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Sara Sklaroff…charming (if occasionally silly) post-apocalyptic western
—The Washington Post
Hundreds of years in the future, after the collapse of the Western world, young Menelaus Illation Montrose grows up in what was once Texas as a gunslinging duelist for hire. But Montrose is also a mathematical genius—and a romantic who dreams of a future in which humanity rises from the ashes to take its place among the stars.
The chance to help usher in that future comes when Montrose is recruited for a manned interstellar mission to investigate an artifact of alien ...
Hundreds of years in the future, after the collapse of the Western world, young Menelaus Illation Montrose grows up in what was once Texas as a gunslinging duelist for hire. But Montrose is also a mathematical genius—and a romantic who dreams of a future in which humanity rises from the ashes to take its place among the stars.
The chance to help usher in that future comes when Montrose is recruited for a manned interstellar mission to investigate an artifact of alien origin. Known as the Monument, the artifact is inscribed with data so complex, only a posthuman mind can decipher it. So Montrose does the unthinkable: he injects himself with a dangerous biochemical drug designed to boost his already formidable intellect to superhuman intelligence. It drives him mad.
Nearly two centuries later, his sanity restored, Montrose is awakened from cryo-suspension with no memory of his posthuman actions, to find Earth transformed in strange and disturbing ways, and learns that the Monument still carries a secret he must decode—one that will define humanity’s true future in the universe.
At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
“Wright is a born novelist. And Null-A Continuum is a novelist’s novel, bristling with ideas and characters…. Wright’s book is an erudite homage to the pulp tradition by a twenty-first century master.” —The Magazine of Fantasy & Sciencen Fiction
“Wright’s fully realized future pulsates with life, intrigue, and unsettling correlations between his future and our present. The story is epic, operatic, heroic, romantic, and mythic all rolled into one.”
—Rain Taxi on The Phoenix Exult ant
“[There are] scientists and artists who dare to dream of post-human futures…Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, Rudy Rucker—these are just the first names that come most quickly to mind. Add to this list of brave visionaries that of John Wright.”
—SciFi Weekly on The Phoenix Exultant
John Wright's heady, slam–bang Count to a Trillion starts out in such a milieu, before moving to far stranger places.
In the 2200s, the remnants of the fallen USA are ruled by the dominant powers of the Hispanosphere and the Indosphere. (The whole globe is a place of diminished expectations, still emerging from various plagues, wars, and Dark Ages.) Our hero, Menelaus Montrose, is a young Texas lad prone to dreaming about past and future glories. (He is particularly enamored with an ancient Star Trek–style show called Asymptote, whose catch–phrase is "The Future Is a Voyage Without End!") He grows up to be a lawyer specializing in out–of–court settlements: dueling to the death. But he's rescued from this harsh career by a patron who recognizes his innate intelligence.
After training, Menelaus finds himself on mankind's first new expedition to the stars. But something goes horribly wrong: he's put into suspended animation and is awakened after 164 years, when his condition can finally be cured. But this farther–off future is still not up to Menelaus's lofty dreams, and he sets out to do something about his disappointments, employing his mutant brain, Tex–Mex aggressiveness (cue the ring–tailed roarer antics of R. A. Lafferty), and his love for the beautiful Princess Rania, ruler of the galaxy –– or at least mankind's sorry portion thereof.
With his previous book having been the authorized sequel to an A. E. van Vogt series –– Null–A Continuum –– Wright is still flying high in the recomplicated space–opera fashion. This story is full of million–year–old indecipherable Monuments, ruthless hordes of cruel machines, and deadly intrigue among the merciless technocrats. But overall, Wright has toned down the surreal jargon and bizarre conceits this time around for a less–complex approach. He's plainly bent on emulating such straight–ahead past masters as Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, whose Golden Age sagas of Earthmen transported to the far future enchanted many a reader. Some Leigh Brackett–style planetary romance can be discerned here too. And Wright resonates beautifully with this tradition, modifying it skillfully for sophisticated twenty–first–century tastes.
But the book features one last layer: the meta–, or self–referential one. Menelaus Montrose is not a na?ve hero but rather what passes for an SF fan of his era. His first observations upon being revived are complaints about the lack of progress, including the semi–serious, "So no voluptuous green–skinned spacewomen in silvery space–bikinis?" He stands in for all those diehard fans who continue to believe in SF's bright futures and limitless horizons, despite any short–term roadblocks, however high and seemingly insurmountable. This theme aligns Wright with some recent thoughtful work by William Barton.
Count to a Trillion is both a love letter and a call to arms. If you really believe the future is a voyage without end, consider this book the start to the countdown.
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award –– all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
1. Bone Rongeur
Menelaus could not help but pause to inspect the bore of the bone-needle as he was raising it to a point slightly above and between his eyes. It was like looking down the muzzle of a loaded pistol.
He found that thought comforting.
2. Sailing Vessel
Menelaus I. Montrose was a young, brilliant, angry man of calendar age twenty-five, biological twenty-four, having previously spent more than half a year in suspension, while his family raised money for a surgeon. Menelaus was taller than average, with pale eyes and dark red hair that he wore cropped short, navy-style.
He had scars on his right hand from knife-fights, he had scars on his chest from gun-fights, slugs that failed to kill him, and shrapnel from near-misses. The muscles in his right arm were more developed than his left, from endless hours of pistol practice with the absurdly massive weapons of his day, giving his shoulders a tilted, crooked look. His cheek was lean, and his jaw was a jut, his nose a preposterous hook of crooked flesh, but his mouth was long and flexible, and the lines of tension that surrounded it hinted at the overlarge grin that sometimes usurped his otherwise deadpan face. His eyes were deep set into their sockets, giving him a strange, staring expression. The mirror convinced him no lady would ever find him handsome.
No one in the cabin of the nuclear-electric propulsion vehicle P024 was looking at him. The seven other men aboard wore helmets that restricted vision; and surely most had their visors down and tuned to the outside view, so that they could see the Earth falling away behind them, or the slim needle of the expedition hybrid ship growing slowly closer ahead, the Nigh-to-Lightspeed vessel Hermetic.
The inner view was nothing to look at. The punt’s cabin was a cylinder, with a pole of avionic boxes, hydraulic lines and fiber linkages running down the central axis. The men were positioned with their heads pointed inward toward this axis, their feet outward toward the “down,” three fore, three amidships, and three aft, like the snowflake of a flock of parachutists.
The three fore were Indosphere men, and aft of them were the non-Hindus, the Firangi: Menelaus and five men from the Hispanosphere. There was no advantage or comfort in sitting fore as opposed to aft, but the famous Hindu respect for caste required it.
Menelaus’s mother once told him that when the USA was strong, the rest of the world followed their ideals, and adopted a spirit of democracy. That spirit sank when the English-speaking world sank. Seeing the technological marvel of the vessel, something greater than any American space program had ever done, Menelaus doubted the great and ancient civilizations of Spain and India had ever looked to Texas, or the other, less important states in the Old Union, for inspiration.
Whether his mother was right or not about the past, these days, the low-caste and the Farangi sat in the back. Even the pilot sat in the back.
There was no designated cockpit or helm station, since the piloting controls were firmware carried in the pilot’s glove unit, and his readouts played over the inside of his helmet. The carousel was spinning, but centrifugal force was so slight as to be unnoticeable: it was more for the convenience of drawing dropped crumbs or styluses to the deck for the maintenance-crabs, than for the comfort of the passengers.
There were no windows, no portholes, marring the hull of the punt, of course. Such things were radiation hazards. Hull cameras could bring in a better view from outside, especially if the image was enhanced and labeled by cunningly designed software.
An enhanced view, for example, might show the drive of the NTL Hermetic as a streak of fire across the stars. Fictional, of course: The trail of ions ejected from the ship was invisible.
The ship had started her acceleration burn two months before, but her velocity had only accumulated to 8000 kilometers per hour. By spaceflight standards, this was a crawl, and high-thrust nuclear-chemical punts were still able to rendezvous and unload passengers and supplies for as long as the equations covering fuel economies might allow.
The virtue of the Hermetic was not her acceleration, but her specific impulse. For continuous years and decades, the ion drive need not be shut down. Her very tiny delta-vee could, for minimum fuel-mass, be snowballed into an end velocity rightly called astronomical.
The expedition was an all-male crew of two hundred ten hands and six officers. This was to be the last of twenty-four punts, each carrying nine men each: and the fuel cost of the rendezvous made this final flight the most expensive.
The nine men aboard this final punt were Earth’s acknowledged geniuses, the old sages and young prodigies of mathematics and linguistics. Earlier punts, over the last two months, had carried crewmen who also had experience as astronauts, technicians, and (since the ship assembly did not need to be complete before her long, slow drive began launch) zero-gee heavy-construction workers.
He knew that had he cared to look through his visor-view, Menelaus would have seen tiny sparks of light from oxy-acetylene torches flickering here and there along the hull of the Hermetic. He did not look for fear that he would be unable to look away. Menelaus was infatuated with the ship.
Fore was the armored sphere where the expedition would sleep. The cryonic materials would help stop incoming heavy particles, and medical coffins were programmed to repair continually cell damage from radiation.
Amidships was the wheel-shaped crew carousel to quarter those who would stand watch and age during the voyage. The watch duty rotated among the sleepers, each crewman slumbering for ten years, and standing watch for one. The officers had a different schedule.
Behind the carousel was the shroud-control house. Aft of this extended the many folded spars. The spars and members would, during deceleration, deploy the light-sail package that presently formed the main bulk of the vessel, gossamer-thin fabric wrapping the xenon propellant cells. Behind this was the folded silver of the mirrored parasol meant to shield the forward parts of the ship from laser radiation.
Farther aft, on a long and fragile spindle, were the many rings of the ion accelerator.
The NTL Hermetic was a bastard of sail and motor, launching under her own power, but carrying a breaking sail in anticipation that Croesus, receiving the millions of code-lines of radio-programmed instructions, would have constructed a working deceleration laser by the time the halfway point was passed. Since lasers do not disperse in a vacuum, the source and the endpoint would impart the same degree of counterthrust. Once in the braking beam, Hermetic could decrease the rate of her deceleration merely by adjusting the light-permeability of her canvass.
Behind the hybrid design was a political, not an engineering consideration. The world might trust Croesus-brain, fifty lightyears away, to build and fire an antimatter-powered super-laser potent enough in output to boil a planet like a poached egg. No one on Earth trusted his neighbor enough to have such a monster nearby. For that matter, no ship could trust any government, any institution, to shoulder such a huge drain of power, such an expense, for the quarter-century acceleration would last, without being interrupted by wars, depressions, disasters, or changes of policy. Unlike the Croesus-brain, men are fickle.
The NTL Hermetic was a beautiful ship, graceful as a work of art.
The hour was one that would never come in history again, an hour so many had predicted for so long would never come: Earth’s first manned expedition to another star.
The robotic probe Croesus had been sent seven generations ago, during the First Age of Star Flight. Had it not been for the Little Dark Age, the follow-up expedition would have departed fifty years later. Instead, it had had to wait until now.
Generations of dreamers had anticipated a time like this. The moment was indeed pregnant with all the hopes of Earthbound mankind. Why should anyone look at Menelaus Montrose?
His visor had been down, tuned to half-gain, so that the cabin around him was overlaid with ghostly images. One image showed him, not the famous ship he approached, but an inset displaying the distance from Earth. The little red line turned blue, indicating that the punt was in International Space. Unclaimed. As far as he was concerned, an experiment illegal on Earth was legal now.
Menelaus was sure no one had seen him break the Red Cross seal and slide the illegal needle out from the medical kit riding the thigh of his pressure suit.
But then he hesitated. For a crucial second, he stared down the bore of the needle.
Thinking of it as a pistol barrel was less frightening. More than once in his short life he had found himself looking down the muzzle of a pistol, and those events had not ended as badly as might be. He was still here, was he not?
He knew what to do when looking down a pistol-bore. Shoot first. Don’t miss. Don’t hesitate, don’t flinch, don’t regret. Call his doctors to come to the fallen man, whether the Regulators come or no. Amazing what they can mend these days. If the other man dies bravely, be sure to say so. If the Regulators come, say nothing. Even if they haul you before the dock for it, or put you on the gallows, say nothing. No gloating, no vaunting, no apologies, no explanations. If the Regulators don’t come, and the doctors don’t come, let the man have an ampoule of morphine, if he needs it, and cover his face with his jacket, if he doesn’t. Most men are thoughtful enough to wear a diaper under their trousers when they go to settle disputes Out of Court, because you never can be sure of walking away, and you never can be sure your bowels and bladder are empty, and someone will always take a picture with his phone, even if everyone swore not to (the little phones could be hidden in a ring, a pistol stud, a thumbnail, a molar). In a case like that, doff your own jacket, and cover his legs. Only polite. He’d do it for you. You can take his weapon, but you cannot touch his widow, even if she was the one who asked you to meet him. Those were rules he knew, and knew how to live by. Or die by.
This? This needle was the event horizon. An event horizon was a boundary where no information about the events beyond can ever reach, in the same way light can never escape a supermassive dark star. No one knew what was on the far side.
He had waited a second too long. Like a cricket chirp in his ear, he heard the punt pilot say, “My friend, what is this I see? Are you hurt? I have a ‘suit open’ light here on my board, and your medical kit is pinging a query. What are you doing?”
3. A Question of Intelligence
There had been no way to check beforehand, of course. Menelaus had relied on the black-market software package he’d bought in New Silicon Valley, the smuggler’s paradise. The Hindi security programs, as usual, had been more subtle than what Western science could match, more intrusive than what Western notions of privacy would allow. Everyone who talked about the “new global agora” or who said the Little Dark Ages were over still could not explain the gap between Indosphere and Anglosphere craftsmanship.
Menelaus’s internal suit status showed his helmet and medical kit still shut. But apparently he had fooled no one’s monitors but his own.
The pilot was a Spaniard named Del Azarchel. His first name was Ximen, which Menelaus could not pronounce, so Menelaus called him “Blackie,” a nickname that suited him in more ways than one. He was a mathematician of some fame from his studies of the Navier-Stokes equations, especially their application to logic-flows within analog computing structures. His work on the underlying mathematics of the Ship’s Brain was as important to the expedition as Montrose’s work on suspended animation.
The dashing young Spaniard had won all the tests in simulation back at Space Camp, humiliating older and more experienced Hindu candidates, and so he won the coveted duty of chief pilot. Piloting was the most delicate and demanding of shipboard tasks, requiring not only an ability rapidly to organize mathematical calculations, and perfect spatial visualization skills, but also the ability to do so under stress, in a short time, and in high and low gravity. Automatic computers could make possible, but could not replace, the human pilot; and the task was akin to shooting a bullet precisely enough to strike the face of a nickel spinning in the air without striking the buffalo.
Only on the punt was a pilot needed. The great ship herself would face no navigation problems Isaac Newton could not have solved: the simple act of accelerating in a featureless vacuum for twenty-five years, rotating aft-to-prow, and decelerating in a featureless vacuum for twenty-five years required no more piloting skills than a railroad engineer. Nonetheless, the honor would still be attached to his name: for the next century, even while he was in slumber, Del Azarchel would be the Ship’s Pilot.
He and Menelaus had been something of a pair of troublemakers together in space training camp, the facility in Northern Africa where the crew first met. It was not that the Hindus had deliberately shunned anyone; but somehow it was always these two, a Spaniard and a Texan, who found each other sneaking under the camp shock-wire during late nights off to go find a stiff drink or a pliant girl in the shantytown not far away, when the other astronauts-in-training were lawfully in their bunks.
Del Azarchel, with his droll smile, dark good looks, and silvery guitar could always sweet-talk the local girls into compromising positions, and Menelaus, gaunt and ugly as a scarecrow, could not. But Del Azarchel lacked a certain drive and boldness when it came to climbing electrical fences and breaking into Hindu pleasure houses where “Franks” were not allowed, and Del Azarchel needed Menelaus to inspire him to that extra level of gumption, the level where sheer cussed-mindedness outweighs common sense. They were a mixmatched pair, and Menelaus had not known him long, but he knew he could count on him.
So he whispered into the helmet pickup. “Amigo, I’m running a wild risk. Turn off the cameras! I don’t want no record of this.…”
“Off it is. My good friend, what the hot perdition’s fire are you up to, eh?”
“This is something I got to do. You behind me?”
“You must ask?” the dark, musical laugh came over the mike. “I stand behind you. Always.” Del Azarchel did not even bother to ask the details. But he had to add: “Always. Except when I am far in front.”
This conversation was still on the private channel. But at that same time, the shared suit channel came on. Another voice, this time of Dr. S. Ramananda, said in amazement: “What is this? Look! Montrose has an automatic bone rongeur in his hand! Are you going to perform surgery on yourself, Sensai Montrose?”
All the passengers were strapped to cots that could be tilted to various axes, depending where the combination of carousel rotation or engine thrust put the gravity-vertical. Only older models of punts still used seats. Under microgravity, there is no weariness in standing for hours on end, and cots were easier to fold or inflate than seats in any case.
Dr. Ramananda was overhead to the upper left, from Menelaus’s viewpoint, upside down. His helmet was not far from Menelaus’s helmet, but even if he had entertained the impulse to try to wrest the medical appliance out of Menelaus’s hand by force, the shoulder-harness and helmet of his suit were not built for stretching one’s hands overhead. Indeed, Ramananda had not (and could not) crane his neck to look “up” at Menelaus directly, but instead lifted a gauntlet, and pointed a fingertip camera-dot at him.
Ramananda said tensely, “What is in that needle, Sensai?”
The radio channel was silent. Ramananda was a high-caste Brahmin. Caste was not all-important on an expedition like this. Ramananda was here because of his work proving the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture relating to general cases of rank greater than one. But caste was not unimportant either. Respect for Ramananda’s status kept the others silent.
Menelaus could not take his eyes from the bore of the needle. It was like looking down a well. But the alert light shone green: It had selected the path through bone and brain calculated to cause the least damage. A flick of the thumb, the circuits in the needle would engage, and the needle would find the right spot and move of its own accord, and puncture his skull, and pump his brain full of neuro-pharmaceuticals.
“Intelligence.” Menelaus grinned wickedly. “Superhuman intelligence. The next rung up on Darwin’s ladder. I aim to be the first to hoist my buttocks up yonder, gentlemen. Easy as shimmying up a tree.”
But his fingers, five little traitors, trembled.
The ampoule contained a cocktail of totipotent cells, taken from his own gene template, with artificial ribosomes programmed to turn into neural tissue. The molecular cues had already been established, one cell cluster at a time over a series of months, here and there within his cortex and midbrain tissue, to act as anchor points for the new growth.
A second group of ribosomes would begin the manufacture of certain chemicals in his brain out of raw materials in his bloodstream: intelligence-augmenting agents. Here were the molecular codes to create phosphotidyl serine, which increased learning speed by improving special cells receptors; vinpoticene to increase blood flow to the brain; and phenytoin to improve concentration.
Here also were proteins to affect the brain’s ability to remodel its synapses. Other proteins to prevent calcium overloads would be released by reactions from his pituitary gland and medulla oblongata, as needed. The artificial proteins would produce other neurochemicals, whose functions were less well understood, but which had been found in the brains of geniuses—and also in schizophrenics.
A third group would rewire certain nerve-paths, linking cell to cell with strands of material more sensitive and conductive than natural nerve cells, but grown out of his own brain-material. Protected by redacted RNA messengers, the new material was part of what his body would think was his gene code. Even if wounded, the new pseudo-nervous cells would grow back.
But this was only what the ampoule contained physically. What it contained in reality was the unknown, an inexpressibly alien otherness. What lay beyond man, was in this needle.
And so he hesitated.
Ramananda said, “So. It has come to this. You will not abide by what was decided; you will not abide by what you agreed. Did you not read the articles before you signed?”
There was no surprise in the voice of Ramananda. No one in the cabin failed to grasp what Menelaus meant to do. During training camp Menelaus had argued that such a thing as this should be tried, had to be tried: all had heard him say, or, at times, had heard him rant, that more than human intellect was needed to decipher the Monument.
“I read the articles, sure enough,” said Menelaus. “Read ’em over and over. And if my recollecting is fair, what they say is this: Any member of the scientific arm of the expedition may perform experiments or investigations of his own devising, and at any time. Well, I pick right now for my time. Nothing in the articles said I had to wait til we reached the Diamond Star to start. And since I am not aboard the ship yet, not reported for duty there, I am not officially under Captain Grimaldi’s command: so even if you radio him, he could not tell me to stand down. I am square within my rights. This here is my first experiment.”
A soft voice murmured. “Ah. That’s what we deserve for inviting a lawyer aboard.” He was not sure, over the helmet radio, if it had come from before or behind, but it sounded like the voice of a Spaniard named de Ulloa.
Melchor de Ulloa was something of a lady’s man in his youth. The rumor that he and Montrose had a running bet to see who could get into more trouble with the Mission Commander during training was false, but the mere fact that the rumor spread showed how alike they were, how they had egged each other on. Melchor de Ulloa won fame for his solution of Hilbert’s Sixteenth Problem, dealing with the upper bound of the number of limit cycles in polynomial vector fields.
Menelaus was shocked to hear the scoffing voice of handsome young de Ulloa. It had been de Ulloa, during that last night when the six younger astronauts—Del Azarchel’s clique—had stolen out of camp together, who had practically begged Menelaus to smuggle some form of Prometheus Formula aboard.
Ramananda was saying, “This is a useless experiment! An illegal experiment! Are you attempting to revive the nightmares of Shanghai—those horrible children in vats the Chinese kept alive for so long, gargoyles with bloated heads? You have not separated your skull plates.”
Menelaus did not have a high opinion of Chinese neural science in any case. He said, “Phooey. The Zi Mandarins discovered ninety-nine ways how not to augment intelligence. This uses path redaction, not merely adding cell mass.”
“The Ephrin Topography Hypothesis? That method, used on pigs, resulted in severe nerve-tissue degradation.”
“Then I will be too plumb stupid to care about what I have done, eh, gentlemen? Any how, ’tis my brain to risk, that’s all.”
“But that is not all, sir,” said Ramananda solemnly. “Your course is recklessly selfish. You have been selected because the mission needs you! All mankind needs you! Do you think your aptitudes, your guna, were delivered to you merely for your own amusement and pleasure, to waste? We are engaged in a sacred quest for the ultimate knowledge! Circling V 886 Centauri is the library that holds, perhaps, all the secrets of a civilization thousands, or millions, or billions of years in advance of our own. If this expedition solves the major problems of translation, it will mean the future, an unimaginable future, a science so far in advance of our own…”
“An asymptote,” said Menelaus softly. “A change so powerful strange that no man can see beyond it. An event horizon.” More loudly, he continued: “Well, what if we are not smart enough to jump that ditch? Not bright enough to understand the invitation written out for us? The estimate worked out by Dr. Chandrapur.…”
“Nonsense! The established authorities have dismissed his work!”
Menelaus was not surprised by this reaction. He had seen Chandrapur’s estimate of the complexity of the Monument, and it was a fairly simple calculus to show the number of possible combinations of untranslated symbols, and to compare that to the known statistics on human brain use.
There was too much math, a whole little world of it, miles upon miles covering the surface of the Monument, and so little had been cracked: less than thirty square feet of it. If the Mandelbrot fractal structure of the alien glyphs extended, as the primitive tests carried out by Croesus seemed to hint, down into the microscopic, molecular, or even atomic level, the calculus was even more daunting. The number of years estimated even to read the thing, at the human civilization’s current level of computer information storage and cross-referencing ability … and supposing the library of symbols continued inside the volume of the black sphere, not merely a surface inscription … the estimated values fell outside of the likely lifespan of human life on Earth.
Chandrapur was only stating the obvious—but the scientific community did not like an idea so unflattering that their minds would prove unequal to the task, so Chandrapur was ignored, even though he could not be answered.
Dr. Ram Vidura, who was of the Vaisyas caste, descended from craftsmen and commoners, spoke. His work was in the Poincaré Conjecture. Even his brilliance in mathematics could not expunge the shame of his inferior birth. By long habit, his voice was diffident, soothing, placatory. “Sir, let us speak of practicality. I assume you are using a cascade of multireceptors with combinations of binding patches or epitopes that will transport, sort, and bind the lipoproteins to their target areas?”
“Correct,” said Montrose.
“The number of possible interconnections between the neurons in the brain is ten to the eleventh power, or ten to the twelfth. What are the odds that you happened to hit upon the correct combination of nerve paths to augment?”
“I used the Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum computer in Zurich, their famous Denkmalsymbollogik Mainframe, to do the pattern-solving,” Menelaus said. “We may not know what all the alien symbols mean, but we know some of the grammar rules for manipulating them. Well, sir, I assume the logic is just as sound for conclusions the alien grammar laws allow, even if our math cannot confirm the result. Ancient Greeks who did not cotton to the concept of the ‘zero’ would still have reached a correct answer if they multiplied ten times ten using Arabic numerals, wouldn’t they just?”
There was no murmur among the eight men in the punt, but in his helmet, Menelaus could see the text channels light up, as the mathematicians asked each other in silent finger-type about the ramifications of what they were hearing.
Menelaus continued: “Countless millions of designs were filtered through Zurich computer analysis, until the near-infinite possibilities had been narrowed to one. In other words, here in my hand is the output of the Monument’s own math.”
There was a moment of silence. Finally, one voice said, “It is not really a math, but a symbol-system that can apply to any logic set.” This was Dr. Bhuti, the only scholar older than Dr. Ramananda aboard the punt. His caste was the lowest in the caste system: he was a Sudra. His long-dead ancestors had been serfs, and so had his grandparents, when serfdom was reintroduced under theories of genetic work differentiation. Despite that his caste rendered him fit only for manual labor, his work in the extrapolation of Kronecker’s theorem on abelian extensions to base number fields beyond the rational had won him coveted manumission. His findings also had applications in the topology of algebraic surfaces.
He and Menelaus had played long games of chess in the early morning cool, before Reveille, the only two men who woke before cockcrow, back in Africa, where there weren’t any cocks. Bhuti was gentle-souled, thoughtful, the very opposite of Menelaus, and so they had become close.
“Fine. I used the alien’s own symbol-system.”
Dr. Bhuti nodded slowly. The white hair clustered above his ears had been shaved for his helmet, which he unchocked and removed, to allow him to turn his neck and look thoughtfully at Menelaus. His skull was as wrinkled and brown as an apple left out in the sun, and his eyes twinkled like garnets.
Bhuti said carefully, “Please, I urge you to delay your experiment. Wait! Wait until we reach the target star. By that time, new methods of analysis might be discovered back on Earth. They might build the Xypotech, the self-reprogramming artificial mind whose coming has been for so long imagined. Perhaps we do not need a posthuman to translate the Monument for us, no? Let us not explore this avenue unless it becomes needed.”
Montrose had no ready answer for that. He had been planning for so long to augment his intelligence at the first possible opportunity, the idea of waiting had never occurred to him. Menelaus blinked in hesitation.
Father Venture Reyes y Pastor raised his gauntlet. He was the ship’s chaplain for the seventy or so men in the Hispanosphere complement. He and Menelaus had spent many an evening engaging in disputes on every topic under the sun, and Menelaus was surprised to find the man was absolutely wrong on absolutely everything, from politics to religion to art to war. He was an entertaining and thought-provoking debater nonetheless, a ruthlessly logical thinker. His work was in the Poincaré Conjecture.
“This is an incautious dream you cherish, Dr. Montrose,” he said in his somewhat soft and breathless voice. “Consider: If the Monument is too complex for our race, then we are not meant to read it. This must be left for whatever race will walk the earth after mankind is extinct: all in the fullness of time. We are the products of evolution, therefore by definition we cannot be in a position to regard evolution objectively, reflect on it, or question its wisdom.”
Menelaus said, “Says who?”
The young priest answered, “That is what we must assume the Monument says—if it were meant to be read, it would be legible to us. To us as we are, I mean. It is wrong to meddle with nature.”
“I figure that without some amount of meddling, I never would’ve learned to read. Sure as hell that ain’t natural, squinting at squiggly lines on a piece of cloth and all. That Monument holds all the secrets of our future, gentlemen! And if a man h’ain’t got the right to take a few risks with his own brain—a brain I trained into shape without no help from any man in this vessel, I warrant—than what rights has he got?”
Sarmento i Illa d’Or spoke next. He was from the Hispanosphere, and, by the agreed-upon conventions governing in-cabin speech, he had waited until each of the Indosphere members had spoken. He had been a wrestler, a weightlifter, the only person other than Menelaus willing to use the Camp ring in the gym. It was only because Menelaus fought dirty, using illegal blows and holds, that the gym circuits had halted their matches. He and Menelaus, grimacing, smiling, and growling at each other, had privately agreed to finish the match some day, but that day never came. Sarmento i Illa d’Or won his berth for his work in the topology of algebraic curves and surfaces, particularly valuable since topology and knot-theory was the main avenue of approach of most of the Monument symbolism so far translated.
“Anglo, you go too far!”
“Ain’t I got the right to go as far as I can take me?” answered Menelaus.
“What is ‘right’? What is ‘wrong’? These are but airy words for pleasant and unpleasant. What you are attempting may well make life more difficult for us. You might be willing to risk, but we are not! We are mountain-climbers are roped together in one rope, and you might want to topple into the cold, but not I. With your brain damaged, you will be a burden to the expedition, to our cause.”
The voice of Sarmento i Illa d’Or held a strange note of relish. It was almost as if he were trying to say the exact thing to urge Montrose onward, while seeming to say the opposite.
He was also one of the younger men, a member of Del Azarchel’s clique. He had also been there, at that wild night of drinking and dancing and laughing, before the launch. He was the one, in fact, who had brought up Chandrapur’s analysis while they sat in a circle, drinking toasts and talking long into the night. When Menelaus proposed a toast to the intelligence augmentation—“we all know some poor bastard will have to risk afore we can read the Monument”—it had been Sarmento who had slapped him on the back (a little harder than strictly friendly) and said, “It will not be you! I will be the first to take the Promethean Formula! You Anglos do not have the cojones, eh?” Menelaus had pushed the cork back into his bottle, and hefted it upside down in his fist for a little glass bludgeon, and stood, but Del Azarchel pulled him back down into his chair, laughing, and told him it was just a joke.
Narcís D’Aragó spoke. He was the only other military veteran at Space Camp. The man had fought in the North African campaigns, beneath the skies gray with deathclouds. Montrose and D’Aragó had shared the unspoken bond that men in uniform had even when out of uniform, even when among civilians. He had been included on the expedition for his breakthroughs in the Linear Programming problem, particularly regarding strongly polynomial time-performance in the number of constraints and variables.
Menelaus was confident that this grim young soldier would back him.
“On the one hand,” D’Aragó spoke in a voice as colorless as ice, “anyone brave enough to bollix his own brain does not need to listen to anyone less brave. If we are not willing to face his needle ourselves, we don’t have a say in how he spends or wastes his life.”
But then Menelaus was disappointed to hear him continue, with no change of tone, “On the other hand, we are still a unit. Let us not waste a man whom the expedition needs. These things should be done in the proper order, controlling the variables, with a medical crew standing by. Captain Grimaldi is the senior expedition officer: He had not given permission.”
Montrose said, “By the letter of the law, he ain’t got no jurisdiction until we rendezvous.”
Narcís D’Aragó made an noise in his throat like someone tearing a handkerchief. “Then talk to Del Azarchel! He is the pilot here, and outranks you!”
Now Del Azarchel had rotated his cot so he faced aft. He was about two meters away, and was staring at Menelaus: he had strong, dark features, eyes that flashed greenish-gray, and the stubble of his shaven cheek gave his jaw a wolfish look. From Menelaus’s point of view, he seemed to be hanging like a bat upside down (if that word had any meaning in microgravity). He looked like a lazy panther, perhaps ready to sleep, perhaps ready to strike. His eyes were cold, but a half-smile seemed to play around his lips, as if this whole drama had been organized for his personal amusement.
The pilot said laughingly, “Gentlemen, why talk this little talk? We are involved in a great emprise, a bold expedition! Does Señor Montrose contemplate anything as dangerous as the great star voyage ahead, when we shall fling a two-thousand-meter-long space vessel at ninety-five percent of the speed of light into the pathless night? An asteroid the size of a small coin, striking us head on, would have the comparative velocity of a bullet from a supercollider: the energy would be like an atomic bomb. None of our odds are good. And when we reach there, what do we find? A puzzle box! A big dumb object! Ah, perhaps an intelligence test? Gentlemen, what happens if we fail that test? The universe is waiting outside the frail little walls of our bubble of air, indifferent stars in their billions, endless wastelands of empty vacuum. What if that cruel universe puts us to trial and we fail?”
Melchor de Ulloa answered, “But what will Captain Grimaldi say? Montrose, he is your friend: You will listen to him! You cannot just throw a friendship like that out the window—we all know you only got aboard this expedition because of your pull with Grimaldi.”
Sarmento i Illa d’Or said, “Well, maybe he should jab himself, then. He comes from one of those Anglo lands, where for three hundred years nothing is done but to dream of past glories.”
Melchor de Ulloa said back, “Discord is always caused by selfishness. We are a unit, like D’Aragó said. We have to act as one body. Captain Grimaldi is the head of that body. What can one member do if he does not consult the head?”
Del Azarchel flashed his white teeth in his wolfish smile. “Montrose! Consult only your mad and fiery heart! We are the Paladins of Charlemagne, the Knights of the Table Round. Our King is that dream we share: that dream to which we proffer our very lives! What other loyalty is there? We are the new people, the new race: the first interstellar men. Would you have the first act of our newborn species be hesitation?” His eyes blazed with wild emotion, and he called out: “Montrose! Are we not closer than brothers? Do not flinch! I will protect you, no matter what sort of monster you become!”
Montrose was staring with haunted eyes at his friend. Who had once likened the quest for the future to be like unto a knight-errantry? Montrose could not recall.
Ramananda said urgently, “Anything could be in that needle! So you said, Montrose! When you turn into the superman, the man after man, here and now, how can we trust you? We would be Neanderthals to you … or apes. You might treat us as a man treats his hound, with love and care, or a man treats a wolf, as a beast to be killed.”
Del Azarchel said triumphantly, “It is too late. See the look in his eye!”
“I will remember,” said Montrose. “I will remember my humanity.”
Sarmento said, “The Anglo will never do it. He is craven.”
“I ain’t no Anglo. I’m from Texas!”
Just like looking down the barrel of a pistol. Menelaus pulled the trigger.
There were dreams like water, waves that lashed and lapped at him, pulling him from dizzying fear to disorienting pain, and his thoughts flicked like little fishes and vanished before he could capture them. He dreamed he was falling in an elevator whose cable had snapped. But no, it was not an elevator, but a nuclear-chemical punt. He was surrounded by friends, Del Azarchel was there, but Menelaus could focus on nothing.
There were dreams of smoke, painted rose-hue clouds of ecstasy. In highest spirits, giddy with discovery, he was trying to explain Fermat’s Last Theorem to the people around him, and relating it to how the dust motes stirred by the airlock’s ventilation system glinted so prettily in the lights from the life support controls. The motions were not random, of course: He could see the wave functions involved in his head. But then he was distracted by his visualization of each particular motion of his tongue and throat, conceiving it as a fourth-dimensional tube function, merely a complex geometry.
He realized the inefficiencies of the idiom he was using, and he saw how a universal language of verb-to-noun formations was merely one more application of the zeta function, distributed over complex planes of two related variables. A much simpler language was easy to devise, with the two variables for nouns and verb correlation related to pitch and amplitude, and he began yodeling in it, sure that his companions would quickly catch on to the nuances.
Even this was not efficient enough: if he played with the airlock controls, he could get them to reflect and refract from the dust-motes to express even more channels of communication. Amazing how everything was so filled with meaning, so filled with mathematics. He saw a way of improving the efficiency of the airlock process. All he had to do was adjust the flow dynamics.…
He was quite lucid and reasonable when they hauled him, screaming in the harmonic pitches of a new language he had invented, away from the lock controls.
He was aware of being carried belowdeck, away from the axis. His weight increased, and he watched the stream of orange juice curve from a container to the cup meant for him, and the expression for the Coriolis forces acting on the stream glittered in his mind. Hands forced the nozzle of the cup in his mouth while he laughed and squirmed and broke their fingers between his teeth, and the molecular geometry of the medicines the orange juice hid he deduced from the sour taste on his tongue, and the complex expression for his tongue surface with all its intricate molecular niches.
When the morphine hit, his dreams grew clear and distant, and he was standing with godlike beings outside the universe, timeless creatures of light, gazing gravely down into a dark well from which no signal would ever return.
Other dreams were dull and gray as lead, and lingered on forever. He dreamed he was being buried alive, but no, it was not a coffin, but an icebox, for it was cold here, endlessly cold.
There were also nightmares, things as dark as storm clouds, vortexes of uncontrolled emotion and images of terror: images of being strapped to a pallet while the ancient Dr. Yajnavalkya, the ship’s surgeon, brought the whining drill toward the back of his head, and Del Azarchel floated in the near distance, his features gray and drawn with fear.
Then there were dreams like fog, where he could see, but could feel nothing, and he was merely an onlooker to the actions of some higher being that moved his thoughts for him.
He dreamed of the corridors of the great ship Hermetic. The engine room, when the magnetic line of the drive core was misaligned; the pump room, when the crew was running out of water, and a recycler had to be jury-rigged; the computer room, where the system had to be unlocked, before the life support batteries failed, and he had to convince the computer that the little blond girl was the Captain.
Other dreams, the best dreams, were clear as crystal, and his thoughts slid as effortlessly as a skater on black ice cut with white skate-strokes. Surely these were figure skaters, for the white marks on the dark lake surface were circles, sine-curves, angles, and triangles.
But no, it was not black ice. It was the Monument. The complex concentric circles of the alien symbols beneath his boots suddenly grew lucid and sharp, and the meaning of the signs was obvious.
He stood on or, rather, drifted with his feet pointing toward, the surface of a small moon, and the horizon was so close that the figures standing near him seemed to be leaning away. He meant to explain the layers of meaning to the suited men standing near, in clear and patient language, but something distracted him. For overhead was a blazing sun, too small and too dim, and stars shone unwinking, the vacuum to each side of it. The points of light representing the mining satellites were easy enough to distinguish (particularly now that he had mastered the knack of increasing the number of nerve-firings to his optic nerve), but the flare showed that his warning was too late.
Too late. He was proud of how clear and precise his language was, how he was oriented to time, place, and location, when he explained about the relationship between higher brain functions and the analogous mathematical functions that described bureaucracies in failing political-economy systems, closed systems of feedback orders that led to disaster. He explained to Captain Grimaldi about the reinforcement effects of the wave-functions of crew discontent reaching a node point, but when he touched his shoulder, the Captain rotated stiffly in the zero gravity, and his eyes were like small black buttons pointing in two directions.
Too late. He saw the little six-year-old girl writing out the orders. Her cursive writing was a small deviation from a single line: he could see the mathematical expression of it, and how it related to the Quantum Yang-Mills theory of the geometrical framework of elementary particle formation.
The computer system known as Little Big Brother pointed an optic pickup at the document, and the old men looked on in mingled hope and misery, their eyes hollow, until the mechanical voice box announced in its soft, emotionless, feminine voice that the command was legitimate. There were snaps like gunshots echoing up and down the inner hull as the locks on the coffins clattered open, rainbow-shining, like oil slicks their rich, dark, newly made biononanotechnological fluids, and at the same time, the shining screens of the contraterrene manipulations fields, dull pearl for so long, shined and came to multicolored life.
So often, so often, he dreamed of ice.
There were dreams of burning: Perfect spheres of blue flame hung in space, expanding slowly, with metallic oblongs at their hearts. He stood before the plotting board with the teenage girl, slender and coltish, and examined the spread of acceleration umbrellas for possible fire and counterfire. There might have been danger had the enemy found a proper launch window, but Menelaus could see it was too late. Too late.
But most of all, he dreamt of the Monument. It filled his thoughts. He was standing beneath the naked stars, the blazing sun above, on a worldlet not larger than a mile across; a world shining with meaning. THE MATTER-DISTORTION PROCESS KNOWN AS LIFE WHEN FOUND DISQUIETING THE MAGNETOSPHERE OF THE ANTIMATTER STAR … SUFFIENT UTILITY TO BE HELD IN INVOLUNTARY SERVITUDE TO THE IMPERATIVES … ALL OTHER OPTIONS ARE SUBJECT TO RETALIATION … PAIN … DEATH …
He tried to tell the slouching ape-creatures what it all meant, tried to warn them to stop the mining satellites, but they wrestled him down, and fed sedatives into his intravenous drip. Del Azarchel, bearded, unkempt, and lank from months of half-rations, and wearing the Captain’s uniform that in no way fit his frame, looked on with cold, tired, weary eyes, commanding his men to be careful.
COUNT TO A TRILLION. Copyright 2011 by John C. Wright.
Posted March 12, 2012
This book is exemplary of what science fiction is about. Big ideas, moral and philosophical conflict, speculation on how technology will develop... a space princess. Despite a fair amount of editing errors, and a sometimrs irritating accent on the main character, this remains well worth the read
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Posted October 9, 2013
A great read. It's satisfying just for the idea-filled adventurous vision of the future and the storyline. But the appreciation of
mathematics as a powerful language adds a layer of richness for those who know and love math.
Posted August 3, 2013
This book was way too confusing. I like the big ideas but it had way too much mathematical and scientific jargon. After a while, I did not care about the characters or plot because I was bogged down by all of the technical stuff. I was barely able to finish it.
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