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The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken
Published: 10/2/2018
ISBN13: 9781781085707
Page Count: 480

BELISARIUS ARJONA WAS perhaps the only con man who drew parallels between his confidence schemes and the quantum world. Ask a question about frequency, and the electron appeared to be a wave. Ask a question about momentum, and the electron appeared to be a particle. A gangster looking to muscle in on a real estate scam would find sellers in distress. A mark looking to cash in on a crooked fight would find a fighter ready to take a fall. Nature fed an observer the clues needed to turn the quantum world into something real. Belisarius fed his marks the clues they needed to turn their greed into expensive mistakes. And sometimes he did so at gunpoint. To be precise, the muzzle of Evelyn Powell’s pistol rested on her knees as she talked to him.

“Why the long face, Arjona?” she asked.

“No long face,” he said sullenly.

“I’m going to make you really rich. You won’t need to scrape by with this freak show,” she said, waving her hand expansively.

They sat in the gloom at the bottom of the cylinder of glazed brick that was his gallery of Puppet art. A column supporting spiral stairs and landings speared the gallery. The paintings, sculptures and silent films set in bricked alcoves had to be appreciated across a three-meter gap between the edges of the stairs and the wall. Belisarius was curating the first exposition of Puppet art ever permitted by the Federation of Puppet Theocracies. Smell, lighting and sound invoked the aesthetic of the Puppet religious experience. Far above, near the entrance to the gallery, a whip snapped arhythmically.

“I like Puppet art,” he said.

“So when you’re rich, buy more.”

“You don’t get to buy art from prison.”

“We’re not going to get caught,” she said. “Don’t lose your nerve. If it works here, it will work in my casinos.”

Powell was a beefy casino boss from Port Barcelona. She’d crossed the embargo around the dwarf planet Oler to see if the news of Belisarius’s miracle making the rounds in criminal circles was true. She tapped the nose of the pistol against her knee, drawing his eyes with the movement.

“But you haven’t been totally honest with me yet, Arjona. I’m still not convinced you really hacked a Fortuna AI. I’ve seen people try. I’m paying people to try. What are the odds that you, by yourself, surrounded by Puppets all the way out here, got it?”

He let her stew in the conviction of what she’d just said for two breaths—eight point one seconds. Then, he lowered his eyes, matching her expectations, buying him another second of her patience.

“No one can hack a Fortuna AI,” he admitted. “And I didn’t either. I broke into a security graft and snuck in a tiny bit of code. I couldn’t make it big, or the rest of the AI would notice, but this tiny change added a factor into its statistical expectations.”

Powell was calculating behind her stare: the odds of this being the secret to beating the Fortuna AI, the number of casinos vulnerable to this modified graft, and what Belisarius had changed to crack the graft.

Statistical expectations were the core of the Fortuna AI. Technology had leapt so far past games of chance that any casino could rip off its patrons pretty easily. For that matter, any patron could cheat an unprotected casino. The presence of a Fortuna AI was the seal of approval on any casino. In conjunction with an advanced surveillance system, the AI monitored ultrasonic, light, radio, IR, UV and X-ray emissions. It also calculated odds and winning streaks in real time. For the clients, it was proof the games were fair. For the casinos, it was protection against cheaters.

“The security grafts are unhackable too,” Powell said. “I’ve got people working on them.”

“Not if the code-breaker is fast enough to intercept the patch during transmission, and the change is small enough,” Belisarius said.

The Fortuna AI was ‘unhackable,’ in the sense that Powell meant. All AIs were, because they were grown. They could only be evolved, or patched with small grafts.

Powell considered him for a while.

“My people are close, but we don’t have a system to go with it yet,” she said. “Using body temperature is ingenious.”

A whip sounded far up the gallery again. A recorded Puppet moan of religious ecstasy echoed softly.

“My people say you’re pretty smart,” she said, “that you’re one of those Homo quantus. Is that right?”

“You’ve got good sources,” he said.

“So what’s a super-smart Homo quantus doing in the ass-end of civilization?”

“I reacted badly to the medications that let the Homo quantus see quantum things,” he said. “They kicked me out. The Banks didn’t want to pay for a dud.”

“Ha!” she said. “Duds. I hear you. Fucking Banks.”

Belisarius was good at lying. He had a perfect memory, and every Homo quantus had to be able to run multiple lines of thought at once. Most of the time it didn’t matter which one was true, as long as they didn’t get mixed up.

“Let’s get this done,” he said finally, pointing at the pills in her palm.

“You wouldn’t be trying to poison your new partner, would you?” she said, grinning. Behind the grin was something very hard.

“Get interferon from your own sources if you want,” he said.

She shook her head and popped the two pills. “My augments wouldn’t let me die of a fever.”

That was probably true. His brain began running dosage and toxicity calculations, accounting for the abilities of black-market augments like the ones she was probably carrying. He let one part of his brain keep itself busy with those calculations. He wasn’t jealous of her ability to fight a fever, but those kinds of augments wouldn’t work in him anyway.

Powell’s fever would start very quickly. He’d explained the scam to her three times, so she should understand it by now. Powell running two degrees of fever wouldn’t trigger casino security, but that difference would activate the statistical algorithms in the security patch. The Fortuna AI would expect her to win more, and so when she did, no alarms would go off. That was what had brought her all the way to the Puppet Free City.

“Come on,” she said, her breath fogging the air. “Your gallery is creeping me out.”

They walked up the helical stairs, past all the eerie displays that were so good at attracting the pattern-seeking portions of Belisarius’s engineered brain without triggering deeper mathematical reactions. Complicated confidence schemes did the same thing.

The street was colder. They had a nine point six minute walk, long enough for Powell’s fever to rise. The decor became slightly cheerier as they went. The Puppet Free City was a warren of sub-surface caves dug into the icy crust of Oler. Some were bricked. Some were bare ice, stained with the remains of food or drink. Many of the tunnels were poorly lit, with lumpy garbage frozen to the streets.

The Free City liked its gambling, from holes in the wall and street craps to places that actually called themselves casinos. Blackmore’s was the only one with a Fortuna AI, so it attracted the well-heeled gamblers and kept its icy streets relatively clean and garishly lit. Belisarius liked the way the lurid greens and soft blues mixed and reflected off every smooth patch of ice.

Along the sides of abandoned apartments and shops, rows of mendicant Puppets stood in rudely constructed Toy Boxes and fake Cages, with their hands out. They looked like humans descended from pale Old European families, shrunken to half-size. One emaciated Puppet woman had even set herself up at a folding table with a real Cream Puff pastry, long since dried to wrinkles. Belisarius threw her a few steel coins. Powell made a face at him and kicked the folding table onto the Puppet woman, who yelled a stream of filth at them.

“Shouldn’t she be thanking me?” Powell guffawed.

“That’s not how Puppets work.”

“You got no sense of humor, Arjona,” she said as they approached the entrance to Blackmore’s. Human security were scanning patrons with wands, giving the casino a grasping touch of class over automated scanning. “Loosen up.”

The scan took nine point nine seconds, an eternity for his brain. He played with parallels and patterns. Money flowed through casinos in gradients, the same way energy flowed down gradients from high-energy molecules to low-energy ones. Life colonized the energy gradients: plants put themselves between sun and stone; animals put themselves between plants and decay. Criminals infiltrated casinos like vines on a tree.

Anywhere money flowed, someone would try to siphon off some of it. Even in clean casinos, convergent evolution created new people ready to try to scam either the casino or its customers. Dealers could be bought off. Gamblers could collude with casino owners. Cheaters invented new cheats. That made the Fortuna AI critical. Without the trust created by Fortuna’s inviolability, the honest money didn’t flow.

Powell shouldered past him. He followed her to the craps table. The boxman was one of their plants, as was the stickman. Powell and he had secretly met them yesterday in the gallery. Powell waited her turn to make her pass line bet and held out the dice to him. He rolled his eyes and blew. She smiled with her big, flushed cheeks, and rolled a seven for her come out roll. That was the easy part.

Three other players made their pass lines and picked their service bets. The stickman put Powell’s service bet of a hundred Congregate francs on cornrows and moved a new set of dice to her. The dice were of Belisarius’s design. They contained embedded liquid-phase nano components. The transparent liquid inside the dice underwent a conformational change with small changes in heat, weighing down the single-pip side. The dice had been under the hot white light near the boxman, and were now in Powell’s fever-hot hands.

Powell rolled a pair of sixes and the watchers cheered.

The next player took the dice with cold fingers and fogged the air with her breath for luck. Sevens. She was out. The next rolled craps with a three and the watchers cheered. The last rolled a hard ten and was out.

Powell flexed her fingers, then held them under her armpits. She jerked her chin to the stickman to keep her bet on cornrows, and twitched her fingers for the dice. The stickman slid them back. She held them between her hot hands for long seconds, closing her eyes as if praying, and then rolled.

The onlookers cheered at another pair of sixes.

Powell grinned at him. The boxman seemed to be expecting the Fortuna AI to go off, but he turned back to the table and nodded to the stickman. Belisarius made himself look happy. The dice cooled on the table, one of the advantages of a casino in a city buried in ice. The only remaining player rode out his combined bet, but rolled a nine. Out. All the attention was on Powell.

“Cornrows,” she said, and passed the boxman a money wafer. The boxman’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Ten thousand Congregate francs, a small fortune added to the smaller fortune she’d just made.

“Take it easy,” Belisarius whispered. “You sure you don’t want to wait?”

She took the dice, held them tightly for ten seconds and then rolled them against backstop. Two sixes came up. People threw their hands up in the general cheer and Powell was laughing and looking around. Then, her face froze and her hands lowered slowly.

A young Puppet priest had come up behind them. Her skin was old European pale, like her hair. She stood at eighty-five centimeters, proportioned like a human adult in miniature, but she wore armor over her robes. Forming a quarter circle on each side of her were a dozen episcopal troopers, their sealed armor giving them an extra ten centimeters of height. They levelled their rifles at Powell and Belisarius. The casino-goers slowly backed away. Some screamed and moved for the door. Belisarius and Powell were trapped.

Belisarius bolted for the back of the casino. The priest pulled a pistol and flashing, loud bangs echoed. People screamed. Along Belisarius’s side, microexplosions of blood and smoke burst through his coat. He fell to the ice floor, where blood froze in an expanding pool. He looked beseechingly at Powell, but she was horror-struck as the other patrons ducked and ran for the exits. The priest and the episcopal troops ignored them.

“Evelyn Powell, you’re under arrest for blasphemy,” the Puppet priest said.

Powell’s jaw ground and her forehead wrinkled. “What?” she said.

“Cheating in Blackmore’s is blasphemy,” the Puppet said.

Powell looked helplessly at the ceiling, where the Fortuna AI would have made some noise if it had detected anything underhanded in a game. She gestured upward. “I was lucky!”

Then the alarms went off, and a spotlight fell on Powell. She made soundless mouthings as one of the episcopal troopers put her hands behind her back and disarmed her. She was marched out at the end of batons and firearms. It took ninety-six seconds more for the other troopers to shoo the terrified casino-goers out and close the casino.

“Enrique,” Belisarius said, rising and rubbing his hands together, “your floor is freezing.”

The olive-skinned boxman hopped down from his perch behind the craps table. “Don’t lie down.”

Misfortunes and bad debts in the Anglo-Spanish Plutocracy had blown Enrique all the way to this armpit of civilization, where he’d gotten a job at Blackmore’s. He helped Belisarius sometimes. Belisarius opened his coat to remove the device that had blown holes in it in response to the blanks. Fake blood still leaked.

“Nice work, Rosalie,” Belisarius said.

Rosalie Johns-10 wasn’t a priest yet. She had a year or two left in her studies as an initiate, but in a world of listless, work-avoiding Puppets, no one cared if she dressed as a priest sometimes and hired some off-duty troopers as muscle. She punched Belisarius in the arm. She couldn’t reach very high, but it was the spirit that counted.

From the office, a man and a Puppet emerged. The Puppet was the custodian of the national treasure that was the holy site where Peter Blackmore had gambled. The Puppets had named a lot of things after Blackmore, but this one actually made sense. The man was an Anglo-Spanish investigator with the Fortuna Corporation. He shook Belisarius’s hand.

“We never would have gotten Powell under Anglo-Spanish law,” the investigator said.

“Thank Initiate Johns-10 and the Puppet blasphemy laws,” Belisarius said, indicating her.

“Better yet,” Enrique said, pushing past the investigator to hand Belisarius the money chip, “just thank us by getting out of the way while we split Powell’s stake.”

Enrique handed him his pad. Belisarius transferred two thousand francs to him. Enrique grinned. Rosalie handed him hers, and Belisarius transferred her three thousand. She had to pay the troopers, the fake businesspeople who’d helped them, the episcopate’s tithe, and the officials in the Puppet Constabulary.

“You got any other jobs coming down the line, boss?” she asked.

Belisarius shook his head. He really didn’t. This con had been good, distracting, but the rest of his leads were meat and potato cons on small-time targets. Nothing that would keep his brain busy. “It’s slow, but I’ll call you if I get another one.”

The custodian of the gambling shrine gave them all a drink, delighted that the casino’s reputation was going to go up for once. It wasn’t the best stuff, but the Puppets were under an embargo.

Enrique drifted away. So did the investigator. The owner went to setting up the casino again. Belisarius and Rosalie grabbed a booth and used his new money to crank up the heater and buy something better to drink. They were cousins in a way, she a Puppet, more properly a Homo pupa, and he one of the Homo quantus. Rosalie was young, insightful and curious.

“Was that guy really from the Fortuna Corporation?” she asked in wonder.

“In the flesh,” he said. “How did you think I got the alarms not to go off with the weighted dice?”

“I thought maybe you really did hack the AI,” she said sheepishly.

“Nobody can do that.” He swirled his drink. He didn’t enjoy lying to her. She was too innocent, too trusting. “Fortuna knew that Powell’s people were getting close to hacking their security patches, and they don’t have a solution yet. They were eager to take her off the board, eager enough to temporarily install a bad AI in Blackmore’s. It’ll take them days to install a new one, but to them, it’s worth it.”

Rosalie had a few more questions about confidence schemes. It still seemed like such an alien world to her, even though she’d helped him on four cons already, not including the sting on Powell. The conversation drifted, and finally fell to theology again. In this, Rosalie was a stronger conversationalist.

Her thinking drew lines of defensible logic over the surface of Puppet madness, and she had no natural pauses when discussing theology. This forced Belisarius to sharpen his own questions about the natures of humanity, and his logical constructions usually inspired Rosalie’s thinking. By midnight, though, they’d finished drinking two bottles and discussing three of Bishop Creston’s early ethical models. That was enough of both for Belisarius, and he headed home, vaguely dissatisfied.

His restless brain counted the stones of the arcade, measured the angular errors in the joints of walls and buildings and roofs, and tracked the gradual deteriorations that no one fixed. The magnetic organelles in his cells felt the unevenness of the electrical currents in the neighborhood, and his brain assigned notional probabilities to different service failures. His brain wouldn’t have done all this if small scams on off-worlders were enough to hold its bioengineered curiosity. The jobs were lucrative, but they were getting too easy, too small to hide behind.

His gallery AI spoke in his implant as he neared. “Someone is looking for you.”