"Anything anybody can say about America is true."
by Cerise Palmer
Copyright (c) 1990
Another article that first got published in the "ST Enthusiasts
Newsletter". Its editor, Dave Mooney, found this story in an
electronic magazine (i.e. disk magazine) called "Quanta", which
is an American forum for amateur writers edited by Daniel K.
Appelquist. Each issue is around 200-300 Kb. This is an excerpt
from the April 1990 issue. Thanks, Dave!
A run of luck always sneaks up slowly, then accelerates so
precipitously that just trying to maintain the big picture can
literally make you dizzy. And thus it was that Dexter Fox found
his computer hyper-responsive, breathtakingly quick, almost as if
the machine itself, fascinated by the program he'd outlined, were
exceeding its own capacities out of some innate need to problem-
solve. Things had been steadily improving for three days now;
he'd debugged a quirky parser the first night, built an
incremental speller the second, and was currently patching up,
much to his surprise, that ambiguity resolution program his
thesis advisor had recommended he leave to the hotshots at a
As if on cue, Seymour Kofant burst through Dexter's door at
nine, the squeaky drumroll of his sneakersteps still
reverberating in the hall. He glared at Dexter wordlessly, his
brows converging and an irate pucker to his mouth which made his
moustache twitch as with an imminent sneeze.
"Howdy, Sy," managed Dexter in response. Might as well get this
"I don't believe it. Your machine's still up." Sy shook his head
and marvelled at Dexter's monitor a moment, where, in several
windows, the lines were scrolling up furiously, at neck-and-neck
intervals, like the collective output of a typist pool on
Methedrine. "And you've got a program zipping along at the speed
of light. What gives?"
Dexter tried not to seem smug; a difficult feat, since he hated
Sy's guts. Sy was, like him, a doctoral candidate, and for two
years they had shared a thesis advisor and a disquietingly
similar thesis topic.
Dexter had watched Phil Stein, their adviser, approve and
support Sy's every move while his own were subjected to dubious
scrutiny. Plus, to make matters worse, Sy (with Stein's
recommendation, naturally), had just gotten a prestigious
fellowship and would be able to complete his degree without
working for a living.
"Don't know, Sy. Must be a bug in whatever you're trying to run."
"You're positively enjoying this, aren't you? I'm only text
editing that paper Phil and I wrote last semester. You know
that." With what familiarity Sy referred to their mutual lord and
master; Dexter wasn't yet on a first name basis with Stein, and
hadn't gotten around to co-authorship with him either.
"What can I tell you, Sy? Call a repairman if something's
broken." Then he frowned at the screen as if it required his
supervision. "Got to get back to work."
And Sy made his exit, red-thatched head shaking, muttering
something just audible enough to sound impolite.
That scene had, more or less, played itself out three times now.
Tonight, however, the script began to undergo minor revision. To
begin with, Sy wasn't the only one to ambush Dexter's office
demanding enlightenment; Flej Linghamani, Stan South, and Ruth
Schnaz all paid him a visit in due course. Fortunately, he
observed, their bewildered souls had been spared Sy's paranoia;
however keen Dexter's pleasure in his computer's swift reflexes,
he really couldn't claim the slightest responsibility for them.
The other new twist to the nightly routine involved what
happened when Dexter tried to log off at eleven-thirty. He
couldn't. The computer seemed quite set on other plans, so that
Dexter's control-D provoked a flash of defiance from the screen,
after which it began running his ambiguity program on the
Finnegan's Wake passage which he had entered months ago in a
perverse fit of frustration. Dexter felt himself considering an
advanced case of the jitters. But then he decided against it,
and, tidying his desk for the night, indulged in a tolerant sigh.
"As long as it gets my thesis done."
Late the next afternoon, shortly before the departmental
secretaries and undergrads cleared the building and went home to
their apartments, trailers and dorm rooms, a representative of
ConnExpert Systems, Inc. beamed up to the third floor of the
Computing Lab, apparently at Sy's behest. Personally, of course,
Dexter was in no rush to have his machine tampered with, despite
yesterday's suggestion that Sy call someone in. Nonetheless, help
"I'm Anne Starch," it rejoiced, in tones as unsullied and fresh
as its white button-down blouse, "here to check out those CEXSI
workstations you called about. What seems to be the problem?"
For a moment, no one answered, so startled were they to find a
tool attache in the hands of a fortyish blonde over six feet
tall. Then Sy, his paper close to deadline, managed to override
first his tongue's jammed circuits.
"Well, Ms. Starch-- "
"Oh, please." She held one large, graceful hand up, as solemnly
as a diplomat. "Call me Anne."
"Anne, then," Sy conceded, emending himself impatiently. "The
problem is that the workstations, which are fine by day,
malfunction disastrously at night. In fact, only one of them will
work at all-- "
"That's not strictly true," chirped Flej nervously, aware he'd
spoken out of turn. "Only yours goes down completely. Ruth's and
Stan's and mine just work so slowly that we can't get much of
anything done. Until last night, anyway. Last night the machines
were all down, except for Dexter's." He flashed a tentative smile
"As I said," continued Sy, regarding Flej with distaste, "only
Dexter's, in that office to your left, will work at all. And it
works abnormally fast, faster even than any of the others did
when they were first installed."
"Hmm," said Anne, turning toward Dexter's office. "We sold these
to your lab just last month, didn't we?"
Sy nodded, his moustache twitching like a bloodhound's jowls.
"I knew we should have stuck with more standard equipment," said
Stan. He was the skeptic in the bunch, an Army colonel with
doctoral aspirations, unimpressed by the course material he
fought so hard to get the better of. No one could understand why
he had chosen Intelligence Modelling as a field of study, but
everyone stayed on good terms with him anyway, in case he wound
up head of the Armed Forces Research Budget.
"But these workstations are terrific," protested Dexter. "Why,
that DIABLOS firmware is an absolute godsend." And he relished
Anne and his own pun in a single grin.
"What is DIABLOS, exactly?" purred Ruth in her intrepid
contralto, adjusting the quarter-inch thick glasses which failed
to obscure her handsome features. Sy inhaled sharply but
refrained from comment; even he made allowances for the lab's
most aesthetic recruit, who had defected from Communications so
recently she still couldn't program her way out of a paper bag.
"DIABLOS," announced Anne, "stands for 'Distributed and Balance
Loading Operating System.' It's the ultimate in network operating
systems, recently patented by CEXSI, and built into the microcode
of your workstations. Essentially, each workstation gives up some
of its independence in exchange for an occasional power boost."
And she folded her arms triumphantly.
"Perhaps we should let Ms. Starch get to work," said Sy,
thumping his fingers on the wall.
"Straightaway!" concurred Anne, dipping her head beneath the
doorframe to Dexter's office.
And she spent the next couple of hours checking boards, running
programs, and generally conducting the kinds of tests field
engineers seem to thrive on. After scrutinizing Dexter's
workstation, she did sequential spot-checks on the others and
could find nothing amiss. But when she tried running all the
machines at once, the malady Sy had complained of appeared within
seconds. She took a step back, nonplussed for the moment, and
then seemed to warm, slowly but thoroughly, to a hunch of the
sort that sprang Archimedes out of his bath.
"I'll be back before you know it," she assured them, and no one
doubted that a cure lay within reach.
Two evenings later, Anne returned, and, after tinkering expertly
with each machine's insides, requested they be called up
simultaneously. For several moments, a silence precarious as
suspended breath overtook the floor. Then a heartening series of
hiccups, composed entirely of clicks and beeps, issued from the
various offices. And, last but not least, the sound of improved-
rollover keyboards under heavy assault affirmed that a successful
file-check was generally underway; the only anomalous noise
throughout was made by Dexter's printer, hastily coughing out
several pages before it lapsed into a coma.
Before Dexter even knew she was in his office, Anne had
retrieved the print-out and was reading it poised on a corner of
his desk, her face virtually radiant with satisfaction. Her
perusal done, she straightened matter-of-factly, smoothed a
crease in her dazzling blouse-front, and waited for the others to
Sy, as usual, was the first one through the door. He regarded
Anne suspiciously. "How did you fix them?"
"You may not like this," she warned him, pulling a newsclipping
from her breast-pocket and unfolding it on Dexter's desk. "I
saved this from last week's paper because it disturbed me,
involving CEXSI's good name as it did. The man it's about used to
night-shift for the company; we never collaborated directly, but
I do know that he was instrumental in developing DIABLOS. In
fact, he ran the Quality Assurance tests on the workstations on
this floor." She paused for effect, then nodded toward the
clipping, inviting the whole group to read it:
"Transylvanian" Computer Scientist Collapses at Arraignment.
Al Drake, a former employee of ConnExpert Systems, Inc., pled
not guilty by reason of insanity to assault charges this morning,
just moments before losing consciousness in an Orleans County
courtroom. Drake had been in custody since the week before, when
two off-duty policeman witnessed him wrestling a man to the
ground in the parking lot of the Divisadero Pub and preparing to
bite him on the neck. Drake was rushed to Canon General Hospital
after collapsing, where his condition remains guarded, according
to official sources.
In the State Psychiatric Hospital, which had been observing him
since March 2, Drake reportedly secluded himself by day and,
having refused all food and drink, required intravenous feeding;
today, despite the Panama hat and dark glasses he wore to court,
he was visibly distressed throughout by the skylights overhead.
And yet another bizarre detail was added to Drake's profile
today, by an unidentified courtroom witness who sighted what
appear to be surgically-implanted fang teeth in Drake's mouth as
he was carried by on stretcher.
"It was quite a job getting my client to plead properly," said
Stokely Bramson, Drake's lawyer, who is confident the defendant
will be dealt with leniently upon release from Canon General.
"You see, despite the special effects teeth and the Bela Lugosi
complex, he is a compassionate, deeply sensitive being. He feels
just terrible about what he's done."
"So?" asked Stan.
"I don't understand either," admitted Ruth.
"My theory," said Anne, "is that Drake actually is a vampire,
who, like your typical loner with strange habits, took up
computing as a hobby. He was a brilliant systems programmer,
from what I've heard; supernatural powers, no doubt, add that
certain edge. Anyway, it seems he found a way to embody the
essence of vampirism in DIABLOS. Dexter's machine was slightly
faster than the others to begin with, so his quite naturally
became the focus of the vampiric gestalt. That's why it was up
when the rest of yours were down, and why, the less functional
your machines became, the more impressively his worked. I think
his was sucking power --sorry, folks-- out of the other
workstations in the net."
"Are we supposed to believe that?" asked Sy.
"I wouldn't have asked you to fifteen minutes ago," replied Anne
good-naturedly. "But then I put my hypothesis to the test and
proved it right."
"How?" asked Flej, unabashedly wide-eyed.
"Well, the 'heart' of DIABLOS's bug was buried deep in the
network protocol. To overcome it, I simply went into the
transceiver boxes that hook the workstations to the network
cable, and replaced the gold pins with silver ones."
Dexter was the only one to laugh out loud, though inwardly he
groaned at the prospect of finishing his thesis sans ghostwriter.
Ruth, her eyes bemused behind their icy windowpanes, stepped out
to take a phone call from one of her current boyfriends. And
Stan, who had sunk into yet another reverie of confusion, finally
roused himself to ask what would have happened if Anne's maneuver
"Dexter's machine would have continued in the same vein -- sorry
again-- drawing all it could out of the other machines in the net
until they were, I hate to say, drained of juice irreparably. And
then, had we decided to hook his power-thirsty machine into a new
net? Who knows?" She seemed cheered by the image of such a
Dexter, chuckling less cheerfully over his own disaster,
realized suddenly what he'd have to do. Since DIABLOS, after all,
was hardly flesh and blood, its recent demise should prove
readily reversible; if Dexter --on some deserted night or two--
swapped Anne's silver pins with gold ones, he might still have
his ticket to fame, thesis approval, and excellent job offers.
Flej was struck by a thought just then. "What do you think's
happening at Canon Hospital? The doctors are bound to find out
there's something weird about Drake. And why is Drake such a
wimp? I thought vampires, until you got a stake through them,
were supposed to be invincible; why hasn't Drake bloodsucked his
was to freedom yet? Any guesses?"
"Calm down, Flej," was Sy's to-the-point rejoinder.
And then Anne produced the last read-out from Dexter's printer.
"We won't need to wait long for an answer to your questions,
Flej," she said, and they quickly formed a reading huddle behind
Flej's scrawny form:
I'm the vampire Drake. I'm immortal. And I'm tired of it.
I've walked the earth for a thousand years, the last two hundred
of them a perdition of weariness and conscience. The former
malady is an old one, grown more profound each time human history
contrives to restage its hackneyed dramas; the latter is new to
me, and I am helpless to quell it.
I shrank from hallowed objects, once, though the kiss of blood
was sacred on my lips; now I fear nothing from Heaven, from
Earth, or from Hell, yet I loathe beyond hope what I do nightly
for sustenance. And so I choose a vampire's death, having met
already my mortal demise, but not --laugh well-- without
satisfying first my thirst for immortality...
Cerise Palmer maintained her sanity as a graduate student in
literature by reading as much F&SF in her spare time as possible;
she now tries to write as much of it as possible. She lives in
Columbus, Ohio with her husband and small daughter, and is
currently at work on a fantasy trilogy.
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.