Finally getting back into the hang of things. Arpad meets Ai and Fausta FTF and then is about to have dinner – unwittingly – with a cousin of Lily’s. I’ll try to get their little conversation out tonight or early tomorrow (I’m off DayJob tomorrow) as I really want to get to what will be one of the hearts of this short story: their date in the park. In don’t know exactly was happens but I have been offered a glimpse into the following Sunday morning… so much to learn!
The backstreets and alleys of the meaner parts of Budapest had quickly beaten out of a very young Arpad the idea that a close-in fight was anything like teevee or a console game. They were in fact short, sharp, and deadly.
The armor might offer the knight a passive defense but it also slowed him down. After ducking aside Arpad gave a roundhouse kick to his ass to knock him over while running back to where he’d seen the knight toss his sword…
…out in the rocky desert. Only a dozen feet away but the thorny brambles between here and there would act just like concertina wire. With a glance over his left shoulder Arpad saw the knight was almost upon him once more; trotting this time rather than running all-out.
He seeks to grapple with me, he realized. Not happening!
When the knight reached out with his right hand Arpad grabbed the forearm and rolled his foe over his back and into the brambles.
Won’t hurt him but might slow him down for a few seconds… Arpad now ran opposite the sword, looking for the shield. Just there! He grabbed it and spun about. The knight had just regained the path but stupidly chose to glance down for a second –
In that second Arpad swung the shield’s edge as hard as he could into the helmet. There was a resounding *whaang!* as the mailed enemy fell sideways and lay still. Arpad hefted the shield for another blow.
“Hozam!” he shouted first, following it quickly with, “Yield!”
Not moving any other part of his body the knight nodded his head once. Arpad took three steps back and quickly looked around in case there were other foes about.
“What the hell is this place?!” he muttered. At that, the knight eased to his knees and raised his hands to removed his great helm. A mass of dark brown hair fell out and Arpad started into the emerald eyes of one of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. When she flashed her smile she was even prettier.
“That was fantastic!” she shouted. “I love a real fight! May I stand, my noble opponent?”
The transition as she did was startling: the mail armor seemed to just fall off her into a jumble on the ground. In its place the – very tall! – woman wore what looked like field gray fatigues and jump boots.
“Allow me to answer the question you asked a moment ago, Arpad Rigó! I am Fausta of Machine Civilization. You have met Ai, my sister!”
“Is it,” he chose to be insulting as he was the one attacked, “common practice to welcome guests with an assault?”
“Not at all!” Arpad was beginning to wonder if she could only speak in booming imperatives. “But it seems you like Lily Barrett and I wanted to see what kind of warrior you are! May I move?”
“I suppose so,” Arpad allowed, still holding the shield in his left. She stepped to him and looking down to his eyes while clasping his right forearm.
“I have no objection to your relationship, friend! Come!” She turned away and moved down the path in the direction he had originally taken.
“It’s a picnic, not a relationship,” he murmured, dropping the shield onto the chainmail pile as he passed it, following Fausta, who, he realized, was still talking.
“I’ve an archery range over there,” she vaguely waved right, “and there’s a cleared area near it I was thinking to make an outdoor dojo!”
She turned to stare at him just as they were about to walk out into a large clearing.
“I would appreciate it very much if you could make me older about hand-to-hand fighting, friend Arpad!”
“I’m sure we can work something out,” he allowed, much more interested by what he could see past her six-foot tall form. The path seemed to end with one great palm tree on his right with a second just growing at its base. Further ahead and left was some odd metallic blue circular platform. It was about eight or nine yards in diameter but – more interesting – was floating about two feet off the ground. Another two dozen yards on was some kind of drop to the land; beyond that drop he could just make out what seemed like huge mechanical columns made of up thousands of gears and complicated moving parts. Arpad realized he should have read the section in the dossier about ‘the machine’s home’ a little closer.
There was motion on the platform. A young woman stood there who was not there just a moment ago. Wearing a burnt-orange qipao the early-twenties woman had a face Arpad would have called Hungarian except for the huge ponytail of bright aquamarine hair.
“Ai!” Fausta boomed again, waving. “This is Lily’s boyfriend!”
“I have already had the pleasure of speaking with him, little sister! But thank you!” Her smile is breathtaking. Are all the women here stunners?
Arpad brushed pass Fausta and stepped up onto the platform, extending his hand.
“A pleasure, Ai,” he tried. She just stared at his hand until he dropped it without embarrassment. Manners must be different here…
“They are, Arpad!” And they can read minds, too… “Touching one of us can be a little debilitating for a human’s mind.”
He glanced over his shoulder before returning to Ai.
“I don’t know about that: getting assaulted in the woods didn’t seem to hurt…!” he said with another smile.
“That’s because we were all following you two so closely! Speaking of which…” Ai let her right index finger drift up to just touch her chin. So cute! “Dorina says this is enough for your first time. Bye-ee!”
“…time?” he asked, stumbling slightly as he regained his balance on the street just outside of Mort’s. The sky was once again blue. A quick look to his watch made him doubt his memory.
“I was… gone… for just about thirty seconds?” Arpad shook his head and set off to the south and his hotel. It was high-time to write some reports and check if any news had come from their legation in Austin.
“And I would like to try that bar in the basement again,” he admitted, walking quickly.
It was just after five o’clock in the afternoon when Arpad closed his laptop. Following a quick chat with Ai as to whether their ‘MCNet’ could securely transmit his reports to Vienna, her “why, I’ll carry it myself, Arpad!” was rather unnerving in all it implied.
Not in a hurry to get to the bar he first moved to the couch with the thick file he’s originally been given. He flipped to the ‘machines home’ pages and tried again.
They can – there is no better way to say this – they can steal human minds, in my case right in the middle of a city street. How is that even remotely possible? I can just, just wrap my head around thinking machines… he paged back a bit to look at the small photo supposedly of Fausta’s android. It does look like her but hard to tell with those ugly sunglasses on her face… but the implication of mind-moving… What if my body is shot while I’m there? Am I alive or dead? As a Catholic I’d say there’s no way they can hijack a human soul…
Arpad paused to look out the window to the failing light.
He read for another fifteen minutes before realizing he was just confusing himself. Better to find out for myself. I’ll have Lily as a primary source tomorrow and perhaps reach out to Fausta in the evening. Her hand-to-hand really was pretty poor…
Arpad tossed the file down and stood. After adjusting his tie he swept his suit coat on and made for the stairs. The girl who had sold him the map was behind the counter and waved. After meeting Fausta and Ai he was no longer remotely interested and glanced away from her as he went down into the bar.
It was much noisier than his first visit. There were only three cars besides his loaner parked outside so Arpad surmised the rest must be locals. Slowing on the stairs he allowed himself time to look about the room: four at the bar; five tables with at least two people; one table with that salt-and-pepper haired man from the other night. Two men played at one of the billiard, no, pool tables to his left. Interesting: no women. He saw clip-on bow-tie – Tom, he recalled – take note of him and reach behind for the palinka before pulling up a glass from under the counter. He waited to see where Arpad might end up before pouring.
No one paid him any mind as he made his way to the bar but passing the table of the man from last night saw him ostentatiously looking at his wristwatch.
“Evening,” Arpad said to the bartender.
“Good evening, sir. Shall I?” he hefted the bottle.
“Thank you, yes.”
Tom carefully poured out two fingers into the bulbed glass and set the bottle next to it.
“Yesterday you said this was a gift. I forget the name…”
“Miss Fausta,” he replied before turning to the man at the far right of the bar tapping for a refill.
“That’s what I thought you said,” Arpad mouthed before taking a drink. He closed his eyes for just a moment to imaging he was at Bathó’s, just north of Castle Hill on the Buda side. His first bar that wasn’t a dive. Catching a hint of cigar smoke he turned slightly to see one of the pool players light up.
Of course, Arpad realized, the anti-tobacco lunacy was American. Texans will have their own take on cultural norms! From his right coat pocket he produced a pack of cigarettes and a lighter while looking a question to the bartender. His answer was to put an ashtray next to his bottle of palinka.
Arpad lit up and took a huge drag, blowing the gray smoke to the high ceiling, relaxing for the first time since setting foot into this country. He waved at Tom.
“Is there anything to eat? I’ve been busy all day.”
“In about half an hour, sir, we get a few dozen platters catered to us from The Dove’s Nest, a local place a few blocks from here. The cost is very reasonable.”
“I see. Thank you.”
“What’s that? Speak up!” Arpad looked at the reflection in the mirror behind the bar at the older man still sat alone but had raised his voice to his phone. “If you really want to know, Orloff, drive here yourself!”
He thumbed the phone off and set it down. That’s a minor name from the dossier but I just don’t recall from where… With a thump an oak door off to Arpad’s left swung completely open. Five men and two women came in bearing heavy aluminum platters. One of the two men playing pool lay down his cue and quickly tossed a large blanket over the unused table. The platters were set upon it.
“Fifty coppers, sir,” Tom the bartender said from right across from him. “Or, if using Republic script, four Texan dollars.”
Arpad turned back to look at him.
“Is your currency that unstable?” he asked.
“The new state started out with a somewhat traditional fractional reserve banking system,” Tom began. “Honestly, it was too soon from the Breakup for anyone to trust paper. Austin has since backed down to a fifty-percent total reserve model… but everyone prefers coin to paper, sir.”
That was, Arpad noted, very similar to the monetary reforms that were implemented when the Visegrad Group became the Empire. Independent development or the machines again? He was becoming paranoid.
“Do I pay you…?” he asked, reaching into this coat.
“No, sir. Mrs. Booth, at the head of the line there.”
Arpad queued up with some of the others, listening to their banter about various local issues: how the economy was doing better, the latest launch from the spaceport… He handed over his coins and got a plate in return. Much of the food he did not recognize but the lamb in cream sauce with goat cheese was obvious. He helped himself to some of that.
He was returning to the bar when Tom gave him a look. Pausing, Arpad saw that no one was eating at the bar itself. Local customs again. Looking about, there was an empty chair opposite the older man who had been yelling into his phone a moment ago.
“Do you mind?” Arpad asked.
“Not at all! Sit right down!” As he did the man half stood and reached out with his right hand. “I’m Kyle Stephens. How are you this evening?”