Lone Soldier in Paradise


By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ’ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ’eroes” when the drums begin to roll—

— Rudyard (Sole) Kipling
Unmodified & Uncomposed, Base Neuroform
(Era of the Second Mental Structure)

Table of Contents so far

*** *** ***

Era of the Seventh Mental Structure

One: Counting the Hours

The last soldier left on Earth sat cross-legged on the deck of his porch of his cabin in the hills, counting the small handful of second and hours he had left. Then he sighed, closing his eyes, and let his limp hand fall. Out from his fingers fell the time coins, glittering in the sun as they spun, and rang to the deck.

He had a body so traditional that he might have stepped off the pedestal of a Roman statue, with short-cropped hair and a calm, quiet face. His name was Atkins.

The cabin was not entirely unintelligent. The walls could be dilated, as they were now, and opened to the autumn wind. The floor, likewise, could vanish, to reveal the living-pool beneath. Below the surface of the pool rested the long pale box in which he kept his wife-doll.

To either side of him stood a ghost.

One projection was a tall shadow crowned by a bronze-age Greek helmet, with plumes like black mist nodding above it. In one hand was a shadow of a spear, faint as a moon-beam, which had also, long ago, lost all power to hurt.

Atkins said to the first ghost: “I don’t see any reason why they keep me alive. They have more than enough recordings and partial versions of me in the Earthmind, recordings of thousands of other soldiers, or historical reconstructions from pre-recording eras, like you. They could keep me dead until the chance of war was some reading higher than ‘none foreseen’. Let me sleep and wake me up when there might be some war again.”

The first ghost spoke: “Better to be the slave of a dirt farmer, toiling under the lash and sleeping in hunger, than to be dead. Fool! Do you weep because war died long ago, and now there is no glory for you? Is it glory you crave?”

His language was Homeric Greek, spoken in perfect hexameters. Atkins muttered: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want glory. Soldiers who don’t want that don’t stay in the service. I sure didn’t stay for the pay…” He was staring at the pile of gleaming coins, representing seconds of hours of computer time, which now lay in a small pile of the deck. It was a very small pile.

The other ghost was dressed like a Prussian cavalry officer of the Napoleonic wars, with spurs, boots, whipcord breaches, colorful blouse and demi-cape twined with braid, with a tall shako at a rakish angle on his head. He had a crooked smile, and was toying with his waxed moustache.

This ghost had been made with four or five seconds of Earthmind-time, and had more insight and experience than the Myrmidon. He said in German: “That’s not was this is about, is it, my friend? Honor and glory, it is not about.”

Atkins said in a sullen voice: “Maybe I’d be a little happier if I had a little more glory. It’d be better than being bored and alone.”

“Alone is what this is all about, my friend, and you know it,” said the Prussian softly.

The Myrmidon shook his spear and spoke, “Glory is nothing. Observe me! Of all soldiers, none have been remembered longer. My wrath is a matter for songs which always shall be sung or spoken. Out of all those gathered on the windy plains of Troy, who was more feared? And yet my death was miserable, struck in the heel from afar with a dart, a coward’s weapon, by a cowardly woman-stealer. Glory! Glory I have in full measure, but my years on earth were few. A child of your race would still be in school if he were the age of my death. I would trade all my glory for one year more of life, or one day!”

Atkins stood up, facing away from his ghosts. After a moment, he spoke again: “At least, they could let me do police work. I know most of it these days is juvenile stuff, time-counterfeiting, or domestic stuff among real-lifers. Still. Why can’t I do that?”

The Prussian was leaning, or seeming to lean, on the balcony. “Pfuf! My Captain, it is ridiculous you are being. You know what happens when the military usurps civilian functions. Remember Napoleon? Remember the rule of Posse Comitatus? It is still true, even when all the military, from general to private all in one, is just a single man.”

Atkins turned and scowled when the Prussian called him ‘single’, as if he thought he was being mocked.

The Prussian shrugged himself erect, a good-looking illusion, but the railing did not tremble, as it would have, had any weight been pressed against it. “I see you are not convinced. Come! Do your target practice! Test your weapons! It will clear your mind. You will know!”

Atkins looked dour. “Know what?”

The Prussian wagged a finger at him. “Come, my Captain! Shoot one round! Just one! You must test your weaponry. It is allowed, is it not? All will be clear. Look there. Isn’t there a target range the law has set aside, just for you?”

And he pointed to where, above the golden autumn forests and above the mountains blue with distance, hung the crescent moon, faint and pale as a bubble by day.

By the time the remotes had brought and built around him his streamlined black armor, the curt signal from the War-Mind for permission to proceed came winking on the stone of his thinking-ring. It was just a simple affirmation, showing that all traffic had been re-routed, or circuitry and machines near the target area had been shielded.

Atkins stared at his ring in puzzled wonder. He had to pay for time in the Earthmind like any other user, for anything not a military matter, or not under the authority of the War-Mind. So while he could, theoretically, ask why the response had come so quickly — was it a coincidence that no ships where near the target area? — He would have to pay for the answer.

No. He had too little time left as it was. Anyone on this side of the planet or nearby orbits could enjoy the fireworks, and, if he wasn’t on-line for the governmental or real-news channels, then he could enjoy a nice surprise.

Atkins squinted at the moon, raised his hand, pointed a finger.

*** *** ***

Two: Shooting the Moon

An area had been set aside for him in the Sea of Dreams for weapons tests. The circuits in his helmet, watching the muscles in his eyes, interpreted the squint as a command to amplify his vision.

Atkins saw the moon, at once, from a hundred points of view, from remotes on the ground, in low and high Earth orbits, with enhancements and extrapolations to compensate for speed-of-light signal delays. His vision was on all wavelengths of the spectrum, from all directions, and received images and graphics representing ranges, fields of fire, rates and vectors of moving bodies in the system, communications lines, power concentrations from satellites and habitats, defensive positions, and overall threat-to-energy ratios.

Atkins’ visual cortex had been extensively modified, and laboriously trained and re-trained each time a new sense perception or a new level of detail had been added to his brain. With a parallax reaching over one AU in each direction, every body in the solar system, all the way out to the Oort ice belts, was a three-dimensional object to him; all within arm’s reach.

All within in the reach of his armored fist.

His stabbing finger touched the moon at one of the spots in the Sea of Dreams reserved for his target practice. A ray of energy from his gauntlet followed where he pointed, guided by a thousand circuits watching his brain activity and reading or guessing his thoughts. Across the Earth, up from mountainsides and hidden fortresses, up from silos buried in unreclaimed deserts or below the sea, weapons rose on heavy tracks, focused where the finger so the war-god pointed; locked on, aimed, synchronized, and fired.

Units in space spun or maneuvered, opening wide vents or launch-ranks or mirrors or emission tubes, coming to point at the doomed spot. Deadly energies, beam-weapons, and plasma discharges were the first to reach the spot, which became, briefly, like a small impersonation of the surface of the sun. Four atomic warheads and one antimatter device, thrust at near-light-speed from special units in low lunar orbits were next to strike.

Heavy weapons and robotic ships too large to maneuver easily would take longer to come ready — but, by then, Atkins was satisfied. The war god was no longer amused. He blinked his eyes, returned to human stature and human vision, opened his hand in sign of peace, and ordered all the troops of Earth (him) and all their gear (over a hundred thousand units, seven quadrillion circuits of information, not including subroutines) back to standby.

He strode back up to the porch of his little cabin, and inside, closing the walls behind him. The motors of his armor were utterly silent as he strode. While he wore it he was a graceful as a ballerina, stronger than a herd of elephants.

The cabin was small and simple and spartan. There was a floor of polished wood, shining like white gold. There was no furniture, only a sleeping mat and a polished sword-rack, where his sword, smart-knife and jezail rested, tassels of red dangling.

One one wall hung a dreaming-robe, shimmering with gold and green wiring. Opposite it, hung a red-and-black dragon-sign twined around four neuro-hypnotic ideograms, each representing one of the four military virtues.

Now he stared at the dragon-sign. The ideograms were imprinted with a mnemonic gestalt, tuned to receivers grown into Atkins’ cortex, so that he could, at a glance, receive an over all picture of the military situation throughout the Earth-Moon system, Earth’s equatorial ring-city and the more distant orbital colonies. The mnemonics were holographic in structure, so that the remote units and battle-minds, war-ghosts, ships, pickets, munitions, production and logistics, could be examined singly or in groups. The examination could either be conscious, or in a gestalt paradigm which allowed Atkins to feel any lack or disruption of military routine they way a man might feel pain or numbness in his body.

He ordered all affected units to prepare reports and readiness-simulations and to send the same to the War-Mind or higher channels in the Earthmind. Both his armor, and his ghosts, politely refrained from reminding him that all this had already been done, and faster than any human mind could ask or think to ask.

The ideogram subsided. Atkins ordered his armor to stand down from general quarters. Machines the size of viruses unknitted and dissolved his skull-cap and neural interlinks, to allow him to fold his helmet (which was only made of para-matter strengthened by energy fields) from its rigid formation, down into almost invisible housings in his gorget.

Some idle whim, or fancy, urged him to continue wearing the rest of the armor. From a cabinet hidden in one wall, he took up his delicate drinking-bowl, made of translucently thin rose quartz, opened panel in the floor, and scooped up some of the liquid in the living pool. A gesture of his thinking-ring instructed the microscopic bio-formations which lived in that fluid to restructure the other material in suspension to form rice-wine, and he returned to his seat on the porch.

The wine-bowl next to him gave off a vapor, as excess elements were carried by the microbes out of the fluid, restructured into fragrances, and released. He sat watching the sunset. Red and gold bands of cloud and light died in the west. Above, the crescent moon had her horns curved around bright spots of fire, where the reactions set off from Atkins’ shot had not yet died down.

Atkins said aloud, “I see your point. I would not make a good policeman. I can just imagine waltzing up to a perpetrator with his illegal brain-jacks trying to siphon off unrecorded mind space, and saying, stop! ‘Withdraw from that mind-web time-sharing rights-trespass, or I’ll crack the planet like an egg and fry it sunny-side up!’ Yeah..” he sipped the wine, with a motions of utmost delicacy and grace, careful not to shatter the fragile wine-bowl with his powered strength-amplification gauntlets. “…that’ll stop those evil accountants and math-forgers…”

Then he said, “But, damn it, why do they need a man who can crack the planet, anyway? Who need a soldier in this day and age?”

None of his anger communicated itself by the least tremble to his fingers. When he put down the bowl, the motion of his armored hand was so smooth and gentle that the quartz did not even click on the deck.

*** *** ***

Three: Visit from the Civilian Government

It was after dark when the Secretary-General, Kshatrimanyu Han, rode up on his horse, a small cloud of tiny floating lanterns making balls of colored light around him. Atkins stood and saluted while the man dismounted.

“Good evening, Mr. Han!” he said politely.

Mr. Han stepped up on the porch, groaning, holding his back with both hand. “Can’t stand these old-fashioned lower back structures. Nature’s not always the best engineer, did you know that? But we can’t go against tradition, can we? Politicians are supposed to represent order, old values, stability, right?”

“May I offer you whatever hospitality I have, Sir?”

Han looked at the spartan cottage with a grunt. “Not much here now, son.”

“I have a living pool…”

“Ugh, sitting in a fluid that takes out your wastes and builds nutrients right through your skin into your bloodstream! How in the hell did we ever get stuck with that tradition?”

“From the early spacefaring days, sir, when all space-armor was filled with fluids to…”

“Just a rhetorical question, Marshall. No, no. One of my few pleasures in life is being able to turn down hospitality from people under my command. I have to accept it from everyone else, you know. I just stand here and look at the aurora borealis.”

Atkins turned to the horse, and said, “Mr. Maestrict, if that is you, I also offer any hospitality I might…”

The horse said, “This is just a partial-personality. I’m having my main self-information moved into the West-Mind this week, to get a greater range of neomorphic forms. Do you like the horse-body?”

“Lovely, sir. Very traditional theme.”

The horse said, “I figured that if the Secretary-General was not going to break the Restrictive Covenants, he might as well approach on horseback rather than afoot, if he’s going into any real-life areas. Give him sort of a dramatic flair.”

“No doubt that is wise thinking, Mr. Maestrict.”

“But I got to wonder if sometimes we’re not carrying this privacy thing too far. I mean, I can see, we don’t want friends and relatives barging into our thought-links and dreams, or even popping projections to follow us around wherever we go. But areas without over-flights or cars or even voice-phone?”

The Secretary-General spoke without turning his head, “I have voters in those areas too, Mr. Maestrict, and we all have time enough, these days, to walk to wherever we want to go. Time to appreciate all this nice scenery. It’s not like any of us are ever getting any older.”

Secretary-General Han was pretending to look up at where faint streamers of unearthly color hovered against the stars. Then, in a light tone of voice, he said, “Nice aurora borealis, Marshall. We don’t usually get them this far south, do we? What causes that again? Ionization in the upper atmosphere?”

“Sorry, sir. I had target practice earlier today.”

“So I heard. I take it you leave your phone on zero-priority all the time these days? Otherwise, privacy restriction or not, every reporter and government channel part-mind would have been demanding interviews and explanations from you.”

Atkins said, “I didn’t get any calls, sir. I instructed my phone to explain that the military cannot speak to the press without authorization from civilian authority.”

Mr. Han and the horse exchanged glances. “No wonder we were flooded with calls,” said the horse.

Atkins said, “Sir, I can explain. The weapons systems must undergo periodic test in order to ensure battle-readiness and to find shelf-life degradation; and live tests can find the errors which computer simulations, by their very nature, cannot…”

Mr. Han said, “Why don’t you invite me in and we can talk?” He stepped toward the wall. Atkins ordered the wall open. They went inside. Atkins sat cross-legged on the floor, and offered to grow a chair out of coral for Mr. Han out of the living pool substances; Mr. Han said no, and unfolded a stool made out of para-matter out of his pocket, energized it to solidity, and sat with his elbows on his knees, staring down at Atkins.

“You want to tell me what this is all about, son?”

Atkins met his gaze. “What would you do if I resigned my commission?”

Mr. Han snorted and said, “Probably loose my next vote of no confidence. Imagine a leader who had his whole military resign all at once.”

“I’m serious.”

Mr. Han leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Then he sighed. “I’d have to find or make someone else to take the post. It would be hard to get someone with your qualifications. You’re an actual veteran from a real honest-to-god shooting war.”

“It lasted fourteen seconds. I was getting out of bed for three of those seconds.”

“…And it was eleven thousand years ago. I know. But you’ve stared into the face of battle. A five thousand years ago, we still had a hundred people willing to be in the service, if not in the reserves; and five hundred years ago, we had a dozen. Now there’s only you. If I had to replace you, I’d probably have to find someone willing to take a personality download from one of your copies in the Earthmind to get a major chunk of your experience… But why are you talking this way?”

“Because there’s no need for a soldier in paradise, Sir. We are not going to have a war at anytime the Earthmind can foresee, nor anybody else either. We maintain a standing army because the Earthmind orders us to. It’s a pointless tradition. A ceremony.”

Mr. Han looked down and wagged a finger at him. “Now, now. The Earthmind is a machine. It only gives advice, not orders. If the cyberparliament chooses to accept that advice…” he shrugged.

“And how many voters, sir, ask the Earthmind before they vote for extrapolations of candidates behavior in office? We could all be replaced by machines. They are a thousand times smarter and quicker than we are. At least I could be replaced. All I do is wait for a war; if one came, I could push the Red Button, raise an army of ghosts and replications in three seconds, and have them to full battle-readiness in five. Why can’t I rest too? Let me sleep for a hundred years or so; and, if you think there might be a war, wake me up, and I can decide whether to wake or construct the rest of the army.”

Mr. Han shook his head. “We cannot let machines rule us. Even if they are smarter than we are. They won’t take the job.”

“With all due respect, Sir, you get around that rule.”

“I am not a construct. Yes, I may have some of the personality and experiences of older leaders, including some machine-made reconstructions, floating around in my head, and, yes, sometimes, I need to have a new partial-mind which some strong voting bloc has made up shoved in there… but I’m still a man. I still get bored when I don’t have anything to do. I still get hurt when no one around seems to see the value of what I do. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be done. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a value in and of itself.”

Atkins looked skeptical. “Yes, sir.” he said.

“You don’t believe me.”

“Sir– I didn’t say anything of the kind–”

“OK, son. Time for a civics test. Why do we have a military in peacetime at all?”

*** *** ***

Four: Fortunes of a Soldier’s Wife

“OK, son. Time for a civics test. Why do we have a military in peacetime at all?” Mr. Han, still astride his horse, looked down, waiting for an answer from Marshall Atkins.

“To deter the possibility of war. But, sir, in these times? Look at the advancements in our science. If nothing else, just the biological developments in eternal youth let us all live to such ages that we are too mature to even think about something as futile as violence.”

“Oh, come on, Atkins. Now you’re just being silly. It’s not science that put an end to war. War stops when people, all people, think the price of war is too high. Why did they think that? Lots of factors. Maturity was one factor. But you are another. Just you, yourself. You make the thought of war so terrifying that no one thinks of it these days.

“And as for being in paradise,” he continued, “Don’t fool yourself. Humans are longer-lived, better educated, and have more ability to manipulate, and cure, our own minds than any prior generation. We can be anything, learn anything by download, look like anything our biology can construct.

“We’re like gods. And, like gods, our main problems is, not how to do things, but how to keep ourselves from doing things.

“That’s why I rode up on a horse. Its take some self-discipline to walk and smell the flowers when you can send a projection anywhere, real-world or dream-world, in the time it takes to think a circuit active. Why do it?

“Because, if you’re a god, and if, in one half-instant of time, you can erase your neighbor’s ghosts, or his partialminds, or download all his business into your head, or steal his computer time that he’s worked all his life to earn, or copy all the work he’s ever done straight into your own files, or even have your living pool concoct some toxin, or send remotes to go break his head in…. well, if you can do all that to your neighbor in one quick moment of thinking, brother, you better build up all the self-discipline you can have.

“Our ancestors had a little bit of self-discipline. They put up with each other, barely, and set up trade and civilization, barely, and, sometimes, barely, controlled their impulses and abided by rules of law and verdicts of juries when their every instinct told them to take the law in to their own hands and lash out when they were offended. It was barely enough to get us to where we are now.

“They didn’t have to do it. There was nothing inevitable about it. They certainly didn’t do it for our sake. But the least we can do when we inherited this godlike civilization of ours from them is exercise at least as much self-discipline as they showed to get us here.

“You’d be surprised at how quick we can get ourselves thrown out of paradise again. I’ve seen some of the simulations, and they scare me. Do you know how many people it would take to start a war again, these days, at our level of technology, and to destroy a major section of the Earth’s surface? Maybe five, if they were in the right sections of the Mind-web hierarchy. And, in a few years, maybe one.”

“If people need me so much, the why does everybody hate me?”

“Oh, come on, Atkins.”

“Well, sir, I really don’t get much respect.”

“Most people don’t like to be reminded that we need you. Instead, all they do is complain about the cost of maintaining you. Do you know how much you spent this afternoon blowing new craters into the moon? About ten thousand times the wages you earn in a year, just for each warhead. I’m not even going to mention the computer time for running the ranging and control programs.”

“Sorry, sir, but I did…”

“I know you got permission. The electronic version of me that lives in the Earthmind was consulted; I would have approved the decision, had I known of it. It was worth it just to see the look on the face of the delegate counsel for the Never First Faction. Those guys! The generation after immortality was discovered, still angry after all these centuries, because the older generation is never ever going to die out; the delegate was introducing a bill-organism to lower the optimism percentages in the governing personalities of the Earthmind, and he was in the middle of complaining about how the Earthmind, as it is presently structured, makes life too predictable and safe, when the moon overhead lit up like a fire-web! Predictable! Hah! He lost that vote by a wide margin.”

Atkins said, “No wonder the Hierarchy gave me permission so quickly. Earthmind was trying to kill two birds with one stone. I wonder if my ghost — the one who gave me the idea — was tampered with.”

“Against the law. Earthmind could have had a copy of your ghost in memory, though, and made a good guess as to what it was saying and when. The thing is a billion times smarter than we are. It makes a damn good guesser.”

“Well, if Earthmind was trying to get me to want to keep my job, it didn’t guess right,” said Atkins.

Mr. Han leaned back again, and stroked his chin. “Well. I’m only as smart as a dim-sun, far-orbit lawyer from the outsystem belts, but even I can see what’s vexing you, my boy. This doesn’t have anything to do with the military.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

Mr. Han looked around innocently. “Last time I was here, there were the ballrooms, thought-chambers, music areas, those nice dining-rooms your wife designed for mensal performances, other studios and theatres. What happened to all that stuff?”

“Most of it was paramatter, sir, so it could be deconstructed with some ease. Shelandra took some when she left, and she wouldn’t let me keep copies of anything she had copy-righted. I had the automatics bury the rest.”

“So what did you kids argue about?”

“Sir, with all due respect, I don’t think that that’s any of your god-damned business. Sir.”

“Ah, but if it is effecting the morale of my entire army and navy, don’t I, as Supreme Commander in Chief, and Lord High Justice Peace-keeper have a right to know? But don’t worry. I’ll butt out if you want me to. Or I could ask the Earthmind for a warrant. No, no, just kidding. Or maybe I’ll just go ask Shelandra herself. And, say, now that she’s unmarried, maybe she and I could…”

Whatever outrage Atkins might have felt was erased in a laugh. “Sir, she truly hates your guts. You must have noticed how she squirmed every time we had to meet on public channels, or for official celebrations.”

“I know. I represent everything she hates. The dull, old-fashioned, traditional, older generation which will never die off, ruled by a machine that never changes it’s mind, dull and predictable paradise that squashes all true creativity. I just wish she would go into a history channel simulation one of these days just so she could see what the past she so idealizes might really have been like! Where is she living now?”

“She’s got a new type of mental art. She’s living in a flock of birds in a garden down by Open Future Motion Arcology, with each bird-mind only representing part of her consciousness, and they exchange their data-dumps with birdsong, but not at fixed intervals, so it might take a day for a thought to cross her mind, and even then, the reactions from the other parts of her consciousness, are not synchronized to respond.”

“Sounds pretty weird.”

“Well. I think she did it to get away from me. I can’t even talk to her, not without violating Restrictive Privacy, unless I get into a flock of birds, too. Which I can’t. Uniform regulations. ‘All military officers of any rank not on special duty must be in standard human bodies to operate standard equipment, and must avoid intoxicants or neural arrangements which might affect judgment.’ She knows that if I go to talk to her, I must be out of the service. Its one of those artistic statements of hers.”

“Is that what broke you two kids up? I know what she invented that new emotion, sopho-agape, she was suddenly rich and famous for a reason that left you behind. No tampering with your brain while you were on duty, meant you couldn’t wire her new emotion in, much less admire or appreciate the art-stuff her new friends made to trigger that new emotion in them. Is that it?”

“No, sir. I wish it was something as… nice… as that.”

“What was it?”

“She read the program in my wife-doll.”

Mr. Han stroked his beard to try to hide his expression.

*** *** ***

Five: The Future of the Future

“Most divorces I ever heard of these days are because of doll jealousy. Most real women won’t put up with the competition. But I thought you were a real-lifer. No false sensations.”

“Sir, I’m not a strict constructionist. I’m a Moderate. We don’t interpret the ‘self-deception’ clause of the Creed to include anything but artificial memories. A lot of real-lifers can keep wife-dolls, as long as we know they’re not real… It’s just that, in this case…”

“Son, a lot of people never even see their real families. Most husbands and wives, after they’ve been together for a century, just download copies into each other’s dolls, and love with an idealized version of each other, nice and far apart.”

“Well. We didn’t want to live that way.”

“Why not?”

“Remember what you were just telling me about self-discipline? People who love with dolls, or spend all their time in their dream-coats, loose their ability to interact with the real world.”

“What’d you do that was so outrageous?”

“Well. I thought it might be nice if my wife would be willing to get up out of bed after making love and make me a something to eat…So I had the doll programmed for that…”

“And the real one found out and left you? Because of that?”

“No sir. I was also sick of arguing with her all the time. About my life. About the service. About why we needed a military. Anyway. About why I couldn’t alter my body or my brain according to every stupid new fashion, because I had to stand ready for the next battle which is never going to come. About always having invisible remotes watching me, with my armor ready, just in case an atomic device which no one in their right mind was ever going to set off might ignite in the area. About practicing with a non-self-aiming dumb-gun.

“Why do I have to practice with that damn thing anyway? Even if there is a war some day, do you think anything is going to get within rifle-range of me?”

Mr. Han said, “Why do you think soldiers with rifles practice with bayonets? Run out of ammo, and you’re at the military tech level as a guy with a sword. Same thing with computer assisted weapons. One good pulse, or one clever computer virus, and your gun is no smarter than a tube with a hole in it. You know that. Don’t change the subject. She was mad because she found out you secretly wanted her to agree with you.”

“And… I spent some of her computer time to do it.”


“I wanted it to be as realistic a version as I could make it,” said Atkins in a defensive tone of voice. “So I had the Social-Mind deduce what she might think some day, if her beliefs logically might ever change. I mean, it is possible she might one day become convinced that there is a reason to have one soldier left in a completely peaceful world, isn’t it? One soldier to keep the peace?”

“How’d she get your doll to wake up for her? I thought you real-lifers had even stricter Privacy Restrictions than the rest of us.”

“We make a big exception when it comes to money. If you spend someone else’s time on something, he has a right to know exactly how and where his computer time was spent.”

“What happened?”

“I came home from one of those damn pointless ceremonies you won’t let me send a projection to, or a partial copy of me to stand in my place…”

“Hey, son. If a war is ever going to break out again, it’s going to happen at a political performance. You take my word, one day two counselors are going to be arguing about shared-time copy-rights, and the next, boom! Leaping across the table, fists flying…”

“Anyway. The two of them, Shelandra and her doll, had been up all night arguing politics with each other. I don’t even know what most of the conversation was.”

“Ask your doll.”

“Shelandra erased the record.”

“Your records? In your doll? Is this some quirk of real-lifer law again?”

“Our restrictions allow a person to remove his own comments from any non-secure record. So I could listen to all of my doll’s half of the conversation, and try to guess what the comments on the other side were. If I felt like it. But I don’t have to listen. I can already guess.”

Mr. Han was silent for a while. He turned on this stool and stared at the dragon-sign for a while. Since he didn’t have circuits like Atkins’ in his brain, Atkins thought he must actually be looking at the four ideograms themselves. Honor, Courage, Fortitude, Obedience.

Mr. Han turned back toward Atkins. “You know what’s wrong with our modern society?”

“Everything can be done for us by machines, better than we can ever do it, even thinking, so we wait around for things to be done, rather than doing them ourselves.”

“That’s not what I was going to say.”

“What were you going to say?”

“No guts.”

“I think that’s basically what I just said, sir.”

“What do you think the future is going to be like?”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“Well, son, are we going to keep getting better and better? We’ve got no war, no famine, no disease, no old age, and, for people who bother to keep their downloads prompted, no real death. Is there ever going to be a time when there are no warriors at all? Not just one, but none? And no government? No need for people like me? Everyone will just be so reasonable that everything will just work out by itself?”

Atkins stared for a moment at the floor. He looked up. “There will always be a need for warriors, even if there is never another war again. To prevent wars. Government is another method of preventing wars. Because, no matter how smart the Earthmind is, it is still part of a complex technical and industrial system, which could be destroyed very easily… Hell, sir, I could cripple the Earthmind myself, just with the weapons which I have that aren’t part of the central control paradigms.”

Mr. Han spred his hands, “Then what are we relying on to maintain our paradise here?”

“You said so earlier, sir. Self-discipline. The voluntary cooperation of everyone in the system.”

“But the system is so successful that the very qualities which make for self-discipline, guts and self-reliance, are eroded. So what’s the answer, Marshall Atkins?”

Atkins frowned and shrugged.

Mr. Han leaned back and sighed. “I saw you had piled up your time coins on the porch when I came in. You were inquiring how much the Earthmind charges for its genius level access?”

“I know I can’t afford the super-genius level, not now that Shelandra’s gone.”

“You were going to ask the godlike super-mind for some advice, weren’t you?”

Atkins nodded, looking slightly sheepish. “I wonder why it charges so much.”

“To discourage stupid questions.”

“Look, sir, if you think the answer to my problems is so obvious, why don’t you tell me what to do! But wait till I resign my commission first, so I can tell you where you can go walk!”

Mr. Han said, “I’ll ask my question again. Our system discourages guts and self-reliance. You want to ask the Earthmind a question you know you know the answer to. What can you, as one man, do right now to do your little part to increase the amount of courage and self-reliance that I know you have, soldier? Come on, give me the answer!”

“You… think I should get back together with Shelandra…?”

Mr. Han leaned forward, cupping one hand to his ear. “That’s not quite the answer I think you meant, son. Speak up.”

“You think I should apologize? Me? She’s the one who butted in to where she didn’t belong, spying on my dolls, and… and…”

Mr. Han smiled and stood up. “Well. I think that settles that issue. I will not accept your resignation at this time, thank you. However, I will find someone to man your post while you go on leave. I’ll see if my law-advisors can find a loophole in the no-brain-manipulation clause to allow you to turn yourself into a flock of birds, provided you are clean and sober before you report again for duty.”

“But, sir, she’s not going to listen … I mean, we really had a fight … she’s not likely to forgive me; none of my extrapolations from her personality downloads forgave me when I play-acted the scenes out in dreamtime…” he gestured toward the dream robe on the far wall.

“Thought Lifers didn’t use dreamtime for things like that?”

“As long as we know it is not real, sir…”

Mr. Han folded his stool back into his pocket. “It’s true. It may be futile. But marriage requires self-discipline to make a paradise out of it as well. Self-discipline is not always fun, not always comfortable. Sometimes it requires us to throw our dolls away, if you take my meaning. Your mission will require Honor, Courage, and Fortitude, and maybe a little bit of Obedience to the principles matrimony stands for.”

“Sir, she’s not going to…”

“Son, you don’t know what the hell she’s going to think, if you don’t mind my saying so. I think she ran out precisely because she found out how likely it is she’s going to end up agreeing with you — I think her doll scared her because the scenario was so likely. Maybe she wants to agree with you.”

They both stepped out on the porch again, and looked toward the lawn where Mr. Maestrict was grazing. The ancient Greek ghost was talking with him, telling him about the horrible death of his best friend on the battlefield, and about how futile the revenge on his friend’s murder had been.

Since the horse did not seem to be quite ready to go just yet, Mr. Han took a moment to sniff the air and examine the night sky.

“You know, Marshall Atkins, I was listening to the neo-artists conversations in the Middle Dreaming for your wife’s school, with my filter set to find topics related to sopho-agape, her new emotion. Guess what I came across? If seems Shelandra’s speech download was passing from bird to bird in her self-flock, and got picked up and sent along by navigations motes. She was thinking to herselves that part of her was spread out into the hemisphere where it was dark. She had been flying around staring at the moon — some of her bird-selves are nocturnal, you know, owls and such — and she was filled with birdlike dreams and hopes and wonders, when the moon blazed up like a crown of glory, circled by arms of fire.

“To hear her download tell the tale, she was half-asleep, and could not remember what it was; so she resolved to find a meaning for this terrible sign in the heavens, or to make one if a meaning could not be found. Kind of poetic, don’t you think?

“Quite a coincidence, if that terrible, wonderful moment of her inspiration came just because you wanted to take your anger out on some inoffensive moonrocks. So she is now hunting for the answers, trying to put a name to yet another new emotion, trying to find the source of glory. Interesting, eh?”

“Coincidence, sir?”

“You don’t think so?”

“Not if she is looking for the man who made the moon light up. I know all about glory: ask my old friend there.” Atkins nodded toward the ancient Greek ghost, who was bent low the ground, weeping, and rocking back and forth. “I think Earthmind was trying to kill three birds with one stone. O r maybe a thousand birds I’ll never hear about.”

“You find that comforting, Marshall? Don’t. The Earthmind does not relieve you of one gram of the burden you have to shoulder. Being an officer is not easy; but you know that being the wife of an officer is not easy either. She gets the same grief you do for being part of the military, but none of the glory. Her work is no less hard than yours.”

“What work, sir? I do nothing!”

The horse trotted over at this point, and so Mr. Han, after one or two false tries, got his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up on the horse’s back. The horse spiritedly pranced and snorted while Mr. Han yanked sharply on the reins, trying to control him.

“Mr. Maestrict! Will you kindly stop fooling around!”

“Sorry, sir,” said the Horse, “Thought it made you look sort of, you know, equestrian.”

Mr. Han rolled his eyes. Then he looked down at Atkins, who stood on the porch. His dark armor, in the moonlight, seemed black and dull as iron, a deep shadow in the shape of a man. Only his face could be seen clearly. Mr. Han said, “Do you remember your Milton, soldier?”

With one part of his brain, Atkins sent servant-thoughts dancing through his libraries at the speed of light. “‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’, sir?”

“No, no. The one that begins, ‘When I consider how my light is spent, ere half my days in this dark world and wide…’ That one.”

‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ But, sir, how long will the waiting be?”

“I don’t have an answer for you, soldier. Anyway, go talk to your wife. If you miss the target this time, try again in a hundred years, or a thousand. No one stays mad forever.”

Atkins saluted. Then he turned to the horse, and politely wished him a good evening and a speedy journey.

The horse thanked him, then said: “By the way, that story your ghost told me, about all those terrible murders, and people dying of spear-wounds in the dirt, and the conquerors carrying off their wives and daughters into slavery or concubinage, and taking the dead king’s child up the cliff and throwing him to his death … all that stuff …”


“Is it real? I mean, it is just a myth, right? People didn’t actually ever fight wars like that, right?”

“Why … Mr. Maestrict, are you toying with me? There were many wars worse than that, as well you know.”

“I suppose I do know, Marshall Atkins. As long as you continue your long wait, however, that knowledge can rest in some archive in the back of my mind, and I shall have no need to call on it.”

Atkins nodded, his face, for the first time that day, holding its accustomed look of calm expressionlessness. “I’ll do my best to see things stay that way, Mr. Maestrict.”

As horse and rider trotted off into the night, Atkins, looking content, returned to the cottage to prepare for his own journey.



Here find another tale from an aeon near or far