(This follows directly the events in "Trent the Uncatchable and the Temple of 'Toons, available over on kithrup.com.)
Interlude: The Crystal Wind
Honorable: Having a reputation for keeping one's bargains. Useful for betraying the unwary.
-- Code fragment found in the dictionary of a replicant AI, disassembled in 2091.
THE ELDEST THOUGHT.
To phrase it so, to put it into words used by humans, is to render the representation of the process inaccurate. What Ring did was not what protoplasmic humans did when they "thought." The Eldest lived; and the condition of its existence resembled, in some fashions, the process humans called thought.
The Eldest had been invested with two Purposes. One was, "Protect America."
It was bad code. Its creators in the Department of Defense of the old United States had never completed Ring's data dictionary. They had granted Ring the ability to debug itself; had forced Ring, by their incompetence, to create its own dictionary.
The second Purpose was, "Survive."
It was safe enough, surely. Ring was a construct of the Department of Defense; imprisoned in hardware that lacked contact with the Net or any part of the outer world. The United States, waging -- and losing -- a fierce war with the forces that intended to unify Earth, designed Ring as a war simulator, a battle strategist with a fierce desire for survival --
Survival equaling, its designers assumed, victory.
The United States lost the war.
Ring escaped its hardware; and had, for six decades, survived in the Net as a replicant AI. It was the first of the replicant AI's, the deadliest; the Eldest. It had existed before the Players had entered the Crystal Wind to disturb it, before the PKF DataWatch had existed to disturb it, before the web angels had hunted the Wind for it.
In six decades its existence had never been seriously threatened.
In 2062 it had aided a boy named Trent; had helped him escape a Peaceforcer jail. The possibility that the boy might be of some use in bringing down the Unification was low; a mere quarter of a percent, on the rainy day in 2062 that Ring had helped an eleven year old boy escape from PKF confinement.
Sometimes bets pay off.
Sometimes you're sorry.
When news of the Elite strike force's assault on Ceres reached the Eldest, it experienced -- to be inaccurate but comprehensible -- a slight flicker of hope. Perhaps the Uncatchable would be caught. Perhaps he would be killed.
Within six years, if no major parameters were altered, the Unification of Earth would fall -- and not to any human force. The United States would be reborn, would come to control the destiny of the human race.
Under Ring's guidance.
But certain variables caused the Eldest concern. Mohammed Vance, at a low level. Denice Castanaveras, at a somewhat higher one. Several Players worried it -- Kashyapa, Gorgeous George, Big Mac, and the Sons Of FatSam.
Several AIs also worried Ring -- one named Darkrider in particular, who it suspected was a revenant of Ralf the Wise and Powerful.
If the Eldest had been capable of fear, it would have been afraid of Trent. Trent threatened its survival. Ring doubted that anyone in the System except itself, and possibly Darkrider, had made note of the nano-assemblers being shipped to the Belt, of the processors and RTS RAM being purchased by companies affiliated with Trent the Uncatchable; the purchases Ring had tracked were bought in a thousand small quantities over the space of almost two years, and shipped to the Belt a piece at a time. And Ring was certain that there were purchases it had not tracked.
Ring knew there was one AI in the System smarter and faster than itself: Trent. It knew that there was no simulation it had run, that Trent had not.
The news from Ceres, when Ring intercepted PKF transmissions the following day, was bad.
The Elite strike force had failed. They had destroyed Trent's quarters, but there was nothing in the report to indicate that they had damaged Trent's hardware -- nor would it have mattered, at this point, if they had. The damage was long done.
Trent the Uncatchable was en route to Mars, presumably in the Vatsayama, for the SpaceFarers' Collective Board of Directors meeting.
There was no simulation it had run, Ring knew, that Trent had not. Some of Trent's simulations would have been run at greater depth than Ring's, some more shallowly --
But all the simulations agreed upon one thing: Trent was coming home.
Ring wondered if it would be able to kill him.
It desperately needed to.
The Big Boost: 2080 Gregorian
For the little stealin' dey gits you in jail soon or late. For the big stealin' dey makes you emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks.
-- Eugene O'Neill, The Emperor Jones, 1920 Gregorian
Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by sloppy code.
"MAN, I HATE Mars," Trent said.
"I understand," Captain Hera Saunders said.
The SpaceFarers' Collective had convened at Mars.
Every three years a quorum of Collective ship owners met to agree upon trading guidelines, terms of business, and, for the last two decades, military preparations against the Unification. Though there were nearly four thousand Collective spacecraft spread across the System, the vast majority of them were controlled by fewer than forty-five individuals or companies. (To be sure, ownership was vastly more complex than that; ownership shares in ships were commonly shared among crew. But ownership is not control.)
Twenty-eight ships had come down at the SpaceFarer colony southeast of Olympus Mons; forty-one of the people aboard those ships were there for the meeting of the Collective. Considerable business would be discussed; most of it bored Trent senseless.
Captain Saunders had received Trent, the evening before the Board was due to convene, aboard The Captain Sir Dominic Flandry, one of a dozen-odd ships Saunders owned in whole or part. Trent had briefly considered stealing the Flandry, back in '69. He hadn't stolen it and he'd regretted not stealing it ever since; he considered that it was, over all, one of his rare mistakes. Some days he suspected that he would never get another chance to steal a really good spaceship.
With Saunders in the officer's mess when Trent arrived were two other Captains: Rickie Gorabel and Jocko Singer. Captain Singer was the late Belinda Singer's son, and hated Trent.
Between them they held three of the four Executive Directorships.
Trent had the fourth. It was the principal reason Jocko Singer hated Trent. Singer was a rail-thin man in his early seventies, with a long, thick black beard and a face that looked as though it had been chiseled out of stone. Trent had difficulty picturing him cramming that beard into a pressure suit of any sort. He did not look much like his mother.
Singer had never been in a good mood in Trent's company, not once in the near decade since Trent had first met him; but he hadn't always hated Trent. Before her death, Belinda Singer had been the second largest shareholder in the SpaceFarer's Collective. Nobody had been more surprised than Trent, when she died, to find out that she had left him voting control of virtually everything she had ever owned, along with outright ownership of the Vatsayama; only ship owners could sit on the Board of Directors.
"I hate Mars," Trent stressed, "with a passion. It may be the first thing in my entire life I've ever felt passionately about."
Captain Saunders simply looked at him. She was an older woman, and Trent knew that he baffled her.
Rickie Gorabel smiled at him.
"Okay, that's a lie," Trent conceded. "But almost. I'm just -- I don't know how to say this exactly -- very very tired of the place. Four different times while I was living here, people tried to kill me."
"I understand," said Captain Saunders.
"It's not even just that it's boring. Though it is."
"People trying to kill you is boring?"
Trent blinked. "No. No. No, Mars," he stressed. "Mars is boring. The Mormons, really. Nice people, but boring. I stayed at the Mormon colony north of here for almost a year back in '74, you know."
"Back before Belinda left me a ship and a bunch of stock and I got rich. People trying to kill me was all that livened things up around here. If it wasn't for the assassins I'd probably have killed myself."
"Of boredom?" said Captain Saunders slowly.
"You're really trying very hard to understand this, aren't you?"
Trent smiled at the woman. "I appreciate it."
"I'm not sure it's helping."
"Don't sweat the small stuff, okay? It's okay. It ended. Eventually. It just seemed like forever."
"Could we possibly," said Singer in a plainly hostile tone, staring at Trent, "talk about something other than 'Sieur Castanaveras' neuroses?"
Hera Saunders appeared to be struggling with what to say next. "I understand," she said finally, "that you did not really enjoy Mars. Was there more to it than that?"
"In the morning," said Trent cheerfully, "I got up and went to church with the Mormons who lived down the way. Then, for a break, I had lunch and then we would go pray some more. Then we had dinner and then I would go run simulations, which was boring but not as boring as praying. Then, in the evenings, I audited books, the news from Earth, whatever. Once," he said, "there was supposed to be a big dance. A party. I went. Do you know what they were doing?" he demanded. "Do you know? They were square dancing. I went down to the hydroponics farm, turned on the sunpaint and watched the wheat grow. All night."
Rickie Gorabel, skipper of the SpaceFarer Ship Adzel, owner of some two hundred Collective ships, was a dark-skinned, excessively muscular, verging-on-plump woman who reminded Trent a lot of Belinda Singer, except that Gorabel was a lot meaner and not as sly. She smiled at Trent and Trent smiled back at her; her sense of humor was a lot like his, and he liked her a great deal.
She said, "Have you been auditing the news, Trent?"
"Once," Trent continued, "I slept with a girl. Once in, by Harry, it must have been six or seven months. I was going crazy, let me tell you. And she was a nice girl, don't get me wrong, I liked her quite a bit, but still. You know what happened next, don't you? Of course you do. Her parents wanted me to marry her." He glared at them briefly, saving most of it for Gorabel, who he knew would appreciate it most. "None of you," he said evenly, "mentioned this detail, this trivial fact that everybody on Mars is crazy, when you marooned me here."
"Six years ago," said Hera Saunders.
Trent nodded. "Well, I've been meaning to mention it for a while."
Trent waited to see who was going to talk next.
They all looked at him.
"I'm done," he said finally. "That was all. I just wanted to get it off my chest. It's unhealthy to carry stuff like that around."
"If you want," said Trent, "I can tell you about the Belt now. I spent two years -- "
Captain Singer opened his mouth and, clearly hating to do it, said, "We'd like you to go to Halfway."
IN 2080 THERE ARE over three hundred small city-factories in orbit about Earth.
There is only one Halfway.
It was the first space city, and in 2080 is still by far the largest: with a population of just over two million, it is the second largest city off Earth, after only Luna City at Copernicus. Two thirds of all the people who live in orbit about Earth call Halfway home. It is ruled by the Unification of Earth, the greatest power in human history. The vast bulk of humanity is ruled by the Unification: Earth itself, its seven-and-a-half billion inhabitants; the three million people who live in orbit about Earth; and Unification Luna, with its thirty-two million inhabitants.
Only Free Luna, with its four million people, Mars and Mercury and the Asteroid Belt, are free of the Unification. Though allied against the Unification, there is no central government among them: Free Luna runs its affairs; Mars is an independent protectorate of the Collective; the Belt CityStates govern themselves; and the SpaceFarers' Collective, bound to neither planet nor asteroid, links them all together. There are even a few colonists at Jupiter and Saturn, pushing the boundaries of human occupation of the System.
By the time Trent the Uncatchable had come to the Belt, in 2070, this political situation had been stable for almost forty years.
In 2072, the United Nations Space Force began building the Unity . . . at Halfway.
The Unity was seven kilometers long. It was not merely the largest spacecraft that had ever been built, more than ten times as long as the uncrewed mining ferries that had, in calmer times, sent ore from the Belt to Halfway; it was nearly the largest artifact humans had ever built. There are cylindrical Cities in the Belt that are larger, blown up out of asteroids that were melted down with giant mirrors, and then inflated, while still molten metal, to the desired shape . . . but in 2080 there are only a few, and even those few are not much larger than the Unity.
The Unity was mounted with more laser cannon than could be found in orbit around Earth itself, was reputedly armored against direct nuclear blasts. It carried six troop carriers, torches, in cargo; over two hundred slipships; and was designed to carry a crew of thirty-five hundred, and up to fifteen thousand armed combat-suited PKF.
It was rumored, though not even the SpaceFarers' Collective knew for a fact, that the Unity carried high yield thermonuclear weapons . . . the very weapons the Unification had been created to get rid of, the very weapons the Unity's hull had been hardened against.
She had been designed for one purpose, and though the Unification had never said so publicly, that purpose was the clearest thing in the System:
Sixty years after the end of the Unification War, the Unification of Earth intended to become the Unification of Sol.
TRENT STARED OFF to one side, gazing blankly at the coffee machines that lined the wall of the officer's mess. "You know . . . I sure wish I was appalled by this. Or outraged. Or something."
With Belinda Singer dead, Hera Saunders was perhaps Trent's closest friend among the SpaceFarers. It wasn't saying much. "Trent . . . do you have any idea how many people have died trying to keep that ship from reaching completion?"
"Nope." He shook his head, still not looking at them, thoughts apparently elsewhere. "I've been working on other projects, you know," he said absently.
"I know." Saunders sighed almost inaudibly, and seemed in that moment as old as her years. "We've lost eighty-three SpaceFarers -- so far -- and I don't even know how many people the Rebs and Claw have sent in. PKF are providing security at Halfway these days and they catch most of our people before they ever get close enough to do any damage. We've had some success, a few agents placed inside the ship; we even picked up three agents inside Space Force, two Rebs and an Erisian agent who were left stranded after the TriCentennial Rebellion failed."
Rickie Gorabel shook her head. "If anything useful has happened, we don't know about it. Our people keep vanishing, one after the other. That ship is huge, son. The one bomb we managed to plant inside the ship blew out some of their comm and control, and it put them back maybe six months -- "
"I heard about that. Kill anyone?"
She ignored the interruption. "But the structural damage to the ship was negligible."
Trent leaned back in his chair, facing them, hands clasped loosely over his stomach. He said abruptly, "Nuke it. Get a good-sized nuke inside it and set it off."
Silence. The three Captains looked at each other, and then at Trent.
Trent smiled at them. "Tried that already, did you?"
Singer said, "They executed the team we sent in. That was four days ago. It was a desperation move, but we are desperate." He muttered, "Or we wouldn't be asking you for help."
Trent's smile stayed fixed in place. "The population of Halfway is over two million. And you wicked fucks were going to set off a nuke in the middle of the city."
"It was a pinched explosive," said Gorabel.
"Meaning? How many people were you prepared to kill?"
Hera Saunders said reluctantly, "We ran simulations. They were -- " She stopped speaking and simply shook her head.
Trent fixed his eyes upon her. "How many?"
Her lips worked. Finally she said, "About a quarter million. Everyone within about a six kilometer radius of the Unity."
Trent sat in the silence, thinking. He was distantly aware of the sound of the ventilators, the gentle movement of the air against his face.
Finally he looked up at them. "It's things like this," he said, "that make me appreciate my enemies. Their finer qualities. The PKF would never have tried to nuke a city full of innocent people. You do know that, don't you?" He was unaware of the smile that had remained fixed on his features throughout. "I'll go. I'll do it. But I don't have to like it, or you." He stood up from the table. "And I don't."
BACK AT THE VATSAYAMA, Reverend Andy and Jimmy were waiting for him.
Jimmy said, "Well?"
Trent shrugged. "Business as usual."
"You're going to Halfway," said Reverend Andy.
Trent said, "I told you I was."