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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.
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JOHN C. WRIGHT lives in Centreville, Virginia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. 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,...
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