"Challenger" by Patrick Stacy
(Click picture above to view a larger image.)

Challenges Three
by Jeana Jorgensen


Trevor leaned against a dirty wall of Krysztof Spaceport, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, the fingers of each hand hovering near the two blasters at his hips. Not counting the gun in his right boot, the one up his left sleeve, and the last-resort daggers sheathed in a back holster, he was practically unarmed.

Before him, the spaceport hummed and glowed with freighters lifting off, landing, unloading cargo, receiving repairs; smaller magnet grav vehicles flitting in every direction under the massive domed ceiling; people walking, flying, trading, flirting, eating, hunting, and killing.

Which reminds me, he thought, and checked his wrist-link with faint distaste. No potential clients were trying to reach him, however. I've outsmarted them all and gotten myself a bad reputation, he thought ruefully.

Other aspects of his work were growing unsavory as well; things that never used to bother him -- killing innocents trapped in the maneuvers of trade wars, for one -- were now beginning to unnerve him. If he sprouted a conscience, he'd never survive.

A scowling, burly spacer walked by, trying to stare Trevor down as he passed. Out of unfeeling habit, Trevor's steel-gray eyes locked onto the spacer's beady ones, and he bared his teeth in a feral grin, his lean countenance the very symbol of cold desperation. The spacer looked away abruptly, and hurried on his way. Trevor chuckled to himself, and brushed his slick black hair out of his face, though it was short enough that it would never interfere with his vision and thereby imperil his life.

He remained statue-like against the wall, a shadow, deadly and silent, devoid of feeling, watching the spaceport for another few minutes, transfixed as always by the motion and action. But not too transfixed to miss his quarry.

When the older, hunchbacked man, neatly dressed but not blatantly wealthy, left the engineering parts shop across the street, Trevor detached himself from the wall and began following him, walking with as much direction as the man he pursued. Trevor wondered briefly whether his deformity came from hunching over programming equipment for endless hours.

Through the winding, ill-lit streets, smelling of freighter fuel, blaster gun discharge, and human sweat. Through the poorest sector of Krysztof Spaceport, where people copulated on the streets and discarded their refuse in the same places. Through the market quarter, where men and women from all planets sold weapons, spices, machinery, textiles, cosmetics, ore, and their services, which ranged from dubious sexual practices to what Trevor himself offered -- a gun for hire.

But not for much longer, he thought. Ruthlessness and wit had more applications than one.

His quarry rounded a corner as the quality of the spaceport rose sharply from what Trevor was used to; this sector contained actual houses, not the filth-infested apartments that the majority of Krysztof's citizens inhabited.

Trevor slipped in front of the man just before he could enter a house, making sure that his hip blasters were in sight, though careful not to appear overly threatening.

At least, not yet.

"Master Nobil," Trevor said in his flat voice, and made a small bow. The man wasn't as old as he had thought at first, his face still relatively unlined, but he was nearing bald. He appeared to be in relatively good physical condition, excepting the deformity of his humped back.

The man raised an eyebrow. "Why are you here, hire-gun?" he said, his voice calm.

"My name is Trevor," he replied, "and I seek training from you." He put a slight hint of threat in his voice, a tone of this-mercenary-is-used-to-getting-his-way-or-else.

Master Nobil cocked his head, then slipped by Trevor, activating the steel door by touch, and leaving it open after him. Trevor followed.


* * *


The furnishings of the mid-sized room he stepped into were few and far from luxurious, but plainly comfortable. A flat-surfaced metallic desk occupied one corner, while various chairs and smaller tables were evenly dispersed. A few subtle shiftings in the walls betrayed the presence of sealed-off rooms. Master Nobil seated himself in a large armchair -- that looks like it's covered in zirg skin, must have cost a fortune to import -- and gestured for Trevor to sit. He chose a metal stool, and balanced his lean body on it, his toes brushing the ground in the constant state of wariness that kept him alive.

"Why the job change?" Nobil asked, steepling his fingers and examining Trevor with a steady, canny gaze.

Trevor maintained eye contact, unblinking.

"I'm the best shot with a blaster you'll find in Krysztof, but I'm also clever, and my employers don't like that. I can tell when they try to cheat me out of pay, or send me on a suicide mission. No one in this town wants to hire me anymore, and I don't have the high-tech training to qualify for a better job."

Nobil gave a brief, wry smile. "No qualms about killing, then?"

Trevor snorted. "Not if I want to survive."

"And what do you want from me?"

Here it comes, Trevor thought.

"I want you to train me to program like you do."

Advanced computer programming was a highly coveted skill, both by client and master programmer. It was rumored that the wizards of programming created entities that could twist a man's mind, mutilate his body, stifle his senses, and perhaps even wreak chaos on his core being. Trevor knew that masters created programs both by mentally linking with the artificial intelligences and by engineering encoded sequences, and that programs could be assigned either a mechanical body or set loose in a network. Apprentices were few and far between. It was said, some didn't survive training,

"Ah," Nobil seemed to be thinking, furrowing his brown and faintly frowning.

Trevor caught himself in a moment of uncharacteristic impatience. He wished that the old man would get on with it and give him an answer already. He was bored with guarding and killing; he wanted something new, difficult, dangerous -- and rewarding. But as always, he kept a firm grip on his emotions.

"Well," said Nobil, apparently free from his bout of thinking. "You cannot create programs if you cannot master them, and you cannot master them if you cannot master yourself. Therefore you must pass three challenges to prove your worth."

Trevor drifted to his feet in a compact, graceful motion.

"First, you must show that you can utilize your mind better than a computer creation can."

Nobil rose, his hump swaying with his gait, and strode to the featureless desk, and Trevor followed him, watching the sheen of its metallic surface shift as he moved closer. Nobil punched a few panels where Trevor had previously thought there were none, and four high walls sprung up around Trevor, solid to his nimble touch, though he knew it had to be some type of virtual reality program.

"An artificial intelligence program is also in this maze," Nobil's voice sounded in Trevor's head, "and it is limited in the same ways that you as a human are. The first one to escape wins."

And with the last of Nobil's words echoing in Trevor's brain, the wall to his left slid open. Trevor dashed for the open space but collided with an invisible force. The blunder did not leave him with any sensation of pain, however, confirming his suspicions of it being an advanced virtual reality program, to allow his mind certain sensations, but deny him others.

He heard plodding steps alternating with bonking noises somewhere in the maze around him; the computer was already moving, then, and making the same mistakes as him.

After two more false starts, Trevor found a way out of his starting space through a wall that appeared solid, and took off at a run -- only to bump into another invisible wall. He turned around but the passage he had just come through had vanished; it now resembled a dead end.

Twisting his lips in slight aggravation, but keeping a mental map of his progress thus far, he paused to consider his options. The walls were designed to be impossible to climb. His weapons had disappeared when he entered the simulation. His eyes were only misleading him. He could continue like the computer, proceeding in a systematic trial-and-error fashion.

Or, he thought with a sudden grin, he could eliminate his disability. Trevor closed his eyes, and started walking again, with his fingertips stretching in front of him. This way, he avoided walls before crashing into them, regardless of their visibility, and sustained a relatively continuous path, his brain keeping track of his turns and movements all the while.

The computer was still banging into false walls when Trevor emerged from the maze, which promptly dissipated, and he found himself in Nobil's main room again.

"Although that program was designed not to transmit pain to your central nervous system, if you had caused yourself enough damage while inside, you would have killed yourself."

Remembering the first few moments when he had unknowingly slammed into walls, Trevor resisted the urge to sink to the floor in relief. Mercenaries don't show emotions, he reminded himself, but then again, he might not be a mercenary for much longer.

"Second, you must demonstrate that you can control your body adequately against a program."

Trevor cocked his head, questioning.

Nobil's hunch moved, first a twitch, then a shudder, until the entire mass slithered down his back to wrap around his side, leaving his back normally formed.

Trevor caught himself before he gasped at the metallic, serpentine form, like the dragons of trade-logos he'd seen. With its liquid grace, scorpion-like tail, and steel claws, Trevor wondered whether he could kill it. The cat-sized thing gave a rusty hiss as Nobil lifted the computer-created creature off his body.

"Six point nine seconds," Nobil said, catching Trevor's confused gaze. "That is how long you must be able to survive against a renegade creation before you can mentally hack into its workings and subdue it."

Trevor frowned slightly. He hadn't heard about this part of computer programming -- but then again, he hardly knew anything of it. The novelty was part of the attraction.

"This shall not be a simulation. Prepare yourself."

Nobil dropped the creature. Trevor ducked as it launched itself at him, and reached for his blaster in a movement that was smooth like a heartbeat.


He rolled to his left, hoping to reach the desk for cover as the dragon sprayed lasers from its tail, and he squeezed a few shots from his blaster. His blaster fire, reeking of acrid smoke, did no damage to the metal-plated creature.


In one motion, Trevor rolled to a crouch behind the desk and slid his daggers from their sheaths at his back. The creature was not where it should have been -- right behind him. His left forearm stung from the dragon's shots, but he didn't have time to think about that right now.


His breath catching in adrenaline-accelerated bewilderment, Trevor spun on the balls of his feet, still low enough to gain protection from the desk. The dragon wasn't coming around the other side, either.


He jerked his head up barely in time to spring backward from his crouch as the dragon fell from the wall it had scaled.


He landed on his back, scrambling to raise his daggers.


The dragon was on top of him, barely held back by his crossed daggers, tearing with its claws, whipping its serpentine tail and lacerating his abdomen. The only thing that mattered was that he kept it away from his face, away from his throat. It opened another gash on his chest.


It stopped. The creature slid from his chest.

Trevor exhaled sharply, hoarsely, and sat up, returning the daggers to their sheaths. He wiped sweat from his forehead; once standing, he extracted a pressurized packet from his belt, cracked the seal, and began sterilizing his wounds. They were many, but shallow. The rips in his clothing revealed old scars intersecting the new cuts, and while his blood shone brightly on his pale skin, it was absorbed by the darkness of his clothing, and did not show at all.

"You did well enough," Nobil said. "But, if you will, imagine going through that again, and this time struggling for mental control as well." The old man chuckled softly at Trevor's slight grimace. The creature was perched by Trevor's feet, and he almost swore that he could hear a purring noise emanating from its metal body. At a monosyllabic command, it slithered back to its master's feet, and its impenetrable gaze, directed at Trevor, matched Nobil's.

"Third, you must prove that you can create."

Trevor blinked. He had relinquished imagination and romanticism when poverty forced him to fight for his livelihood, and he had never once regretted the trade-off. He never looked back, never pondered with remorse what could have been. That was not the way to survive.

Nobil chuckled at Trevor's confusion. "My programs can turn out perfectly metered and rhymed verse at the touch of a key; they can paint, sculpt, build, sing, do anything I choose for them to do. Can you not match that?"

The hire-gun still stood silently. He could use his wits, he could use his gun, but this? Never before had such a thing been asked of him.

With a shrug, Nobil said, "If you cannot pass the third challenge, you might as well leave."

"No," Trevor murmured, his thoughts turned inward. This is what I want, and since I can't blast or talk my way out, I'll have to play by his rules.

He took a deep breath, and began to speak, lowering the dams of his hardened exterior, slowly at first, then faster, more excited, almost joyous. He spoke of Krysztof Spaceport, the only home he had ever known, and the people, how they slept and ate and reproduced and murdered one another in a fascinating dance of ritual and spontaneity. He spoke of the fierce joy of killing, the beauty of a well-planned ambush, the tense pleasure in stalking a man. He spoke of the rhythms and patterns, the rich evocative language of the streets. His words flowed from him simply, eloquently, describing the soft skin of a woman's neck, how sometimes he wanted to kiss it, run a blade down it, or do both. Weaving stories and truths into his words, Trevor spoke of his kinship with his weapons, the sweet ache of his loneliness, how he never knew his parents but he cried for them, once, and that was the only time he ever dropped tears or emotions. He talked of the desperate eyes of the men he had killed or gambled with, the oblivion he sometimes sought through drink or drugs, but never death. He still carried hope, dormant and numb though it might be. Never death yet.

Trevor surprised himself by ceasing to talk, letting his words wane, as much as he had surprised himself by beginning in the first place.

Master Nobil was looking at him, examining the hire-gun who had just poured out his soul, and Trevor was suddenly embarrassed. He hadn't meant to share so much of himself, not ever, not when he had to be strong in order to survive. He stopped himself from blushing, but not from turning away, angry and ashamed.

"You pass," the old man said softly. "You have strength, wit, and soul."

Bewildered, Trevor whirled to face Nobil. "But--?"

Master Nobil smiled, an expression that was as kind as it was wry. "You have mastery over yourself, and thus you can have mastery over programs. You are both smart and strong enough to learn. And your years of killing have not deadened your soul, else you would not be able to create what is necessary for computer entities and programs."

"Then you'll take me as your apprentice?" Finally, Trevor's heart rejoiced, finally a new challenge, a path that can only be fulfillment!

"Stop gawking because you won three challenges," Nobil said, though he still smiled. "Your next task, after I've instructed you sufficiently, will be nowhere as easy -- I do have creations larger and deadlier than my pet you tangled with briefly. I will be keeping you in my instruction for quite a while, until you prove yourself worthy of independent-programmer status. And then, should we find ourselves in competition for a job, you will not see me behaving so kindly anymore. Now, have you any unfinished business?"

Trevor thought of his previous life, the tension and the killing and the solitary moments of despair that no amount of drinking could ever quench. He thought of Krysztof Spaceport, beautiful and chaotic, poisonous and enchanting, mundane and transcendent.

"None," he said, allowing a hint of real excitement into his voice, for the first time.



Story copyright 2001 by Jeana Jorgensen prosewitch@hotmail.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Patrick Stacy Pld895@aol.com



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