh…” Rory grinned as the crystal sparked. “You’re wanting a decoy, then.”
“Only as a precaution,” John said.
“Why?” Jagati asked. “I mean, we left Tariq in the dust, so who are we worried about?”
“It strikes me that Sameen might be concerned that we’ll have discovered the nature of the cargo and taken steps to protect her interests. Beyond that, I’m not certain we can discount Tariq. He strikes me as the determined type.” He looked at Rory. “You’ll need to be convincing. If anyone’s watching, we want them to believe the calculator is in your possession.”
“What fun,” Rory decided.
“And I’d like you to act as his backup,” John said to Eitan.
“And grateful I’ll be,” Rory said, “but shouldn’t whoever’s playing backup be a mite more discreet?” He looked at Eitan. “I’ve never seen you so much as cross a room without bodies tripping over themselves to get your teleph exchange.”
“It is not that bad,” Eitan protested.
“Actually,” Jagati said, “it’s kind of that bad.”
“Forgive me, I should perhaps say it does not have to be that bad.”
“Uh huh.” Jagati’s eyebrow rose. “So you’re saying you have an Off switch?”
He considered that. “I suppose that would be the best way to describe it, yes.”
“Oy then, is this a sensitive thing?”
“Yes, it is a…sensitive thing,” Eitan told Rory. “One I would be more than happy to explain to anyone who wishes a primer on neurochemical attractors and the conscious suppression of—”
“No, but thank you for offering,” John cut in.
“I’m good,” Jagati added.
“I’d like to know,” Rory pointed out. “But it can wait.”
“Glad to hear it,” John said dryly. “Now, I suppose I should find somewhere to hide this thing.”
Eitan frowned. “You are not bringing it to Sameen?”
John shook his head. “As you said, we don’t know what anyone might do with such a device, so, for now at least, our best option is to keep it safe.”
As he spoke, a complex five-note trill sounded from the galley’s radio box.
“That’s Nike field’s call sign,” Jagati said.
“Perhaps that’s our docking assignment.” John looked at Rory, who offered a wry fist to the heart in salute and crossed to the other side of the galley. As Rory took the communication, John gingerly lifted the calculator from its nest of cotton. “Lighter than I’d have thought,” he told the others before giving his head a shake and heading for the galley’s starboard door.
“So.” Jagati nudged Eitan in the shoulder. “You were part of a radical technocrist student movement in college?”
Despite the gravity of the situation, Eitan felt the smallest tug of a smile. “I was experiencing a rebellious phase.”
“Yeah?” Her eyes slid sideways. “What was the rebellious phase’s name?”
“Galileo. He was quite... persuasive.”
“I just bet he was.” She left him with a slap on the shoulder before heading off to make her own preparations.
And so we move forward, he thought, following.
He could only hope they were not moving towards utter disaster.
“Oy!” Rory called from the radio as Eitan passed into the forward passageway. “Who’s to do all these dishes, then?”
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