A flash fiction challenge– “Long Term Investments”

Wow, two weeks in a row– I haven’t done this in a while.

Below is my response to this week’s flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig– 1000 words on the subject of real estate, of all things.  And for some twisted reason, this one slotted right in behind the piece I wrote last week— same universe, same space opera sensibility.  Only…I think this one is all too likely, if we ever do create an interstellar society.  Which makes me kinda queasy when I think about it….

Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel

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The sun sparkled beautifully off the waters of the bay.  Juarez took in the vista, with purple headlands shadowing the horizon across the water, and boats, pleasure craft and working vessels, dotting the blue of the water.  The sun was warm, but the breeze off the bay was cool and refreshing after days in a ship getting here.

“And this is the result of, what?” he asked Harkess.  “Two hundred years of terraforming?”

“To bring it to its current state of perfection, yes,” Harkess said.  “But Pequod was comfortably inhabitable within thirty years of our first landings.  And many of the prospects in our portfolio would require even less work than that– in fact, some are step off the ship, plant a seed, and you’re done.”

“Doubtless those go for a higher premium,” Juarez said.

Harkess conceded the point with a nod.  “Of course, as with any other piece of real estate, the asking price of any of our worlds is predicated on ‘move-in readiness’, among many other factors.”  He smiled. “To be honest, it is a balancing act most investors have to make. Savings in initial costs for a less human-friendly world will usually be invested in the subsequent terraforming as a matter-of-course.”

“Yes,” Juarez said, “The investors I represent have been studying the market for some time.  They understand the basic points of planetary investment.” He shifted in his seat. “But as a middle-rank association, we must be careful where we finally decide to put our money.  We’re not a conglomerate; still less are we Shareholders. One false step and we could all be penniless.”

“Of course,” Harkess said.  “And Advanced System Opportunities has assisted many groups in your situation, Citizen Juarez.  The New Way Chosen, for instance, came to us when they wanted to find a world for themselves. So did the Purified.  We have a great deal of experience helping investors of modest means become Proprietors on their own planet.”

A servant came out on to the terrace, bearing a tray with a bottle of wine and two glasses.  He placed the tray on the table between the two men, poured wine into the glasses, bowed and left.  Juarez thought the man bore unmistakable signs of being a mod, but said nothing.

“Please, Citizen Juarez,” Harkess said, indicating the glass before the representative.

Juarez lifted the glass, inhaled the bouquet, and then took a respectful sip.  “A local vintage?”

“Yes,” Harkess said.  “We’re quite proud of it.”

“It is truly excellent.”  Juarez took another sip. “I understand that ASO has a relationship with the Voronovs.”

Harkess nodded.  “Quite a long and fruitful one, to be honest.  Historically, and in the present, they have been a tremendous help.  And, of course, we keep all our licensures and permits with the Consortium itself in order.”  He paused. “May I ask what your investors’ intentions might be?”

Juarez looked at Harkess over the rim of his glass.  “My investors are committed to making whatever world we chose into a place fit for extensive human habitation– but precisely because our resources are not unlimited, we need to see some early profits.  To help us bear the cost of development.”

“Naturally,” Harkess said.  “That would mean some easily exploited mineral assets, or some of the higher yield cash crops, such as coca or makatinte.  Considering the resources of your group, I would assume that we are not talking about mining gas giants or any other such larger scale operations.”

“No, you’re quite correct,” Juarez said.  

“Yes– I think you will find, citizen, that we have several opportunities in our portfolio right now that might meet your specifications.”  Harkess smiled. “And if not, well, there’s hardly a week that passes without one of our survey ships jumping far beyond the Perimeter, discovering new worlds.  I am sure we will be able to find something that will please your investors.”

“That’s all very well and good, Citizen Harkess,” Juarez said, hesitating, “but I’m afraid I must ask about… infestations.”

“Ah,” Harkess said.  “You needn’t trouble yourself, Citizen Juarez.  ASO has extensive experience handling infestations.  In the five hundred standard years we have been in business, we have dealt with more than one hundred.”  He smiled. “In my operations days, I handled five myself.”

“Really?” Juarez said.  “Are they…difficult?”

“Generally, speaking, no,” Harkess said.  “Every world has its particular vulnerabilities.  Our techs and operations people are quite skilled at crafting solutions peculiar to each situation, one that is guaranteed to do no permanent harm to the planetary biosphere.  Naturally, we don’t beat our own drum about it, but we’ve never had a failure, nor a complaint.”

“I see,” Juarez said.  “Unfortunately, that’s not quite what I was asking.  Do you ever…face opposition?”

“Ah– no, we never have.  None of the species we’ve confronted have ever had a technology more sophisticated than bronze axes.   Primitives like that are quite easy to deal with– one tailored bio-plague, a couple of neutron weapons, and it’s generally over before they know it’s begun.”

“What about the Hegeri?” Juarez asked.

Harkess’ studied, pleasant facade seemed to harden, just a little.  “The Hegeri…the Hegeri are a unique case. They were taught their technology by a human renegade.  It is not…native to their culture.” He smiled again. “Besides, they are on the other side of the Volume.  The Consortium fleet has them well in hand. Nothing to concern us.”

“Well, that reassures me,” Juarez said.

“As it should, citizen,” Harkess said, beaming now.  “Besides, if it should turn out the planet you choose does have an infestation, it’s always possible that they will leave some picturesque ruins.  We’ve found that sort of thing is generally a boon to the tourist trade on any given world.”

Now Juarez smiled.  “Citizen Harkess,” he said, lifting his glass, “I think your firm and my investors are going to have a very profitable relationship.”

Harkess lifted his glass, too.  “I hope so, citizen,” he said, as they clinked glasses.  

FLASH FICTION– “A MATTER OF DISCRETION”

My response to a flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, to write 1500 words of space opera in honor of May the Fourth.  It so happens I love space opera, although I’ve seen very few good examples of the genre lately (I have been dodging The Last Jedi like a healthy man dodges plague victims).  My little piece below is based on an (as yet) unpublished space opera universe I’ve had rolling around in my head for decades.  If I ever get the Divine Lotus series finished (and that is a long, sad tale) I might just turn to the universe of the Consortium, Shareholders, and the Perimeter.

Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel

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“Damn Shareholder,” Rong muttered.  He leaned against a tree trunk and wiped sweat from his face.  

“Shut your mouth,” Teal told him.  He was drenched in sweat, as well; this world reminded him strongly of Novo Brasil.  “He hired us, he gets to set the agenda.”

“Indeed, Citizen Xiang,” the Shareholder said, from twenty meters away.  He spoke without turning around or looking up from the ruined wall he was examining with a sensordoc.  “I beg your patience—this will not take long.”

Teal gave Rong a sidelong glance.  “Enhanced genetics, tooler. Don’t forget it.”  Rong glowered, but clamped his lips tight.

Maria appeared over the rise beyond the wall, pushing aside vines and creepers.  “Shareholder Mann, there’s more ruins on the other side.”

“No matter,” Mann said.  He snapped the sensordoc shut.  “I’m picking up no ipinsotic traces at all.  Nothing. This location’s a waste of time.”

Teal resisted the urge to calculate the cost of the fuel they had burned getting here.  “Your orders, sir?”

“We go on to Mackason IV,” Mann said at once, with asperity.  “The reports can’t all be wrong.”  He seemed as if he were about to say more, but he stopped himself.  “I want to lift as quickly as possible.”

“We’ll be in the air five minutes after we close the hatches, Shareholder,” Teal said.

 

It wasn’t until they were well on trajectory for the jump radius that Mann sought Teal out.  They were alone in the Pleasant Virgin’s cockpit, with holographic readouts flickering around them.  Mann settled himself into the chair at the astrogator’s station and regarded Teal.  “All in order, Captain Xiang?” he said.

“We’re fifteen hours to jump,” Teal said, “and the ship is operating normally.”

“Good,” Mann said.  His regard of Teal sharpened.  “But not all of your crew appear to be happy.”

“Well, Shareholder,” Teal said, “with all due respect, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about human nature.  We’ve hit eighteen worlds in fifteen systems in the last month, and so far every one of them has been a dry hole.  For whatever it is you’re looking for. Frustration’s bound to show itself in this sort of situation.”

Mann said nothing for a moment.  “You knew that the exact nature of this mission would remain confidential, captain.”

“Indeed, Shareholder, it was made very clear to me,” Teal said.

“And we Purcells hired you and your crew precisely because you have a reputation for keeping secrets.”

“It’s a point of pride with us,” Teal said.

“Well, then, captain, I would appreciate it if you had a word with your people,” Mann said.  “The House of Purcell needs your discretion, and your very fast ship, to complete a task of some urgency.  To help us complete that task, we are paying you a handsome sum. Surely enough to quell any ennui you and your people may feel.”

“Yes, Shareholder,” Teal said.  “I will speak to them.”

 

“Pilkin’ bastard,” Maria said, running a hand over Teal’s bare chest.  “Never was a Shareholder worth the skin holding ‘em together.”

“That may be,” Teal said.  He enjoyed her touch; their lovemaking always put him into drowsy contentment.  “But he is paying the bills, and without this job we might be scratching for a commission.  Things are hard at the moment.”

“In this quadrant,” Maria said.  “T’other side of the Volume, there’s plenty of opportunities.”

“I’ve heard it all already, pretty puss,” Teal said.  “And maybe once our coffers are full, we’ll head that way.  But we have to finish this job first.”

Maria raised herself up on her hands, looked down on Teal.  “D’you have any idea what he’s looking for?”

“No,” Teal said, fim, “and I don’t want to know.  It is not our business. We were hired to haul him about and keep our mouths shut.  As long as I’m captain, that’s what we’ll do.”

Maria stared at him, solemn.  “So be it, then,” she said.  

 

Mackason IV, from a descent trajectory, looked much like many another Earth-type world—ocean blues overlayed with white clouds, green-brown landmasses here and there.  A cyclonic storm occupied a quadrant of the main ocean, but it was too far away to affect their chosen landing site. Teal took the Virgin in fast, not caring if they left a prominent re-entry trail.

They landed on a rocky plain, in a level area between jagged hills.  Even coming in they could see the ruins that covered the land between the high ground; as they landed Teal saw broad roads and the bases of broken towers.  Mann, leaning over his shoulder to stare at the displays, gave off a palpable air of excitement. “This is more extensive than anything I have ever seen before,” he said, transfixed.

They all hit dirt, Rong, Maria, Chris, Mann and Teal.  Mann had his sensordoc out at once. Even from several feet away, Teal could tell the readout was exploding with data.  

“This is incredible!” Mann exclaimed.  “The readings are off the scale! This is what we’ve been looking for!”

“Rong, Maria, fetch the containment vessel,” Teal said.  The two of them hurried back into the ship.

Mann led Chris and Teal through a broken archway, and down a flight of steps.  At the bottom was a sort of small amphitheater; scattered in the dust that coated the amphitheater’s floor were scattered lumps and shapes, most of which were hard to make out.

At the foot of one pillar, however, something glowed ochre.  Mann approached it; it glowed more brightly, while the sensordoc’s readout became even more fevered.

“There!” Mann cried, pointing.  “An active device! It’s what I’ve been looking for.”

“Doesn’t seem much,” Chris said.  The femman knelt down, extend a hand.

“Don’t!” Mann yelled.  

The warning came too late.  Chris touch the device. There was a flash of light, and then a scream.  Teal, squinting past a hand raised against the light, glimpsed Chris afire, screaming.  In the next instant, the femman was simply gone.

“The fool!” Mann cried.  “The utter fool!”   

 

They got the device in the containment vessel using hand-grav tools.  They sealed the vessel; then, with a smug Mann leading the way, they secured it in the Virgin’s front cargo bay.  “We are all rich now,” Mann told them.

They lifted ship at once, with Mann in the crew mess preparing a report to his superiors.  Teal was happy to retreat to the cockpit to put the Virgin on a trajectory for the jump radius.  He still didn’t know what they had found, and he wanted to know even less than before.   

He had just finished setting the jump coordinates when he heard a muffled thump.  The sound was strange to him.  Then the security display popped up a flashing alert, weapon discharge- crew mess.

“What the hell?” Teal said.  He climbed over the seats and slid down the ladder to the crew level.

He burst into the mess and was confronted by a scene of blood.  Mann lay on his back on the middle deck, his eyes staring sightlessly at the overhead.  Rong stood over him, a slug-thrower in his hand.

“Had to do it!” he yelled at Teal.  “The Sheffields– they’re offering a million!  A whole million! The Purcells are nothing compared to the Sheffields.”

Teal yelled in rage and threw himself at Rong.  The man had no time to bring his weapon to bear on Teal before the captain was on him.  He fired another shot, but it missed Teal and caroomed off one of the bulkheads.

Old training kicked in for Teal; without thinking he batted the gun out of Rong’s hand, then drove punches into the man that first stole his wind, and then his life.  Rong’s body fell over Mann’s and lay still.

Teal, panting, sensed rather than saw Maria in the mess’ open hatch.  “He’s ruined us!” he said, his hands clenched in unspent fury. “Ruined us!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maria said, “it probably depends on your point of view.”

Something slammed into Teal.  It threw him into the bulkhead.  He slid down, slumped against the compartment wall.  He couldn’t move; the stink of burnt flesh rose up into his nostrils.

“What…?” he gasped.

Maria came amd loomed over him, the quantifier in her hands crackling with residual heat.  “The Sheffields– what a joke. The Voronovs will pay far more. And it will all be mine.” Maria lifted the quantifier.

 

Maria reset the jump destination.  It would take a week to reach the Voronov base where she was to meet her contact– a long ride in an empty ship.  To top it off, she found she was actually sorry that Teal would not have understood why she had to do this. It would have been better with the two of them.

However, three million Consortiums bought a lot of consolation.  

Maria sat back in the command chair, contemplating her future.  She smiled. It was indeed time to examine opportunities on the far side of the Volume.   

Avengers: Infinity War– wild-eyed and totally wacky speculations on what happens next– SPOILERS!!

Okay, just in case the title of this post didn’t get through to you–

SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

If there is anyone who has still not seen Avengers: Infinity War and wants to remain unspoiled, STOP READING NOW!!!

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Okay, for here on out it’s your own fault if you get spoiled.  Totally.

So, massive numbers of people have seen the film, and a significant subset of those are freaked out by the ending– about how the good guys lost, how Thanos won, how could they kill off so many characters, on and on.  Come on, guys, what did you think was going to happen?

Despite certain claims to the contrary, I totally disbelieve the idea that Avengers 4 is going to be a “completely different” film.  The Russos are very good story-tellers and they laid a cunning trap for us.  Infinity War is, in truth, Part One of a two-part epic.  As such, it ended exactly as it should have— with the heroes at their uttermost lowest point, defeated, on their backs, not knowing what to do next.  The story required it.  Anything else would have been tantamount to cheating, or, worse, cowardice as story-tellers.  I don’t think you can accuse the Russos of cowardice.  The stunned, weeping fans stumbling out of movie theaters around the world are evidence to the contrary.

Okay, so how do the good guys claw their way out of this hole?  The original comic is no sure guide to where the Russos intend to go.  But there are clues in the movie.  What follows is pure speculation based on my viewing of the film.  I could be way, way off-base, but I think there are points of light in the darkness.

First, Dr. Strange saw 14-million-plus possible futures, out of which there was only one– one— in which the good guys win.  From the moment he ran through those futures, he had to be working overtime to set that one possibility up.  This is the context in which everything that came after has to be understood.

While on the way to Thanos’ homeworld of Titan, Dr. Strange explicitly tells Tony that Strange would let Tony and Peter Parker both die before he gave up the Time Stone.  At the critical point of the battle with Thanos, however, when Tony has been stabbed and appears to be dying, Strange suddenly reverses course and hands the Time Stone over, ostensibly in exchange for Tony’s life.

Most people commenting on this assume that means that Tony Stark is critical to ultimate victory for the good guys, and I would not argue with that.  After Thanos’ departure with the Time Stone, Tony asks Strange “why”.  Strange effectively answers the question in two parts.  He first tells Tony that they are “in the end-game now”.  Then, just before he dissolves, he tells Stark that “this is the only way this could have played out.”  In other words, the one path to victory is in place.  It remains to be seen if the surviving heroes can walk it.

Well and good.  But I think there’s more to that scene than meets the eye.  Watching Strange as he surrenders the Time Stone, the way the scene is cut, and the looks Strange gives Thanos, suggest to me that Strange has jiggered the Time Stone with a hidden spell.  There may be some sort of temporal time-bomb ticking away in it.  Its exact nature, I can’t guess, but I suspect Thanos will not like it.

Another moment in the fight on Titan was also suggestive of something bigger.  At one point Tony manages to scratch Thanos, who laughs it off by saying something to the effect, “All that effort for one drop of blood?”

Hmm.  The very fact that the film calls out what would otherwise be a insignificant injury suggests to me that Tony Stark, armed with one drop of Thanos’ blood, may be a formidable foe, indeed.  A drop of blood means that Tony now has Thanos’ DNA– and Bruce Banner, world-renown biochemist (along with all his other degrees) yet lives. Tailored bio-weapon, anyone?

Finally, there’s Captain Marvel.  The sight of her emblem was the one thing that seemed to lift people’s spirits in the showings I attended.  Some have compared her to Superman, and, by the rood, we could use a little of that OP sledgehammeriness right now.  Or a lot.  Lots and lots.  Seeing Captain Marvel open a really big can of whup-ass on Thanos will probably make my year.

How this all plays out in Avengers 4 is anybody’s guess.  We won’t have a clue until we see a trailer– hell, at the moment I would settle for the movie’s fracking title— except that there will surely be intense battles, further losses, and probably a bittersweet ending.  It would another kind of cheat if the good guys won, and dialed everything back to exactly as it was before Thanos attacked the Asgardian refugee ship.  The lesson of Infinity War seems to be that, when confronting ultimate evil, losses are inevitable.  It may be that some of the surviving heroes will pay the ultimate price, even as they– possibly– rescue some of those who were lost.  We’ll just have to see.

It’s going to be a long year…..