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The Duke of Uranium
A Jak Jinnaka Novel
By John Barnes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 John Barnes
All rights reserved.
The Dullest Lecture in the History of the Universe
TEACHER FWIDYA SAID you couldn't not dak the idea, because it was so central to the way everyone thought about the world, so naturally Jak Jinnaka tried not to even understand the idea. Jak was that way—tell him he couldn't and he'd try. Uncle Sib always said it was a good thing nobody'd ever told him you can't breathe vacuum.
Jak always responded that even if he did precess a little when people said "You can't ..." he was at least smart enough to do his challenging mostly in situations where that did not matter. And it could hardly have mattered less than it did in this situation. Philosophy and Religion Fundamentals Review was a class that you had to take, but you could be graded only on attendance. Theoretically it could help your application to the Academy but not hurt you. Jak specked it was a sinecure for teachers who really enjoyed hassling younger people with statements of the obvious.
Right now Fwidya was trying hard to get them to see that the Wager was important. Dujuv, sitting next to Jak, objected, "Teacher, isn't this kind of like saying that space travel, or fire, or the wheel, were important? I mean, we know that the whole solar system daks the Wager, it's about the only thing that holds the whole human race together, and we all know that the Hive is the center of the true version of the Wager, masen?"
"Everyone believes that they live in the true center of the Wager," Fwidya said, primly. He paced back and forth. This far up in the Hive, 650km above the black hole, the gravity was at 0.4. Fwidya probably didn't intend to bounce as much as he did, but he was a kobold, and the genies had never specked the singing-on ratio between control muscles and main muscle masses for that breed, so his overpowered, squatty leg muscles were always bouncing him too high in this classroom.
"Everyone, everyone, everyone," he repeated. Teacher Fwidya didn't have that habit of repetition because he was a kobold; he had it because he was pedantic, even if he wasn't a bad old gwont on the personal level. "Everyone thinks that they live at the center of the only true version of the Wager. If they thought elsewise, they'd move. Remember the Wager's very own Nineteenth Principle, the one that Nakasen always stressed as essential to success in life: 'Whenever possible, agree with those in power.' Now, none–theless, the Wager, despite its many, many interpretations, has allowed unprecedented peace through the simple application of the Two Hundred Thirty-four Principles. By now you surely must at least have learned that—"
They had, so they ignored Fwidya's ten-minute summary of the last thousand years of solar system history, and all the interpolated commentary about the Wager and about what Paj Nakasen had meant by it originally and what it had become. Jak drew a caricature of Fwidya, and showed it to Dujuv, who mimed dying of some horrible disease. The students nearby shifted their balance to make it clear that they had nothing to do with them.
It was their last twenty minutes of gen school. Because the grade was all attendance they had to sit through Fwidya's excruciatingly dull review of everything.
Fwidya talked about the Rubahy, and although everyone in the room had probably not had an hour since the age of two without being reminded that the war with the Rubahy had shaped human civilization, or that the aliens resembled a cross between a terrier and a feathered lizard but were in fact utterly different internally, or that their settlement on Pluto was always a matter of dispute and that many wars had erupted within the solar system over it ... Fwidya had to tell them all of that yet again. And of course he finished off by piously reminding them that though the Rubahy were very bad, it was bad form and ill-mannered to call them by epithets like "terrier" or to express the hope that they might all be genocided sometime soon, either in a war with humans or because the Galactic Court would sooner or later—probably within a few centuries—be ruling on the continuation of both species.
Fwidya went on to describe the fragmentation of planet-surface societies, the complexity of the aristocratic system, and the differences between the Hive and the Aerie, but said absolutely nothing that would surprise anyone.
Dujuv raised his hand. "Teacher Fwidya, you just told us the position of the Hive and the Aerie. You do that every time you mention them."
"You always tell us that the Aerie is at the L4 point, two months ahead of Earth in its orbit, and the hive is at the L5 point, two months behind. Right?"
"That's correct. Is there some point to this question?"
"Well, shouldn't all that be classified information? What if the Rubahy use it to target us?"
Fwidya gaped at him. Dujuv was a panth, and among the hundreds of genied breeds of human, panths had never exactly had a reputation for brilliance, but this was ... the kobold drew himself up with his full dignity. "By any chance," he asked, "do you have a bet down with your friend Jak Jinnaka as to which one of you can get me to explain the most trivial possible point?"
"'Principle 122,'" Dujuv quoted, "'Consider what use those in authority may make of the truth, and speak accordingly.'"
"Well," Fwidya said, mollified a little, "at least you know one of the Principles, and that's more than I would have bet. But on the off chance that the question was serious, the Rubahy have known exactly where both giant stations are for many centuries, and could hardly help it. The construction process that built a black hole here, at the center of the Hive, would be detectable at ranges of five thousand light-years, easily—"
Time crawled by. Jak couldn't make himself care about anything Fwidya said. Twelve more minutes of gen school. Then, at long last, they'd get their feets, and after a vacation, if they were lucky, the Public Service Academy, and a successful, adventurous life, and if they weren't so lucky, then at least a job and a chance to be a little independent. Dujuv was now miming a snake eating his head, or maybe a man who couldn't get back out of a drainpipe—Dujuv wasn't very good at mime, but Jak still found it much more interesting than Fwidya.
More minutes crept by. Fwidya branched off from the history of the solar system to give a history of science since Einstein and the whole human cultural tradition since Bach. Who could Fwidya imagine wouldn't already know this?
Fwidya began his concluding comments, "And so the key to understanding your own culture, and all the great changes of the past few centuries, is—" The period bell rang and the whole class bolted through the door.
"Could that have been the dullest lecture in the history of the universe?" Dujuv asked his friend as they stood at the Pertrans station. They had already requested a Pertrans car and at any moment one should emerge from the metal doors in front of them, glide onto the boarding track, and let them in. Meanwhile they stood with their backs to the station, enjoying the sight of a girls' slam-ball team jogging by in the wide corridor.
"Naw." Jak was emphatic. "He's what, a bit under two hundred years old? And he's probably given exactly that lecture three times a year for the last hundred seventy years, masen? What are the odds that that was even Fwidya's dullest lecture?"
"One in five hundred ten. People buy lottery tickets with worse odds."
"Good job, old tove. You're using those math skills they told us were so important, masen?"
Dujuv held up his right hand, then looked down at his left palm, where he wore his purse, the supercomputer in a fingerless glove that was as basic to modern life as a wallet or trousers had been. "Is there a record for the dullest lecture in the history of the universe?"
"I only have access to records for the solar system," the purse said. "Do you want me to check those?"
"Well," the purse said, "over sixty ways of measuring dullness have been invented, and for each way, a different lecture wins."
"Were any of the dullest lectures by any of those measures ever given by Teacher Fwidya?"
"No," the purse said. "No speeches of his are even ranked."
"That'll be all, you can go off-line," Dujuv said, and the purse said "G'night" and did. Dujuv squeezed his left palm, a little trick that many people did—having programmed the purse to like being hugged, they could reinforce it silently all the time, encouraging it to become a better and better purse. He dropped his left hand to his side. "Well, not only is Fwidya dull, he's also an amateur at it."
Jak shook his head. "So a failure all around. Speaking of that—let's think about ourselves. Do you want to check our scores now, or wait until we're at Entrepot?"
"Let's get to Entrepot, find a good place to sit down and eat, order food, and then check. Are you scared, Jak?"
"Toktru, yeah. Terrified."
"Good thing we never get too scared to eat."
The Pertrans car glided silently into position behind them, a face-to-face two-seater. The canopy popped open and the two toves climbed in, their knees almost touching. Dujuv said, "We want to go to Entrepot, what's the price for less than five?"
"Less than five minutes?" the car asked. This one had a warm, motherly voice.
"Which end of Entrepot?"
"Wherever there's the most food places."
"Southeast terminal, then. It will be two utils."
"Authorized," Jak said, before Dujuv could, so that the trip would be billed to him. Uncle Sib always seemed to just throw utils in Jak's direction, so Jak might as well spend them on his less-well-off friends.
"Please speak long enough to verify that the speaker-customer was Jak Jinnaka."
"Mary had a little duck,
She kept it in her bed,
And everyone that Mary—"
"Verified." The canopy closed. The car rose, the door to the Pertrans passage opened in front of them, and they accelerated onto the line; they would be at Entrepot in less than five minutes or the trip would be free.
"Amazing how it always stops you at that point," Dujuv said. "I mean, right at that syllable. Singing-on."
"Machines are very judgmental, is all. So it listens to as much as it can and then it stops me before I offend its sensibilities," Jak explained. "It's the same way that we sneaked into the school that time, by showing the camera those pictures—it was so offended it closed its eyes. As soon as we're legally adults—which is what, now?"
"About two hours. They have to verify that we went to Fwidya's last class."
"In two hours, then, we won't be children and the machines won't be offended by our bad behavior, and won't send complaints to our folks. I'm going to miss that. You should have seen Uncle Sib's face the time that Myx and I got caught—uh, I mean Sesh and I got caught—"
"Never mind, we're almost there," Dujuv said. "I think I heard this story already."
Jak thought, That was toktru stupid. Dujuv had had a crush halfway to forever on Myxenna Bonxiao, and would have gladly spent all his time gazing into her eyes and adoring her. Myxenna, for her part, was happy to have Dujuv's attention; the trouble was that she was also happy to have the attention of most of the heets she knew, and generally got it. Dujuv was loyal and generous except when he was insane, and Jak had just pushed the insane button.
Dujuv was a panth, and the genies had given the panths singing-on fast reflexes, intense attention, quick thinking, and great burst strength. He was Jak's toktru tove, and had always been, but now he was hurting. If he lost his temper at Jak ... well, an unmodified human against a panth was like a kitten against a bear.
After a minute or so of brooding, Dujuv's naturally energetic disposition won out. "Hey, so what are we going to do tonight besides celebrate?"
"You need more to do?"
"Well, we'll have a meal and go somewhere for some fun, but it seems like we ought to do more. You don't get your feets and escape from gen school every day. We could dance, or brawl, or maybe just go climb something."
"Let's not climb another light shaft, though, eh?"
That particular stunt had gotten them six days' house arrest last year. The light shafts mixed and carried the bright glow of the sunlight and the actinic blaze of the plasma around the black hole at the heart of the Hive, distributing it to skylights, sconces, and lamps throughout the gigantic space station. They ran out radially from the central black hole space to openings on the surface. In the shafts themselves, many thousands of little catchers—fiber optic-filled pipes with a mirror at the end, like one end of a periscope—jutted into the bright light, and it had occurred to Dujuv that if they got in through a service entrance, the catchers might furnish the hand and footholds for a good long climb. Since the sperical shell forming the Hive from the mirrored face of the black hole enclosure at the center to the outer surface covered with silvery pipes and domes, was about 1250 km thick, they were never going to be able to climb the whole way, but "We can sure see some interesting spaces and do some interesting technical stuff," Dujuv had said. "We can do it up toward the surface, in low gravity, so it's more skill and less strength. Come on, Jak, it will be fun."
Unfortunately, small bends and forces in an optical tube cause big distortions in the light coming out of it; furthermore, the boys had forgotten that their shadows would be cast for very long distances along the tubes. All over one big cone-shaped sector of the Hive, lights bounced and flickered, odd beams swept out from the sides of sconces and chandeliers, and many lights simply went out. The all-powerful Maintefice was flooded with complaints within a second or two; by the time, ten minutes later, when the pokheets caught the two boys, they had probably become the least popular adolescents since people had begun moving into the Hive a thousand years ago.
Jak and Dujuv sat quietly, enjoying each other's company, as light and dark flashed by the Pertrans car windows. Some unknown architectural genius in the Hive's construction agency, many centuries before, had thought to require viewports in the sides of the Pertrans tunnels, so that in nearly every classroom, shop, corridor, park, gym, or office—any space but a private home—you were forever seeing the flash of passing Pertrans cars. But since the cars moved at bullet speeds, the passengers only rarely saw anything other than a flash of light, and people in the spaces tuned out the brief flicker of a passing Pertrans.
Entrepot was about two hundred kilometers northeast of their gen school, and more than three hundred kilometers deeper within the Hive, so the Pertrans would have to take most of its permitted five minutes. After ninety seconds of near weightlessness, weight increased briefly to almost a full g. As the car slowed to make its turn, for an instant Jak and Dujuv looked through a viewport into a big public gymnasium, then into the amusement park under it, and finally into a warehouse below that. Then the g of weight became diagonal, feeling as if the car were climbing a slope, and then each viewport glimpse came faster and briefer, till it was all flashing lights again.
Just after it felt like they were on a steep downslope, the lights flashed more slowly and became glances through windows again, and the Pertrans glided to a halt at Entrepot. Jak opened the door and stepped into the annoying heavy; Entrepot was at .76 grav.
Dujuv planted his feet on the walkway beside Jak. As the canopy folded back he had grabbed its upper lip, swung out and up, done a handstand grasping the top edge of the door, switched hands, and dismounted in a somersault.
"Do you have to do that?"
"No, but I can. Decision time. Where are we going? Where's a good place to find out if we got into the PSA?"
Jak shrugged. "We need a place where we can both celebrate, or where we can both commiserate, or where one of us can pretend to be happy for the other one."
"Well, when I celebrate, I like to do it at a place with lots of food. When I'm depressed, I just want to eat. And anytime I have to conceal my feelings, I get nervous, which always makes me really hungry." Dujuv raised his left hand to his face, palm inward. His purse—the fingerless glove into which his computer was built—activated, casting a faint glow on Dujuv's face. "Where would we go for a lot of food cheap?"
"The same place you go four times a week, the Old China Cafe," the purse said. "Jak will have sweet and sour beefrat, and you'll have a triple portion of oyster fried rice and an order of fishloaf with Chinese vegetables. Authorize to pre-order? Or are you going to pretend you're having something else until you get there?"
"Pre-order," Dujuv said, laughing.
"Done." The glow vanished from Dujuv's face and he dropped his hand to his side.
"Toktru, you ought to do something about your purse's attitude, Duj," Jak said.
Dujuv shrugged. "I like some spirit in my purse, even if it's a little snotty. It's a good way to check and see if I'm an idiot."
"You could just ask your friends."
Excerpted from The Duke of Uranium by John Barnes. Copyright © 2002 John Barnes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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