It took long enough. Carl came up with the original concept back in 1985 and we had a complete novel by 1993. The Spartacus File was a hard sell due to being fairly short, me being primarily a fantasy writer rather than SF, and Carl being an unknown, and we had to keep revising it in order to keep the computer tech up to date. (Of course, it's out of date now.)
But in 2005 we finally took it to Wildside, and got it into print. (Self-publishing did not yet look like a good option at the time.)
Incidentally, sometimes when people see a collaboration between a well-known author and a far more obscure one, they assume that the obscure one did all the work, writing the story from an idea or outline by the better-known author. That's not the case here at all; what happened was that Carl came up with the central concept and characters, and I wrote the story because I liked the premise.
Then one day a computer glitch selects the wrong file, and Casper Beech is accidentally programmed with a top-secret package of government software called the Spartacus File...
The Spartacus File
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
and Carl Parlagreco
A siren screamed somewhere on the streets below, then faded, and Casper Beech tried hard not to take it as an evil omen.
But who needed evil omens at a time like this? Any time he got called in to see the boss, it had to be bad news. Casper's life had been an ongoing demonstration of just how horrible the alleged Chinese curse, "May you come to the attention of people in high places," could be.
He supposed it had been bad enough even in the old days, before the Crisis, before everything, as the propaganda put it, had been made more efficient to meet the economic challenges of the twenty-first century. Now, though, when all the people in high places, all the bosses, were working together, it was hell. Any time he had to talk to the boss, his life got worse.
But maybe this time wouldn't be too bad.
He hesitated in the doorway of the cubicle, peering in. "You wanted to see me, Mr. Quinones?" he asked.
Quinones looked up, smiled, then leaned back in his chair. The chair did not squeak, as Casper's would have, but sighed faintly as the cushion reshaped itself under his weight. Behind Quinones the city's towers were visible through the broad expanse of window, towers that formed a panorama of glass and concrete glittering in the sun. A vapor trail straggled across the sky.
"Ah, yes, Casper," Quinones said. "Please, come in and have a seat."
Casper entered, his feet silent on the thick carpet, and nervously perched himself on the hard edge of a handy chair.
Quinones leaned forward again, and pulled at a file folder on his desk. His screens were folded down out of sight, as usual -- he was fond of saying that his work was with people, not computers. "I'd like to discuss your job performance, Casper," he said, opening the folder.
"Is there some complaint?" Casper asked uneasily. If he'd screwed up a liability trace he was dead, he knew it -- but he didn't think he had.
Of course, someone could have complained anyway.
"Not exactly." Quinones smiled. He turned over a few pages in the folder without bothering to look at them; it was clear to Casper that the documents were just props, something to keep his hands busy, to help him time his words for maximum dramatic effect. Anything important would have been on a screen, not on paper.
"Casper," Quinones said jovially, "we've come to the conclusion that your job skills are outdated. We need to keep up with the latest software, you know, and we're going to. An entire new system will be installed over the coming weekend, and it doesn't look like you'll know how to run it."
"No, sir," Casper admitted, "I probably won't." Damn, he thought, am I about to be fired? If he once lost this job he'd probably never find another one anywhere in the Consortium, and outside firms didn't pay enough for him to live on. He was still paying off his parents' legal fees; any cut in his income would mean he'd starve.
He couldn't stop paying the debts, or they'd come and take everything he owned, up to and including a few body parts.
If he starved, though, that wasn't their problem.
"We've considered our alternatives," Quinones told him, leaning back again. "It's not cost-effective to re-train you by ordinary methods -- it's simply too time-consuming. And bringing in someone new to do the work wouldn't be any better -- again, too time-consuming. We need to have someone running traces within minutes after the new software comes on-line next Monday morning -- minutes, Casper." He waggled a fat finger to emphasize his point, then continued, "We have come to the conclusion that the most practical course of action -- the only practical course of action, really -- will be to send you in for a full course of imprinting in the use of the new software."
For a moment that didn't register; then the words sank in. Oh, God, Casper thought, neuro-imprinting is supposed to hurt like hell. He pressed down into his chair; he hated pain.
At least this meant he still had his job, though. He wouldn't have to join the unemployed and homeless, living in the streets. He'd still have both kidneys.
"I suppose it's for the best," he said, his voice thin and weak.
"We think so," Quinones said. Once again, he produced his artificial smile, this time a variant that was probably meant to be comforting and paternal. "And, Casper," he added, "you won't be the only one. We've made arrangements with NeuroTalents for a group discount. We'll be having quite a few people imprinted."
"And I got lucky enough to be sent off first?" Casper asked.
Quinones nodded, deaf to the feeble sarcasm. "The work schedule decided it. You're the most available at the moment."
Casper remembered the list of jobs he had found on his screen when he had arrived at the office half an hour before, and he wondered what his co-workers were faced with if that schedule left him "most available." He made no comment on that; he just nodded and asked, "When do I go?"
"You'll see Dr. Jalali this afternoon for a physical. Assuming she doesn't find anything that would keep you from going, you're scheduled for tomorrow morning at ten."
Casper suppressed a shudder. "I suppose it's well to get it over with quickly," he said, trying unsuccessfully to force a smile.
Quinones nodded. "And you'll need a day or two for the new information to settle in," he said blithely. Casper shuddered, and his discomfort with the idea finally seemed to register with his superior. "Don't worry about the imprinting," Quinones told him, with another falsely paternal smile. "Those problems they had in the early days have all been taken care of. You'll be fine."
Casper nodded. "I'm not worried about that," he lied. He was quite sure Quinones had never been imprinted, and never would be if he could help it. The bosses didn't need to worry about such things. The Consortium took care of its managers, and the Democratic-Republican Party took care of the Consortium.
Anyone who wasn't in the Consortium or the Party, though, was on his own.
"Good," Quinones said. He closed the folder. "And Casper, don't worry about coming in to work tomorrow, either. Just go straight over to NeuroTalents in the morning, and relax afterwards." He smiled beneficently, as if he had just conferred a great favor.
The smug bastard probably thought he had, Casper told himself. Aloud, he said, "Thank you. That will be nice."
A moment later Casper slipped out of the office and wove his way back across the big room to his own little niche, where he collapsed into his chair. He sat motionless, sunk in gloomy inertia for several minutes before he managed to lift his fingers back onto the keyboard and start the day's first liability trace.
A California drug company had sold a Mexican factory a bad batch of stimulants and killed three workers. The drug company was a member of the Consortium, but its insurance company wasn't; the factory was Consortium-owned, as well, and had no insurance. Casper's job was to trace ownership, liability, and contract terms to establish just who should sue whom in order to ensure that the Consortium, its member companies, and their stockholders either lost as little money as possible, or, if it could be arranged, made as much as possible off the incident.
He began the search, calling up personnel files on the dead workers and their families, with notations on what waivers had been signed, and when.
Imprinting was not something he looked forward to, but his mood improved as he worked. New software might make traces like this less tedious, and the imprinting would be quick, at any rate.
And he still had his job. That was the most important thing. He wouldn't starve.
Within an hour he was over most of his depression.
Casper got the call to report to Dr. Jalali around 2:00; he shut down his screen and headed down to the medical offices on the third floor. The checkup was routine; the scanners found nothing which would prevent Casper from taking the imprinting as scheduled.
He had mixed feelings about that. It was nice to know he was healthy, and his brain activity normal, but he almost wished that they had found a neural anomaly or something that would keep him from accepting an imprint.
Of course, if he had had such a problem, he would have lost his job -- but it wouldn't have been for cause, and he might have qualified for a disability income, or even have been able to swing a discrimination-against-the-handicapped suit. He'd heard the Party sometimes used those to keep companies in line.
No, he told himself as he pulled his shirt back on, that was daydreaming. Nobody won discrimination suits against a member of the Consortium, and Data Trace was a member in good standing. They had access to the best lawyers in the world--and of course, to people like himself, who would find ways to re-route any responsibility.
And it didn't matter; his brain was perfectly healthy. Dr. Jalali said so. She had told him that he could take the imprint without any trouble at all.
He sighed, and headed back to his cubicle.
When Cecelia Grand called to say she had to work late at the law office, he snatched at the chance to cancel their date -- he was too worried about the imprinting to deal with Cecelia and her whims. Instead he spent the evening home alone, drinking cheap beer and playing old, faded CDs until he finally fell into bed around midnight.
That was Tuesday.
Wednesday morning he awoke at the usual time without meaning to; since his appointment was at ten he had intended to sleep late. Instead he took his time over breakfast, and left his apartment an hour later than usual.
He reached NeuroTalents in plenty of time despite his dawdling, and walked slowly through the Institute's lobby, admiring the fountains and the greenery that grew toward the high glass ceiling. Studying the scenery put the inevitable off for another minute or two.
NeuroTalents's receptionist was a handsome young man; the way he was dressed made Casper feel shabby.
Which was reasonable, really -- Casper was shabby. He knew it, but he didn't like to admit it.
"May I help you?" the receptionist asked.
"I hope so," Casper said uneasily. "I'm scheduled for an imprinting at ten. The name is Casper Beech, 3-036-94-7318."
The young man sucked on his teeth as he checked his screen. "Ah, yes," he said, "I have it here. We've received your records and the report from Dr. Jalali." He pulled a form from a tray and added, "If you would just sign this waiver of liability, we'll take care of you immediately."
Casper read over the form; it was a standard corporate waiver, with NeuroTalents and his employer agreeing to cover any medical expenses that were incurred in exchange for his forfeiting his right to sue.
He grimaced. He was already uncomfortable about the procedure, and this waiver was not encouraging in the least. Every day at work he saw reports on what could happen to people who signed these.
It wasn't as though he had any real choice, though. He signed the form and handed it back.
The receptionist checked the signature against a display on his screen, then nodded. "Very good, Mr. Beech," he said. "If you would take that elevator there up to the fourth floor, a technician will see you."
He was even more nervous than he had realized; when he first tried to give his floor the elevator answered, "We're sorry, sir, but your order was not understood."
"Four, please," Casper repeated, trying unsuccessfully to distract himself by wondering, as he had for years, why public computers were almost always programmed to speak of themselves in the plural.
When he reached the fourth floor a green-smocked technician with a clipboard awaited him. "Please follow me," the technician said brusquely before striding down the corridor. She didn't look back, and for a moment Casper thought wildly of making a run for it.
But where would he go? Meekly, he followed her.
His guide brought Casper to the open door of a small room and pointed inside. "Put your clothes in there," she said. "I'll be back in five minutes."
The technician left. Casper was relieved to find a paper jumpsuit and slippers on a shelf; he began to change, and pulled on the second slipper just as the technician returned.
"This way, sir," she said.
He was strapped into a large, complicated chair in a smaller room a few doors down; then the technician attached electrodes and placed a headpiece on his head.
"There's nothing to worry about," the technician said, clearly reciting a set speech. "The monitors are just to keep tabs on your bodily functions. Once we start the procedure, a sleep inducer will put you under for the duration. When you wake up, it'll be over." She smiled mechanically.
Casper smiled back shakily, and closed his eyes. The technician flipped the switch to start the sleep inducer, and Casper quickly slipped under.
The technician checked him over swiftly and efficiently; then she waved the go-ahead signal to the monitor camera and slipped out of the room. In the central control room another technician saw the signal, hit a button, and turned away.
The procedure was fully automated, with technicians present only to troubleshoot when something did not go according to schedule. Under most circumstances, unless an alarm went off or the computer told them something was wrong, their attention was directed elsewhere. After all, watching someone sleep is impossibly dull, even if the subject's brain is doing various interesting things.
Casper's chosen skill file consisted of a few megabytes of data on an HCD-ROM, tagged and ready to be fed into his brain; first, however, the computer had to examine Casper's neural pathways and brainwave patterns. The file would be imposed on these pathways, but the computer had to be sure that the file was not so radically opposed to the recipient's mental structure that some harm could occur. Dr. Jalali's preliminary survey had shown that Casper's brain could accept imprinting, but not that he could accept any particular program, since the individual programs were all proprietary information owned by NeuroTalents, not to be distributed freely to other companies' doctors, even within the Consortium.
The computer began matching program details against neural pathways, checking for conflicts.
While the mapping was taking place, however, a badly-worn sector of old disk storage finally gave out, dropping approximately sixty bytes from the system's primary command programming, from a total of some two and a half million lines of code. The check program that was supposed to run simultaneously had failed weeks ago; no one had yet noticed. The altered command program was allowed to run on unhindered; no warnings were sent.
The dropped sector had contained a routing command, an instruction to proceed to a particular point in the program. With that gone, the system continued on to the next line in sequence, which happened to be part of a different set of instructions.
The computer obeyed its new instructions. The waiting skill file was ignored. The mapping continued, into secondary and then tertiary areas of detail, levels that were totally unnecessary for an ordinary skill imprint. An HCD-ROM cube of restricted-access files, quite separate from the scheduled one, was accessed and readied.
A technician looked up casually from his magazine at the monitoring panel, then stopped and looked again. He had thought the subject in Suite B was in for a regular skill imprint, but his instruments showed that he was in the middle of optimization programming.
He didn't remember anyone scheduling any optimizations. Weren't there supposed to be extra precautions for optimizations?
The technician looked for warning flags, but found none. The system was running smoothly.
Well, he told himself, it wasn't any of his business, as long as the machines were running properly. With a shrug, he went back to his reading.
The computer's optimization program examined the map that had been made of Casper's brain. It then compared this map with its available imprint programs, matching more than two million points of comparison. The more closely the map and the program matched, the more efficiently the subject would assimilate the program; the more efficiently the program was assimilated, the less likely it was that parts of the program would be lost.
It took the computer seventy-three minutes to find the program that most closely matched the map it was using. Having found this match, the computer checked its insertion options.
There were no options specified in its damaged instructions, so it went to its ancient default settings, unused for half a decade. The computer prepared for a ram dump.
Up until now Casper had slept peacefully, but when the ram dump began his body stiffened under the shock.
A ram dump had been described by one of its early recipients as the mental equivalent of being force-fed a large apple in one bite, and most people who had had the experience since agreed with this description. An optimization was an extreme case, however, and Casper felt as if his entire brain and sensory apparatus were being overloaded, burned out, then instantly rebuilt and overloaded again. His mind, unable to handle this, simply shut down.
The ram dump was over in one and three-tenths seconds, but Casper's twitching body didn't begin to relax until several minutes later.
The technician on duty, between bites of a sandwich, noticed the readings on his panel and sat up abruptly, dropping his lunch back into its bag. He took a moment to make sure that the readings weren't into the danger area, and then he sent another technician down to check on the subject.
Casper was waking up when the technician arrived and began hurriedly to disconnect him. He lay passively, not really aware of anything, until the technician handed him a cup of water.
Forcing his hand to close on the cup served to jar his thoughts into motion again. He sat up and tried to drink the water, but as much went onto the floor or his shaking fingers as into his mouth.
"...sure you're all right?" he heard.
Casper realized that the technician was talking to him. He made a conscious effort to find the technician with his eyes and bring him into focus. His mouth worked for a moment before he could force any sound out.
He didn't want any trouble; he might lose his job if anything was wrong, and there wouldn't be a disability pension, not when he'd gone this far. "I'll be fine," he said at last. "Just let me sit for a minute."
The technician nodded and began examining the chair. The first thing he did was to check the chair's recording devices, assuring himself that they were working properly.
Casper pushed himself upright, swaying slightly as he stood. "I think I'll be okay after I get some fresh air," he said.
"Yeah, I hope so. Here, let me help you," the technician said. He took Casper by the arm and led him to the changing room.
The technician did more of the work of dressing him than Casper could manage for himself, but after several minutes he was in street clothes again. The technician helped him to the elevator.
By the time they reached the lobby Casper was feeling well enough to proceed on his own. He scrawled his signature illegibly on a paper acknowledging completion of contracted services, then managed to make his way unsteadily down the mall to the subway.
He began feeling worse again on the train. He barely recognized his home station, but got out before the doors closed and staggered back to his building. He stumbled twice on the broken steps, but finally fumbled his way into his apartment, where he undressed and stumbled into bed.
At NeuroTalents, the technician who had spotted the irregular procedure said angrily to one of his shiftmates, "I thought they didn't do ram dumps any more."
"They do 'em in emergencies," she answered. "But you've got to have a doctor present."
"Well, there wasn't any doctor on this one, and it wasn't much of an emergency, either."
She shrugged. "Programming error, I guess. Think we should report it?"
The tech hesitated. The prospect of additional paperwork overcame his moral outrage, and he said, "Nah, I guess not."
The other nodded.
"Hell of a thing, either way." The other technician was no longer listening, he saw; she had gone back to watching her pocket video set. "No wonder they get the liability waivers first thing," he mumbled to himself as he checked over his board.
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