"Her first virtual view, spun in orbit, was from Jane's
Market Forces - a publicly available, but prohibitively expensive, real-time survey of military deployments around the world.
She was running the next-but-one release, currently in beta test. It had cost the republic's frugal defence budget nothing more than the stipend to place a patriotic Kazakh
postgrad in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
's equally cash-starved IT department. (That, and an untraceable credit line to his comms account.)
Myra, long familiar with the conventional symbols and ideographs, took it all in at an abstract level: colour-coded, vectored graphs in a 3-D space, with other dimensions implied by subtle shadings and the timing of pulsations. That photic filigree hung like a complicated cloud-system over the relatively static histograms depicting the hardware and the warm bodies. The physical locations and quantities of personnel and materiel could provide only a basement-level understanding of the world military balance, just as the location of physical plant was only a rough cut of the state of the world market.
Second by second, market and military forces shifted unpredictably, their mutual interpenetration more complex than any ideology had ever foreseen. With most of the world's official armies revolutionary or mercenary or both, and most of the conflicts settled in unarguable simulation before they started, everyone from the bankers down through the generals to the grunts on the ground would shrug and accept the virtual verdict, and change sides, reinforce or retreat in step with their software shadows - all except the Greens, and the Reds.
They fought for real, and played for keeps.
It was like the old Civilization
game, Myra sometimes thought, with a new twist: Barbarism II. Nobody was going to wipe the board, nobody was going to Alpha Centauri
. They were all going down together, into the dark . . . Just as soon as enough major players decided to contest the incontestable, and put the simulations to the audit of war.
But, for the moment, the dark was full of twisting light. And in the real world, blinked up as backdrop, one front was more than virtual, and closer than she'd like. Beyond the northern border of Kazakhstan
, itself hundreds of kilometres north of the International Scientific and Technical Workers' Republic, the Sino-Soviet Union's ragged front-line advanced in flickers of real fire: guerilla skirmishes and sabotage on one side, half-hearted long-range shelling and futile carpet-bombing on the other.
The Sheenisov - the name was subtly derogatory, like 'Vietcong
' for NLF and 'Yank' for United Nations - were the century's first authentic communist threat, who really believed in their updated version of the ideology which communistans like the ISTWR parodied in post-futurist pastiche. Based in the god forsaken back-country of recusant collective farms and worker-occupied factories, stubbornly surviving decades of counter-revolution and war, armed by partisan detachments of deserters (self-styled, inevitably, 'loyalists') from the ex-Soviet Eastern and ex-PRC
Northern armies, they'd held most of Mongolia and Siberia and even parts of north-west China since the Fall Revolution back in 2045, and in the years since then they'd spread across the steppe like lichen.
Myra detested and admired them in equal measure.
Of more immediate, and frustrating, concern: the Sheenisov were outside the virtual world, a torn black hole in the net. Their computers were permanently offline; their cadres didn't trade combat futures; they refused all simulated confrontation or negotiation; like the Green marginals in the West and the Khmer Vertes in the South, the Reds in the East put all to the test of practice, the critique of arms.
Even Jane's could only guess at their current disposition."
'The Sky Road