Wednesday, May 02, 2012


Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths and ruin kings.
Cannibals prefer those who have no spines. - Stanislaw Lem
New York City, A.D. 2194

MANKIND WAS A little low on heroes when Kea Richards, sole survivor of the Destiny I, returned from Base Ten to Earth. Kea was not sure how the hero card would help him with this ultimate edge he had happened on, but he was canny enough to not let it go unplayed. He had worked out the tale he would spin on the long journey home. He told the truth about the cause of the disaster. A collision with a meteorite. He merely left out that it had occurred in another universe. And he certainly didn’t tell them about the AM2.

Richards came on humble. He played up the image of an ordinary, hardworking space engineer who had been able to snatch victory from the proverbial jaws. He also made much of the “fact” that when those fearless scientists and self-sacrificing space crew members around him died, generally with Expressed Noble Sentiments As Their Last, it was his great good fortune that his formal education at Cal Tech, even though it had been interrupted by financial problems, was remembered and applied directly to the various emergencies.

He took an enormous advance and cooperated cheerfully with the ghost preparing his autobiographical fiche. He went to the banquets and lectures, charging whatever his newly hired agent could cozen. And he was delighted to attend the parties and presentations afterward. He smiled, listened intently to the men and women he met, the ones with power, who glorified in their ability to attract the latest hero. He lied, and lied again.

Sometimes he wondered what the old Kea Richards would have thought, the Richards of Kahanamoku and the first two years in California. The Richards before the Bargetas or long hard years in space, on the far side of Barrier Thirty-three. Shaft him, he decided. A man had to grow up sometime and get over the idea that life was a pretty pink wonderland full of bunnies and lambiekins.

Besides, now there was Anti-Matter Two. The key to personal power, he was honest enough to admit to himself. But it was also the ultimate gift for man, and any other species he would encounter in his explosion out into the universe. Richards could not afford the luxury of an Ethics 101 debate, even within himself.

He was undecided as to what to do next. Anti-Matter Two. Whole galaxies of cheap, raw energy. As Fazlur had said, it would change everything, creating a civilization—or barbarism—unlike whatever had gone before.. Richards was determined the vast changes would be for the better. He would make damned sure it was properly directed to the benefit of all.

Neither fuhrers nor premiers, doges nor rockefellers, would batten from what he already thought of as his discovery. Nor the Bargetas. And this energy wouldn’t be diverted to evil, as most everything from gunpowder to petroleum to the atom had been.

Consider the immediate problems you have. The first and most important, he thought, is to stay alive, and always guard your back. This secret has already cost lives—and is worth the death of entire worlds. Richards knew any hint of the secret of Anti-Matter Two and the Alva Sector would also be enough to put kidnappers with mind-draining tools and assassins on his trail, hired by those who stood to gain/lose the most from AM2. At the very least, charges might be trumped up against him by planetary governments.

Very well, then. So he would need to treat the Alva Sector as if it were some kind of hidden mine, deep in a jungle, that only he knew the directions to. He must not return to the Alva Sector, and that discontinuity in N-space, unless he knew he was not being tracked. Nor was it worthwhile returning to in the immediate future, his mind ran on.

Before Anti-Matter Two could be developed, someone must create a handle. A shield. Some substance, synthetic or natural, that was a solid, that was malleable, and that was absolutely neutral to both matter and anti-matter.

Richards gnawed his lip. That was a real problem. He grinned—as if the thought of assassins and brainburners was gathering nuts in May. He continued analyzing and thinking, and came to the wonderful Catch-22—except this was a triple whammy: To utilize Power (AM2), he would have to achieve Power (wealth/clout). Which could most easily and safely be accomplished by cultivating Power. Catch-222.

That third Power was the men and women whose egos he was stroking as he toured his saga. And they were the beings he was determined to transform or destroy as he helped the human race achieve its destiny. He remembered the ancient saying, If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. But this suggested his next move.

A job. He had no intention of renewing his contract with SpaceWays/Galiot. Not with all these other offers that were coming in. Corporations wanted him solely for the Hero Factor, just as they hired gravball stars for the same reasons. Richards would be expected to continue pressing the flesh, except this time for the benefit of whoever was paying him. That would give him a chance to travel the halls of power. He carefully examined the various messages he’d gotten— glok that he’d more or less ignored.

One was from Austin Bargeta. Call him, anytime, day or night, on a private line. The message slip was balled up and hurled into the trash can in a reflex. Kea caught himself. Bargeta? A known entity. Someone he’d had unlikely dreams of encountering—on Richards’s terms and turf—some year. This could be some year.

He’d heard, in spite of his mind’s promise to never concern himself with the Bargetas unless he found them in some sort of gunsights, Austin had fulfilled his early promise and become The Man—replacing his father at the head of the Bargeta octopus.

Bargeta senior had suicided three years after Kea’s life had been shattered—or at least changed inalterably—on Mars. Suicided under conditions the tabs could only hint at being unthinkably disgusting.

He smoothed the slip out and stared at it, thinking. Possibly. He made his way to a library and did some research. Very possibly.

Bargeta Ltd. still was one of the colossi of the twenty-second century. But it was tottering. Bad investments had been made. Bargeta Transport, the tree all the lovely money-bearing branches grew from, was blighted. The old man had ordered new plants built, plants that never came up to full production.

He’d commissioned new-model spacecraft, models that were offered on an already-saturated market, and craft that seemed to offer no more than a new crew/compartment/drive configuration rather than any real engineering improvements. And then he’d “passed on,” and Austin had been given the scepter.

Austin had done no better than the previous generation, the business rags informed Kea. He had been reluctant to newbroom the greedheads out of the holding corporations until almost too late. Then he had decided there was a far brighter future transporting people instead of commerce from world to world, and had a quarter of the Bargeta fleet converted to liners, just as a medium-size recession had cycled through the Solar System. Austin had proudly and personally bid on new transport routes, routes that thus far had failed to be profitable.

Kea laughed quietly then, a sort of laugh Bargeta senior would have found familiar.

Now, as to Austin himself. Covenanted, naturally. To an ex-poser, Ms. Smiling Breasts of a few years back. Two children. Mansions. Travel. Philanthropy. Ratchetaratcheta, Kea thought. Where’s the dirt. Ah. Austin travels alone a lot. With his staff. Richards squinted at the holo showing Bargeta and staff boarding a spaceship. Even with the retouch, it appeared that Austin considered eye appeal a definite factor in his choice of advisers. There was more explicit gossip, and even some holos, in the sleazier and less controllable tabs.

That was enough. Kea placed the call. Austin was thrilled. Delighted his old friend, his roommate, the man who had taught him everything, would take the time. They must get together. What’s the matter with tomorrow? Kea wondered, deliberately pushing it. Oh, well, there was this meeting. Stuffy, dull, but you know, I must wave the banner and look concerned, make a couple of real Decisions. Take all day. Ah, Kea said. I understand. Let me check the old logbook here (Kea had found that the execs he socialized with loved it when he used nautical terms, terms that no self-respecting swab back of Barrier Thirty-three would have recognized unless he heard them in dialogue on a vid).

Oh. Hell, you can’t believe how tied up I am, Richards said. He was scheduled, pretty close to fourblocked himself. Let’s see here. McLean Institute next week… that thing in New Delhi… plus you know I’ve been talking to some people about some interesting things I’ve considered, things that directly came out of what happened Out There. There were some interesting commercial possibilities I’d discussed with the late Doctor Fazlur that seem to be worth developing. But we’ll get together. Sometime. Maybe after I finish putting together some venture capital.

Suddenly Austin’s meeting was unimportant. Tomorrow it was! Smiling, Kea clicked off, and the smile vanished as quickly as Bargeta’s image. All right, you bastard. On my terms this time. And we’ll talk about me becoming your Pet Adventurer.


In fact, they talked about a lot of things, over three days, several meals, and many bottles. Everything except Mars. Austin tentatively mentioned Tamara once. She was now married—how old-fashioned—to some transoceanic hovercraft racer five years younger than she was. They were living in the new offshore resort near the Seychelles.

Kea nodded. Hoped that she was quite happy. Be sure and say hello, if you happen to talk to her. And remember the time you got blasted, and we sprayed CALTECH with acid across the Rose Bowl’s synthturf just before that stupid groundball match they used to play every New Year’s? Ah yes. Those were the days.

By the end of the marathon session, which Kea’s always-sober backbrain labeled as mental coitus interruptus, Richards had a job. The amount, terms, and exact definition of which were undefined.

“You know,” Austin went on, still in that nasal tone and collegiate slang that Kea had almost forgotten, “we’ll let the suits finagle everything after the decimal.”

That wasn’t exactly how it worked. Two mornings later, Kea showed up at Bargeta Corporate, ready to work. The press, mysteriously tipped the wink, arrived about an hour later for the announcement and a press conference. The negotiations began. They were handled by the same legals who had gotten Kea the sizable advance on his memoirs. Kea had told them to shoot for the stars, and they did. One of the Bargeta Ltd. negotiators had gone, in outrage, to Austin’s office.

Bargeta wasn’t interested in tiddly little numbers and clauses. Make the damned deal. This man is my friend. Besides, he said, after a pause, the media’s been talking about how we stole a march on everyone getting him to work for us. Do you want to be the one to say that Bargeta could not afford the universe’s biggest hero? Do you? I certainly won’t. He stared at the negotiator. The negotiator returned to his office, contacted Richards’s attorneys, closed the deal, and sent out his resume.

At first, Austin and Kea traveled together a lot. Austin never got tired of saying that it was just like the old days, and Kea never missed a chance to agree with him. It was going very well, Kea thought after half a year. He was meeting the real movers and shakers.

Plus, he had been able to offer a few real suggestions to Bargeta. Suggestions that were obvious to anyone who didn’t live with a solid gold suppository up his bum. Suggestions that’d made Bargeta Ltd a few million credits.

Bargeta was starting to think that he’d made a real bargain adding Kea to his staff—and boasted to his mate that he had always been able to fit the right person for the right peg, and he had seen the worth in Richards years and years ago, back as far as Cal Tech. Now it was time for the next stage. A good swindler always salts the mine with a little real gold. Gold, or whatever valuable the mark will easily recognize. Cal Tech was the salt this time.

Kea hunted down the most respected, most recondite professor on the campus. A double Nobelist. Kea had conned his way into one of the woman’s seminars when he was a freshman, and suffered mightily. Dr. Feehely remembered Richards. What had he been doing since he’d taken her class? Well, she hoped. She remembered him as not being gifted in theory, but showing great practical promise. Was he well? Was he happy? Had he perhaps achieved some post at a university somewhere?

Richards, trying to keep from laughing, came up with some plausible story about labwork and study. The reason he had wanted to consult with this woman, whose mark had been made in microanalysis, was that someone had presented Kea with a particle concept. He did not understand anything on the fiche, and, remembering Doctor Feehely, had sought her out. Could she take a few minutes? And would she mind if Richards recorded her?

She normally did not take consulting jobs… but for an old student… Feehely scanned the fiche. Raised eyebrows. Snorted. Raised eyebrows. Snorted. Raised eyebrows, and shut off the reader. “If this particle existed,” she said, “it would be quite interesting. Your friend did not present an adequate synth, and the only way I could see this model existing mathematically is if one posited it were some sort of nonconventional matter. I would hate to use a popular term such as ‘anti-matter,’ because that would be a misnomer.”

“How would this particle… if it could exist, work as a tappable source of energy?”

Eyebrows. Snort. The doctor chose her words. “Again, this is an incorrectness. But I will take an analogy from ancient history. Assuming—and this is also an impossibility—this particle could be handled safely, the effect would be that of using nitroglycerine… you know what nitroglycerine was?”

“No. But I’ll learn.”

“As I said, using nitroglycerine as fuel in an internal-combustion engine. An enormous amount of energy, but one that the engine could never handle. Of course, all this is mere amusement. Fairly puerile, I might add. Such a particle could not exist in any sane universe.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I have won my bet. Would you mind giving me the mathematics on that?”

“Well… all right. But I am afraid I will have to charge you for that, so I hope your bet is of a consequential nature. Perhaps… a lunch?”

The description, of course, was an abstract of the AM2 particle. Kea had laboriously taught himself how to write the description of during the last six months. And Kea knew of an engine that could handle that power. Stardrive. Again, all he lacked was a “handle.” And the bet was of a consequential nature: The Universe.

Richards would have liked to have bought Doctor Feehely more than a meal. Hell, he would have purchased a restaurant, dedicated to making only Feehely’s favorite meals and delivering them to her study for the rest of her life. But he didn’t—he bought her lunch at the faculty dining room. And he could reward her no further. When business progressed further, any link with Richards or AM2 could well be lethal to her. And beyond that, she could be in even greater danger—from Kea himself.

Kea Richards knew once he came close to achieving power for himself, some beings would have to die. Another saying he took as gospel: Three beings can keep a secret, if two of them are dead…

With the doctor’s mathematics in hand and a copy of his original abstract, he sought out Austin. He told him he had something of the greatest importance to show him. But privately. This was far, far too big. He began with a story. The story of how, just before catastrophe struck on the Destiny I,

Doctor Fazlur had been analyzing some observed phenomena taken off a darkstar they’d made close passage by. And he had been coming up with some remarkable equations. Equations that suggested a certain substance could be synthesized. A substance a bit like something he had observed off that pulsar. If his suggestions were correct, the substance could be synthesized, and modified into ...

At that point, he gave Austin Doctor Feehely’s equations. He scanned the first page on the screen, frowning. “Kea, old sock,” he protested. “You, better than anyone, know how easily I parse numbers. Can’t you give it to me straight?”

“I just wanted to make sure you’d believe me. Because otherwise you’d think I was completely gonkers.” Kea had found it useful to sometimes use the old Cal Tech slang that Austin was so fond of. Then he played the abstract. Austin sat in silence, thinking. Then he managed an “Oh.”

Kea watched closely—did he really track?

After a moment, Bargeta said, in a small voice, “If this particle, this substance, you know, could be synthesized… Oh. Kea, I see why you sought me out. I see why you were so mysterioso about some things that you planned to develop. You know, Kea, I feel like… who was that person? Speechless on a peak in Darien? Although what could be so impressive about Connecticut, I’ve never known. This is very big, Kea. Very, very big.

“I… I could be Rutherford. Better. I could be a Doctor McLean. Bigger than him, even, because this is more than just dinky little antigravity. This is everything. Stardrive first, then I am sure there will be some way to modify the substance to power anything. Everything. I feel like the first man who pumped gasoline out of the ground, whatever his name was. Oh my. Kea, this is not some kind of wicked joke, is it?”

It took almost a week of vacillating—this was too big, too important, it couldn’t happen, there would have to be some government notification, perhaps a consortium of transport corporations, we could at least mount a feasibility study, actually, this would make us all richer than whoever that old Greek was, are you sure, Kea, that we should be doing something, I mean, you know, there are things that man simply wasn’t meant to know, although I don’t have much truck with tract-thumpers, and Christ, you know they say that genius deteriorates generation by generation, and this would certainly prove that a canard, you know, I’d be thought bigger than Father, bigger even than the first Austin, the one I’m named after, you know, the one who started this company…

Finally, “We’ll do it.”


A special team of lawyers and accountants were set up. They were to be firmly under Kea’s direction. As was the lab he would build under supersecrecy. This might be expensive, Kea warned. Austin was willing to commit up to 10 percent of Bargeta Ltd.’s pretax resources per annum. The lab was built and top-line scientists hired for the project. Deep-space test and research ships were planned.

Everyone in the corporate world knew Bargeta Ltd. was R&Ding something spectacular. Fortunately—for Kea’s purposes—Austin had such a reputation as a lightweight the project was an instant joke, thought of in scientific slang as an edsel, whatever that might’ve been. Kea told no one why he had dubbed the operation Project Suk.

All of the hardware, and all of the personnel, were real. But it was a complete tissue. Kea knew AM2 could never be synthesized—or if it could, it would be even more gawdawfully expensive than the present fuel for stardrive. He caught himself. Never say never, he thought. Anti-Matter Two couldn’t be synthesized at this moment in history, nor, most likely, at any other. Leave it at that.

Besides, who would bother—once we find a way to shield the particles, which will also mean that we’ll have a way to shield mining/processing ships, AM2 would be dirt-cheap. For me, at least, he thought.

There were three reasons for this elaborate charade. First, it would provide an acceptable screen for where the substance really came from one of these years. Not that important. Second, it would provide exploration ships, who were sent out with explicit instructions. The instructions were known but to those crews. They would search for an element that could be used, modified to create this shielding, which Kea had dubbed X. The exploration reports were also carefully studied, in the event they could produce a line of thought that would justify research that might lead to the synthesis of this shielding.

Yet another benefit Project Suk provided was a very quiet recruiting station. Richards sought out the best researchers on the project, which meant some of the best workers mankind could produce. The best-—-with two additional requirements. The first was that each person was either unattached, their family could travel with them, or they were estranged from any relatives. And the second was that each of them had some secret. An unpunished crime. Their sexual habits. Unpopular political or social theories in their home provinces/planets. Alk. Drugs. Or, best of all, that they were simply misanthropic.

These people, if Richards’s efforts produced anything, would be used to finish the development of AM2. Richards bought First Base on Deimos for a lab. He told Austin this was where the core research for the X particle would be conducted. There would be no possibility of leaks to business rivals—because no one except cleared Bargeta personnel would be allowed on Deimos, and all of the ancillary laboratories would be limited to a segment of the overall problem.

Finally, and most importantly, Operation Suk was Kea’s cash cow. Of course there were comptrollers and such. But the day an experienced spaceship engineer couldn’t steal the company’s suit, while it yet thought it was wearing a formal, was the day the sun would die. Especially when Operation Suk was run in such extreme secrecy.

Six years passed. Kea was, as one of his better-liked, less-reputable, and richer mining-ship friends put it, busier’n a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest. Colorful, but accurate.

First, there was Operation Suk to run. Since he was the only one who really knew what the project was supposed to produce, he was required to go through all lab and operational summaries each reporting period and, frequently, call for the raw data.

It gave him the reputation of being a very hands-on manager, as well as someone who was grudgingly respected because you couldn’t slip one past him. But respect did not replace enough sleep, or personal relaxation.

Second, he was busy “helping” Austin run Bargeta Ltd. In fact—and Kea made sure that all of the people he was meeting found this out, subtly—he was running the dynasty. Austin was now regarded as even more of a numbnuts, to one level of the work force, and a dilettante, to their superiors. And Kea encouraged Austin to get out more. Travel. Get away from the job. Stay fresh. Stay active. If you bury yourself with all this little crud like I’m doing, who’s going to make sure we don’t stumble into a manhole?

He was careful to let Austin make the decisions, and let him make some that were very poor without protest. Kea could have done a more exact job of stage-managing, but he knew just how sensitive and paranoiac the incompetent were. The last thing he needed was to be fired. Except, at his level, being canned would be phrased as “resigned to pursue exciting interests of a personal nature.”

He also traveled extensively incognito. There were people he needed to meet and industries to research that had nothing to do with Bargeta Ltd. Sometimes he traveled under a false name, with false papers. One of his favorites was H. E. Raschid, in tribute to Burton and Scheherazade. Now and again people grinned—and Richards made a mental note of the person as worth cultivation.

His new contacts and friends extended far beyond the business world. Politicians. Some people who had interesting trades, some of them quite beyond the law. He spent money lavishly, but cannily. He was always willing to contribute to a pol’s coffers, without regard to the man or woman’s party. Eventually he controlled a significant number of Ganymede’s traditionally available estates general. He also owned about a quarter of the moon itself. The estate he had constructed was more a small, ultra-secure industrial park than the sprawling demesne of a rich man.

Which is just what Kea was now. Not only was he lavishly paid by Bargeta, with his own keys to the vault with Project Suk, but his new friends offered tips and suggestions. Kea played the market in every legal and illegal manner possible, so long as it was fairly subtle. Eventually there might be an investigation and an accounting—but when or if that day came, he would either be dead, have disappeared, or have made himself beyond the law.

Then came the breakthrough, a few months into the new century. An expedition returned. Not from the stars—Kea had chanced gross amounts of Bargeta’s capital to fund two stardrive expeditions—but from the Solar System’s backyard. Just beyond the dirty hunk of ice they called, Pluto,  just beyond the shatter that had once been thought to be an eleventh planet of the system. A meteorite, almost a quarter kilometer in diameter, had been found, tested, and brought back. The ships’ captain reported more drifting bodies out there that spectroed as being the same matter.

It was the X material. Nonreactive to anything that the Bargeta labs could come up with. Hard to work, but not impossible. It would not retain radiation or anything else it was bombarded with. It even failed to react to a small bit of laboratory-produced “conventional” anti-matter.

It had a melting point high enough on the Kelvin scale to be suitable for ship armor, but low enough to be workable in a high-tech foundry.

Sensing victory, and allowing himself a flash of arrogance, Richards named the X substance. Imperium X.

And he ordered a certain, very unusual ship to be moved from its parking orbit around Mars to the secret lab on Deimos. There it was given a plating from bow to stern, just a few molecules thick, of the new element. The ship was that old starship he’d seen drifting in a junkyard above Mars’s polar regions years ago, which he’d purchased earlier and had modified in several ways, among them so one man and several computers could ran it. It was already fueled—a good segment of Project Suk’s resources had gone just to power the ship.

Now for the Alva Sector, the discontinuity, and the final test.

The company announced Richards was finally going to take some time off. Kea told Austin that he would be absent for a minimum of three Earth-months. He was going somewhere, somewhere he wouldn’t even tell his best friend about. Just as Austin had told him to do, a year or so ago.

“I did?”

“You did. We were fairly gassed at the time. Remember? Hey, you’re the one who forgets nothing, right?”

Austin didn’t laugh. Lately he had been wondering about Kea. He seemed… sometimes… as if he were setting his own course. Or, at least, behaving as if Bargeta’s knowledge of the dynasty weren’t that important. Perhaps, he thought, he’d have to talk to Kea. He was his friend, of course. 

But Austin remembered Mars, and remembered his father’s reminder that the lesson of proper place must be learned and relearned, taught and retaught. There was no such thing as an irreplaceable man at Bargeta Ltd. That applied even to family members—Austin had sacked a couple of cousins just this year. 

No one was that vital—except, of course, Austin himself.



Told in four parts, Episode One now appearing in Diaspar Magazine, the best SF&F magazine in South America! And it's free! Here's the link. 
Sten debuta # 1 en español! Narrada en cuatro partes, Episode One ahora aparece en la revista Diaspar, la mejor revista de SF & F en América del Sur! 



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?


Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.    


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 115,000) 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 Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!

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