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The Spartacus File [MultiFormat]
eBook by Lawrence Watt-Evans & Carl Parlagreco

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Philadelphia, some time in the 21st century--Casper Beech is a corporate drone, a man beaten down by debt, a wage-slave to the Consortium that dominates the American economy. One day his boss sends him in for neural imprinting--to have new job skills implanted directly in his brain, because it's faster and cheaper than training him by older methods. But a computer glitch loads the wrong file, and Casper is programmed with something that has nothing to do with his job. Instead of learning a new software package, he learns a new way of thinking--a mindset designed by a secret government agency for use in enemy nations, and never meant to be unleashed in the United States. Lethal government agents seek to correct the error in a steadily-escalating conflict, while Casper struggles to survive, to remain true to himself despite his new programming, and to find out just what was in... THE SPARTACUS FILE

eBook Publisher: Wildside Press
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2005

128 Reader Ratings:
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* * * *

Chapter One

A siren screamed somewhere on the streets below, then faded, and Casper Beech tried hard not to take it as an evil omen.

After all, who needed evil omens to know he was facing disaster? Any time he got called in to see the boss, it had to be bad news. Casper's entire life had been an ongoing demonstration of just how horrible the alleged Chinese curse, "May you come to the attention of people in high places," could be.

He supposed it had been bad enough even in the old days, before the perpetual Crisis, before everything, as the propaganda put it, had been made more efficient to meet the economic and geopolitical challenges of the twenty-first century. Now, though, when all the people in high places, all the bosses, were working together, it was hell. Any time he had to talk to the boss, any boss, his life got worse.

But maybe this time it wouldn't be too bad.

He hesitated in the doorway of the cubicle, peering in. "You wanted to see me, Mr. Quinones?" he asked.

Quinones looked up at him, smiled, then leaned back in his chair. The chair did not squeak, as Casper's would have, but sighed faintly as the cushion reshaped itself under his weight. Behind Quinones the towers of Center City Philadelphia were visible through the broad expanse of window, towers that formed a panorama of glass and concrete glittering in the sun. A vapor trail straggled across the sky above the gleaming skyline.

"Ah, yes, Casper," Quinones said. "Please, come in and have a seat."

Casper entered, his feet silent on the thick carpet, and nervously perched himself on the hard edge of a handy chair.

Quinones leaned forward again, and pulled at a hardcopy folder on his desk. His screens were folded down out of sight, as usual--he was fond of saying that his work was with people, not computers. "I'd like to discuss your job performance, Casper," he said, opening the folder.

"Is there some complaint?" Casper asked uneasily. If he'd screwed up a liability trace he was dead, he knew it--but he didn't think he had.

Of course, someone could have complained anyway.

"Not exactly." Quinones smiled. He turned over a few pages in the folder without bothering to look at them; it was clear to Casper that the documents were just props, something to keep his hands busy, to help him time his words for maximum dramatic effect. Anything important would have been on a screen, not on paper.

"Casper," Quinones said jovially, "we've come to the conclusion that your job skills are outdated. We need to keep up with the latest software, you know, and we're going to. An entire new system will be installed over the coming weekend, and it doesn't look like you'll know how to run it."

"No, sir," Casper admitted, "I probably won't." Damn, he thought, am I about to be fired? If he once lost this job he'd probably never find another one anywhere in the Consortium, and outside firms didn't pay enough for him to live on. He was still paying off his parents' legal fees; any cut in his income would mean he'd starve.

He couldn't stop paying the debts, or they'd come and take everything he owned, up to and including a few body parts. Starvation, though, wasn't their problem.

"We've considered our alternatives," Quinones told him, leaning back again. "It's not cost-effective to re-train you by ordinary methods--it's simply too time-consuming. And bringing in someone new to do the work wouldn't be any better--again, too time-consuming. We need to have someone running traces within minutes after the new software comes on-line next Monday morning--minutes, Casper." He waggled a fat finger to emphasize his point, then continued, "We have come to the conclusion that the most practical course of action--the only practical course of action, really--will be to send you in for a full course of imprinting in the use of the new software."

For a moment that didn't register; then the words sank in. Oh, God, Casper thought, neuro-imprinting was supposed to hurt like hell. He pressed down into his chair; he hated pain.

At least this meant he still had his job, though. He wouldn't have to join the unemployed and homeless, living in the streets. He'd still have both kidneys.

"I suppose it's for the best," he said, his voice thin and weak.

"We think so," Quinones said. Once again, he produced his artificial smile, this time a variant that was probably meant to be comforting and paternal. "And, Casper," he added, "you won't be the only one. We've made arrangements with NeuroTalents LLC for a group discount. We'll be having quite a few people imprinted."

"And I got lucky enough to be sent off first?" Casper asked.

Quinones nodded, deaf to the feeble sarcasm. "The work schedule decided it. You're the most available at the moment."

Casper remembered the list of jobs he had found on his screen when he had arrived at the office half an hour before, and he wondered what his co-workers were faced with if that schedule left him "most available." He made no comment on that; he just nodded and asked, "When do I go?"

"You'll see Dr. Jalali this afternoon for a physical. Assuming she doesn't find anything that would keep you from going, you're scheduled for tomorrow morning at ten."

Casper suppressed a shudder. "I suppose it's well to get it over with quickly," he said, trying unsuccessfully to force a smile.

Quinones nodded again. "And you'll need a day or two for the new information to settle in," he said blithely. Casper shuddered, and his discomfort with the idea finally seemed to register with his superior. "Don't worry about the imprinting," Quinones told him, with another falsely paternal smile. "Those problems they had in the early days have all been taken care of. You'll be fine."

Casper nodded. "I'm not worried about that," he lied. He was quite sure Quinones had never been imprinted, and never would be if he could help it. The bosses didn't need to worry about such things. The Consortium took care of its managers, and the Democratic-Republican Party took care of the Consortium.

Anyone who wasn't in the Consortium or the Party, though, was on his own.

"Good," Quinones said. He closed the folder. "And Casper, don't worry about coming in to work tomorrow, either. Just go straight over to NeuroTalents in the morning, and relax afterwards." He smiled beneficently, as if he had just conferred a great favor.

The smug bastard probably thought he had, Casper told himself. Aloud, he said, "Thank you. That will be nice."

Then Casper slipped out of the office and wove his way back across the big room to his own little niche, where he collapsed into his chair. He sat motionless, sunk in gloomy inertia for several minutes before he managed to lift his fingers back onto the keyboard and start the day's first liability trace.

A California drug company had sold a Mexican factory a bad batch of stimulants and killed three workers. The drug company was a member of the Consortium, but its insurance company wasn't; the factory was Consortium-owned as well, and had no insurance. Casper's job was to trace ownership, liability, and contract terms to establish just who should sue whom in order to ensure that the Consortium, its member companies, and their stockholders either lost as little money as possible, or, if it could be arranged, made as much as possible off the incident.

He began the search, calling up personnel files on the dead workers and their families, with notations on what waivers had been signed, and when.

Imprinting was not something he looked forward to, but his mood improved as he worked. New software might make traces like this less tedious, and the imprinting would be quick, at any rate.

And he still had his job. That was the most important thing. He wouldn't starve.

Within an hour he was over most of his depression.

Casper got the call to report to Dr. Jalali around 2:00; he shut down his screen and headed down to the medical offices on the third floor. The checkup was routine; the scanners found nothing which would prevent Casper from taking the imprinting as scheduled.

He had mixed feelings about that. It was nice to know he was healthy, and his brain activity normal, but he almost wished that they had found a neural anomaly or something that would keep him from accepting an imprint.

Of course, if he had had such a problem, he would have lost his job--but it wouldn't have been for cause, and he might have qualified for a disability income, or even have been able to swing a discrimination-against-the-handicapped suit. He'd heard the Party sometimes used those to keep companies in line.

No, he told himself as he pulled his shirt back on, that was daydreaming. Nobody won discrimination suits against a member of the Consortium, and Data Tracers was a member in good standing. They had access to the best lawyers in the world--and of course, to people like himself, who would find ways to re-route any responsibility.

And it didn't matter; his brain was perfectly healthy. Dr. Jalali said so. She had told him that he could take the imprint without any trouble at all.

He sighed, and headed back to his cubicle.

When Cecelia Grand called to say she had to work late at the law office, he snatched at the chance to cancel their date--he was too worried about the imprinting to deal with Cecelia and her whims. Instead he spent the evening home alone, drinking cheap beer and playing old, faded CDs until he finally fell into bed around midnight.

That was Tuesday.

Wednesday morning he awoke at the usual time without meaning to; since his appointment was at ten he had intended to sleep late. Instead he took his time over breakfast, and left his apartment an hour later than usual.

He reached NeuroTalents in plenty of time despite his dawdling, and walked slowly through the Institute's lobby, admiring the fountains and the greenery that grew toward the high glass ceiling. Studying the scenery put the inevitable off for another minute or two.

NeuroTalents' receptionist was a handsome young man; the way he was dressed made Casper feel shabby.

Which was reasonable, really--Casper was shabby. He knew it, but he didn't like to admit it.

"May I help you?" the receptionist asked.

"I hope so," Casper said uneasily. "I'm scheduled for an imprinting at ten. The name is Casper Beech, 3036-94-7318."

The young man sucked on his teeth as he checked his screen. "Ah, yes," he said, "I have it here. We've received your records and the report from Dr. Jalali." He swung a screen around and handed Casper a stylus. "If you would just sign this waiver of liability, we'll take care of you immediately."

Casper read over the form; it was a standard corporate waiver, with NeuroTalents and his employer agreeing to cover any medical expenses that were incurred in exchange for his forfeiting his right to sue.

He grimaced. He was already uncomfortable about the procedure, and this waiver was not encouraging in the least. Every day at work he saw reports on what could happen to people who signed these.

It wasn't as though he had any real choice, though. He signed the form and tapped ENTER.

The receptionist checked the signature against a display on his primary screen, then nodded. "Very good, Mr. Beech," he said. "If you would take that elevator there up to the fourth floor, a technician will see you."

He was even more nervous than he had realized; when he first tried to give his floor the elevator answered, "We're sorry, sir, but your order was not understood."

"Four, please," Casper repeated, trying unsuccessfully to distract himself by wondering, as he had for years, why so many machines were programmed to speak of themselves in the plural.

When he reached the fourth floor a green-smocked technician with a clipboard awaited him. "Please follow me," the technician said brusquely before striding down the corridor. She didn't look back, and for a moment Casper thought wildly of making a run for it.

But where would he go? Meekly, he followed her.

His guide brought Casper to the open door of a small room and pointed inside. "Put your clothes in there," she said. "I'll be back in five minutes."

The technician left. Casper was relieved to find a paper jumpsuit and slippers on a shelf; he began to change, and pulled on the second slipper just as the technician returned.

"This way, sir," she said.

He was strapped into a large, complicated chair in a smaller room a few doors down; then the technician attached electrodes and placed a headpiece on his head.

"There's nothing to worry about," the technician said, clearly reciting a set speech. "The monitors are just to keep tabs on your bodily functions. Once we start the procedure, a sleep inducer will put you under for the duration. When you wake up, it'll be over." She smiled mechanically.

Casper smiled back shakily, and closed his eyes. The technician flipped the switch to start the sleep inducer, and Casper quickly slipped under.

The technician checked him over swiftly and efficiently; then she waved the go-ahead signal to the monitor camera and slipped out of the room. In the central control room another technician saw the signal, hit a button, and turned away.

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