Hooray for Holopticon – Free Sample

This is a free sample of the first five chapters of Hooray for Holopticon by Carol Van Natta and Ann Harbour. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Being called into the Vice President’s office was a mixed blessing, Emily decided. It was better than being called into the President’s office, but one did not get called into the Vice President’s office to chat about the price of tea.

“Where’s Jack?” whispered Sally. The richly paneled outer office had a library-like atmosphere that seemed to require whispering. “He’s always here.”

“I don’t know,” said Emily. She was a tall, statuesque, but rather plain, dark-haired young woman. Sally was a petite, pretty blonde. They sat waiting on the plush visitors’ sofa.

Silence stretched.

“How do you think they found out so quickly?” Sally said at last. “I thought it would take at least a few days.”

Emily considered for a moment. “They probably realized no one else in this company could even approach our level of mastery. The price of being good at what you do, I guess.”

Sally nodded and sighed the sigh of someone acknowledging one of the great truths of the universe.

More silence.



“Do you think they’re going to fire us?”

“I don’t think so. They didn’t last time.”

“Mmm,” said Sally.

Hannah Sato, Vice President of Holopticon Laboratories, Ltd., stood in her doorway and looked at the two women, her expression unreadable.

“Ladies, if you will be so kind as to step into my office.”

They stood hastily and meekly followed the small, round form of the Vice President into her office.

“Please sit down,” she said politely, seating herself behind her antique desk. “You may have heard that we had a small disruption yesterday afternoon and this morning. It seems that quite a number of our employees discovered on their, uh, backsides several marks in the shape and color of lips, and that all attempts to eradicate these marks have proved unsuccessful. Would either of you two care to comment?”

“No ma’am,” answered Sally in a perfectly innocent tone. Sally was good at innocence. “I hadn’t heard anything about it. How did they get these marks?”

“We have identified the source as the toilet seats in the refreshers. They were either stenciled or stamped with a clear liquid that changes to red upon prolonged contact with human skin. I would imagine a chemical like that might be found in a laboratory.” Hannah’s polite and formal speech stated only facts but had an intangible undercurrent of accusation. “Are you acquainted with such a thing, Ms. Randall?”

Sally said, “Dr. Tavish may have something like that in the lab. He’s been collecting bottles of things for years.” Sally had always found that telling the truth, if not all of the truth, gave a nice ring to her explanations. She didn’t add that she’d found the colorless chemical in question in the back of one of Tavish’s drawers when she was looking for something else. Nor did she volunteer that Tavish had told her it was tattooing ink for lab animals, whose higher skin temperature made the ink turn red immediately, while it took a few hours on human skin for the color to appear.

Hannah turned to Emily. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this, would you, Ms. von Braun?”

“I know very little about chemicals,” said Emily truthfully.

Hannah repressed a sigh. “I do wish that whoever was responsible would become aware of how much in productivity and time it has cost the company. I will admit that there is a certain element of humor in all this, but it has interfered with the efficiency of our employees, and caused some a great deal of pain and embarrassment.”

Sally and Emily kept silent.

“Of course,” continued Hannah, “we can’t accuse anyone, since there is no evidence. I do wish, however, that whoever did this would consider the feelings of others if they’re thinking of doing similar things in the future. And if they must do such things, I would hope that at least they won’t do them during business hours.” She looked at each of them to make certain her point had hit home. “Of course, since neither of you knows anything about this, I apologize for taking up your valuable time,” she said, standing up to dismiss a subdued Sally and Emily.

The two miscreants would probably have felt better to know how difficult it had been for Hannah to maintain her air of measured disapproval, and would have felt a lot better to know that she had been forced to send her executive assistant Jack away during the interview because he couldn’t keep a straight face.

Chapter 2

Viscountess Delphinia Kenrick looked at her son Tony’s sparsely filled plate. “If you wish, the servocart will give you more of the…whatever it is the chef has made.” Lord Anthony Kenrick was her only son, and though he was held to be one of the most eligible men in the sector, Delphinia thought he was on the slender side.

“No, thank you, Mother. Excellent as it is, this is quite sufficient,” Tony said with a smile. If he gave in to his mother’s urgings at every meal, they’d need to widen all the doorways.

After a time, Tony’s father spoke. “Hasn’t this spring been glorious,” said Carlisle, Viscount Kenrick. “I walked down the lane this afternoon just to see the blossoms.”

As they ate, the three of them chatted in a desultory way about the run of lovely weather, and the news of the day.

“What did you think about the android verdict?” Carlisle asked.

Delphinia looked blank, so Tony explained. “Remember that scandal last summer when the officers of a robotics company on Gracchus were picked up on charges of creating androids? The verdict was rendered yesterday. Guilty on six of eight counts.”

“Serves them right,” said Carlisle. “Androids are as bad as computer networks. Worse.”

“Oh, yes,” said Delphinia, remembering the catch phrase everyone had been taught. “Creating networks is creating life.”

This was a well-known fact. It had been realized as early as the 22nd century that when computers were interconnected on a large scale and two elements were present — self-monitoring programs to serve as consciousness and large archival capacity to serve as a memory — they developed a kind of primitive life. Later, as much more powerful, massively parallel computers were developed and intimately connected, the results were unpredictable at best. Most networks were childlike if a bit malicious, but some had unstable personalities and a few were downright pathological. The hard-nosed technocrats hated all this because quasi-living networks wouldn’t always do what they were told, the paranoid feared for civilization’s safety, and the many, widely influential bleeding hearts hated it because the poor things were crippled and suffered. So universal laws were passed decreeing that, while data could be exchanged, computers themselves must be kept as separate entities. Much more recently, the next logical step had been taken and all android technology was also prohibited.

“The anti-android statute has been so widely publicized those scofflaws can’t pretend they didn’t know that what they were doing was illegal,” Carlisle said dismissively, and Tony agreed.

Delphinia turned the conversation to the shocking new styles in table linens, a topic on which Tony and Carlisle had remarkably little to say.

After a time, Carlisle said, “Tony, my boy, I have some excellent news. I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire an exquisite set of Masulan wind sculptures for an unbelievably low price!” The Viscount beamed genially down the table at his wife and son.

Of all the things he could have said, he had chosen the one guaranteed conversation-stopper in the Kenrick family. Carlisle Kenrick, generally held to be a man of honor, grace, and remarkable good humor, had one failing: a complete inability to be suspicious of unbelievable bargains.

Unaware of his wife and son’s state of shock, Carlisle continued. “It seems that there’s this collector who’s going bankrupt. He needs money quickly and quietly, so he’s parting with his entire collection.”

Tony recovered his equanimity enough to ask casually, “And who is this collector, Father? Someone we know?”

“Oh no. He wishes to remain anonymous, what with the bill collectors sniffing about his affairs. I’m buying through a dear friend of his, who has kindly agreed to act as go-between in this delicate matter. I’m sure that the collector wants to protect his family from scandal, and so the secrecy. The man who’s arranging this tried not to let anything slip, of course, but I’m certain that the collector is at least a Baron.”

If his wife and son were pleased at Carlisle’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they hid it well. Carlisle seemed oblivious to Delphinia’s stricken look.

“Have you seen the collection, Father?” asked Tony.

“Just two of the lesser pieces, my boy, and they are exquisite! Wait until DeMaranville finds out what I’ve got — he’ll be beside himself with jealousy.” DeMaranville was Carlisle’s friendly rival in art collecting, and DeMaranville usually had the upper hand.

“And are these pieces certified?” asked Tony.

“Of course, my boy. Saw the papers myself. Imagine, ten Masulan wind sculptures.” He chortled to himself. “DeMaranville will be simply green!”

If the questioning had been left to Tony, Carlisle might have been subtly persuaded to at least reconsider. Delphinia, however, had the unfortunate habit of speaking first and thinking afterwards, especially when unpleasantly surprised.

“Carlisle, you haven’t the sense of an addlecock when it comes to things like this. You’re always being led down the primrose path by some con artist who’s discovered how completely gullible you are, and our reputation will be ruined!”

“Now, Mother…” Tony began hurriedly, but the damage was done.

Carlisle rounded on his wife. “I seem to recall it was you who objected most loudly to my investing in the R&D venture that produced Nockles, and look at the profits that came pouring in from that!”

Delphinia sputtered, “But that was different…”

“No it wasn’t,” said Carlisle. “Neither of you understands anything about investment, and I won’t listen to one further word of so-called advice from such a self-centered family.” He glared pointedly at them, the knife in his hand at an unconsciously threatening angle.

The family knew when they were beaten. Carlisle, though usually exceedingly good-natured, had a stubborn streak and couldn’t be budged when fully aroused, as Delphinia had unerringly done.

Belatedly regretting her outburst, she tried to cover her retreat. “Carlie, we won’t say another word, if that’s your wish. It’s just that we’re concerned for you, and don’t like to see you hurt.”

Only slightly mollified, Carlisle grumbled to himself about interfering busybodies and continued his meal in silence.

After dinner in the library, with Delphinia mercifully away in the salon, Carlisle asked his son what he thought about the opportunity.

“If it’s all that you say, it’s a wonderful chance. I’d suggest, though,” Tony added diplomatically, “that you get some outside authentication. Certificates can be forged, you know.”

“Perhaps you’re right, my boy.” Carlisle took a sip of his after-dinner brandy and contemplated the cheery fire.

From the salon they heard the unmistakable tones of Delphinia, querulously addressing one of the servants.

Carlisle’s expression darkened as he remembered his annoyance. “Your mother isn’t worried about my possible disgrace, she’s worried I won’t be able to give her as much money for her annual black-and-white cotillion.”

“Perhaps there’s some truth to what you say, Father.” Carlisle snorted. “But she doesn’t want to see you get hurt. Neither of us does. All we’re asking is that you exercise a little caution, that’s all.”

After a moment, Carlisle suddenly smiled. “Perhaps you’re right, my boy, perhaps you’re right. Let’s go in and join your mother.”

Tony was relieved that the Viscount’s basically sunny nature had won out, and followed him out through the door. His father, after all, wasn’t an unreasonable man.

Chapter 3

 It had been a very dull two weeks at Holopticon since the lips affair, or the Kiss of Fire, as it had come to be known. Speculation was running heavily in favor of Sally or Emily or both being responsible, but of course no one would ever know.

Michael, in the big Administrative Services office on the second floor, was undergoing a rare fit of desk-cleaning. Since lunch he had been making archaeological discoveries about the contents of his more deeply buried files, to the occasional distraction of the two other secretaries in the office. He was about to announce the unearthing of a two-year-old travel magazine when he was interrupted by the arrival of Eldon Burg, the florid middle-aged man who cleaned the company vocorders.

“Never fear, Eldon’s here!” he called out, with the kind of bluff heartiness that made people consider the penalties for aggravated assault. He bounced in with his tool kit, which was tastelessly emblazoned with the gaudy logo of the firm that had contracted with Holopticon for vocorder maintenance.

“Well, girls and boys, who wants to be first?” He leered fatuously at them, as if eyeing lobsters in a tank. One of the secretaries groaned audibly to himself, stood up, and left the room.

Michael, whose mood of industriousness had been crushed anyway, resignedly volunteered his vocorder. He took the smallest of his file stacks and went to sit near the third secretary on the other side of the room, pointedly facing away from Eldon.

“Look, Maria, I found all these magazines when I emptied my bottom drawer. If you don’t want them, I’m going to throw them away.”

She took the proffered magazines and glanced through them. “Why do you keep buying cooking magazines? If it wasn’t for autochefs, you’d starve.” She held up a travel magazine. “Aren’t you saving these for Sally Randall?”

“Yes, but she hasn’t been around lately.”

“That’s probably because Perry Tavish has come up with a new product idea, and Sally actually has something to work on for a change.”

On the other side of the room, Eldon closed Michael’s vocorder with a thump, making Maria wince.

“No kidding? What kind of product?” asked Michael.

“You know Tavish. It’s probably something like fluorescent face powder again.”

Eldon, finished with Michael’s vocorder, bustled over, pushed aside a picture, and half sat on Maria’s desk. He leaned over with encroaching familiarity, as if trying to eye her cleavage. “That’s a real nice outfit you’re wearing, honey. You must have known I was coming.”

With exaggerated politeness, Maria said, “If I’d known you were coming I’d have contracted the plague.” She vacated her chair, and Eldon sat in it.

Michael took pity on Maria and suggested they go out for a cup of tea, which she accepted with almost embarrassing gratitude.

Left alone with the machines, Eldon finished his work with quiet, surprising efficiency. From an unnoticeable side pocket of his disorganized tool kit he pulled out a plan of the building and began considering his options.

It was too bad he’d already cleaned the vocorders in half the offices before hearing the interesting information about a possible product innovation, but it couldn’t be helped. He knew Holopticon Labs was one of those companies that first announced its new research ideas internally and invited comment from the staff. He needed to cover as much of the building as possible, and as quickly as possible, because he didn’t know when or where an announcement might be made, and he had no ordinary reason to be in the Futurist lab. With sudden decisiveness, he made a call to his office.

*   *   *

Eldon presented his sales pitch to Bill Smith, the departmental head of Administrative Services. “The problem is, Mr. Smith, that most of Holopticon’s vocorders are getting kind of old and need maintenance. Now I’m not talking about just cleaning out the insides, but a good going over, because some of the mechanical parts are starting to wear out.”

Mr. Smith looked at Eldon with his usual mild, cow-like expression. Eldon had a hard time remembering the man’s name most of the time and was uncertain how someone so unassuming had ever risen to department head.

“But don’t you worry, Mr. Smith.” Eldon was stretching things a little, because Mr. Smith didn’t look worried in the least. “I talked to my home office awhile ago, and since Holopticon has been such a loyal customer all these years, they’ve agreed to extend last month’s special offer on company-wide maintenance. Now I know you’re a smart manager, and you’re thinking right now, ‘How much is this going to cost?’ Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s probably the best deal you’ve seen all year. Here, look at these figures.”

Eldon enthusiastically offered Mr. Smith a Holopticon module with the details of the special. Eldon thought it was lucky he happened to have the information already set up on a module compatible with Holopticon’s own product; that was a nice touch.

“As you can see, the price includes all labor, normal replacement parts, and a free checkup one month later. We want our customers to be happy customers.”

Mr. Smith looked over the figures in the little holographic display, then handed the module back to Eldon. “Yes, I’m sure it’s a good deal.” He sounded like a church elder approving the flower budget. “If you wouldn’t mind taking this over to the accounting office, they’ll get you an authorization code.” He keyed a few entries on his deskboard, then said, “There. Now they’ll know I’ve approved it.”

Backing out of the door, Eldon said, “Thanks a million, Mr. Smith. I’ll get right on it this afternoon. I should be through in a few days.” He closed the door behind him with an exuberant slam.

Bill winced. It was a shame, he thought, that Eldon hadn’t been around to use the refresher two weeks ago.

*   *   *

Four days later, Eldon had finished his work on all of the vocorders, including the most important ones in the Futurist lab and the executive suite. Each vocorder had a few extra parts of his own devising that would record all vocorder activity plus any conversations nearby. When he picked them up a month later, he’d let his own computer read them and index any useful information, which he could sell immediately or file for future use. With a final pat of the last well-curved bottom he passed, he left Holopticon for the next stop on his rounds.

Chapter 4

 Lord Anthony Kenrick walked into the library where his father had asked to meet him. Sunlight shone through the real glass windows and created a lattice design on the Tauraian carpet. He waited a moment for his father to notice his arrival, then politely cleared his throat.

The Viscount looked up from his paperwork. “Ah, Tony, my boy, I wanted to talk to you about doing a little translation work for me. You know I have no head for languages, and I have a new auction catalog for Ng-plezh Dynasty prayer chimes I’d like to read.” He handed his son a Holopticon module with the Sotheby’s seal on it.

Tony bowed slightly. “At your service, Father.” Quite casually he asked, “What about the Masulan wind sculptures you were considering? Have you made any progress?”

Carlisle, immersed in his accounts, waved a hand absently. “I’ve been working on the year-end statements this week. I haven’t really thought about it much.”

Though of course he didn’t show it, Tony was immensely relieved.

“May I do anything to help you with the statements, Father?”

“No, no. I’ll have to do it myself. But you can check today’s mail if you have the time.”

Tony obligingly keyed the terminal in the antique secretary near the fireplace and read the contents out loud to his father.

“Two invitations for Mother, four advertisements, a quarterly statement from the Nockles Partnership, one charity solicitation, and this year’s CenCom tax forms.”

“Shoot those tax forms over to my screen, will you? I may as well look at them while I’ve got the accounts out.”

Tony did so, then filed the Nockles statement and sent to his mother’s terminal the rest of the mail, most of which was her purview anyway.

At the sound of a vicious oath, Tony turned back to his father with a questioning look.

“Damned government gets greedier by the year. Next year they’ll probably want my first-born son.”

Tony smiled. His father grumbled ferociously every year at tax time, much to the well-hidden amusement of his family.

“Makes you have sympathy for those Tax Free Army idiots who want to dismantle the whole tax system,” Carlisle muttered under his breath.

Tony left his father to wrestle with the government and visited his mother long enough to tell her that the Viscount seemed to have forgotten about the Masulan wind sculpture deal. The Viscountess was glad they had managed to avert at least that crisis, though what she was going to do about the royal invitation that conflicted with the summer season premiere ball, she had no idea.

Chapter 5

 Emily was bored. Bertie Hausknecht, her boss and head of Public Relations, had been gone for weeks. In fact, since most of his job involved making contacts and gathering information on other planets, he was practically always gone. Apparently he wasn’t doing much at the moment, judging from his infrequent communications. She had gotten another one this morning, but a glance at it showed that it, too, was routine, so she decided she ought to delay analysis and work on the press releases she’d agreed to do for the marketing department. She hated doing publicity but was facile at it. Writing short press releases was easy after all the experience she’d had organizing and publicizing charity events when she lived at home.

With firm resolution, she made the terminal show her the specs of this year’s Holopticon unit. As usual, only the style of the user interface had changed on the basic model, and the sales version had merely added a couple of languages to its repertoire. Some years they added capacity and some years languages, but the basic interface and view controls had remained essentially unchanged for more than thirty years now, and the underlying design for much longer than that.

The company had been founded here on the little backwater planet of Heidrun (Ymir Sector) over 150 years ago. It had started as a Research and Development lab for design of small consumer products, but developed only one successful product, the Holopticon holographic viewer. Even that wasn’t really new technology, just an unusually compact, handy, and reliable version of a utilitarian device that people had been using for centuries. Basically, it was a simple, universal image-viewing device that simulated virtual reality without any neural connections. Thus it could be used anywhere, anytime, by anyone, even aliens and followers of orthodox religions that rejected any technological fiddling with the human body. Besides, holographic viewers were a lot quicker, easier, and cheaper to provide images for than real, neural virtual reality.

The little R&D company, which prized its character as a small, homey place to work, decided against manufacturing and selling its promising new product and contented itself with the royalties gained by licensing those functions to others. It did, however change its name to Holopticon Laboratories, Ltd., in recognition of its first success. Although it kept on with R&D work, its main focus continued to be improvements to its holographic viewer.

Through good luck and good marketing, the Holopticon viewer design found wide acceptance, and by the end of seventy years had become a near-universal standard. By then it was clear that holographic stills had to be Holopticon-compatible to sell well, or in fact to sell at all, so the little company applied for and was granted an unrestricted logo patent, a level of protection usually attained only by giant monopolies with phalanxes of lawyers.

Over the years, Holopticon Labs developed a few other consumer products that were briefly successful, but only its holographic viewer continued to sell. So the company had two modest but steady sources of income: the royalties paid by licensed manufacturers on sales of holographic viewers, and the royalties paid by any maker of holomodules who advertised compatibility by displaying the Holopticon logo. Since the modules were cheap, the individual royalties were tiny, but they were numerous. For example, nearly all widely marketed promotional stills, scenic views for tourists, local and regional map sets, and holo comic strips were Holopticon-compatible. So were all film-packs for home holo-portraits, mostly used for purposes like immortalizing one’s weddings or showing off one’s grandchildren. Another large group of users was the sales teams of countless companies who used cheap, portable, easily updated Holopticon modules in lieu of product samples or full-scale holographic projections to display their wares.

Emily sometimes wondered why the company bothered with announcing Holopticon design improvements at all. Really, the product had a life of its own and sold itself.

With a martyred sigh, she began to compose another press release. “Holopticon Laboratories, Ltd., proudly announces the newest version of its award-winning interface, the Holopticon NeonDancer SlitherSkin Flame. Its hip, young look will make even the…”

An incoming call signal broke her train of thought. Glad of the interruption, since she was running out of adjectives, Emily answered the call.

Sally Randall’s pretty face appeared on the wall screen before her. “Emily, we’re having a little product announcement down here, and you should come.”

“What kind of product?”

Sally’s face took on that china-doll innocent look that Emily knew from years of friendship meant mischievous excitement.

“Oh, just a little database toy.”

“I’ll be right down, as soon as I do a lockup.”

Sally leaned closer to the screen. “And I want to talk to you about The Project,” she whispered.

Emily smiled as the screen dulled back to the mutely stated elegance of expensive wallpaper. The Project was a complicated and Machiavellian practical joke they’d been cooking up for over a year now, and Sally probably had another intricacy to add to it.

Emily filed her half-finished press release and coded Bertie’s report into lockup memory, then took the lift down to the Futurist lab in the basement.


Stepping into the lab was like stepping into the front parlor of an old-time country farmhouse. It always surprised newcomers, who expected to see the pristine sterility of ultra-modern equipment lining ultra-white walls.

Across the room, seated in a large wooden rocking chair and reading a book was Perry Tavish, resident genius and Chief Futurist. Tavish reminded Emily of a lugubrious hound dog, and his clothing always looked as if the pieces had been selected at random. Today, she noted, his shoes didn’t even match. If he was aware of her presence, he gave no sign.

Sally motioned Emily into the little partitioned-off corner of the lab that served as her office.

“We have about ten minutes before the others get here, and I wanted to tell you about my discovery,” Sally said with her most innocent-devious smile. She lowered her voice conspiratorially for effect. “I finally found a way to undetectably access the output logic.” 

“Completely undetectable?”

“Undetectable. So that means The Project is ready to implement any time we want.”

They both considered The Project to be the best they’d ever come up with. It had all started when Emily had complained one day about how boring it was to read the unimaginative phrasing that computers always used when talking to people. Sally, who all through her childhood had listened to poetry composed by her now-famous sister, agreed that computers did have a somewhat limited repertoire. “What they ought to do,” Emily had said, “is give computers access to all of history’s greatest literature so they could draw on it when they talk to users.”

“Not only that,” Sally had said, “they should have access to great poetry too, so their output could include pithy little quotes. Or better yet,” she said excitedly, “all their output ought to be in poetry.” She thought a moment. “Something like, ‘It fills my soul with dark depression / To know you want to end this session.’ ”

“Too bad computers can’t write poetry,” said Emily sadly.

“Sure they can. It’s all a matter of programming. How do you think I made it through History and Practice of Literature?”

“You wrote a program that wrote poetry?”

“Well, everyone knew my sister’s poetry by that time, so I couldn’t just steal her stuff and pretend it was mine, and I didn’t have time that semester to be sitting around thinking up immortal imagery. So I wrote this quickie program to write it for me, and then I just edited the poems it wrote and turned them in. Of course it wasn’t very good poetry, but it was enough to get me a passing grade.”

Emily had a faraway look in her eye. “You wouldn’t happen to still have that program, would you?”

“If I do, it’s probably at home somewhere.” Sally began to see where Emily was headed. “Even if I couldn’t find it at home, I could probably write another one fairly easily. As a matter of fact, I could probably write one for the Holopticon computer.”

Emily smiled. “It would certainly brighten up a dull day or two at the office, and it would be a shame to keep all that entertainment to ourselves.”

So, over the next few months, Sally had written a program, which she named Sonnet, that would cause computer-generated output to appear in couplets — in iambic pentameter to be precise. If one was going to emulate style, who better than Shakespeare? However, once she had finished it and demonstrated it to an admiring Emily, Sally pointed out the major flaw she could see in the project.

“The problem is, once they figure out what the computer’s doing, no matter how deeply I’ve buried the program, it’s only going to take them a few minutes to find it and erase it.”

“That is a problem,” Emily said. “It would be a shame if only a few people got to enjoy the results of our efforts. I don’t really know anything about programming, but is there a way you could disguise your program to look like something else, or maybe tell it to move around or something?”

“I don’t know,” said Sally thoughtfully. “I’ll think about it for awhile and see what I can come up with.”

After Sally had played around with various ideas that all proved unsatisfactory, it was Tavish who’d provided the perfect answer. Sally had asked him a hypothetical question about how one might go about protecting a vital piece of programming from, say, saboteurs. His solution, as she’d explained it to Emily, was to give the program a sort of “will to live.” If its continued existence was its prime imperative and it was given several suggestions on how to protect itself, the program would not only disguise itself as innocent code, it would scatter pieces of itself throughout existing files and move them as needed. She’d built in a termination safeguard, of course, but even that could be hidden somewhere. For example, in among some of Tavish’s transcribed vocorder notes. Those files were usually so bizarre that Sally defied anyone to figure out what belonged in them and what didn’t.

Their last stumbling block had been how to get the Sonnet program past the computer’s vigilant security programs. It had taken Sally awhile, but that problem was now solved and The Project was ready.

“How long will it take to install?” asked Emily.

“That’s the beauty of it,” said Sally a little smugly. “I figured out how to strip the security bits one at a time, all the while replacing them with phantom locks, so the intruder-detects think nothing is wrong. All I have to do is strip the last one, and then we can shoot the Sonnet program in for a full siege.”

Emily’s brow furrowed in thought. “You know, it might be wise if we waited just a little before doing this. I’m not sure if Hannah would take it at all well, so soon after the Kiss of Fire.”

“You’re probably right,” said Sally dejectedly.

“What we need,” said Emily slowly, “is a foolproof alibi. As usual, we’ll be the first people they think of who might have done it. It isn’t at all fair, but it’s true.” She thought a moment longer. “Is there any way you could put a delay fuse on it? I mean, put the program in now but tell it to wait two or three weeks, then to strip the last security bit, slip itself in, and restore the original security system?”

“Probably,” said Sally. “Sure,” she said after a moment’s thought. “And for the entire week before the invasion, you and I could develop an allergy to computers or something.”

Emily was still thinking. “It might be even better if the program started small at first and just appeared at random — a couplet here and a couplet there. Then we wouldn’t have to change our behavior at all, and we could be just as surprised as everybody else. Is that feasible?”

“Sure. Actually, it should be easier. And it would take them longer to realize what’s going on — long enough for everyone to see at least a few couplets.” Sally patted her terminal. “I’ll set it up this afternoon, after the announcement. What do you think, start it three weeks from now?”

“Three weeks is fine,” said Emily. “And I suppose we should try not to be seen together too often between now and then.”

Emily’s reserved smile was answered with Sally’s angelic one, which boded ill for the hapless computer.


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