Short Story Friday: The Trial of Rearden Black Part 1

Today’s short story takes place in Lux.  It is actually an extension of a previous Short Story Friday reading titled Absinthe Fueled Genius.  If you’re just checking in now, take a look at that one first for a little more context, though not really necessary.

This story is about the rise of one genius and the fall of another.  It sets up the central conflict for my third book.  Lux is a place where magic and science have blended into one fantastic and dangerous combination.  What this means for its citizens and for what this world defines as life will have further reaching implications as the story moves forward.

Thanks for reading and as always, comments, criticism, and compliments are always welcome but not necessarily in that order.  ^_^

The Trial of Rearden Black Part 1

Rearden Black was furious.

The stately gentleman and lynchpin of industry in Lux was shaking. His cane rattled against the old wooden floor of the sitting room. He and his magi had been summoned to the council chambers of the Society of New Engineers only one day prior to his ascension to Headmaster of the entire organization.

When the courier arrived at his estate this morning, Rearden had greeted the man warmly in expectation that further good news was at hand. When the young man from the Society sullenly shook his head that the implications of his summons were far more serious, Rearden Black’s countenance darkened. He was being recalled and his newly acquired position was being called into question.

Called into question on account of fraud…the very insinuation of such a claim made Rearden’s blood boil. Heads would roll, men would be dismissed, they would learn tomorrow the steep cost of questioning his honor today.

After all, it was Rearden’s Black Gears company that provided nearly all of Lux with the production facilities necessary for the cogs, gears, and drive-shafts that powered almost everything in the technological wonder city of Lux. He had been the one to organize production, to create the first assembly line, and even the first to implement automated machinery that insured measurements were consistently precise.

How dare they accuse him of fraud?

As Rearden paced about the small sitting room, his three magi stayed carefully out of his way. The trio knew enough about their master to know that even a kind word of encouragement would see his rage explode on them. Kiana knew that where encouragement would fail, instigation would succeed.

Kiana Craule’ was Rearden Black’s water mage. Hailing originally from Britania, she and the other two magi in Rearden’s service were Guild refugees who held more ambition in their hearts than good sense in their heads. During one of his visits to Britania, Rearden happened upon the small group as they were evading Guild pursuit. Kiana had been clever enough to recognize opportunity when she saw it and promptly offered their services to the wealthy industrialist in exchange for aid in escaping the city.

Rearden was far too shrewd to allow such an opportunity to pass him by. He had come to Britania to negotiate with the Guild for use of their magi anyway. Now these services would be gained instead by trading food and shelter which by his account was far more affordable than the standard Guild fee. Rearden also found their resolve in pursuing a destiny beyond what life had set out for them to be admirable. It was a fated pairing.

Kiana stepped forward. “We know that the process is not fraudulent Mr. Black. It is slow going and that was unexpected but when they see what we can do with metal and magic, these doubters will be shamed back into their place. No doubt there are people playing a political game against you on account of your position within Lux. People oppose you everyday due to your success. Much like those rats, these cowards will scurry away when the light of our success is shined on them.” She made her words harsh and condemning. Kiana was always attempting to say exactly what she believed Rearden wanted to hear.

Kiana’s fellow magi looked at one another nervously. Brett Syd and Chadwick Rii had been friends of Kiana since they were indoctrinated into the Guild as children. Each of the three were slightly more powerful in their respective elements than other children their age. Brett was gifted in the elemental magic of wind and Chadwick held sway over fire. As a result of this, these three had been placed into a special training program meant to investigate how various mixtures of elemental magic could be harnessed. It that very training program that permitted them the leverage to escape the Guild.

Rearden eyed Kiana with annoyance. “I full well know that. It’s the audacity! This trumped up event! It sits on my nerve. Something is amiss. There is some bit of…something that has been, held back from me and by holy hell I will find out what it is.”

Despite his penchant for bluster, Rearden Black was no fool. When he resolved himself towards a course of action, it was only a matter of time until success was at hand. Where some men find their way barred by fiscal constraints, Rearden had none. Where other men lacked the willpower to do what needed to be done, Rearden was uncompromising. As Rearden swore to find the answers to this puzzle, his magi once again looked at one another with worry.

Kiana gave the other two a hard stare that demanded their mouths stay shut.

Encountering the magi had been a stroke of immense luck for Rearden. He had been in possession of plans for the Life Crux for some time before meeting them. It all timed very conspicuously with the Society’s announcement that their next Headmaster would be chosen through a public challenge. The challenge was stated simply enough: Resolve the Society of New Engineer’s greatest failing.

Rearden knew immediately upon hearing it that they were referring to the living automation project, a project that had spelled disaster for Lux some thirty years ago. The Society had sought to produce life through elemental fusion and had succeeded. Their success created a monster that could not be reasoned with and as a result, the greatest magi Lux had to offer were killed. The plans in his possession were the catalyst for that doomed experiment. He had examined them thoroughly and found no real flaws in the design; the plans themselves were sound. Rearden had to assume that their manner of production and methodology was flawed.

Correcting production related issues and purging methodological flaws was something Rearden excelled at. Acquiring the magi were the key to finishing this project. Everything had fallen into place. Once the magi began experimenting with the Life Crux which had been retooled with Rearden’s precise machinery, it had only been a matter of time until he was able to replicate the living automation project. Fortunately, his ambitious water mage had found ways to improve on the design and stabilize the Life Crux that Rearden was able to implement into full-scale mass production of the unit. The improvement that Kiana had suggested quadrupled the permissible variance range on the measurements and that had allowed Rearden to construct nearly two-hundred bodies that were merely waiting their spark of life with the magi.

Everything had been going so well. The mass produced automations would make up a new policing force to counter the growing firearm violence that had plagued Lux of late. Rearden Black had solved two looming problems, one social and the other experimental with a single stroke of brilliance.

The fact that the Society was potentially risking his alliance with this tribunal told him that something indeed was very wrong.

The doors to the sitting room finally opened and a young apprentice politely requested that Mr. Black and his magi accompany him into the council chambers.

Rearden did not say a word to the nervous man who was sent to retrieve them. He was reserving his bluster for this ridiculous hearing. His magi followed along behind him with trepidation.

The scene that awaited their arrival was not what Rearden could have expected. Parts from his factory, pieces of his mass produced automation were hung up on racks by the dozen. A selection of arms, legs, torsos, heads, and even the valuable Life crux were all set out before the council and its guests like some kind of peddler’s market for body parts.

Rearden had no intention of waiting for an explanation, he would demand one.

“How dare this council seize my property! What in the bloody hell is going on here?”

The council president raised a hand to quiet him in response.

“Mr. Black, despite your numerous and lofty contributions to the great City State of Lux we are forced to entertain this methodological evaluation as the charge of industrial espionage has been brought against you. Though this council is embarrassed to put you through such a trial, in the interest of determining its Headmaster, we are obliged. Rest assured our contractual obligations shall remain in place regardless of the outcome…”

The council president was interrupted by powerful voice that dripped of youthful arrogance and rose above the civil discourse at hand.

“Treacherous techno thief! You thought to steal my design work and pass it off as your own? It seems that the copious coin your burgeoning business has brought about has misdirected your moral compass.”

Rearden looked incredulously at the thin man with slight features and hair that hung too long for a respectable man to wear in this day. He knew this Jayden Dagny as one of the more promising engineers to make a name for himself in the past few years. Though their encounters had been few, Jayden had made a name for himself and even managed to draw Rearden’s attention on a few occasions. He was an upstart to be certain, however, something had always bothered Rearden about this man though he had never been able to properly identify the issue.

“Dagny. Who are you to challenge my work boy? What standing do you have that would even permit you to lick the dirt from my boots? I will not…I will NOT stand here and be accused by this limp-wristed little dandy of a man.” Rearden turned his back on the council and on Jayden, preparing to walk out of the proceedings without another thought.

The council president called back to Rearden, “Mr. Black, if you leave before we have seen the results for ourselves, we will be forced to rule against you.”

Kiana quietly whispered to him, “Rearden, there is nothing to fear. We should put both the council and this brat in their place.”

Rearden snapped at the water mage and slapped his cane against her arm. He did not speak in hushed tones as he condemned her words. “You will refer to me by title girl and I do not need you nor anyone else to tell me what there is and is not to fear.” He spun back on the council and pointed his cane in their direction. “By what accountability am I called forth here? Who will risk their reputation should I be vindicated? Surely the presumptuous boy challenging me here has no authority to demand such a trial.”

The council president nodded his agreement with that statement. “Quite right Mr. Black. Quite right… We would have never entertained this issue but for…”

Again the younger man cut the council president off and began speaking quite loudly over the council’s objection.

“Oh but Mr. Black, when you have fantastically famous friends long thought lost, it seems everyone is more than willing to listen to you. Assisting me in today’s trial will be none other than the infamous Mr. and Mrs. Frasier.” Jayden stepped aside and directed a hand in the direction of an unassuming husband and wife pair who were sitting off to the side of where the council dais was located. “Oh yes Mr. Black, your ears did not deceive you, Thomas and Jennifer Frasier, two of the original magi to work on the living automation project have found cause to assist me in my work. So in response to your question, it will be their reputation on the line.”

For the first time in as long as Rearden Black could remember, he had nothing to say on the matter. There was no denying the identities of the pair of magi. The fact that they were still alive was a miraculous revelation in of itself only spoiled by the fact that they now sat in opposition to him for a reason he still did not understand.

The council picked up where Rearden could not.

“The number of living automations within Lux has increased every year. The Society of New Engineers has never truly relented on the project. Automated servants with limited capacity for thought and direction are almost commonplace now. However, as you know Mr. Black, the project was created to give rise to fully functioning and thinking machines. When we issued our challenge, we never specified exactly what it was we were searching for. Both you and Mr. Dagny arrived at a similar conclusion and to that end you were both correct.”

Rearden found his voice again, “Then I fail to see the need for all of…this. My solution to the problem has provided a full production run of ready to use bodies. I have resolved the stability issues of the Life Crux and we have a ten percent success rate in activation of the units. We suspect that there is a further ten percent chance that the automation will achieve full sentience upon activation. I have brought you results and a methodology that is…”

Jayden interrupted him, “Complete crap is what it is. A one percent chance that the unit will fully awaken? Pathetic. I guarantee success not with one percent but rather with one hundred percents.” He grinned at his own mocking mispronunciation.

Rearden stammered, “Balderdash!”

The council president finally slammed a gavel into the dais to restore order, “Indeed. Just as you have stated Mr. Black, we can hardly believe this either. You asked for a reason as to why you have been called to question here? It is to reaffirm your claim to the position of Headmaster, to dismiss Mr. Dagny’s wild assertion, and we are doing all of this because Mr. and Mrs. Frasier assure us that we must.”

Rearden was beginning to understand. He observed the parts that had been brought before them. “Then this is to be a test? Our practices shall be observed?”

The council president nodded.

Jayden interjected again, “The sinister side effect will be to show off how you stole my design for the Life Crux. You don’t even know what you have here and I’m going to prove it. I know that you intend to weaponize these automations. If you had any idea of what you have stolen from me, you never would have gone through with it, you’d know that the intent of this is to further our understanding of life not to build some disposable police force. You have no idea what you’re playing at old man and I am going to prove that today.” This time Jayden spoke with outright anger in his voice. The way he had been carefully constructing his words fell away with that anger and his magi stood up behind him as if to reinforce the things he now said.

Rearden was still confused by the idea that anything had been stolen. Their work had been entirely their own. He had truly made no move to intercept, steal, or otherwise spy on the gifted but obnoxious engineer who now confronted him. Arguing the point was useless for now.

“We will see how this plays out boy. We will see.” Turning to the council, Rearden asked, “So I take it we are to construct and animate one creation apiece? We do this in full view of the council and then compare the results? I will agree to this. I have nothing to hide however, I believe it to be unfair that Mr. Dagny is employing the use of free-wielding magi. There is a discrepancy of power here that should be addressed.”

One of the Frasiers stepped forward. It was Thomas who now spoke to Rearden, “Mr. Black, as a principal matter of animating the units, the magi are limited by the weakest link in the collective. We will be using a novice wind mage on our side of things in order to achieve the balance of power you so rightfully pointed out. The abilities of my wife and myself shall not be a factor in the proceedings.”

The council president waited for Rearden to respond.

A moment of silence hung in the air before Rearden finally relented. “Fine. I can accept this. Let’s get on with it then.”

Rearden and Jayden were moved to opposite sides of the chambers and given the opportunity to select parts of their own choosing from the offerings at hand. The council and its observers kept careful watch as the two teams began their assembly of the automations.

Rearden and his magi assembled the automation with ease. In under an hour they had aligned the various limbs, tested the connections, and were beginning to install the Life Crux into the creature’s chest. This was the most dangerous part of the whole assembly as the Life Crux itself was constructed entirely of glass. While the complex design was not particularly fragile, it was not entirely stable until activated. Care was required to ensure that the contraption was not thrown off balance before it could be energized.

No mistakes were made by Rearden or his magi. Their process was efficient and their understanding of the mechanics were thorough. On the other side of the room, Jayden was having considerable difficulties aligning anything on the unit he was attempting to construct. Rearden looked on with amusement as his opponent struggled again and again, doing half of what his team accomplished in twice the time.

Rearden’s magi prepared for their next tasked. Each one of them took their place at one of the corners of the Life Crux that was installed into the automation. With great care, Rearden assisted them by filling the forth chamber of the Life Crux with a mixture of purified soil and salt. The forth element, earth, was always the challenge for those who engaged in this mix of technology and magic. Too much and the automation would be brought to life more as an animal than as a being, too little and the process would fail entirely.

Filling the forth chamber with purified soil and salt was the best any engineer could do. Rearden had heard rumors that the Society was beginning to experiment in ways to recapture the power of the earth element but for now the corrupted element was too far out of even his reach. Seeing that Jayden was only employing three magi as well, Rearden had to suspect that his opponent suffered the same limitation.

Before his opponent had even finished assembly of the unit, Rearden’s magi were preparing the ritual that would bring life to the automation. He stepped back to allow them room to work. Each one in turn placed a hand on the Life Crux and then grasped one of the other magi by the arm. As their elemental infusion began, magic circled the area in which they were working. The lifeless body that sat stretched out under them on a table began to tremble as their powers coursed through it.

The difficulty for the magi as they worked was to maintain an open and fluid channel of power, never too much or too little. They were forced to work by feel alone, watching for the tipping point where their forces were in perfect balance so that they might disengage all at once. Only by working wordlessly with a great degree of sympathetic energies were they able to identify this sublime elemental balance that was the very spark of life.

Even with their best efforts, success was measured in rare quantities. Nine times out of ten they miscalculated. The balance of life was a peculiar thing, like trying to calm a pail of water while walking with it. Failure was the norm.

However, today would see success.

Kiana, Chadford, and Brett stepped back from their work. Their elemental powers faded away and the automated life form sat up from the table. Its blank face turned about to look at its new masters with curiosity. Eyes lit up by some unknown power cautiously examined their surroundings and Rearden beamed with pride at the creation.

“Success.” He turned with smug satisfaction to the council. “Observe, even in its infancy this creature takes commands, understands language, and has the ability for rational thought.” Rearden directed the automation. “Stand up. Confirm that you are in working order.”

The automation stood up on the table it had been situated on. It was not the ideal interpretation of the command but Rearden ignored this. The automation began systematically moving each of its joints until it had displayed its superhuman range of motion. The council was duly impressed.

“Step down from the table. Greet the council members and shake their hands.” Rearden further directed the automation. It responded by jumping down from its perch and raising a hand to wave to the council. The living assembly of metal and magic then approached the council’s dais and without warning or waiting, reached out and took both hands of the president shaking them harshly.

Rearden was forced to tell the thing when to stop. “Of course it is only moments old. Learning takes time but is certainly achievable. As we improve the process the rate of successful activations will rise and our ability to install command sequences into the automations, a process I prefer to think of a verbal gearing, will follow easily enough. Ladies and Gentlemen of the council, as you can plainly see, we are in complete control of this process and have done nothing to betray Mr. Dagny’s confidence. Perhaps a simple instance of parallel and convergent ideas occurred and Mr. Dagny made the incorrect assumption about my intentions. I assure you, no crime has been committed here. Black Gears Corporation serves Lux with integrity and honor. We always have and always will.”

The council president looked over to see Jayden struggling to position the Life Crux in the yet unmoving body of his automation. He frowned with disappointment at the sight. “Mr. Black. It appears that this council, Mr. Dagny, and I personally owe you an apology for all of this. When matters that would shake our scientific resolve come about, it is the duty of the Society of New Engineers to call those matters into question regardless of the ugliness that might be found either in the question or the answer. Rest assured that tomorrow we will continue forward with our plans to appoint you as the new Headmaster of the Society.”

Rearden Black smiled. Vindication was his. This matter may have been degrading to him personally, but it was conducted in a private fashion and despite the implications that were thrown his way, he had once again come out on top.

Jayden spoiled Rearden’s moment of triumph. “Would you mind waiting just a few moments longer before coming to such sudden and ill advised conclusions?” He looked back down to his work and finally nestled the Life Crux into his own automation before regarding the others once again.

“Your assertion was that Mr. Black stole your technology and would not be able to properly activate the device. Your assertion was clearly wrong Mr. Dagny. There is nothing further to discuss.” The council president was about to make a final ruling.

Jayden exploded, “LIKE HELL THERE ISN’T! I don’t remember a time frame being set for this experiment and I would hardly call that preposterous puppet a successful solution to the living automation project. If you really insist that Lux needs a mechanized military force on its streets, fine. Make whatever deals and contracts you wish with Mr. Black. Your clever little challenge was to solve your greatest failure. While Rearden has resolved the matter of mass production, with my technology I might add, the real issue was one of life and everything that intangible element holds. The truth behind your challenge was to recreate Automation Zero and have it not go berserk.”

The others looked on with confusion as Jayden’s words began to reveal a hint of madness.

“I’ll show you who is truly fit to be Headmaster of this Society. Stand back. Observe while I reveal to you why the original craftsmen of the Life Crux referred to it with another name. Let’s learn why they knew this device as Pandora’s Crux…”

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