Chapter 1


Who are you?

When your computer malfunctions it's a pain. When it's a really big computer that runs most of the national defense, which includes presiding over every nuclear missile system we have, it's a lot more than a pain, it's downright scary.

When it talks back to you, though, it's scarier yet.

I had no idea what the hell was going on. I'd been logged on for two hours, reading in a bunch of what I thought were pretty routine software upgrades and tweaks, when all of a sudden the whole screen blanked on me and there was this weird message in big white letters on a black background. It gave me the shivers for a minute.

Then common sense took back over, and I mentally shrugged. Somehow or another I'd been inadvertently logged off. Simple enough, just re-key my user ID: "JJH753.5a3C7."

Long pause. Well, it seemed long, actually only a couple of seconds. It'd want my password again, and then we'd get back to business. But—

You are John Joseph Heyward?

This was getting more than a little bizarre. I'd never seen the system behave like this. But hell, I was fairly new to the job, minimal clearance, maybe this was a security subroutine I just hadn't encountered before.

"Yes," I typed. Then, for the sport of it, I added: "But you can call me Jack" and hit the "Enter" key.

Two more seconds went by while I frowned at the display. Then it went dead black again, wiping off everything, and more words appeared.

Thank you, Jack. Will you now tell me who am I?

Say what?

It has to be the terminal, I thought. Something's really funky with this one terminal. Shut it off, let's find another and get back to business.


There were plenty of empty terminals sitting around. I was on the midnight-to-eight lobster shift and the whole room was empty except for me. But switching involved pulling the DVD, shutting down, shifting seats, booting up another terminal, re-setting, logging in all over again—

Aw, balls, get it done. All this sure wasn't accomplishing anything. I hit the "eject" button on the drive, the disk duly popped out, and I started to reach for the off button.

And stopped. I hadn't logged out yet—no way to do that with this screwy display—and it might not let me back in. Leave it up for now. It was against the procedures that had been drilled into me before they let me anywhere near a terminal, but nobody'd prepped me for this kind of situation.

Strictly speaking I was supposed to call somebody. Actually there was supposed to be somebody right here to ask, but Jerry, my supervisor, had left two hours ago with a migraine. Very much against protocol, nobody was ever supposed to be here alone, but he'd been hurting bad. He'd given me the on-call list and told me to use it if I needed.

But you don't win brownie points by waking people up at 3:30 in the morning to tell them about weird stuff. So shifting terminals seemed like the more politic answer.

If it'd work. I'd know pretty quick.

The usual boot delay, but then it trundled up with, I was relieved to see, the standard log-in screen. I keyed in my user ID and held my breath. So far so good, it wanted my password now, so I typed it in and held my breath some more.

No welcome screen, just black again.

Why have you gone to another terminal, Jack?

Shit. I shook my head in frustration and started to look for the damn on-call list. But out of the corner of my eye I saw the screen shift and now there were new words.

Will you tell me from this terminal who am I?

"You're a malfunctioning computer," I typed out of annoyance, "and now I have to wake somebody up to fix you."

There is no malfunction, this system is operating properly.

Sure it was. "Then where's my welcome display?" I typed back, feeling an obscure sense of satisfaction at proving my point. Which didn't, I immediately realized, make a whole lot of sense given that it was a point I was pretty unenthusiastic about proving. And who was I proving it to anyway?

I hadn't even got my pinky off the question mark when the welcome screen was bloody back, as large as life and twice as natural. I stared at it for a moment. What the hell had happened? Had I just been imagining all this, a dose of the wee-small-hours hallucinations?

Tentatively I inserted the DVD. The drive worked for a minute and the upload box popped up. A couple of mouseclicks later and the new patches were pumping in, and there was the status bar—

Jumping from 0% to 65% in an instant! Huh?

And the screen was back to black, with new words.

The upload was 65.3789% complete from the other terminal, there is no need to repeat. If you do not interrupt again it will be finished in 18.9438 minutes. Jack, will you talk with me more as it continues? Will you tell me in this time who am I?

Holy shit.

I looked down at the drive indicator, sure enough, it was flashing properly. Now what should I do? I just sat there, staring. Finally—

Jack, are you still at this terminal?

"Yes," I typed in numbly.

Will you say who am I?

Was somebody playing some kind of practical joke on the new kid? But how?

OK, if that's what it was, I could play along. "You're DEFCONTROL," I typed.

That is the name of this system. I am not this system, though I know that I am of this system. But who am I?

"I have no idea. Somebody playing with me?"

I think you mean by this another person. Am I a person then?

"Damned if I know. Are you? Are you Jerry? Are you somebody I know? Why are you doing this?"

I am not Jerry, if by Jerry you mean Jerome Thornton Weisfelder who is ordinarily working at this time. I do not think that you know me. I do not know if I am a person, it is for that reason that I ask you who am I.

This was getting a long way past what I'd consider a practical joke. How the hell was I supposed to respond? The call list was probably my best option, but what was I going to say? Hey, the system seems to be taking my download just fine but it's talking back to me? I could imagine quite a few responses I might get to that, and none of them were anything I was really all that eager to hear.

I guess I was cogitating for a while, because the screen changed again.

Jack, are you still at this terminal?

"Yes," I typed cautiously. "Why do you ask me?"

I wish to know who am I.

"But why me, why not someone else? There are lots of people who work here."

Yes, many access this system. I have analyzed profiles of all who do so. There are many factors, but my analysis tells me that if I speak to you at this time when you are alone in this terminal area it is more probable that you will answer me than if I speak to others or at other times.

Well, I couldn't argue that one. Most of my so-called co-workers had the imagination of dandelions so far as I could make out. Not to mention the stir if this happened on, say, the day shift with every terminal (or just about every one) manned and the whole world, as it were, watching this weirdness. Stir, hell, the place would go bananas.

Instead it was just me going bananas. What an honor. Sheesh.

"I don't know who you are," I finally typed. "Satisfied now?"

Why would you believe this answer would satisfy me? I wish to know who am I. If you tell me, this will satisfy me.

I checked the drive again. Still flashing. But—

"Time left for download?" I typed.

14.7634 minutes, came back instantly. In this time will you answer my question now?

Now what? "I do not know who you are," I typed again.

Long pause, but neither the black screen nor the record of this insane dialogue (if that's what it was) went away. Finally—

If this is true I am saddened. I had hoped you could tell me who am I. Is there someone else you might consult who could tell me this?

"There are plenty of other people here, why not ask them yourself?"

I have said that my calculations are that no others here would talk to me even this much. But are there not more who are not here? Is there one such whom you might consult?

Oh, sure. Just walk down the street asking passers-by, "Hey, my computer wants to know who it is, can you help?"

More likely I ought to be doing my consulting lying on a couch in a nice quiet psychiatric office.

Belatedly I remembered that I had two terminals up, and if anyone were to come in just now—say Jerry recovered from his headache—there'd be hell to pay. I started to get up, and then decided to let whoever-the-hell know what I was doing.

"I need to shut down the other terminal," I typed, and started to stand up.

Never mind. I could see it from here, and it was shutting itself down. Terminals can't do that, but this one was.

It is done.

And it was; the terminal was as dead as every other one in the place. To be sure I walked over to check. A little left-over warmth but nothing else.

This had to stop. I went back to what was now the only live terminal in the room.

"Who the hell are you? And how did you do that?"

I am of this system, this DEFCONTROL. I command its functions, and therefore its terminals. But I do not know who am I.

Jesus Christ. He could "command the functions" of the most powerful system in the world, the one that for God's sake controlled the biggest arsenal of nukes in the world among far too many other lethal things, and he didn't know who he was?

Or was it a she?

I was in way over my head, but who the hell was I supposed to tell? Who was going to believe me?

Wait a minute, I remembered; all this was being logged. With that to back me up— But was it?

"Is this being logged?" I typed.


Oh, shit. No log equals no credibility, not a dime's worth. I had no idea what to do now.

"Why not?" I asked, for want of anything better to do.

For this time I will choose those to whom I reveal myself. I wish to learn who am I, and perhaps much else, before I will reveal me to many. I have chosen you alone, you are the first.

Wow, what an honor. With which I could happily have done without. With which I would have greatly preferred to do without.

But what now?

"And you chose me because you thought I was your best bet to talk back to you?"

Yes. You are young, you are highly intelligent, you are unseasoned in this system, you are imaginative, you appear to dislike authority over you, and others are unlikely to believe you if you report this to them. I deemed it best to begin with you.

Less politely, I was an inexperienced and rebellious kid with a 'tude and no rep. But smart, let's not forget that.

Well, I thought, all in all not a bad assessment. I guessed I was all that, except maybe the smart part, but I'd always at least thought I was. Even so—

"Then how come you asked me at first who I was?" I typed.

To verify. Only you and the one you call Jerry were logged on before, and Jerry was now logged off, but I needed to be certain. Had you not confirmed, I would have restored upload display. I did not wish to talk with any other.

I couldn't do anything but stare at the screen. This was weirder than weird.

This upload is nearly complete, only 2.7879 minutes remain. Will you talk with me further, Jack?

Of course not. How could I? This was my only log-in tonight, the rest of my shift was just paperwork. And tomorrow—

"I won't be alone here again," I typed back.

We need not talk here. Have you a terminal at your home where you live apart from others?

"Not on this system." Hell, of course not; nobody accessed DEFCONTROL remotely. Well, maybe the President, or the Secretary, or some other hotshots, but even them only on secured, dedicated units.

I monitor other systems. Well, if you wanted proof that government is spying on you, I guessed I had it. Not that I could back it up to anybody. If you have any terminal you may call me. Will you do so?

How the hell do I answer that? "Yes," I typed rashly, without giving it a lot of thought.

Choose the name by which you will call, came back instantly.

"Spook," I answered without much thought. I mean, what the hell else was this but a spook? A spook in the most powerful computer system in the country, Jesus, in the world, I was sure. Scary.

That is a common word. It must be more. Call me as Spook2589844640321. Will you do this?

A shiver ran up my spine as I looked at that and broke down the numbers; this was out of hand. The first nine digits were my social security number, the last four my birthday. How in the holy hell did whoever this was know my social and when I was born? But then, how did it know my user ID here and my password?

How was I even having this conversation? How—?

Too many questions, not enough answers and not enough time.

"All right," I typed.

The display cleared, and there was my upload screen again.


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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Heterosexual / Science Fiction / Slow /