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Authors: Charles Sheffield

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The Mind Pool

BOOK: The Mind Pool
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The Mind Pool

Charles Sheffield

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1993 by Charles Sheffield.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
www.baen.com
eISBN:978-1-61834-058-3

To Dan Chow,
who said why it should be done,
and to Algis Budrys and Charles N. Brown,
who said how it could be done.

Introduction

The Mind Pool,
the volume you are now holding in your hand, was originally a somewhat different and rather shorter book,
The Nimrod Hunt.

Writing a book is hard work. Writing a book
twice,
the same book, sounds like masochism. I want to explain why I did it.

Before
The Nimrod Hunt
was published, I knew three things. First, the book was the longest and most complex science fiction novel that I had ever written. Second, because of my own worries over that length and complexity, I omitted a substantial subplot that I was very fond of, but which was not an absolute essential. That did allow the book to be a good deal shorter, although at the cost of an ending different from the one that I had originally intended. (I have put that subplot back in. It first enters in Chapter Three. Although the beginning of
The Mind Pool
is like the start of
The Nimrod Hunt,
the ending is radically different.)

Third, and less obviously relevant, in writing
The Nimrod Hunt
I had been greatly influenced by a classic novel by Alfred Bester,
The Stars My Destination.
I’ve loved that book since I first read it. I had no thought of imitating Bester’s style, which although marvelous is uniquely his and quite unlike my way of telling stories. But I wanted to emulate the multitude of ideas, the diverse backgrounds, and the blowzy rococo decadence of his future society. I also wanted to put in a good deal more science, an interstellar landscape, and some rather odd aliens. That told me I was going to write a pretty long novel.

My admiration of Bester was not particularly hidden. How could it be, when his book had a major character named Regis Sheffield, and mine had one called King Bester?

But soon after publication, I learned two things that I had not known before it. First, the influence of Bester was direct enough to upset some reviewers, particularly in the way that
The Nimrod Hunt
ended. Dan Chow told me as much and said it marred the novel for anyone familiar with Bester’s works.

Second, and perhaps more important, I had committed a basic sin of story-telling. At the beginning of the book I set up a red herring, an expectation in the reader’s mind which was never fulfilled. Algis Budrys told me just what I had done, and how to correct it.

All these things would normally be irrelevant. The moving word processor writes, and having writ, moves on. A book, once published, cannot be unwritten, and even if rewritten it will not normally be seen in print.

Enter Jim Baen, publisher of
The Nimrod Hunt.
In August of 1991, Jim called to say that he was going to reissue the book, with a new cover. Was I interested in changing, deleting, or adding anything?

Was I! Of course I was, and my task sounded easy: remove the red herring, restore the original subplot, and make the homage to Alfred Bester less intrusive.

Naturally, it didn’t work out like that. I am not the same writer I was six years ago. I finished by rewriting the whole novel to match my present tastes. Some passages grew, others shrank or disappeared, many became unrecognizable. I don’t think any page was left untouched. The one-week easy fix became the two-month concentrated effort. I found that I had produced a different book.

The Mind Pool
is that book. If you have read
The Nimrod Hunt,
I invite you to compare the two. If you have not, I invite you to read the book that you are holding.

I hope the story is a success. If not, I’m not sure I want to know about it. It would be a real pain to have to write everything a third time.

Prologue: Cobweb Station

The first warning was no more than a glimmer of light. In the array of twenty-two thousand monitors that showed the energy balance of the solar system, one miniature diode had flicked on to register a demand overload.

To say that the signal was neglected by the crew at the Vulcan Nexus would be untrue and unfair. It was simply never seen. The whole display array had been installed in the main control room of the Nexus for the benefit of visiting dignitaries and the media. “There!”—a wave of the hand—“The power equation of the whole system at a glance. Left side, energy supply. Each light shows energy collection from a solar panel. The individual demands are on the right.”

The visitors took a moment or two to examine the array of gently winking lights, and the tour went on. The impressive part was still to come, with the powered swoop past four hundred million square kilometers of collectors, each sucking in Sol’s radiance. The array orbited only two million kilometers above the photosphere, where Sol’s flaming disk filled thirty degrees of the sky. It was an unusual visitor who gave the display room a second thought after a roller-coaster ride to the solar furnace, skimming over vast hydrogen flares and the Earth-size-swallowing whirlpools of the sunspots.

So the overload signal was seen by no one. But human ignorance of minor energy fluctuations was no cause for concern. Supply and demand had long been monitored by an agent far more efficient and conscientious than unreliable
homo sapiens.
The distributed computing network of
Dominus
at once noted the source of the energy drain. It was coming from Cobweb Station, twelve billion kilometers from the Sun. In less than one hour, energy demand at Cobweb had increased by a factor of one hundred. Even as that information came through the computer network, a second light went on in the displays. Energy use had increased again, by another factor of a hundred.

Dominus
switched in an additional power supply from the orbiting fusion plants out near Persephone. Reserve supply was more than adequate. There was no sign of emergency, no thought of disaster. But
Dominus
initiated a routine inquiry as to the cause of the increased energy demand and its projected future profile.

When there was no reply from Cobweb,
Dominus
brought new data on-line. A communications silence for the past twenty-four hours was noted for Cobweb Station. That was correlated in turn with the pattern of energy use, and a signal showing that the Mattin Link system at Cobweb Station had been activated, although not yet used for either matter or signal transmission.

Dominus
flashed an attention alert to the main control displays at Ceres headquarters and scanned all probes beyond Neptune. The nearest high-acceleration needle was nearly a billion kilometers away from Cobweb—seventeen hours at a routine hundred gee.

Dominus
dispatched the needle probe just a few seconds before the problem first came to human attention. The technician on duty at Ceres checked the status flags, noted the time, and approved both the increased energy drain and the use of the needle probe. She did not, however, call for a report on the reason for the energy use on Cobweb Station. The anomaly appeared minor, and her mind was elsewhere. The end of the shift was just a few minutes away, and she had an after-work date with a new possible partner. She was looking forward to that. Staying overtime to study minor power fluctuations, far away in the Outer System, formed no part of her evening plans.

Her actions were quite consistent with her responsibilities. That she would later become the first scapegoat was merely evidence of the need for scapegoats.

When the needle probe was halfway to Cobweb Station, energy demand flared higher. That surging rise by another two orders of magnitude finally pushed the problem to a high-priority level.
Dominus
signalled for an immediate increase to emergency probe acceleration and began the transfer to probe memory of all structural details of Cobweb Station.

The racing probe was less than two years old. As a class-T device it contained the new
pan inorganica
logic circuits and a full array of sensors. It could comprehend as much of what it saw as most human observers, and it was eager to show its powers. It waited impatiently, until at five million kilometers from Cobweb Station it could finally pick up the first image on its radar. The hulking station showed as a grainy globe, pocked by entry ports and knobby with communications equipment. The probe’s data bank now included a full description of the station’s purpose and presumed contents. It had started all-channel signalling even at extreme range, with no reply.

Cobweb Station’s silence continued. The probe was closing fast, and it was puzzled to observe that all the station’s entry ports appeared open to space. It sent a Mattin Link message track to
Dominus,
reporting that peculiarity, and decelerated hard until it was within a undred kilometers. The high-resolution sensors were now able to pick up images of small, irregular objects floating close to the station. Some of them gave off the bright radar reflection of hard metal, but others were more difficult to analyze. The probe launched two of its small bristle explorers, one to inspect the space flotsam, the other to enter and examine the interior of the station.

If the second bristle explorer’s task was ever completed, the results were not recorded. Long before that, every message circuit on the probe had hit full capacity. A blast of emergency signals deluged through the Mattin Link to
Dominus,
while rarely-used indicators sprang to life on every control board from the Vulcan Nexus to the Oort Harvester.

The first bristle explorer had encountered the debris outside Cobweb Station. Some of it was strange fragments, mixtures of organic and inorganic matter blown to shapelessness by the weapons of station guards. But next to those twisted remnants, sometimes mixed inextricably with them, there floated the bloated, frozen bodies of the guards themselves. In shredded uniforms, cold fingers still on triggers, the dead hung gutted and stiff-limbed in the endless sarcophagus of open space.

Throughout the solar system, alarm bells sounded their requiems.

Chapter 1

LINK NETWORK COMPLETE. STAND BY FOR CONFERENCE CONNECT.

The musical disembodied voice sounded from all sides. In the last few seconds before final Link Connection, Dougal MacDougal turned to the two men standing next to him in the domed hall.

“I want to emphasize it one more time. This is strictly a
briefing
for the Ambassadors. Although the hearing takes place in the Star Chamber, there’s currently no criminal charge at issue. I’m sure you want to keep it that way. That means your testimonies have to be as accurate and complete as possible. No concealing of information, even it it makes you look bad. Understood?”

Ambassador Dougal MacDougal was a tall, imposing figure. The traditional robes of office were handed down from one Terran Ambassador to the next, but on him they sat as though made for his shoulders alone.

The other two men exchanged the briefest of glances before they nodded.

“And be
consistent,
” went on MacDougal. “You are in enough trouble already. You don’t want to add to it by
contradicting
each other.”

“I understand perfectly.” Luther Brachis was a match for MacDougal in height, and massively broader. Even in the low gravity of the Ceres’ Star Chamber, his booted tread shook the gold and white floor. He was in full uniform. On his left breast sat a phalanx of military decorations, and the swirling Starburst of Solar Security was blazoned across his right sleeve. No matter that those meant less than nothing to the alien ambassadors. They mattered to
him.

His eyes, a weary grey-blue, were unreadable as they met Dougal MacDougal’s. “I will describe everything, and conceal nothing.”

“Very good.” The Ambassador turned at once to the other man. “I know you two never stop bickering. I just want to tell you, this isn’t the time and place for it. If you have anything to disagree on, do it
now.
The Link will close in a few seconds.”

Esro Mondrian had to look up to meet MacDougal’s glare. Both MacDougal and Brachis towered over him by a full head, and in contrast to them his build was slender, even frail. Unlike them, he was also wearing the plainest of costumes. The severe black uniform of Boundary Security, precisely tailored and meticulously clean, stood unadorned by medals or insignia of office. Only the single fire opal at his left collar served as his identification badge—and concealed its other multiple functions as communicator, computer, warning system, and weapon.

Mondrian shrugged. “I’m not in the habit of concealing information from anyone who legitimately has a need to know it. As soon as we have full identification for the parties tapping in to the Link, and a secure line, I’ll give them all the information that I believe appropriate.”

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