Count to a trillion, p.28
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       Count to a Trillion, p.28

           John C. Wright
 

  “What do you mean?”

  “The matter was delicate, but not difficult, since time was on my side, not to mention public opinion.”

  “He’s not actually getting older. Seems to me he had plenty of time.”

  “No. This year is when the endless wealth must begin to come again, or come to an end.”

  “What does that—oh! There are one hundred years worth of antimatter left. Enough to last while an expedition travels fifty lightyears to V 886 Centauri, mines the star, and travels back, right?”

  “It’s more complex than that, since we are dealing with estimates of future use, but, yes, the fuel reserves which seem so immense compared to Earth’s energy needs, are small compared to the refueling time.”

  Montrose understood. Antimatter was also the ship’s fuel. The closer you crowd lightspeed, the greater the energy cost of accelerating the mass will grow—and grow asymptotically. The longer Del Azarchel waited, the less time was left, therefore the faster the Third Expedition had to be. And in this universe, speeds near lightspeed were astronomically costly.

  “Why did he wait so long?” Montrose asked.

  “Some years were consumed in wars of consolidation, some in constructing a new vessel—even with his wealth, not a small prospect.”

  “What was wrong with the Hermetic?”

  “You mean, why did he not simply ravish it from me?” Her eyes in the mirror looked over her own shoulder at him, flashing. “Two reasons, one better than the other. The worse reason is that Little Big Brother, the onboard security computer, thanks to you, still thinks I am the Captain, since I have the genes of Grimaldi in me. The better reason is that his heart is tender toward me, and full of rose-colored dreams. He sought my hand in marriage, and not my hate. Why plunder your own dowry? The computer is old fashioned enough—once again, thanks to you, you oaf—to grant husbands a superior right over their wife’s property.”

  “Ten years or twenty should have been enough to ready up another vessel.”

  “He could neither go himself nor stay himself, since he was trapped by his own ambition, and by his own profligacy. He did not trust anyone to stay and rule the world in his stead, and did not trust anyone to go and gather the wealth and power from heaven for him.”

  “But now—thanks to me, he can be in two places at once.”

  “I gave him a problem only you could solve. His work is in Artificial Intelligence, and yours in Neural Divarication Theory. So I made his emulation—he calls it his Iron Ghost—”

  “We met. I think he, or it, saved my life.”

  “I helped with the architecture. But I programmed in a flaw, so that Ghost Del Azarchel would get sick and go mad with the Montrose madness. Then I pretended not to be able to solve the problem, and waited. He knew, because you had partly wakened Little Big Brother to self-awareness, that it had to be possible. He knew you had solved it. Why couldn’t he? It drove him almost to madness.” She smiled to herself. “I waited. There is only one other daemon in the world, aside from me: and that is you.”

  Montrose spoke in a voice of slow horror. “Then the person you want killed—is me! You want this version out of the way so that the posthuman version of me can take over!”

  She laughed. “Oh, that would be funny! No, matters are not so overwrought with tragedy as that. I went through all these steps to give you this.”

  She drew a small gemlike vial from a fold in her skirt and tossed it lightly to him. He caught it, held it up. In the dim candlelight, he saw it had a folding needle. He realized that it was a bone rongeur, small and disguised as a piece of jewelry.

  “What do you want?” he asked.

  “I want you to take the cure. I have had it for years. In your initial Zurich runs, you made the classic compilation blunder, and did not scale up your lower nervous system to handle the greater stress load on your cortex.”

  “And this?”

  “It is the real Prometheus Formula, the one you did not know how to make.”

  “You had it? Why not cure me with this before?”

  “I had to work carefully when I was repairing you. If you were too alert too quickly, you would see through what Del Azarchel intended, and not help him with his divarication problem. So I had to leave you disoriented enough to do be willing to do the work, but oriented enough to see how to solve it. I discovered traces of your pre-posthuman personality buried in neural codes at the base level—the way a frog’s genes contains the pattern for a tadpole. It was not difficult to resurrect this you, your previous version, the one from before I knew you.”

  “You mean—he is not possessing me? I am possessing him?”

  “I suppose one could regard it that way.” She was done with her hair, and now she turned back, and favored him with another sunny smile. “In any case, at the same time, I maneuvered the Senior into programming into his emulation a neural divarication error of the kind I knew you already knew how to repair—you must have been suspicious that it was so easy to solve?”

  “No. I just thought I was that damn good. But I don’t understand! Why not just cure my brain malfunction and wake me up straight off?”

  “With the Senior Del Azarchel standing right by your bedside? I feared for your life. He is a dangerous man.”

  “Then why did you agree to marry him?”

  “As I said, he is a dangerous man.”

  3. A Personal Dragon

  Montrose looked back and forth along the walls, now ruined and covered with mathematical scratches. He was not sure what to think.

  “What were we just talking about?”

  She looked at him through the corner of her eye. “You can’t understand it?”

  “It’s the drug. The recipe for the Prometheus Formula. You reduced the entire Zurich run, what took a multiple-volume computer months to deduce, into a simple expression…”

  “Are you guessing, or are you recollecting?”

  He turned his back to her, since he did not want her to see his expression. Unfortunately, the mirror was right in front of him, and so he saw the look of anxious uncertainty—of fear—on his features, and in the glass she bestowed the twinkle of an impish smile on him.

  “I don’t know what or who I am anymore,” he said.

  She said, “Whenever my beautiful, great ship was in trouble, or my people faced a problem we could not solve, they woke you up. It was always fun, in a dangerous way, but only sometimes could we get you to listen to us, or look at the problem we put before you. You would bounce off the bulkheads and make me laugh. And then you would fix the problem, and save us. That is who you are. My hero. My manic-depressive hero.”

  He spun angrily, and caught her by the shoulders. “You are trying to trick me!”

  She looked thoughtful, and pouted. “Quite possibly. That is one of the things behind every man–woman relationship.” She shrugged her scented shoulders very slightly in his hands. “Do we have a relationship?”

  He let go and stepped back. “Stop toying with me. I cannot trust myself. Either of me.”

  “There is only one of you, silly man. And I have no need of feminine wiles—when speaking the truth, as befits a princess, will serve me better. Because you are convinced of a false belief that Mr. Hyde is different from you, you will debate in your mind for a time whether to trust that vial I gave you, or destroy it. But it does not matter, since I just here and now have shown you how to formulate it. Sooner or later you will realize that you are the Mr. Hyde, the lesser version, and your posthuman self is Dr. Jekyll, the greater. Your discontent with the human condition will drive you to enter into the discontents of the posthuman condition. Or your fear of Del Azarchel, and your need to be smarter than he. Or your desire to have a conversation with me, one to one, as equals.”

  “That’s the second time you’ve said you were above me, little lady, and I won’t stand it. I’ve a mind to turn you over my knee!”

  She raised an eyebrow. “Well, I am flattered by the offer of a spanking, but I am
your superior officer, and your sovereign, and higher on the ladder of evolution than you, and I have a fully armed starship, and several armed forces at my command, not to mention I can flick one of my hairpins up your nose. So any horseplay could turn out badly for you. Besides, what would my husband say if you assumed his privileges?”

  “Wait? If you are married, how can you be engaged?”

  “The marriage was not consummated, and my husband was not in his right wits at the time of the ceremony, which was private, so in the eyes of the law the oath is invalid.”

  “Wait! Plague and damnation, girl, are you talking about me? Did I get married to you when I was Mr. Hyde?”

  She fluttered her fingers at the ampoule. “Ask him yourself.”

  “Pox!”

  “Just one quick jab in the head. It should only sting a little. Well, actually, it will cause you blinding, unparalleled agony. Warn me first! So I can leave the room! I don’t want to hear you screaming while you are writhing and flopping on the floor like a fish. I do have medical technicians downstairs, who can strap you into a gurney. Be nicer for you if you took morphine first.”

  “Lady, I just met you! I don’t know you from Adam!”

  “Adam lacked a belly button. Or so it is said. You can distinguish me from him on that basis. No doubt he was taller than I.”

  “I am not sticking your pestilential chemicals into my nice new brain, not after Dr. Kyi just fixed me!”

  “He merely assisted. I did most of the work. So it is a little late to express distrust? Oh! And I forgot! That also makes me your physician, so you have to obey my orders. Will you break faith with me?”

  “I ain’t taking no orders from some dame half my age!”

  “Dame? You have severely demoted me, sirrah! I shall have my master of heralds contact your office in the morning.”

  She stamped her little glass-shod foot so that her slipper rang like a bell on the floor, and she looked so regal and so wrathful that for a half-second Montrose thought he had really offended her. But then she burst out laughing in a most unladylike fashion (although she did hide her mouth behind her slender silk-gloved hand as she hiccupped her way through a giggle fit) so that Montrose stood there, unable to decide whether to be angry or confused or to join in.

  His expression must have been uproarious to her, because the peals of laughter lasted a long moment. Her face was blushing a pretty rose-pink from the hilarity, and her skin was so delicate, that the blush of laughter went all the way down her throat, to her shoulders and down past her collarbone.

  It was a regular Texas sort of laugh. He decided he liked it.

  “Ma’am, don’t get me wrong. You’re the cutest little button on God’s green Earth, and smart as a whip, and I like your sass, and may Jesus beat me with a two-by-four with a honking big nail in it if’n I am telling a lie—but you also must be a little crazy. You think I am going to stick myself with some needle? And what hold you think you got on me? Why do you call it breaking faith?”

  “Is my sass showing? I must certainly speak harshly to my seamstress.”

  He tried not to laugh, but he shook his head. “Rania, Rania,” (how he loved saying that name!) “What are you thinking? What hold can you claim on me?”

  Now she was sober. (But still pretty and pinkish around the edges.) “None,” she said, drawing a shaking breath, and shaking her head. “It is the Monument that holds you. It holds me as well.”

  “Your own personal dragon. What’s that mean?”

  “Have you understood nothing? And I thought you were a genius.”

  “An unlikely stupid genius, I’d say. Didn’t no one tell you how I done stuck a needle in my head-bone?”

  “The Monument is my dragon for all the reasons we have said. I was born from it—you have by now deduced that.”

  It was a statement, not a question. He said, “Not hard to deduce. There weren’t women on the ship. But when did you figure it out?”

  “You ask, in other words, when did I deduce that everything said by the beloved fathers who raised me was a lie, and that the picture of my beautiful mother, the picture I held when I cried myself to sleep in my cocoon on C-Deck, was a fake? I was old enough to dissemble my reaction, but too young to be forgiving.”

  “How much of you is—homo sapiens? They used some real human DNA as a start.”

  “Ranier Grimaldi was my matrix. He is my mother, so to speak; I have had gene scans. I have his chin, his eyes, his love of truth. As for the rest of me, I am a chimera, an ugly ducking. Who can say what I will grow into? Someone else acted as my Doctor Frankenstein, my designer, and established my basic looks.”

  “Del Azarchel? He likes blondes?”

  That made her smile. She curled a finger around a lock of her hair. “No, I like blondes. I had the hue adjusted by RNA spoofing. If wolves and rabbits change their hairs for their seasons, to match their backgrounds, I may do the same for the social season, which is my surrounding. Do you like my eye color? I jinxed it to match my gown.”

  “Gah. My mom would not approve. She always said you had to stay as God made you.”

  “There is much wisdom in the notion, and much vanity would be foresworn if it were followed—but the conceit cannot apply to me. The Hermeticists are less than omniscient, even if I had good cause to follow their wishes.”

  Menelaus said nothing. He could think of a good cause why she should stop following their wishes, but he was reluctant to speak.

  Her face was dreamlike, distant, melancholy. She said softly, “Am I human? Sometimes, when I feel rain of April upon my face, or see the children playing chase, or wonder at the Arc de Triomphe or St. Paul’s Cathedral, my heart expands with emotions I know all my fellow humans feel. I cry at funerals and dance at weddings. Whatever was added to me did not subtract from that. Sometimes, when I see the cruelties and stupidities of the race, I doubt my humanity, and would gladly leave them all behind.”

  She turned toward him, looking up into his eyes. She continued: “But we all feel this way, at times, do we not? I am haunted by the doubts that haunt all young women, who wonder if any understand the great unexpressed truths they know. They wonder where the rainbow lands; they wonder if the air of spring was newly-made for them alone.”

  Her eyes were lovely, but he turned his gaze toward the floor. “You owe them nothing! They murdered your father.” His reluctance to tell her why she should stop following their wishes had lasted, after all, only a moment.

  “They also gave me life, the Hermeticists, and raised and cherished me. They sacrificed rations to feed me, and went hungry for me. So the matter is complex. I cannot in good conscience act against them. But I can serve a purpose higher than theirs.”

  He raised his eyes. “What purpose?”

  “I am born a messenger. Like you, I am a living emulation of a universal virtual machine, constructed following Monument logic-gates, and meant both to serve as a computing substrate and as a translating mechanism: I was born to read that Monument. I have no other purpose, really. And—can you understand this pain of mine?”

  “What pain, Princess?”

  “The Hermeticists did not translate something right, or a code was transposed, or the human frame is too small to hold what I should be. I am not suited to my purpose in life. The key does not fit the lock.”

  “What? What do you mean?”

  “I can’t read it.” She put her white-silk-gloved hand out toward the writing on the walls, toward the mirror. The mirror flickered, and displayed the concentric circles and angles and lines of alien hieroglyphs, a labyrinth of signs within signs. “I am broken. I was put together wrong.”

  And all of a sudden, she was sobbing and he was holding her in his arms, patting her awkwardly, and saying, “There, there.”

  It happened so naturally, so automatically, that it was not until he was embracing her that he realized what he had done.

  When a woman cries, you got to hold her: that’s nature. She rubbed her cheek on
his shoulder, and he raised his thumb to wipe most gently one tear-streak clean. But there were more tears.

  He knew he should not be kissing his friend’s woman. Del Azarchel was dangerous when crossed. But you cannot hold a beautiful and golden woman in your arms, her head tucked neatly just under your chin, and think such things for long. You have to push her away or hold her tighter, and you only have a split second to decide.

  Damn Del Azarchel! Damn the world! Was the world or its master any more to be feared than gun barrels?

  And he lowered his head and kissed her tears away, just as he was supposed to.

  4. The Proposal

  A tinkle of suspicion, soft as a spider, crawled through his brain. “Funny you saying you cannot read the Monument—you just were reading it now.”

  She was still in his arms, and she turned her face (sweet as the face of a child, and streaked with tears) up to him. “The simple parts. I cannot do what you do. I can understand your work, but cannot decipher the next step! There is more to the message, much more! The human race is not destined merely for servitude to alien machines in the Hyades! But I cannot read what it says next!”

  “Take your drug. The one you just gave me—”

  That made her squirm out of his arms. She turned her back coyly, and drew out a handkerchief to daub her eyes. “That corrects what is wrong with you. It adds supportive infrastructure to your midbrain and hindbrain. It solves the scaling problem.”

  “And what is wrong with you?”

  “I don’t know. My fathers did not know what they were doing when they made me. They copied your work, but not all of it, not correctly, not right. Will you help me?”

  With those words she turned again, and somehow her warm, supple, satin-clad body was in his arms, pressed up against his buckskin-clad chest.

 
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