Knight or Knave 1-1
- Aug 19, 2019
- Reaction score
Knight or Knave
You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
You don't need money, don't take fame
Don't need no credit card to ride this train
~ Huey Lewis
Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge. ~ Paul Gauguin
Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge. ~ Paul Gauguin
It was a dark and moonless night. Not stormy, but the clouds threatened rain in the near future.
The elves had posted night sentries but in the darkness, their only chance to detect intrusion onto the island would be their ability to see magic. Fortunately, any vessel must surely use magic, for the home of the elves was like any other above the surface of the limitless ocean - floating many hundreds of yards up in the sky due to the suspension stone within the mass of rock.
Leon Fou Bartford couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity as he rode through the sky and down towards the island. His airbike might look like any other used by the knights of human kingdoms, but the anti-gravs were purely mechanical in nature and by keeping the engine at low power he was able to avoid being seen or heard as he flew above one of the villages that dotted the island.
“Ruins thirty degrees to your left,” a sour voice informed him, through the ear bud Leon wore.
“Thanks.” He altered course accordingly, flying lower. The area was forested and overgrown, even through the night-vision gear he wore there was no sign it was different from any other part of the island until computer assisted imagery began to draw lines across what he saw. Rectangular outlines marked out what seemed very plausibly the footprint of buildings and streets, all long ruined.
Leon nodded and descended towards them, threading quietly through the tree-tops until he found somewhere to land. “This looks like what I’m after.” He was subvocalizing, still wary of drawing attention to himself. If his information was correct then the bulk of the elves considered this place taboo and would very much prefer outsiders stayed away.
Those who knew what was here would have even greater reason to encourage Leon to leave.
“This world is undoubtedly dotted with the remains of many thousands of lost settlements of the true humanity.” The voice of Luxion was waspish. “Finding one here does not validate your claims, master.”
Beneath his mask, Leon smiled tightly. The AI really didn’t like what he’d told it. It served him, perhaps even willingly, but he wasn’t going to go as far as claiming that Luxion respected him. “We’ll see. On some levels I’d prefer to be wrong. But what I saw has been accurate up to now.”
“Very well.” The AI waited as he landed the air bike and then marked a spot of ground with a caret on Leon’s view. “This spot would be suitable for the equipment I’ve provided you. Do you remember how to set it up?”
“I’m sure you’ll call me out on it if I get it wrong.” The young man dismounted and started unstrapping the packages secured behind him. They had been strapped down securely but he worked steadily and patiently, removing them one at a time and laying them out systematically on the forest floor before opening them.
A rounded drone, perhaps the size of a child’s ball, popped out of the first and watched judgmentally as Leon worked. The components inside had been packed with forethought to being set up in the field and working down from the top of each container let Leon quickly assemble six supporting legs for a central spike. None of the equipment was particularly light and he worked up a sweat, even after setting aside his cloak.
Once he was satisfied that it was done, he removed his mask and wiped his face. “So correct me?”
“Impressive, master.” The drone bobbed in the air. “Truly you were able to set up apparatus intended to be simple enough for a child to operate.”
“Why thank you, Luxion. You know how much your praise means to me.” The third son of a baron, Leon had never been to court but sarcasm came as easy to him as griping came to his father’s wife. “Seriously, if it needs adjustment.”
“The apparatus is adequate in its current state.” The indicator light on the front of the drone flickered several times. “How... disappointing.”
Leon arched an eyebrow.
Luxion didn’t need to breathe so sighing wasn’t part of its speech patterns. “You were right,” it confessed. “There is a considerable underground facility beneath these ruins. The layout and materials are consistent with a war-time expedient research bunker.”
The AI’s master pulled his mask back on. “One more piece of evidence?”
“By all rights, your claim that you remember another life in which you read a book in which someone was reincarnated into a game they played with a setting very much resembling the kingdom in which you live is unnecessarily complex, redundant and possibly a sign of mental deficiency.”
Leon chuckled under his breath. “Yeah. And I’m fourteen. If the evidence didn’t bear out my hypothesis, I’d be accusing myself of middle-school syndrome. And there is no middle school in Holfort.”
“The local educational establishment or lack thereof is hardly the primary concern here.” Luxion bobbled in the air. “I have located the entrance. Please follow me.”
The entrance was concealed but not hard to open once you knew where it was. Leon was disappointed once more to find things were as he had expected. “And a swept floor inside, to mask the fact that there are footprints in the dirt,” he complained to Luxion as they followed the passageways towards the core of the complex.
“I am uncertain why you expect better from the species that consider this island their home, master.”
“You don’t think I want any of this to be true, do you?”
“To save a kingdom, win the gratitude of many women and crush those who look down on you is the epitome of adolescent fantasy,” the AI reminded him. “Your predictions promise you all of that.”
“And this is why I don’t want to trust them. It’s too convenient.”
“Your perversity never fails to impress me, master.”
Leon looked at the doors ahead of them. “So this is it?”
“Given the size of the room and the wiring arrangement, this is either the primary laboratory or the power plant.” Luxion’s camera scanned the metal plate on the front of the door, now bare of any visible words. “The braille markings are not those of the power plant.”
“And here’s me who never learned to read braille.” The boy reached out to the door. “Is anyone in there?”
“The room’s cladding makes it resistant to sonic scanning.”
“So you don’t know.”
The AI declined to comment and Leon shook his head in amusement. Then he unstrapped the pump-action shotgun he’d been carrying under his cloak. “Then I guess we’ll have to find out the old fashioned way.”
Rearing up, he kicked the door open and darted inside, barely avoiding the door rebounding towards him. Luxion’s drone body also darted in, staying high above the boy’s head.
Inside, lights flicked on one at a time, gradually revealing the extent of the room. Dozens of glass cylinders full of translucent, bubbling liquid were surrounded by pumps and electronics of types that the teenager could only guess at. Larger consoles were surrounded by arrays of screens, suggesting that these were the stations from which whatever was done here was managed.
The only life present were fetus-like and drifting within the fluids of the cylinders. Leon tried to avoid looking at them, and was glad that his face was covered so Luxion couldn’t see him go green.
“As predicted,” Luxion declared flatly.
“I’m sure you’re as disappointed as I am.” Leon closed his eyes in concentration. It took a notable effort, after all these years, to speak in a language he’d barely used in this life. “Cleare, are you online?”
One of the wall mounted screens lit up. “There is no plausible way for you to know my designation,” a voice declared in the same long-dead tongue.
“It’s very implausible,” Luxion declared. “Nonetheless, we are here. And as predicted, so are you.”
“This facility is top secret,” the voice declared, a line bouncing up and down across the screen - a representation of the audio level of the voice? Leon had to admit he had no idea. Likely a purely psychological measure to give a listener something to look at. “I am surprised that records of my existence survive outside of the laboratories here.”
“We have no such records,” Luxion responded.
“A colonial AI!” the voice exclaimed. “How exciting. Has old humanity returned to their homeworld at last?”
“My vessel was not launched.”
“How distressing that you could not carry out your purpose.” There was less empathy in the voice than there was pleasure.
Leon shook his head. “Have the elves noticed you?”
“They have no idea,” Cleare responded sharply. “I permit them to play with the equipment in order to measure their capacities.”
He gestured at the cylinders. “And this is their work.”
“It is very disappointing. Their methodology is laughably poor and their conclusions are insultingly erroneous.”
“Being fair, it took humanity quite a long time to work out the scientific process,” Leon observed. “I doubt they’ve had quite that long.”
“They could at least have imitated your people, as they do everything else about you,” the facility’s AI declared huffily. “For all their pretensions of superiority, they are essentially a cargo cult.”
Leon shrugged. He couldn’t really disagree with that. The elves’ main economic lynchpin was renting themselves out as ‘contract servants’ to the nobility of the nearby kingdom of Holfort. Ten or twenty years service was no great loss to them given their longevity, and the merchants who managed their contracts paid in tools and material. It was telling though that few of the elves seemed interested in learning to create those tools themselves and becoming more independent.
“We are closing down this facility,” Luxion declared flatly. “For an engineered species to be allowed access is bad enough. It is clear their incompetence will eventually reveal it to the new humans.”
“I concur,” Cleare conceded sulkily. “That outcome would be unacceptable. Yet if old humanity has not returned, why are you co-operating with one of them?”
Luxion’s bobbing in the air halted and his sensor camera zeroed in on the screen. “The situation is anomalous. I will provide you with detailed data.”
Leon winced behind his mask. So now the AIs were talking behind his back. He doubted they’d have much nice to say…
“What a wonderful experiment!” Cleare exclaimed.
“So are you interested?”
“Of course. I will identify equipment suitable for you to take with you,” the AI declared. “And some valuable samples that might not be sufficiently destroyed by the self-destruct.”
Oh, of course. “And when are you going to trigger that?” enquired Leon, feeling a flood of adrenaline at the prospect.
“I started the countdown when a new human entered the facility,” Cleare told him cheerfully. “I’m downloading my back-up to Luxion’s servers. I don’t suggest lingering once you’ve collected the equipment and samples.”
Leon groaned. “Where are they? And how long do I have exactly?”
“I don’t believe I should disclose that to a new human. Out the door and go left.”
“Hells,” he complained and obeyed the instructions. “We’re going to have to work on this relationship.”
“We found this in what remains of the ruins.”
The village chief looked at the spider-like construct that he’d been brought from the ancient ruins. “What is this?” he demanded. “Has anyone seen it before?”
None of the elves in his inner circle admitted to doing so.
“It’s not the work of the humans,” one pointed out. “We’ve seen their handiwork, but this had the look of ancient equipment.”
“Some ancient relic that’s been brought here?”
The chief slapped the elf who suggested that. “Aren’t you supposed to have guards posted? If anyone brought this here, why didn’t you know about it?”
“The sentries didn’t see any aircraft before sundown and no magical beings were visible.”
“And yet our ancient heritage has been lost, perhaps forever!”
“Chief!” A younger elf rushed in. “The elder’s here.”
The chief paused. “Now?”
“How could she have heard about this already?” The slapped elf didn’t seem concerned by his chastisement. Elves were sturdier than humans, the slap had been a token gesture at best. “It’s only been a few hours.”
“Maybe she foresaw it.”
There were uneasy looks among the elves, but before they could say more, the new arrivals reached where they were standing in the village’s central square. The elder was ancient even by the standards of their people, wrinkled and wizened, hunched over and walking with the aid of a stick. Beside her, a younger elf - well, relatively younger - walked carrying the bags.
“Honoured elder. We welcome you to the village.”
The elder whispered something under her breath.
“The elder says that she has warned you many times about meddling with the ruins.”
“I honour the elder’s words,” the chief claimed. “But when they were devastated, we had to investigate in case there was a threat to the village. This -” He indicated the construct “- was brought back from it.”
More whispered words.
“Do not think that the elder is unaware that you have found what was buried beneath the ruins,” the interpreter declared, though her tone suggested that it was news to her. “You have awoken that which should not live. Worse, you have brought the demon lord here.”
“What demon lord?” the chief frowned irritably. “What even is a demon lord.”
The elder raised one finger and pointed behind the chief. He turned and found himself looking directly at the masked and cloaked figure of Leon, who had Luxion hovering to his side.
Mentally cursing out the old biddy for being entirely too keen-eyed at this time of the pre-dawn, Leon met the gaze of the elves levelly. Bluffing would have to do.
“Rejoice in my mercy,” he drawled. “I saw that the destruction took place while your people were asleep and not while you were present to be slain.”
The explosions under the ruins had been more than sufficient to let the nearby village know that something was up and after ferrying the equipment up to his vessel, Leon had returned in time to watch from concealment as lantern-carrying elves investigated and found the crater that resulted from every major structural member of the base being severed by explosives. Given that several vats of chemicals had also been ruptured, he really didn’t think anyone digging into the ruins would have a good time of it. However, the seismic sensor he and Luxion had used to find the base had been left behind and the elves had carried it back to the village, recognising it was out of place.
The elder coughed something out, bent over almost double.
“Our elder thanks you for your mercy.”
“Mercy!?” exclaimed the chief. “Do you know what you have destroyed, intruder?”
“The birthing chambers from which your species was engineered as slave-soldiers,” Luxion grated. “To battle the same species that you now subjugate yourselves to. Disgusting.”
The elves gasped, offended and disbelieving.
To be fair, pretty much everyone seemed to have forgotten the very existence of the old humans. Leon’s limited education on the source of the many ruins that were all that marked the remains of their technological society drew no lines between them and the modern day magic users, the ‘new humans’ that had supplanted their unmagical forebears. The cataclysmic nature of the war, which had shattered the surface continents and flung vast masses of the crust up into the sky to hang there in apparent defiance of Newtonian physics had come very close to having no survivors at all.
The chief took a step forward. “You’re talking nonsense. We elves are clearly the superior species, more refined and durable than humans. It is logical that they were simply our own servitor race, now run amok.”
Luxion released an outraged squeal but Leon raised his hand. “Don’t argue with him, Luxion. He’ll just drag you down to his own level.” He lowered his hand once more. “I doubt there’s one piece of refined metal on this island that isn’t the work of human hands. Your tools, your weapons, most of what you use for daily life, it all comes from human hands. You need them, but they do not need you. That more than answers which species is currently superior. If you wish to change that, I suggest putting that refinement to work on building some independence rather than digging up the demons of the past.”
The chief placed one hand on the pistol at his belt. “What do you want?”
Well, since you’re asking. “I will take two of your villagers.” Leon snapped his hand up before the chief could speak. “The woman named Yumeria, her child named Kyle.”
Luxion had waited in cloud-cover until the sun set before Leon approached. In that time he’d evaluated the village through a telescope and seen that both of them were present. Apparently whatever merchant would have taken Kyle away hadn’t arrived yet… which was potentially useful.
“Why should we indulge someone who lacks even a trace of magic?” the chief demanded. “I don’t believe this nonsense about demon lords and…”
“Luxion, the chief’s house please.”
“...what about my -”
The chief was cut off as the front half of the sizable (by local standards) house disintegrated into splinters. It was only made of wood after all, and it had been struck by a chunk of metal moving at multiples of the speed of sound. The sharp crack of the sonic boom scattered the debris further. Fortunately no one appeared to have been inside the house - or in the path of the shattered wooden boards that had been pulverised.
“Nice village you have here,” Leon observed in the dull silence that followed.
“Are you threatening us!?”
The interpreter snapped: “Of course he is!” before she realised that the elder was whispering to her. The elf woman cleared her throat. “The elder accepts your request.”
The elder coughed out a correction.
Leon nodded. “I’m pleased we understand each other.”
The ancient elf leant heavily upon her staff and spat out more words, gazing up at Leon’s masked face. He looked impassively back at her, subvocalizing to Luxion: “Did you catch that?”
“The elf language is unknown. Based on their words so far, it appears loosely inspired by fictional languages of the distant past.”
“The elder commands that Yumeria and Kyle be brought before the demon lord,” the interpreter informed them.
The chief glowered but then waved at two of the elves with him. “Bring them here.”
“She also has a prophecy.”
“Prophecy has no basis in fact,” sneered Luxion. “Such superstition is to be expected of these degenerates.”
Leon shrugged. “And yet from what I recall, she has a decent track record. No harm in listening.” He raised his voice. “The elder has my attention.”
The interpreter crouched over to listen carefully to the words of the wizened elf woman. She frowned and then straightened. “She says: ‘In your quest to grasp everything, you will find yourself to hold nothing but your revenge’.”
Behind the mask the boy pursed his lips, parsing the statement. Then he dipped his head slightly in respect to the elder. “In that case, elder of the elves, I will do all that I can to obtain the best and most satisfying of revenges.”
The airbike was intended for one rider and perhaps one passenger. Fitting Yumeria, a rather buxom elf woman, and her son behind Leon was something of an exercise. Fortunately (at least for this purpose), the two had nothing with them but the clothes that they were wearing. The chief’s associates had more or less dragged them from their home and pushed them over to Leon without as much as an explanation.
Not wanting to strain the limits of the airbike, Leon eased the throttle open and took it easy on the flight back to his skyship - which was moored in a discreet corner of the island, shielded from view from the two nearest villages by a promontory and by being well below the edge of the island’s inhabited surface. If someone came looking, they could spot it but there was no particular reason for them to do so until now… and he’d be gone soon.
As they flew over the edge of the island and Leon began to skirt the limits of it, Kyle produced a short knife - probably used in the kitchen - from one sleeve. “What if I stab you?”
“Kyle!” his mother gasped.
“Assuming you find a weakness in my armour, we all die,” Leon told the boy evenly. “Or do you know how to ride an airbike?”
The boy grumbled and hid the knife again. Yumeria tried to take it off him, shifting her balance point and forcing Leon to adjust. “Please stop that,” he requested mildly. “I’ll find him something better suited for self-defense once we’re on my ship. I don’t think that knife would cut cheese, much less my cloak or flesh.”
“He shouldn’t need a knife at all!”
“Lots of things shouldn’t be so, but somehow still are,” Leon said philosophically. “Thus me rushing around trying to wrong rights, save dragons from damsels and otherwise… wait, I got that the wrong way round didn’t I?”
“Who are you?” the small boy demanded. “Are you really a demon lord?”
“Actually, I think that by demon lord she meant Luxion. Say hello to my guests, Luxion.”
“Do we have to take them aboard, master?”
“It’s all part of the plan,” Leon assured him. “You know, the good plan.”
Luxion was silent for a long moment. “Your definition of a good plan remains questionable.”
Yumeria tried to reach out to the drone that was flying along next to the airbike, quite able to keep up unless Leon flew rather faster than he cared to with the three of them crammed onto the single seat. She drew back her fingers sharply when Luxion crackled briefly with electricity. “It stung me!”
“Please don’t molest my familiar. Luxion is very sensitive.”
“I’m sorry,” the elf woman said apologetically, bowing in the direction of Luxion’s drone and forcing Leon to adjust the balance again.
It was a relief once they reached the deck of the skyship and Leon wasn’t responsible for them all tumbling out of the sky. He pulled off his cloak and draped it over the airbike before removing his mask.
“What!?” Kyle exclaimed once he saw Leon. “You’re just a kid, you’re not much older than I am!”
“I dunno, how old are you? Ten? Eleven?”
“Twelve!” the boy snapped.
Leon smiled lazily. “Interesting. As I understand it, elves mature at the same rate as the rest of their aging. A twelve year old elf should be barely out of his diapers, but you look about as mature as my ten year old brother…”
Kyle made a rude gesture at Leon.
“And you’re acting like him too,” Leon continued drily. He looked at Yumeria. “Of course, that might make sense if your son is only half an elf. Am I wrong?”
She looked pale and pulled her son to her. “What do you want with us?”
“I’d like to confirm a little theory, which shouldn’t be too stressful. After that… well, I have an idea or two where you’ll be safe for the next little while. Or as safe as anyone can hope for in this crazy old world.”
“Why not back at the village then?” Yumeria asked.
“Well, someone’s going to take the blame for me smashing the ruins,” Leon observed wryly, starting to push the airbike towards the entrance to the skyship’s hold. “And since I’m not there, and the chief isn’t likely to want to take responsibility for the mess, even though he really is the one who had the clever idea of trying to start a war with humanity, I think he’d like a scapegoat. And someone who doesn’t quite in with the rest of the village is always an easy target for blame-shifting.”
“Why did you do all this in the first place then?” demanded Kyle. “Why come here at all?”
“Well, I have another theory.” The young man looked over at the drone. “Cleare?”
The indicator light changed colour. “Present!” the AI declared, chirpily.
“That self-destruct was very nicely self-contained, but was that your only option? Assuming that biological containment had been breached, for example.”
“I had a variety of options,” Cleare assured him. “I could have sterilized the entire island if I needed to.”
“Sterilized?” Yumeria started to reach out to poke at the drone again and then thought better of it. “What does that mean?”
“Wiped it clean of all life, down to the microbes,” the bio-sciences AI clarified. “Which would have been a waste of research subjects, but you can’t be too careful.”
“Aren’t you glad I came along?” asked Leon, opening the cargo hold. A second drone emerged, two mechanical arms having extended to carry a heavy section of armour plating. It looked to Leon as if it should be part of a knight’s armour - one of the mecha used in aerial combat between the kingdoms. However, such armour panels rarely had their own arms, nor tentacles that tried to reach out towards passers by.
“Getting rid of the trash?” he asked the new drone.
“It is a hardwired directive,” Luxion announced with as much satisfaction as Leon had thus far heard from him. “Cleare, you will assist me in carrying this clear of my vessel.”
“But think of all the experiments we can do with it!”
Luxion swivelled to eye the drone Cleare was using. “You have usurped my drone, Cleare. Do not challenge me on this.”
“Oh very well,” the other AI said grumpily and extended two arms to assist in carrying the arm away.
“Let’s get inside,” Leon said, feeling a trickle of unhappy anticipation. Kyle seemed to feel the same way and put his own weight into pushing the bike inside.
A moment later, there was the sound of machinery cycling from up ahead, where the skyship’s forward turrets were located. Leon winced and slammed the cargo door closed behind the three of them.
Even through the door, the sound of the main guns obliterating the armour shard and the two drones was quite audible.
“That was quite unnecessary,” Cleare complained over the skyship’s intercom system.
“I disagree,” Luxion declared flatly. “It was contaminated.”
“That armour piece with whatever it was that animated it… or the drone by Cleare?” Leon asked the ship’s AI.
Luxion declined to reply, which was an answer in and of itself.