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Murphy's War

James P. Hogan

The hillbilly with the bathtub was what finally did it. A prominent Beijing morning newspaper ran a cartoon showing the United States President in Appalachian garb and setting, aided by caricatures of his administration, gleefully ladling from a vat labeled "Moonshine" to an eager throng of bearded, toothy, cup- and bucket-proffering yokels tagged with the collective label, "Gullible American Public." The rest of the Asian press took it up with chortles and gusto, and by evening it was being reproduced worldwide and had spread all over the Internet.

That in itself would probably have been insufficient to precipitate the crisis, had it not been for the changes that had been evident in President Byrne's demeanor and manner ever since he attended a White House showing of the movie High Noon. The presidential staff should have been alerted when he began cultivating a hands-on-hips gait, talking about "facing down" villains on the global Main Street, and was caught several times practicing narrow-eyed, squared-jaw stares in front of the hallway mirrors, but their attention at the time was focused on scheduling spontaneous photo ops with the media and rehearsing the Press Corps for Question Time.

Even so, the matter of this new personal peculiarity would likely never have spread beyond the bounds of Washington cocktail-party-circuit gossip if the Secretary of State hadn't alluded to it in an interview with a fashion magazine as a concession to the distaff side of the first family's early frontier origins. Although the remark came as a reflex feminine tactic of opportunity directed at a social rival, it was received among members of the predatory sex as intimating the unforgivable transgression on the part of the of the First Lady, of snaring a catch that was worthy of better talent. Retaliation was clearly called for, but since the First Lady's image did not permit descent to the level of personal involvement, a leak contrived via one of the tabloids disclosed the State Secretary as having changed her name from a one Samantha Ramsbottom, born in Cleveland and a one-time croupier in Las Vegas known as "Ditzy Mitzi." Her rise to sudden eminence and an honorary degree from Vassar had apparently followed rumors that a weekend political strategy planning conference by the party currently controlling the Senate had been held in what a Nevada tour guide described as an exclusive "gentlemen's club."

Even then, such an eruption of feline infighting over pedigrees would not normally have led to repercussions of international dimensions. However, the subject of ancestry happened to be one of extreme sensitivity to the Chinese Premier, Hao-Li Neng, who was acutely conscious of having risen to power via sleazy capitalist dealings involving Mongolian real estate and price-fixing cartels, at a time when popular reactions against Western cultural invasion were avalanching into demands for a return to more traditional values and ways. Somehow, in the logical acrobatics that bedevil East-West communication, the insinuations and innuendo being relayed around the Western media became linked to foreign affairs commentaries. The results were interpreted in Beijing as questioning Neng's ancestral lineage, and hence a calculated challenge to the basis of his political authority at a time when his position was precarious, which in Chinese eyes amounted to a personal insult before the world. A directive from the Chinese Foreign Ministry called upon the state-managed Press for a riposte in kind, and the notorious hillbilly cartoon was the result. Thereupon, supporters and opponents, new political contenders, and uncommitted opportunists who never let any chance for visibility go by, piled in from all sides.

The U.S. Defense Secretary, who had gained fame and fortune as a TV evangelist, "Elias Maude, Sword of the Lord," pushed Biblical literalism, and believed in a six-thousand-year-old Earth, made a fiery speech in which he implied affinity between Asiatics and monkeys—which was his standard form of gibe to infuriate Darwinists. The escalation to religious proportions drew in the Chinese Minister of Culture, a closet hard-line communist who had been engineering groundwork for a revolution along Maoist revival lines, and Maude in return declared China's a godless society, war against which would fulfill the prophecy of "yellow hordes from the east," bringing on Armageddon as the prerequisite for the Rapture. Corporate America backed any prospect of ending foreign competition now that Chinese labor rates were comparable, while the unions welcomed the prospect of an across-the-board boost to wages and employment. The Pentagon's analysts and simulations predicted that the conflict would be a cakewalk, as they had for every war that had been lost in the previous half century, citing intelligence reports that everyone had forgotten were manufactured on order to justify increased military funding in the first place. President Byrne appeared in a rousing address to the nation, which he ended narrow-eyed and square-jawed, buckling on a pair of ivory-handled, Patton-style six shooters and declaring, "It's time for men to walk tall!"


Alexander Sullivan had begun his nefarious career as a software hacker at an early age in high school by breaking into game-hosting servers and rigging the results. It wasn't so much from any need or desire to see himself high on the lists of tournament winners. In fact, in a gesture toward what he supposed would count as observing a higher moral principle, he seldom intervened to favor his own playing interests at all—although others whom he judged deserving or otherwise would often find their luck and fortunes affected in mysterious ways, as if by strange, inexplicable forces. He did it purely for the satisfaction that comes from beating challenges that require diligence, skill, and tenacity. In addition, it played to the exuberance of youth at finding ways into forbidden territory and crossing any bounds set by authority—especially the kinds of authority that operate through force and intimidation. By its nature, the business of mastering computer software means accepting and conforming to a world prescribed by rules that others have devised. Breaking the rules at a higher level provided that freedom for creativity which to any innovative spirit was as essential as air.

Later in life, when he was developing a political awareness, Alex became incensed by revelations, passed around his circle of computing cognoscenti intimates, of remotely accessible tampering mechanisms written into the programming of voting machines. However, as befitted his emerging style, rather than add to the babble of accusations and denials that were achieving nothing in the public domain, he staged his own rebellion by leading a small, trusted group in exploiting that same vulnerability to reverse the intended result at the next election, with repercussions that sent heads rolling throughout the more sordid reaches of the IT underworld for months afterward. Endeavors of that nature are seldom without risk, however, and some enterprising investigative work commissioned on open budget resulted in the culprits being tracked down, and the commencement of charges being prepared against them. But the case had to be dropped when the material it was founded on inexplicably vanished from the records of the agency in charge of the proceedings, and the backups were found to be corrupted.

News of such a feat does not take long in the modern world, and regardless of superficial reactions voiced for form's sake, the bids to recruit such potentially invaluable talent quickly followed. The next few years saw Alex Sullivan's spectacular rise through the ranks of the industry's technically gifted, leading to a senior appointment with the prestigious but low-profile firm of Multimex Systems Developments and Integration Inc., headquartered in Maryland. A busy schedule of international travel brought a quality to the social side of his life commensurate with its professional advancement, all of it culminating in an announcement to delighted friends and colleagues of his engagement to be married the coming fall.

However, despite having much to be pleased with in his all-round situation, and the ordinarily buoyant and imperturbable disposition that came with his nature, he was in a somber mood today as he sat in the work cubicle at one end of the System Test Area on the third floor of the Development Wing. Although he had been assigned one of the executive offices on the penthouse floor of the main office building as befitted his position of Technical Development Director, he was still young enough to prefer working in the coffee-and-shirtsleeves environment among the programmers and engineers, down where the action was. And just at this time, quite a lot of action appeared to be in the immediate offing indeed.

The screen above the litter of charts and manuals covering the desk was displaying the response Abel 15, that had come in minutes before to a query Alex had sent out earlier, denoted by the one-time code word Cain. Although his otherwise hard-set mouth conceded slight upturns at the corners, they were not due to any cryptic humor hidden in the message. He was thinking of Joe Koler, the person who had sent the response—known among the group who had scammed the election scammers and who still kept in touch as "Tapperware"—and the time Joe had taken a job with a cleaning company to get inside the offices of the software contractor retained by the then-incumbent administration and install a keystroke capturing device to obtain the passwords for getting through their encryption software. Joe was on the West Coast now, with one of the prime contractors responsible for maintenance of the Air Force's Ground-Based Strategic Launch System. His response to Alex's query meant that the missiles had been primed with their target codes fifteen minutes previously.

The return from Maeve Ingleman came in while Alex was still staring at the screen, wondering just how far this was likely to go. Maeve had devised the trapdoor code that made their tampering with the vote-tampering routine invisible to regular software checking procedures. These days she headed a section concerned with cryptological security in the Defense Department. Her input, responding to Alex's prompt, Mutt, was Jeff-4: "Arm Authorization code transmitted from the War Room four minutes ago."

One space remained unfilled in the format displayed on the screen, opposite the final query code that he had sent out: Laurel. That had been to his one-time drinking buddy and rock-climbing partner, Mike Welby, who could change the microcode to get a computer to do anything but make toast. Mike was now a team supervisor with the War Room Close System Support Office. A response from him would indicate that final Launch Enable had been issued. Alex bit his lip apprehensively. At the bottom of the screen, the sequence initiation command Murphy glowed red and primed. Time had run out to let the risk run any longer. The moment had come that would decide between years of work yielding dividends beyond calculation, or coming to nothing in an instant's premature panic. He took a long breath and steeled himself, yet was unable to suppress a tremor as he extended a hand. The last thought to flash through his mind before he pressed the key to activate the command was that maybe there wouldn't be any wedding day at all. The link changed from red to gray; at the same time, the confirmation Issued and Acknowledged appeared alongside.

Moments later, the empty space a few lines higher up filled suddenly to deliver the response Hardy-2:30 from Mike.


Professor Orstein Orvington Orst, senior scientific advisor to the White House, was noted among other things for his theoretical studies developing the concept of the neutrino bomb. While providing an image and terminology capable of terrifying the public, the potential to absorb unlimited funding, and novel strategic implications that would keep planners occupied and pundits talking for years, it suffered from none of the drawbacks of threatening to kill anybody or damage property, thus making it in the eyes of many the ideal advanced weapons system. Orst had also authored the interesting theory that the decrease of entropy brought about by living things was due to local time reversals on a molecular scale, and shown statistically why statistics can never prove anything.

But things like entropy and statistics were far from his mind as he stood with Oskar Eissensatt, a computation director with one of the Pentagon's task groups, just outside the flurry of aides and officials surrounding the President in the underground War Room twenty-five miles in an undisclosed direction from the center of Washington D.C. Not that Orst had given any great amount of detailed thought to the likely effects on tomorrow of the events resolved upon today and about to be unleashed. But there was a distinct probability of the world's weather patterns being disrupted, which would invalidate the computer models that he had obtained generous funding to advise on, which would cause no end of demands for explanations and budget allocation reviews. It was all very inconvenient.

President Byrne emerged ahead of his coterie, effecting a swagger, still wearing the Patton-style revolvers. "That's right, we're going to do it!" he told the array of uniforms and suits. "Who do they think they're calling a cowboy? Those slopes have gone too far. It's time to stand tall and deliver the reckonin'. Where's muh hat?"

General Elmer Craig, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heavy with medals and braid, was close beside him. Orst had little time for Craig. If it hadn't been for military mentalities and their obsession with megatons and pyrotechnics, a viral or other biological solution could have been far more efficient, without all the messiness and disruption. Besides that, Craig was a mathematical Neanderthal, who had once instructed an adjutant to look up General Relativity in the staff lists. "Just let us at 'em, sir," Craig enthused to the President. "With the new ECMs and decoys, our birds will be hitting them before they even know anything's left the roost."

"God will reserve us a special place in Heaven for today," Elias Maude promised from Byrne's other side. "Smiting His enemies with death, vengeance, and destruction. Laying waste the land. Bringing tears, anguish, and grief. All as the Good Books say. Good Christian values."

"I know," the President replied. "He talked to me this morning." On the edge of the group, Eissensatt wrinkled his nose in response to Orst's frown. Orst had always harbored reservations about this kind of thing as a guide to shaping national policy. He didn't trust prophecies and assertions that couldn't be expressed in numbers. There was no better way of carrying an argument than showing it as the necessary outcome of manipulating symbols that nobody else could understand.

"Teamwork," Eissensatt murmured. Orst nodded sourly, causing wisps of thinning hair to wave about his birdlike head. They were always being reminded of the importance of keeping up a unified public image.

Byrne turned and drew himself up to a dramatic pose in the center of the floor, hands resting on the butts of the pistols, head high, chin thrust forward, legs apart and loosely bent. "Gentlemen, today we're about to become history. Nobody here knows better than all of you how I've busted my . . . that is, how hard I've tried in these days of trial and error to do an intelligent thing and act like a statesman. But we are left with no choice other than the course I have decided. An evil power thinks it can bring our great country to its knees by aggressive, unrestrained, military power. Well, we'll show the world that we can do it better."

"Damn right!" Craig agreed darkly.

"Hallelujah!" Maude intoned.

President Byrne paused a moment to let the ripple of approving nods and murmurs subside. "They brought this on themselves when they elected a tyrant who doesn't let them have democracy. Let it be a lesson to all the others who hate us for our tolerant and peaceful way of life. . . . General, issue the order to commence the attack."

Craig turned imperiously toward his second-in-command, General Filbert, one star down, who was waiting several paces back. "Order General Launch, Fire Plan A, Phase One."

Filbert relayed to the Fire Control Commander, seated at a supervisory desk in the center of a row of consoles on a raised dais at one end of the room. "Immediate, to all sector flight controllers. General Launch, Fire Plan A, Phase One."

Despite the President's stirring words of a few moments before, a solemn hush fell as the commander entered the codes into his console and validated the requests for confirmation, broken only by the voice of Burton Halle, the Vice President, muttering into a cell phone somewhere in the rear. " . . . and schedule a meeting for tomorrow morning to discuss assigning the reconstruction contracts." All eyes turned expectantly toward the large Situation Display dominating the room.

It presented the world in regular Mercator projection, with hostile territories shown in red, U.S. in blue, its assortment of allies, recruited through bribes, corruption, political manipulation, or threats of annihilation, in varying shades of beige through burnet brown, depending on the assigned level of dependability, and the remaining neutrals in gray. Principal targets were indicated by icons according to category, along with ground launch bases and the present positions of submarines, bombers, and orbiting attack satellites. The display's design was the work of Eissensatt's people. He looked toward Orst invitingly as a side panel added itself, providing a legend of icon identifiers and symbol descriptions.

"It needs more numbers," Orst murmured in answer to the unvoiced question.

"We've been upgrading it," Eissensatt told him. "Wait." Even as he spoke, new lines began appearing, superposed on the general display.

S2/5C, 8 x 2 Megatons, Coordinate cluster 6, ETT 22 min, 30 sec

Success prob'y 88%; α/φ = 2.76; Δτ0 = 27; (θA/θB - γ) = 0.25; Status = Green 3

Orst nodded happily and was about to express approval, when the unrolling data froze suddenly, and the map behind dimmed. Eissensatt's expression just had time to change from a satisfied smile to a frown before the entire display blanked out, to be replaced by a blue background and the message:


President Byrne blinked and looked at General Craig. Craig mustered his most demanding glare and turned to General Filbert. Filbert spread his hands. "I don't know, sir. It's totally irregular. Nothing like this has ever . . ." He looked helplessly across toward the Fire Control Commander, who was already snarling instructions at a technician manning a monitor console below and in front of him. Eissensatt hurried across, followed by Orst.

"Forget that. Revert to direct manual override." The FCC's voice came from above. The technician hammered in a command string, which elicited on his screen the response:


and buttons for the options:


Byrne and his entourage arrived as a medley of bemused expressions and angry scowls. "What in hell's going on?" the President demanded. The FCC could only shake his head as his gaze darted over the console displays, looking for clues. Nothing in the exercises and operation manuals had prepared anyone for this. Beside him, the Operations Supervisor was tapping in befuddlement at a keyboard beneath a screen reading:

Page Not Found. Try clicking Refresh or select one of the following options. . . . 

"Get whoever's in charge of IT," Craig snapped. His neck and brow were turning purple. The FCC hesitated, not seeming sure who that would be.

"Try Sigmund Velorski at the Pentagon," Eissensatt suggested.

The FCC nodded to the Operations Supervisor. "Use Priority Channel Red." Above the War Room floor, the main Situation Display had reverted to showing wallpaper consisting of bouncing smiley faces. Somewhere in the background a phone started ringing. An Air Force officer picked it up and answered in muffled tones behind a raised hand.

The Operations Supervisor looked up with the uncomprehending expression of a human cannonball watching the net slide blithely by below. "It says, Invalid Password. Request Denied."

Byrne jerked his head impatiently from side to side. "What is all this shit?"

"This is ridiculous!" General Craig blared. "Somebody get him on the phone. Put it on speaker. I'll talk to him myself."

General Filbert accepted a handset proffered by an aide and thumbed the number that was highlighted. A ringing tone sounded from the speaker, followed by, "We're sorry, but the person you are calling is not available just now to take your call. If you would like to—"

General Craig snatched the phone savagely and cut the connection. "What's their main number?" he yelled. Filbert obtained it from an aide.

"If this is for a military operational matter, press One. For matters of national domestic security, press Two. For all other—" Craig cut the call again and stood gaping at the room, evidently at a loss for how to continue.

Orst stepped forward, took the phone from Craig's unresisting fingers, and looked inquiringly at Byrne. "If I might suggest, Mr. President, I recall there was someone with the main systems integration contractor who seemed to have a good grasp of just about everything. Multimex—in Maryland, not far from here. A young man called Sullivan, I think it was."

Byrne nodded numbly. "Why not? Anyone who can make some kind of sense out of anything. It's not as if things could get any crazier."

Orst copied the phone to one of the console displays and got through to the company. The operator who answered said that Alex Sullivan's line was busy right now, but she would put the call through to that department. A bearded, bespectacled youth in a baggy sweater that gave him somewhat studentish look appeared on the screen and announced himself as the "Support Desk." Was Orst calling to report trouble with a Multimex system? Orst confirmed that he was.

"Have you checked that the machine is plugged in?"

"What? . . . Well, yes, of course it is."

"Which operating system and version are you using?"

Orst was momentarily too disoriented to give a coherent answer. "Which . . . ? I really don't know. That isn't what I do. Look, I can assure you that the problem is nothing of that nature. My questions have to do with the applications that your company installed and integrated."

"Do you have a support contract? If not I may have to charge at a rate of sixty dollars an hour. Would that be okay?"

General Craig exploded. "Gimme that goddam phone! . . . You look here, Mister whatever your name is. See this uniform I'm wearing? Do you know what these medals mean? You are talking to the highest level of the United States government. The President himself is here with me, and this call concerns topmost matters of national security. Now if you don't know your own ass from a hole in the ground and can't help, then get somebody on the line who can. Is that clear enough? I mean now! Immediate! This moment!"

If the youth was impressed, it failed to show in the view coming through on the screen. He glanced away for a moment, then came back without missing a beat. "Oh, I think you were asking for Alex Sullivan," he said. "It looks as if he's free now. I'll put you through."

The new face that appeared was of a man perhaps in his early thirties. He had sandy colored hair, cut conventionally in a shaggy but neat and easy style, the suggestion of casualness enhanced by the three-day matching growth softening his features, which were lean and angular, framing a narrow nose and chin. His eyes were sharp, with creases at the corners hinting at a mirthful bent. The part of his upper body that was visible showed a dove gray jacket and navy shirt worn with a tie sporting a silver and blue abstract design.

Craig squared up to face the screen directly. "Are you the person in charge of whatever goes on there?"

"My name is Alex Sullivan. I'm the Technical Development Director."

"General Elmer Craig, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Military."

"Yes, I recognize you from media pictures." The general's glare, which had never failed to command and intimidate, drew an affable smile that seemed to form naturally. "What can I do for you, General?"

"I take it you're aware that the government uses some highly complex and extremely sensitive computer systems that were put together by your company? Specifically, I'm talking about a system that goes by the code designation Symphony. It cost four billion dollars."

Sullivan nodded. "Yes, the strategic launch command sequencing and control network. In fact, I was responsible for coordinating a large part of it."

Consternation was breaking out among the presidential and Pentagon staff. General Filbert appealed to Craig. "Sir, this is an open line! We need to switch to a secure circuit."

Craig nodded. "Do it." As an operator intervened to make the adjustment, the general glanced back at the President, who was looking lost and as if trying to appear in charge at the same time. "Well, at least we seem to be onto the right guy."

The reconnection was made, and Sullivan reappeared. While Craig launched into a diatribe of woes and threats, Eissensatt moved closer to where Orst was standing. "You know what this is?" he said, keeping his voice low. Orst lifted his chin and eyebrows. "For years I have been telling everyone how stupid is was to use the Chinese for procurement. They tempted us with low prices because they knew we never see anything beyond a bottom line, and we walked right into it. We let them supply everything—hardware, maintenance, training. . . . Even many of the software contracts!"

"What are you getting at?" Orst was only half listening. He was wondering why simulations and testing hadn't picked up these faults long ago.

"They built it all in!" Eissensatt whispered. He gestured to indicate the screens, consoles, and electronics cubicles all around them. "Can't you see what is happening? The Chinese buried special functions in their chips, that they could activate remotely. It is they who are doing this. It's a Trojan horse!"

Orst registered what he was saying, finally, and stared at him incredulously. It was preposterous, of course. Yet it had to be! What else could explain why all the testing had detected nothing?

"But it gets far worse," Essensatt went on. "Don't you see?"

"What?" Orst found his voice but was still too much in shock to fully think the implication through.

"They know!" Eissensatt moaned. "Do you think they'd sneak something like that into our launch system without making it capable of reporting back to them?"

Orst gulped. "You mean they've got Spyware in there too?"

"Of course, Spyware! So it means they know we've attempted to launch. And what do you think that means? Do you think they'll just sit there?"

Engineers and programmers had crowded around a nearby console, and were taking turns to try various stratagems and offer advice. The one currently in the operator's chair sat back and threw up his hands. "I give up. It doesn't like anything I tell it. No version of anything is compatible with anything else."

Orst looked back bleakly to where the President and his group of senior officials had moved closer behind General Craig. Sullivan was speaking from the screen.

"It appears that the project manager quit and didn't update his documentation. It will probably take some time to figure out what the programmer was trying to do, I'm afraid."

Craig's color deepened. "Didn't update the documents? What kind of main contractor do you call yourselves? Four billion dollars! Don't you have anyone there who knows how to manage supervision?"

"Er, with respect, General, it appears to have been one of your own supervising officers assigned from the Pentagon."


General Filbert interceded to rescue the situation. "I think I know who he means. I might be able to trace him and get a cell phone number. Craig nodded mutely in a way that said they might as well try exorcism if there was a chance it might do any good.

President Byrne stood in the middle of it all, looking dazed. "I don't believe this," he mumbled to Vice President Halle. "The mightiest war machine that the world has ever seen. And we can't do a thing with it because of a bunch of . . ." he broke off, seeing that Orst was trying to get his attention. "What?"

"Mr. President, there is a further ramification that doesn't seem to have been considered," Orst said gravely. "Since it's not functioning, it can no longer be considered the mightiest anything. So how long do we have before the sky turns black with incoming enemy hardware?"

The color drained from Burton's face, while the others around who were within earshot froze. "Holy shit," somebody whispered.

Burton almost choked. "My God! We're wide open. There's nothing to stop them!"

"Exactly," Orst agreed.

And now they would probably never find out if the neutrino bomb would have been feasible. It was all very upsetting.


The Chinese underground War Room, twenty-five miles in an undisclosed direction from Beijing, was a disaster area of crashed computers and stalled programs when Tsien-Tsu was led in after being rushed across from the adjacent Defense Ministry building and given special emergency clearance to be admitted. The senior of the two officers who had been sent to fetch her—polite enough, but oddly robotic in the way the military conditioning tends to instill—indicated for her to wait, then moved to stand respectfully behind a gray-haired, heavy-set man in a dark suit, whom Tsien knew from her work to be Xen Lu Jiang, principal scientific advisor to the National Security Cabinet.

"So why isn't the sky already black with incoming American warheads?" Xen was saying, vainly trying to gain the attention of a stern, heavy-joweled figure in a field marshal's uniform, who had to be the Chief of Staff, Yao Ziaping. Technicians scurried among the cabinets and consoles, while on every side engineers and supervisors babbled into handsets, with more phones ringing and lights flashing incessantly. Above it all, the huge mural panel that was supposed to have presented a blow-by-blow portrayal of the end of America was displaying a series of pop-up ads for magazine subscriptions, adult web sites, and software products that nobody, apparently, had found a way to stop.

"What do you mean, the Submarine Launch Designator isn't a recognized system device?" Ziaping screamed at a man in a blue tunic, cringing behind a desk on which stood a name plate bearing the words Command Director.

The Director showed his hands helplessly. "That's what it's saying."

"Restart the command executive," an engineer in white shirtsleeves said from where he was standing behind a console operator wading through what looked like a labyrinth of Disk Copying Error and File Not Found error messages.

"We've already tried. It says the User Name is invalid."

"This is insane!" Ziaping wheeled upon a general behind him, wearing a lapel badge with the name Piao, who was watching anxiously over the shoulder of another operator. "Haven't you managed to raise that Head Designer yet?"

"We're still trying, sir," Piao replied. "But we keep getting connected to some kind of help desk in India."

Hao-Li Neng, the Chinese Premier, was standing amid a gaggle of military staff officers and civilian high officials, looking bewildered. Even though she had been expecting it, Tsien found herself mildly awed to find herself in such a presence. The doctor of philosophy who had made such an impression on her at university in his discourses on reason and imperviousness of reality to human passions, and the political science professor who had held off-campus debates at his home in which students debated things like a social order based on individual freedom and merit, would probably have scoffed at such acquiescence to tradition. But reactions cultivated through years of cultural exposure and social pressures couldn't be forgotten entirely. Tsien enjoyed meeting visitors from the West. Life there sounded interestingly different in many ways—challenging and stimulating in some; uncertain and insecure in others. She hoped to live there one day. The experience would be an invaluable complement to the form of upbringing she had known. The result would surely be to shape a more complete and fully aware, all-round person.

A woman in Air Force uniform, who had been following events at an adjacent console, looked up at Piao. "We have something coming up here via the backup system, General," she said. Piao moved over to join her, with Ziaping stumping testily behind. By edging a little closer, Tsien was able to get a glimpse of the text appearing on the screen. It read:

Dear Friend,

My name is Ido Mayanga, and I am Financial Operations Controller of the First National Bank of Nigeria. You have been referred to me as a trustworthy person who might be able to help in a most important matter. I urgently need to move $10,000,000 (TEN MILLION US DOLLARS) currently held in a private account that is threatened with confiscation by unscrupulous and illegal agencies . . .

Premier Neng had also come forward to see. He took in the first couple of lines, stared nonplused for several seconds, and looked around for an explanation. Xen Lu Jiang, the scientific advisor, seized his opportunity to address the Chief of Staff. "Field Marshal Ziaping, the systems coordinator who was recommended from the Strategic Technical Directorate is here as commanded: Specialist Tsien-Tsu."

Ziaping turned to look her up and down. His expression didn't conceal a trace of disdain. She lowered here eyes and inclined her head demurely as protocol required. "We've been trying to contact the head of the design group," Ziaping informed her. "But either his phone is not working, or he's not answering. I'm told you know something about the system here."

"I was involved in formulating the original conceptual approach, and contributed to producing some of the implementation and proving software," she replied.

Ziaping made a contemptuous gesture, indicating the chaos around them. "Nothing works. It hasn't managed to get a single thing off the ground. Nobody can make sense of anything. What do you have to say?"

Tsien looked up but stopped short of meeting his gaze confrontationally. "Honorable sir, some of us tried from the beginning to advise against the adoption of technical procedures modeled on decadent Western methods. Their concern is always for immediate returns and considerations only, with no provision for the longer term. My surmise would be that the inevitable consequences of such practices are now manifesting themselves."

Ziaping glowered from side to side with a look that would have stopped an attacking lion dog. "Did you all hear that? They gave good advice. Who overrode them?"

Heads turned toward one another uncertainly. Nobody was going to volunteer this one. Xen Lu Jiang looked inquiringly at a woman in a gray business suit who seemed to be a secretary or assistant. "I, er . . . think it might have been Director Wou-Pang Lee," she offered hesitantly. Ziaping jerked his head around to confront General Piao. "If you remember, sir, he was removed to Mongolia some time ago," Piao responded.

Premier Neng raised his hands protectively, evidently having heard enough. "This isn't the time to be thinking about recriminations," he declared. "We have more pressing concerns to attend to. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Of course, Excellency," Xen Lu Jiang acknowledged. Ziaping conceded with a dip of his head. Only Tsien continued holding the Premier's eye. The appeal written across her face conveyed an urgent desire to say something.

"Yes, what is it?" Neng asked her. "You may speak."

"Your Excellency, the honorable member of the Security Cabinet was saying it when I arrived," she replied, glancing at Xen Lu Jiang. "We have been powerless for almost an hour, yet there has been no move by the other side to exploit the situation. Why isn't the sky black with incoming American warheads?"

Chinese strategic planning took little stock of trying to keep a General Launch order secret, since such an event would hardly be something that could be concealed. Even if the American warning system of satellites and radars failed by some miracle to detect the physical evidence, the whole business was so ridden with spies, bugs, communications taps, and informers, and so many people would be involved, that the news would probably have found its way to Washington before the first missile entered U.S. air space. Yet they hadn't retaliated. Such had been the panic around the War Room that it seemed only Tsien and the scientific adviser had seen it.

"They must know that we are defenseless," Xen-Lu Jiang said, making the point.

Ziaping shook his head. The mental momentum that he had accumulated was too much for any abrupt change of direction. "They know they have us cold, yet they do nothing? They have the chance to take out a billion people? Why wouldn't anyone in their right mind go for it?" Baffled looks went this way and that around the War Room. Premier Neng looked from one to another of the faces. None of the generals or ministers of state had a suggestion to offer.

Tsien cast her eyes around and bit her lip hesitantly. When the silence persisted for several more seconds, she said, "Maybe they are trying to tell us something."

Xen Lu Jiang looked shocked and opened his mouth to speak, but Premier Neng stayed him with a wave of his hand. "Hear the young lady." He looked at Tsien curiously. "Trying to tell us what?"

Tsien took a deep breath. "The situation reminds me of a philosophical problem that I was once required to study," she replied. "It demonstrates how seeming antagonists can both prosper more from cooperating instead of seeking to destroy each other."

Neng's eyebrows arched upward in surprise. He looked around his retinue of officers and advisers again, but they seemed equally puzzled. "What an extraordinary notion!" His gaze came back to Tsien, betraying a hint of amusement. "Do tell us more," he invited.

There could be no going back or extricating herself now. Tsien swallowed and nodded timorously. "If it pleases your Excellency, the problem is one known among logicians and students of human behavior as the Prisoner's Dilemma. As originally formulated, it describes two suspected accomplices in a crime who are arrested and questioned separately. Each is given the following offer, and is made aware that the other has been told the same. He can betray the other by confessing in return for a reduced sentence. But if both confess, each confession is less valuable and the sentences will be harsher. However, if they cooperate with each other by refusing to confess, the prosecutor will only be able to convict them on a minor charge." She paused to let everyone think about it. Ziaping had a look on his face that seemed to be asking, What does this have to do with anything? The expressions on the others ranged from blank to violent contortions of intense mental struggle. Tsien explained, "If there is no trust between them, it is to both their immediate advantage to confess and betray the other first. However, they would both fare better if they did trust each other and were resolute in refusing to confess. . . . But it requires equal nerve and reasoning ability in both of them to arrive at that conclusion."

Neng's brow furrowed. "Do you really believe the Americans would expect anyone to read it that way?"

"I cannot say," Tsien answered. "But the notion of Chinese wisdom does have a strange mystique in the West. . . ." She took a moment to choose her words in a way that would avoid sounding disrespectful, while at the same time remaining pointed. "Perhaps, by some quirk of fate, an opportunity has presented itself for our esteemed and honorable leadership to extricate the country from the predicament that it is at this moment facing." Which was as near as she dared come to saying that the West could wipe them out as soon as it got tired of waiting for them to catch on.

Ziaping's suddenly stunned look, and the deflation of his posture, said that this time even he had gotten the message. An expression of slowly intensifying horror was creeping across General Piao's face as the full meaning of the predicament that Tsien was talking about seeped in. Somebody to the side began gibbering incoherently, while others in the room looked apprehensively up at the roof as if expecting it to vaporize at any instant.

"Perhaps our decision to assume the offensive was a little hasty, after all," Xen Lu Jiang said, licking his lips dryly and directing the words at Neng. His face creased into a toothy grimace that seemed to be the closest it could manage to a smile.

Tsien amplified the point. "This administration could go down in history as one led by the greatest philosophers and statesmen that China has ever produced," she said. "Architects of a new world dedicated to peace and prosperity."

All of a sudden the prospect seemed to have more appeal to Neng than having gone down or up, as the case may be, as a great war leader. "Dare we compromise and risk being seen as backing down now?" he asked, looking at Xen-Lu Jiang.

"Dare we?" the scientific advisor echoed. "The girl is right, Excellency. What other choice do we have? Go for it."

Neng looked across at the Communications Director, manning a console beneath the main wall display. "Open the Hot Line to Washington," he instructed.


From the privacy of his office on the penthouse floor in the headquarters of Multimex Systems and Integration Inc. in Maryland, Alex Sullivan sat before the screen still connected to the War Room. A very different mood had taken hold there. Nobody was talking about facing down black-hats or standing tall anymore. President Byrne stood in the middle of the floor among the rows of consoles and panels, wearing the sick look of a boxer who had just learned that the champ who was supposed to throw the fight was reneging on the deal. The figures around him had expressions that varied from stupor through consternation to the kind of disbelieving, frozen look that accompanies an unexpected wet fart.

Elias Maude, the former evangelical Defense Secretary, was the first to recover. He looked down to brush an imaginary wrinkle from his suit, then turned his head and eyed Byrne uncertainly. "It, er, occurs to me that perhaps aggression isn't in keeping with the kind of Christian tradition that we should be upholding," he said. "Our duty is to be compassionate and tolerant, and spread the Word." To one side, Professor Orst, the scientific adviser, emitted a visible sigh of relief.

Vice President Halle picked up the theme. "It would be good for corporate America, too, Mr. President. There's no need to send the other guy down. We've always welcomed and thrived on honest, healthy competition."

"For the good of the American people," Oskar Eissensatt of the Pentagon endorsed, from where he was standing next to Orst.

A light of sudden hope had come into Byrne's eyes. He swung his head around questioningly toward Craig. The General nodded emphatically.

"I've always said that the Chinese threat was exaggerated. This kind of overkill isn't necessary. And it violates the principles of honor, magnanimity, and fair play that have always constituted the hallmark of the United States military."

Byrne shifted his gaze jerkily from one to another. "The President should be a Lawman and a Peacekeeper. That's what you're telling me, right?"

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Maude intoned.

"Our policy has always been Rule of Law," The VP agreed.

"Deterrence is the purpose of strength," General Craig affirmed.

Byrne drew himself up into a posture of a man feeling back in control. "Open the Hot Line to Beijing. Get me the Premier, what's his name? . . ."

"Neng," an aide muttered.


The atmosphere of a new lease on life spread across the War Room like air freshener. Everywhere, figures were mopping brows and exchanging relieved looks, while the controller at the communications desk turned to his panel and began entering commands. Then, as Byrne began moving toward him in anticipation, he sat back in his seat suddenly with a surprised look.

"What is it?" Byrne asked.

The controller gestured at the screen. "There's already a call coming in the other way, from them."

General Filbert moved into the viewing angle of the screen, stopped suddenly, and turned to stare at the camera. "An unauthorized person is still connected through on that channel," he said to someone off screen. "Kill it." Moments later, the screen in Alex Sullivan's office blanked out.

Alex smiled to himself, leaned back in his chair, and stretched long and luxuriously while the accumulated effects of the last half hour dissipated. He hadn't realized how much the tension had affected him. His limbs felt as if they had been released from lead weights. He picked up the untouched cup of coffee that he had set down when he came in, and tried a sip. It had gone cold and insipid, but the taste triggered an urgent need for caffeine. He half rose to get a refill from the pot in the outer office, but on second thoughts lowered himself back into the chair and leaned forward to the keyboard. There was one more thing to do first. . . . 


Back at her section in the Defense Ministry building, Tsien Tsu checked for any urgent messages that might have come in while she was away, then took a moment relax and compose herself. As the strain that she had been under gradually abated, her breathing eased, and the pattering in her chest returned to normal. She opened her eyes, and a tired but happy smile came over her face. Incredibly, it had worked!

She pulled the keyboard closer and entered the code to unlock and reactivate the screen that she had been using when the two officers arrived to take her to the War Room. She'd just had time to confirm command initiation on receipt of the incoming code Murphy before hastily hiding it and having to leave. Murphy was still there, glowing in red at the bottom of the displayed exchanges.

Two years ago, when she and her friends met the visiting Americans at the cultural exchange weekend organized for young computer people, she wouldn't have believed it possible. But the kids had all agreed that the business of international affairs was getting too serious to be entrusted to the likes of politicians and generals. And what had started out as a crazy joke by the lean, laughing-eyed American with fair hair at the party they all ended up at on the Saturday night, had, piece by piece, transformed itself into a reality. . . . Except that now she knew him better, Tsien was not so sure it had been a joke at all. He had a strange charisma that inspired and motivated people.

As she watched absently, absorbed in her thoughts, the icon that indicated another incoming request started flashing. Tsien touched a key to accept, and a new line appeared, accompanied by the same originating identifier as the one attached to Murphy. It read:

Operation Defuse completed 100 percent. Nice work, guys.

Tsien Tsu clapped her hands softly in silent elation. She had to admit there had been moments when she'd found herself wondering, but there were no doubts now. Their wedding would take place after all. And she would have her chance to live in the inscrutable West, and look forward to getting to know him even more over the years. The older generation, with all its talk of wisdom and experience, had had its chance to build and shape a livable world—and look what the result had been! It was up to the young people, now, to take charge of the one that would be theirs.


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