Wednesday, April 04, 2012
WAITING TO MEET THE SMART GUYS
Of turning whatsoe'er he touch'd to gold;
This modern statesmen can reverse with ease -
Touch them with gold, they'll turn to what you please.
"All my life I kept waiting to meet the smart guys. It hasn't happened yet."
Jonathan Beaty - Chief Investigative Reporter For Time Magazine (Retired) And Co-Author Of Outlaw Bank.
Pasadena, A.D. 2183
KEA SAT ON the edge of Millikan’s Pot, waiting to meet the smart guys. So far, there hadn’t been any. Cal Tech was a rather large disappointment, which he was just now realizing at the beginning of his sophomore year. His freshman year had been a blur of auditorium-sized classes, expensive fiches, loneliness, and work. He’d had little chance to evaluate the world he was now in. The blur had probably been increased by Leong Suk’s death, just before Christmas of 2182. Kea hadn’t been notified of her death until after the funeral.
Cal Tech was just as much a fraud as any of the faiths on Godmen Lane. And like all good swindles, it looked great from the outside. It had more Nobel laureates than even Houston or Luanda—but most of them taught one or two survey courses and perhaps a doctoral-level program with a handful of specially chosen disciples.
The school, with more than 25,000 students, was approaching its three hundredth anniversary, and was a soar of the most modern architecture and imagination. About the only buildings left from the “olden days”—before the institute had begun its cancerous expansion, devouring not just a nearby city college but the city’s main center as well—was the fountain he was sitting on, and the nearby Spanish-style Kerkhoff Hall, now used for freshman orientations.
The work, while hard, largely consisted of swotting: rote memorization and regurgitation at periodic examinations. Both of the Theory courses he had qualified for this semester seemed to preach enhancement/modification of the past’s breakthroughs rather than instilling any truly original thought in the students.
He wasn’t so cork-topped that he had expected Cal Tech to be perfect, that it would give him the Secrets of the Ancients. But he had thought the school would have some original thinkers, scientists who were looking beyond this system/time’s moil of rote repetition of the past’s errors. Maybe there were sages, he thought, and he was just too damned young and dumb to know who, or where, they were. Yeah. Or maybe the original thinkers had gotten fed up and were teaching offplanet on Ganymede or Mars. If so, why were there so many offworlders going to Cal Tech?
Not that any of Kea’s doubts had shown up in his work—he was holding a flat 4.0 average and had been on the Founder’s List both semesters of the previous year. He was set. All he had to do was keep his grades, smile, morale, and genitalia up, and he would be a Twenty-second Century Surefire Success. Which meant, he thought wryly, he would be sucked into one of the super design-plants like Wozjobs City and, eventually, if he behaved properly, allowed to put his name on a “particularly elegant” computer path. Or, even more dizzyingly, to have a tertiary process in some synthetic industrial plant named after him. Perhaps they would reward him with a two-week, all-expense-paid trip to Nix Olympica. On one of the lesser peaks, of course.
Kea suddenly grinned. You’re right, my lad, he thought. There’s no option but suicide. Lie down in front of the next railbus as it passes, baby blue. Speaking of which… He looked at his watch—this year the fashion was to wear a timepiece on the wrist—and realized he’d best bust buns, or he was going to be late for work. He’d have just time to drop off his fichecase at his far off-campus rooming house, where he paid far too much for a tiny attic room, and change clothes.
Now forget all that crap you were thinking. You will not end up a cog in somebody else’s machine. Hell, you can go back to Maui and start all over again as a gangster before you allow them to do that to you. Or you could volunteer for a longliner…
He shivered, and ran a thumb up the fastener of his jacket. He felt suddenly cold. The fall sun, no doubt, wasn’t as warming as it appeared.
The hashhouse/ginjoint Kea worked in was in the middle of a notorious district. About a million or so years ago, Kea had discovered after he peeled through geological layers of wallboard, paint, and flocked wallpaper, the place had been named the Gay Cantina. Now it had no name as far as anyone knew—it was just the dive over there. All the licenses were in the name of the owner, a glowering goon named Buno, and everything was paid in cash.
Buno hadn’t believed anybody as good-looking—i.e., without any of the district’s de rigueur face scars—as Richards, let alone anybody who was attending Cal Tech, would want a job in his dive. But Kea, who had spent a lot of time remembering his father’s cooking and over the past several years had prepared the meals for Leong Suk and himself, persisted. Besides, he thought, it’d be a hoot seein’ what happened the first time a yahoo decided to hurrah the kid. Buno tried him out.
Now there was a smallish vee-notch in the countertop—and a wide dark stain around it. After that the district left Richards alone, especially when they noted that after he’d taken the boning knife out of the counter—and the thug’s hand—he hadn’t called the police.
Kea worked from sixteen hundred hours until some vague time called closing, which meant when the last drunk had stumbled out and no more were reeling in. Mostly the dive was pretty quiet and Kea could get his studying done. But not this night. The house was very busy, with a steady stream of hungry and even partially sober customers. About 2100, ten very unhappy drunks fell in. It was just another night. And then Austin Bargeta showed up. Kea, putting together a fried-egg-and-ham-and-cheese sandwich for one of the boozers, didn’t see him when he entered. But he did recognize Bargeta’s rather remarkable voice when he asked for a menu. Kea had heard it several times before—he and Bargeta were both suffering through Particle Theory and its Immediate Application in Common Yukawa Drive Situations.
The Bargetas were richrich. The family had been founded four generations before when a brilliant designer had made his trillions, building among other things one of the first portable triple-lobe astrographic instruments. Then he had married the daughter of one of Japan’s most respected yakuza//bankers and the dynasty had begun. The family was very old-money now, with most of the wealth in holding companies. The rest was in interplanetary building/transport. Each Bargeta generation was presented with a choice—a child could become either family head or else a trust baby. The family head would prove himself by running the high-risk building/transport division, and the behind-the-scenes bankers would take care of the rest of the nearly automatic money machine. Being the Chosen One meant wealth and power beyond comprehension.
Austin Bargeta was making a run at being the heir apparent, or so Kea had heard. The problem and the gossiped wonderment was how long the family name would carry him before he was punted into the outer darkness, a failed heir apparent.
It took three blinks for Bargeta to sort of recognize Richards. He wasn’t being a snob, Kea realized. He was not much more sober than the ten drunks behind him.
“Oh, it’s Richards,” he said. “You’re in one of my classes. What are you doing here?"
“Some of us,” Kea said, “have to work. You’ve heard of work, haven’t you? What most people do? For money?”
“Oh. Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Didn’t mean, and all… don’t mean to sound like… been gazing on the wine while it was red, you know.”
“Yeah. Austin, I’ve got to tab you to something. This isn’t exactly your kind of place.”
“Why not?” Bargeta turned and looked around, and nothing, from the graffiti on the wall to the stained ceiling to the clientele, seemed to register. “Seems quite… you know, authentic.”
“It’s that. Okay.” Kea shrugged. Feed the kid—which Richards thought of Bargeta, even though Bargeta was a year and a class senior to him—and slick him out of here. “Can I get you something to eat?”
Bargeta focused on the menu. He was studying it when one of the drunks shouted, “Hey, cookie, if you’re through blowin’ in y’r bitch’s ear, I’d like to order m’ eats.” Kea ignored the shout. Bargeta did not.
He swiveled off the counter stool, face turning red, as if he were in a vid. Wonderful, Kea thought. “I understand,” Austin said with great clarity, “that you call your mother Piles, because she is such a bleeding ass. Or am I mistaken?”
The drunk came up in several waves. Kea noticed, as he slid unobtrusively to the cashbox, that the man was a Samoan. There weren’t that many humans wandering around Pasadena measuring two meters in any direction. Kea also knew that the Samoan culture is maternal – an insult to their mums required instant, and murderous action - and that, very shortly, Bargeta was going to be steamrolled. Bargeta took on some kind of half-assed martial arts stance as the Samoan juggernauted toward him.
Kea took a wrapped roll of quarter-credit coins from the cashbox. Bargeta hit the Samoan with a snap-punch. The man grunted, but did not otherwise move or react. Then he swung. His punch took Austin in the shoulder and sent him spinning back, to sprawl across the counter. Kea slid the roll of coins into Bargeta’s hand. Austin’s fingers kinesthesiaed over the roll, told his brain what he was holding, and he came back up… whatever too-doo-woo self-defense system he’d been practicing forgotten. He swung a roundhouse punch, quite wildly.
The Samoan didn’t bother moving aside. Austin’s coin-weighted punch caught the man on the side of the jaw, and Richards could hear bone break and cartilage crunch. The Samoan shouted pain as blood spattered, and he slumped to a sitting position. His jaw hung slack and to the side. His friends were on their feet—and Kea had his cleaver out and had fingered the memory code for the cops before they could close on Bargeta. It was perfectly all right to call for heat in this instance—none of the drunks were local lads.
By the time the riot squad materialized, Kea had unobtrusively gotten the roll of coins from Austin’s fist and busted it into the appropriate change drawer. They tucked the broken-faced Samoan into a meatwagon and told his friends to haul butt out of there. Then they turned to deal with Austin. Kea, again impulsively, said he would take care of him. Kea called a cab, made sure Bargeta had enough credits to pay for the ride to wherever he lived, and started shutting down the kitchen. A thought crossed his mind that he would never make a good Machiavellian.
Three days later, when Particle Boredom Etc. met, Kea checked the results of a particularly bastardly verbal they’d had at the last class. What the course lacked in interest, the instructor made up for in severity. Second from the top. Not bad, Kea thought. He would’ve maxed it, but he had gone home the night before with one of the waitresses, who wanted to show him her new flat and other things of possible interest, and had been more than a little hungover.
Austin’s voice gloomed over his shoulder. “Oh crap. And I actually studied for the brute.”
Kea spotted Bargeta’s name. In the subbasement. As usual.
He turned. Bargeta looked about him. No one else was near the bulletin board. “You know,” Bargeta said, slightly lowering his voice, “I was not that drunk. And I never forget anything. You would appear to have prevented me from being mashed across one of your restaurant’s walls.”
Kea grinned—Bargeta, if one disregarded that voice and his born-to-the-manor manner, wasn’t unlikable. “You weren’t in any trouble. Clean-living sort of aluno like yourself… you would’ve beanoed him, easy. Or, anyway, a bolt of lightning would’ve come through the roof and saved your butt when Vishnu decided to jump in.”
“He was that big?”
Austin laughed. “As I said, I owe you. When—or rather if— this class comes to an end, lemme buy you a sudser. Not that I’m what I think that railbus was accusing me of being. Unless,” he said with mock alarm that became real as his mind considered that once again he might have inadvertently offended, “you’re a pledger? And not that I have anything against, uh, well, if you’re the kind of man who, well, you know, doesn’t really, well, like women all that much.”
Kea shook his head. “Nope. I’m a normal red-blooded lusher.”
“Good. Good. And now the thought occurs that perhaps we could talk about some other things. About some other difficulties I seem to have stumbled into that you could advise me on.”
Over several beers, Austin made his proposal. He wasn’t exactly the shining star of Cal Tech, he freely admitted. And a GPA of 1.5 was not gentlemanly enough to keep him at the institute, which would seriously displease some people. Some people, Kea was sure, were the decision-makers in the Bargeta family. Austin wanted to hire Kea as a tutor. Richards started to take a pass, and then, in one frozen instant, caught himself. Go ahead. Somebody’s trying to give you the edge, just like that broken vase. Just like that roll of coins you passed this kid. Don’t turn it down. He accepted.
Tutoring wasn’t hard—Austin was a quick study. Admittedly, whatever Kea’d crammed in one ear slipped out the other within a week, but what of it? There didn’t seem to be any professors interested in anything more than a proper regurgitation of their own magnificence. And it wasn’t as if Austin would ever have to use any of the knowledge he supposedly had. At that point, Kea became fascinated as to just how smart he could make Bargeta. Assuming he was willing to play any angle—just as he’d been willing to play any angle to get away from Kahanamoku City.
The answer was, very smart indeed, as Richards discovered the university had its own underworld, just as crooked as anything on Maui. Exams could be purchased. TAs could be bribed to write papers. Or to mark someone in attendance. In some cases, where the instructor was a complete mountebank, even change grades. By the end of the semester, Austin was scoring honorable 2.5’s-3.0’s in all his courses, and in one massive six-credit lab course that was in reality a gut run, an amazing 3.5. “And,” Austin marveled, “it’s all because you showed me how to focus on what’s important.”
Austin asked Kea if he wanted to move in with him before the next semester started. Richards jumped at the invite. It wasn’t as if they would get in each other’s way—Bargeta actually had a house, sitting on an open lot by itself. Six bedrooms. A maid, a cook, and a Jeeves to take care of the details. Austin took his new friend around to meet his friends. Kea, tall, rugged, with a strange and colorful background, was at first the latest wonder in Bargeta’s circle. It was assumed that sooner or later he’d pass on, as did all of Austin’s new best friends, male or female. But Kea did not And he became an accepted part of their gatherings.
Kea studied these rich young people and their mannerisms carefully. He learned, in fact, all that the upper crust could teach. It was fascinating. The rules were as exact as any of the triads back on Maui would require from a member. And the penalties for error, even if they weren’t as physically fatal, appeared to be almost as damaging. At times he felt he saw Austin Bargeta for what he was—a shallow, superficially charming user, who in fact was playing Kea like a marionette. And he saw the Bargeta family, even though he had only met one member, as part of a great conspiracy of the status quo, a status quo that was keeping mankind from its real destiny.
Of course, that immediately produced a question from within: What destiny, Kea? He did not have an answer to that, only the feeling that mankind was holding itself back from some great goal, a goal out among the stars, a goal that would be shared by other beings as intelligent or more so than mankind.
Space travel was more than two centuries old now, and what had been accomplished? The Solar System was explored and a few worlds terraformed. Fifty or so longliners had set sail into the unknown, and those who had managed to message back reported emptiness beyond, and horror and degeneracy within. A few stars had been touched by the astronomically expensive star-ships. One extraterrestrial race had been contacted. What an accomplishment, he jeered.
Austin’s senior and Kea’s junior term passed smoothly as well. Bargeta graduated. Not with honors—no amount of cheating and bribery could have managed that—but comfortably in the upper third of his class. Kea was First Junior. Next year he knew he would be the Prime graduate of the institute. With that degree, Kea would have little trouble finding a suitable position. Perhaps with Bargeta Shipping. Perhaps elsewhere. Soon— perhaps in only three or four years—Kea would go into space. The future looked quite bright.
It became dazzling on that long, celebratory weekend after Bargeta had received his diploma and sprang the great surprise. He felt he owed Kea, and he wanted everyone to know it, especially his family. He wanted Kea to be his guest for the summer—or at least part of it, since this summer would last twice as long as any Kea had known. Kea would also have to make minor alterations in his own plans—he wouldn’t be able to start his final year at Cal Tech until the first semester of ‘85.
Austin’s smile grew as he saw Kea frown at the proposed changes to his life. Then he paid off the buildup. The reason Kea would have to start school late was passage time. Come September, he’d still be at the Bargeta family’s vacation com-pound, the one they called Yarmouth. Near Ophir Chasm, now a freshwater ocean.
Kea felt, as Austin beamed, as if he’d suddenly entered free-fall aboard one of the early spaceships. School could wait, his career could wait.
It was the beginning of the end.
NEXT: THE GIRL YOU NEVER WANT TO MEET
EMPIRE DAY 2012 - A COMMEMORATIVE EDITION
Relive the fabulous four-day Stregg-laced celebration. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. New recipes from the Eternal Emperor's kitchen. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. Sten's thrill-packed exploits at the Emp's castle. How to make your own Stregg. And, did I mention, Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever?
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THE COMPLETE MISADVENTURES: IT'S A BOOK!
THE VITAL LINKS:The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 110,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Amazon.com. Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!
Posted by Allan Cole at 5:16 AM