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The Cookie Monster
Vernor Vinge

Illustration by Broeck Steadman

Man is
"the time-binding animal."
But in the future, that simple
statement may
take on meanings
that Korzybski never imagined. . . .

"So how do you like the new job?"

Dixie Mae looked up from her keyboard and spotted a pimply face peering at her from over the cubicle partition.

"It beats flipping burgers, Victor," she said.

Victor bounced up so his whole face was visible. "Yeah? It’s going to get old awfully fast."

Actually, Dixie Mae felt the same way. But doing customer support at Lotsa-Tech was a real job, a foot in the door at the biggest high-tech company in the world. "Gimme a break, Victor! This is our first day." Well, it was the first day not counting the six days of product familiarization classes. "If you can’t take this, you’ve got the attention span of a cricket."

"That’s a mark of intelligence, Dixie Mae. I’m smart enough to know what’s not worth the attention of a first-rate creative mind."

Grr. "Then your first-rate creative mind is going to be out of its gourd by the end of the summer."

Victor smirked. "Good point." He thought a second, then continued more quietly, "But see, um, I’m doing this to get material for my column in the Bruin. You know, big headlines like ‘The New Sweatshops’ or ‘Death by Boredom’. I haven’t decided whether to play it for laughs or go for heavy social consciousness. In any case,"–he lowered his voice another notch–"I’m bailing out of here, um, by the end of next week, thus suffering only minimal brain damage from the whole sordid experience."

"And you’re not seriously helping the customers at all, huh, Victor? Just giving them hilarious misdirections?"

Victor’s eyebrows shot up. "I’ll have you know I’m being articulate and seriously helpful . . . at least for another day or two." The weasel grin crawled back onto his face. "I won’t start being Bastard Consultant from Hell till right before I quit."

That figures. Dixie Mae turned back to her keyboard. "Okay, Victor. Meantime, how about letting me do the job I’m being paid for?"

Silence. Angry, insulted silence? No, this was more a leering, undressing-you-with-my-eyes silence. But Dixie Mae did not look up. She could tolerate such silence as long as the leerer was out of arm’s reach.

After a moment, there was the sound of Victor dropping back into his chair in the next cubicle.

Ol’ Victor had been a pain in the neck from the get-go. He was slick with words; if he wanted to, he could explain things as good as anybody Dixie Mae had ever met. At the same time, he kept rubbing it in how educated he was and what a dead-end this customer support gig was. Mr. Johnson–the guy running the familiarization course–was a great teacher, but smart-ass Victor had tested the man’s patience all week long. Yeah, Victor really didn’t belong here, but not for the reasons he bragged about.

It took Dixie Mae almost an hour to finish off seven more queries. One took some research, being a really bizarre question about Voxalot for Norwegian. Okay, this job would get old after a few days, but there was a virtuous feeling in helping people. And from Mr. Johnson’s lectures, she knew that as long as she got the reply turned in by closing time this evening, she could spend the whole afternoon researching just how to make LotsaTech’s vox program recognize Norwegian vowels.

Dixie Mae had never done customer support before this; till she took Prof. Reich’s tests last week, her highest-paying job really had been flipping burgers. But like the world and your Aunt Sally, she had often been the victim of customer support. Dixie Mae would buy a new book or a cute dress, and it would break or wouldn’t fit–and then when she wrote customer support, they wouldn’t reply, or had useless canned answers, or just tried to sell her something more–all the time talking about how their greatest goal was serving the customer.

But now LotsaTech was turning all that around. Their top bosses had realized how important real humans were to helping real human customers. They were hiring hundreds and hundreds of people like Dixie Mae. They weren’t paying very much, and this first week had been kinda tough since they were all cooped up here during the crash intro classes.

But Dixie Mae didn’t mind. "Lotsa-Tech is a lot of Tech." Before, she’d always thought that motto was stupid. But LotsaTech was big; it made IBM and Microsoft look like minnows. She’d been a little nervous about that, imagining that she’d end up in a room bigger than a football field with tiny office cubicles stretching away to the horizon. Well, Building 0994 did have tiny cubicles, but her team was just fifteen nice people–leaving Victor aside for the moment. Their work floor had windows all the way around, a panoramic view of the Santa Monica mountains and the Los Angeles basin. And li’l ol’ Dixie Mae Leigh had her a desk right beside one of those wide windows! I’ll bet there are CEO’s who don’t have a view as good as mine. Here’s where you could see a little of what the Lotsa in LotsaTech meant. Just outside of B0994 there were tennis courts and a swimming pool. Dozens of similar buildings were scattered across the hillside. A golf course covered the next hill over, and more company land lay beyond that. These guys had the money to buy the top off Runyon Canyon and plunk themselves down on it. And this was just the LA branch office.

Dixie Mae had grown up in Tarzana. On a clear day in the valley, you could see the Santa Monica mountains stretching off forever into the haze. They seemed beyond her reach, like something from a fairy tale. And now she was up here. Next week, she’d bring her binoculars to work, go over on the north slope, and maybe spot where her father still lived down there.

Meanwhile, back to work. The next six queries were easy, from people who hadn’t even bothered to read the single page of directions that came with Voxalot. Letters like those would be hard to answer politely the thousandth time she saw them. But she would try–and today she practiced with cheerful specifics that stated the obvious and gently pointed the customers to where they could find more. Then came a couple of brain twisters. Damn. She wouldn’t be able to finish those today. Mr. Johnson said "finish anything you start on the same day"–but maybe he would let her work on those first thing Monday morning. She really wanted to do well on the hard ones. Every day, there would be the same old dumb questions. But there would also be hard new questions. And eventually she’d get really, really good with Voxalot. More important, she’d get good about managing questions and organization. So what that she’d screwed the last seven years of her life and never made it through college? Little by little she would improve herself, till a few years from now her past stupidities wouldn’t matter anymore. Some people had told her that such things weren’t possible nowadays, that you really needed the college degree. But people had always been able to make it with hard work. Back in the twentieth century, lots of steno pool people managed it. Dixie Mae figured customer support was pretty much the same kind of starting point.

Nearby, somebody gave out a low whistle. Victor. Dixie Mae ignored him.

"Dixie Mae, you gotta see this."

Ignore him.

"I swear Dixie, this is a first. How did you do it? I got an incoming query for you, by name! Well, almost."

"What!? Forward it over here, Victor."

"No. Come around and take a look. I have it right in front of me."

Dixie Mae was too short to look over the partition. Jeez.

Three steps took her into the corridor. Ulysse Green poked her head out of her cubicle, an inquisitive look on her face. Dixie Mae shrugged and rolled her eyes, and Ulysse returned to her work. The sound of fingers on keys was like occasional raindrops (no Voxalots allowed in cubicle-land). Mr. Johnson had been around earlier, answering questions and generally making sure things were going okay. Right now he should be back in his office on the other side of the building; this first day, you hardly needed to worry about slackers. Dixie Mae felt a little guilty about making that a lie, but . . .

She popped into Victor’s cubicle, grabbed a loose chair. "This better be good, Victor."

"Judge for yourself, Dixie Mae." He looked at his display. "Oops, I lost the window. Just a second." He dinked around with his mouse. "So, have you been putting your name on outgoing messages? That’s the only way I can imagine this happening–"

"No. I have not. I’ve answered twenty-two questions so far, and I’ve been AnnetteG all the way." The fake signature was built into her "send" key. Mr. Johnson said this was to protect employee privacy and give users a feeling of continuity even though follow-up questions would rarely come to the original responder. He didn’t have to say that it was also to make sure that LotsaTech support people would be interchangeable, whether they were working out of the service center in Lahore or Londonderry–or Los Angeles. So far, that had been one of Dixie Mae’s few disappointments about this job; she could never have an ongoing helpful relationship with a customer.

So what the devil was this all about?

"Ah! Here it is." Victor waved at the screen. "What do you make of it?"

The message had come in on the help address. It was in the standard layout enforced by the query acceptance page. But the "previous responder field" was not one of the house sigs. Instead it was:

Ditzie May Lay

"Grow up, Victor."

Victor raised his hands in mock defense, but he had seen her expression, and some of the smirk left his face. "Hey, Dixie Mae, don’t kill the messenger. This is just what came in."

"No way. The server-side script would have rejected an invalid responder name. You faked this."

For a fleeting moment, Victor looked uncertain. Hah! thought Dixie Mae. She had been paying attention during Mr. Johnson’s lectures; she knew more about what was going on here than Victor-the-great-mind. And so his little joke had fallen flat on its rear end. But Victor regrouped and gave a weak smile. "It wasn’t me. How would I know about this, er, nickname of yours?"

"Yes," said Dixie Mae, "it takes real genius to come up with such a clever play on words."

"Honest, Dixie Mae, it wasn’t me. Hell, I don’t even know how to use our form editor to revise header fields."

Now that claim had the ring of truth.

"What’s happening?"

They looked up, saw Ulysse standing at the entrance to the cubicle.

Victor gave her a shrug. "It’s Dit–Dixie Mae. Someone here at LotsaTech is jerking her around."

Ulysse came closer and bent to read from the display. "Yech. So what’s the message?"

Dixie Mae reached across the desk and scrolled down the display. The return address was lusting925@freemail.sg. The topic choice was "Voice Formatting." They got lots on that topic; Voxalot format control wasn’t quite as intuitive as the ads would like you to believe.

But this was by golly not a follow-up on anything Dixie Mae had answered:

. . .

Hey there, Honey Chile! I’ll be truly grateful if you would tell me how to put the following into italics:

"Remember the Tarzanarama tree house? The one you set on fire? If you’d like to start a much bigger fire, then figure out how I know all this. A big clue is that 999 is 666 spelled upside down."

I’ve tried everything and I can’t set the above proposition into indented italics–leastwise without fingering. Please help.

Aching for some of your Southron Hospitality, I remain your very bestest fiend,

–Lusting (for you deeply)

Ulysse’s voice was dry: "So, Victor, you’ve figured how to edit incoming forms."

"God damn it, I’m innocent!"

"Sure you are." Ulysse’s white teeth flashed in her black face. The three little words held a world of disdain.

Dixie Mae held up her hand, waving them both to silence. "I . . . don’t know. There’s something real strange about this mail." She stared at the message body for several seconds. A big ugly chill was growing in her middle. Mom and Dad had built her that tree house when she was seven years old. Dixie Mae had loved it. For two years she was Tarzana of Tarzana. But the name of the tree house–Tarzanarama–had been a secret. Dixie Mae had been nine years old when she torched that marvelous tree house. It had been a terrible accident. Well, a world-class temper tantrum, actually. But she had never meant the fire to get so far out of control. The fire had darn near burned down their real house, too. She had been a scarifyingly well-behaved little girl for almost two years after that incident.

Ulysse was giving the mail a careful read. She patted Dixie Mae on the shoulder. "Whoever this is, he certainly doesn’t sound friendly."

Dixie Mae nodded. "This weasel is pushing every button I’ve got." Including her curiosity. Dad was the only living person that knew who had started the fire, but it was going on four years since he’d had any address for his daughter–and Daddy would never have taken this sex-creep, disrespecting tone.

Victor glanced back and forth between them, maybe feeling hurt that he was no longer the object of suspicion. "So who do you think it is?"

Don Williams craned his head over the next partition. "Who is what?"

Given another few minutes, and they’d have everyone on the floor with some bodily part stuck into Victor’s cubicle.

Ulysse said, "Unless you’re deaf, you know most of it, Don. Someone is messing with us."

"Well then, report it to Johnson. This is our first day, people. It’s not a good day to get sidetracked."

That brought Ulysse down to earth. Like Dixie Mae, she regarded this LotsaTech job as her last real chance to break into a profession.

"Look," said Don. "It’s already lunch time."–Dixie Mae glanced at her watch. It really was!–"We can talk about this in the cafeteria, then come back and give Great Lotsa a solid afternoon of work. And then we’ll be done with our first week!" Williams had been planning a party down at his folks’ place for tonight. It would be their first time off the LotsaTech campus since they took the job.

"Yeah!" said Ulysse. "Dixie Mae, you’ll have the whole weekend to figure out who’s doing this–and plot your revenge."

Dixie Mae looked again at the impossible "previous responder field." "I . . . don’t know. This looks like it’s something happening right here on the LotsaTech campus." She stared out Victor’s picture window. It was the same view as from her cubicle, of course–but now she was seeing everything with a different mind set. Somewhere in the beautiful country-club buildings, there was a real sleaze ball. And he was playing guessing games with her.

Everybody was quiet for a second. Maybe that helped–Dixie Mae realized just what she was looking at: the next lodge down the hill. From here you could only see the top of its second story. Like all the buildings on the campus, it had a four-digit identification number made of gold on every corner. That one was Building 0999.

A big clue is that 999 is just 666 spelled upside down. "Jeez, Ulysse. Look: 999." Dixie Mae pointed down the hillside.

"It could be a coincidence."

"No, it’s too pat." She glanced at Victor. This really was the sort of thing someone like him would set up. But whoever wrote that letter just knew too much. "Look, I’m going to skip lunch today and take a little walk around the campus."

"That’s crazy," said Don. "LotsaTech is an open place, but we’re not supposed to be wandering into other project buildings."

"Then they can turn me back."

"Yeah, what a great way to start out with the new job," said Don. "I don’t think you three realize what a good deal we have here. I know that none of you have worked a customer support job before." He looked around challengingly. "Well I have. This is heaven. We’ve got our own friggin’ offices, onsite tennis courts and health club. We’re being treated like million-dollar system designers. We’re being given all the time we need to give top-notch advice to the customers. What LotsaTech is trying to do here is revolutionary! And you dips are just going to piss it away." Another all-around glare. "Well, do what you want, but I’m going to lunch."

There was a moment of embarrassed silence. Ulysse stepped out of the cubicle and watched Don and others trickle away toward the stairs. Then she was back. "I’ll come with you, Dixie Mae, but . . . have you thought Don may be right? Maybe you could just postpone this till next week?" Unhappiness was written all over her face. Ulysse was a lot like Dixie Mae, just more sensible.

Dixie Mae shook her head. She figured it would be at least fifteen minutes before her common sense could put on the brakes.

"I’ll come, Dixie Mae," said Victor. "Yeah. . . . This could be an interesting story."

Dixie Mae smiled at Ulysse and reached out her hand. "It’s okay, Ulysse. You should go to lunch." The other looked uncertain. "Really. If Mr. Johnson asks about me missing lunch, it would help if you were there to set him right about what a steady person I am."

"Okay, Dixie Mae. I’ll do that." She wasn’t fooled, but this way it really was okay.

Once she was gone, Dixie Mae turned back to Victor. "And you. I want a printed copy of that freakin’ email."

They went out a side door. There was a soft-drink and candy machine on the porch. Victor loaded up on "expeditionary supplies" and the two started down the hill.

"Hot day," said Victor, mumbling around a mouth full of chocolate bar.

"Yeah." The early part of the week had been all June Gloom. But the usual overcast had broken, and today was hot and sunny–and Dixie Mae suddenly realized how pleasantly air-conditioned life had been in the LotsaTech "sweatshop." Common sense hadn’t yet reached the brakes, but it was getting closer.

Victor washed the chocolate down with a Dr. Fizzz and flipped the can behind the oleanders that hung close along the path. "So who do you think is behind that letter? Really?"

"I don’t know, Victor! Why do you think I’m risking my job to find out?"

Victor laughed. "Don’t worry about losing the job, Dixie Mae. Heh. There’s no way it could have lasted even through the summer." He gave his usual superior-knowledge grin.

"You’re an idiot, Victor. Doing customer support right will be a billion dollar winner."

"Oh, maybe . . . if you’re on the right side of it." He paused as if wondering what to tell her. "But for you, look: support costs money. Long ago, the Public Spoke about how much they were willing to pay." He paused, like he was trying to put together a story that she could understand. "Yeah . . . and even if you’re right, your vision of the project is doomed. You know why?"

Dixie Mae didn’t reply. His reason would be something about the crappy quality of the people who had been hired.

Sure enough, Victor continued: "I’ll tell you why. And this is the surprise kink that’s going to make my articles for the Bruin really shine: Maybe LotsaTech has its corporate heart in the right place. That would be surprising considering how they brutalized Microsoft. But maybe they’ve let this bizarre idealism go too far. Heh. For anything long-term, they’ve picked the wrong employees."

Dixie Mae kept her cool. "We took all sorts of psych tests. You don’t think Professor Reich knows what he’s doing?"

"Oh, I bet he knows what he’s doing. But what if LotsaTech isn’t using his results? Look at us. There are some–such as yours truly–who are way over-educated. I’m closing in on a master’s degree in journalism; it’s clear I won’t be around for long. Then there’s people like Don and Ulysse. They have the right level of education for customer support, but they’re too smart. Yes, Ulysse talks about doing this job so well that her talent is recognized, and she is a diligent sort. But I’ll bet that even she couldn’t last a summer. As for some of the others . . . well, may I be frank, Dixie Mae?"

What saved him from a fist in the face was that Dixie Mae had never managed to be really angry about more than one thing at once. "Please do be frank, Victor."

"You talk the same game plan as Ulysse–but I’ll bet your multiphasic shows you have the steadiness of mercury fulminate. Without this interesting email from Mr. Lusting, you might be good for a week, but sooner or later you’d run into something so infuriating that direct action was required–and you’d be bang out on your rear."

Dixie Mae pretended to mull this over. "Well, yes," she said. "After all, you’re still going to be here next week, right?"

He laughed. "I rest my case. But seriously, Dixie Mae, this is what I mean about the personnel situation here. We have a bunch of bright and motivated people, but their motivations are all over the map, and most of their enthusiasm can’t be sustained for any realistic span of time. Heh. So I guess the only rational explanation–and frankly, I don’t think it would work–is that LotsaTech figures . . ."

He droned on with some theory about how LotsaTech was just looking for some quick publicity and a demonstration that high-quality customer support could win back customers in a big way. Then after they flushed all these unreliable new hires, they could throttle back into something cheaper for the long term.

But Dixie Mae’s attention was far away. On her left was the familiar view of Los Angeles. To her right, the ridgeline was just a few hundred yards away. From the crest you could probably see down into the valley, even pick out streets in Tarzana. Someday, it would be nice to go back there, maybe prove to Dad that she could keep her temper and make something of herself. All my life, I’ve been screwing up like today. But that letter from "Lusting" was like finding a burglar in your bedroom. The guy knew too much about her that he shouldn’t have known, and he had mocked her background and her family. Dixie Mae had grown up in Southern California, but she’d been born in Georgia–and she was proud of her roots. Maybe Daddy never realized that, since she was running around rebelling most of the time. He and Mom always said she’d eventually settle down. But then she fell in love with the wrong kind of person–and it was her folks who’d gone ballistic. Words Were Spoken. And even though things hadn’t worked out with her new love, there was no way she could go back. By then Mom had died. Now, I swear I’m not going back to Daddy till I can show I’ve made something of myself.

So why was she throwing away her best job in ages? She slowed to a stop, and just stood there in the middle of the walkway; common sense had finally gotten to the brakes. But they had walked almost all the way to 0999. Much of the building was hidden behind twisty junipers, but you could see down a short flight of stairs to the ground level entrance.

We should go back. She pulled the "Lusting" email out of her pocket and glared at it for a second. Later. You can follow up on this later. She read the mail again. The letters blurred behind tears of rage, and she dithered in the hot summer sunlight.

Victor made an impatient noise. "Let’s go, kiddo." He pushed a chocolate bar into her hand. "Get your blood sugar out of the basement."

They went down the concrete steps to B0999’s entrance. Just a quick look, Dixie Mae had decided.

Beneath the trees and the overhang, all was cool and shady. They peered through the ground floor windows, into empty rooms. Victor pushed open the door. The layout looked about the same as in their own building, except that B0999 wasn’t really finished: There was the smell of Carpenter Nail in the air, and the lights and wireless nodes sat naked on the walls.

The place was occupied. She could hear people talking up on the main floor, what was cubicle-city back in B0994. She took a quick hop up the stairs, peeked in–no cubicles here. As a result, the place looked cavernous. Six or eight tables had been pushed together in the middle of the room. A dozen people looked up at their entrance.

"Aha!" boomed one of them. "More warm bodies. Welcome, welcome!"

They walked toward the tables. Don and Ulysse had worried about violating corporate rules and project secrecy. They needn’t have bothered. These people looked almost like squatters. Three of them had their legs propped up on the tables. Junk food and soda cans littered the tables.

"Programmers?" Dixie Mae muttered to Victor.

"Heh. No, these look more like . . . graduate students."

The loud one had red hair snatched back in a pony tail. He gave Dixie Mae a broad grin. "We’ve got a couple of extra display flats. Grab some seating." He jerked a thumb toward the wall and a stack of folding chairs. "With you two, we may actually be able to finish today!"

Dixie Mae looked uncertainly at the display and keyboard that he had just lit up. "But what–"

"Cognitive Science 301. The final exam. A hundred dollars a question, but we have 107 bluebooks to grade, and Gerry asked mainly essay questions."

Victor laughed. "You’re getting a hundred dollars for each bluebook?"

"For each question in each bluebook, man. But don’t tell. I think Gerry is funding this out of money that LotsaTech thinks he’s spending on research." He waved at the nearly empty room, in this nearly completed building.

Dixie Mae leaned down to look at the display, the white letters on a blue background. It was a standard bluebook, just like at Valley Community College. Only here the questions were complete nonsense, such as:

7. Compare and contrast cognitive dissonance in operant conditioning with Minsky-Loève attention maintenance. Outline an algorithm for constructing the associated isomorphism.

"So," said Dixie Mae, "what’s cognitive science?"

The grin disappeared from the other’s face. "Oh, Christ. You’re not here to help with the grading?"

Dixie Mae shook her head. Victor said, "It shouldn’t be too hard. I’ve had some grad courses in psych."

The redhead did not look encouraged. "Does anyone know this guy?"

"I do," said a girl at the far end of all the tables. "That’s Victor Smaley. He’s a journalism grad, and not very good at that."

Victor looked across the tables. "Hey, Mouse! How ya doing?"

The redhead looked beseechingly at the ceiling. "I do not need these distractions!" His gaze came down to the visitors. "Will you two just please go away?"

"No way," said Dixie Mae. "I came here for a reason. Someone–probably someone here in Building 0999–is messing with our work in Customer Support. I’m going to find out who." And give them some free dental work.

"Look. If we don’t finish grading the exam today, Gerry Reich’s going to make us come back tomorrow and–"

"I don’t think that’s true, Graham," said a guy sitting across the table. "Prof. Reich’s whole point was that we should not feel time pressure. This is an experiment, comparing time-bounded grading with complete individualization."

"Yes!" said Graham the redhead. "That’s exactly why Reich would lie about it. ‘Take it easy, make good money,’ he says. But I’ll bet that if we don’t finish today, he’ll screw us into losing the weekend."

He glared at Dixie Mae. She glared back. Graham was going to find out just what stubborn and willful really meant. There was a moment of silence and then–

"I’ll talk to them, Graham." It was the woman at the far end of the tables.

"Argh. Okay, but not here!"

"Sure, we’ll go out on the porch." She beckoned Dixie Mae and Victor to follow her out the side door.

"And hey," called Graham as they walked out, "don’t take all day, Ellen. We need you here."

The porch on 0999 had a bigger junk-food machine than back at Customer Support. Dixie Mae didn’t think that made up for no cafeteria, but Ellen Garcia didn’t seem to mind. "We’re only going to be here this one day. I’m not coming back on Saturday."

Dixie Mae bought herself a sandwich and soda and they all sat down on some beat-up lawn furniture.

"So what do you want to know?" said Ellen.

"See, Mouse, we’re following up on the weirdest–"

Ellen waved Victor silent, her expression pretty much the same as all Victor’s female acquaintances. She looked expectantly at Dixie Mae.

"Well, my name is Dixie Mae Leigh. This morning we got this email at our customer support address. It looks like a fake. And there are things about it that–" she handed over the hard copy.

Ellen’s gaze scanned down. "Kind of fishy dates," she said to herself. Then she stopped, seeing the "To:" header. She glanced up at Dixie Mae. "Yeah, this is abuse. I used to see this kind of thing when I was a Teaching Assistant. Some guy would start hitting on a girl in my class." She eyed Victor speculatively.

"Why does everybody suspect me?" he said.

"You should be proud, Victor. You have such a reliable reputation." She shrugged. "But actually, this isn’t quite your style." She read on. "The rest is smirky lascivious, but otherwise it doesn’t mean anything to me."

"It means a lot to me," said Dixie Mae. "This guy is talking about things that nobody should know."

"Oh?" She went back to the beginning and stared at the printout some more. "I don’t know about secrets in the message body, but one of my hobbies is rfc9822 headers. You’re right that this is all scammed up. The message number and ident strings are too long; I think they may carry added content."

She handed back the email. "There’s not much more I can tell you. If you want to give me a copy, I could crunch on those header strings over the weekend."

"Oh. . . . Okay, thanks." It was more solid help than anyone had offered so far, but–"Look Ellen, the main thing I was hoping for was some clues here in Building 0999. The letter pointed me here. I run into . . . abusers sometimes, myself. I don’t let them get away with it! I’d bet money that whoever this is, he’s one of those graders." And he’s probably laughing at us right now.

Ellen thought a second and then shook her head. "I’m sorry, Dixie Mae. I know these people pretty well. Some of them are a little strange, but they’re not bent like this. Besides, we didn’t know we’d be here till yesterday afternoon. And today we haven’t had time for mischief."

"Okay," Dixie Mae forced a smile. "I appreciate your help." She would give Ellen a copy of the letter and go back to Customer Support, just slightly better off than if she had behaved sensibly in the first place.

Dixie Mae started to get up, but Victor leaned forward and set his notepad on the table between them. "That email had to come from somewhere. Has anyone here been acting strange, Mousy?"

Ellen glared at him, and after a second he said, "I mean ‘Ellen.’ You know I’m just trying to help out Dixie Mae here. Oh yeah, and maybe get a good story for the Bruin."

Ellen shrugged. "Graham told you; we’re grading on the side for Gerry Reich."

"Huh." Victor leaned back. "Ever since I’ve been at UCLA, Reich has had a reputation for being an operator. He’s got big government contracts and all this consulting at LotsaTech. He tries to come across as a one-man supergenius, but actually it’s just money, um, buying lots and lots of peons. So what do you think he’s up to?"

Ellen shrugged. "Technically, I bet Gerry is misusing his contacts with LotsaTech. But I doubt if they care; they really like him." She brightened. "And I approve of what Prof. Reich is doing with this grading project. When I was a TA, I wished there was some way that I could make a day-long project out of reading each student’s exam. That was an impossible wish; there was just never enough time. But with his contacts here at LotsaTech, Gerry Reich has come close to doing it. He’s paying some pretty sharp grad students very good money to grade and comment on every single essay question. Time is no object, he’s telling us. The students in these classes are going to get really great feedback."

"This guy Reich keeps popping up," said Dixie Mae. "He was behind the testing program that selected Victor and me and the others for customer support."

"Well, Victor’s right about him. Reich is a manipulator. I know he’s been running tests all this week. He grabbed all of Olson Hall for the operation. We didn’t know what it was for until afterwards. He nailed Graham and the rest of our gang for this one-day grading job. It looks like he has all sorts of projects."

"Yeah, we took our tests at Olson Hall, too." There had been a small up-front payment, and hints of job prospects. . . . And Dixie Mae had ended up with maybe the best job offer she’d ever had. "But we did that last week."

"It can’t be the same place. Olson Hall is a gym."

"Yes, that’s what it looked like to me."

"It was used for the NCAA eliminations last week."

Victor reached for his notepad. "Whatever. We gotta be going, Mouse."

"Don’t ‘Mouse’ me, Victor! The NCAA elims were the week of 4 June. I did Gerry’s questionnaire yesterday, which was Thursday, 14 June."

"I’m sorry, Ellen," said Dixie Mae. "Yesterday was Thursday, but it was the 21st of June."

Victor made a calming gesture. "It’s not a big deal."

Ellen frowned, but suddenly she wasn’t arguing. She glanced at her watch. "Let’s see your notepad, Victor. What date does it say?"

"It says, June . . . huh. It says June 15."

Dixie Mae looked at her own watch. The digits were so precise, and a week wrong: Fri Jun 15 12:31:18 PDT 2012. "Ellen, I looked at my watch before we walked over here. It said June 22nd."

Ellen leaned on the table and took a close look at Victor’s notepad. "I’ll bet it did. But both your watch and the notepad get their time off the building utilities. Here you’re getting set by our local clock–and you’re getting the truth."

Now Dixie Mae was getting mad. "Look, Ellen. Whatever the time service says, I would not have made up a whole extra week of my life." All those product-familiarization classes.

"No, you wouldn’t." Ellen brought her heels back on the edge of her chair. For a long moment, she didn’t say anything, just stared through the haze at the city below.

Finally she said: "You know, Victor, you should be pleased."

"Why is that?" suspiciously.

"You may have stumbled into a real, world-class news story. Tell me. During this extra week of life you’ve enjoyed, how often have you used your phone?"

Dixie Mae said, "Not at all. Mr. Johnson–he’s our instructor–said that we’re deadzoned till we get through the first week."

Ellen nodded. "So I guess they didn’t expect the scam to last more than a week. See, we are not deadzoned here. LotsaTech has a pretty broad embargo on web access, but I made a couple of phone calls this morning."

Victor gave her a sharp look. "So where do you think the extra week came from?"

Ellen hesitated. "I think Gerry Reich has gone beyond where the UCLA human subjects committee would ever let him go. You guys probably spent one night in drugged sleep, being pumped chock full of LotsaTech product trivia."

"Oh! You mean . . . Just-in-Time Training?" Victor tapped away at his notepad. "I thought that was years away."

"It is if you play by the FDA’s rules. But there are meds and treatments that can speed up learning. Just read the journals and you’ll see that in another year or two, they’ll be a scandal as big as sports drugs ever were. I think Gerry has just jumped the gun with something that is very, very effective. You have no side-effects. You have all sorts of new, specialized knowledge–even if it’s about a throwaway topic. And apparently you have detailed memories of life experience that never happened."

Dixie Mae thought back over the last week. There had been no strangeness about her experience at Olson Hall: the exams, the job interview. True, the johns were fantastically clean–like a hospital, now that she thought about it. She had only visited them once, right after she accepted the job offer. And then she had . . . done what? Taken a bus directly out to LotsaTech . . . without even going back to her apartment? After that, everything was clear again. She could remember jokes in the Voxalot classes. She could remember meals, and late night talks with Ulysse about what they might do with this great opportunity. "It’s brainwashing," she finally said.

Ellen nodded. "It looks like Gerry has gone way, way too far on this one."

"And he’s stupid, too. Our team is going to a party tonight, downtown. All of a sudden, there’ll be sixteen people who’ll know what’s been done to them. We’ll be mad as–" Dixie Mae noticed Ellen’s pitying look.

"Oh." So tonight instead of partying, their customer support team would be in a drugged stupor, unremembering the week that never was. "We won’t remember a thing, will we?"

Ellen nodded. "My guess is you’ll be well-paid, with memories of some one-day temp job here at LotsaTech."

"Well, that’s not going to happen," said Victor. "I’ve got a story and I’ve got a grudge. I’m not going back."

"We have to warn the others."

Victor shook his head. "Too risky."

Dixie Mae gave him a glare.

Ellen Garcia hugged her knees for a moment. "If this were just you, Victor, I’d be sure you were putting me on." She looked at Dixie Mae for a second. "Let me see that email again."

She spread it out on the table. "LotsaTech has its share of defense and security contracts. I’d hate to think that they might try to shut us up if they knew we were onto them." She whistled an ominous tune. "Paranoia rages. . . . Have you thought that this email might be someone trying to tip you off about what’s going on?"

Victor frowned. "Who, Ellen?" When she didn’t answer, he said, "So what do you think we should do?"

Ellen didn’t look up from the printout. "Mainly, try not to act like idiots. All we really know is that someone has played serious games with your heads. Our first priority is to get us all out of LotsaTech, with you guys free of medical side effects. Our second priority is to blow the whistle on Gerry or . . ." She was reading the mail headers again, ". . . or whoever is behind this."

Dixie Mae said, "I don’t think we know enough not to act like idiots."

"Good point. Okay, I’ll make a phone call, an innocuous message that should mean something to the police if things go really bad. Then I’ll talk to the others in our grading team. We won’t say anything while we’re still at LotsaTech, but once away from here we’ll scream long and loud. You two . . . it might be safest if you just lie low till after dark and we graders get back into town."

Victor was nodding.

Dixie Mae pointed at the mystery email. "What was it you just noticed, Ellen?"

"Just a coincidence, I think. Without a large sample, you start seeing phantoms."


"Well, the mailing address, ‘lusting925@freemail.sg’. Building 0925 is on the hill crest thataway."

"You can’t see that from where we started."

"Right. It’s like ‘Lusting’ had to get you here first. And that’s the other thing. Prof. Reich has a senior graduate student named Rob Lusk."

Lusk? Lusting? The connection seemed weak to Dixie Mae. "What kind of a guy is he?"

"Rob’s not a particularly friendly fellow, but he’s about two sigmas smarter than the average grad student. He’s the reason Gerry has the big reputation for hardware. Gerry has been using him for five or six years now, and I bet Rob is getting desperate to graduate." She broke off. "Look. I’m going to go inside and tell Graham and the others about this. Then we’ll find a place for you to hide for the rest of the day."

She started toward the door.

"I’m not going to hide out," said Dixie Mae.

Ellen hesitated. "Just till closing time. You’ve seen the rent-a-cops at the main gate. This is not a place you can simply stroll out of. But my group will have no trouble going home this evening. As soon as we’re off-site, we’ll raise such a stink that the press and police will be back here. You’ll be safe at home in no time."

Victor was nodding. "Ellen’s right. In fact, it would be even better if we don’t spread the story to the other graders. There’s no telling–"

"I’m not going to hide out!" Dixie Mae looked up the hill. "I’m going to check out 0925."

"That’s crazy, Dixie Mae! You’re guaranteed safe if you just hide till the end of the work day–and then the cops can do better investigating than anything you could manage. You do what Ellen says!"

"No one tells me what to do, Victor!" said Dixie Mae, while inside she was thinking, Yeah, what I’m doing is a little bit like the plot of a cheap game: teenagers enter haunted house, and then split up to be murdered in pieces . . .

But Ellen Garcia was making assumptions, too. Dixie Mae glared at both of them. "I’m following up on this email."

Ellen gave her a long look. Whether it was contemptuous or thoughtful wasn’t clear. "Just wait for me to tell Graham, okay?"

Twenty minutes later, the three of them were outdoors again, walking up the long grade toward Building 0925.

Graham the Red might be a smart guy, but he turned out to be a fool, too. He was sure that the calendar mystery was just a scam cooked up by Dixie Mae and Victor. Ellen wasn’t that good at talking to him–and the two customer support winkies were beneath his contempt. Fortunately, most of the other graders had been willing to listen. One of them also poked an unpleasant hole in all their assumptions: "So if it’s that serious, wouldn’t Gerry have these two under surveillance? You know, the Conspiracy Gestapo could arrive any second." There’d been a moment of apprehensive silence as everyone waited the arrival of bad guys with clubs.

In the end, everyone including Graham had agreed to keep their mouths shut till after work. Several of them had friends they made cryptic phone calls to, just in case. Dixie Mae could tell that most of them tilted toward Ellen’s point of view, but however smart they were, they really didn’t want to cross Graham.

Ellen, on the other hand, was persona non grata for trying to mess up Graham’s schedule. She finally lost her temper with the redheaded jerk.

So now Ellen, Victor, and Dixie Mae were on the yellow brick road–in this case, the asphalt econo-cart walkway–leading to Building 0925.

The LotsaTech campus was new and underpopulated, but there were other people around. Just outside of 0999, they ran into a trio of big guys wearing gray blazers like the cops at the main entrance. Victor grabbed Dixie Mae’s arm. "Just act natural," he whispered.

They ambled past, Victor giving a gracious nod. The three hardly seemed to notice.

Victor released Dixie Mae’s arm. "See? You just have to be cool."

Ellen had been walking ahead. She dropped back so they were three abreast. "Either we’re being toyed with," she said, "or they haven’t caught on to us."

Dixie Mae touched the email in her pocket. "Well, somebody is toying with us."

"You know, that’s the biggest clue we have. I still think it could be somebody trying to–"

Ellen fell silent as a couple of management types came walking the other way. These paid them even less attention than the company cops had.

"–it could be somebody trying to help us."

"I guess," said Dixie Mae. "More likely it’s some sadist using stuff they learned while I was drugged up."

"Ug. Yeah." They batted around the possibilities. It was strange. Ellen Garcia was as much fun to talk to as Ulysse, even though she had to be about five times smarter than either Ulysse or Dixie Mae.

Now they were close enough to see the lower windows of 0925. This place was a double-sized version of 0999 or 0994. There was a catering truck pulled up at the ground level. Beyond a green-tinted windbreak they could see couples playing tennis on the courts south of the building.

Victor squinted. "Strange. They’ve got some kind of blackout on the windows."

"Yeah. We should at least be able to see the strip lights in the ceiling."

They drifted off the main path and walked around to where they wouldn’t be seen from the catering truck. Even up close, down under the overhang, the windows looked just like those on the other buildings. But it wasn’t just dark inside. There was nothing but blackness. The inside of the glass was covered with black plastic like they put on closed storefronts.

Victor whipped out his notepad.

"No phone calls, Victor."

"I want to send out a live report, just in case someone gets really mad about us being here."

"I told you, they’ve got web access embargoed. Besides, just calling from here would trigger 911 locator logic."

"Just a short call, to–"

He looked up and saw that the two women were standing close. "–ah, okay. I’ll just use it as a local cam."

Dixie Mae held out her hand. "Give me the notepad, Victor. We’ll take the pictures."

For a moment it looked like he was going refuse. Then he saw how her other hand was clenched into a fist. And maybe he remembered the lunchtime stories she had told during the week. The week that never was? Whatever the reason, he handed the notepad over to her. "You think I’m working for the bad guys?" he said.

"No," Dixie Mae said (65 percent truthfully, but declining), "I just don’t think you’ll always do what Ellen suggests. This way we’ll get the pictures, but safely." Because of my superior self control. Yeah.

She started to hand the notepad to Ellen, but the other shook her head. "Just keep a record, Dixie Mae. You’ll get it back later, Victor."

"Oh. Okay, but I want first xmit rights." He brightened. "You’ll be my cameragirl, Dixie. Just come back on me anytime I have something important to say."

"Will do, Victor." She panned the notepad camera in a long sweep, away from him.

No one bothered them as they walked halfway around the ground floor. The blackout job was very thorough, but just as at buildings 0994 and 0999, there was an ordinary door with an old-fashioned card swipe.

Ellen took a closer look. "We disabled the locks on 0999 just for the fun of it. Somehow I don’t think these black-plastic guys are that easygoing."

"I guess this is as far as we go," said Victor.

Dixie Mae stepped close to the door and gave it push. There was no error beep, no alarms. The door just swung open.

Looks of amazement were exchanged.

Five seconds later they were still standing at the open doorway. What little they could see looked like your typical LotsaTech ground floor. "We should shut the door and go back," said Victor. "We’ll be caught red-handed standing here."

"Good point." Ellen stepped inside, followed perforce by Victor, and then Dixie Mae taking local video.

"Wait! Keep the door open, Dixie Mae."


"This is like an airlock!" They were in a tiny room. Above waist height, its walls were clear glass. There was another door on the far end of the little room.

Ellen walked forward. "I had a summer job at Livermore last year. They have catch boxes like this. You walk inside easy enough–and then there are armed guards all around, politely asking you if you’re lost." There were no guards visible here. Ellen pressed on the inner door. Locked. She reached up to the latch mechanism. It looked like cheap plastic. "This should not work," she said, even as she fiddled at it.

They could hear voices, but from upstairs. Down here, there was no one to be seen. Some of the layout was familiar, though. If this had been Building 0994, the hallway on the right would lead to restrooms, a small cafeteria, and a temporary dormitory.

Ellen hesitated and stood listening. She looked back at them. "That’s strange. That sounds like . . . Graham!"

"Can you just break the latch, Ellen?" We should go upstairs and strangle the two-faced weasel with his own ponytail.

Another sound. A door opening! Dixie Mae looked past Ellen and saw a guy coming out of the men’s room. Dixie Mae managed to grab Victor, and the two of them dropped behind the lower section of the holding cell.

"Hey, Ellen," said the stranger, "you look a bit peaked. Is Graham getting on your nerves, too?"

Ellen gave a squeaky laugh. "Y-yeah . . . so what else is new?"

Dixie Mae twisted the notepad and held it so the camera eye looked through the glass. In the tiny screen, she could see that the stranger was smiling. He was dressed in tee-shirt and knee-pants and he had some kind of glittering badge on a loop around his neck.

Ellen’s mouth opened and shut a couple of times, but nothing came out. She doesn’t know this guy from Adam.

The stranger was still clueless, but– "Hey, where’s your badge?"

"Oh . . . damn. I must have left in the john," said Ellen. "And now I’ve locked myself out."

"You know the rules," he said, but his tone was not threatening. He did something on his side of the door. It opened and Ellen stepped through, blocking the guy’s view of what was behind her.

"I’m sorry. I, uh, I got flustered."

"That’s okay. Graham will eventually shut up. I just wish he’d pay more attention to what the professionals are asking of him."

Ellen nodded. "Yeah, I hear you!" Like she was really, really agreeing with him.

"Y’see, Graham’s not splitting the topics properly. The idea is to be both broad and deep."

Ellen continued to make understanding noises. The talkative stranger was full of details about some sort of a NSA project, but he was totally ignorant of the three intruders.

There were light footsteps on the stairs, and a familiar voice. "Michael, how long are you going to be? I want to–" The voice cut off in a surprised squeak.

On the notepad display, Dixie Mae could see two brown-haired girls staring at each other with identical expressions of amazement. They sidled around each other for a moment, exchanging light slaps. It wasn’t fighting . . . it was as if each thought the other was some kind of trick video. Ellen Garcia, meet Ellen Garcia.

The stranger–Michael?–stared with equal astonishment, first at one Ellen and then the other. The Ellens made inarticulate noises just loud enough to interrupt each other and make them even more upset.

Finally Michael said, "I take it you don’t have a twin sister, Ellen?"

"No!" said both.

"So one of you is an impostor. But you’ve spun around so often now that I can’t tell who is the original. Ha." He pointed at one of the Ellens. "Another good reason for having security badges."

But Ellen and Ellen were ignoring everyone except themselves. Except for their chorus of "No!", their words were just mutual interruptions, unintelligible. Finally, they hesitated and gave each other a nasty smile. Each reached into her pocket. One came out with a dollar coin, and the other came out empty.

"Ha! I’ve got the token. Deadlock broken." The other grinned and nodded. Dollar-coin Ellen turned to Michael. "Look, we’re both real. And we’re both only-children."

Michael looked from one to the other. "You’re certainly not clones, either."

"Obviously," said the token holder. She looked at the other Ellen and asked, "Fridge-rot?"

The other nodded and said, "In April I made that worse." And both of them laughed.

Token holder: "Gerry’s exam in Olson Hall?"


Token holder: "Michael?"

"After that," the other replied, and then she blushed. After a second the token holder blushed, too.

Michael said dryly, "And you’re not perfectly identical."

Token holder Ellen gave him a crooked smile. "True. I’ve never seen you before in my life." She turned and tossed the dollar coin to the other Ellen, left hand to left hand.

And now that Ellen had the floor. She was also the version wearing a security badge. Call her NSA Ellen. "As far as I–we–can tell, we had the same stream of consciousness up through the day we took Gerry Reich’s recruitment exam. Since then, we’ve had our own lives. We’ve even got our own new friends." She was looking in the direction of Dixie Mae’s camera.

Grader Ellen turned to follow her gaze. "Come on out, guys. We can see your camera lens."

Victor and Dixie Mae stood and walked out of the security cell.

"A right invasion you are," said Michael, and he did not seem to be joking.

NSA Ellen put her hand on his arm. "Michael, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore."

"Indeed! I’m simply dreaming."

"Probably. But if not–" she exchanged glances with grader Ellen "–maybe we should find out what’s been done to us. Is the meeting room clear?"

"Last I looked. Yes, we’re not likely to be bothered in there." He led them down a hallway toward what was simply a janitor’s closet back in Building 0994.

To be continued!

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