“Coffee or tea?” the waiter asked me. “Choose wisely, sir.”
“You’ve been watching too many old movies,” I said, gesturing slightly at the coffee pot.
There might have been the hint of a smile under his prodigious mustache. He adjusted his fez, then poured me a cup saturated with slowly settling grounds.
Through the window, I watched people punting basket-boats on the river. The people of this moiety took their archaisms seriously.
The chair across from me scraped away from the table.
“You don’t look like an academic,” I said.
“I’m not. Here to check you out.” The guy’s voice matched his bulk.
“He needs security?” I asked.
“Right now he does. You ready to go?”
I fished out a pile of metal coins and slapped them down on the table. They actually used physical currency here. Welcome to the grand social experiment, Royce.
Two more guards by the dock. My companion gestured towards one of the boats. The locals called them kufas, after some antediluvian forebear back on Earth. The essential idea hasn’t changed since Mesopotamia. They’re basically a big, flat-bottomed basket, woven from some grassy plant, and then sealed with tar. Uncomfortable to sit in, and slow to pole yourself around in, but the locals didn’t appear to mind.
The safe house was of mud-brick construction, the upper floor hanging out over the stagnant water of a narrow canal. A ladder descended from a hole in the floor. My companion tied the boat to the lowest rung, and up we went.
“You’ll have to excuse all this,” the professor said. I wasn’t sure whether he meant the heat, barely mitigated by a ceiling fan, the surroundings in general, or the security detail.
I said nothing.
“The problem is a mathematical formula, you see,” he said.
“I thought you wanted my advice,” I said.
He paused for a few seconds. “The formula describes a more efficient warp manifold.”
Ah. The manifold is the physical topology, or shape, of a warp drive. The shape directly effects how much energy it takes to travel, and therefore is a crucial factor in the painstaking balancing act between speed, payload size and energy debt. Given that faster-than-light travel makes up the lion’s share of our civilization’s energy requirements, a manifold improvement is a significant deal, and would be exceptionally valuable to any number of parties.
“You planning on selling it to somebody?” I asked.
“That would be a catastrophe,” he said. “It would give them an effective monopoly on trade.”
“So what do you need me for?”
He gestured at the bodyguard. “Word has got out, somehow. I’ve received threats. The university thought it best if I lie low for a while. Which is why I’m hiding in this hole.”
I guessed that authenticity wasn’t for him.
“Why here?” I asked.
“Review Board,” said the bodyguard.
Good point. The Moiety Review Board viewed experimental societies as potential close kin to toxic waste, and kept a hawk’s eyeball on matters.
“Doesn’t the university have rights to your work though?”
“Partially. They’re hoping to license it to many partners. I’m the only one with the details right now though,” he said, tapping his head with one finger.
“And somebody wants an exclusive, and is willing to go to some lengths?”
“Precisely,” he said.
“So again, what do you need me for?”
He sighed. “I can’t decide what to do. Somebody suggested that I talk to you. They said you’re good at fixing things.”
Or usually just breaking them further, I thought.
“Why don’t you just open source it” I asked.
“The threat mentioned that specifically.”
“If you hand it over to them, they’ll have good reason to harm you to prevent anyone else from obtaining it,” I said.
“I know.” He appeared to be on the verge of tears.
“I see,” I said. “Instead of deciding, you want me to find them.”
He said nothing.
“I guess there’s no issue of budget,” I said.
“They’re going to move me somewhere else now.”
The bodyguard nodded at me. Time to go.