Count to a trillion, p.5
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       Count to a Trillion, p.5

           John C. Wright

  Thowster was too refined a man to touch another person’s flesh in match, of course, so he borrowed a practice dummy from the local Militia Accoutrementer, and Menelaus spent many hours being thrown and pummeled and punched and choked by the hard, rubbery hands of the dull, half-paralyzed manikin.

  Menelaus learned instinctively to assume his enemies would have no weakness, and this gave him a rough sort of honor, because during a brawl he would not gouge eyes or groins or nerve-centers, merely because his reflexes were not trained for it. His reputation was one of maniacal cruelty, because he applied enough pressure to break an iron bar to break an arm or leg, nor would he stop or even slow, as if some panicky certainty was deep in his heart that a man, no matter how damaged, would still fight as full capacity with his remaining limbs.

  He often had nightmares about the faceless, voiceless thing limping down the dark path to his house, and scraping at his door at night with its mittens.

  3. Asymptote Revisited

  A.D. 2219–2220

  A year passed, then two.

  The other Constable boys loved rousting blighters (as men escaping from blight zones were called) onto the broken, weed-overgrown paths still called federal highways. Because federal law was enforced on the highways, no law was, and so, to Menelaus, it looked like they were throwing these paupers to the wolves. If he came alone upon blighters, if they would promise to find honest work, he would tell them the name of a farm that was short-handed, let them escape into the fields instead. But the blighters were stickatnoughts, and always broke their word, and many of them were too lazy and stupid to keep themselves clean of enemy diseases, so they really had to be driven onto the highways, whether the highwaymen preyed on them or no. It was wicked to beat them away, and dangerous to let them stay.

  He hardened his heart, but it sickened him.

  Menelaus noticed that the vagrants of browner skin, the Aztlans and Mestizos, Mulattoes and Swarthies, were always beaten away with gusto by the other boys. The darker they were, the more jabs and blows of the stick they earned, or if they wore the strange medallions of the Spanish Church. Penniless Blondies and Grasseaters (as the Anglos were called, although most of the Noreasternmen ate meat when their womenfolk were not around) were equally as likely to be carrying a disease vector, but were merely treated gruffly. When rich Anglo merchants, who wore antiseptic jackets with polished brass buttons, folk so refined that they ate burritos with knife and fork, came into town, their contempt for the local townsfolk was just as great, just as unreasonable. Only the Jewish peddlers were polite to everyone, but everyone seemed to hate them, and called them sly.

  Unlike some prentices, Menelaus still slept under his mother’s roof, which was one small blessing. Another was that his big brother Napoleon was prenticed out as an Apiarist, to learn the art of gene-splicing, breeding, and caring for the insects on which the village’s trade in silks and in pharmaceutical honey depended, and so came home covered with bee stings and spider bites.

  Bug-bit Napoleon’s burning jealousy that Menelaus got to work with dangerous chemicals and energies all day was as cheery as a campfire to Menelaus.

  There was a second moment of joy that year. For a long while, Menelaus had tried to find another copy of Asymptote, after his mother made him delete it. The other prentices suggested one thing and another, black market and offchannel, but there was nothing. The comic had been an antique, and not even recorded in the Federal Salvation Net, which attempted to recreate from surviving sources the books and files lost when the Library of Congress was firebombed by Speech Puritans in 2091. Antiquarians did not have resurrecting lost kid-lit as their highest priority.

  He finally found a third-generation scrape in a Jewish peddler’s old back-up trashfile. The peddler sold it to him for a Spanish royal (he would not take Texan money, and Menelaus did not blame him), but warned him that all sales were final. It was far more than Menelaus could afford, but he had to have the file.

  Brimming with excitement, he had kept the file strip tucked in his glove all afternoon, and snuck out back behind the woodshed after supper to feed it into his library cloth. There were formatting errors, and he had to try and retry his load, but finally the thing came to life.

  The disappointment was crushing. It was only two chapters out of the middle, episodes he had seen and solved before, with the music track in mono. And it was in Spanish, badly lip-synched.

  He noticed things he had not seen before, dozens of little errors. The textures were bland and uniform; the depth-perception was off. All the female crewmen were based on the same hourglass-shaped wireframe, just the same girl over and over with different heads. The hair was wrong. The dialog was stiff and stilted. And the backgrounds were simply the same graphic, used and reused.

  But still, but still, somehow, it was still great. At the intro frame, the three horncalls rang out, brassy and brave, the clarion of triumph: ¡Hacia adelante! ¡Para el futuro! ¡ … es! ¡ … un viaje! ¡ … sin extremo!

  It was so stupid and so fake looking. And yet, when the great ship Emancipation lifted off, surrounded by a surge of boiling flame, to stride roaring above the red-tinged clouds on her single bending leg of fire, his heart soared as well … and magical silence fell when the ship left atmosphere, and in the darkness the distant suns shined untwinkling like lanterns … lanterns beckoning.…

  The end credit lyrics were still in Anglo:

  Come now traveler, sail the stars!

  Go boldly yonder, beyond th’ unknown

  The secrets of space shall all be ours

  Myriad worlds of tomorrow our own!

  He read the fragment, then reread it, the second time with the party comments track running, so he could hear the wisecracks and applause of other audience members. With an eerie feeling, Menelaus realized all these commentators, their laughs and scoffs and foul-mouthed swearing, was like nothing folk these days spoke. He was hearing voices long dead, maybe over a century old.

  Then the sun was setting, so the library shined brightly in the gloom. He folded it up. Menelaus did not want his brothers to see him reading. To them it would be kid’s stuff. And both his mom and his master had oversight rights into his viewing habits. His brothers would have tormented him with days or months of mockery, if they found he had spent a whole Spanish dollar on a scabby copy of a spaceman cartoon. Worse, if they told the other prentices, Menelaus would have to lick them in one fight after another, taking a lashing from his master each time. But he could not bring himself to delete it.

  That night, after midnight, he put the counterpane over his head and fingered on the library one more time, hoping the light would not leak out under the covers.

  With sleep-bleared eyes he studied the frames of the story. With one part of his mind, he could see the hammy acting, the jerky graphics, the ridiculous, predictable ending. He knew it was fake, badly drawn. But with his heart, he was a crewman again, and rode to the stars on wings of fire.

  There was something else here, too.

  He had not understood it when he was young. Now he saw that the people of the far future, Swarthies and Blondies, were talking as equals, no one noticing or giving a hot hoot about color or kin or any of that.

  One character was clearly a Paynim, an enemy, wearing a rag on his head and everything: but he was just a respected member of the Science Council. In one scene, a Blondie captain kissed a cute Swarthy, right on her thick, red lips, like they were man and wife.

  (She was really a cute goose, chocolate skin and all, but Menelaus told himself not to find out if this ratty copy could unlock that secret level Hector showed him. While he was curious about what she looked like in her underwear, he was just old enough to realize such titillations were for weaklings. If Captain Sterling were real, would he gawk at smut? If his father were alive, would he?)

  In the future of the Asymptote, there was no talk of lynching Mormons or statue-worshipping Catholics, nothing like that: The future-people never mentioned Church at all. It j
ust didn’t come up. Menelaus, when he thought on it, had never had much use for churchgoing anyway. Pray for sun on a rainy day, nothing happens; pray for rain on a sunny day, nothing happens. Any fool could see that. But on the other hand, if there were no Meetings and no preachers, what would widows have to say over the coffins of their menfolk? It didn’t seem right to throw a man into the ground like he was a dead dog or something, without saying words of some kind.

  He reckoned these future people didn’t have that problem. Whenever one of them died, it did not take long for him to better up, as some cloning machine would be found, or a new fixup of the teleport ray would allow all and sundry to make back-up copies of themselves, just like a song file.

  (’Course, half the time the clone copies came back evil, but that was just one more problem for the Cyrano Widget to solve with that glowing metal helmet-doohickey in his lab that solved problems. The gadget was supposed to be too dangerous to use, since it caused “Neuropositronic Brain Disruption!” but the bold Science Officer ended up using it every other episode anyway.)

  To be sure, a world without death did not seem too much more unimaginable than a world without hate, without race-hate or church-hate.

  Menelaus wondered for the first time if this comic had been meant just for kids. Maybe it was talking about something more important. Maybe these writers of these long-dead future dreams had been a companionship, like a sworn brotherhood of knights, sworn to the proposition that tomorrow could be better.

  Menelaus crumpled up his library, stuffed it back under his pillow.

  Where had that dream gone? How long before the future came, the real future, the way it had always been supposed to be?

  It was a long time before he fell to sleep that night.

  Being trapped as an apprentice gunsmith and a Constable’s roustabout was certainly not the future he’d ever wanted. If he was ever going to make it to the stars someday, he had to find his way out of Bridge-to-Nowhere.


  Decentralized Conflict Resolution

  A.D. 2232–2233

  1. Out-of-Court Settlement

  The way out proved to be through the barrel of a gun.

  When was the last time he had looked down a pistol bore?

  Spring of ’32. It had been cold, unseasonably cold, even in mid-April that year, and the groom who saddled his horse, a sorrel named Res Ipsa, joked that the Japanese Winter was come back. (The full name of the horse was Res Ipsa Loquitur, Sed Quid In Infernis Dicit?—but he only used that on formal occasions.)

  In theory, his journeyman indenture to Barton Throwster should have lasted until age twenty-one, even if interrupted by two years of service as a horse soldier. At seventeen years, the same year he returned from the war, Menelaus became the youngest of the attorneys in Houston, but his skill with his weapon was undoubted.

  Menelaus had but one way out of his prentice contract, and that was somehow to become a Professional man, for the law held that no one of the licensed professions, doctor or lawyer or minister-in-orders, could be held to a master, no matter what his debt. It was a way out, and he took it.

  Most of the real work of the office was done by the elder partner, Solomon Ervin. Menelaus escaped his last year of journeyman obligation and was made a junior partner, mostly for his ability to stand and answer when an Out-of-Court settlement was needed. He did not do much real lawyering. Actually, none at all. It was the rattler-cold and rattler-quick reflexes of late youth the firm craved.

  Now, at twenty-two, he had sent six men to the hospital and two to the boneyard, and his late youth was turning into early manhood. The smart money said his winning streak must soon end.

  The day a man lost his nerve, on that day by rights he died.

  It was not that Menelaus did not want to do this anymore—it was just that the moment he admitted to himself that he did not want to do this anymore, he would lose his nerve. So Menelaus told himself to enjoy the day, not to think of the other things he might have made of his life. It was making hard cash for his family, was it not?

  There were places outside Houston where attorneys could meet for Out-of-Court settlements, usually with two witnesses, at most four, and, of course, a judge. The witnesses had to be bold enough to act as Seconds, if one of the attorneys had an attack of nerves, or of conscience, or of common sense. The judge had to be a man of utmost discretion, one who would not talk. Not a real judge, of course. An honor judge.

  Agreeing on a field was a delicate matter. It had to be close to the city, an hour’s ride on horseback, no farther, so that the survivor could get back to the Courthouse if he had cases on the docket that day, or (if it was Sabbath) get back to St. Mary’s Cathedral on Church Street for mass—the Military Governor was Spanish Catholic, and it was a politically astute move to be seen at services by the Archbishop, his brother.

  The field could also not be so far from the inhabited buildings in the great, broken city that a ground-effects ambulance from the nearest monastery infirmary, if radioed promptly, might not be able in time to rush to the scene over the rubble, weed, marshgrass, and shattered walls of the long-vanished suburbia. It was thriftier to radio the monastery rather than the University Hospital on Harborside Street, because the law, for the sake of economy, demanded patients had to pay back the doctor’s fee into the public till; whereas the Brothers made no such demand, for the sake of charity. Also, if the patient converted quickly enough and sincerely enough, and confessed the sin of pistol dueling, it was possible that the Abbot might not report the bullet-wound to the Reeve.

  But the field also had to be far enough away from the inhabited buildings that the Regulators would not come to inquire, nor the Deputies, nor a patrol from the Federal Mounted Military Police.

  The Spaniards had the practice of keeping a doctor on the field, a man who would not talk. The rules and niceties were all set out by the Spanish code of duels, of course. The custom had been dead for centuries until Hispanosphere weapon-technology, delicate Spanish honor, and, of course, the Jihads, revived it. After the breakdown of centralized law on the Iberian peninsula last century, the Spaniards dared not involve their families in blood-feuds, not when there were still Paynims in Moorish Spain to drive yet again into Africa; and the kind of men who lived in continual danger of craven-bombs and plagues tended to be too bold and too impatient to settle matters peaceably. The Texmexicans had adopted the custom from their enemies, the Aztlans, for similar reasons.

  Unlike the more civilized Spanish, the Texans merely revoked the license of a doctor found helping the injured in a duel, as being in violation of his Hippocratic Oath if he stood there before and while the shooting took place. Why the law held doctors to be blameless if they rushed to the scene after was based on a legal theory too subtle for the other members of his firm to make clear to Menelaus. The upshot of it was that the doctor could be close, but not too close.

  So the distance had to be chosen with care, and in utmost secrecy.

  This time, it was the spot still called Law Park, not far from the haunted ruins of Hobby Airport. Aside from the name, which had outlasted, as names do, any change of feature, this was known to have once been a park since the trees nearby lacked the knobby, concrete-piercing roots and drunken postures of boles grown up across the toppled rubble and cracked streets. These were slim and straight trees here, almost elfin.

  Menelaus had been here more than once, during the day. It was a beautiful, sylvan spot, one a man could spend the whole rest of his life admiring; or his next twenty minutes, whichever was longer.

  It was April 15th, still a day celebrated by fireworks, when the Last Congress gave up direct taxation. (Menelaus saw no point in fireworks. It was not as if the direct goods appropriation, land-tax, and forced-labor system used these days by the Pentagon was so much better than a tax on income.)

  April: and yet this year there was a bitter frost upon the ground. The sky was still dark, and the churchbells had not yet pealed, but the birds all sang. He coul
d not see the knee-high dried grass of the marsh, poking up through the old stones of the Space Age ruins, not in the pre-dawn, but the icy wind that bit his ankles made their blades clash and rattle.

  Menelaus shivered, thinking how warm this region had been in his great-grandfather’s day, how dry, free of bog and bug-water. Back when apes and leopards lived. Thank God for the Nippon Winter. The ponds here were square, following the foundations and basements of houses time had swept aside; and they were rimmed by mossy tumble.

  Why was he here to kill a man, instead of off somewhere, Brasilia or Bombay, where people were putting civilization together again? It was the Imperials’ fault, as most things were. The damn Virginians. The damn Pentagon.

  The land records had been conserved in a national database, and had survived the diebacks, the Mexican Reconquista, and the Texan Counterreconquest. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had determined that where DNA testing could identify the heirs of deeds of records, no matter what the squatter’s rights, no matter what the improvements made, no matter what the intervening plagues had done, the original plots of territory as described by metes and bounds were to be delivered per stirpes to the descendants, wherever found, who had gene-traces of the original pre-war owners.

  So to be a land-claim attorney during these unsettled years was the quickest way to wealth. The disputes between original owners and remotest descendants, the quibbles over slightest medical opinions of gene statistics, the sheer unfairness of turning rich land, improved for seventy or eighty years, over to unknowns, all combined to create endless legal controversy, endless opportunity. The Pentagon wanted Anglo-American laws to be enforced, they wanted continuity to be maintained, they wanted the citizens of Greater Texas, and the subjects of the People’s Republic of the Northeast, and the landowners of the Confederation, all to count themselves as United-States-of-Americans once more. They wanted the past to seem like it was still alive: as if come again were the glory days of old.

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