John C. Wright burst upon the SF scene a decade ago with the Golden Age trilogy, an innovative space opera. He went on to write fantasy novels, including the popular Orphans of Chaos trilogy. And now he returns to space opera in Count to a Trillion.
After the collapse of the world economy, a young boy grows up in what used to be Texas as a tough duellist for hire, the future equivalent of a hired gun. But even after the collapse, there is space travel, and he leaves Earth to have adventures in the really wide open spaces. But he is quickly catapulted into the more distant future, while humanity, and Artificial Intelligence, grows and changes and becomes a kind of superman.
About the Author
JOHN C. WRIGHT lives in Centreville, Virginia.
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Count to a Trillion
By John C. Wright
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 John C. Wright
All rights reserved.
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.
Excerpted from Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright. Copyright © 2011 John C. Wright. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Swan Princess,
One: Intelligence Augmentation,
Two: Personal Sovereignty,
Three: Decentralized Conflict Resolution,
Four: Life Extension,
Five: The Brotherhood of Man,
Six: Intellect Emulation Mechanism,
Seven: Posthuman Technology,
Eight: Posthuman Alterity,
Nine: Extraterrestrial Conflict Resolution,
Ten: The Fatherhood of Man,
Eleven: Posthuman Humanity,
Twelve: A New Age Dawns,
Thirteen: Philosophical Language,
Fourteen: Posthuman Sovereign,
Fifteen: Equality of the Sexes,
Sixteen: The Concubine Vector,
Seventeen: Postwarfare Society,
Tor Books by John C. Wright,
Theft of Fire,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I can't remember being so disappointed in a book. I read about this book in John Scalzi's blog (he fairly regularly has other science fiction writers write about their "Big Idea") and I thought it sounded like something that I would really like. Hard SF, a message from aliens couched in scientific terms, how humans deal with that message, all those things that really tweak my interest. But in my opinion, what could have been a great story, was destroyed by a lack of attention to grammar and spelling. I would guess that at least once in every 10 pages there was an egregious error that leaped off the page at me. I came very close to putting down the book and sending it back to the library unfinished. But I wanted to give it a chance, to see if the story would overcome those editing problems. Sad to say it didn't. I felt like the author was trying to show how much smarter he was than me by throwing in every mathematical concept known too date. Maybe he is smarter than me but really smart people don't have to show off their intellect. And really smart people don't have males fighting duels while the women are safely asleep in their beds. Really smart people also don't say "ain't" and call women "girl". So don't make my mistake and fall for the reviews of this book (including one by a favourite author, Spider Robinson, who should be ashamed of the accolades he heaped on this book). There are many, many more books deserving of your attention.