Friday, July 4, 2008

Chapter One

Ordobat's Folly
By Joel Sparks

...You too, Folly, — you?
I know that you will lay me low at last;
Let be! Yet I fall fighting, fighting still!
Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmund Rostand, SY 6610


Ordobat awoke with a start, shaking off tendrils of nightmare. In the dream, one of his towering brew-vats had been heating over a maximum flame, but with nothing inside; helplessly he had awaited the explosion. He threw off his light sheets, damp with sweat, and cursed quietly to himself.

On the wall, an orange light flashed: An alert from his datasphere agent. He sat up, rubbed his head, shivered. If the alert had been critical, it would have come with a sound alarm, so he had time for coffee.

Mellinick Ordobat, master brewer and part owner of two taverns in the city of Recht, was not as young as he had once been. His mother was ten years gone; his father, a tutor, maintained his own existence around on the weather side of the Hill and they seldom spoke. Ordobat had no recent lovers, no compatriots except business associates. For years, he had countered such considerations with the peacefulness of his existence, with his skill in the arts of brewing, and with a sufficient if modest income. But bringing truly fine ale to the palates of his fellow Rechtians turned out to be more philanthropy than business. If finances did not change soon, he and his partner Max would have to close the Blue Bell Tavern, and even the original Blue Spoon could not last.

So the datasphere alert, annoying though it was, was only responding to Ordobat's frequent searching for ways to make the Blue Tavern Group turn a profit. Returning late from the Spoon the night before, he'd set the agent to combing the 'sphere, and apparently it had found something that matched his criteria.

Having secured a mug of fresh black brew, seasoned with anise from coastal Thrumbar, he settled in his only comfortable chair and snapped his fingers at the display wall, which flickered from its gentle topiary video to his personal data-home. A small sphere in one corner glowed mostly green, indicating the state of the planetary datasphere, a trivial network by Galactic standards. Larger icons illustrated partnership finances in the way most intuitive for Ordobat: capital as a fluid, moving between notional vessels. A slow trickle of luminous income dripped into the general fund, a shallow pool, its faded glow showing the age of its diminishing contents. Thus the empty vat of his dream, he realized. Thin pipes led from the central vat-icon: payments to himself and Max Kinnon, each made only when the total rose to those outlets. A certain amount of liquid boiled away over time as well: inevitable costs of doing business, such as rent on the taverns and the warehouse where he brewed; bulk purchases of barley and spices from the Elemar lowlands; staff wages. A separate bottle, a bit over half-full, represented his personal savings. A single weary glance told Ordobat the overall state, and the picture was grim.

Once more he rang the changes, looking for a break point, an unexploited geometry. An insistent finger thrust at the small group of icons blew them up into a three-dimensional maze of translucent plumbing. The Blue Tavern Group, at the center, split into two beakers, one for each tavern. He jerked his thumb to the right and the flow sped up, projecting into the future; faint lines whipped by to demarcate the first day, then the traditional seven-day weeks, the inconvenient 108-day Tisker seasons. By the Standard Year mark, and long before the local 433-day year, the Blue Bell vat was a dark, hollow shell and the Blue Spoon was swiftly emptying itself. The display doubled, to show what happened if he kept his own savings sealed (the whole apparatus going dark) versus dipping into that bottle and siphoning off its contents (the same result, slightly delayed). Little meters measured the reliability of the results: not perfect, of course, but high.

Thumb left, and the display collapsed into one, rewinding to the present. A chopping gesture severed the Bell from the network. Running forward again, the abandoned tavern's architecture rapidly decayed and vanished, while the Blue Spoon sucked income into itself. Reliability wavered; Ordobat wanted to know best and worst case scenarios, and the liquid levels separated into an opaque base of certainty and a transparent layer of hope. He spun the view, observing the box of the brewery operation and its connection to the tavern. He squeezed the brewery down a quantum to its minimal size, and drew the Blue Spoon's tanklike shape to the fore again. One by one, the thin pipettes of discretionary outputs broke off: firing some staff, reducing the menu, opening for fewer hours. The siphons of personal profit for himself and Max slid higher and higher on the vat; to one side, his personal savings shrank. Still, the income could not match the outflow.

Zooming out, he saw the entire city of Recht displayed in terms of alcohol consumption, the streets appearing as a system of dikes and channels funneling drinkers to their favored establishments. Forward through time, long, slow waves showed variation in seasonal consumption, with periodic surges when a shipload of offworld tourists was expected. Spiked into the flow were nine tiny umbrellas, each the center of a whirlpool sucking down far too much traffic, leaving a thin wash to barely wet the street around the little blue spoon-icon.

A fist paused the simulation; an irritable hand-wipe erased it from view. Simple facts: The Bell should be closed as soon as possible, for the Spoon to have even a slim chance. And realistically, barring miraculously improbable events, they were out of business within a year. Then Ordobat, who had done nothing but perfect his brewing for fifteen Standard Years, would have to seek work, possibly even with the hated Parasol swill-mills, where he would be junior to younger, clumsier folks... Unacceptable! There had to be a way.

To the agent's results, instead: a package patiently waiting at the top of his display. At a finger-poke it expanded, text headers first.

NEWSLINE (planetary/local)
POSTED FROM: Sector D14 Thrumbar Interior
PRECIS: Gold-rush economy surrounds mineral mud deposits deep in the jungles of Thrumbar
AGENT FLAG CONTEXT: ...extremely high prices for such goods as medicines, water purifiers, communications gear, preserved food, beer, and insect repellent....

Ordobat grunted in recognition. High prices for beer: That would be enough to snag his agent's attention. He triggered the report, and words rolled up the display as the datalink spoke them in the jovial tones of the Basic User level.

"Offworld laborers of peculiar roots stream into the sweltering shadows of dense foliage known as the Jungles of Thrumbar. Here they subsist on the barest of amenities and suffer the lash of their cruel overseers, the Mineral Mud Lords. Hard souls whose eyes always reflect golden credit disks, these taskmasters can hardly see the misery they cause." The video showed a muddy field and a great many muscular, strangely pale men digging in it with primitive hand-tools.

"Yet the laborers do not complain. Here, shoveling up river mud, they can earn more caps in a day's backbreaking toil than they might win in a week or a month back home, in the galaxy's cruelest slums and wastes. Even the fraction of the mud's value that trickles down to the shoveler is a trickle of gold to such a hopeless lot.

"What makes mere mud so valuable? Time! Yes, millennia of time, undisturbed by Humanity and its shovels and lasers... eons for the unique life-forms of Thrumbar to evolve and die and lay down layer upon layer of earth enriched by their special chemical natures. So that now, the very soil itself is packed with wild and useful veins of virtues unseen in the larger galaxy."

Here Ordobat, wincing, paused the readout with a raised palm and pointed to the link for supporting statistical data. Colorful pie charts erupted. As he pointed to each, explanatory text appeared. Time stamps indicated that the data was very recent. A team of geologists had entered Thrumbar just seventy days ago with plans to chart a large-scale history of tectonic changes. To their surprise, soil samples in certain areas had revealed high levels of ductile mineral content – elemental aluminum, to be precise, quite valuable deposits in washes of silt and mud untouched by the continent's excavation-style ore-mining. The peculiar essences of Thrumbar life forms indeed played a role, as well as geological action and the salts of the ocean swept in by floods. Preliminary results, published in scientific journals, stimulated an instant rush of interest in Thrumbar's previously obscure mining companies. Such was the pace of business in the galaxy, as sophisticated economics software analyzed the enormous volume of news data and calculated costs and benefits to a frighteningly precise degree. Profit went to those with the resources to respond quickly to changing opportunities – the huge, wealthy conglomerates, those who had applicable expertise, and those who were on the spot. Millions across the galaxy read about such opportunities with mingled fascination and envy. Ordobat hardly counted himself a market-news aficionado, yet he did feel an unreasonable disappointment whenever another boomlet came and went without him. And now to have one appear on his own planet, and to hear about it only by chance! It was a shame he hadn't bought into a mining concerns years ago.

A thought arrested Ordobat with his cup at his lips. Certainly, the Thrumbar mining companies were best positioned to profit from this boom: They were on the spot, familiar with the land and its exigencies. With interstellar speeds limited to about sixty thousand seconds per light-year, news and equipment could only travel so fast. The Galactic concerns would be first to purchase data from incoming ships, then prepare and launch their expeditions in a few days, or less. The more equipment and personnel that could be used locally, the better... Ordobat pointed his way through another layer of analysis. Yes, the necessary capital had come to Tisker's World in the form of partnerships, great distant conglomerates joining with local mining companies to extract the minerals as rapidly as possible. Ordobat opened a projection: high profits in the next standard year, then a little lower each year – and then nothing, barely a cap to be extracted once four years had passed. Text explained:

(1) Probable depletion of major deposits [see projection based on similar riparian silt deposit histories in wet ecologies]
(2) Tendency of market strength to increase efforts at production and distribution of Al by traditional high-energy methods [see comparison with similar market cycles]
(3) Local, Council-based government is unarmed but highly legitimate under original planetary charter. Potential stranglehold over import/export activities. Probability of legal stricture crippling to market rises each year, based on analysis of these main factors:
(+) Tenets of local moral code opposing forced labor and environmental exploitation
(+) Likelihood of eventual Galactic-level enforcement based on planetary charter
(-) Profit pressure applied via planet-local mining companies [see moving sum of forces projection]
(4) Internal unrest of offworld labor [see précis of historical activism]

So: A brief window of fantastic profits, while competition and the Council struggled to bring it to an end. Those in a position to make money were, as always, the Galactic conglomerates and their partners on the scene. The mining companies would welcome this chance; most had spent decades scraping out wet, shallow mines of bauxite, sparse petrochemicals, and petrified wood, for little profit.

Thoughtfully, Ordobat examined the article. A "gold-mine economy," to use the ancient term, with factors working to shut it down even before the gold — in this case, aluminum compounds — became exhausted. Local moral pressure he understood well; a Tisker born and raised, he knew by reputation that few Galactics came up to the proper standards of behavior required by the council. Forced labor, for example, was surely impermissible. He saw a video tag on the fourth point, "Internal unrest of offworld labor," and flicked an expanding gesture that way. A full-motion screen bloomed: ranks of those strange workers, their skin and hair a stark white like bleached paper and their expressions equally blank. Subtitles indicated the date — a few standard years past — and the availability of statistical analyses. The men shuffled along an industrial corridor, each picking up a pack of gear, and ignoring a firm female voice that harangued them in accented Galactic: "Don't risk your life for a few minims! When you see the red nodes, leave them alone! Let the robots get burned!" The point of view rotated to show a smaller figure, dimly lit. It seemed to be a woman, standing on a crate and shouting through an improvised megaphone of rolled plastic; just as she lowered the cone, the video ended and looped back to the beginning. Ordobat paused the playback, bemused. Who were these strange-looking folk, colorless and morose? Some breed of albinos from an odd corner of the galaxy? He pulled up the supporting data, but he was no expert on sociometrics, and the charts meant little to him. From the summary, both history and probable future held only a low, steady level of discontent, with little chance of any serious unrest. That could mean harsh suppression, but the Council would never allow outright slavery on Tisker's World. Perhaps it meant a small number of malcontents or troublemakers, ignored by their fellows; perhaps only one. Ordobat flicked back to the video, rolled it to the end, and froze the last image. A few complex but habitual gestures enhanced the light and zoomed in on the face: a woman's face, snow-pale like the others, but with her white hand stopped in the act of brushing back coal-black, disorderly hair. Somehow the motionless image conveyed exasperation, anger, determination, and pride at once, in the set of her jaw, in the twist of her mouth, boldly red by contrast with the white skin, and in her surprising, ice-blue eyes.

There was nothing in the data about the peculiar workers, and nothing about the black-haired woman, though Ordobat looked carefully.

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