The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge
By Vernor Vinge, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2001 Vernor Vinge
All rights reserved.
I was a child in the 1950s, a little boy who could talk and write better than he could think, but who had a good imagination, and read everything he could by people much smarter than he. I wanted to know the future of science, to participate in revolutions to come.
Science fiction seemed a window on all this. I wanted interstellar empires (interplanetary ones at the least). I wanted supercomputers and artificial intelligence and effective immortality. All seemed possible. In fact, our technological success is ultimately based on intelligence. If we could use technology to increase (or create) intelligence ...
The first story I ever wrote (that sold) was a look at this idea. Instead of Artificial Intelligence (Al), I used Intelligence Amplification (IA). The means seemed at hand: After all (I thought) what is memory but retrieval of information? Why couldn't human reason be augmented by hardware? (Perhaps it's fortunate that at the time I had no technical knowledge of computers. I might have become discouraged, ended up writing really hardcore science-fiction ... about punch cards and batch processing.)
It was 1962. I was a senior in high school, and I wanted to write about the first man to have a direct mind-to-computer link. I even thought I might be the first person ever to write of such a thing. (In that, of course, I was wrong — but the theme was rare compared to nowadays.) I worked very hard on the story, applying everything I knew about SF writing. I put together a social background that I thought would make things interesting even where the story sagged: cheap fusion/electricity converters had been invented (that worked at room-temperature!), trashing the big power utilities and causing a short-term depression. (In a sense, this was a sequel to Randall Garrett's story, "Damned If You Don't." I admired that story very much; economic depressions were faraway, alien beasts to me.) And of course, there would be experiments with chimpanzees before the IQ amplifier was tried on my human hero.
Having thought things out, I described the plot to my little sister (a tenth-grader). She suffered through my endless recounting, then remarked, "Except for the part about the chimpanzee, it sounds pretty dull." What a comedown. Still ... she had a point. The chimpanzee story had an obvious ending. After it made me famous, I could write the important story, the one with a human hero.
John W. Campbell liked the chimpanzee part, too. (And unlike my sister, he got a kick out of the Randall Garrett references.) Eventually, he bought the story for Analog.
So. It's 1984 (as seen by a teenager from the early 1960s), and we have a hero with a very serious problem:
They knew what he'd done.
Norman Simmons cringed, his calloused black fingers grasped Tarzan of the Apes so tightly that several pages ripped. Seeing what he had done, Norman shut the book and placed it gently on his desk. Then, almost shaking with fear, he tried to roll himself into a ball small enough to escape detection. Gradually he relaxed, panting; Kimball Kinnison would never refuse to face danger. There must be a way out. He knew several routes to the surface. If no one saw him ...
They'd be hunting for him; and when they caught him, he would die.
He was suddenly anxious to leave the prefab green aluminum walls of his room and school — but what should he take? He pulled the sheet off his bed and spread it on the floor. Norman laid five or six of his favorite books on the sheet, scuttled across the room to his closet, pulled out an extra pair of red and orange Bermuda shorts, and tossed them on top of the books. He paused, then added a blanket, his portable typewriter, his notebook, and a pencil. Now he was equipped for any contingency.
Norman wrapped the sheet tightly about his belongings and dragged the makeshift sack to the door. He opened the door a crack, and peeked out. The passageway was empty. He cautiously opened the door wide and stepped down onto the bedrock floor of the tunnel. Then he dragged the sheet and its contents over the doorsill. The bag dropped the ten inches which separated the aluminum floor of his room from the tunnel. The typewriter landed with a muffled clank. Norman glanced anxiously around the corner of the room, up the tunnel. The lights were off in the Little School. It was Saturday and his teachers' day off. The Lab was closed, too, which was unforeseen good luck, since the aloof Dr. Dunbar was usually there at this time.
He warily circled about a nearby transport vehicle. Model D-49 Ford Cargo Carrier, Army Transport Mark XIXe. Development Contract D-49f1086-1979. First deliveries, January, 1982 ... RESTRICTED Unauthorized use of RESTRICTED materials is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, $10,000 fine, or both: Maintenance Manual: Chapter 1, Description ... The Mark XIXe is a medium speed transport designed to carry loads of less than fifteen tons through constricted areas, such as mine tunnels or storage depots. The "e" modification of the Mark XIX indicates the substitution of a 500-hp Bender fusion power source for the Wankel engine originally intended for use with the XIX. As the Bender pack needs only the natural water vapor in the air for fuel, it is an immense improvement over any other power source. This economy combined with the tape programmed auto-pilot, make the XIXe one of ... Norman shook his head, trying to cut off the endless flow of irrelevant information that came to mind. With practice, he was sure that he would eventually be able to pick out just the data he needed to solve problems, but in the meantime the situation was often very confusing.
The passage he was looking for was between the 345th and 346th fluorescent tube — counting from his room; it was on the left side of the tunnel. Norman began running, at the same time pulling the sack behind him. This was an awkward position for him and he was soon forced to a walk. He concentrated on counting the lighting tubes that were hung from the roof of the tunnel. Each fluorescent cast harsh white light upon the walls of the tunnel, but between the tubes slight shadows lingered. The walls of the passage were streaky with whorls almost like wood or marble, but much darker and grayish-green. As he walked a slight draft of fresh air from faraway air regenerators ruffled the hair on his back.
NORMAN FINALLY TURNED TO FACE THE LEFT WALL OF THE PASSAGE AND stopped — 343-344-345. The liquid streaks of pyrobole and feldspar appeared the same here as in any other section of the tunnel. Taking another step, Norman stood at the darkest point between the two lights. He carefully counted five hand-widths from the point where the wall blended into the floor. At this spot he cupped his hands and shouted into the wall: "Why does the goodwife like Dutch Elm disease for tea?"
The wall replied: "I don't know. I just work here."
Norman searched his memory, looking for one piece of information among the billions. "Well, find out before her husband does."
There was no reply. Instead, a massive section of bedrock swung noiselessly out of the wall, revealing another tunnel at right-angles to Norman's.
He hurried into it, then paused and glanced back. The huge door had already shut. As he continued up the new tunnel, Norman was careful to count the lights. When he came to number forty-eight, he again selected a place on the wall and shouted some opening commands. The new tunnel was slanted steeply upward as were the next three passages which Norman switched to. At last he reached the spot in the sixth tunnel which contained the opening to the surface. He paused, feeling both relief and fear: Relief because there weren't any secret codes and distances to remember after this; fear because he didn't know what or who might be waiting for him on the other side of this last door. What if they were just hiding there to shoot him?
Norman took a deep breath and shouted: "There are only 3,456,628 more shopping days till Christmas."
"So?" came the muffled reply.
Norman thought: NSA (National Security Agency) cryptographic (code) analysis organization. Report Number 36390.201. MOST SECRET. (Unauthorized use of MOST SECRET materials is punishable by death.): "Mathematical Analysis of Voice and Electronic Pass Codes," by Melvin M. Rosseter, RAND contract 748970-1975. Paragraph 1: Consider L, an m by n matrix (rectangular array — arrangement) of (n times m) elements (items) formed by the Vrevik product ... Norman screamed shrilly. In his haste, he had accepted the wrong memories. The torrent of information, cross-references, and explanatory notes, was almost as overwhelming as his experience the time he foolishly decided to learn all about plasma physics.
With an effort he choked off the memories. But now he was getting desperate. He had to come up with the pass code, and fast.
Finally, "So avoid the mash. Shop December 263."
A LARGE SECTION OF THE CEILING SWUNG DOWN INTO THE TUNNEL. THROUGH the opening, Norman could see the sky. But it was gray, not blue like the other time! Norman had not realized that a cloudy day could be so dreary. A cold, humid mist oozed into the tunnel from the opening. He shuddered, but scrambled up the inclined plane which the lowered ceiling section formed. The massive trapdoor shut behind him.
The air seemed still, but so cold and wet. Norman looked around. He was standing atop a large stony bluff. Scrub trees and scraggly brush covered most of the ground, but here and there large sections of greenish, glacier-scoured bedrock were visible. Every surface glistened with a thin layer of water. Norman sneezed. It had been so nice and warm the last time. He peered out over the lower land and saw fog. It was just like the description in the "Adventures of the Two and the Three." The fog hung in the lower land like some tenuous sea, filling rocky fjords in the bluff. Trees and bushes and boulders seemed to lurk mysteriously within it.
This mysterious quality of the landscape gave Norman new spirit. He was a bold adventurer setting out to discover new lands.
He was also a hunted animal.
Norman found the small footpath he remembered, and set off across the bluff. The wet grass tickled his feet and his hair was already dripping. His books and typewriter were getting an awful beating as he dragged them over the rough ground.
He came to the edge of the bluff. The grass gave way to a bedrock shelf overlooking a drop of some fifty feet. Over the years, winter ice had done its work. Sections of the face of the cliff had broken off. Now the rubble reached halfway up the cliff, almost like a carelessly strewn avalanche of pebbles except that each rock weighed many tons. The fog worked in and out among the boulders and seemed to foam up the side of the cliff.
Norman crept to the edge of the cliff and peered over. Five feet below was a ledge about ten inches wide. The ledge slanted down. At its lower end it was only seven feet above the rocks. He went over, clinging to the cliff with one hand, and grasping the sack, which lay on the ground above him, with the other. Norman had not realized how slimy the rocks had become in the wet air. His hand slipped and he fell to the ledge below. The sack was jerked over the edge, but he kept his hold on it. The typewriter in the sack hit the side of the cliff with a loud clang.
He collected his wits and crawled to the lower part of the ledge. Here he again went over, but was very careful to keep a firm grip. He let go and landed feet first on a huge boulder directly below. The sack crashed down an instant later. Norman clambered over the rocks and soon had descended to level ground.
Nearby objects were obscured by the fog. It was even colder and damper than above. The fog seemed to enter his mouth and nose and draw away his warmth. He paused, then started in the direction that he remembered seeing the airplane hangar last time. Soon he was ankle deep in wet grass.
After about one hundred yards, Norman noticed a darkness to his left. He turned and approached it. Gradually the form of a light plane was defined. Soon he could clearly see the Piper Cub. Four place,single-jet aircraft; maximum cargo weight, 1200 pounds; minimum runway for takeoff with full load, 90 yards; maximum speed, 250 miles per hour. Its wings and fuselage shone dully in the weak light. Norman ran up to the Cub, clambered over the struts, and pulled himself into the cabin. He settled his sack in the copilot's seat and slammed the door. The key had been left in the ignition: Someone had been extremely careless.
Norman inspected the controls of the little aircraft. Somehow his fear had departed, and specific facts now came easily to mind. He saw that there was an autopilot on the right-hand dash, but it was of a simpleminded variety and could handle only cruising flight.
He reached down and felt the rudder pedals with his feet. By bracing his back against the seat he could touch the pedals and at the same time hold the steering wheel. Of course, he would not be able to see out very easily, but there really wasn't very much to see.
He had to get across the border fast and this airplane was probably the only way.
He turned the starter and heard the fuel pumps and turbines begin rotating. Norman looked at the dash. What was he supposed to do next? He pushed the button marked FLASH and was rewarded with a loud ffumpf as the jet engine above the wing ignited. He twisted the throttle. The Cub crawled across the field, picking up speed. It bounced and jolted over the turf.
... Throttle to full, keeping stick forward ... until you are well over stall speed (35 miles per hour for a 1980 Cub) ... pull back gently on the stick, being careful to remain over ... (35 miles per hour) ...
He craned his neck, trying to get a view ahead. The ride was becoming smooth. The Cub was airborne! Still nothing but fog ahead. For an instant the mist parted, revealing a thirty-foot Security fence barely fifty yards away. He had to have altitude!
... Under no circumstances should high angle-of-attack (climb) maneuvers be attempted without sufficient air speed ...
Instructions are rarely the equal of actual experience, and now Norman was going to learn the hard way. He pushed at the throttle and pulled back hard on the stick. The little aircraft nosed sharply upward, its small jet engine screaming. The air speed fell and with it the lifting power of the wings. The Cub seemed to pause for an instant suspended in the air, then fell back. Jet still whining, the nose came down and the plane plunged earthwards.
IMAGINE A PLATE OF SPAGHETTI — NO SAUCE OR MEATBALLS. O.K., NOW PICTURE an entire room filled with such food. This wormy nightmare gives you some idea of the complexity of the First Security District, otherwise known as the Labyrinth. By analogy each strand of spaghetti is a tunnel segment carved through bedrock. The Labyrinth occupied four cubic miles under the cities of Ishpeming and Negaunee in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Without the power of controlled nuclear fusion such a maze could never have been made. Each tunnel was connected to several others by a random system of secret hatches, controlled by voice and electronic codes. Truly the First Security District was the most spyproof volume in the solar system. The Savannah plant, the CIA, Soviet IKB, and the entire system of GM factories could have co-existed in it without knowledge of one another. As a matter of fact, thirty-one different Security projects, laboratories, and military bases existed in the Labyrinth with their co-ordinates listed in a single filing computer — and there's the rub ...
"Because he's been getting straight A's," Dr. William Dunbar finished.
Lieutenant General Alvin Pederson, Commander of the First Security District, looked up from the computer console with a harried expression on his face. The two men were alone in the chamber containing the memory bank of United States Government Files Central, usually referred to as Files Central or simply Files. Behind the console were racks of fiberglass, whose orderly columns and rows filled most of the room. At the base of each rack, small lasers emitted modulated and coherent light; as the light passed through the fibers, it was altered and channeled by subtle impurities in the glass. Volume for volume, the computer was ten thousand times better than the best cryogenic models. Files Central contained all the information, secret and otherwise, possessed by the U.S. — including the contents of the Library of Congress, which managed to fill barely ten percent of Files' capacity. The fact that Pederson kept his office here rather than at Continental Air Defense Headquarters, which occupied another part of the Labyrinth, indicated just how important the functions of Files were. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge by Vernor Vinge, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2001 Vernor Vinge. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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