Space Opera(3)
Author:Rich Horton

    "I can't claim to be difficult to offend," Niristez says, "but as I said, it's yours now." She takes a sip herself. The inequalities flare up and die down into first-order contradictions as they pass her lips.

    Daechong taps the rim of the glass. For a moment, nothing happens. Then the entire glassful goes up in smoke the color of lamentations, sweet and thick, and he inhales deeply. "You must find my tastes predictable," he says.

    Niristez smiles, and shadows deepen in her eyes. "Let's say it's something we have in common."

    "You mentioned that you wished to bargain," he says. "Might I ask what you're looking for?" Ordinarily he would not be so direct, but Niristez has a reputation for impatience.

    "I want what everyone wants who comes here," Niristez says. "I want a game. But it's not just a game." It never is. "You know my reputation, I trust."

    "It would be hard to escape it, even living where I do," Daechong says.

    "On this world is the stratagem that will enable me to keep my promise." Niristez's eyes are very dark now, and her smile darker still. "I wish to buy the game that contains it from you. I've spent a great deal of time determining that this game must exist. It will win me the war of wars; it will let me redeem my name."

    Daechong taps the glass again. This time it chimes softly, like a bell of bullets. Some of the musical instruments reverberate in response. "I'm afraid that you are already losing my interest," he says. "Games that admit an obvious dominant strategy tend not to be very interesting from the players' point of view." It's difficult to be a warden of games and not feel responsible for the quality of the ones that he permits to escape into the outside world. "I could let you root around for it, but I assume you're after a certain amount of guidance."

    Although he is not infallible, Daechong has an instinct for the passages. He knows where the richest strata are, where the games sought are likeliest to be found. When people bargain with him, it's not simply access that they seek. Anyone can wander through the twisty passages, growing intoxicated by the combinatoric vapors. It's another matter to have a decent chance of finding what they want.

    "That's correct," Niristez says. "I have spent long enough gnawing at the universe's laws and spitting out dead ends. I don't intend to waste any more time now that I know what I'm after." She leans forward. "I am sure that you will hear me out. Because what I offer you is your freedom."

    Daechong tilts his head. "It's not the first time someone has made that claim, so forgive me for being skeptical."

    He cannot remember ever setting foot outside the tower; it has a number of windows almost beyond reckoning, which open and close at his desire, and which reveal visions terrible and troubling. Poetry-of-malice written into the accretion disks of black holes. Moons covered with sculptures of violet-green fungus grown in the hollowed-out bodies of prisoners of war. Planets with their seas boiled dry and the fossils bleached upon alkaline shores. These and other things he can see just by turning his head and wishing it so.

    Yet he thinks, sometimes, of what it would be like to walk up stairs that lead to a plaza ringed by pillars of rough-hewn stone, or perhaps gnarled trees, and not the tower's highest floor with its indiscriminate collection of paintings, tapestries, and curious statuettes that croak untrue prophecies. (More gifts. He wouldn't dream of getting rid of them.) What it would be like to travel to a gas giant with its dustweave rings, or to a fortress of neutronium whispers, or to a spot far between stars that is empty except for the froth of quantum bubbling and the microwave hiss. What it would be like to walk outside and look up at the sky, any sky. There isn't a sky in the universe whose winds would scour him, whose rains would poison him, whose stars would pierce his eyes. But his immunity does him no good here.

    "Call my bluff, then," she says, her smile growing knife-sweet. "You like a challenge, don't you? You won't see me here again if you turn me down. If nothing else, it's a moment's diversion. Let's play a game, you and I. If I win, you will tell me where to find my stratagem. If I lose, I will tell you how you can unshackle yourself from this tower—and you can set me whatever penalty you see fit."

    "I don't remember the very beginning of my existence," Daechong says softly. "But I was made of pittances of mercy and atrocities sweeter than honey. I was made of carrion calculations and unpolished negations. They say your shadow is shaped like massacres, Niristez. You haven't killed a fraction of the people that I have. Are you sure you want to offer this? I am not accustomed to losing, especially when the stakes matter to me."

    He doesn't speak of the penalties he extracts when people lie to him. For all the dreadful things he's done, he has always respected honesty.

    "I am sure," she says.

    "The High Fleet of the Knifebird is still fighting the war you promised to win. It would not be difficult for me to shoot the key players into cinders."

    The lines of her face become sharper, keener. "I know," she says. "But I made my promise. This is the only way to keep it. I will attempt the gamble. I always keep my promises."

    Niristez has been saying this for a long time, and people have been tactful when she does so for a long time. Daechong, too, is tactful. It does him no harm. "If you are certain," he says, "then let us play."

    At this point, it is worth describing the war that the High Fleet of the Knifebird has been fighting for so long, against an opponent that is everywhere distributed and which has no name but the name that particles mutter as they decay. The High Fleet has not yet raised the redshift banner that indicates defeat, but the fact that they have been fighting all this time without much in the way of lasting gains is hardly a point of pride.

    High Fleet doctrine says that they are finite warriors fighting an infinite war, and the stakes are nothing less than control of the universe's laws. Each small war in the continuum is itself a gamepiece in the war of wars, placed or extinguished according to local conditions. The value of each piece is contextual both in time and in space. A duel between two spindleships at the edge of an obscure asteroid belt may, at times, weigh more heavily than a genocidal war between a dozen star empires.

    In the game of Go, it is possible for players to play such that alternating captures of single stones would cause repeating positions. In principle, these moves could be played forever, and the game would never end. However, the rule called ko prevents such repetition from happening immediately.

    There exists a type of ko situation, the ten thousand year ko, which is often left unresolved—sometimes until the game's conclusion—because the player who enters the battle first does so at a disadvantage. The war of wars is widely held to have run afoul of something similar.

    You may speculate as to the application to the ex-strategist Niristez's situation, although most people believe that she is not capable of such subtlety. Indeed, it's not clear why she would be interested in prolonging the war of wars, unless she intended it as revenge for her loss of status. Even if she meant only to force the universe into an asymptotic cooldown rather than a condensed annihilation, this would hardly be an unambiguous victory for her or her former allies. But then, if she were skilled enough to carry out this gambit anyway, surely she wouldn't have fallen in the first place.

    Daechong allows Niristez the choice of game, since she is the petitioner. The choice itself might tell him something about her, although he doubts it will be anything he couldn't already have figured out. He is surprised, then thoughtful, when she requests a linguistic game played upon competing lattices. Its name means something like "the calculus of verses." He would not have suspected her of a fondness for poetry, even the poetry of eradication. It is likely that the game has real-world manifestations, not that he has any way of checking.

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