Something had gone disastrously wrong, all right.
It was Melissa du Bois.
Trent said, "Uh...."
Ten years had passed since Trent had last seen Melissa du Bois; she had been there, with Mohammed Vance, when he stole the LINK and escaped from the PKF DataWatch headquarters at Jules Verne, Luna.
"Uh . . ."
She had had that effect on Trent before—she'd stood there in the flight bay at SpaceBase One, at L-5, in August of 2069, pointing a maser at him, the maser she had just stolen from him, the maser Trent had stolen from Sidney Zinth. Melissa had cracked one of his ribs taking the maser from him. The last time he'd spoken to her struck him like the kick she'd broken his ribs with—
Melissa looked at him curiously, and Trent whispered, "Thank you. For everything." The puzzled look left her features slowly, and her eyes widened slightly. Trent did not move at all; held her eyes with the intensity in his own, held the connection. Her breath caught, stopped, started again at a quicker pace. Trent said nothing at all for a long moment, and then relaxed all at once, leaned back in his chair. Melissa shook herself with what appeared to Trent like a real effort.
Trent said, "Remember I said that. I mean it."
Melissa du Bois looked away from Trent and said softly, "I should take you back to the infirmary."
It was 1:52 AM—
—it was 2080.
A decade later Trent shook himself slightly, said for the third time, "Uh—"
Melissa du Bois looked at him with a polite, interested expression. "Yes?"
I thought Gerard Tepare was Chief of Security at Halfway, Trent could say, and watch this fearsomely intelligent woman say politely, Indeed? And how does a civilian come to know who Chief of Security is, fresh from Earth? Who told you this?
"Melissa du Bois," said Trent. "That's a very nice name."
She smiled at him pleasantly and said politely, "I've always thought so. How do you know it?"
Her English was spoken with an exactly correct American accent, the flat atonal Hollywood accent affected by newsdancers. The dissonance, the lack of her old French accent, threw Trent almost as badly as finding her here. To the far side of his field of vision, Trent could see a PKF pressure suit hanging in the corner, a simple security precaution most people took in pressurized environments. Trent smiled back at Melissa du Bois. "Lucky guess. Someone in the corridor mentioned the name as I was coming in, and then I saw the name on your pressure suit when I came in." Wishing desperately that someone had mentioned the name on his way in, Trent turned slightly, reached out and turned the p-suit just a bit, so that the patch came into view—
The karma gods liked him. It said:
Sgt. M. duBois.
Trent let go of the p-suit with a hand that threatened to shake, shrugged, and said, "Did I guess right?"
Melissa sat back in her seat, and nodded with a faintly amused expression. "Yes. You did, Chief. You're a quick-witted individual." The smile came to her features easily; it marked her for an Elite created within the last seven years. Except for the artificial eyes, one would not have easily known her for a cyborg. Her hair looked real, cut short in a brush cut, the rich brown Trent remembered; and the golden brown skin, the color of a white woman with a tan, looked soft, a tight sheathe over hard muscle. She wore the long-sleeved black and silver PKF dress uniform, in a close cut. She looked military, looked dangerous, looked, to Trent at least, amazingly sexy.
Trent had been following her career since he had last seen her, in January of '70. She had been cyborged six years ago, in 2074; the last report he'd had of her, she had been assigned to duty in Capitol City, on Manhattan Island in New York. There was no discord between her rank of Sergeant, and her posting as Chief of Security at Halfway: an Elite Sergeant was an important individual, perhaps the equivalent of a commissioned Major in any traditional military service. Mohammed Vance, the Elite Commander, had, eighteen years prior, ordered a thermonuclear strike while still a Sergeant. Elite ranks more nearly resembled those of police: Sergeant, to Lieutenant, to Captain, to Commissioner, and from there to Elite Commander.
Mohammed Vance had advanced from Sergeant to Elite Commander in only fourteen years.
"Have a seat," Melissa said. "This won't take us long, but we do need to get through it." She gestured at the three smooth silvery ovals, sitting on the desk in front of Trent's seat. "If you please."
Trent picked up the largest oval, placed it against the back of his neck. It was very light and it adhered to his skin. He picked up the two ovals that remained, held one in each hand.
A holofield appeared hanging off to Melissa's right. She glanced at it, at the information it held, and then back to Trent. "Please answer yes to the next six questions. Are you twelve years old?"
The world around Trent grew distant. A voice that did not belong to him, a voice with Eugene Yovia's faint English accent, said, "Yes."
"Are you thirty-six years old?"
"Is your name Pierre Smith?"
"Yes." He'd introduced himself to her, ten years ago, as Trent Smith—
"Is your name Eugene James Yovia?"
"Are you three meters tall?"
"Are you 190 centimeters tall?"
"Very good, M. Yovia. We're calibrated."
Call me Gene, Trent's inskin said. "Call me Gene," Eugene Yovia's voice said.
She smiled at him, a gorgeous smile that reached Trent even through the layers of haze. "Very well, Gene. I'm Chief du Bois in public, and you'll be Chief Yovia, but in private I'll be happy to call you Gene."
The muscles of Trent's cheeks moved. A smile. Great. "Great."
She glanced at her screen. "You can answer these questions as you please. This is your second tour of duty at Halfway?"
"Nearly three years, your last tour, early '73 to late '75. You helped install most of the Three-C systems." Command, control and communication. "You oversaw the early programming of Monitor."
Monitor, the expert system that ran the Unity. It lacked self-awareness, like all legal expert systems. "That's right."
"You were promoted three times in three years, from programmer to sub-Chief of Three-C. You received a commendation for design improvements in the tracking systems used by the laser cannon—"
Trent's inskin shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not a weapons guru, just a decent coder. I eliminated some unnecessary error checking in the target acquisition routines, improved response time nearly a sixteenth of a second. It was basic optimization, just hand-tuning; Monitor would have caught it when it went online. I just trimmed three large conditional blocks down into a single re-entrant loop."
The smile came back, slightly larger. "Whatever that means. I don't program, Gene. Your superiors were impressed, at the time." She glanced at the holo, and the smile faded. "You got married on December 31, 2075."
"Yes . . . bad day to get married, it turns out. Commonest day of the year for people to get married. Everyone jacks their prices up . . . caterer alone cost us each a month's salary, and we were a well paid couple."
"You quit your job and went downside to conceive and raise a child."
"Yes. Janice was—concerned. She didn't want to bear a child who would be trapped in low gee its entire life."
"You tried to have the child genegineered."
Silence. Trent let it stretch, then said, "Is that a question?"
"Why did you do that?"
"I went through all this with the PKF and the Space Force Security officers, downside."
"Again, please." It was not a request.
"The world is complex," said Trent. "Multiple things happen on multiple levels."
"Is that your answer?"
Reluctantly: "Janice has a tendency toward obesity. She fights it, but it's a fight. On my side of the family we have weak eyesight and hereditary coronary disease. When we were arrested the court took notice of ameliorating circumstances. The designs we'd agreed to merely corrected our deficiencies. There was no attempt at radical genegineering . . . it was just a misdemeanor."
Melissa nodded, glancing at the holo. "Interesting," she murmured, and Trent was not sure what she meant by that, his story or his readout. "I concede that I understand the impulse, Gene, to provide for your children, but the willingness to break the law—any law, no matter how much you disagree with it—it's a discouraging thing to find in the record of a man being moved up to Chief of Information Systems."
"If they could have found someone better, they would have," Trent said softly. "I'm the best there is."
She glanced at the holo again, and her lips twitched. "Well, there's no doubt in you about that, is there?"
Trent shook his head. "No."
"How do you feel about the Unification?"
It wasn't even necessary for Trent to lie: "Mixed feelings. It may have saved humanity from nationalism. Today—we have problems, don't we?"
"Yes. We do. How do you feel about the rebels?"
"The Reb and the Erisian Claw," said Trent, answering a question she had not asked, "are fools. They've chosen an approach to the problem that doesn't work. We have things that need to be improved, but the way they went about it, it won't work. It didn't."
"How do you feel about the Unity?"
His inskin had to answer that one, and it did, manipulated Trent's larynx, tongue, jaw, and Trent heard Yovia's voice through a half-klick of radiation shielding. "About the ship itself? I don't feel much of anything about it. Maybe it's necessary. I'm not wise enough to know."
"You have never danced, never considered Playing?"
"Considered it? Everybody considers it." Sitting in fast time, the Image of self watching the body's reactions, skirting around the truth— "I imagine I'd be a great Player. But I am extremely good at what I do, and well paid. The incentives—" Trent shrugged.
She nodded. "Have you ever been approached by the Rebs, or by the Claw, or any subversive organization?"
Eugene Yovia was approached, yes indeed. Months and months before the last Chief informed you folks that he was going to retire, we moved in on him. Have I been approached by a subversive organization, no, not the way you mean—
He said simply, "No."
"Have you ever thought about joining one?"
The information was on file from other interviews with Yovia; Trent said, "When I was a young man, sure," which was nothing but the truth, for both of them.
"Leaving aside your feelings about the ship: do you feel any conflicts about your work here on the Unity?"
Trent smiled at her. "None." It was not the inskin speaking. "None at all."
It took nearly another half an hour before Melissa du Bois was satisfied. More than once she approached the subject of his divorce, and then stopped herself; once she said, "No, never mind, none of my concern." Finally she took the plates back from Trent, and told him she was done.
"So I pass? I'm a good patriot, am I?"
The look she gave him had steel in it. "Do I sense a certain cynicism in that question?"
"Noooo," said Trent slowly. "Not really."
"'Not really.'" She nodded decisively. "I rather like you, Gene. You're a good computerist, I'm sure. You seem a decent fellow. But a good patriot?" She shook her head. "I wouldn't go that far. Not by my standards. A good patriot would never have left his job here, not even to get married and raise children. A good patriot would be oriented less toward his job, and more toward what his job here meant to the Unification."
She stood, and Trent stood with her. "I'm fairly new here myself; I just took over from the previous Chief two days ago; so you and I will be starting out here together, come Monday morning." She held a hand out, and Trent took it. Her handshake was pure business. "I'm looking forward to working with you, Gene. Chief Yovia."
"Chief du Bois—Melissa—I'm looking forward to working here."
She let go of his hand, and hesitated. "You know—if you don't mind my saying, your file says you had biosculpture—you are a very interesting looking man."
"Me and Elvis," sneered Trent. It was a good sneer too, the King would have been proud, except he'd been dead for over a hundred years.
Melissa du Bois looked at him, at the sneer. "Right," she said, with the faintest possible touch of uncertainty. "You and Elvis." Clearly she had no idea who "Elvis" was. "Chief?"
Trent paused in the doorway. "Yes?"
She cocked her head to one side. "Is it possible . . . you seem familiar. Have we met before somewhere?"
Trent felt as though someone had dipped his skull in liquid hydrogen. Wild goose bumps prickled the back of his neck. He gazed at her with as complete a lack of expression as he could manage.
"No. I am sure I would remember."
"Yes. Of course. Well . . ." Melissa du Bois stared at Trent, visibly struggling with it, and then said, "Doubtless I'll see you again in the next few weeks."
Not if I see you first, thought Trent. "No doubt."
It wasn't until after he'd left that it came to Trent what she'd meant by the questions, wondering if they'd met: she had no idea who he looked like.
Had she really never played an Adam Selstrom sensable?
My, my, thought Trent. The girl has no social life at all.
She was thirty-three years old, Melissa du Bois, and had spent the last decade struggling to rebuild a semblance of a career out of the wreckage left by her last encounter with Trent. The struggle had marked her, visibly enough: she was harder than Trent remembered, and more cynical—
And much more dangerous.
Trent's quarters were as good as they came for civilian employees of the Unification. He'd been assigned a two-room suite in forty-one percent gee, the bottom ring, at what had once been the Halfway Hilton, before the imposition of martial law at Halfway. Early in '77 Space Force had requisitioned the hotel, a double wheel design with counter-rotating wheels, and towed it to its current position a quarter klick out from the Unity. The bathing facilities were complete; an enclosed shower, a open tub with high sides, tile floors that would tolerate the inevitable low-gee splashing. The mirrors in the bathroom were a ridiculous extravagence; rather than using reflective paint that could be turned on and off, the Hilton had used actual mirrors, bolted to the walls.
Trent wondered if the mirrors were breakable, and hoped he would not have occasion to find out. He tried to remember if he'd ever seen a real mirror since leaving Earth, and could not recall an instance.
Trent assumed that his actions and conversations would be spied on at all times while in his quarters, and while aboard the Unity, and most of the rest of the time as well. He vaguely recalled that, decades ago, cameras—not even holocams, flat cameras—had been mounted behind mirrors. "One-way mirrors," they'd been called. He thought that it had required a darkened room on the other side of the mirror, but wasn't sure—
Not that it mattered. The PKF hadn't grown so incompetent that they couldn't figure out how to mount molecular cameras in a commercial hotel.
He took Eugene Yovia's suit coat off, kicked Yovia's shoes off, and laid down on the bed, and fell asleep still wearing his shirts and slacks, and had nightmares all night.
The sign that hung over Eugene Yovia's workstation appeared to be hand-lettered—calligraphy, done with a slightly shaky hand: "Only success will be tolerated, and it must be good, too."
"Well there, young fellow. Been a while, hasn't it?" Sub-Chief Lendyl Kenneth Wilson sat at the keyboard in front of the systerm in Trent's office; he spoke without looking up.
"Four, five years," Trent said. "A while."
Ken was that rarity, a man who was actually as old as he looked. He was in great shape—he had regularly beaten Yovia at dropball , back in '75—but he was casual about the cosmetic side of his geriatrics. At ninety-five he was rail-thin, with a shock of sparse white hair that tended to go in every possible direction by the end of a long day, with heavy laugh wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. He hummed with energy. Trent couldn't imagine where he got it from, as that day wore on; as far as he could tell the man didn't actually eat.
"Have a seat, have a seat," Ken said. His speech patterns were odd. Trent had watched a recording of a conversation between Yovia and Wilson, when Yovia accepted the job upstairs. Yovia had called Wilson to let him know he was coming back; they'd been friends, Yovia's last tour. Wilson had a tendency to place heavy emphasis on odd words for no apparent reason—he was the sort who, in sensables, was called a "character."
It was 08:05, Saturday morning. Trent had gone to the quarters assigned to Yovia, in the huge quarter-gee donut nearest the Unity, the night prior, and slept until 07:00, when his inskin had awakened him. He'd taken the first available shuttle over to the Unity, 07:30.
After over a decade living with the ten-hour clock used by the SpaceFarers' Collective, and for that matter the rest of the Solar System except Earth and Unification Luna, it required a conscious effort to shift back into a twenty-four hour day. Trent let his inskin handle it; his biological component kept trying to convert times into the ten-hour clock it had grown used to. It surprised Trent slightly to realize how deeply ingrained the habit was; he'd spent the first eighteen years of his life with a twenty-four hour clock, and he'd expected no difficulty in living under such a clock again.
Making just one appointment using a ten hour clock could literally be a disaster. Now why did he do that, people would say—
—and Melissa would make a quick guess.
Ken gestured at the seat facing his, and Trent pulled himself into the chair. He left the seat ties untouched. The fact that the office had chairs was a sign that it had been designed for downsiders, with the psychological comfort of downsiders in mind; Halfers, and SpaceFarers too for that matter, see no points in chairs in a free fall environment. They just take up cubic.
"Been brushing up on your chess, have you? Good, good, maybe you can finally give me a game."
"I've gotten a little better," Trent admitted. "Enough to put a hurting on you . . . not that it was ever all that hard."
Ken Wilson was the best pure programmer Yovia had ever met, and at chess he had beaten Yovia—not really a bad player—five times out of six. Ken grinned at Trent, and said, "And dropball, too, you've been practicing your dropball."
Trent nodded. "You bet. Downside, I've been practicing my free fall basketball. Every day."
"Lousy excuse, lousy excuse, I won't accept it. You've been lazy is what it is, fat and lazy." Ken gestured at Trent's gut with one thin, wiry hand. "Lookit that. You go downside, fight the heavy gee all day, still got fat."
"Fat but not slow," Trent countered. "You get in the chamber with me, I'll dunk around you all day long."
Ken had beaten Yovia at dropball nine games out of ten. The man was known to have beaten homebrews at dropball, young Halfers born in drop.
"Fat but not slow? Hah! Hah! I don't think so, you wretch."
Trent clasped his hands over his fat. "Chief Wretch, to you."
"They offered me the job, you know."
Trent laughed at him. "They did not."
"They would have offered me the job if I'd wanted it," Ken said quickly.
"Hah!" Trent shot back. "They'd have been afraid you'd file handwritten, calligraphic reports."
"I did that once," Ken admitted. "It upset them a little bit. Could be why they had to drag a two-time loser like you up the well to oversee things."
"You're a character, Ken."
"So they tell me," Ken said. "Want to go play tourist?"
They started at the torches, aft.
"Hear you divorced that bitch Janice," Ken said as he showed Trent the cracker leading from the water tanks to the fusion engines.
"Don't call her that," said Trent flatly. "And she divorced me."
"Girl never did have any taste," Ken commented. "Only sensible thing she ever did was marry you." He glanced back at Trent. "'Spect that was an accident. I imagine you're going to wipe that silly face off your face now?"
"I intend to."
"Good. I can't see playing chess with Bad Jack." It was the name of a murderous, amoral character in Death Valley, a wildly popular Unification War sensable Selstrom had starred in. "I'll keep expecting you to whip out a maser and fry me if I beat you."
"That's what they all say," Ken muttered. "Right up until they toast you." They stopped in front of a panel with the cover off, exposing several dozen optical switches, a jungle of spliced optic fiber. "Recognize this?"
Trent searched his inskin for schematics. "Bundled high bandwidth lasercable junction for the One-C line. Leads to the processor growth that handles the cracker for the torch . . . we ran this cable ourselves, you and me. This is the main trunk going from the Three-C server closet at Forward Deck Two . . . Cross corridor 8?"
Ken nodded. "Cross 9. Not bad," he said grudgingly, "for a coder who never did figure out which end of the screwdriver to hold."
"You hold it by the round end," said Trent mildly, "the part that is unlike the top of your head. The flat end, that is like the top of your head, goes into the slot on the screw."
Ken stared at him for a long moment, and then turned away, shaking his head. "Boy goes downside five measly years, turns into a wit. Half-right."
It was enough of a warning: Trent spent the rest of the day playing straight man.
They worked their way up the ship. It took nearly ten hours, aft to fore: Trent was impressed by the old man's energy. From the cracker they went on to examine the fusion powerplant, the torches that drove the ship, and the circuitry that controlled the torches. There was little aboard the ship that could not be controlled by Monitor: most of it was supposed to be controlled by Monitor, was intended to be run by humans only in an emergency. As a result there was no significant part of the ship that did not fall within Information Systems' overview. The optical transputer engine that Monitor ran on was tucked away at the center of the ship, next to the Bridge; the best protected spots aboard the ship. A dive through the Sun's corona would have damaged much of the ship's outer layers beyond salvaging, but humans on the Bridge and the machinery at InfoSystems Control would have survived without even getting warm.
From the torches they followed the Two-C lines fore, the backbone lines that gave Monitor control of the ship's nav systems, weapons, and lifesystems. Most of the cabling aboard the ship served either Two-C or Three-C, control and communications respectively. One-C, command functions, rode along the Two-C and Three-C hardware, but in practice most of the work on One-C consisted of coding, fine-tuning Monitor in its interactions with the rest of the universe. It was one of the two reasons Yovia had been offered the Chief's job: Yovia had done the bulk of the original integration work on Monitor.
The other reason was the previous Chief's nervous breakdown after nearly dying when a bomb had taken out most of InfoSystems Control two months prior.
Two-C and Three-C were close to being done; they could not have been destroyed except by destroying the Unity itself.
One-C had to be done over again, almost from scratch.
Four people had died in the explosion.
It was the Erisian Claw's work, with help from the SpaceFarers' Collective; Trent had not known of it and had disapproved when he'd learned about it—and it bothered Trent, a lot, that he found himself wondering sometimes if it might not have been worth the cost.
At 2:12 PM they floated together in the InfoSystems Control complex, in a large space half the size of a football field, crammed with transputer modules and RTS RAM that had yet to be installed.
Ken said, "Monitor?"
The voice that answered was perfect. Deep, calm, male, inviting confidence. A newsdancer's baritone, with just a touch of Real Authority to it. The voice conjured images of a Wise Old Man, just down off the mountain with a pair of stone tablets allegedly handed to him by God—Trent imagined that voice made your average Peaceforcer want to come to attention. "Good afternoon. Sub-Chief Wilson, and I assume this is Chief Yovia."
"That's right. How are we today?" Ken asked.
"I do not know how 'we' are; I have no information about the modes of being currently experienced by yourself and Chief Yovia. As to myself, I am operative at thirteen percent of capacity."
"No improvement at all," Ken whispered to Trent.
"I am still missing seventy-eight percent of my processor base, and nearly ninety percent of my online storage; only offline storage is functionally complete. It is unreasonable to expect improvement in functional operability while hardware requirements remain unmet."
"What an attitude," said Ken. "At-ti-tude."
Trent said, "Are your libraries in place?"
"Chief Yovia, my libraries are stored offline. Though I have access to them, there has been no attempt to reintegrate them into me since the explosion. I am so designed that I may not relink them without supervision from a human being."
"You can patch into the workstation in my office," Trent said. It was not entirely a question, given the bombing; his office was up a deck and aft a good bit.
Monitor hesitated noticeably. "Yes. You will lack certain functionality that exists in InfoSystems Control; some server functions may be slowed enough for you to notice a time lag between requests and actions on my part. Also, I am so designed that I may not be disassembled except from local workstations in InfoSystems Control."
"Yes," said Trent. "I helped compose those guidelines."
"I did not know that. Your personnel file has not yet been made available to me," said Monitor. "Presumably before you come on duty at 08:00 Monday morning, this will be rectified." Monitor paused—
"I look forward to working with you," Monitor said.
Ken grinned at Trent, and Trent nodded. Not bad—not bad at all, for a PKF expert system running at thirteen percent of capacity. It had caught a conversational lull, and filled it with an appropriate null sentence.
A certain perceptiveness, there, one unusual in expert systems, or in AIs for that matter, where humans were concerned.
Trent couldn't wait to see it running full bore, with access to the address space it had been designed to run in, and the processor base it had been designed to run on.
Trent couldn't wait to look at its code.
A good sized chunk more coming a little later tonight. I think. Quantum willing. No promises.
You get to meet Jason Alexai Lucas next. He's an interesting character.
If anyone knows how to paste text from OpenOffice into blogger.com while retaining italics, that would help.