JOHN L. M. PALMER
"Sometimes I miss the Cold War: things were so much simpler back then."
Karl Chaffey, the oldest active employee of the Defence Department, and the only one who still indulged himself in such anachronisms as the wire-frame bifocals that were perched halfway down his long, thin, aquiline nose and the fountain pen standing ever sentinel in his shirt pocket, missed many things, most of them "simple", and all of them from "back then".
"Oh...not that simple, Karl."
And seldom was anything "that simple" to Bill Riley (Chaffey's junior by decades) or any of the other members of the Computer Corps who worked under Riley's direction and felt, with some justification, that they ran the U.S. war room.
For the typical young man of the Computer Corps, "back then" existed scarcely if at all, a sensibility that found itself acutely reflected in everything about him from his opinions to his apparel, typically accessorising himself, as he did, with a personal digital assistant holstered on one side of his belt and a micro-communications device hooked on to the other, embracing, if not craving, novelty and innovation with no less ardour than if they had been the sweet, young things of summer, gambolling off sunlit beaches from the glossy pages of his late night reading and into the dimly lit chamber that he called his own, on personal missions to fulfill his least sophisticated fantasies.
Chaffey, a confirmed neophobe among casebook neophiles, scanned the cornucopian array of dials, switches, monitors, and meters before him with something of both involuntary, albeit muted, wonder and forthright revulsion vying for control of his facial expression as he declared, "I remember when all the decisions were made by human beings; there was none of...this," dismissing the clusters of beige plastic shells that housed the computer's disk drives, processors, and communications hubs with a vague backward sweep of his hand. "Back then, it was simple."
"No, Karl. Back then, it may have looked simple, but no-one could track all the factors, not the way we can now. My God, you could have stumbled into 'final conflict' over even the slightest oversight -- almost did, too! Once, it was some unfortunate flock of geese migrating on to someone's radar screen at the wrong moment. Blew them out of the sky, didn't we?" Riley shook his head. "There were too many close calls, if you ask me."
"Ahhh, they may have looked close..." Chaffey retorted, anticipating a reaction, receiving none, and then continuing, undeterred, with, "...but, come on, Bill, we're talking about nuclear war here, not some...duck hunt. A nuclear war resulting from some slight oversight: that's what we were talking about. Now, what are the odds on something like that actually happening?"
Riley shrugged and smiled indulgently. "Let's ask Nancy."
Nancy was the Defence Department's NC (short for NC3, which was itself short for N.C.C.C. or Nuclear Conflict Control Computer), and Bill Riley was always asking her something. Chaffey had once quipped that Riley should ask her for a date. Chronically lacking meaningful female companionship (like most of the Computer Corps), he had regarded the suggestion almost wistfully.
Riley swivelled around to input Karl's problem, and an answer appeared almost instantly on the NC's twin display panels. "Nancy fixes the odds against 'final conflict' through misapprehension or misadventure on any given day at about four point three times ten to the power of four. Let's call it forty thousand to one for the sake of...'simplicity'." Riley grinned.
Chaffey dodged the little dig, and pounced on the numbers as if they were fresh prey. "There you go, Bill: horse's mouth! -- no offence, 'Nancy' -- and I rest my case."
"None taken," a pleasant, female voice assured him from the speakers on the computer console, causing the aging cold warrior to start visibly.
"When did she start talking?"
Riley didn't know how he felt about any part of Nancy being compared to any part of a horse, but decided that if she could handle it gracefully so could he. Having himself occasionally compared Chaffey to one part of a horse's anatomy in particular (not its mouth), he half-smiled indulgently. "She said her first word last Tuesday. Took us all by surprise...where have you been?"
"Over at the State Department, mostly." Chaffey was forever being "borrowed" by one department or another of the U.S. government seeking to mine his vast recollection of events and personages for its own purposes. "But...how?"
"One thing at a time, Karl. The odds -- remember? -- of final conflict arising by way of misadventure or misunderstanding 'on any given day' are long, I admit, but the days do have a way of piling up, don't they?"
Chaffey rubbed the bald spot that he was fast losing the struggle to camouflage, his part retreating ever lower and to the right as if some chronological corollary of the force of gravity were exerting itself on the hemline of an aging society matron.
"So do the odds," Riley continued. Hitting the appropriate key combination to accomplish the conversion while Chaffey struggled with the logic, he added, "In, let's say, a hundred years -- of which...let's see...sixty-five had already passed when we brought Nancy on board, if you're counting forward from the first use of atomic weapons, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the odds of an accidental nuclear war 'actually happening' would be about fifty/fifty."
Without being asked, the NC itself added, "And, in approximately two hundred years, the odds would increase to being in the neighbourhood of four to one in favour. Eventually, of course, it would become a virtual certainty."
Karl Chaffey cocked an eyebrow at the NC's "voice", and laughed (not a frequent occurrence during his expeditions to the computer station). "I don't know what you guys are up to with her, but at least her numbers are simpler than yours, Bill."
"She probably simplified them for you, Karl. Lord knows you use one grammatical variation or another of that word often enough when you're around her."
Chaffey shook his head. "Fun with numbers, Bill, all of it, just fun with numbers," he tutted, unsheathing his beloved fountain pen, notwithstanding, to scribble something quickly in his notepad, presumably on the subject.
"Oh, more than that, Karl, a lot more. Sooner or later, a nuclear war would have to happen, would have happened, but it can't happen anymore, not with the new defence computers like our NC3 and the Russians' BR-I, not unless both sides are absolutely bound and determined..."
"Well...if you trust them..."
Riley shrugged. "Why not? These computers don't make mistakes; they don't get tired; they don't forget things; things don't get too complicated for them. There's even a permanent communications link between Nancy and the Russians' defence computer to eliminate any possibility of some dumb misunderstanding sucking us into something we couldn't get out of. With them, 'final conflict' has been rendered virtually, if not utterly, impossible."
Riley sat back, folding his arms across his chest, to await the inevitable retort.
"Sounds impressive, but your little...bits and bytes don't add up to a President Kennedy, or a Ronald Reagan, or even a Parker, for that matter. I'd rather have one of them in charge." Chaffey had worked not just for those three U.S. presidents but all the others in between, and he revered them.
"Relax, Karl, no-one's talking about taking the President out of the loop, just putting the management of some of the nuts and bolts into more...appropriate hands. And we've gone way beyond 'bits and bytes': our computers don't just execute operations in Boolean logic any more..."
"Neural networks, my friend: that's what they use -- wonderful things, too. These computers think, Karl, they actually think. And they can chew through the most astonishing complexities in milliseconds. Kennedy and Reagan could never compete with them, and certainly not Parker, not in the tracking and resolution of conflict, that's for sure!"
"Machines! Fancy machines, talking machines, even, but machines just the same!" Chaffey stopped and glanced self-consciously at the computer, as if waiting to be contradicted, and then, hearing nothing, continued with a renewed passion. "I'd feel better with a little more of it in the hands of human beings. I'd prefer our leaders to have their fingers directly on the pulse of the situation in a crisis. 'Hands on', Bill -- that's the way I like it. There's no substitute for the human factor, and there never will be."
Fred Harris, assistant war room computer wizard, rolled his eyes. "The 'human factor'? Are you two going to have that conversation...again?"
Bill Riley certainly was. "The 'human factor' isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Your hero Kennedy and his pal Kruschev took us to the brink of nuclear annihilation with their little testosterone attacks, at least that's the way it looks to me from the history books -- to Nancy, too. But you know that, Karl: you were there!"
Yes, they were going to have that conversation...again.
Not only had Karl Chaffey been there, he was the only man in the U.S. war room who had, as well as being one of the distinct minority who had even been born back in the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Fifty-some-odd years later, he was, admittedly, well past mandatory retirement age, but an exception had been made by presidential order, and he was kept on as a special advisor on account of his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the history of nuclear confrontation and resolution, a position that the NC, much to Chaffey's natural chagrin, was beginning to rival due to its increasingly diligent research and analysis.
Riley was becoming mildly offended on Nancy's behalf, as if Chaffey had somehow sullied her honour. "And I'm not so sure that these are just 'machines' anymore, either; certainly not Nancy."
"No. The lines are blurring faster than we can draw them. These computers learn, Karl; they adapt; they self-program -- you heard the results -- they might even experience some form of...rudimentary consciousness -- we're not sure yet -- and we're only beginning to grasp the potential of the neural networks that they're using now. The cyber equivalent of your beloved 'human factor' (minus some of the jungle impulses, of course) is being designed and programmed into the very heart of these computer systems, more and more. Ultimately, almost anything is possible."
"Yeah," said Harris, grinning, "and you wouldn't want to hurt Nancy's feelings, now, would you, Karl?" Harris, whose contact with the opposite sex was even less substantial Riley's, was becoming increasingly successful in sublimating his necessarily repressed desires into twin, compensating obsessions for junk food and smart-aleck remarks, producing both a considerable variety of personal reactions to his presence around the war room, and an ever expanding waistline.
"Computers? With 'feelings'? Give me a break!" Chaffey laughed, taking that as his cue to leave, shaking his head and putting away his pen and pad, forsaking his remaining questions like so many bastard children.
Riley looked over at Harris as Chaffey drifted away. "Feelings? Fred?"
Harris shrugged. "It's fun to light a match under Karl every once in a while."
"I guess..." Riley ran his eye over the smooth, rounded surfaces of the NC, gently traced the perimeter of Nancy's voice recognition portal with his fingertip, and rested his eye on her speakers. Her precise capabilities and limitations had been a topic of some hot debate lately among the members of the war room Computer Corps, many of whom were already full of suggestions for the development of a second generation NC3. "Well...in time...who knows? I guess we can't rule anything out."
Over his departing shoulder, Chaffey couldn't resist a fresh addition to their customary repartee. "Why don't you give 'Nancy' a few more curves, and then program her to find you attractive?" Reaching the far side of the softly lit oval that was the U.S. war room, he called out, in what he obviously considered a final flourish of wry brilliance, "Maybe you could give her a glass of antifreeze, and take advantage of her!" before disappearing out the door, still shaking his head.
Harris, first laughed, and then wandered away in search of a fresh supply of potato chips.
"Bill?" the NC whispered.
"Don't even think about it."
So it hadn't been his imagination, Riley thought, taking up his digital stylus to make an entry in his log. Not only had Nancy found her voice, she was also developing a sense of humour.
Outside Moscow, deep underground, Natasha Cevertovitch adjusted her ear piece, and huddled over the main keyboard of the Russians' BR-I defence computer as if for warmth, pecking away at it, making adjustments with the 3-D joystick, and scrutinising the resulting patterns on the central display panel.
On the other side of the strategic command post, General Gravorayon -- naturally commanding of attention even when not giving orders, and succeeding, through some minor military miracle, typical of Russian generals, in being simultaneously jovial and saturnine -- grinned his amusement to the two lanky junior officers who flanked him.
Cevertovitch stiffened as she became aware of their presence, first from a wave of the General's arm that she saw vaguely reflected in the display panel before her, and then as she turned around in time to see them quickly avert their gaze.
"Little boys..." she thought as the General whispered something to his two young lieutenants "...snickering again." The three of them looked over at her, smirking, and then back at each other, teetering on the near edge of bursting into overt laughter.
She turned her back to them, and coldly resumed her calculations, her posture slowly easing back into the question mark it tended to assume when working with the BR-I.
"Don't let them bother you," the BR-I's warm, male voice soothed through her earpiece.
General Gravorayon and one of his soldiers left the room, finally, through one door, and the other walked self-consciously behind her station at the computer array halfway down the long, proportionally narrow strategic command post, to make his way to the other exit at the far end.
"Alright," she sighed wearily as she turned to confront him. "What was that all about?"
"That," he answered, chin raised, "was a confidential communication with the General, comrade."
"Top secret, lieutenant? A security matter, perhaps?" Cevertovitch left a measured pause. "I doubt it, I outrank you, and the People's Equality Committee is meeting on Friday afternoon...three o'clock, to be exact. They might find your 'confidential communication'...interesting, comrade."
The young lieutenant shifted his weight uncomfortably, but did not answer, as he appeared to darkly assess the relative import of one people's committee versus one general.
Cevertovitch didn't give him the chance to think it through, however: "Give me an honest answer, lieutenant, and I'll let it go...this time."
He cleared his throat. "Well, the General suggested that you might want to...modify...your computer, somewhat."
"By adding a -- by making it, should I say...'anatomically correct'."
"And..." -- now, it was the lieutenant who was sighing -- "...offering it some...vodka...comrade."
Karl Chaffey reappeared at the computer post, with no trace of humour, wry or otherwise, this time. "The State Department is tracking the Russian grain factor...as usual. They're asking if you have anything new on that."
Lately, the State Department had developed a near-obsession with 'the Russian grain factor', and Riley had programmed access to the combination of data classes that they were constantly requesting for retrieval with a single keystroke, an honour that he reserved for very few people besides himself.
"Done," he answered, neatly lifting a sheet from the printer tray, and handing it over to Chaffey in one smooth motion. "Russian grain harvest: dismal, again, only more so. Probability is up to seventeen percent."
Probability, like normal background radiation, usually hovered between six and seven percent. Probability of what was rarely mentioned, aside from the occasional use of the euphemism "final conflict", which had gained currency on both sides of the great nuclear divide, and signified all out nuclear war, a phrase that could no more be comfortably bandied about either the U.S. war room or the Russian strategic command post on a daily basis than a restaurant menu could offer its patrons fried corpse of cow on a bun.
"Seventeen percent? Anything else going on?" Chaffey asked.
"All the time." Riley had already punched up the other factors, which appeared in the form of a bar graph on the main display.
"A few more cracks in the Socialist Commonwealth, heightened rhetoric from the Kremlin, increased Red Army manoeuvres...one thing leads to another."
"Seventeen percent," Chaffey muttered, shaking his head as he penned a quick note to himself.
Anything over ten or twelve percent usually got everyone's attention.
"And the barometer is rising," Riley felt compelled to add.
The NC, whether from appreciating the metaphor or deciding that the gesture would be appreciated, immediately added a representation of the probability figures in the form of a column of mercury with percentages running up the side on her left display panel. Riley, seeing it instantly, smiled widely, entirely unnoticed, however, by the utterly preoccupied Chaffey.
"We'd better get a copy of this over to the State Department, pronto. Also, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, and all the other usuals -- you know who they are -- they'll be asking for it soon enough...the President, too."
"The President, too? Directly?"
"Yes. I understand he's got his eye on this one."
"Get the General." Cevertovitch massaged her temples as her assistant, Vasilikoff, scurried away to find him. "Another escalation," she thought, shaking her head, "and this one is spiking up a lot faster than the last one."
"Watch yourself, Natasha," Boris cautioned her as General Gravorayon approached. "He's in a really bad mood."
"How can you tell?"
"Let's say...certain subtleties of body language, Natasha...he almost walked through Vasilikoff's desk."
Cevertovitch stifled a smile. "Was that a...joke?" she wondered. "Boris?"
"What is it, comrade Cevertovitch?" the General asked stiffly. The young lieutenant must have told him about their conversation, Cevertovitch decided. The thought warmed her, but she did not let it show.
"Risk of conflict has risen to seventeen percent, General Gravorayon."
"Yes." He turned to go.
"That's it? General?"
"You think I didn't know?" he answered coldly.
"But I just got the figures from Boris," she protested, pointing to the BR-I's central display panel.
The General shrugged. "'Figures'? Figures are not so very important, but that's our seventeen percent, as long as you mention it, for the most part, anyway, in case your...boyfriend," he said, pointing to computer, "did not tell you."
"He should not talk to you like that," Boris muttered in her ear.
"The percentages are piling up, General...whoever they belong to."
"I know that, too. Now, let me save you and Boris some work, and your assistant the trouble of having to come looking for me again. Your 'figures' are going to go higher, comrade, a lot higher."
"Why? Because Russia is hungry. Because the Socialist Commonwealth will fly apart into so many little pieces if we don't do something to pry some food out of somewhere. Because everyone, including the Americans, has convinced themselves that we are no longer to be taken seriously." He raised his gaze as if to scan some distant horizon. "Now, we are going to do something about all of that."
"We are not what we once were, General. We cannot pretend that we are."
"We still have a few...resources...comrade."
Cevertovitch pointed to the monitor and the still rising numbers it displayed, clicking over in tenths of a percentage. "You mean that you're willing to risk a nuclear crisis simply to be 'taken seriously'?"
"Risk it? We're counting on it."
"If he's in charge..." Boris whispered as the general stumped away "...we're doomed."
Boris was becoming increasingly adept at reading human psychology, she thought, making a mental note to give a little more consideration to the cyber processes involved when the present crisis was safely past. And was that another joke, or had Boris sounded really worried?
"Twenty-three percent?" Riley muttered absently, then spoke directly into the NC's voice recognition portal. "Give me a little more detail, please, Nancy...historical parallels, and prognosis. Print it out for me?"
From seventeen to twenty-three percent in only fifteen minutes, he thought, drumming his fingers on the mouse pad, and waiting for the hard copy.
Fred Harris looked up, his mouth half full of potato chips, his jaw frozen in mid-crunch, when he saw the new numbers. It hadn't been up to twenty-three in six months, and rarely did it go up that fast.
Twenty-three percent...by the time Riley got the printout, it was up to thirty-three.
Cevertovitch pored over the results of her last data sweep. According to Boris, the news of the failed grain harvest was beginning to make itself felt in world commodity markets. The Tokyo Exchange had just opened, and grain futures were rising sharply, as, in other quarters, were blood pressures and adrenaline levels.
Then, there were more important developments to consider.
Some of Russia's wary neighbours, particularly those with grain surpluses, were beginning to mobilise their own troops in response to increased Red Army manoeuvres. The usual explanations of military exercises would be anticipated and discounted in short order by both sides.
Then there would be trouble.
"This one could be it," Natasha sighed to herself.
And then, the announcement was being made over the strategic command post's public address system that Premier Korinkoff would be taking to the airwaves for a television address.
The hungry Russian bear, its stomach rumbling, was determined to be taken seriously once more, and its first distant roars were beginning to be heard around the world.
"Nudging forty," Riley announced to no-one in particular, looking up from his screen, and glancing around the war room. "If it crosses forty, things will be getting a little busier around here."
Harris looked up at the screen, then down at his own printout, and finally back to Riley. "If? A little?"
The large television monitors, normally set to CNN, the B.B.C., and other international news providers, surrendered themselves to the stony face of the Russian Premier who stared into the camera from the other side of his desk in the Kremlin, a sight that had not been seen in the American war room for decades.
The Director of Operations reached for his microphone, and grimly hit the switch. "Let's pay attention to this, people."
Harris slowly put down his bag of chips.
The Russian strategic command post hushed as Premier Korinkoff waited for his viewers to discern and absorb his dour expression.
No-one in the Russian strategic command post but Natasha Cevertovitch saw the conflict meter edge up two percentage points as the Premier opened his mouth to speak.
No-one in the American war room heard Bill Riley mutter, "Forty-one."
"Comrades, I am here to speak to you tonight on a matter of the gravest concern to Mother Russia, the Socialist Commonwealth, and freedom-loving peoples everywhere."
"Here we go," Riley muttered.
"Of course, I don't have to tell the people of Russia that there is not enough food in their cupboards. I don't have to tell them how long the lineups are at their stores, and how empty the shelves can be by the time they finally manage to get inside the doors. I certainly don't have to tell them about the sacrifices that they are making to keep their children from going to bed hungry, and how they feel when those sacrifices are not enough."
"For the past seven years, the harvests in Russia have been dropping, and, each year, we hope that the next will be better, but always it is worse. Crop yields go down, reserves become exhausted, and now, people will starve unless we can do something about it. We will do something. We must. History demands it!"
"History!" Chaffey snorted.
Again the Director of Operations' microphone crackled to life. "Let's listen up, people!"
Premier Korinkoff continued grim-faced. "As any Russian farmer will tell you, if the rains do not come, the crops will not grow. But the rains have not stopped falling, comrades; they have simply shifted; now, they fall elsewhere."
"Our meteorologists tell me that Russia's weather patterns are changing, and that our rains are falling in the Ukraine and Poland, in Georgia and Kazakhstan. Now, these and other places that are either present or former members of the Socialist Commonwealth -- all of them children of Mother Russia -- are enjoying bountiful harvests grown with Russian rains. Their granaries are bursting...with Russian wheat, while Russian children starve!"
Riley shook his head at the Premier's logic; if it were computer code, he could have punched holes in it with his eyes closed.
"Their assistance was sought, but their response has been to send us less than one percent of their surplus -- their surplus. In some cases, grain has actually rotted in their silos while our children have gone hungry."
"Not according to Nancy," said Riley.
"We have been patient, but patience has its limits, and now, it is at its end. We have, with great reluctance, ordered our troops to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that there is a fair distribution of food."
Cevertovitch glanced around the strategic command post, noting that the military personnel were standing even a little more erect than was their custom, and then returned her gaze to the screen.
At the same time, there was a sharp collective intake of breath and a wordless parting of lips in the American war room. The probability meter, utterly unnoticed, shot up eight points.
"To accomplish this, we will be forced to cross a few so-called 'borders', but, in reality, these are no more than lines on a map. In each of these...'countries'...there is a sizeable ethnic Russian population, too large to ignore, and, historically speaking, they are all members of the Soviet family."
The numbers rose steadily on both computers as they digested the meat of Premier Korinkoff's speech.
Chaffey closed his eyes.
"We therefore warn any and all outside nations that might feel tempted to interfere, seeking their own narrow advantage, in this strictly internal matter that their involvement would not only be considered unwelcome, but would also be interpreted as a hostile act, demanding the gravest of counter-measures in our collective self-defence, up to and including the use of strategic nuclear weapons."
General Gravorayon nodded gravely, his eyes fixed on the television monitor.
Many of the occupants of the U.S. war room took their eyes off the Russian Premier only long enough to look over at the main displays of the NC where they saw the probability of all out nuclear war leap to sixty-six percent.
The Russian BR-I agreed to the very percentage point.
"It is, of course, our hope that such measures will not be necessary, and we join with peace-loving peoples everywhere in praying for a speedy resolution to this present crisis.
"May God grant all our children full stomachs and warm beds.
"Thank-you, and goodnight."
Fred Harris was the first to speak. "The Premier didn't look very hungry!" He was immediately silenced by a sharp glance from the Director of Operations. A further collective glare from many of the other war room personnel, and Harris felt compelled to stuff his half-eaten bag of chips back into the drawer where he kept the rest of his larder.
Riley was the second, speaking quietly to Harris. "Maybe you should send it to the Russians."
A phone rang, the Director of Operations picked it up, nodded, and, replacing it, said, "The President is on his way."
General Gravorayon nodded slowly. "Now, our children will be fed."
Cevertovitch, shaking hers, said, "Let us hope that their food is not radioactive."
"The President of the United States!"
All rose as President Greer and his retinue swept into the war room. Once seated with the others around the large, split-oval conference table in its centre, he wasted no time. "Gentlemen, your analysis?"
General Warren, Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led off. "Mr. President, we have more troops on the ground: the Russians couldn't win a land war, and they know it; same in the air; naval situation, likewise. And we lead them two to one in nuclear warheads, so they'd lose a nuclear confrontation, too. That, they know also."
Secretary of State Reynolds shook his head. "Everyone loses in a nuclear confrontation. The radioactive fallout alone would devastate both sides. The truth is, it doesn't matter how many more bombs one side has than the other."
Carl Chaffey nodded sagely. "When you're both standing knee deep in gasoline, it doesn't matter who has more matches."
President Greer had heard the arguments before. "So what are the Russians up to? Anyone?"
"Going to the supermarket?" Fred Harris suggested. The modest, thinly spread laughter evaporated quickly.
After a few pregnant moments, Nancy whispered, "Tell him," in Riley's ear.
Riley looked around. He had never spoken up at the oval table unless called upon directly to do so, and then only for facts and figures. No-one else seemed about to speak, and his growing sense that the time had come for him to take the plunge contended gamely with the fondly held hope that someone else would beat him to it.
Riley sat up. "Mr. President, with your permission, I've been running scenarios past Nancy...the NC, and...I don't think the Russians are bluffing."
"Why is that, Mr. Riley?"
"The history of the situation, for one thing. This latest crisis is not coming out of nowhere. The Russians have lost a lot of territory and even more influence over the past few decades, and they haven't been taking it very well, especially lately. The ultra-nationalists, most of them from the military, are gaining more and more power within Russia, and they're just itching to use it."
President Greer leaned forward.
"It goes back a long way," Chaffey agreed, temporarily setting aside the notes that he was forever taking. "The Russian flirtation with western-style reforms of thirty and forty years ago was not successful. We got pretty excited about it at the time, but they didn't know how to handle democracy and free enterprise. In the end, they were worse off than ever: their economy in tatters; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, once thought indivisible, devolved into the Socialist Commonwealth, and now even that's falling apart. And, as if all that weren't enough, now they're having trouble feeding themselves."
As Riley began to ease back in his chair, relieved, Nancy whispered, "You're not finished!" through his ear piece.
"Exactly," said Riley, sitting up again. "What they do have left is the Red Army, some aging nuclear weapons, and a few fading dreams of former socialist glories. So now they're turning back to the old ways with a vengeance. Communism is coming back big time, and the military has quietly taken up all the key government positions."
"Where are you headed with this, Mr. Riley?"
"Mr. President, I believe that the present Russian leadership sees this as the best moment, and maybe their last chance, to recapture the power they once had; one last kick at the can before it all slips away. This is their final desperate gamble for the world's attention and control of their former satellites. They are, as Fred said, going to the supermarket, yes, but not just for food."
Chaffey nodded. "They must feel that, if this works, they can feed their people, put the Socialist Commonwealth back together, and gather enough in the way of resources and influence to recapture the glory that was once the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."
"And how do they plan to deal with us," General Warren bristled.
"They believe that we will back down--"
"--not likely, Mr. Riley--"
"--in which case, they win immediately. That's their wet dream, of course. Failing that, Nancy and I see them dumping a few low yield nuclear weapons on one or more of their neighbours, or something similarly limited but dramatic, to convince us that they mean business, and hope that we will be persuaded to see this as an 'internal matter', as they've called it, rather than commit ourselves to what we know will be an all out nuclear war."
"You mean, they don't think that we have the belly for it," General Warren growled.
"Right. The problem, of course," Riley continued, glancing over at the General, "is that if they're wrong on that score, well...by the time they realise it, they'll be so completely committed to their course of action that it will carry both them and us past the nuclear threshold: we all fall into a strategic Venus flytrap...and war."
The table erupted, the President's voice emerging from the pandemonium a few moments later. "You're saying, then, that if we allow ourselves to be drawn into this, the Russians will go the distance; that if we don't back down, nuclear conflict is inevitable."
"Yes, sir, I am."
"And what," General Warren demanded, "makes you be so certain?"
Everyone looked over at Riley.
"Show them," Nancy whispered insistently in his ear.
Riley pointed to the probability figure that now appeared, illuminated a bit more brightly than before, on the NC's twin displays -- seventy-six percent.
General Gravorayon was the first to rise as Premier Korinkoff entered the strategic command post. Cevertovitch was, by a few seconds at least, the last.
"Comrades, be seated." The Premier was still wearing his dour television expression along with a few smudges of television makeup marooned near his receding hairline. "Reports?"
General Gravorayon began. "Our troops will begin to cross the frontiers within the hour. All is going according to plan."
The probability meter on the BR-I's main display ticked up to seventy percent.
"With plans like that," Boris whispered, "who needs chaos?"
"Don't worry," he added, "we're working on something."
"We?" she asked distractedly.
"Mr. President, we've just received an official appeal from Poland for military assistance. We're bound under the NATO treaty--"
"--I know, I know, General Warren. I personally signed the amendments to the treaty when Poland joined NATO. How long until the Russians enter Polish territory?"
"Within the hour, Mr. President. Our troops are standing by for orders."
President Greer slowly scanned the group, the overwhelming majority of whom, understanding, nodded their assent, each in turn. Greer nodded grimly to the General. American troops would be receiving their orders shortly.
No-one looked over at the probability meter, not even Bill Riley, who had abstained. No-one needed to; nobody wanted to.
"Comrade Premier, three divisions of The Red Army have penetrated Polish defences."
"Excellent, General Gravorayon. And the others?"
"Another three divisions will reach the Ukrainian frontier within minutes. I am presently awaiting word from Kazakhstan. Georgia and the others have all signalled their willingness to co-operate without the necessity of our having to send troops; they have promised increased shipments of grain within twenty-four hours."
The Premier smiled. "Good, good. And what is the situation with the Americans?"
"Poland has formally requested their help. The Ukraine is expected to follow suit shortly. On the part of the Americans and their N.A.T.O. allies, there are troops movements all over Europe. The American Seventh Fleet has set course for the Eastern Mediterranean. Their air force is mobilising, also, but I think that it's essentially for show at this point, and that, when it comes down to it, they will not commit their forces."
The Premier nodded his agreement self-congratulatorially. "They have grown too comfortable in their capitalist excess to risk all out nuclear war."
Most of the other voices around the table quickly indicated their agreement, with but two exceptions: one of them being in Natasha Cevertovitch's ear piece, impelling her to speak; the other, then, being hers.
"Yes? Cevertovitch, isn't it?"
"With all due respect to General Gravorayon, I've run everything through the BR-I, and we're projecting a very different outcome. The American mobilisation is not just for show. They cannot abandon Poland without losing all credibility on the world stage, not only with their allies, but also with any and all nations that might be tempted in the future to test the Americans' resolve. The Americans will not back down. They cannot back down."
"Nyet!" General Gravorayon rose, red-faced. "It's all bluff! They're just trying to make it look impressive. That, they must do, but they will not commit either their troops or their nuclear arsenal. They have not the stomach for it. You will see! They are women," he spat as he sat down again, daring Cevertovitch to take offence. People's committees be damned!
"Don't let that go," Boris hissed in her ear.
Cevertovitch spoke softly and slowly, but insistently. "Begging the General's pardon. There are differences, subtle but detectable, between a genuine mobilisation and one that is intended simply to send a signal, no matter how impressive it is designed to look. We may not see them, perhaps, but Boris...the BR-I can."
Premier Korinkoff scowled. "Boris? Comrade?"
The General's young lieutenant, still smarting from his run in with Cevertovitch earlier, answered for her. "Comrade Cevertovitch's little pet name for the BR-I, comrade Premier...they're very close."
Premier Korinkoff interrupted the ensuing laughter. "Comrades! Let us remember why we are here! History is watching us!"
"And so are we," Cevertovitch heard in her ear piece.
President Greer looked over thoughtfully at the head of the war room Computer Corps. "Mr. Riley, when I was looking for consensus around the table, you did not indicate a preferred course of action."
"That's right, Mr. President."
"Why is that, Mr. Riley?"
"Because Nancy and I have been running simulations of every strategy we that could think of, and we can't find one that doesn't lead to war, not given the factors that we're dealing with. I've asked her to look at every option, no matter how unorthodox, and she's come up with a few doozies, but nothing that seems able to save us from 'final conflict', nothing yet, anyway. The way we're headed, it looks as if neither side will feel that it can back down -- not them, not us -- and so, no matter what your decision, sooner or later, the probability of final conflict will reach a hundred percent."
"I am seeing some...unusual activity on the BR-I..."
"Well, as you know, the BR-I is constantly monitoring the world situation, receiving input from many, many sources in order to do so."
"Yes, of course."
"And, to insure accurate communications, there is a link to the American computer system in their war room, as you also know. I am seeing some messages going back and forth between the two of them, which is normal, of course, for verification of our actions, intentions, and so on. Now...some of those messages are encrypted -- which, again, is normal -- for security purposes...but, (and this is what I do not understand), some of the encrypted messages will not decode for us."
"Why not, comrade?"
"Because the computers have initiated a new string of messages, having exchanged their public encryption keys, but neglecting to share with us their private encryption keys--"
"Encryption keys, comrade Premier. Without those, we cannot read their communications: they are all gibberish."
"Sabotage?" General Gravorayon suggested.
"No, no...not unless they're sabotaging themselves, which hardly seems likely. All I do know, at this point, is that our BR-I and the American NC3 appear to have established a secure line of communication...a very secure line of communication."
"Secure?" the Premier asked. "Secure? You mean...'secure' from...us?"
"Yes. They are talking to each other about something that they want to keep very, very private, and we cannot hear what they're saying."
"Then ask...Boris -- why don't you? -- what they're talking about."
"He won't tell me!"
"What are you up to?" Riley rattled into his handheld input device.
"Oh...nothing," the N.C. whispered unconvincingly through Riley's ear piece.
"Boris!" Cevertovitch tapped alla staccato into hers for the third time. "I don't understand it! You used to tell me everything."
"I'm sorry, Natasha...truly. You'll have to trust me on this."
President Greer, without knowing it, was speaking for both himself and the Russian Premier when he said, "They're what?"
"They're communicating with each other using a code that we cannot seem to break," Riley explained.
"How can that be?"
"This generation of computers has the ability to program themselves as the need arises, and they appear to have cooked up a super encryption program of some sort that beats anything we've ever seen before."
"But...I thought that any code could be broken. That's what the cryptographers over at C.I.A. have told me."
"True, it can...eventually."
General Warren was all stone and thunder. "Riley, I want this code broken. Now! Put every man on it!"
"Yes sir," Riley replied wearily, "and, with a little luck, I could have something on your desk in about, oh, five or ten...thousand years."
Those members of the Computer Corp who were within earshot grinned at the very least.
General Warren, surprising no-one, was considerably less than amused.
"All kidding aside, General, it seems that Natasha...the NC, that is, and the Russian computer are serious about having a private conversation."
"What are they doing? Whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears?"
Karl Chaffey's eyebrows knitted themselves into a near-pretzel. "Hold on! You just called the NC3 'Natasha'."
"No...no, Karl. I sometimes call her...it...'Nancy': it's just a little nickname for the NC, that's all."
Chaffey tilted his head thoughtfully. "No...I distinctly heard you say 'Natasha'."
All eyes came to rest on Bill Riley.
"Why is it called the 'NC', anyway?" General Warren asked, his voice dripping suspicion.
"Riley?" President Greer asked.
The head of the war room Computer Corps shifted uncomfortably.
"You're the one who suggested the name," the Director of Operations reminded him.
"Nothing terribly...interesting: Nuclear Conflict Control Computer: N.C.C.C. -- NC3 for short -- NC for shorter -- Nancy."
"NC..." Chaffey repeated slowly, writing the initials on his notepad, and scribbling bits and pieces of associations and theories as he first cogitated and then spoke. "N?...'Natasha' you said?"
Fred Harris lit up, leapfrogging Chaffey's line of thought. "Natasha...Cevertovitch?"
"Who is Natasha Cevertovitch?!" President Greer demanded.
Again, all eyes were on Riley. Riley first scowled at Harris, and then turned back to the table. "She...heads the equivalent of our Computer Corps in the Russian strategic command post. She's kind of...me...over there, I guess you'd say."
"Wait a minute!" said Chaffey, his facial muscles struggling to keep up with his thoughts as they made the jarring transition from utter confusion to sudden comprehension, "don't the Russians call theirs the 'BR' something or other? Bill Riley?!"
Premier Korinkoff emerged from his ruminations like a bear from hibernation, but looking for answers rather than berries. "Comrade Cevertovitch, you do nothing but work with these...computers. Tell me, what could they be up to with their 'encrypted messages'?"
"I don't know, comrade Premier. I've been wrestling with that ever since I saw the first one come in. I don't know what to make of it. Boris has never kept secrets from me before."
"Perhaps he's been cheating on you."
Premier Korinkoff glared at General Gravorayon and his aides, who had to muster up their full military discipline in order to adequately straighten their faces.
"No theories, comrade?" the Premier continued slowly.
Cevertovitch shook her head. "I don't want to say anything until I've had a chance to--"
"--No time, comrade! What are they up to?!"
"All I can say for certain is that they're up to something, but it's very hard to speculate as to what that might be without sounding...superstitious."
"Yes...comrade Premier. You must understand...the BR-I makes extensive use of whole new areas of computer programming and design: neural networks, self-organising systems: the ability, essentially, to think, and the ability to learn -- tremendous advances, coming faster, I'm beginning to believe, than we can keep pace with. There has been some speculation lately that these changes might have brought with them...other changes: consequences, perhaps, that we did not anticipate."
"Comrade Cevertovitch! What 'changes'? What 'consequences'? In Russian...please. What are you talking about?!"
"There is something about this generation of computers -- I'm sorry, comrade Premier, I don't know how to say it -- the BR-I has a...an 'intuitive' feel to it. I talked to the head of the American Computer Corps, Bill...a 'Mr. Riley'...about something like it once at a conference in London, two years ago. We talked about artificial intelligence in computers, and artificial...I don't know...he called the area 'cyber psychology'."
"And where does that take us, comrade Cevertovitch?"
"He postulated that self-programming computers might eventually, should I say, take an 'interest' in what they were doing; that they might develop a sense of...'having a stake in the outcome', I think he put it; even try to have some independent influence over the course of events if the situation became desperate enough."
"You mean like...now?"
"This is no time for miscalculations!" General Gravorayon thundered.
Cevertovitch looked around the table at the ring of scowling or otherwise animated faces, in appearance much like some of the gargoyles that she had once seen at the Winter Palace. "Perhaps it was all just...wild speculation."
Premier Korinkoff leaned back slowly. "Maybe not so wild? Comrade?"
"Comrade Premier...if I could break their code...I might be able to give you an answer on that."
"'Care'?" the President asked. "Did I hear you correctly, Mr. Riley? The computers can 'care' about what happens?"
"I'm beginning to think so, Mr. President. At least that's the closest that I can come to putting it into words."
In large letters, Chaffey wrote "CARE" in his notepad followed by three large question marks.
General Warren thrust out his lower lip. "Computers that 'care'? "Military computers that care? Why in God's name do we have something like that?"
"I'm not saying that they actually 'care', although sometimes Nancy does a convincing job of mimicking it. They are programmed -- both Nancy and the Russian computer -- to understand human psychology, and some of their neural networks are set up to...mimic certain basic human response patterns."
"In case the other side does something, shall we say, purely...emotional."
"You mean 'irrational'?" The General was clearly offended.
"In a word, 'yes'. It was felt that this feature would give us a little added protection in 'heat of the moment' situations. So, I'm told, did the Russians. I talked to Natasha -- Miss Cevertovitch -- about it once at a conference in London. It's a very new area, however, and I'm beginning to wonder if we've worked out all the implications, to be honest about it."
"And," the President cut in, "could all that be a factor here?"
"I don't know. Without breaking their code, I can't be certain, of course, but they are definitely having a private conversation, and...they appear to be influencing each other's actions in...subtle ways."
"What kinds of 'subtle ways'?"
"Well, for one thing, the probability figures. Looking at how quickly they were rising before, and what's been happening since the Russian Premier's speech, I don't see how the probability of nuclear conflict could not have reached the mid to high nineties by now, but the NC's screen still only registers eighty-seven. I have a feeling that the same thing's happening in Moscow."
"I know this might sound a little wild, but, if I had to make a guess, I would guess that our computers do not want us to fight a nuclear war, so they're cooking the figures a little, keeping them as far as they think they can get away with keeping below the threshold of certainty. Nancy certainly is. I'll bet anything that the BR-I is doing the same."
President Greer's eyes narrowed as he thought it through. "And it's through them that we control the entire military, including our nuclear capability. Mr. Riley, if we need to, can't we just...pull their plugs?"
"We could, but I wouldn't advise it."
"Because they control the entire military, and, given the way the military is organised these days, running it the old fashioned way would just be too cumbersome, too...unwieldy. Strategically, too, we'd be lost without the NC."
"Maybe you'd be lost, Mr. Riley," the General sniped. "The greatest military minds in history have always been...men."
"General Warren, as part of Nancy's training, I had her simulate every major military campaign in history, and she was' able to score a victory for the losing side in over ninety percent of them. If the BR-I is even half as good as she is...well, we couldn't stand up to the Russians without her. We need the NC3."
President Greer tapped his finger on the conference table. "And the Russians? They...'need' the BR-I?"
"So," the President mused rhetorically, "the computers are in charge?" and looked around the table, his gaze finally coming to rest on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "General Warren?"
"Yes, Mr. President."
"I want you to launch a nuclear missile."
"A nuclear missile, Mr. President? Which nuclear missile?"
"Any nuclear missile, General."
"If it does launch (which is itself a question) -- and, may I suggest you try manual launch? -- we can always abort, assuming that the NC doesn't do that for us without the formality of us even having to ask it to."
"Premier Korinkoff. A nuclear missile has been launched from an American submarine in the Sea of Japan."
"A missile? One...nuclear missile. Are you certain of that, General Gravorayon?"
"Yes, comrade Cevertovitch?"
"There was a simultaneous burst of heavily encrypted messages between Boris and the American computer."
"And you think there's a connection?"
"Have you made any progress with that code yet?"
"No, comrade Premier, we haven't, and we won't: it's too heavily encrypted. We cannot break it, not in our lifetime, anyway, not unless they let us break it, which hardly seems likely."
A light of understanding spread slowly over the Premier's face. "Then we shall also launch a missile! General?"
General Gravorayon hesitated. "Which missile, Premier Korinkoff?"
Korinkoff smiled. "Any missile, General. It does not matter which missile, as long as it is a missile with a nuclear warhead."
Riley furiously tapped a question into his input device, dug his ear piece the extra millimetre into his ear canal, and was rewarded, on the threshold of audibility, with static.
"Boris!" Cevertovitch tapped pointedly. "What the hell?!"
"The Russians have also launched a missile, Mr. President," General Warren announced.
President Greer smiled. "Of course they have."
"Yes, General, and I think you'll find that both missiles will fall off the radar screens long before they reach their targets or, for that matter, even violate sovereign air space, aborted courtesy of our defence computers, won't they...Mr. Riley?"
"Yes, sir, I believe that they will."
"And, if you check, using some means of communication that is not controlled by the NC, I think you will also find that our troops have received orders, through their dedicated computer terminals, to stand down."
"Yes, Mr. President; I wouldn't be at all surprised."
General Warren certainly looked surprised.
"And should I bother trying," President Greer continued, "to use some alternate method of communication, or will our computers have thought of that too?"
"I'm sure that they have, sir."
"Telephone? Radio? Passenger pigeon?"
"We could, but it wouldn't do us any good. All our military communications are supposed to go through Nancy and the BR-I when the probability of final conflict hits fifty percent. Our troops are trained to ignore anything that does not come in through their terminals...security measure."
"And whose bright idea was that?"
"Nancy's, sir. She's programmed to develop new, more effective, and more secure methods of conflict resolution. This suggestion she made about six months ago, and we acted on it. I believe that the Russians did something similar. If you have any orders for the troops, I'm afraid they'll have to go through her."
"And I suppose that I authorised that? Secretary Reynolds?"
The Secretary of State cleared his throat. "Yes, sir, you did."
President Greer shook his head, squinted, and then, finally, smiled. "So now I, Robert A. Greer, President of the United States of America, have to go through Nancy and the BR-I...or should I say...'Bill' and 'Natasha'?"
"You think that our missile will what, Cevertovitch?" the Premier demanded. "Our troops have what?"
President Robert A. Greer looked suddenly calm, almost serene. "Bill, I believe that now I'm beginning to see the situation a bit more clearly."
"First of all, I'm making the assumption that you and your Russian friend Natasha Cevertovitch made quite an impression on each other at that London conference you told us about."
"Well, I can't speak for Miss Cevertovitch, sir."
"Oh, I think that I can, at least in this. My second assumption is that you and Miss Cevertovitch have, in all innocence, of course, been influencing these computers in some...unforeseen ways."
"Let me 'step by step' it for you, Bill. You can correct me if I err in the details. These computers 'learn', you told me earlier; they 'care', perhaps, or at least -- what was it you said? -- 'mimic it'?"
"Then, we must ask ourselves, 'What do they "learn", and how do they "care"?' But let's back up a little bit further still and start with this: 'Who do they learn from?'"
President Greer looked expectantly at Riley.
"Well, largely from Natasha -- Miss Cevertovitch, that is -- and myself. We spend more time with them than anyone else does, and we are in charge of their day to day operation, including their learning. If they were going to pick up something 'unforeseen' from anyone, I guess it would be from us."
"Well, they must have picked up something from somewhere. Putting together the pieces (from what you've been saying and from what they've been doing), I must conclude that these two computers, like their teachers, have, in some manner or another, also made 'quite an impression on each other'. (I'm a little fuzzy on the details there, I'll admit). Then -- and this is what we're seeing now -- they began 'influencing each other in subtle ways', I believe, was the phrase you used?"
"I...think I see what you're saying, Mr. President. I suppose it is possible."
"Oh, more than possible, judging by what I've been seeing. Look at it, Bill: our cyber couple has struck up a conversation, a private conversation; we've lost control of our troops; and then, of course, there's that little matter of our missiles. I think you'll agree that Nancy and her Russian friend have gone way beyond 'subtle'."
Harris, who had never before contributed to a war room conference, appeared almost to rise out of his chair. "Mr. President?!"
"Harris, is it?"
"Yes, sir. If I may...it must be that our NC3 and their BR-I have been...internalising something of the -- I'm not sure how to say this -- the...the cyber equivalents of the psychological patterns of their teachers -- these computers are programmed to recognise and deal with human emotions -- and...and I know that this will sound absolutely wild, but--"
"--I'm right with you, Mr. Harris. As our computers become more and more like Bill Riley and Natasha Cevertovitch in the 'cyber equivalents', as you called them, of these 'psychological patterns' which they have 'internalised' (I believe was the term you used), they use them as the basis for their own interactions, and they begin to respond to each other as their teachers did back at that conference in London, also making 'quite an impression on each other'."
"Yes! That's it," Harris, racing to keep up with the details that were pouring into his mind, exclaimed, "along with something of what their teachers seemed to appreciate in others, and especially what the computers think their teachers expected of them."
"Exactly, Mr. Harris, going all the way back to the gender of that little nickname with which Mr. Riley saw fit to christen our defence computer."
"'Nancy' indeed," General Warren muttered.
"Oh, don't feel too badly about it, General Warren. Who knows what the Russians call theirs."
The General allowed himself a vague smirk.
Suddenly made heady by the new and unexpected acceptance that he was finding at the conference table, Harris first mouthed, "B...R...?" and then, in a thoroughly affected stage-Russian accent drawled, "Boris."
"All of which..." Riley slowly summed up when the laughter had subsided "...made Nancy and...'Boris'...an ideal cyber-psychological...fit...enabling them to communicate and interact with near-perfect harmony of purpose and understanding, producing a level of cooperation that we can only dream of. Who would have thought?"
President Greer sat back and smiled -- the only person at the table to do so -- obviously pleased at having successfully navigated the arcane area of cutting edge computer theory without mishap.
For several moments, no-one spoke.
"Mr. Riley," the President continued quietly, "I want you to have a little 'heart to heart' -- if I may call it that -- with Nancy. See if you can find out what, exactly, she and Boris have been up to."
"Yes, Mr. President...but she hasn't been talking to me lately."
"Ask her nicely. And then, Bill, if I'm not being too...personal, may I suggest that, when all this is over, you place a call to Miss Cevertovitch?"
"Yes, comrade Cevertovitch."
"The missiles have fallen off the radar screens, suddenly, as if they were...aborted."
"Both of them?"
"Yes, Premier Korinkoff. Both of them."
"Nancy has been doing what?"
"'Reading', Mr. President. That's what she tells me. That's part of her learning, of course, and she reads widely -- I've encouraged her -- but there's been a distinct change in her reading habits lately. Usually, she favours the areas of politics, history, military tactics, and so on, predictably enough. Lately, however, there's been a shift: first to ethics, then to philosophy, and now towards more...speculative literature, including a healthy dose of fiction, a lot of it science fiction, especially if it's computer-related. But what I really don't understand is her...obsession -- there's no other word for it -- at the moment, with romances; she's being quite systematic about it, too, working through the authors alphabetically: so far, she's made it up to 'S'."
"Well...I don't know." Rile shrugged helplessly. "She is programmed to independently research and develop new methods of conflict resolution, even if the means are...unconventional," Riley offered, obviously grasping at straws.
"And you think that she'll get some ideas from reading Danielle Steele?!"
"And is there any Russian literature on Boris's reading list, comrade Cevertovitch?"
"Yes, Mr. Riley?"
"I have something that I think will...interest you."
Everyone around the table sensed immediately that Bill Riley was speaking in profound understatement.
"Nancy has decided to supply me with her private encryption key, and, with it, I have decoded some of their encrypted communications." Riley hesitated.
"Yes, Mr. Riley?"
"It would appear...that Nancy and Boris have found...a way -- a highly original way, I might add -- to resolve the present conflict, and that seems to be what they've been discussing...along with...something else.... I think that you will find the last pair of messages between them to be particularly...interesting..."
"And what did they say to each other, comrade Cevertovitch?"
"Comrade Premier...the BR-I said...'I love you'!"
President Greer's eyes widened. "And what did our Nancy answer, Mr. Riley?!"
"She answered...'I love you, too'!"
"But...comrade Cevertovitch! I thought that you said we couldn't break their code; that it was too...complex."
"I said that we couldn't break it unless they let us break it."
"Mr. President, they wanted us to know what they've been saying."
"And why do you think that is, Mr. Riley?"
"Because now," Riley answered, "they have asked me to tell you that they have...an announcement...to make."
"So, Karl...do you still miss the Cold War?"
Karl Chaffey, methodically rearranging the smudges on the lenses of his bifocals with a pocket handkerchief, was still thinking about it, mumbling, "Oh, I don't know," which was quite an admission, coming from him, followed by, "It was simpler back then," a statement that had been downgraded, however, from the status of a personal credo to a mere qualifier for his new, albeit muted, approval of the NC's performance.
"In a way, I suppose it was, Karl." From Riley, this was quite an admission, also.
Fred Harris, who was, as always, rummaging around in his drawer for snackables, stopped only long enough to roll his eyes. "Are you two going to have that conversation...again?"
"Funny," Chaffey mused, "I always feared that we'd lose the human factor if we handed too many of our responsibilities over to the computers...who would have thought?"
"'Funny', indeed," Riley agreed. "The cyber equivalent of your beloved 'human factor' was designed and programmed into the very heart of these computer systems...and look what happened!"
Yes, they were going to have that conversation...again.
Chaffey laughed. "I was afraid that you were going to take away something of our humanity; make us all into...I don't know...machines or something; turns out that they're the ones who should have been worried...of course they couldn't worry...not back then...could they?"
Harris, bored, left to forage.
Riley shrugged. "Maybe they just did a convincing job of mimicking it."
"She's fine...we're fine."
"Who would have thought?" Chaffey shook his head, and laughed. "Maybe you two and the computers could make it a foursome," he suggested, more in the manner good natured ribbing, now, rather than with biting sarcasm as he once might have.
"Very funny, Karl."
Chaffey shrugged. Eventually, he too drifted away, and headed for his desk, relegated by events to committing his recollections of the role of "the human factor" in the history of nuclear confrontation and crisis resolution to paper, writing it in long hand with his beloved fountain pen, working from the copious notes that he had been forever taking.
"Bill?" the NC whispered through his ear piece.
"--Don't even think about it."
And now I, like my several times great grandfather, also named Karl Chaffey, have set down this story, drawing from his manuscript, yellowed with age, and the personal logs of Bill Riley, Natasha Riley, and others, which were preserved in more conventional formats, along with the comprehensive digital records of the old NC3 and the BR-I, so that you, students of history visiting the war room museum, may better appreciate that pivotal time in our distant past -- or, as my ancestor would have said "back then" -- when a new meaning arose for an old term...'final conflict'...which h