Alfvaen (alfvaen) wrote,

A Friendly Glass of Wine

This exercise was based on a selection of pictures that one of our writers' group had downloaded from the Net and printed out. I can't remember the exact picture I chose, but there was a guy wearing goggles of some sort and toasting an empty chair across from him.

Evgeny Ohagan punched his request into the replicator and waited while it processed his order. In only a few seconds it made a discreet hissing noise, and there it was. A pre-chilled bottle of Chavel Gemhadran Red 2648.

Only a few years ago, he and Jahi Duvernay would never have been able to afford the licensing fee to produce Gemhadran '48. Not to mention that the tiny, underpowered replicator in their two-man ship would have taken half an hour to produce one glass, all the while letting out high-frequency shrieks.

But now Evgeny was rich enough to afford the good life he'd always dreamed of. While too many years of low-gee prospecting had forced him to abandon any ideas of settling down on a planet, he had a prime apartment on Onyx Station. He had a fireplace in one corner, for the sinful, but now affordable, luxury of burning wood expensively shipped up from the planet Sard below in oxygen extracted from its moon's buried ice. The windows looked out on the Onyx Chasm, with an attractive crescent Sard visible above it.

It was a bit of a shame that Jahi wasn't here to share it with him. They'd always planned on it, though, after their big strike--sharing a bottle of Gemhadran '48. But this would be almost as good--no, better. Evgeny's robot butler had already set the small but hideously expensive table-for-two with the requisite two glasses carved from finest Yurian crystal. Next to it, initially seeming out of place, was the top-of-the-line pair of VR goggles.

The chairs also seemed out of place, but Evgeny retained them purely for nostalgia. They were the only things he kept when he'd had their ship, the Bright Future, decommissioned shortly after Jahi's death. In point of fact, he found them more comfortable than most of the chairs out there, few of which were designed for low-gee.

He poured the wine into the glasses, both of them, setting one carefully in front of the other chair before he sat down in his chair, which he had molded to the shape of his backside through many long, bleary-eyed hours of scanning computer screens, looking for that big mineral deposit that would make the difference. Most of them were small, just enough to buy some more fuel and air, but it only took one. An entire asteroid of a mineral so rare that before their find nobody had seen more than a cubic metre of it in one place. Evgeny wasn't quite sure what the stuff was--Jahi had said something about forming in the cores of neutron stars or some crap like that--but it was the priciest thing around.

Now to see if he'd gotten this other thing set up right. Jahi had been the computer whiz, too, but Evgeny had gotten the top computer experts on the station to come in and do this. Even then, they'd mostly just been finishing off a project Jahi had been working on himself, which was apparently worth a few more software patents on its own. Just icing on the cake. Evgeny put on the goggles--custom-fitted, eyes-and-ears, and nearly invisible from the inside, like wearing nothing at all.

He looked at the chair across from him, but it was still empty. He felt a surge of disappointment. Then he heard footsteps and a soft throat-clearing, and saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned quickly to see Jahi standing there as if he'd just walked through the door. Evgeny had sealed that door to his personal access, of course--not even Donita could have gotten in. But of course Jahi hadn't really come through the door at all.

It was uncanny, even eerie. Jahi had done most of the work himself on the simulation, since of course he had the most intimate knowledge of himself, and it had been his spare-time project for years. Evgeny had done other simulations before--there were always the X-rated ones on the stations too small to have real women, and he'd even tried some classier ones since. But they never moved quite right, or they were too smooth in the wrong spots, and you could always tell. If Evgeny didn't know better, he'd think this was the real thing. But that was impossible.

Evgeny had always wondered why, if he'd been so all-fired hot, Jahi had spent his time as a rock-jockey. Maybe he got blacklisted by some big corporation, which could take years to get out from under.

"Hey, Jahi," Evgeny said hoarsely, his throat closing up temporarily. He's not real, he reminded himself fiercely, and cleared his throat.

"Hello, Ev," Jahi's simulation said in his soft voice. "Is that--"

"Gemhadran '48. Yes, sir." Evgeny took a sip, like he heard you were supposed to with expensive wine. He didn't normally like wine, but it was more than wine, it was a symbol of success.

Jahi sat down in his chair, and it squeaked like it always did. That gave Evgeny the willies, for something like that to be part of the program. Jahi picked up his glass and sipped, too. Of course, the glass didn't really move, but the goggles made it look like it had. Evgeny was half-tempted to reach over and tip the real glass while Jahi was drinking from the fake one, but for now he wanted to keep the illusion.

"So we made it," Jahi said.

"Yup," Evgeny said. "2.9 kilotonnes of duolonium or whatever."

"Duolonite?" Jahi raised his eyebrows. "You're kidding."

"You should know, it was you who found it," Evgeny said before he thought. "Well, you know, the other you."

"Of course," Jahi said. "I imagine we could set our own price with that much of the stuff. If we could find someone to market it to safely."

"Nothing to it," Evgeny said. "We hid the thing, encrypted the coordinates, and then went into double-blind negotation. By the time they got the information, we were long gone, and the money was in escrow. I'm not even sure who we sold it to, though I suspect it was the Baklad Empire, judging from the swath they're cutting through Vrok space these days."

"Very smooth," Jahi said. "I imagine that was all your doing, since you were always better at the trickery and double-dealing."

Evgeny flushed with annoyance. While he and Jahi had always good-naturedly ribbed each other about their respective talents, and respective shortcomings, in each other's eyes, that was a bit more barbed than Jahi had been used to. "Now, come on--"

"Sorry." Jahi held up a placating hand. "I realize that if you're using this program, then the real Jahi Duvernay is probably dead. So I don't have a big motivation to keep from offending you anymore."

"Yeah, whatever," Evgeny said. He took a bigger gulp of the Gemhadran '48.

"If I may ask--how did I die?" Jahi said.

Evgeny had prepared for this question. He looked straight into Jahi's eyes, virtual as they were, and said, "I don't know for sure. You were heading to some meeting on Wolf 359, but when you didn't show up we started looking for you. Looked like a rock had hit your oxygen filters, and you asphyxiated just before you reached orbit."

Jahi looked at Evgeny appraisingly for a few seconds, and Evgeny tried not to sweat. Then he shook his head with a rueful half-smile. "He who lives by the asteroid dies by the asteroid," he said.

"Yeah, I guess so." Evgeny relaxed. Of course, he'd set up the damaged oxygen filter himself, doctored the evidence as much as possible, and paid off the cops to overlook the rest. What little was left after he had the Bright Future recycled into scrap, anyway.

"I knew you'd probably do this," Jahi said. "I know we talked about this whole thing many times, whenever there was the slightest hope of a big strike. We'd go to Onyx Station, buy the most expensive wine around--Chavel Gemhadran Red '48--and drink a toast. One night, when we were really drunk on something much cheaper than Gemhadran, you even said we should use the same goddamn chairs we were sitting in right then. And I see that you did all that."

"It meant a lot to me, man," Evgeny said. "Without you I never could have managed this."

"And vice versa, I suppose," Jahi said. "I always knew the rest, too, the part you never told me."

Evgeny started to sweat again, and shiver slightly. "What? What do you mean?"

"The part where you had me killed," Jahi said. "I was never quite sure how, but if you had enough to grease the palms, then brazenly sabotaging our own ship would probably work well enough."

"Now wait a--" Evgeny suddenly doubled over as a massive cramp tore through his stomach. His head hit the edge of the table and he fell onto the floor, heaving great gasping breaths.

"You were always predictable," Jahi said imperturbably. The goggles had slid off of one ear and one eye, so Evgeny had split vision, Jahi there-and-not-there, the glass on the table and in his hand, the voice in one ear and not the other. "You thought of yourself as some kind of genius, I suppose, just needing the right opportunity to flower. But you were just another small-time operator with grand delusions. I never thought the big strike would come, to be honest. I just wanted enough to buy my way back to my old life, and then I'd be rid of you. Until then, you were useful."

Evgeny struggled feebly on the floor, since his legs were the only part of that seemed to be able to move without causing tearing pain.

"So I set up this simulation, knowing that you wouldn't be able to resist summoning me up to complete the ritual. You'd have to gloat. And it was a simple matter to tap into the replicator and put some quite unusual additives into that Chavel Gemhadran Red 2648."

Evgeny couldn't move at all now. From one eye, rapidly dimming to a tunnel as his breathing slowed, he saw Jahi bending over him, to whisper in his ear. It was the wrong ear, though, and he heard nothing but a faint buzzing in the other ear. As the tunnel narrowed to nothing, he saw Jahi walk out the door.

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